Book: War Wolves: Boxset 1-3



War Wolves: Boxset 1-3




War Wolves Boxset


Jonathan Yanez Justin Sloan

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3



Jonathan Yanez

To my father and all the unsung heroes who served with him in the 82nd Airborne's Cougar Platoon during the Vietnam War.

Justin Sloan

To my fellow Marines, who helped to inspire my writing of these type of stories, and to all the fans of the Seppukarian Universe. It’s because of you we are able to follow our dreams!

BRING THE THUNDER TEAM

BETA AND JIT

Kelly O'Donnel

Leo Roars

Tim Bischoff

Jackie Weaver

Becky Young

Tanya Wheeler

Rosemary Kenny

Holly Lenz

Peg Kerestus

Lois Haupt

Angel Barbelo

Luke Hudson

If I missed anyone, please let me know!

Editors

Kimberly Grenfell

Diane Newton

Kyle Noe

George S. Mahaffey, Jr.

War Wolves Boxset (this book) is a work of fiction.

All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Sometimes both.

Complete Book is Copyright (c) 2017, 2018 by Jonathan Yanez and Justin Sloan (Elder Tree Press).

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of Justin Sloan.



Contents


Book 1 - Bring the Thunder

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

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Book 2 - Click Click Boom

Prologue

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Book 3 - Light Em Up

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Chapter 81

Chapter 82

Chapter 83

Chapter 84

Chapter 85

Chapter 86

Chapter 87

Chapter 88

Chapter 89

Chapter 90

Chapter 91

Chapter 92

Chapter 93

Chapter 94

Chapter 95

Chapter 96

Chapter 97

Chapter 98

Chapter 99

Chapter 100

Chapter 101

Chapter 102

About the Authors

Author Notes Book 1

Author Notes Book 2

Author Notes Book 3

What Next?


Book 1 - Bring the Thunder


1

Riot looked over at the man she had fought and bled next to since they started in the Corps together. He was more than a friend or a fellow Marine; he was her family.

They had been through it all, including the Syndicate invasion and the world that waited for them at the other end. But what he had just said couldn’t stand.

“That’s disgusting,” Riot said grimacing. “Is that why you haven’t asked to pull over in the last six hours?”

Vet looked at her, arching the eyebrow of his one good eye. The other eye was completely gone, covered now by a steel eye patch that latched into the skin around the vacant hole. His Indian heritage spoke for itself with his dark hair and brown eye.

“Think about it. It’s the most natural, efficient way to travel,” Vet said, adjusting the seatbelt over his compact, muscular chest. “This is a perfect example right now. We’re almost there, but you have to pull over to piss. I’m just fine.”

“No, you’re not fine.” Riot shook her head, concentrating on the road in front of them. Their jeep hit a road bump, causing the vehicle to swerve on the broken asphalt. “You’re sitting in your own poop and piss.”

“Wow, wow, wow.” Vet put both hands out in a sign for Riot to calm down. “I’m not an animal. I draw the line somewhere. Piss only, no poop. Wearing adult diapers while traveling on the road is the only way to go. No stops. The fastest way from point A to point B is a direct line with no room to deviate.”

“Yeah, well, we’re deviating now, because I’m not peeing myself.”

“You’re the boss.” Vet shrugged, looking at the ocean that ran parallel with the road to their left.

The two had been traveling most of the day, starting at the Mexican border and working their way up the coast to the refitted military base they were to report to. The base, code-named Bulwark, was where the unit they had joined up with had set up shop. Since the invasion by the alien force known as the Syndicate, numerous government and non-government entities had appeared all over the world. There were various elements on the east and west coasts, including the Bulwark in California, and something called the High Mech Command on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., which, if the rumors were true, was partially overseen by an infamous former tech billionaire named Vidmark. This man was busy coordinating with other countries to build some kind of global defense force.

Order was something read about in history books. With pockets of Marines and freedom fighters popping up like pimples on a preteen, it hadn’t been easy for Riot to decide who to trust. The only reason she had decided to attend this meeting at the Bulwark, with the group known as SPEAR, was because of the person heading the project, a captain she had learned to respect during the Syndicate wars.

Now, the deserted road opened in front of them. The California sun bright overhead, Riot and Vet were on their way to a sit-down. The only thing to make them deviate from their plan was the water and cola Riot had chugged down on their way.

Riot pulled the jeep off the side of the road near a patch of sand with tall bushes. A low hill promised concealment for the deed that was about to take place.

“You should take your weapon with you.” Vet motioned with his jaw to the back seat of the busted-up jeep. A pair of M16A4 infantry automatic rifles lay side by side. “Just in case. I know we haven’t seen much trouble yet, but the world’s gone to hell in a handbasket. There’ll be desperate people roaming around.”

“Thanks for your concern.” Riot hopped out of the jeep. Her tan fatigues that set her apart as a Marine should be enough for anyone to second-guess themselves before they messed with her. “I’m a big girl, I can handle it.”

Riot walked around the dirt-colored jeep. Her bladder was overflowing at this point. She speed walked over the sandy ground, the ocean breeze playing at her shoulder-length brown hair. Riot rounded the small hill and squatted in a patch of waist-high bushes.

Now able to see what the small hill had concealed from the road, Riot looked at a group of four men standing around a burned-down gas station. They were gawking at her as if they were still trying to figure out if she was real or not.

“Great,” Riot said out loud as she relieved herself. “Vet’s not going to let me live this one down.”

The four men who looked at Riot, then to one another, grinning, were definitely not on their way to attend the town’s next prayer meeting. Dirt streaked their faces, and each of them had hair that was a disheveled mess, something between bedhead and a severe case of lice. One man carried a handgun, another a long hunting knife. The other two appeared to be weaponless.

The men talked in low whispers among themselves for a moment before beginning their walk toward Riot.

Riot took the time to finish peeing before buckling her pants. She kicked herself mentally for being so lax. She knew better than that. It seemed the need to urinate had temporarily fogged her senses.

Riot thought about running for the jeep, but she wasn’t exactly the running type. Instead, she walked toward the men with her hands in an open, non-threatening gesture. Her boots crunched on the sandy ground beneath her.

Her muscular, five-foot-eight frame would ensure she would still be outweighed by the lightest of the men by a good thirty pounds, but that had never stopped her before.

Gun first, then knife, a voice checked off the order of operations in her head. Maim, but try not to kill them unless you have to. We’ll need every human we’ve got if we’re going to survive as a race.

“Hey there,” said one of the men with crooked teeth and a scar above his right eye. He waved a hello that looked anything but friendly. “Where did you come from, sweetheart?”

“That’s the first time anyone’s ever called me sweetheart.” Riot grinned at the men. She intentionally put herself in front of the big man with the gun. He was close enough now that she could tell the handgun he carried was either a 1911 or a Beretta. It didn’t matter much at the moment. “What do you want?”

“Well, for starters, to see you out of that fancy uniform.” The man’s eyes lit up with ill intentions as he grinned to his buddies. “Got anything valuable on you?”

“I mean, I have this fancy uniform, here, the Marines gave me for joining up. It was the main reason I enlisted, you know. You get to wear all the latest fashion trends.” Riot dusted off the right sleeve of her tan military fatigues. “Listen, I don’t normally do this, but you seem like a nice group of girls and the world is short on humans at the moment. I mean, since we’re going through an extermination event and all. Why don’t you four walk the other way, and I’ll do the same?”

The men looked at one another before they began to laugh. The noise was sure to bring Vet out of the jeep if he wasn’t already inching his way up the hill behind her with his M16A4. Vet still didn’t understand the ironic ideology behind humans killing humans. It was pointless, now more than ever, because they would all need to band together. The Syndicate had already wiped out a large portion of the world, and what was coming next would kill them all if they didn’t work together.

“That’s cute.” The man with the gun raised his weapon and caressed Riot’s left shoulder with the barrel. “What’s that patch you got on there? It looks like a wolf or a—”

Riot was trying to be overly nice. She saw her moves in her mind before she began. She struck out with a right fist to the face of the man in front of her. She could feel his jaw unhinge. Even as her victim began to crumple to the sandy ground, Riot relieved him of his handgun with her left hand.

Beretta M9, Riot’s mind registered the weapon’s familiar feel in her hand and put a name to it. Nice.

She went after the man with the knife next. He was still processing what had taken place right in front of him. Riot pistol-whipped him across his temple, once more moving in to take his weapon from his hand as he fell.

The last two men were over the initial shock and began their charge. Riot threw the knife. Flipping end over end, it buried itself to the hilt in her target’s left quad.

The last man came to a stop right in front of her. Riot pressed the barrel of the Beretta against his head hard enough that she knew it would leave a round indentation in his skin.

He looked at her with eyes so wide they reached from his eyebrows to his cheeks. He hesitated before a stupid look came over his face. The man who had taken the knife in the leg was screaming in pain. Despite his wound not being life-threatening, he writhed on the ground like he was going to die.

“I’ve seen that look before.” Riot pressed the pistol so hard into his forehead, it made him lean back under the pressure. “You’re thinking about doing something stupid. I don’t really want blood all over my uniform, but I’ll do it if you make me. Look into my eyes and understand I’m telling you the tru—”

Riot broke off her warning. Something glistening against the California sun had caught her attention. In one of the windows of the rundown gas station the men had come from, the barrel of a rifle stuck out through a broken pane.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Riot witnessed the glass surrounding the area where the rifle barrel stuck out from shatter into a hundred pieces. Without waiting to see what the man in front of her would do, Riot lowered the weapon and head-butted him so hard, she heard his nose break.

He sank to the ground, moaning along with his friend who had managed to get a handhold on the knife sticking up from his leg, but was still mustering the courage to actually pull it out.

Riot looked up to the sandy hill behind her where Vet still aimed down the site of his M16A4 with his one good eye.

“Shooter down. We could have avoided all of this.” Vet swept the area one more time before lowering his weapon. “This is exactly why I wear adult diapers when I travel.”


2

Besides the white noise of the ocean and the few seagulls overhead, the base at Port Hueneme was as silent as a tomb. Riot pulled the jeep in an did a quick scan of the area. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be a deserted shell. Fences that once stood imposing and sturdy were now broken and bent. Bombed-out buildings lay demolished all around them.

“Uhhh, I don’t want to piss on your parade here,” Vet said as he straightened up in his seat, craning his neck to see all around him. “Still, I think I should tell you that Port Hueneme was abandoned after the initial Syndicate attack. They hit us hard here. We left this post and regrouped down south.”

“Just wait.” Riot maneuvered the jeep through the maze of crumbling buildings, overturned vehicles, and field of debris. “Do you remember Captain Harlan?”

“Uh, yeah. Every push-up he made us do, every mile he made us run.” Vet took another look around the destroyed area to make sure he wasn’t missing anything. “He’s here?”

Riot finally pulled the jeep to a stop beside a two-story building made of cream-colored cement. One side of the building had caved in on itself.

“When we destroyed the Syndicate, they left us information telling us this was all a test. They were preparing us for a much larger invasion from the true enemy. Captain Harlan is heading up a Marine division called SPEAR to deal with this new threat, and their HQ is here at the Bulwark.” Riot nodded to the building in front of them. “That’s why you’re here with me now. I want you on my squad for this mission. You’re the best mechanic I’ve ever met, and even with your vision, you’re one hell of a shot.”

“Count me in.” Vet hopped out of the jeep. “So what kind of goodies are we talking about? We get to look at all the cool alien tech, right?”

Riot scrunched her brow at Vet, stunned. She knew her oldest friend in the Corps would join her, but not this easily. It had taken him virtually no thought at all to jump skull-first into the madness they were about to embark on.

“What?” Riot hopped off the jeep and joined her friend on the other side of the beat-up vehicle. “Just like that? You’re in?”

“I’m not really doing much these days.” Vet shrugged, spitting to the side. “I knew when you picked me up we were going to do something crazy. It’s always something crazy with you. I was going to say yes whatever it was, that’s why I didn’t ask too many questions from the start. So you didn’t answer my question.”

“What?”

“The alien tech, right? Tell me they’ve got their hands on some of the tech recovered from the Syndicate.”

Riot looked at Vet, and for a quick second, he was nothing more than a one-eyed kid rubbing his hands together on Christmas Eve.

“I don’t really know what they have.” Riot shrugged, motioning with her chin to the caved-in entrance to the building. “I don’t even know our exact mission. All I know was to start getting my squad ready, and you were on the top of my list. Come on, Cyclops, the sooner we get inside, the sooner we’ll get more answers.”

Vet followed alongside Riot as the two made their way around the building and to the entrance of the ruined building. The structure’s entry point was in a cove of debris. On their left, a huge slab of cement had fallen to the floor, blocking the left side of the double door. Riot walked straight to the right side where a metal panel was set into the cement wall.

“Master Sergeant Riot,” Riot said into the panel, at the same time placing the palm of her right hand on the pad. “Passcode phrase, ‘I miss Taco Bell.’”

The single steel door in front of them slid into the ground and completely out of view. A dark corridor sloping down welcomed them to the Bulwark.

“Wow.” Vet looked into the foreboding building with intrigue. “Makes me wish we brought the M16A4’s with us from the jeep.”

“We’re home now.” Riot stepped in through the door. “Come on, the lights aren’t going to activate until you step inside and the door shuts behind us.”

“This keeps getting stranger and stranger. Is it too late to revoke my decision to join?” Vet stepped in through the door, scowling at the dark as if it were a real-life person who had personally offended him. “I hate not being able to see what’s in front of me.”

With a sound like a rush of gears, the metal door rose from the floor and sealed them into the space. A moment later, light blinded the pair of Marines.

“Ugh, my freaking eyebolla’s.” Riot winced at the brightness. Despite her anticipation of the light, it seemed she was still unprepared. “Come on, the elevator is down the hall.”

Riot blinked a few dozen times, trying to get her pupils adjusted to the light as she led the way based on her limited exposure here. They were in a long corridor with lights set into the walls as well as the ceiling. A pair of small-caliber turrets mounted in the ceiling moved along, following their progress.

A dark, circular dome was mounted upside down on the ceiling, housing a camera that tracked their every move.

“Was the bright-ass light really necessary?” Riot gave the camera the finger. She motioned to Vet with the thumb on her opposite hand. “This guy’s only got one eye left, so let’s try to keep it healthy.”

The pair finally reached the white elevator doors. A single, circular button with the symbol of a spear pointed down. Riot jammed it with her thumb five times just to be sure. It lit up under her command.

“I was wondering where we were going.” Vet shook his head, the scowl that was more his normal face than an expression creased his forehead. “Should have known you’d be taking me to a secret, underground military bunker.”

“Yeah, well, one of us has to keep things interesting, now that the Earth is free from an alien invasion and all.”

The elevator doors dinged open, providing access to its interior. The elevator was a large, square box with a series of numbers on the inside panel.

“Holy Syndicate almighty.” Vet scowled at the long rows of buttons and their corresponding levels. “How far did they have to drill into the ground to get seven levels beneath us?”

“Beats me.” Riot hit the button with the number seven on it, once, twice, then repeatedly to get the doors to close. “Hey, do you think the more I press the button, the faster the doors close, or is that just all in my head? Either way, it makes me feel better if I hit it a bunch of times.”

Vet shrugged, still trying to grasp the magnitude of how massive the Bulwark really was.

“Seven levels,” he said, more to himself than to Riot. “How long have they been working on this?”

The elevator doors came to a close. The steel box began to descend into the earth.

“And that’s just the levels that we know of.” Riot tapped the side of her head with the pointer finger on her right hand. “How many secret levels do you think they have in here? Let that cook your noodle for a minute.”

“A secret base like this has to have cool alien tech,” Vet murmured to himself. “They just have to.”

“Wait, listen?” Riot held a finger to her lips as the steel box continued to slowly lower. “Hear that?”

“I don’t hear anything.” Vet cocked his head. “Nothing.”

“Exactly,” Riot shouted, shaking her head in frustration. “My one request: add elevator music. And they couldn’t even do that. Oh well, come on, this is going to blow your mind.”

The elevator came to a stop. The doors slid open.




3

The raised catwalk extended the length of the massive room, with outlets in multiple areas providing stairs to the ground floor. Riot led Vet from the elevator and over the catwalk, wondering what they were getting themselves into here. Below them was a room full of technicians with headsets working diligently at their screens.

A young woman with blonde hair and a smile so cheerful it made Riot want to punch her, popped up from the first stairwell on their right.

“Oh, hello there. You must be Master Sergeant Riot.” The woman couldn’t stop smiling. She adjusted her black-framed glasses before turning to Vet. “And you must be the mechanic she went out to retrieve: Corporal Mohammad Vetash?”

Riot looked the woman up and down again. She had to be in her late thirties. She wore a grey uniform free of any military insignia. She was tall and slender without being athletic.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Riot said, raising an eyebrow at the woman. “Who’re you?”

“Oh my, is that blood on your uniform?” The woman stared, wide-eyed, at the crimson spray of red that had erupted out of the man’s nose earlier that day. “Are you hurt, Master Sergeant?”

“I don’t get hurt,” Riot said, folding her arms over her chest. “Who are you, lady?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, how rude of me.” The woman smiled once more, or maybe she had always been smiling. She extended a hand. “My name is Deborah Miller, I’m one of the scientists here at the Bulwark. When we saw you arrive, Captain Harlan sent me to come escort you to his office.”

Riot looked at the cheerful woman again. She didn’t bother accepting her hand of welcome. If all went well, Riot would be out in the field again soon and would never have to see her and her smiling face again.

“Well, come on, let’s go, Miller.” Riot motioned her forward. “We’ve got a secret mission to perform. The Syndicate were defeated, but it seems our problems have only just begun.”

“Oh, right.” Deborah lowered her hand and motioned Riot and Vet to follow. “If you’d walk with me, I’ll take you right to his office.”

Riot and Vet followed Deborah in silence, the latter taking everything in like a kid in a candy store, the former already trying to anticipate what Captain Harlan would have in store for them when they arrived at his office.

Deborah rushed down the flight of metal stairs. She led them through the floor of workers pounding away at their keyboards. There were so many different screens to look at, Riot was surprised that they could keep track of all the information.

Massive screens showing maps of what was left of the United States, of countless countries in varying degrees of repair, and even of solar systems. The images were set on every wall of the room.

The trio made a beeline through the room and to a set of doors that led into a hall. The first door on their right was already open.

“Come on in,” a familiar voice said to the approaching group even before they could see who was welcoming them.

Riot walked into Captain Harlan’s office. It was small, clean, and orderly. A single desk faced the door. On the right wall was a massive American flag, worn and peppered with a dark sprinkling of what Riot knew was blood. Behind the desk was a wall of medals and books. That was it. No extra seating, no liquor stand, nothing.

With a smile, Captain Harlan stood from his desk. He looked friendly and unassuming, medium weight and height coupled with his kind face had given more than a few of his opponents a false sense of security.

Riot was with the captain during the last battle with the Syndicate. She had seen the war rage in his eyes, firsthand. It was a memory she would never forget.

Here, in his office, with his clean-shaven face and perfectly combed hair, he almost had her fooled.

“Sir!” Riot and Vet stood rigid at attention with a salute across their brows.

“At ease.” Captain Harlan returned their salute and nodded toward Deborah Miller. “I see you two have met, Miss Miller.”

“Yes, sir.” Riot turned less-than-amused eyes toward the peppy scientist. “We’ve met.”

“And it looks like you found Corporal Vetash.” The Captain turned his cool gaze on Vet. “You come highly recommended, Corporal. So high, in fact, you were the first name on Master Sergeant Riot’s list.”

“Thank you, sir.” Vet nodded toward Riot, who stood beside him. “I’m ready to do whatever needs to be done.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Captain Harlan motioned toward the door. “Miss Miller, would you be so kind as to show Corporal Vetash to his quarters? I’d like to have a word with Master Sergeant Riot. Alone.”

“Of course.” Deborah ushered Vet out of the room and closed the door behind her.

“I’d offer to bring in a seat for you, but I don’t think you’d take it anyway.” Captain Harlan remained standing, as well. “You look like you have a million questions on your mind.”

“You’re right, I’m fine standing. I’ve been sitting all day.” Riot pursed her lips in thought. “And you’re right about that second part, as well. Permission to speak freely, Captain?”

“Permission granted.” Captain Harlan rubbed at his eyes with the pointer finger and thumb of his right hand, and for the first time Riot saw how tired he really was. He hid it well, but now that Deborah and Vet were gone, it seemed he was willing to lower his guard if only for a moment. He sunk into the chair behind his desk. “What do you want to know first?”

“Well, for starters, why I’m here. When you first showed me the Bulwark and told me to start assembling a recon unit a few days ago, I thought we were going to be doing something big.” Riot hesitated before continuing. “Captain, what are we getting into?”

“We’re about to embark on a journey, Riot.” Captain Harlan leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. “A journey outside this solar system.”


4

I’m sorry, Captain, it sounded like you said we’re going outside of our solar system.” Riot leaned in with wide eyes. “I may have taken too many concussion grenades to the old eardrum.”

“You heard me right.”

“We have access to spacecrafts that can make the journey?”

“Thanks to our friends in the Syndicate, we do now.”

“Oh, yeah. Our good friends in the Syndicate.” Riot remembered her so-called training at the hands of the Syndicate. She could still taste the green jello and beans. “I’m not going to pretend I understand space travel; that’s way beyond me. So where exactly is this journey supposed to take us?”

“To planets we think may be willing to ally with Earth.” Captain Harlan reached into a drawer and produced what looked like a long piece of flat metal. He placed it on his desk and pushed a button on its smooth surface. Instantly, a holographic screen popped up, floating in the air between them, and he began pushing buttons and moving images. “Special Purpose Exploration And Recon, or SPEAR, was formed as soon as we understood the truth the Syndicate brought with them.”

Riot stared in awe at the floating image in front of her. Captain Harlan stood, again maneuvering the computer-like controls until he came to a halt on a particular sleek Syndicate spacecraft. The hologram was still transparent, but with Captain Harlan turning the image, he was able to provide various views of the craft.

“The truth is something we have always suspected, but have only recently been able to confirm.” Captain Harlan swiped away the image of the craft to a view of a million stars. “We are not alone in the universe; it’s crowded out there. An endless list of threats, and a much shorter list of possible allies.”

Riot was a Marine first and forever. Put a M27 or SAW in her hands and she knew how to take care of business. Put a view of the known galaxy in front of her and she had no idea which way was up. The floating hologram looked gorgeous, but to her eyes, it was really no more than a bunch of cool, twinkling lights.

“You want to go and explore the galaxy?” Riot was trying to wrap her mind around the idea. “Oh, crap, you want ME to go and explore the galaxy.”

“Well, the universe, actually.” Captain Harlan swiped his hand over the hologram control again. This time, lines of alien text popped up in a dull red light. “Thanks to the Syndicate, we have found evidence that a much larger, much meaner force than the Syndicate exists in our universe. It’s only a matter of time before it comes to Earth. We need allies, Riot, and we’re not going to find them here sitting on our asses.”

Riot was never one to cave in to pressure, neither had she ever experienced a panic attack. When things got brutal, she got just as brutal herself. The conversation she was having at the moment, though, was overwhelming.

One thing the Corps had taught her was that she was capable of handling anything; she was mentally tough enough to tackle any objective and bend it to her will. This was no different.

“All right, Captain.” Riot licked her dry lips, nodding along with her words as if only by vocalizing them could she fully get on board. “We’re going out into the unknown universe, to ally with unknown life forms, in preparation to eventually fight an unknown enemy.”

“That’s about right, but we have a little more information to go on than that.” Captain Harlan took a deep breath before continuing. “You’re the right person for the job, Riot. I need you to take a team and protect our scientist as she goes out and makes contact with these alien races.”

“Wait a minute.” Riot’s eyebrows shot upward as light bulbs exploded in her mind. “You’re not talking about Deborah—oh, no, you are talking about Deborah.”

“Miss Miller is the best scientist we have, hands down. She’s the leading mind in decoding and learning how to use a lot of the Syndicate tech.” Captain Harlan shook his head as if there was no other way around it. “She has to be the one to go. In an ideal world, she would be a Marine, but hey, not everyone can be perfect. She’ll need you and your squad to look after her. You let her do the talking, and you drop the hammer if she comes into danger.”

“I’m going to be a babysitter.” Riot blew out a long sigh, still struggling with the fact that she was going to be leaving the Earth itself. “I will be a babysitter, Captain. I’m sorry if I’m speaking out of line, it’s just a crap-load to take in right now.”

“I understand the feeling.” Captain Harlan shook his head. “When the bomb was dropped on me, it took me a few hard minutes to get my head on straight. This is the world we live in now, Riot. Aliens exist, faster than light speed travel is possible, and intergalactic war is coming, whether we are ready or not, so let’s choose to be ready.”

“Yes, Captain.” Riot bottled all of the feelings of doubt and fear, hiding them deep down, like the healthy girl that she was. “What do we do next?”

“I’m glad you asked. We need to finish assembling your team so you can prepare for your journey. We need to get you into space as soon as possible.”

“About the remaining slots in the squad.” Riot braced herself for the response she knew she would get. “I have a few names of men I’d like beside myself and Vet.”

“I’m sure you have. Who?”

Riot paused, trying to think how best to break the news to the captain in such a way it would seem like a good idea.

“Your hesitation is speaking volumes.” Captain Harlan raised an eyebrow. “Who do you want?”

“Chief Warrant Officer--I mean Corporal Sean Rizzo, Captain.” Riot looked Harlan directly in the eyes so he would know how important picking her own team was to her. “Despite his demotion and previous issues with authority, he’s the best pilot I’ve ever seen; he’s selfless, and one hell of a fighter.”

“Corporal Rizzo? Why does that name sound familiar? Wait, you don’t mean the chopper pilot who went down, kamikaze, in the first confrontation with the Syndicate, do you?”

“I do.”

“I thought he was dead, or wounded so badly he wasn’t able to fly anymore.” Captain Harlan scrunched his brow in thought. “I remember there being more.”

“Sean Rizzo is a hero, sir.” Riot pushed back the sadness she felt when it came to recalling the events surrounding the man. She remembered every detail, every piece of the story, scene by horrific scene. “Our position was being overrun. We were dying by the second. There was so much blood on the ground, the dirt beneath us was being turned into mud. Is it still considered mud if it’s dirt mixed with blood and not water? Anyway, we didn’t have a chance.

“His chopper was already going down," she continued. "He aimed it at the biggest Syndicate ship he could and bought us enough time to get out of the kill zone. He didn’t even hesitate. When I close my eyes, I can still see the flames that engulfed his chopper.”

“But he lived,” Captain Harlan said, finishing Riot’s story. “I remember the file now. He lived, because you went back for him and pulled him out. He received some pretty serious injuries to his entire body, but specifically to his throat. He can’t talk or fly anymore, can he?”

“He’s not saying much these days. Physically, he can fly, but no one is giving him the opportunity to.”

Captain Harlan drummed his fingers on his desk. “Who else do you want?”

“I’d also like to take a medic with us. Corporal Chen Wang.”

“Absolutely not.” Captain Harlan shook his head hard. “Unlike Corporal Rizzo, I remember Wang. I even know exactly where he is. Ask me how I know.”

“How do you know, Captain?”

“Because he’s in our brig.”


5

Well, that’s unfortunate.” Riot rocked back and forth on her heels and toes. Her mind raced in a dozen different directions for the reason her friend might be imprisoned. “You’re going to make me ask what Wang did to get thrown into the brig, aren’t you?”

“I’ll save you the breath and just tell you.” Captain Harlan balled his right hand into a fist. One by one, his fingers rose as he listed off the long series of infractions. “Sneaking off base to get his jollies off with the local citizen populace, gambling while here in the Bulwark, concealing contraband, stealing tech from the Corps for personal use … oh, and starting his shift still high.”

“Captain, Wang can be a handful, there’s no doubt about that.” Riot shifted, uncomfortable in her own boots. How far was too far when being blunt with the ranking officer she considered a friend? “However, what we’re going to do is pushing the boundaries of sanity. We’re going out into space. We’re all broken people, we’re all a little crazy to be doing this, let’s be honest, but maybe that’s what we need right now. Maybe a little crazy will see us through until the end?”

Captain Harlan gave Riot a hard stare. His eyes bored through hers to the point where she thought she might even need to look away. There was intensity there, yes, but also some heavy thought going on.

“I’m not saying yes to either one.” Captain Harlan pushed himself up from his desk. “I will, however, think about your requests and have an answer for you tomorrow morning. In the meantime, I suggest you get to know Miss Miller, because she’s going with you, whether you like it or not. You’re free to go. You remember the barracks level.”

“Yes, Captain.” Riot saluted as she left the room. In all honesty, the meeting had gone better than she had expected, minus the part about going into space or having to travel with Miss Peppy. But Captain Harlan hadn’t given her a definite ‘no’ to her request for squad mates, so there was still a chance.

Riot made her way back to the elevator and headed for the sixth floor where the mess hall and barracks were located. Her mind was working on overdrive as she exited the elevator and headed down the white halls to the room she had used on her previous visit to the Bulwark.

What’re you getting yourself into? Riot paused at the entrance to her assigned room. There were two voices she recognized, talking inside.

“You can ask about my eye,” Vet was saying in his usual low tone, slow way of speaking, “it’s all right. I’ve seen you looking at it.”

“Oh, no, that would be rude.” Miller’s voice penetrated through the cracked door. “But if you want to talk about it, what happened?”

“Took a piece of Syndicate shrapnel to the face. I thought I was dead. There was so much blood pouring out of my right eye, it was making seeing out of my left impossible.” Vet chuckled, remembering the event as if it were a comedy that somehow had a happy ending. “I was stumbling back to where I thought our lines were, but I was actually heading right into Syndicate fire. I could feel my right eyeball still attached to the inside of my head, slapping against my cheek and shattered helmet.”

“Oh my.” Miller made a gagging sound. “You don’t have to say any—”

“The only reason I’m alive is because Riot—”

“Hey, what’s going on in here, kiddos?” Riot had heard enough. She had no desire to relive the event of Vet’s story. “Exchanging stories of what we want to be when we grow up? Cool. I want to be Batman.”

“Batman?” Deborah asked, scrunching her brow. “You mean that vintage comic hero?”

“Riot’s rubbed off on all of us.” Vet smiled at her as she walked in. “Her love for the classics is kind of an inside joke. To be honest, it’s because of her I like superheroes, old music, and movies now.”

Riot gave him a nod, then glanced around at the small chamber made up of four brick walls painted white. There were bunks to her right, a single bed on her left, and dressers against the far wall. The bathroom would be a shared experience somewhere farther down the hall.

“How did the meeting go?” Vet asked, rising from the bottom half of the bunk bed. “Did Captain Harlan tell you why we’re here?”

Riot nodded, the entire time looking over at Deborah. She took a seat on the single bed with a heavy sigh. “He did, but I’m thinking Miller is better suited to answer any questions you might have.”

“Are we going to get alien tech at any point?” Vet looked up at Deborah, who stood beside him with her arms crossed over her chest. “Tell me that’s happening sometime soon.”

“Yes,” Deborah said, looking from Riot to Vet and back again. “We’ll be equipped with the very latest technology we’ve captured from the Syndicate. Once we’ve filled out the roster, I plan on giving you an in-depth breakdown of our mission.”

“I can wait for all the details, once we have our team.” Riot began unlacing her combat boots. “But I would like an answer to at least one of the dozen questions bouncing around in my head. Where’re we going? I mean, I know we're going into space to try to gain allies. But what planet? Who’s going to be there waiting for us?”

“Did you just say we’re going into space?” Vet scratched the underside of his jaw. “I guess I should have been expecting that.”

“We’re exploring the stars.” Riot kicked off her boots. “Better pack a large bag of Huggies for the trip.”

“Don’t worry.” Vet scowled deeper, or maybe that was just his face. “I already changed.”

“Good.” Riot looked back to Deborah. “Spill the beans, sister. Where are we going, and who are we planning to meet?”

“We’ll be traveling faster than the speed of light to a planet called Hoydron, just outside of our galaxy. There, we’ll meet with a species named the Trilords. They’re the ones who control that planet.”

“Why?” Riot asked, not knowing for sure if she wanted to know the answer. “Why there, why them?”

Deborah cleared her throat, studying the far wall as if suddenly something was extremely interesting in the plain, white paint. “We need strong allies. If the information the Syndicate left was correct, they’re amongst the fiercest warriors in the universe.”


6

If he does anything stupid, it’s on you.” Captain Harlan waited side by side with Riot just outside of a confinement cell in level eight of the Bulwark. “I’ve learned to trust my gut over the years and, so help me God, it says to turn Wang over to your care.”

Riot had woken to a quick breakfast and a trip down a private elevator with Captain Harlan to level eight. To her wonder, in the private elevator, she noticed an extra three levels, eight through ten, that were not displayed on any of the other elevators she had used during her time at the Bulwark.

The brig level was exactly like the rest of the underground compound, except with bars. White walls gave way to white ceilings with bright, white lights. Soldiers patrolled up and down the catwalks, monitoring the cells. A special wing set against the far wall was reserved for the very best and brightest of the bunch—solitary confinement.

They now stood outside of a closed door that was bolted shut. A pair of Marines waited for the order to be given to open the cell door.

“All through the night and up until this very morning, I was prepared to give you Corporal Rizzo and not Wang.” Captain Harlan didn’t look at Riot. Instead, he stared at the white cell door in front of them. “Then I realized something. If I trust you enough to send you into space to guard our emissary, then I need to trust you enough to choose your own team. Why you want him is beyond me, but I believe in you, Riot, so he’s yours.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Riot turned her gaze from the door to look over at the captain. “I won’t let you down.”

“I know you won’t.” Captain Harlan maintained his vigil on the closed steel door. “That’s why you were my one choice for this mission. You’re not the fastest, you’re not the strongest or the smartest I’ve ever run into, but you possess the willpower of a legend. You’ve always found a way to get the job done. I don’t expect you to start failing now.”

“I won’t.”

“Open it up.” Captain Harlan motioned to the guards on either side of the door. “Let her in.”

As one, the Marines on duty each produced a keycard from the inside of the pocket on the front of their shirts. A low beep came from the door as they swiped their keycards in unison across the digital screen. A series of locks clicked open, and a moment later, the door swung open.

Riot took a step into the plain room. A toilet, a sink, and a cot were the only pieces of furniture, with a stack of books the only other thing in the room. Wang lay on his bed, his head obscured by some kind of Space Marine novel by Chris Fox.

“Is that room service? You can just leave the food on the ground,” Wang’s chipper voice rang out from somewhere behind his book. “No requests today, outside of the usual. I’ll take a tall blonde and about a dozen Adderall.”

“Wang, what’re you doing with your life?” Riot shook her head, looking at the waste of talent in front of her. “Put your freaking Space Marine book down.”

“Riot?” Wang inched the novel below his eyes to see if the voice had been in his imagination, and his eyes widened when he saw her standing in his cell. He jumped off his cot, searching for the page number he was on before closing the book. “Are we getting the band back together again? What are you doing here?”

“Getting you out of the brig, apparently.” Again Riot shook her head at Wang, this time so he understood the severity of the situation. “What are you thinking? What are you doing?”

The smile faded from Wang’s lips as he caught sight of Captain Harlan’s frame behind Riot. He raised a heavily tattooed arm to scratch the Mohawk buzz that ran across his scalp. He looked tired, worn in a way Riot understood. Physically, he was in top shape, with a toned, athletic body, though his eyes told a different story.

“I know, I know.” Wang let the remainder of the boyish grin die on his lips. “I’ve been out of control. Stationed here at the Bulwark, I was going crazy with cabin fever. We’re wolves, Riot; we were meant to run and be free. I guess I let out that bit of crazy inside of me a little too often in the last few months.”

Riot nodded along with his words. She could relate to him, especially the part about needing to run free. The Marines loved them because they were animals, but there was a fine line that always needed to be maintained.

“Listen, I get it.” Riot looked hard into Wang’s eyes. “There’s an opportunity to do something special, something big just ahead of us. I want you on my team, but I need to know that you’re with it. I need the Wang who saved countless lives during the war with the Syndicate. I need the medic on my team who was the only one in his class to score hand-to-hand combat skills with the best the Marines had to offer. I need you to be the best version of yourself you can be with the scalpel and the combat knife.”

“I’m good, I’m with you.” Wang stood at attention, his back rigid. “I won’t let you down, Riot. Not you, never you.”

“Good.” Riot finally broke and gave Wang a brief grin. “Give me a moment.”

Wang nodded.

Riot turned to address the captain, who was standing behind her, listening to the exchange. His arms were behind his back, his face expressionless to the point he would be the envy of any professional card shark.

“He’s straight.” Riot nodded to the captain. “I’ll make sure he stays that way.”

“I know you will.” Captain Harlan reached into his pants pocket and handed Riot a folded piece of paper. “The sooner we get you your squad assembled, the sooner we can start your training. Here’s the address where you’ll find Corporal Rizzo. Apparently, he’s on leave in a city called Camarillo, a few miles from here. Get him and bring him back.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Riot accepted the piece of folded paper with a tight salute. “We’ll be back by nightfall, ready to train first thing in the morning.”

“That sounds about right.” Captain Harlan eyed Wang, who was stacking all of his books in a neat pile so that he could carry them all at once. “I think it’s understood, but I want there to be no misinterpretation: if your squad can’t pass the training set up for them, they’re off the mission.”

“Do you guys have like a box or a bag or something I can carry these books in?” Wang popped his head out of his cell to look at the two Marines still standing guard on either side of his chamber. “Anything? Like, even a plastic bag would be fine.”

The two Marines standing at attention on either side of the cell didn’t even look at Wang or give him the slightest inclination they had recognized his presence.

“I know you guys can hear me.” Wang rolled his eyes and went back to figuring out a way to stack and carry the rest of his novels. “I’m standing, like, three feet away from you.”

“I understand, Captain.” Riot winced as Wang went on and on and on about finding a bag to place his novels in. “We’ll make it happen.”

“Good.” Captain Harlan gave Wang one final glare over Riot’s shoulder before turning to leave. “I’ll expect to see your unit first thing in the morning, ready to train.”

Wang stood beside Riot with a mountain of books. The tattoos that covered the medic’s arms, the science fiction books he carried, all spoke to different parts of his personality.

“So, where are we headed to pick up Rizzo?” Wang eyed the piece of folded white paper in Riot’s hand. “Disneyland?”

“Let’s see.” Riot unfolded the piece of paper. In Captain Harlan’s perfect hand was written the name of an establishment and an address. Riot didn’t recognize either, but it appeared Wang was familiar with the business.

“The Pit.” Wang grinned from ear to ear. “I’ve been known to frequent that bar. We’ll need civilian clothes and weapons, lots of weapons.”


7

Riot drove past crumbling buildings, derelict housing tracks, and the occasional passing vehicle. Ever since the Syndicate had been defeated, the world was a different place. Police enforcement had been halved, most of the officers joining to fight the Syndicate, the rest choosing to stay home and protect their families.

Coming out of the other end of the war meant not every officer chose to come back to duty. Riot couldn’t blame them. They faced an uphill battle. Gang activity was at an all-time high and martial law ruled the streets.

There was no love for law enforcement by most and even less for military-enrolled men and women. It was ironic that the very people Riot fought to protect would look at her with eyes either full of fear or disdain.

According to Wang, the bar they were going to, called The Pit, was a haven for known gang members. They were heavily into everything from drugs to prostitution to gun running. Riot hated the idea of going in undercover in civilian clothing; however, if it meant a few less dead and a few more alive to combat this real threat that would test humanity, she was on board.

“Don’t we look like the three amigos?” Wang spread his arms out on the bench behind Riot and Vet. “I almost feel human again. Gotta love these clothes.”

Riot took her eyes off the road for a moment to examine the clothing Deborah had provided for her. She had chosen plain blue jeans and a white top. Aviators hid her eyes, and her shoulder-length brown hair was tied behind her. If she was honest with herself, it did feel good.

Wang sat in the back in shorts and a Hawaiian print shirt. Vet sat next to her in a hoodie and black jeans. They had all chosen to wear their combat boots. Life just didn’t feel the same without them.

Vet nodded along with Wang’s words, the two already falling back into the familiar feel of their relationship, Wang doing most of the talking, Vet scowling and nodding along.



“When we get there, we’re leaving the heavy firepower in the jeep unless things get bad.” Riot looked into the rearview mirror so Wang understood she was talking to him. “Small firearms only when we go in. Let’s find Rizzo and head back to base before anyone can get hurt.”

“Why’re you just looking at me?” Wang pulled down his Oakley sunglasses. “I feel like I’m being discriminated against, here.”

“That’s because you are.” Riot shook her head, hiding a smile. “Save your aggression for the real enemy. Keep it in your pants, and that small arsenal sitting in the duffel beside you in the jeep. Am I understood?”

“Understood, Master Sergeant.” Wang saluted her through the rearview mirror. “Beretta only.”

“Understood.” Vet looked down at the tablet in front of him that tracked their movement through GPS. They were blocks from the bar. “Next right, and it’ll be on your left at the end of the block.”

Riot followed the directions, pulling into a dirt parking lot. There was no sign over the paint-chipped building, but there was no doubt they were in the right place. More than a dozen motorcycles ranging from Harley Davidsons to Triumphs were lined up against the front of the building.

Rock-and-roll music wafted from inside. Riot put the jeep in park, angling the vehicle away from the building in case they needed to get away in a hurry. She jumped out of the jeep.

Her hand touched the cold piece of metal at her lower back. The handle of her Beretta felt like an old friend. It didn’t feel quite as good as having Vet and Wang by her side, but good just the same.

“We go in, get Rizzo, and then get out,” Riot reminded her men. She strode over the dirt ground, her boots making heavy imprints in the loose soil.

Riot opened the door and entered a scene she had been expecting all along. Once you’d been to a handful of seedy bars, you’d been to them all—the poor lighting, the bar on one end of the room with the battered stools, and a mix of tables and chairs throughout.

What Riot wasn’t expecting at the moment was how many people there were inside. A mix of more than two dozen faces stared at them as they walked inside, mostly muscled bikers eyeing them down, sizing them up as victims, or something else.

Riot walked to the bar, not staring at anyone in particular yet canvasing the area, all the same. Besides the bikers, there were a handful of drug addicts with tracks on their arms, sunken cheeks, and ruined teeth. And, of course, a bar wouldn’t be the same without a few alcoholics thrown into the mix for good measure.

Apart from the large, open space, a pair of bathrooms sat in the far corner, while a small room sat in the back.

“What’ll you be having?” the bald bartender asked, eyeing the trio of newcomers with clear suspicion.

“Actually, we’re looking for someone,” Riot started, doing one last quick sweep over her shoulder to make sure she wasn’t missing Rizzo somewhere in the mix. “Have you seen a big black guy? You wouldn’t be able to miss him. He’s built like a linebacker with—”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Gunshots came from the small room in the back.

“Never mind,” Riot said to the bartender as she drew her weapon. “I think we found him.”


8

After the small-arm gunfire went off in the back room, two things happened at once: the door to the room flung open and Rizzo sprinted for the exit, a battered Glock 17 in his right hand, while nearly everyone in the room stood up, reaching for their own weapons, Riot and her team included. The few crackheads and alcoholics who hadn’t come armed jumped from their seats, only to hunker down and wait out whatever was happening.

Rizzo was faster than Riot remembered, his massive frame moving like greased lightning through the room. He was halfway to the door before he realized Riot and the others were even there.

He wore faded tan pants and a green shirt. The heavy scarring that had taken his ability to speak lined his throat like massive veins popping out of his neck.

“Go!” Riot ordered Rizzo, Vet, and Wang all at the same time, as guns were pointed in every direction.

Adrenaline kicked in as Riot ran for the door to the bar. Rizzo was the first one out, when the gunshots started. Bullets peppered the walls around Riot as she shoved Wang and Vet in front of her.

She felt the recoil of her Beretta as she fired blindly behind her. They were outnumbered and outgunned for the moment. Staying and fighting was not an option.

Wang made it through the door, with Vet following close behind. Riot fell just outside as a bullet caught her in the right calf. Even as the pain lanced up her leg, she contained it in a mental compartment saved for pain. Pain was nothing new to Riot; it was just another day in the Corps.

“Go! Bring the thunder!” Riot ordered, even as she fell. She waved away any help from the others as she slammed the bar door closed behind her. Sitting in the dirt, back pressed against the wood, she emptied her clip through the closed door.

Chips and plaster rained down all over Riot as she steeled herself and weathered the storm. A moment later, her Beretta clicked empty. She braced herself against the bottom of the door, ready for the impact.

Sure enough, a shudder struck behind her as those inside tried to give chase. For all intents and purposes, it looked like they had their prey on the run.

Riot gritted her teeth as she fought for traction. Her nails broke as she dug into the ground. Her right calf screamed in pain, but Riot was looking beyond that. The blood she was losing was mixing into the dirt, making her footing tricky.

“Good to go!”

The scream was from Vet. Riot looked up to see the best thing she had laid her eyes on in a very long time. Rizzo, Vet, and Wang took cover behind the jeep. The first had abandoned his Glock for an M27, the latter two had also traded in their small firearms for a pair of M16A4s.

Each one deadlier than the next, they waited for their leader to roll out of harm’s way.

Something solid bounced against the splintering door behind her, which struck Riot hard in the back of the skull. The door groaned under the pressure, then broke. Even as Riot tucked her head and rolled to her left, the scene erupted with the sound of heavy gunfire.

Riot didn’t wait to see what was happening. She rolled and kept rolling until she was entirely clear of the building. Only then did she look up to gauge their position.

BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!

The sound of rounds being fired didn’t stop as Riot struggled to her feet. The Marines were possessed now, after seeing one of their own—their leader, no less—go down in a spray of blood.

Bikers too stupid to realize they were outgunned kept coming out of the bar, firing their much smaller caliber weapons. A pile of bodies had already gathered just outside the door. A few of the rounds fired from the inside of The Pit managed to get close, burying themselves in the jeep or in dirt nearby, though none of them found their targets.

Riot limped around to the back of the jeep, placing a hand on Rizzo’s and Wang’s shoulders. Vet was reloading, his single eye alive with a madness Riot had grown accustomed to.

“Enough!” Riot shouted into their ears. She looked up to see Rizzo and Wang finish blasting their weapons into the structure itself. The return fire from the building had completely stopped now. “Into the jeep!”

“Where are you hit?” Wang threw his weapon into the back of the jeep, already going down to one knee to get a better look at Riot’s wound.

“You’re driving, let’s go—now!” Riot ignored Wang for the time being. She threw Vet the keys and pulled herself into the back seat, using her arms. “Move!”

Vet ran to obey, starting the jeep and pulling away, while Rizzo was still jumping into the passenger-side seat and Wang was doing the same in the back.

Vet put the pedal to the metal as they roared away from the bar.

“It looks like it went right through your calf and missed the bone by a few centimeters.” Wang tore apart Riot’s pant leg and used the cloth to wrap her wound tight. “You’ll be better than new when I get done with you.”

Rizzo turned in his seat. He looked at Riot with eyes full of confusion and remorse. He shook his head, mouthing “Sorry” over and over again.

“Don’t be too sorry.” Riot looked at Rizzo with a grimace as Wang made her tourniquet tighter. “You’re going to be piloting us into space, so it’ll all even out.”


9

The next morning, life at the Bulwark was business as usual. Before they made it down to level seven and their first day of training, Riot wanted to get a few things straight. The alarm blared its morning mantra at zero-four-thirty, giving them a full thirty minutes to prepare.

Riot’s unit had been moved into a bigger room to support another bunk bed and the two newest members of their squad. Dull pain ran up her right calf from where Wang had stitched her up the night before.

“Can someone hit that alarm?” Wang yawned from his bunk.

Riot slammed her hand over the button to make the alarm stop its blaring.

“Up and at ’em.” Deborah swung from the bunk she shared with Vet. She grabbed her toiletries and clothing, and hit the lights in the room as she exited. “It’s an important day. Day one of training!”

“I’m going to kill her,” Riot mumbled to herself as she pulled off her sheets and sat up in bed. “I’m not dealing with that in space.”

Vet was already up, stretching and searching for his own supplies. Rizzo and Wang, who shared the other bunk beds, were in various states of wakefulness.

“Hey, Wang.” Riot walked over in her shorts and tank top. “You remember anything from when you dated that hearing-impaired girl?”

“Who, Sheila?” Wang sat up in the bottom bunk, letting his bare chest etched with a myriad of colorful tattoos, rise and fall with a deep sigh. The ink on his skin ranged from images of space Marines in mech armor fighting insect-like aliens to dragons battling knights, and even a chubby Winnie the Pooh eating his honey. “Oh, Sheila, the angel that got away. She could have made an honest man out of me. You know, love is a—”

“Wang,” Riot interrupted, “I’m not trying to have a heart-to-heart with you right now.” She motioned to Rizzo, who jumped off his top bunk. “Just do your best at interpreting for me.”

Rizzo stood beside Riot, dwarfing her by a good six inches and eighty pounds. The tank top he had worn to bed showed just how serious his wounds really were. Heavy scars that rose from his skin like snakes just beneath the surface covered his body from his sternum to the bottom of his chin.

Riot was amazed that the man was even still alive. She remembered what he had looked like when she dragged him from the burning chopper. His very existence was a true testament to his will to survive.

“All right, Riz.” Riot made sure he was paying attention as she studied his hands in return. “What were you doing at the bar?”

Rizzo’s hands were a flurry of motion as he signed his answer.

“Slower.” Riot shook her head. “I’m not going to learn like that. When you sign to any of us, it has to be slow so we can start learning. Myself, Vet, even Miss Bubbles are going to have to learn.”

An expression of gratefulness washed over the large man’s features. Riot could only imagine what he had gone through, having to learn sign language, then having a limited number of people to interact with once he had done so.

Rizzo began motioning much slower now.

“He says ‘crap you very much.’ Nope, that’s not right,” Wang shook his head, and Rizzo glared at him. “He says ‘thank you very much.’ Sorry, I’m rusty.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” Riot looked back to Rizzo’s hands. “What were you doing at that bar?”

Rizzo began again, his hands moving slowly, almost like he was conjuring magic. And in a way, he was. What else would you call the ability to summon ideas with a wave of your hands?

“Says he was taking out a crime boss,” Wang began in his normal, hyper-cadence way of speaking. As Rizzo told more of his story, Wang slowed down to a near halt, a sadness in his voice Riot wasn’t used to hearing. “He’s sick of feeling useless. He’ll never be able to do the one thing he was born to do again—fly. He was going to kill himself, but thought he’d take out as many thugs as possible with him.”

“You’re an idiot.” Riot looked at her friend, feeling a mix of anger and sadness for him, but mostly anger. “I never want to hear you talk—no, bad choice of words. I never want to see you like that again. If you need someone, you come to me or Wang or Vet, understood?”

Rizzo’s gaze was worth a thousand words he could never say. His light brown eyes were downcast as he nodded along with Riot’s words. He was about to sign again, the motions for another “thanks” or “thank you” about to come out.

Riot clenched her fist and extended it out.

Rizzo caught the meaning and lightly struck her fist with his own.

“Are we combining our powers to create Captain Planet? Uh, like that throwback reference, Riot?” Wang stood from his bunk and added his fist. “I guess that wouldn’t work. We would need rings first.”

“Hurry up.” Riot moved to her bunk and grabbed a towel, toothbrush, and soap before heading for the shower. “Make sure to get some chow in your stomach before training begins. You’re going to need your energy.”


10

This is the Hazard Room.” Deborah motioned to the door in front of them. “It’s a holographic training area where you can test your new tech and run training operations.”

“Alien tech, right?” Vet’s scowl was nearly gone, meaning he must have been extremely happy at the moment. “This is where we get all the cool stuff?”

Riot and her fire team had been taken down to level nine via a private, well-guarded elevator. This level was made up mostly of massive rooms, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls.

They stood in one room now with Deborah, while an army of white-coated scientists, both military and civilian, worked around them.

The massive room was lined with long, empty tables, and, along the walls, tall closets. The doors of these closets were closed now, but Riot could guess at what was in them.

Directly in front of them was the only section in the open space that was closed off. It was an octagon-shaped structure roughly the length and width of a football field. There were long strips of glass along each of the octagon walls for those monitoring their progress to look through.

“Yes, this is where you get the good stuff,” a gruff voice said behind them.

Everyone turned and saluted Captain Harlan as he walked into the glass room. He returned the salute with a nod. “At ease. You’re in more than capable hands with Doctor Miller, but I wanted to give you a quick briefing before you get suited up and begin your training.”

The captain took a moment to look each one of them in the eyes. His stare wasn’t menacing, but it was far from friendly.

“I’m sure by now you think you know why you’re here. You think you’re going into space, to an alien world to build an alliance between extra-terrestrials and Earth. That’s only part of the truth.” Captain Harlan paced among the gathered squad. He ignored the wide-eyed looks from Wang and Rizzo. “Whatever your views on the Syndicate were, whether you believed them or not when they said they wanted to help, one thing remains the same: We have their tech, and with it, the understanding that there are far worse, far more evil entities that exist in the universe. Without a doubt, these enemies will eventually come for Earth. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next year, but it is only a matter of time. Questions?”

Wang’s arm shot up as soon as the last word left the captain’s mouth.

“Why am I not surprised?” Captain Harlan nodded toward Wang. “Go ahead, Corporal Wang.”

“Sir, what is this ‘more evil threat’ that you see coming?” Wang seemed like he was actually serious for once since Riot had been reunited with the medic. “And where exactly are we going to seek out our allies?”

“All you need to know about the danger coming is that it’s coming, son. You can bet your ass it’s coming. We’re still working out details on when. Could be months, could be years.” Captain Harlan skewered Wang with a hard stare from cold blue eyes. “Where you’re going and who you’ll expect to see there will be revealed to you and your squad as the mission training continues.”

“Yes, sir.” Wang seemed satisfied by the answer.

Riot, on the other hand, sensed something was off. For the first time, information was being withheld. She understood how the military worked. They were soldiers, so they were told where to show up and whose ass to kick. Still, something in the captain’s eyes told her there was pertinent information being covered up.

“Doctor Miller.” Captain Harlan nodded to Deborah before walking out of the glass room. “They’re all yours.”

“Thank you,” Deborah replied, looking directly at Vet’s single eye. “This is the part I know you’ve been waiting for.”

“Alien tech?” Vet said with a sadistic grin spreading across his lips. “Hell, yeah.”

Workers opened the closets on the far wall, exposing the pieces as Deborah explained what the various armor and weapons were and what they did.

“The Syndicate used a variety of armor and weapons during their invasion. We managed to capture large stockpiles of their equipment and repurposed it for our own use. Let’s start with our new outfits.” Deborah waved over to a now-open closet with five black-and-red uniforms placed side by side. “The first layer of armor is made of close-knit but flexible links of black ceramic shaped like scales. It’s called dragon skin and will meld to your body. It’s capable of stopping large caliber rounds, knife stabs, and even small explosions.”

“Did she just call them outfits?” Riot whispered to Vet, but the one-eyed mechanic was so enraptured by what he was seeing, his mouth just hung open. “I’m pretty sure she just called them outfits.”

“The red, larger layering of our armor is called liquid armor. This is straight from the Syndicate. It looks like heavy metal armor but it only weighs a few pounds. A dense liquid-like substance is layered within and solidifies on impact. It will protect the wearer from any serious injury.” Deborah now waved the group over to the uniforms. “Boots and gloves will enhance your strength. Your helmets are equipped with night vision, a heads-up display, interior communication, GPS, and a list of other goodies we’ll get into. Questions?”

Everyone looked over at Vet, who was halfway naked. His boots were off and so was his tan shirt, and his buckle was coming next. Vet’s fingers flew as he raced against himself to be the first one standing in the armor. He paused as he sensed everyone’s eyes on him.

“Take it easy, Vet. Be gentle with her.” Riot walked over to a uniform hanging in the closet and, running her hands over the rough material of the dragon skin armor, she couldn’t help feeling a chill of excitement herself. “And don’t forget to use protection.”

In the next few minutes, everyone was stripping from their military fatigues down to underwear. Riot had done it a million times before. This was pretty tame when it came to getting naked in front of other people. It was only her crew and a handful of scientists present. Besides, Riot was only going down to her boxers and bra.

The boys in her unit didn’t give her a second look. They’d been through too much together to look at her as anything other than a fellow Marine. Deborah Miller, on the other hand, was another story altogether.

The fair-skinned woman reddened as she stripped from her white lab coat to her bra and panties. Riot noticed a few glances her way from Wang and Rizzo. Vet was too excited getting into his own uniform to care much at the moment.

On one hand, Riot couldn’t blame her Marines. Deborah was an attractive woman. She could use a few more pounds of muscle on her thin frame, but she was pretty all the same. Riot would have to remember to have a conversation with her boys—this was work, and you didn’t get your meat where you made your bread. Relationships never worked in the Corps, and now that they were going into space, Riot didn’t need another layer of complication added to the mix.

These thoughts touched upon her own dark past of an unhealthy relationship before joining the Corps, and her drinking addiction. As soon as memories from her past began to surface, Riot pushed them back down and forced herself to think of something else. Not the best way to deal with issues, but effective for the time being.

The next few minutes were spent changing. When her unit was finished, the Marines looked nothing like anything Riot had ever seen before. Black scales of under armor showed through the few places the bulkier crimson-colored liquid armor didn’t cover.

Their uniforms all matched, minus Deborah’s. The doctor still wore the same black dragon scale layer, but the liquid armor that went over the rest was a dull grey and much thinner.

“I feel like a freaking superhero.” Wang flexed a bicep no one could see under his armor. “Like a cross between a superhero and a tank.”

Rizzo was grinning from ear to ear. He caught Riot’s eye and gave her a thumbs-up.

“I think I love you,” Vet said, while looking over to Deborah. “How about the weapons? Where are the weapons?”


11

You’ll be able to choose and practice with whatever weapons you feel work best for you,” Deborah said as she walked over to the keypad with her helmet in the crook of her arm. “Within reason, of course. I’ve been given authority to oversee this, from a scientific perspective, of course.”

Like the rest of their helmets, hers looked like an updated version of what a medieval knight would wear into combat—full protection, with a bottom section that came up over the mouth that could also be lifted over the head.

The scientist punched a few buttons on a keypad set into the wall of the Hazard Room. A beep followed her actions as the doors parted, one to each side.

Riot followed Deborah inside with the rest of her squad. A warm, tingling sensation grew in the pit of her stomach. A smile she couldn’t help spread across her face. The last time she remembered feeling such a sense of completeness was when she had her last non-military meal, an actual home-cooked one that consisted of warm cornbread, baked beans, and barbecued chicken.

The giant room in the shape of an octagon was completely empty, minus the racks upon racks of weapons that lined the walls—a treasure trove of destruction and mayhem.

In awe, Rizzo dropped his helmet, causing a clunk as it thudded against the hard concrete ground.

“This is the Hazard Room that, with holographic aid, will serve as our exercise center. Along the walls you will find every piece of alien tech we’ve repurposed as weaponry.” Deborah stood near the center of the room, pointing one at a time at each wall of the octagon-shaped area. “Sniper rifles, heavy repeaters, grenades, multipurpose rifles, rocket launchers, grenade launchers, laser rifles, and, of course, our hand-to-hand combat section.”

Riot shook her head in complete and utter awe. She recognized a few of the weapons from their general size and shape, but that was it. Every weapon had been adjusted and made from Syndicate tech. Sniper rifles were blue with orange laser sights, and one rocket launcher was so compact, it looked like a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun. The knives were the craziest thing she had ever seen, and that was saying a ton, because Riot had once seen an alien with its head chopped off come back to life and kill another dozen soldiers before it was taken down.

Riot walked the wall of the octagon that housed the knives. They were nothing more than cylinder handles with no blade coming from the end at all.

Riot picked up the black metal cylinder that was just longer than her hand. A guard ended the piece of metal next to her thumb, next to a button. “Did you guys make light sabers?” she asked. “What is this?”

“Pretty cool, right?” Deborah sidled up next to her with a big smile. “They’re molten steel blades that lengthen and retract with the button.”

“Come again?” Riot couldn’t take her eyes off the piece of weaponry in her hand. “Molten who?”

“When you press the button next to your thumb, concentrated molten steel forms the blade until you take your thumb off the button,” Deborah said, reaching for one of the dozen handles that rested in a case along the wall. “You can retract the molten steel the same way. Watch.”

Deborah took a step back and pressed the button on her molten blade. A dark grey liquid grew from the weapon itself, forming a blade. She removed her thumb from the button, where a blade the length of a combat knife had grown. She pressed it again, and the steel blade grew until it was as long as a sword. Two more clicks of the button and the liquid oozed back into the weapon’s handle.

“I’m not going to pretend I understand how that works.” Riot shook her head, marveling at the weapon in her hand. “I’m just going to be glad that this tech is on our side of the fight.”

“It’s superheated, as well.” Deborah placed the molten blade handle back on the rack wall. “It can cut through iron up to three feet thick when the blade is extended to full length.”

The little girl inside Riot was running wild as she clipped a molten blade onto her belt. Having free rein of an armory like this was every Marine’s dream. But things had to be kept on a schedule. Riot only had the mornings with her team to discuss tactics and get everyone proficient with the new alien tech.

In the afternoons, they would be divided and taken to study the alien tech in their own disciplines. Rizzo had to learn how to fly an alien ship, Vet needed to know the ins and outs of how the craft worked, and Wang needed to be taught the very latest in alien medicine. Riot had the hardest job of them all—she needed to know about as much of everything as she could, including the Trilords they planned on visiting.

“All right, boys and girls,” Riot shouted, so loudly, her voice bounced off the walls. “Who’s ready to take some of these goodies for a test drive?”

Three hands shot up into the air.

“Get equipped with the usual.” Riot went to a wall and placed a few grenades on her belt. Next, she chose what looked like a fat blue SAW with a laser sight on top. “Vet, on long range; Rizzo is the heavy; and Wang in reserve.”

“What should I do?” Deborah still had a smile on her face. “I want to help.”

Did the woman ever have a bad day? To each their own, but Deborah’s chipper mood was making Riot feel as if she were standing out like a sore thumb.

“You have the most important job of all.” Riot grinned at the woman as she clipped another light firearm onto the outside of her right thigh. “You’re the package.”

“Oh, goody.” Deborah let out a heavy breath. “I thought you were going to make me just stand around or something. I mean, I know I’m a noncombatant and all, and I see the reason I need to train with you in these various scenarios, but I want to be helpful. What do I do?”

“I’m glad you asked.” Riot motioned for Wang to come over. “As the package, you stay attached to Wang’s hip at all times. When he moves, you move; when he stays, you stay; when he breathes, you breathe.”

Riot turned to her unit. Vet had slung over his shoulder a long, blue sniper rifle that looked like something out of a video game. Rizzo carried two weapons: what looked like an orange rocket launcher strapped to his back, and if Riot had to guess, a heavy machine gun in his arms with a massive energy clip that was painted yellow.

“We’re going to have to do something about these colors.” Vet shook his head. “Some of them look like oversized Nerf Guns.”

“They’re anything but.” Deborah had her arms crossed over her chest, still soaking in the news Riot had given her. For the first time, she had something other than a smile on her face. “Some of the weapons left behind by the Syndicate are lighter and don’t require reloads. They’re constructed from a renewable source of energy that self-generates on a molecular level.”

“So, I could pretend I understand what all that means,” Riot shook her head at Deborah, “or I could just tell you I failed math in high school. I heard you say ‘lighter’ and ‘no clip.’”

“That’s right.” Deborah nodded along with Riot’s words. “Although the scenarios in this room will be holograms, the rounds you’ll be firing are real, so be careful.”

“Careful’s my middle name.” Wang smiled as he patted, in his arms, the rifle that resembled a green M27.

Rizzo leaned in and arched an eyebrow. He signed something Riot followed, but wasn’t sure what it meant.

“You’re not going to let me live that one down, are you?” Wang let out a heavy breath. “I apologized to that girl a dozen times. It was an accident. How was I supposed to know she was allergic to peanuts?”

Rizzo let out a silent chuckle. The big man looked down on them all. His height and width, increased by the armor, made him look like a juggernaut.

“Her lips swelled up, like, twice their normal size.” Wang cracked a smile as he remembered the scene. “Good thing I’m a medic, or else I wouldn’t have known what was going on and thought the alien invasion had come early. Hey, do you remember that other—”

“If you boys are done,” Riot barked, “we have a training exercise to begin.” She motioned with her head to Deborah. “So, how does this work? We input some kind of training parameters, and the room comes alive?”

“Pretty much.” Deborah walked over to the area next to the exit. She motioned to a touch screen set into the wall. “You can decide what kind of terrain you’d like to practice in, what type of enemy and, of course, the objective.”

“This is like a freaking video game.” Vet came over to check out the display with Riot and Deborah. “Minecraft on crack.”

“What would you like me to input, Master Sergeant?” Deborah turned to Riot for direction. “It’s your call.”

Riot thought for a moment, considering how hard or how easy to make their first venture into the Hazard Room. The idea to take it easy on her unit came and went quickly. They were Marines and they would train like they would perform—no shortcuts, no easy option.

“Set the terrain for what we can expect to see when we land on Hoydren. Lock in the combatants to ten—no, twenty—and give them the same reflexes and physical attributes we’ll encounter from the local alien species.” Riot paused for a moment, taking in Deborah’s tense face. “Objective should be team death match.”

“Master Sergeant.” Deborah’s finger hovered over the screen. “You should know that the Trilords are faster and stronger than any human. Their eyesight and—”

“Enter the damned parameters.” Riot slammed on her helmet and motioned to the rest of her unit. “Buckle up, buttercups! It’s time to go to work!”


12

The first thing Riot recognized was the heads-up display grid in her helmet. It not only enhanced her sight when she focused as if she were looking through a pair of binoculars, but it also showed her detailed information when she looked at her squad mates, listing the equipment they were wearing, as well as the weapons they carried.

The second thing Riot realized was how advanced the Syndicate technology was.

Deborah pressed one last button that set off a loud beep and a timer inside all of their helmets. The beeping resonated with every number as a countdown from ten began.

Riot checked her men one more time. Rizzo gave her a thumbs-up to her right. Vet was already down on one knee looking through the scope of his rifle. Wang was right beside Deborah.

“Whatever we meet, remember your training,” Riot yelled over the countdown timer in her helmet. The big red number seven flashed past her heads-up display.

“Oohrah!”

“Channel your aggression!”

“Oohrah!”

“Blood makes the grass grow!”

“Kill! Kill! Kill!”

Rizzo wasn’t able to shout, but Riot could hear him hammering his chest with his right hand as he lent his noise to the sounds of his brothers.

When the flashing number in her helmet finally hit zero, the practice room completely changed. One moment, they were in an empty octagon-shaped room with weapons along the walls; the next, the weapon racks receded and the empty space turned into a jungle.

A light mist rose at their feet. Trees and bushes of rich greens and purples sprouted from the floor. Two bright suns shone overhead: one completely yellow like their own, the other a bright white; something so strange Riot had to tear her eyes away from the double orbs. Her helmet shielded her vision to the point she could look directly at the blazing suns without being forced to look away.

“Cover!” Riot knelt beside a large rock formation to her right. Immediately, her squad joined her. Riot understood that she was pressed up against nothing more than a hologram; still, she could feel the pressure where her body jammed up against the rock. “This is nuts.”

“Your armor recognizes the density and terrain of the holograms in the room,” Deborah explained. “Also, if you get wounded, you won’t get hurt, but it won’t feel great, either. If it’s a killing shot that takes you out, your helmet will recognize that fact and take you out of the hologram.”

Riot could hear Deborah’s clear voice through the comms in their helmets, words picked up and sent directly there.

“Like a dog’s shock collar if we get hit by one of their weapons?” Vet was to their left, crouched down, gazing into the jungle interior. “What does it feel like?”

“More like a paintball striking you, like a punch.” Deborah tapped a gloved hand to the chin of her greyish black armor. “You know, now that I think of it, that’s just what I’ve been told. I’ve never actually played paintball, so I don’t really kn—”

“Contact, left,” Vet’s voice came through the comms, steady and soft. “Looks like a lot of them.”

Riot peeked over the rock. Her helmet was like a supercomputer with X-ray vision. It sought out ten heat signatures making their way toward them, no more than sixty yards away. Whatever they were, they were big. Riot’s helmet told her they ranged from six-foot-two to six-foot-six and weighed anywhere from two hundred and fifty to three hundred pounds.

Her helmet outlined their forms as they approached through the jungle. They looked humanoid with arms and legs just like her own. The weapons they carried were something else altogether.

Names like War Hammer, Plasma Axe, and Shield Burst popped up on her display. This information came at once along with their distance. The big creatures were closing fast, fifty yards from their position.

“We still have the element of surprise,” Riot said softly into her comm. “Grenades first when they close on our position. Rizzo, Wang, and I will lay into them. Vet, you flank from the left. Once you can get some clean shots, light them up.”

Two “rogers” came from Wang and Vet. Rizzo looked over to Riot and gave her a thumbs-up. Something would have to be done with Rizzo’s communication. Riot knew that his being unable to communicate in the field would be a danger to himself and the rest of the squad. As soon as they were done with the mission, that would have to be priority one.

“What do I do?” Deborah asked from her crouched position beside Riot. She tried to peek over the rocks to get a better view of the enemy. “I want to help.”

“You’re the package, remember?” Riot placed a hand on Deborah’s head and pushed it back down, back under cover. “You just sit here and don’t die. We lose if you die.”

Riot could imagine Deborah’s face as she was forced to hide while the others fought. For whatever reason, it seemed Miss Bubbly wanted in on some of the action.

“Forty yards,” Wang breathed.

“Remember, there are twenty hostiles in the simulation. Keep your eyes out for the other ten.” Riot looked down and unclipped one of the grenades from her belt. It was a perfect circle with a clip on one end and red button on top. She had never used a grenade like this before but she understood the concept—clinch the depressor, click the red button with your thumb, and throw away.

Riot’s heads-up display told her the grenade was called a Boomball.

Who makes up these names? Riot thought. Do they have a room full of nerd techs brainstorming labels for weapons somewhere? Maybe that’s what’s in level ten of the Bulwark. A nerd think tank.

Thirty yards, Riot’s display flashed as it tracked the ten large figures. She still wasn’t able to get a good look at them through the jungle, but she could see movement now.

“Now!” Riot clenched the depressor on her Boomball and hit the red button before lobbing it over. Her grenade traveled through the air in a perfect arc with three others. Then the fun began.


13

The Trilords stopped as soon as they heard Riot’s voice. When the Boomballs landed somewhere near them, they opened fire in all directions. Explosions rocked the jungle. Trees blasted into a hundred pieces and crashed to the ground. Vet rolled to his left and began making his way around the enemy.

Riot, Rizzo, and Wang all opened up with their new alien weapons. The SAW-like weapon in Riot’s hands pumped round after round into the enemy Trilords. In a column to the right of her field of vision, her display told her the weapon she was firing was in optimal condition. It also told her she was firing a Raptor A9.

Along with this information came red “X’s” over two of the Trilords outlined by her helmet.

Return fire began peppering them back. It looked like a light show. Riot and her squad fired red blaster rounds into the jungle and the Trilords beyond. The return fire from the Trilord weapons was a bright white. Back and forth, red and white laser blasts peppered one another’s locations.

There were so many rounds being exchanged in the firefight that Riot wasn’t sure if it was she, Rizzo, or Wang who hit the next two Trilords. Regardless, two more of their opponents went down.

“Riot!” Wang shouted into his comm. “I think I know where the other ten Trilords are! Contact right!”

Riot swung her weapon to the right, her helmet already telling her why her heart should be in her stomach. Ten massive outlines were charging in. Worse, the roars these aliens made, more animal than human, rose above the noise of the weapons’ fire.

Something between a roaring lion and a howling wolf penetrated the air in and around the fight.

“Rizzo, Wang, cut them down! Vet, where are we?” Riot shouted, still hammering round after round into the remaining six Trilords that had been pinned down in the jungle’s interior. “Deborah, keep your freaking head down!”

“There!” Vet yelled over the comms. One by one, the six Trilords in front of Riot began disappearing from her screen. They transitioned from white outlines while they were still considered to a threat, to red outlines on the ground with an “X” over them when they were out.

“Holy shi—”

Wang’s words were lost as Riot witnessed the craziest thing she had seen to date. Bursting from the foliage of the jungle, the ten Trilords coming from the right made their appearance on the battlefield.

Just like her helmet had told her, the Trilords were massive men and women. Fangs twice as long as her own came from the tops of their mouths. Red eyes bore down on Riot and her unit as if just by looking at them they could kill. Each of the male warriors had long hair and what seemed to resemble facial hair. The females wore their own hair in thick braids that came down to their lower backs.

The skin tone of the aliens wasn’t too far off from that of humans—deep browns and near black, pulled tight over rippling muscles. Enough tattoos to put even Wang to shame crisscrossed around their bodies. To Riot, they looked like ancient Vikings crossbred with werewolves, massive warriors from some time long forgotten.

In a second, Riot took all of this in. There was no more time on the game clock. The weapons the Trilords carried were the most intimidating that she could ever imagine—long axes, war hammers, even shields were all retrofitted around blasters of their own.

One of the warriors carried a shield in the shape of a roaring creature’s face. The closest animal Riot could match the image with was a wolf mixed with a sabertooth tiger. The shield was almost as large as his body. A series of circular blaster barrels sprouted from the creature's mouth in the center of the shield. The barrels pumped round after round while the shield protected its user. Likewise, long and short weapons like maces, axes, and hammers all sported a barrel at the end of the shafts, along with the weapon heads.

At once, Riot understood their ploy. The Trilords had sent in half their number to hold Riot and her squad’s attention while the rest made their run. It had worked. Within seconds, the group of Trilords were close enough to begin their assault, using their multipurpose weapons up close and personal.

Riot tossed her weapon to the side, choosing instead to make her shots count instead of spraying and praying for a hit. The smaller weapon in her hand wasn’t much larger than a Beretta, but it would have to do.

With a burst of fire, Rizzo cut one of the Trilords down at the knees. Two more jumped on top of him, swinging their axes down onto his skull. Riot took one between the eyes.

Wang covered Rizzo with a burst of his own weapon.

The next thing Riot remembered was pushing Deborah behind her as a Trilord a full foot taller than her brought a hammer sideways across her body. Riot felt the blow as if it were actually striking her torso. She was hurled across the landscape, losing her grip on her weapon.

The Trilord let out a roar. With a shake of its long, black hair, it ran at her. As if the aliens needed to appear any crazier, they didn’t wear any kind of armor. The men were naked from the waist up and the females wore barely more, with a leather-looking tube top covering their breasts, and shorts or skirts.

Riot had a second to register how much her calf still ached from the previous day’s wound before she reached for her molten blade. She pressed the button at the base of the weapon, creating a sword three feet long.

The Trilord brought his hammer down on Riot—hard. Riot blocked the blow with her own weapon. The blade of the molten sword cut through the hammer’s shaft. A moment later, the heavy end of the hammer fell to the ground.

“Sucks to be you, hologram boy.” Riot looked at the confused Trilord with a shrug. Without wasting more time, Riot jammed her sword through the throat of the Trilord and pulled up. The action severed her enemy’s head in two equal parts before he fell quivering to the ground.

Another Trilord came at Riot, and then another and another. A blow struck her right shoulder and glanced off, this time from a Trilord carrying a double-bladed axe, a barrel in the middle of the weapon, head smoking. Riot batted away the long weapon with her blade, then sank it hilt-deep into her opponent’s stomach.

“Rizzo’s down!” Wang shouted.

BOOM!

Another explosion in the jungle meant Vet was still on his feet. Whether he would be able to dispatch the last six Trilords by flanking them was another story altogether.

Wang was pushing Deborah back, trying to cut down the oncoming Trilords with a weapon that looked like a long-barreled shotgun. It sent red sprays of blaster fire at any Trilord that approached. Wang took down three before one of the remaining two Trilords thought better of charging into the weapon like his predecessors, and instead opened fire on Wang.

The last two Trilords had the massive shields with the rotating Gatling-like guns in the middle. They cut Wang down in a series of rapid fire bursts as he shielded Deborah with his body.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Riot understood this was all an exercise, but in the heat of the moment, it felt as real as the molten blade in her hand.

Riot took up a defensive stance in front of Deborah as the two Trilords bore down on her position.


14

Riot didn’t have a whole lot of options, and neither did she have the luxury of a weapon that she could shoot at the moment. The two Trilords in front of her peered over their massive square shields that curved in at the sides.

“Hey, big boys,” Vet’s familiar voice called out from behind them. “Care to make this a two-on-two?”

The Trilords swung around, opening fire on Vet’s position. Riot didn’t wait. She charged forward. The Trilord on her left, a muscled mountain, swung his shield at her. Riot skidded on her knees, allowing her forward momentum to carry her under the shield.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the handgun she had lost during the fight. Riot released her grip on the molten blade and grabbed the projectile weapon at the same time she rose to her feet. She placed two shots to the underside of the jaw of the Trilord that stood inches from her.

Riot pivoted even as the spray from the holographic blood plastered her vision. She double tapped the trigger at the second Trilord to her left. Both beasts of men fell to the ground, shaking in their death throes.

Riot’s lungs burned, sweat gathered at her brow as she swept the exercise room for more enemies. Everywhere she looked, the ground was carpeted with bodies. The display across her helmet read nothing but red outlined enemies with small red “X’s” above their bodies.

Across Riot’s vision flashed a “Mission Complete” sign in big red letters. The Hazard Room faded back to its normal, empty, spacious appearance. The weapons racks along the walls opened once more.

Riot removed her helmet, shaking the sweat from her face and hair. She raised an eyebrow at Wang, Rizzo, and Vet. Although the room had registered the mission as a success, they all understood what had happened. A single teammate down at the end of any mission was a loss.

“Wow.” Deborah removed her helmet, staring in awe at the members of Riot’s unit. “I never even thought we had a chance. Twenty Trilords against four Marines. You all were amazing.”

“Not amazing enough.” Wang held his helmet in the crook of his arm. He looked over to Riot instead of Deborah. “We’ll get better.”

Rizzo nodded along with Wang.

“We have to.” Riot motioned to the arsenal of weapons that lay out in front of them. “We’ll take the rest of the day to familiarize ourselves with the weapons we’ll be using.”

“If you like, the Hazard Room has a shooting range function,” Deborah volunteered, already striding over to the panel on the inside of the octagon-shaped room. She looked over at Riot for permission before beginning the program. “I can set it up for you.”

“Let’s do it.” Riot turned to her squad. “The three of you need to dust off some of that rust. If the War Wolves are going to ride into battle again, we need to get back to where we were before. I’m going to take a minute to speak with the good doctor, here. Familiarize yourself with all the weapons and see what works best for you.”

Two “rogers” and a nod from Rizzo came back to her as the men went along the walls of the room choosing new weapons to try. The room transitioned to a long gun range, a counter a few yards in, with targets stationed every few yards from there. The targets were anywhere from the shapes of humans, to Trilords and bull’s eyes, and a variety of alien shapes Riot didn’t recognize.

“You know, we’re an envoy first and foremost, trying to make allies.” Deborah cleared her throat. She kept her voice low so the others wouldn’t be able to hear. “I think calling yourselves War Wolves is cool and all, but let’s hope we won’t have to fire a single weapon during the trip.”

Riot felt anger rise in her heart, but just as fast, as it trickled down her veins, she calmed herself. Deborah was trying to be polite. She had waited until it was just the two of them speaking instead of addressing her in front of her men.

“Listen, Bubbles.” Riot placed her helmet at her feet, eyeing the woman up and down. “I’m the last person who wants to put my squad in harm’s way. I’ve seen enough killing to last a lifetime and have enough for leftovers the next day. But I’d rather be the meanest mother in the room, than to hope that the meanest entities in the universe take pity on us.”

Deborah slowly nodded. It was clear she didn’t feel the same way, but she was unwilling to argue the point. “I understand your thought process, but I think we can still work together while respecting each other’s opinions and respecting—”

“Yeah, yeah, respect and love and all that.” Riot waved away the rest of whatever Deborah was about to say. “We need to talk about Rizzo.”

“What about Corporal Rizzo?”

“You’re telling me with the pages and pages of crap that’s coming up in my bucket while I’m trying to fight, there isn’t a way for Rizzo to communicate with us? Seriously, while we’re at it, let’s tone down the info that comes up through our visors while we’re in a firefight.”

“I can take a look at the parameters for the visor’s programming,” Deborah said. “There may even be a way to have Rizzo type messages, or maybe choose from a list of preloaded messages, to communicate with the rest of the squad. I’ll put the best scientists on it today.”

“Great.” Riot head-motioned to the door, ready for Deborah to leave, but the woman clearly didn’t get the hint. Riot leaned in, widening her eyes, looking from Deborah to the door and back again.

Deborah leaned in, as well. “Are you going to whisper something, tell me a secret?”

“What? No.” Riot scrunched her brow and ushered Deborah from the room. “I was trying to be polite and give you the hint that you’re not wanted here anymore. I need some time to work with my unit. Get out.”

“Oh, oh, oh, right.” Deborah’s fair complexion flushed as she walked toward the door. “Okay, I’ll save you a seat at lunch. Don’t forget at twelve hundred hours, you all divide to study your skill set for the rest of the day.”

“Yeah, whatever. Get the heck out of here, Bubbles," Riot said, mockingly, and shook her head as the woman departed.

Trapped in a steel can while we fly to another galaxy with an adult cheerleader. Riot bit her tongue so hard, she nearly drew blood. Control yourself, woman. This is going to get worse before it gets better. At least we have a while to figure things out before we take off. Maybe Bubbles will get sick or break a leg or something.

She was still coming to grips with the fact that, very soon, she would be trapped on a ship with this woman.


15

Weeks passed at the Bulwark as Riot and her squad trained all day, every day. Marines were creatures of habit, if nothing else. Practice and practice, and then more practice, would lead to fewer mistakes in the field and lives saved. Mornings were physical conditioning, as well as weapons training and a mission in the Hazard Room.

Once they became familiar with the alien weapons and how the Trilords worked as a unit, it wasn’t much of a challenge. Riot and her squad were able to tear apart twenty Trilords without breaking a sweat. They perfected flanking techniques for their much faster opponents, as well as identifyng the Trilords’ weaknesses. There weren’t many, but the Trilords did favor a frontal assault rather than maneuvering their warriors into a better position.

The afternoons were reserved for each of the members in the squad to train in their discipline, with Riot studying the flight pattern they would follow on their way to Hoydren, who the Trilords were, and a hundred other important angles of their trip.

The nights were spent with her unit learning sign language, with Rizzo and Wang leading the class. The lessons usually ended in laughter and some new obscene gesture learned, but they were making progress.

As the days passed, the more Riot talked with Deborah and Captain Harlan, the more she was sure something was being kept from her. It all came to a head one day while Riot was on her way to a meeting with Captain Harlan. She had just stuffed her face at the mess hall and was regretting that last plate of sloppy joes, when she passed a flustered Deborah in the hall.

“What’s up, Bubbles?” Riot stopped the woman, who looked like she was about to cry. “Did someone break it to you that Santa is just a diabetic in a red suit?”

“Riot, this isn’t the time.” Deborah stopped in her tracks, looking at her as if she were going to say more. “I’m just not in a good headspace right now.”

“Whatever.” Riot shrugged and stepped to the side, trying to get around Deborah.

Deborah moved to block Riot’s forward progress. “Okay, okay, if you must know, I guess I can tell you. I’m just really not supposed to say anything but—”

“I didn’t say anything. You don’t have to tell me. In fact, I don’t even really want to know.”

“All right, all right, I’ll tell you, but you didn’t hear this from me.” Something dangerous in Deborah’s eye caught Riot’s attention. “I just hate lying to the unit I’m going into space with.”

“Lying?” Now Riot was definitely intrigued. “What are you talking about?”

“Ask—”

Deborah mumbled something about the food as a pair of scientists in white lab coats passed, giving the two women a sideways glance.

Once Deborah was sure they were out of hearing range, she continued. “Ask Captain Harlan about Peace Envoy One.”

“One?” Riot squinted, trying to piece together everything Deborah wasn’t saying. “What are you—”

“I’ve really already said too much.” Deborah walked down the hall. “You didn’t hear anything from me.”

“I’m not sure I heard anything at all.” Riot shook her head and continued on to the captain’s office. The entire time she traveled down the halls, she thought about Deborah’s cryptic message.

This chick has finally cracked, Riot thought. We’re supposed to be SPEAR’s first unit launched into space. We’re Peace Envoy One … unless we aren’t.

Before Riot could figure out what she even thought of the message, she found herself in front of the captain’s door. She rapped twice on the wood, waiting for a response.

She didn’t have to wait long.

“Come in,” said Captain Harlan’s firm voice from the opposite side.

Riot opened the door, then closed it again behind her, saluting the captain. He stood and saluted back. He motioned to a chair that had been moved into his office. “Please, sit.”

Riot obeyed, still trying to consider her conversation with Deborah.

“Are you feeling all right?” Captain Harlan also sat. He leaned over his desk, examining Riot. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m fine,” Riot lied. “Just some questionable sloppy joes for lunch.”

“We’ve all been there.” Captain Harlan waved his hand over the long, metal strip atop his desk that brought up a hologram. “Reports across the board say your unit has been dominating training in every aspect. It turns out you were right about Rizzo and Wang. Rizzo’s scored higher marks in piloting our ship than anyone before. And Wang seems to be keeping in line.”

“They’re thriving here, Captain.” Riot nodded along with the report of her men. “We’ll be ready when our time comes.”

“That’s actually what I want to talk to you about today.” Captain Harlan swiped at his hologram, bringing up a view of an alien ship with sleek lines and four engines in its rear. “How do you feel about launching Peace Envoy One sometime soon?”

“I feel confident we’ll get the job done with Peace Envoy Two.” Riot studied the captain to see if he would pick up on her words and what his reaction would be.

For the briefest of moments, surprised panic drifted over his eyes. Just as soon as it was there, a veil of practiced composure once more fell across his hard, blue gaze. But it had been there, of that, Riot was sure.

“I think you made a mistake.” The captain leaned in and looked hard into Riot’s eyes. “You and your squad are Peace Envoy One.”

“Captain, you’re my friend, but also my superior. If you want me to pretend you’re telling me the truth right now, I will.” Riot considered not saying what she thought, but that wouldn’t be her style. “However, we both know the truth.”

Captain Harlan took a deep breath in through his nose and let it out through his mouth. He glanced over to make sure the door to the room was locked, then he lowered his voice.

“You didn’t hear this from me, do you understand that?” Captain Harlan gave Riot a look that said he would deny any knowledge of this conversation if it got out. “This meeting never happened.”

“I get it.” Riot waited for the captain to continue. “I wouldn’t push you into a conversation you didn’t want to have, except my men’s lives are on the chopping block, here.”

“You are the second attempt at reaching allies in space. The first attempt ended when we exited light speed around the planet Hoydren. All communication was cut off.

“I never lied to you. You were always my first choice to lead this mission, Riot.” Captain Harlan finally allowed his eyes to drift from hers. He scratched the back of his head, gaze on his desk as if he were reliving the events. “We had a squad of six go out weeks before I contacted you. They were well-trained Marines, along with two scientists, one of them trained in diplomacy. I tried to get you to head that mission, but my superiors had someone else in mind, and he took his men out. The last report we received is that they had exited light speed, and then nothing.”

“Super.” Riot let out a heavy sigh of her own. “So you said we leave soon. Would that be as soon as tomorrow? The day after tomorrow?”

“You’re not worried at all?”

“Of course I am, but that doesn’t change what needs to be done.” Riot shrugged, thinking back on all the information she had learned about the Trilords, and the planet Hoydren, over the last three weeks. There had to be something there that would help her get further than Peace Envoy One. “We’ll make it happen. We’ll find out what happened to the Marines who were sent there before us. If they’re still alive, we’ll bring them back.”

“I should have told you sooner.” Captain Harlan shook his head. “I hate all this political crap as much as you do, but my superiors thought you’d turn tail and run if you knew you were this mission’s second attempt. Deborah told you, didn’t she?”

“If I have your permission Captain,” Riot said, ignoring the question before walking to the door. “I have a squad to prep for space.”


16

I’ve dreamed of this since I was a kid.” Vet shook his head, his constant frown still present, but easier around the edges. “What are we going to name her?”

“Actually, the ship has already been christened ‘Peace Envoy One’—”

“No way am I flying in a ship called anything related to peace.” Wang stood with the rest of the squad, gawking at the massive ship in front of them. “We’re the War Wolves, remember? We’re not riding into battle on something called Peace Envoy One. Besides, Riot already told us, this should be Peace Envoy Two if we’re going to be at all accurate.”

“You told them?” Deborah’s eyes grew to twice their size as she looked at Riot in disbelief. “You’re going to get me fired.”

“Easy, Bubbles, you’re going to pop a manicure.” Riot began walking forward to get a better view of their ship. “Everyone’s fine and on the same page now.”

The squad was given the clearance to travel to level ten where the alien ships were kept. In the massive underground hangar, there were a dozen that ranged from single-person fighter ships with lasers mounted on the sides and a rocket system in the rear, to massive whales of space transports that looked like cruise liners capable of intergalactic travel. Each ship was painted dark grey with dark purple highlights that glinted in the light.

The ship Riot and her crew were standing in front of belonged to the cruiser class. A long nose came out in front of it, with wings on the sides that looked like they each had a bird’s talon at the end. To the rear, three thrusters stood side by side. The ship looked like it could carry twice their number comfortably.

It looks just like the ships in the movies, Riot thought as she shook her head. You’re actually going to do this. You’re actually going into space in the name of SPEAR.

“Rizzo and I have been studying the ship, but to actually see it…” Vet shook his head, still amazed. “I can die a happy man now.”

“Wait until you see inside.” Deborah, over her fit of anxiety for the moment, led the squad to the rear of the ship, where she pressed a pad on the metal door, and a large ramp lowered. “I’ll give you the tour, starting with the cargo bay and leading to the rest of the ship.”

Deborah’s voice trailed off as she led a wide-eyed Wang and Vet deeper into the grey-painted ship’s interior.

Rizzo sidled up next to Riot. His hands moved slowly, allowing Riot to track his words. Even after a full three weeks of practicing every day, Riot was still struggling to understand the language. It was, however, getting easier, and she was able to understand simple sentences.

We’ve got to rename the ship. Rizzo arched his eyebrow. For real, though.

“We will.” Riot lowered her voice, although she doubted she could be overheard over Deborah’s own. “I have a feeling one of us will be able to sneak away and get our hands on some paint.”

I heard that. Rizzo motioned with his hands, and a smirk came over his lips. You do realize you’re taking a mute, a Barbie, an anus, and a cupid with you into space, right?

“An anus and a cupid?” Riot repeated the words, shaking her head. “I think Wang’s been switching out a few words for his amusement while he’s been teaching me.”

Rizzo smiled and shook his head. He took a minute to spell out the two words: addict, and cyclops.

“Yeah, I guess when you put it that way, we’re a regular group of handicapped Marines going into space. We’re all already broken on the inside, so maybe it makes sense to be broken on the outside, as well. Wait a minute, what do you mean, Wang’s an addict?”

Rizzo lowered his head, still keeping eye contact with Riot. His eyebrows rose as he made the hand sign for, Really?

“I thought he seemed peppier than usual.”

He’s a medic who has access to medicines and probably some kind of alcohol. Rizzo broke off his hand gestures as Wang called to them.

“Come on, you two! You have to see this. It’s like that old show, Star Trek!”

“I’ll talk to him,” Riot reassured Rizzo as the two ended their conversation and followed Wang’s voice.

As Deborah showed them around the ship, Riot found herself more and more impressed by the alien craft. Their rooms were larger than she had thought, even bigger than the one they currently shared at the Bulwark. Each room had its own shower and a restroom. The mess hall area was large and comfortable. There was even a space for training, and a separate armory that would hold their gear and weapons.

Riot followed Deborah down the wide halls, listening to her explain to Vet and Wang how this was not like Star Trek at all, but more similar to Star Wars.

“Oh, don’t get him started on Star Wars.” Wang shook his head furiously. “Vet is usually a quiet guy, but once he starts, it’s word vomit all over the place.”

“Well, you can make your own decision on what science fiction empire this ship fits best into.” Deborah stopped at a closed steel door. “I want to introduce you to someone before you see the bridge. Evonne, are you online?”

“I’m always online,” a female voice came from all around them. “I’m an AI. We don’t need to sleep, eat, or go on vacations. Doctor Miller, how may I help you?”

“No freaking way.” Vet had breathed the words more than he’d said them. “We have a mother-sucking AI on our ship?”

“I don’t understand the use of your words ‘mother-sucking,’” Evonne’s voice spoke through the ship again. “But I’m here to assist you in whatever way I can.”

“Evonne will be able to assist us both on Peace Envoy One, as well as join us in the field, if we choose,” Deborah explained. “There’s an option to have her AI attach to the inside of our helmets.”

“And you can see us and everything?” Riot asked to the walls around her, unsure of where she should look. “You’re the ship itself?”

“Oh, yes. Until I’m moved, I live in the ship’s mainframe.” Evonne paused for a moment. “I can see you all fine, as well as pull up your files to get to know you better. For instance, I see that Corporal Chen Wang has been to jail multiple times for indecent exposure.”

“That was once!” Wang looked up at nothing. “One time. I went to a Halloween party in a speedo. I was supposed to be an Asian Michael Phelps!”

“I see that Master Sergeant Gertrude Riot has—”

“That’s enough!” Riot felt her body seize at the mention of her first name. She had kept it under wraps all these years, and now a stupid AI had let the cat out of the bag. “Deborah, show us the bridge.”

Gertrude? Rizzo spelled out the letters. Really?

“Gertrude is a great name.” Wang was trying to suppress a bout of laughter and was losing in the process. “Great name, if you’re my mom.”

Riot stared daggers at Wang until he composed himself.

Deborah cleared her throat. “We should get going before Riot kills one of you. Evonne, if you would, please open the door to the bridge.”

“My pleasure.” Evonne sounded like she was smiling as she obeyed the request.

“Star Trek,” Wang said as he walked into the room. “Definitely Star Trek.”

Riot followed her men in. In front of them were three massive windows. One level was equipped with a captain’s chair in the center, just in front of it, the pilot’s seat, and to the right and to the left, a handful of other stations. From her study of the schematics, Riot knew they were reserved for officers on the bridge, and controlled everything from weapons to communications.

“Take a good look,” Riot told her squad. “This is going to be our home while we’re in space. We have under forty-eight hours to familiarize ourselves with the ship, so let’s get to work.”


17

The next day was spent moving into their new quarters and familiarizing themselves with the ship. Riot’s belongings were simple; no more than a few duffels to carry aboard. The armory was equipped with their gear, as well as the weapons they had chosen to bring with them. Vet spent most of his time in the engine room getting to finally handle everything he’d been studying for the last few weeks.

Rizzo still practiced in the simulator in which he’d learned to fly the ship; however, anytime Riot couldn’t find him there, he was sure to be sitting in the pilot’s seat, drilling over and over again.

As soon as the okay was given, Wang moved his supplies into the medical bay, and there, Riot finally got a moment alone with him. It was the morning of their launch, though their first opportunity by themselves.

“So, are we pranking Doctor Miller?” Wang looked up from his spot next to a cabinet full of medicines. “We prank every newbie. It’s kind of a tradition.”

Riot took a moment to look over the room. A row of exam beds, walls with built-in glass cabinets showing a variety of bottles she didn’t recognize. Flat-screen digital displays and more equipment by each bed that could have been anything from heart monitors to defibrillators, as far as Riot could guess.

“No, we only jump in members of the War Wolves. Bubbles is just a person of interest.” Riot sat on one of the tables, facing Wang. “Rizzo said he’s cooking up something for our suits, though. He wouldn’t tell me what, but I bet it’ll be cool.”

“Are you sure we can’t do something to prank her?”

The way Wang asked made Riot realize he had already done something to the doctor, whether she realized it or not.

“Isn’t going into space enough for us right now?” Riot emphatically shook her head. “No. No pranks. That’s the final word.”

“I better get those mice out of her bed, then,” Wang sighed. He placed one last bottle on the shelf before closing the glass door. “They were so hard to sneak in there.”

“Before we go, I want to know you’re straight.” Riot hopped off the bed and blocked Wang’s exit. “Are you using again?”

“What would make you think that?”

“Why don’t you answer the question?”

“Listen, I can handle it. A taste here and there helps with my attention deficit disorder. It just evens me out, nothing more.”

Riot took a moment to think about that. He was the smartest out of all of them, even the good Doctor Bubbles. Sure, she may know more about whatever it was she had spent time studying, but there was no one faster than Wang at picking something up. Already he had remembered and relearned sign language. So much so that he and Rizzo were able to have complete conversations back and forth.

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about, and to be honest, I don’t want to know.” Riot gave Wang a hard stare. “I’m trusting you on this one, because I know you would never do anything to put your brothers in harm’s way. If you feel anything but one hundred percent when we go out into the field, you let me know.”

“I will, Gertru—I mean, Riot.” Wang gave her a sideways grin. “Master Sergeant Riot.”

“Call me by my first name again and, friend or not, I’ll castrate you and leave you on Hoydren. I’m serious about that, but also about you keeping yourself in check.”

“Sorry, it was the wrong time to joke.” The grin disappeared from Wang’s face. He set his jaw and gave Riot a salute. “Master Sergeant, I’m here because of you. I won’t let you down. We don’t carry the War Wolf tattoo lightly.”

“What tattoo?”

“The tattoo we all agreed to get.” Wang began unbuttoning his shirt to show her. “When we were wasted in Afghanistan before the whole Syndicate mess.”

Wang unbuttoned his shirt and brought out his left shoulder. His torso was a canvas of different-colored ink, and the tattoos on his body ranged from an angel with blue wings on his chest, to a woman with vampire-like teeth on his forearm. Dead center on his left shoulder was a snarling wolf in black ink.

“You must have been drunker than we thought.” Riot shook her head, unbuttoning her own shirt and showing Wang her bare shoulder. “You did that by yourself.”

“What the hell?” Wang’s jaw dropped open. His brow scrunched in confusion as everything he thought as reality shattered into a million pieces. “But Rizzo and Vet got theirs, didn’t they?”

“Nope.” Riot shook her head, chuckling. “You did that by yourself. It looks good, by the way.”

“Rizzo! Vet!” Wang passed Riot on his way out of the med bay. “Did you guys lie to me about your wolf tattoos!?”

Evonne’s ethereal voice came from nowhere and everywhere at once. The AI’s tone was the same as a woman in her late thirties to early forties, but for some reason, she now had an Australian accent. “Master Sergeant Riot?”

“Uh, yeah?” Riot was still getting used to talking to the AI. She looked up and around the room before reminding herself there was nothing to see. “Why are you talking with an accent?”

“Corporal Mohammad Vetash has deemed it necessary to change my vocal pattern. When I inquired as to why, he said he’s trying out different options.” Evonne paused for a moment as if she were thinking on what that meant exactly. “But that is not the reason I wanted to contact you. Doctor Miller informed me of the issue with Corporal Rizzo being able to communicate with the rest of the squad in the field.”

“And you were able to find a solution?”

“Yes, along with Doctor Miller and Corporal Vetash, we constructed a keyboard mounted on the left forearm of all of your armored suits. It will have predesigned messages, as well as a fully functional keyboard so he can communicate with the rest of the squad. His text will appear in your helmet display. You will all have this unique typing feature, but I imagine Corporal Rizzo will get the most use from it.”

“Perfect.” Riot wasn’t sure why she was still standing in the med bay. She had a list of things to accomplish before they launched only a few short hours from now. She exited the room, headed for her own quarters. “Is there anything else?”

“Yes.” Evonne’s voice followed her down the hall of the ship. “Your uniform has been sent to your room. Also, a ship’s leader is most often referred to as a captain. Shall I call you Captain Riot?”

“Hell, no. What are you trying to do to me, woman?” Riot shook her head. “I’m not a captain. Just call me Riot, that’ll be fine.”

“Understood. However, I am not a woman. I do not possess the required physical attributes to be called one. For example, I lack both a pair of breasts and a vagina. I also do not have the—”

“Evonne, I get it. Enough.” Riot again shook her head, trying to focus on getting to her room and changing into the uniform they would wear while traveling. “I can’t believe I’m going to be stuck on a ship with an AI who uses the word ‘vagina.’”


18

Who did it?” Deborah stood on the bridge with the rest of the squad, her fists clenched so tightly on her hips, the whites of her knuckles showed. It was the angriest Riot had ever seen her. “You know what I’m talking about. Which one of you did it?”

Riot turned to the others for clarification. They were all wearing their new uniforms. Dark grey was the primary color of their pants and button-up long-sleeved shirts. The shirt was double-breasted and bore a secondary color in correspondence with their class.

Vet and Rizzo were the pilot and the mechanic, so their tops were trimmed with a lighter grey. Deborah and Wang were considered doctors and scientists, so they were given a blue trim. Riot’s was red with a badge on the front right of her shirt, a spear pointed up, designating her as the ship’s captain.

“Did you take those mice out?” Riot looked over to Wang with a raised eyebrow. “I told you, no pranks.”

“I took them all out of her bed.” Wang shrugged, counting his fingers in front of him. “I got them all. There were only four. I picked them all up: Eeny, Meeny, Miny, and Moe.”

“You put mice in my quarters?” Deborah’s face turned red. “I’m not even talking about that.”

“Take a breath, Bubbles. You look like you’re going to pop.” Riot peered out through the front of the ship to a large countdown timer. The screen hung in the hanger, marking the passing of time until they departed. They had a few minutes left. “What are you talking about?”

“Evonne, bring up a view of the outside of the ship, the spot with the name of our craft.” Deborah’s eyes never left the four Marines in front of her as she instructed the AI. “Zoom in on that name.”

“Yes, Doctor,” Evonne spoke in her Australian accent that made the word “doctor” sound more like “docta.”

The three windows on the ship’s bridge could also act as screens. Evonne took advantage of this as she used the middle screen to show the squad what Deborah was so irate about.

Someone had tampered with the ship’s name of Peace Envoy One. The white lettering had not been removed; rather, something had been added. Underneath, in the same plain, white block lettering, were the words: Click, Click, Boom!

Riot suspected Rizzo’s artistic talents had made the change, but she wasn’t about to rat out her own team member. They had minutes left until their departure, so something like this would have to wait. Still, Deborah had to be pacified.

“Well, that’s horrible.” Riot went to Deborah and put a hand onto her shoulder. She addressed her men with the tone of a drill sergeant. “We’re about to leave, but you have my word that whoever did this will be found out. A full investigation will be opened, and if any of you had anything to do with this, there will be hell to pay!”

Vet, Wang, and Rizzo stood at attention, eyes forward.

“There, there.” Riot patted Deborah on the head. “Better?”

“I … I don’t know.” Deborah looked at her in confusion. “Are you mocking me?”

“Peace Envoy One,” Captain Harlan’s voice came over the ship’s comms. “You have a green light to go.”

Riot took the opportunity to break her current conversation with Deborah and assume a position in her command chair. The rest of the squad did the same. Rizzo took the pilot’s seat in front of Riot, while Vet buckled himself into a seat on their right. Wang and Deborah did the same in seats to her left.

Riot took a moment to center herself. She sat in her chair, a high-backed one that almost looked like a throne. There were controls on the armrest, some of which Riot understood, others she was still learning. One function caught her eye: the feature to take over manual control of the ship. She would have to rely on Evonne and Deborah until she was more comfortable with the inner workings of deep space travel.

The screen in front of them dissolved back to a clear view of the hanger.

“May God watch over you and bring you back safely,” Captain Harlan said over the comm. “We’re counting on you to secure the future of Earth. Bring us back some allies, Marines.”

“Corporal Rizzo.” Riot prepared herself to say the words that seemed like they belonged more in a movie than in real life. “Take us out.”

Rizzo’s shaved head bobbed in front of her as he began touching controls on the display in front of him. Holograms popped up on his display as they had in Captain Harlan’s office. His hands moved through the holograms with practiced ease.

A moment later, a brief hum began as the engines kicked to life.

“All systems are go.” Vet scowled and squinted through his one eye at the readout in front of him. “Evonne, can you start the music, please?”

“Music?” Deborah asked, confused. “There’s no music in space.”

Rizzo lifted the craft off the ground, hovering in midair. A large, circular steel door opened in front of them. A massive black tunnel would provide them a route from the underground Bulwark to the sky above.

“Intergalactic” by the Beastie Boys began to pump through the bridge as Evonne acknowledged Vet’s request.

“No, this is not how we do things here.” Deborah looked over at Riot, alarmed.

“I like it,” Evonne said.

“Buckle up.” Riot reached behind either shoulder and brought the harness down in front of her. It fit her like a rollercoaster ride’s safety belt. “Rizzo, punch it.”

A moment later, the ship jolted forward. It passed into the tunnel, where bright, white lights implanted into the sides clicked on. Rizzo maneuvered through, then angled upward as they headed for the surface. The feeling was like being hurtled head-first into a tunnel by a catapult.

“Rizzo, the exit door isn’t open!” Deborah screamed from her seat. “Wait for the door to open!”

Rizzo either didn’t hear her or didn’t care. He kept the same speed as he headed up.

I wonder how far Peace Envoy Three will make it when we die, Riot thought as she held her tongue. He knows what he’s doing. God, I hope he knows what he’s doing.


19

At the last possible moment, the exit doors to the tunnel slid open and the craft rocketed out into the clean, open air. Everyone was temporarily blinded as their eyes grew accustomed to the sun’s harsh glare.

“Holy, Toledo!” Wang was breathing heavily from his seat. “I think I peed myself a little. Yep, yep, that’s pee. I’m going to need to be excused soon.”

“Should have worn some ‘Depends’, like me.” Vet shook his head as if there was nothing disturbing about what he’d just said. “I peed myself, too, but I already feel as dry as the sand on a desert.”

Riot heard them talking, but her attention was on the scene in front of them, not the state of her underwear. Already they were leaving Earth’s atmosphere, rising so quickly, Riot wasn’t able to fully appreciate how beautiful the sky and space beyond it really were.

Blues touched by the sun’s bright yellow rays were giving way to the blackness of space that extended beyond. The sun was to their right as they left everything they knew, and the Earth itself, behind.

The last lines of the song pumping over the comms unit died.

“System check.” Riot cut into the conversation of adult diapers. “How are we looking?”

“Engines are good,” Vet said from his seat.

“Comms are still up and active with the Bulwark,” Deborah reported.

“Evonne, how are you feeling?” Riot asked the ship.

“If by ‘how am I feeling’ you are referring to the state of the ship, then we are feeling all well and safe. We will not be burning in the atmosphere as we enter into space,” Evonne replied in her chipper female voice. “I also enjoyed the song very much.”

The next few minutes sent them vibrating through the atmosphere and into space. All things considered, Riot had to give it to the Syndicate engineers. They knew how to build their spacecraft. The trip had been a little rocky, but nothing worse than a rollercoaster at a large amusement park.

Everyone shared a silent moment as they drifted into space. The dark and lonely void that existed between planets, stars, and moons opened up in front of them in all directions.

Rizzo cut the thruster, taking a moment to enjoy the scene himself.

“Bulwark is tracking us just fine.” Deborah maneuvered around her own hologram desk. “We look like we're ready to plot a course to Hoydren.”

“Do it.” Riot couldn’t take her eyes off the wonder that space brought. “Rizzo, when Deborah’s locked in the coordinates, you’re good to go.”

Rizzo gave Riot a thumbs-up over his shoulder.

“When we go FTL, we’ll have some downtime before we exit into Hoydren’s orbit.” Deborah’s fingers were busy locking in the exact point of destination. “When we exit light speed, we need to be ready for anything. That’s where we lost contact with Peace Envoy One—I mean, the other Peace Envoy One. There! I just sent the coordinates to Corporal Rizzo.”

“Roger that.” Riot nodded her agreement to Deborah. “Rizzo, let’s do it.”

Rizzo went to work at his display, and a moment later, a countdown timer appeared on the middle screen of the ship, starting from five.

When the timer reached one, the scene around the ship shifted from the black of space with tiny, bright dots all around them, to a multicolored swirl of every color Riot could think of. The closest thing she could relate the colors of light speed with were the Northern Lights she had seen while visiting Alaska.

The colors were beautiful, fading out and coming in bright once more—first green, then easing into blue and yellow, and so on.

“This,” Vet said to himself more than to anyone else, “is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Amazing,” Deborah agreed.

“Amazing for now.” Riot drummed the fingers of her right hand on the armrest of her captain’s chair. “When we exit, we’ll have to be prepared for anything.”

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

The hours they had until they were scheduled to exit light speed into Hoydren’s orbit were spent checking and rechecking the ship and supplies. Rizzo stayed at the helm, while Vet and Deborah performed system checks.

Wang slipped out of the bridge, saying he had something to take care of. As much as Riot wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, she wondered if it had anything to do with a trip to the med bay and a bottle of pills.

Riot made a trip to check their gear, as well as to go over everything she knew about Hoydren and the Trilords one last time. She sat in her quarters, studying all of the information she had already studied a hundred times before while preparing at the Bulwark.

Although she could have the information on one of the fancy new hologram displays, Riot still preferred good old paper and pen. She opened a folder, finding a seat on her bed. Her fingers turned pages as her eyes registered notes made in her own hand.

After the defeat of the Syndicate, humanity took over the weapons and technology, even discovering the FTL lanes they now used. Not many understood the intentions of the Syndicate, but it was clear that they had purposefully set up defensive systems around the Earth. Now humanity was creating teams to move out and find more allies among the stars. SPEAR was the beginning of this. More specifically, Riot and her Marines were.

The Trilords were no joking matter. Riot had come to learn this first-hand. It wasn’t their size or prowess as fighters that worried her now; it was their ideology as a race. They were a culture of proud, loyal warriors who believed deeply in family and custom. What would their ancient customs say about allying with strangers from another planet?

“Riot?” Evonne’s voice echoed into Riot’s room.

“Damn it!” Riot jolted in her seated position. “Evonne, this had better be good.”

“You told me to notify you when the ship was about to exit light speed.”

A ball of worry twisted in Riot’s stomach. “Let’s go.”


20

Whatever we see on the other side,” Riot said, sitting straight in the captain’s chair, preparing her squad for anything. “Whether it’s enemy spacecraft, or a merry band of demon Christmas bears; whatever we come up against, it has more to fear from us than we have from them.”

“Arrrooo!”

“Trust your instinct. You’ve had the best training the Corps has to offer. We’re all weapons from the inside out. Think fast, move faster.”

“Arrrooo!”

“Bring it!” Vet sat in his seat, his own eye over the controls, ready to divert energy to the ship’s shields, cut power on and off engines, and a variety of other functions.

The large red numbers counting them down from hyperspeed flashed in middle window again. It was at five…

Deborah sat wide-eyed, bracing herself against her desk, despite the harness that held her in.

Four…

Riot had given Wang control over the ship’s guns; he was in charge of both the heavy blasters on either side of the ship’s frame, as well as the heavier laser beam mounted on the top of the ship. There were a dozen other smaller weapons they could use in a fight, but these would be their bread and butter.

Three…

“Let’s roar into that good night one more time wolves!” Wang shouted.

Two…

“Arrrooo!”

One…

The ship exited hyperspeed in the space of a millisecond. One moment, they were traveling amidst a multicolored glow that would put the best light show to shame; the next, they were in front of a nest.

That was the only word for it. A floating asteroid a mile wide and just as deep drifted lazily in space. On the asteroid, and surrounding the rock, was an army of creatures flapping their wings with no real sense of urgency.

“Holy Reverend.” Vet’s voice was more like a child who had just witnessed the boogie monster sneak out of his closet and give him a wink. “Are those—”

“What the hell are dragons doing in space?” Wang finished Vet’s thought.

“This wasn’t in any of the notes.” Deborah looked over at Riot with panic in her eyes. “This was never part of the plan.”

“Hold yourself together.” Riot was still in awe herself, a plan still formulating in her mind as she calculated the risks and rewards. “We’ll make it. Evonne,” she ordered, “amplify what we’re seeing in front of us, main screen.”

“Yes, Riot,” Evonne’s voice answered back as she obeyed.

Riot understood she had a moment, maybe less, before the creatures noticed their latest neighbors. Riot took the time to study them. They were every color, every size she could imagine. The youngest no more than a baby the size of a dog, the largest rivaling their own ship for size.

She didn’t want to use the word “dragon,” but what else could they be? Massive, leather wings spanned out on either side of their bulky bodies. Two hind legs and two front legs covered in scales came in front of a swishing tail, also lined with scales. Mouths lined with jagged teeth, reptilian eyes, and razor-sharp talons finished their intimidating forms.

That was it. Time was up. The closest dragon, a large, black beast with red eyes, jerked his head to take a look at the spaceship. It opened his mouth, showing a maw full of teeth unlike anything Riot had ever seen as it roared a warning to the rest of the dragons, both flying by and floating in the air.

Hundreds of heads swiveled and took in Riot’s spacecraft. Wings spread from nearly every reptilian body as they took flight to meet the perceived attack on their colony.

“Rizzo, get us out of here, to the planet if you can,” Riot ordered. “Wang, only shoot if you have to.”

Both men obeyed without question. Rizzo dropped them in a tight dive that would send them under the colony of dragons.

Riot could feel a sheen of sweat gather at her brow despite the lack of heat on the bridge. At once, she understood what had become of the actual Peace Envoy One—the poor bastards had landed point-blank in the middle of a freaking dragon asteroid.

The planet of Hoydren lay dead ahead, its two suns just over the horizon to their left. The planet looked slightly smaller than Earth, with rich green landmasses surrounded by the deep blue of oceans.

The dragon horde recognized what Rizzo was about to do and dove to counter his move. The next instant, Rizzo was swerving between dozens of dragons. It was like a nightmare. Jaws snapped at them, while talons tore at the space they had been in only a moment before.

The ship shuddered as something large struck the rear.

“We’ve got a hitchhiker.” Vet punched a few more buttons on his display. “A big mother just attached itself to the underside of the hull.”

“Riot?” Wang waited for her to give the command to fire. “Riot?”

“Wang, hold your fire.” Riot didn’t have any love for the animals, but it did seem like a waste of everyone’s time to start blowing them away. “Deborah, plot me a course out of here. Rizzo, show me what you can do. Let’s get this POS detached from our butt and get the hell out of here. Drive it like you stole it.”

The words were just out of Riot’s mouth as Rizzo slammed the thrusters forward and sent the ship screaming toward the green and blue planet of Hoydren. Dragons bounced off the ship’s hull as the ship barreled forward.

“Bubbles, how are we doing on that flight plan?” Riot forced herself to say despite the pressure she was feeling as they charged forward.

“Got it,” Deborah grabbed the desk in front of her as the sound of wrenching metal came from the rear of the ship. “I think we lost our hitchhiker.”

“Evonne?” Riot asked as she was jerked to the side from an insane maneuver Rizzo performed to avoid another collision.

“The creature has fallen off,” Evonne reported.

Just like that, the view in front of the ship was clear. A ball of fire began at the nose of the plane and spread up as they entered Hoydren’s atmosphere.

Riot let out a sigh of relief, though she wouldn’t have felt so good about her situation if she knew what waited for them on the planet’s surface.


21

Rizzo followed the flight course set out by Deborah. Vet was in the back of the ship, checking out damages, with Evonne’s help. They glided over the lush, jungle-like terrain just above the tree line.

The plan was to set the ship down in cover a few miles out from Silna, the capital city of Hoydren and walk the rest of the way. It wouldn’t exactly scream “friendship” if they were to land in the middle of the city they were trying to ally with.

“Man, I really wanted to use those guns.” Wang wiggled his fingers. “I was ready to light up some space dragons.”

“Were those dragons?” Deborah blinked as if she were trying to wake up from a bad dream. “Did we just barrel through an asteroid full of dragons?”

Riot blew air from her mouth. “What else would we call them? They looked like dragons to me.”

Deborah didn’t say more. Instead, she patched in to the Bulwark via the comms and made their first report. Riot was secretly grateful Deborah would have the task of checking back in with the Bulwark everyday to report. She hated that kind of stuff.

Rizzo eased off the thrusters, bringing the ship to a halt in a small clearing. He gently placed the craft down on the rich, dark soil of the jungle.

Riot felt the ship touch down. She rose from her seat at the same time Vet walked onto the bridge to give his report.

“Nothing important damaged.” Vet pointed to the ceiling. “Evonne said there are some lacerations on the outside hull of the ship. Nothing that will impede our flying, but they’ll need to be fixed sooner or later.”

“Good.” Riot looked over to Rizzo and the rest of the squad. “Way to get through a flying horde of dragons. This game ball has to go to our fearless pilot.”

Rizzo smiled with a bow.

“Time to gear up and head out.” Riot led the way to the armory. “Full pack and weapons.”

Done with her check in with the Bulwark, Deborah caught the tail end of Riot’s words. “Our mission—”

“I understand what our mission is, Bubbles,” Riot said. “We’ll leave our helmets down and our weapons lowered. All the same, I’d rather have them and not need them, than need them and not have them.”

Deborah remained quiet as they made the short walk to the armory to strap on their gear.

The armory room itself was a smaller chamber but it made use of every square inch of storage space. On one wall, five suits stood ready and waiting in closet-like compartments. Against the other walls were the crew’s preferred weapons. While training at the Bulwark, the squad had quickly found favorite weapons that fit their own roles and fighting styles.

They all carried molten blades and a variety of alien grenades, but that was where the similarity of their weapons ended. Rizzo acted as their heavy, carrying a Vulcan SP101 and a Fire Breath A9. The former looked like a mini-gun, while the latter was a rocket launcher with three tubes.

Their training in the Hazard Room had taught them two things about their weapons. First, they were going to rename them whatever the hell they wanted, because the names the scientist at the Bulwark had come up with sounded like nerf guns. Second, the weapons had needed to be painted. No one would have taken them seriously carrying orange-and-yellow weapons into a fight. They were now a satisfactory mix of flat black, dark grey, and even a few crimson pieces added in for good measure.

Vet acted as their sniper with a weapon he named the Longshot 1000 that had a scope nearly as long as the barrel. He carried a Destroyer T9 as a secondary weapon that looked like a cross between a Denali and an old-fashioned Tommy Gun. Riot’s and Wang’s weapons were nearly identical—they both carried Villain Pulse Rifles, which were basically the Syndicates’ version of an AR and Cannon FP290’s that resembled 1911s.

The one minor difference in Wang’s gear was that he insisted on taking his lucky pack of throwing knives.

“Outside of the normal planet wildlife, there does not seem to be any threat to the ship,” Evonne reported in. “Will I be accompanying you on your journey?”

Vet nodded over to Riot. “She’s patched into our suits and comms.”

“Fine.” Riot took off her ship uniform and shrugged on the dragon skin under armor. She nodded to the black-and-red liquid armor they would put on next. “You’ve been a busy boy, Rizzo.”

On the left shoulders of the armor a black emblem stood out against the crimson red of the liquid armor’s shoulder pad. The black snarling wolf was a perfect match to Wang’s tattoo.

Wang thought we all got tattoos of them, Rizzo signed before he burst out in silent laughter. What an idiot.

“Too soon.” Wang shook his head from his position on the other side of the square armory room. “Be nice, or I’ll push extra hard when I’m shooting you all up with Deborah’s nanites.”

“‘Nanites’?” Riot repeated, looking over to Deborah as she strapped the grenades to her belt on one side and the handle of her molten blade on the other. “What is he talking about?”

“The Syndicate left us a means of communicating with alien races.” Deborah went to one of the many storage racks on the wall and brought back a small, black case. She opened it in front of the squad to reveal five glass cylinders with silver liquid inside, as well as what looked like a small metal gun with a needle-point end. “It’s been checked and double checked, don’t worry.”

“Nobody said anything about needles,” Vet said, shying away from the box. “I hate needles.”

“Wait a minute, let me get this straight.” Riot lifted an eyebrow at the open case in front of her. “This is going to allow us to be able to talk to the Trilords in their language, as well as translate what they’re saying back to us?”

“That’s right.” Wang loaded the first cylinder into the needle gun. “Who’s first?”

Nanites? Rizzo spelled out the word. Like robots?

“Like tiny robots that will attach to our eardrums and throats translating what we hear as well as what we mean to say.” Deborah sidled up to Wang and exposed her neck as if she were giving a vampire the okay to take a bite. “Come on, I thought you were all a group of tough Marines, It’s—”

While Deborah was talking, Wang leaned in and, without hesitation, sunk the needle into the side of her neck. It disappeared into her soft white skin. Wang pulled the trigger of the needle gun, sending the metal-like liquid into her body.

“Ahhh!” Deborah winced. “Okay, maybe it hurts a little.”

“Well, since we’re so tough, I think we should be able to call ourselves the War Wolves, then, right?” Riot had snuck in the question, already knowing what Deborah’s response would be.

“No, we’re a peace envoy.” Deborah rubbed the spot where the needle had pierced her skin as soon as Wang had removed it. “We’re not calling ourselves anything with war, battle, eviscerate, destroy, or anything else aggressive. Now get your nanites. I’m going to check in with the Bulwark one more time before we go.”

It’s all in your imagination, Riot told herself as she pulled her mind away from conjuring images of tiny steel spiders crawling through her body. You’ve survived worse, and you’ll survive this.


22

My mouth tastes like metal. Rizzo signed before spitting onto the ground of the cargo bay.

Riot understood exactly what he meant. Once Wang had administered her nanites, the metallic taste had also flooded her mouth. It felt like she had been sucking on a metal-flavored lollipop for the last ten minutes.

“Let’s get this show on the road.” Riot looked over to Deborah. “Do you have the plotted course?”

“I do. Checking on air breathability now. Good. Remember, no helmets unless it’s absolutely necessary. We want to create allies with this race, not intimidate them.” Deborah clicked a few buttons on a hologram screen that connected to the top of her left forearm. “Ready? The capital of the Trilords should be three miles from our current position. They will have seen us land, so don’t expect a warm welcome. Let me do the talking when we come in contact with them.”

“Be my guest.” Riot did one last check of her gear. Weapons and supplies ready, her helmet was attached to her lower back just below her supply pack. “Evonne, lower the cargo door.”

“Yes, Riot,” Evonne responded in her chipper Australian accent.

The cargo doors slowly began to descend.

“All right, stay aware. Remember, don’t engage unless I give the order. We’re here to play nice and make new friends, not to start another intergalactic war.” Riot took a step forward. She would never ask her men to do anything she wasn’t willing to do herself. The best leaders led by example. “Let’s do this.”

The cargo door continued its slow descent, but as soon as it reached Riot’s eye level, she was able to see the alien planet span out in front of her like some kind of acid trip.

The jungle was almost an exact replica of what they’d trained in back in the Hazard Room. Dark purple trees and deep green shrubs fought one another for space in the dense jungle. It was a miracle Rizzo had found a place large enough to land the craft at all.

Riot took the first few steps off the ship and down the ramp. So far, gravity felt the same as that of earth. The air was moist, the sounds of alien creatures chirping and squawking overhead and within the jungle.

One of the differences from the Hazard Room to being on the actual planet was the lack of fog on the ground. Riot’s boots sank into the thick, dark soil. She swept the jungle’s interior over and over again, making sure that, at least for the moment, they were still alone.

“On me,” Riot said, and as she swung back to look at her crew, a section of their ship caught her eye. The very back edge had been gouged, deep indentations everywhere, as if the ship had been clawed by the talons of some mammoth monster. Riot had to remind herself that was exactly what had happened. “Evonne, lock up the ship.”

“Right away, Riot.” The AI’s voice sounded loud in Riot’s ear, making her shake her head. “Sorry. Too loud? I’m communicating with you through the nanites.”

“Great.” Riot rolled her eyes. “You’re in our heads now, too. That’s just what I needed.”

“Stay close,” Riot called over her shoulder as the back cargo ramp to the ship closed. “Rizzo, with me; Wang, with the package; and Vet, bringing up the rear, just like we practiced.”

Without a word, Riot’s team fell in line. Riot’s heartbeat was moderate, but it was a struggle not to see red eyes in the shadows cast by the trees. It was only a matter of time before they came across the Trilords. This close to their main city, they had to have already been spotted.

If they were anything like the Syndicate had reported them to be, then they were on their way. Maybe they were already here, watching? The hardest part for Riot was having to remind herself to keep her weapon lowered. Over and over again, her muscles begged to raise her Villain Pulse Rifle and look down the sights.

The group continued on in silence for the next few minutes. Riot wove a path through the jungle, following a map Deborah had sent to her forearm display. Sweat from the humid atmosphere roped Riot’s forehead. Yet another thing the Hazard Room had not prepared them for. The two suns that beat down on the planet were not making their trek through the jungle easy.

A few more minutes in and Rizzo froze beside her. Riot followed his gaze. To their right, a massive dark form stood in the shadows of an outcropping, and in a rush, the form vanished into the underbrush. Riot blinked past the sweat, reminding herself once again not to lift her weapon.

“I don’t think we’re alone,” Wang said as he and Deborah came up behind Riot and Rizzo. “I’ve noticed movement to our right.”

“They’re in front of us and to our left.” Riot caught motion out of the corner of her eye. “Vet?”

“I caught movement behind us, as well.” Vet joined the group, his trigger finger tapping the Longshot that hung in front of his torso, barrel to the ground. “We’re surrounded.”

“All right, Bubbles.” Riot swept her arm in front of her, ushering the doctor forward. “The stage is yours. Woo them with your personality.”

It was clear Deborah was uncomfortable. She licked at dry lips and fumbled with the screen on her left forearm, bringing up what looked like notes. Despite her hesitation, she stepped forward. She looked out into the jungle, preparing herself to speak to the native population.

“To the Trilord people: We are not your enemies. We come in peace, hoping to build a lasting friendship. We do not wish anyone to be hurt, but rather to have both our people grow as we share knowledge, and to plant a lasting relationship. Please, give us a chance to speak with you.”

Riot was still trying to understand how the nanites worked. She could understand everything Deborah was saying just fine, so did that mean the nanites in Deborah were translating her words into the Trilord dialect while Riot’s nanites were hearing these words and translating them back to English?

These were the thoughts crashing through Riot’s mind when a figure in front of the group materialized from out of the jungle. As the figure approached, its features became more defined. It appeared to be a female member of the Trilord race. The creature was easily over six feet tall with hard muscles covering her body. Her black hair was swept back in dreadlocks. Her red eyes searched the group up and down. She wore dark brown, tight-fitting shorts, as well a dark brown tank top that cut off just below her breasts.

In her hand she held a weapon every member in Riot’s squad was familiar with—a long pole with a double-bladed axe head on each side of a blaster barrel that acted as the end of the weapon. The barrel was pointed at them now.

“How do you speak our language?” The woman cocked her head, studying them from their toes to the tops of their own heads. “Where do you come from? Did Remus send you?”

“We come from a planet called Earth.” Deborah lifted her hands up, exposing the bottoms of her palms. “I’ve never heard of a Remus. My name is Deborah. Behind me are my friends: Riot, Rizzo, Vet, and Wang.”

“Hello, hi there.” Riot smiled and waved to the female Trilord. “I like your top.”


23

The weapons you carry.” The female Trilord eyed Riot’s rifle, as well as the rocket on Rizzo’s back. “Drop them.”

“Why don’t you lower yours?” Riot asked the woman.

“Do it!” The female yelled, lifting her own weapon so it was in line with Riot’s face. “Do it now.”

Riot ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth, contemplating her options. But after running down a checklist of possibilities, including gunning the female Trilord down, she realized there was only one viable option. It was the same one she knew she had the moment she had decided to come on this mission.

“Riot.” Deborah looked over to her. “Please.”

“All right,” Riot said, nodding to the rest of her men. “Let’s do it.”

“I never even got to use mine out in the field,” Vet said, deflating as he lowered his weapons to the ground.

Wang placed both his weapons by his feet, followed by his grenade belt, molten blade, and throwing knives.

Everyone waited as he pulled knife after knife from his person. He was like a magician performing an elaborate trick. The throwing knives came from his boots, his back, his sides, and a vest strapped on his chest.

“There.” Deborah waited until he was done and every last weapon was on the ground. “We’ve done as you asked. Please, may we know your name?”

“Kila.” The female head-motioned to the jungle on either side of the group. A dozen more Trilords materialized from the jungle depths. She looked at the male and female Trilords under her command. “Search them, then gather their weapons.”

“The things I put up with when creating intergalactic alliances,” Riot muttered as she laced her fingers behind her head. “Be careful with the goods when you’re patting me down. They’re one hundred percent Made in America.”

This got a snicker from her men. It was exactly what Riot was hoping for. Anything she could do at this moment to take away the humiliation any Marine would feel at losing his weapon and then being searched, she was willing to do.

A brown-skinned male with a heavy, black beard and thick eyebrows strode toward Riot. His head was shaved, and he was built like a tank. He looked as tough as any of the other Trilords surrounding them, but when he placed his battle hammer to the side and began patting down Riot, his hands were surprisingly gentle.

“You’re not my type.” The large Trilord grinned, showing his intimidating canines. “I prefer my women a bit larger.”

“Whatever floats your boat, muchacho.” Riot shrugged. She died a little bit inside as she saw other members in the Trilords’ party scoop up their weapons. “Be careful with those. You don’t want to lose an eye.”

Kila motioned to Vet. “Is that what happened to you?” There was no mirth in her voice as she asked what she thought was a very serious question. “Were you uncareful with these weapons and lost your eye?”

“Something like that.” Vet shrugged.

“May we be taken to your city now?” Deborah asked politely. “We’ve submitted ourselves to your rules. Surely you can see now we mean what we say. We’re here as friends.”

“If that is true”—Kila eyed them for the dozenth time—“then time will tell. You are to be bound by the wrists, and then we will take you to the queen. She will decide what is to be done with you.”

“Tied up?” Wang shook his head in disbelief. “Listen, lady, you already have our weapons, we basically surrendered to you. Unless you mean ‘tied’ as in some kind of kinky way, I’m going to have to take a hard pass on your offer.”

“What is ‘kinky’?” Kila raised her brow. Her weapon lowered to the ground beside her. “I am unfamiliar with this word, and the translation doesn’t sound right.”

“It means sexu—”

“Okay, that’s enough,” Deborah broke in, glaring daggers at Wang. “We’ll submit to your rules, if it allows us to speak with your queen.”

Riot thought giving up her weapon was the hardest thing she had to do, but she was wrong. The same large Trilord who’d patted her down came to her and wove a thick, braided rope around her wrists. Other Trilords did the same to the rest of the squad.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t just kill them now?” one of the other female Trilords asked, looking over Riot and her crew with disgust. “Strangers have not brought us anything good. The others who arrived are the only reason we’re in this war to be—”

“Enough.” Kila glared at her subordinate. “We will let the queen decide what is to be done with them.”

Riot flexed her fingers as she tested the strength of the rope wrapped around her wrists. It was tight, but she could still feel her fingers. If things went sideways, she wouldn’t be able to slip out of her bonds. Her mind was already thinking of a strategy to get free if things did go bad.

Worst case scenario, she’d go for the nearest Trilord carrying a bladed weapon. A quick, downward motion with her wrists against their blade and she would be free.

“Let’s move out.” Kila nodded toward the other Trilords under her command, as well as to her new prisoners. “If we hurry, we can reach Silna in a few hours.”

The group began their journey, with Kila in the lead. Riot and her group were flanked on either side as well as being followed by the bulk of the Trilord soldiers. As they trekked through the dense jungle, the dual suns began to lower behind the canopy of trees.

Strange birds ranging from the size of hummingbirds to eagles floated by or came to rest on tree branches to gawk at the group of travelers. One massive, green bird with a tiny head and bulging eyes squawked at them. The noise sounded almost human in Riot’s ears.

Riot and Deborah followed directly behind Kila. It didn’t surprise Riot in the least that Deborah took the opportunity to speak with the Trilord leader.

“You said there were other visitors to the planet?” Deborah looked at Riot with wide eyes. “There’s a war going on?”

Riot knew they were thinking the same thing. Were they too late? Had the coming force the Syndicate warned them about found Hoydren already?


24

Where exactly did your ship land?” Kila asked in return. “If you want answers, then you must give answers in return.”

Deborah looked over to Riot with a question in her eyes. Riot couldn’t see the harm in telling them. Their ship was locked up tight. She nodded.

“We’re a mile or two into the jungle, from where you found us.” Deborah had related the information to Kila’s back as the Trilord continued to make progress through the jungle. “Now, what war are you talking about?”

Kila looked over her shoulder for a moment. She shrugged to herself before looking back. “I will have you know that if you are spies, I will gut you myself and make a weave of your entrails.”

“I think I saw something like that on Etsy once,” Riot thought out loud as an image came to mind. “Answer the question. We answered yours.”

“I do not know this ‘Etsy’ you speak of, but I would see it if they create these intestine weaves.” Kila slowed her pace to walk next to Riot. “You are not the first strange race to appear from the sky on steel birds. We have been visited by a group of others, no more than ten nights ago. They came spinning tales of lies. Our queen was wise enough to see through them. The Brutes were not.”

Riot understood from her hours of studying the detailed information the Syndicate left that the planet of Hoydren was ruled by two factions of the Trilord race: the Savages and the Brutes. As far as she knew, these two kingdoms were at peace with one another, but it seemed someone wanted them to wipe each other out.

“Who are these Brutes?” Riot asked anyway. She understood this was the next logical question she should ask. “Who are the strangers?”

“I’ve said enough.” Kila shook her head sending her long dreadlocks skittering in a waving motion. “You will have your answers from the queen soon. That, or she will order your heads removed. Either way, things will be settled.”

“Great, I can’t wait to meet her.” Riot smiled, unwilling to show fear. “She sounds like a blast.”

Kila took them weaving in and out of the jungle interior, along hidden paths known only to the Trilords who lived in that area, as well as a few wider, more well-trodden paths through the jungle. Riot understood what Kila was doing an hour into their march.

The Trilord leader was taking them around and looping back to paths they had already crossed to confuse them. If Evonne wasn’t in her ear at a moment’s notice, Riot may have even felt bothered by not knowing which way to go to get back to the ship.

Tired, sweaty, and hungry, they were all finally led onto a dirt road, and the other Trilords around them breathed a sigh of relief. Riot followed their gaze. Up the sloping road stood a massive city on a hill. Dark cream bricks formed a surrounding wall and dead center in the hill was a pyramid.

The pyramid looked like the ancient Inca or Mayan structures Riot had seen in pictures. Each level was a wide square base, and each base grew smaller and smaller as it stacked on its fellow counterparts, creating the form of a pyramid.

“Holy pyramid on an alien planet,” Wang breathed as the group was ushered up the road. “This is gnarly.”

Riot looked back to see Rizzo giving the hand signs to Wang despite his bonds: Join the Marines, and they’ll show you the universe.

In a city large enough to hold thousands of inhabitants, the road was empty. Riot looked down to confirm her suspicion. Both boot marks and wheel indentations were made in the first road, meaning it was still used, just no one was using it right now.

“Halt!” a booming voice challenged as they neared the wall, which had to be three stories high. “What have you found in the jungle? They look like children.”

“Gunna, open the gates,” Kila shouted back. “I’m in no mood for your jokes.”

Riot squinted through the gathering darkness to see a wide-shouldered Trilord lean back and give the command to someone below to open the gates.

The gates themselves were nothing more than two thick doors made of heavy wood. They creaked as they swung open, and Riot walked into the city behind Kila. The first thing she noticed was the amount of armed Trilords assembled at the city entrance, as well as along the walls, where the light of the fading suns cast shadows, making it difficult to see. Now that she was inside the structure, Riot had to remind herself to keep her cool.

More than fifty Trilords glared at her, mostly in distrust, but a few with intrigue. The warriors were male and female alike, all red-eyed and ready to fight. Their scant leather and steel armor reminded Riot of gladiators. Each soldier carried a weapon she had seen in the Hazard Room; all heavy war weapons fashioned around a staff whose point ended in a blaster barrel.

The only weapons that looked as though they didn’t possess some kind of projectile weapon were the long swords and thick knives clenched in the large paws of the Trilords.

Riot took this all in with a sweep. Kila didn’t stop to speak with anyone; instead, she continued up the long, main road of the city toward the ancient pyramid. As they traveled through the Trilord city, Riot caught sight of smaller Trilord children sneaking peeks at them from the windows or doorways of the many buildings that lined the streets.

Each building looked similar to, but not an exact duplicate of, one another. The same dark cream colored bricks that made up the city walls were also used in construction of the houses. No glass shielded the windows from outside forces, only fabric drapes.

Riot caught one Trilord girl in particular gawking at her from a house on her right. Riot held the child’s look and gave her a wink. A look of sheer terror crossed the little girl’s red eyes. She opened her mouth in shock, showing off her long canines before ducking back into the house.

“Friendly bunch,” Riot mumbled. “Can’t wait to get inside their base without weapons and with our hands tied. This should be fun.”


25

Riot stood with the rest of her squad in a massive throne room. The stone floors were made of large pieces of rock, the ceiling supported by titanic pillars that reached thirty feet into the air.

The journey into the pyramid and through the structure’s interior hadn’t told her much besides the fact that the Trilords weren’t into decoration and the pyramid was much like the TARDIS on Doctor Who—bigger on the inside.

Riot stood, still bound, with her crew. Another half-dozen pyramid guards sporting tattoos of a red dragon on their bare chests now accompanied Kila and the other Trilords who had found them in the jungle.

A gigantic, black throne stood twenty yards in front of them. It appeared to be carved out of one single piece of polished stone. The high-backed wings of the chair had been fashioned to resemble actual dragon wings. A tail came from the back of the chair and wound around the chair’s feet.

“They all got matching tattoos.” Wang motioned with his head to the six stone-faced guards behind them. “They must be really good friends.”

Before Wang could go on, a door opened in the far back of the room. The lit braziers and torches along the walls weren’t quite strong enough for Riot to make out the figure coming forward. By the time she could get a good look at her, the woman was already taking a seat on the throne.

All the Trilords in attendance went down on one knee, their faces lowered to the ground. Riot looked over to Rizzo, who shrugged before following the lead of Kila and those in attendance.

Riot did the same, finding out how awkward it was to get down on one knee with both of her hands tied in front of her. As she went down, she snuck a peek at the queen.

The woman was a queen in every sense of the word. She was tall, with high cheekbones, white hair swept behind her head in a braid. Her skin was darker than Rizzo’s. She wore a long, white skirt and a white top that showed a toned midsection.

Red eyes caught Riot’s own, even as she looked away and lowered them to the floor. For a brief moment, Riot understood how the little girl she saw through the window on the way into town must have felt.

“You may all stand, guests and family alike.” The woman on the throne spoke in a deceivingly calm voice, her tone soft yet firm. “Kila, will you please unbind our new friends?”

Riot regained her feet, looking from the queen to Deborah, not believing her ears.

Was it really this easy? Riot asked herself. Show up on an alien world, meet the queen, and you’re in? No, nothing was ever that easy. More than likely, they were about to be tested and who knew what was in store for them if they failed that test.

Kila nodded to the Trilords under her command. She used one of the sharp sides of her own axe to cut through Riot’s bonds. The blade sheared through the thick rope without hesitation.

Riot massaged her wrists, turning them this way and that. As far as she was concerned, this was Deborah’s show now.

“You can imagine that your visit has caught us by surprise.” The queen tried a smile, but failed. For the first time, Riot noticed the weariness on her face. Bags hung under her eyes, her head was even tilted slightly down as if she were struggling to keep it up. “We have only been visited by strangers once before, and it didn’t go well. I would hear your intentions.”

“We are from a planet called Earth.” Deborah took a small step forward, opening her hands in a sign of friendship. “We’ve come to share knowledge and build lasting bonds between our people and yours.”

The queen perked up at the mention of sharing knowledge. It was clear to Riot that the queen was fishing for something. Whether it would end in friendship or with their heads removed from their bodies was yet to be seen.

“Your words sound true enough.” The queen looked over to Kila’s force who still carried the Marines’ weapons. “Forgive me if I do not jump at the opportunity to ally with you. We have been visited by other strangers who spoke similar words. Now my only son lies wounded and dying because they were liars.”

“I’m unaware of who these other strangers are.” Deborah took a moment to gather her thoughts. “I understand that everything we have to say now is only words. I just ask you to give us the opportunity to prove to you that we are allies.”

Riot was wondering if Deborah was going to share the portion about the darkness that was supposed to destroy the Earth and the universe as the Syndicate had foretold, but Deborah seemed to have forgotten this part for the time being. Riot couldn’t blame her.

When you’re making friends for the first time, the last thing you want to start with is a conversation about how the universe is being demolished.

“If you are being honest, there may be a way for you to prove yourself.” The queen brightened as an idea came to fruition. “My son has been grievously injured in the initial fight that has brought us to open war. Would you be able to heal him?”

Deborah looked behind her, first to Riot, and then to Wang. Without consulting either of them, she nodded. “We will do everything within our power to help him. Our knowledge of medicine is greatly advanced.”

“Kila.” The queen motioned to her soldier. “Will you take them to see Ketrick?”

“At once.” Kila stood straight and motioned them forward. “Follow me.”


26

Their journey to the prince’s chamber was much the same as when they first entered the pyramid—long, high-ceilinged halls, no decoration, and a heavy military presence.

Riot and the others were led to a room on the fourth level of the pyramid with a comfortable-looking bed. The frame was made from dark wood, the mattress covered by multiple animal furs.

A muscular man who looked like he could have been in his early thirties lay sweating in the bed. His long, black hair and short, black beard glistened, and tattoos covered a large portion of his body from his massive biceps to his chiseled abs.

Torches set in the wall at various intervals gave the room light. The queen, Kila, and her group of warriors, as well as Riot and her squad, squished into the room.

“If we may have some space to work and your permission to examine him”—Deborah looked to the queen for consent—“we can have a few of our own step outside, if that makes things less tense.”

The queen removed sad, tired eyes from her son’s still form. She nodded to Kila. “Send your men to wait outside. If they were going to try anything, they would have done so by now.”

“Queen Revna…” Kila’s tone already said she was about to protest. “If I am to protect you, I—”

“Do it.” The queen’s voice was neither angry nor loud, only matter-of-fact. “Now.”

“Vet, Rizzo.” Riot looked over to the two members of her squad unable to help in the current moment. “You two wait outside, as well.”

“Roger that,” Vet said.

Rizzo nodded and gave a peace sign before following Vet out of the room.

“With your permission?” Deborah looked to the queen. “We’d like to examine him.”

“Of course.” The queen nodded her consent. “Our healers have tried everything they could, but the fever hasn’t broken. He sustained the injuries two days ago in the first fight with the Brutes and strangers.”

There were literally a dozen questions Riot wanted to ask, but she understood this was neither the time nor the place. Right now, all that mattered was getting the prince healthy, and in doing so, completing their mission in securing an ally.

Deborah and Wang moved to the bed. Wang pulled down the furs to reveal a long string of bandages wrapped around Ketrick’s right thigh. Deborah and Wang began to gently unwrap the wound to get a better look at what they were dealing with.

Ketrick mumbled something in his sleep. He jostled slightly, his red eyes fluttering open then closed again.

Deborah and Wang continued to work in the light of torches. As they unwrapped the wound, a rotting smell began to seep from the injury and drift to their nostrils.

Riot forced herself not to cringe at the stench.

Deborah finally pulled the last piece of soggy fabric from the wound, and Riot’s stomach clenched. The only thing cementing her to her spot was her experience in the field. She had dealt with her fair share of wounded soldiers when the Syndicate had first attacked.

She had seen open wounds before. This one, however, took the cake. Ketrick’s right thigh was split open from the top of his hip down to his knee. A long, ugly cut penetrated so deeply, Riot could see the white of his femur.

To Wang’s credit, he didn’t flinch at the stench or at the sight of the lesion. Deborah looked a little green around the gills, but she didn’t step away or vomit.

“It’s infected.” Wang probed the area around the laceration with his hands. “His whole body is burning up, trying to fight off the toxicity.”

“He’s weak.” Deborah took his right wrist in her hand. “He’s lost a lot of blood. Heart rate is slow.”

Out of nowhere, Ketrick sat up in his bed. He stared right at Riot with wild, red eyes. “The Valkyrie! The Valkyrie has come for me.”

Riot held the gaze of those red eyes. Something unlike she had ever felt before frightened her. She had to remind herself she was a Marine and didn’t get frightened, though while she was telling herself this, a tingle ran down her spine.

The queen rushed to her son’s side. “Ketrick! Ketrick, can you hear me?”

Ketrick’s eyes were only fixed upon Riot, until he fell back into a fitful sleep.

“Can you help him?” Kila asked from behind the queen.

“We can.” Wang looked to Riot, then to the queen. “But we’ll need the tech we carry on our ship and we’ll have to go get it now. I don’t … I don’t know how much time he has left.”

The queen’s gaze pleaded her case as she looked from Kila to Riot. A war was going on behind her crimson eyes—on the one hand, if she did nothing, her son would surely die; on the other, if she trusted these strangers, they could kill her son.

“Take him to your ship and save him,” the queen replied, standing, a fire burning in her eyes. “If you can heal him, you’ll have the help of me and my clan for an eternity.”

“What happens if we do all that we can and it’s still not enough?” Riot replied, crossing her arms, holding the queen’s look. “What then?”

“Let’s not think that way,” the queen answered, leaving the room, barking orders to the Trilords who waited outside.


27

I’m going to need something to eat some time soon, Rizzo signed in the light of the giant moon that orbited Hoydren’s nighttime sky. When’s the last time we ate?

“We just missed dinner,” Riot said through the dark. Although she was feeling her own stomach grumble, they had been through much worse. “We’ll get Ketrick onto the ship and stable, then we’ll worry about food, and showers.”

Riot looked to her left, where Vet strode beside her. The rank smell of sweat on a dirty body wafted off him almost as badly as the infected wound came off Ketrick.

“Vet, when was the last time you showered?”

“Why would that matter?”

“Just answer the question.”

“Okay, what day is it?”

“What?” Riot looked at Vet with raised eyebrows. The silver of the moon glistened off his metal eye patch. “Why would it matter what day it is?”

“I schedule my showers so I don’t forget.” Vet looked at Riot like she was crazy. “I check my calendar every morning and it tells me if it’s a shower day or not.”

“Why wouldn’t you just take a shower every day?”

“Why would I do that?”

“Oh, I don’t know, because you sweat and get dirty?” Riot couldn’t believe what was coming out of Vet’s mouth. She knew her friend had issues, but this was taking things to another level. “Vet, seriously?”

“Maybe you sweat and get dirty every day, but I don’t,” Vet said matter-of-factly. “I only take showers when I’m dirty, or if it’s a scheduled shower day. Besides, it dries out my skin.”

Riot was about to continue the conversation, when a moan from the stretcher in front of her broke her concentration.

“We’re not done with this.” Riot shook a finger at Vet. Instead of waiting for a reply, she quickened her pace until she walked beside Wang and the stretcher carrying the prince. “How is he?”

Two Trilords carried the stretcher on which Ketrick lay motionless. Only a moan came from the injured prince every so often to signal that he was even alive. The main force of Kila’s unit walked in front, then came Riot’s group and the stretcher, followed by two more Trilords bringing up the rear.

“He’s one tough son of a gun.” Wang looked over to his right, shaking his head in wonder. “I don’t know if it’s because of his size, race, or something else, but I’ve never seen anyone live through an infection this bad.”

“Do you know what made the wound?” Riot glanced down at Ketrick’s wrapped leg. “I’ve never seen anything like that. It was so clean and deep, right down to the bone.”

“Beats me.” Wang nodded toward the Kila. “We’ll have to ask their fearless leader, or Ketrick when he wakes up. I really wish they would have given us our weapons back.” He glanced around the dark jungle. “This place gives me the creeps.”

Riot understood exactly what Wang meant. She felt it, too. Despite the giant moon in the sky casting down its silver light, she couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being watched, although stalked would have been a better word for it. The thick jungle interior and alien wildlife didn’t help; vines hung from trees down to bushes, playing with Riot’s imagination, while creatures chittered and cackled to one another as if sharing an inside joke.

Riot noticed a tiny creature the size of a squirrel, eyes bulging from their sockets, stop to gawk at her. A tiny mouth with jagged teeth dropped open before it scampered up, entering a copse and running up a tree.

Regret at not asking Queen Revna for their weapons back grew inside Riot as they continued to walk back to the ship. Something that had begun as speculation became more and more real by the second, and a sixth sense Riot had developed over the years kicked in, a gut feeling that told her that something was wrong.

As if to add emphasis, the caravan stopped. Kila exchanged quick words with a scout who had run back to the main party. Riot was too far away to hear the exchange, but their rushed tones and hand gestures told her all was not well.

Instead of waiting with the others to be told what was happening, Riot pushed her way to the front. The Trilord speaking with Kila was the red-eyed soldier who had frisked and tied Riot earlier that day, who she now knew was called Hemming.

The soldier’s large eyes were excited about something as he continued his report. “More like fifty. We’ll be outnumbered five to one.”

Kila’s eyes narrowed at the news.

“What’s going on?” Riot made it to their sides. “Trouble?”

“The Brutes have decided to claim your ship for themselves.” Kila rolled her shoulders in anticipation of the fight to come. “With them, they have brought the strangers. We’ll be greatly outnumbered if we choose to fight.”

“Maybe not,” Riot said as her mind worked on overdrive. Ketrick was on death’s doorstep and he needed the medical aid their ship promised. Their safety, along with the success or failure of the mission, rested on his health, so the only viable option was making a run to the ship. “I know how we can even the playing field.”

“Explain.” Kila looked at her with curious eyes. “I’d like to hear your idea.”

By now, everyone had gathered around the group, with every head, human and Trilord alike, tilted in to hear the plan.

“We have to go forward. We can’t chance that Ketrick will survive long enough to call for help or turn back.” Riot looked at as many of the red eyes in the circle as possible. “Agreed?”

Many shook their heads, including Kila and Hemming.

“Then we’ll have to go through.” Riot took a deep breath, ready to relay her plan. “I know we may look smaller than you, our eyes aren’t red, and we don’t have fangs like werewolves, but my men and I are the fiercest warriors on our planet. Let us help you, and together, we can get Ketrick on our ship.”

When Riot told them she and her men were the fiercest warriors on Earth, a dozen pairs of red eyes swung toward Deborah with surprise.

“Everyone, but her,” Riot added, glancing at Deborah, who stood opposite Wang next to the stretcher. She still looked like she might throw up from the smell of Ketrick’s wound. “No offense, Bubbles.”

“None taken. Just get us on that ship, Riot, and hurry, because his heartbeat is slowing,” Deborah replied, whispering the words, trying to suppress the urgency in her voice.

“All right.” Riot took a knee in the rich, brown soil. “Let’s talk about how we’re gonna make it back to the ship.”


28

Your people are small, but you have stones the size of oxenheim,” Hemming said from Riot’s left. “Oxenheim, I say.”

Riot looked over at Hemming, then to Kila, confused.

“You don’t have oxenheim on your planet?” Kila asked with a raised eyebrow. “Large, bloated creatures, good for their meat and work?”

“Nope.” Riot shook her head. Thinking of meat made her stomach rumble. What she wouldn’t give for a nice, juicy steak. “But after we get Ketrick help, we need to talk about food.”

“I agree.” Hemming clapped Riot on the shoulder so hard, she almost fell. “Be assured when our prince stabilizes, there will be a celebration feast the likes you have never seen before on your planet of Mirth.”

“Earth,” Riot corrected. “It’s pronounced Earth.”

“That makes more sense,” Hemming mused as the three continued their trek through the jungle. “You are not a joyous people.”

“Shhh,” Kila warned, crouching as they caught sight of lights through the jungle foliage. “I can hear them now.”

Riot crouched down, squinting through the dark. Although the Trilords had taken their weapons, Riot’s helmet was still attached to the clip on the small of her back. With Kila’s permission, she had instructed her squad to don the helmets before she left. Riot unattached hers and placed it on her head.

“Impressive,” Kila breathed beside her as she admired her armor. “You look like a warrior from our stories of old.”

Riot nodded. She was already making use of her helmet’s infrared abilities as she examined the enemy unit. Hemming wasn’t far off in his estimation. Her heads-up display outlined forty-seven Trilords of the Brute clan, along with a more slender figure that had the name “Karnayer” above it.

They carried the same kind of weapons as the Trilords of the Savage Clan, the kind Riot and her squad had trained against in the Hazard Room—all brutal hand-to-hand weapons that were also capable of firing from the weapon’s end.

Forty-seven heavily armed targets and an unknown entity in the Karnayer, against Kila’s dozen Trilords and Riot’s War Wolves. The playing field seemed pretty even to Riot. She would have been even more confident in the success of their operation if she and her men had been given their weapons back.

“Hey.” Riot motioned with her chin to the long, double-bladed axe-blaster in Kila’s hands. “What about giving me a weapon before oxenheim excrement hits the fan?”

At first, Kila looked confused at the analogy, but whether she understood what Riot was getting at or just refused to give the words any extra thought would remain a mystery. Kila motioned with her chin to Hemming. “Give her your war hammer.”

“It’s only a secondary weapon in case of an emergency.” Hemming pulled out a weapon from a sheath he carried on his back. “I let my daughter play with it.”

Hemming handed the heavy weapon to Riot. It was a thick, metal staff that came to her waist. On one end, a blaster was set between the head of a war hammer and a thick spike that curved slightly down, resembling a giant fang.

The weapon felt both heavy and comforting in her hands. Riot swung it a few times to get a feel for the weight.

“There’s a trigger set into the edge of the handle,” Kila pointed out. “Push the button on top of the handle and the trigger will slide out for you to pull. You can pull the trigger continuously without fear of the weapon overheating. If you hold down the trigger, it will give you a few seconds of nonstop fire until the weapon overheats and needs to cool.”

“But by that time we’ll be on top of them, and you can put that hammer and spike to good use.” Hemming winked at Riot. “Are we ready?”

“Let me listen for a moment before we head in.” Riot tuned a control on her forearm that adjusted her heads-up display. Her helmet’s audio capabilities picked up on the conversation taking place in front of them.

A large, yellow-eyed Trilord from the Brute faction was speaking with the slender alien guest. “Why must we wait? Let’s just take their ship and be done with it.”

“A fair point, Lord Boris,” the slender alien answered the Trilord leader. “However, in battles, weapons are only a portion of the upper hand. We need information on who came to visit your enemies, what they want, and what they are capable of.”

The Brute leader mumbled something Riot couldn’t hear. She edged forward to get a better look at the force standing between her and her ship. It was one thing to have the heads-up display in her helmet telling her how many and what kind of enemies stood in front of them, it was another thing to actually see them.

The enemy force had lit fires around the ship. The Trilords stood in a staggered circle around the craft, their muscles bulging, weapons ready and begging to be used. They resembled the Savage Trilords very closely in size and appearance, the main difference being their yellow eyes and lighter hair.

The Savage race of Trilords Riot had encountered thus far had red eyes and hair that was mostly either black or dark brown. The Brute race was mostly made up of yellow or even red hair.

What caught Riot’s eyes the most was the new alien who stood beside what Riot guessed was the Brute leader, Boris. Boris was a large Trilord, six-and-a-half feet tall with a red beard that was already greying.

Next to him was a slender alien with light blue skin and long, white hair. This must have been the Karnayer. The alien was human enough, despite his skin and pointed ears that made Riot think of an elf. He was about six feet tall and wore a long-sleeved coat that buttoned down the front to his booted feet.

How he was wearing something like that in this heat was impossible for Riot to wrap her head around. She was burning up in her suit, despite the late hour of the night. She’d have to get Vet on creating a cooling system for the armor, but that was a different conversation for another time. Right now, she needed to have her head in the game.

“Ready?” She looked over at Kila and Hemming. “Let me take the lead.”

Kila and Hemming both nodded in response.

Riot stood from her crouched position, making sure the blaster end of her weapon was pointed down. She didn’t want to tip her hand too soon. Kila and Hemming moved with her. The noise they made as they came through the forest immediately alerted the Brutes around the ship.

The next moment an army of weapons was pointed at Riot and her companions. Riot clenched her jaw as, once again, she was forced to play nice … at least for the time being.

“You’re in the way of my ship.” Riot looked over at the craft, and then back to the Brutes surrounding it. “I’ll ask you once, and even ask once nicely, to move.”

“Who … what are you?” Boris stepped forward, glaring at Riot. He held a shield with a blaster set in the middle, along with a long-edged weapon with teeth on the blade that made it look like a cross between a chainsaw and a sword. “This is our ship now. I’ve claimed it in the name of the Brute faction.”

“My name is Master Sergeant Riot. I’ve come from a planet called Earth. You can’t just claim my ship.” Riot nodded to the slender Karnayer who stood back behind the bulk of the Brute force. “No matter who your fancy new friend is. Now move aside.”

“Or what?” Boris looked behind him at his men with a roar of laughter on his lips. Spittle flew from his mouth as he cackled in the light of the fires. “Or what will you do, tiny Earth Riot?”

Riot waited until the laughter from Boris and his men had died down. She waited a moment longer to make the silence uncomfortable before she spoke. Riot was a product of the Marine Corps and she wasn’t about to back down from anyone, not on this planet or any other.

“Or I’ll end you,” Riot finally replied as she stared through the eyes of her helmet at the Brute leader. “I’ll end you where you stand.”


29

Why you little bi—”

“Lord Boris.” The Karnayer who had remained quiet up until this point moved forward to stand next to the Brute leader. “May I make a suggestion?”

“What?” Boris’s yellow eyes never left Riot. A vein the size of a rope pulsated on the side of his neck. His jaw muscles tensed in anger. “You heard how she spoke to me. That, and for approaching with our enemies, she deserves to die.”

“Of course, you are right, and perhaps that will happen.” The Karnayer showed the palms of both hands as he tried to placate the seething warlord. “But maybe there’s another way.”

“What way, Remus?” Boris finally tore his eyes away from Riot to look at the man beside him. “Speak plainly for once.”

“Maybe she has valuable information.” Remus had lowered his voice to just above a whisper. Only with the aid of Riot’s helmet was she able to pick up the conversation. “Maybe before you kill her, we find out more about her planet and her people. Maybe once we conquer Hoydren, this Earth of hers will be next.”

Riot allowed the scene in front of her to take a backseat to reading the information in her heads-up display across her visor. The rest of the Trilord unit and her squad had made it to the right of where she, Kila, and Hemming stood. It would still be a hundred yards or more of a sprint for them to reach the ship, but it was the best shot they would have.

“Hey, if you girls are done whispering, I have an appointment to keep.” Riot readied herself. Every one of her muscles felt tense, and adrenaline surged through her. “You two make a cute couple, but it’s time for me to go.”

“Insolent fool!” Boris shoved Remus behind him, giving in to his temper. “Kill them! Kill them all!”

“Click! Click!” Riot shouted into her helmet.

“Boom!” Vet and Wang responded over the comms.

A red word came up in their heads-up display from Rizzo’s keyboard on his arm. BOOM!

THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!

Yellow laser fire was traded between the two factions as the rest of the Trilords led by Rizzo and Vet erupted from the tree line to the right. Outnumbered and outgunned, Riot had understood their chances of survival had rested on surprise.

Yellowish bolts of energy from the Brutes around the ship struck Riot on her right shoulder and left leg. It felt like being hit with a rubber bullet. Luckily, neither of the blasts made it through the layers of her armor. Hemming wasn’t so lucky, though; he took a shot to the gut and doubled over on the ground next to Riot.

As soon as the initial barrage of fire had fallen over Riot, Kila, and Hemming, a slight hesitation swept over the group of Brutes as they pivoted to meet Rizzo, Wang, and Vet with the rest of the Savages. Riot seized the opportunity as she unloaded with the war hammer.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

She fired it like a mini-gun. The weapon felt good in her hands, with the barrel warming and Riot stalking forward. She danced between incoming fire, sweeping her gun, dropping the enemy in bunches. She blew out the neck of an attacking Brute fighter on her left, then skull-capped another who advanced on her right. Left and right, she squeezed off shots, screaming, urging the others to carry the fight to the enemy.

“Evonne!” Riot shouted into her helmet. “Lower the cargo bay ramp, pivot to let Rizzo and the group approaching with him inside.”

“Roger that, Riot.” Evonne’s calm voice was a perfect contrast to the eruption of chaos all around the battlefield. “Lights on. Moving to intercept the approaching group.”

Shouts crossed once more through the Brute forces as they paused again in awe of the metal craft lighting up the battlefield and now rolling toward the approaching Savage Trilords and the strangers from another planet.

“Ahhh!” Kila took a blast in her thigh and stumbled.

Riot had a choice: go back and help the injured Trilords behind her, or continue on. She was close enough to the ranks of the Brute fighters to see the fear in their beady yellow eyes, a well-known look from her enemies. They were on the verge of breaking.

Still, she knew she had to go back, and so she darted backwards, acting as a shield for the injured Kila and Hemming. The barrel of her weapon glowed red. Riot released the trigger, allowing the blast to cool down.

Smoke rose from the end of the blaster barrels across the war zone. The main group of the Brute force was maneuvering and trying to find cover in the face of the Savage Trilords who carried Ketrick toward the ship. To their credit, the much smaller Savage force fought like men and women possessed. Where warriors from the two groups stood close enough, their weapons were turned from blasters to blunt instruments.

“Get up!” Riot screamed over the roars of the clashing warriors and the sounds of firing blasters. “For your lives, get up and get to the ship. I’ll cover you!”

Kila limped to where Hemming held his right hand over a wound on his stomach. Together, the two managed to regain their feet and start limping toward the ship.

Another round struck Riot on her left shin, and the blow forced her to a knee. A second glanced off her right shoulder, and a searing hot sensation stabbed through her shoulder into her back.

“RAAAA!” Riot shrieked, ignoring the pain while simultaneously loosing another wave of yellow blaster fire at the Brutes. “Come and get it, you sons of oxenheim!”

Riot struggled back to her feet, wishing she had a grenade or another explosive to use on the clumped-together Brutes. The first good piece of news came through her heads-up display in red text from Rizzo.

Prince is secure aboard Peace Envoy One. That’s so ironic right now.

“Rizzo, get those guns up and stop talking about irony, you son of a—”

Riot didn’t get to finish her thought. Even as she struggled to her feet and walked sideways to block Kila and Hemming, a silence fell over the Brute force. Riot searched the faces of her enemy, trying to figure out what they had heard to make them pause yet again.

The Savage force had taken up a defensive position at the back of the open ship. Those who remained looked up into the sky. A moment later Riot heard it, too: the sound a flock of birds—an impossibly large flock of birds—makes as it descends to the ground.

A shadow blocked out the moon a moment later. Riot looked up, not believing what her eyes were seeing for the hundredth time since she landed on Hoydren. She could see them now—two dragons the size of school buses screaming across the sky. One was blue, the other black.

“Rizzo, get those guns up—now!” Riot screamed into her comm. “Vet, we’re going to need as much firepower as we can muster. Break out the big guns.”

“Roger,” Vet yelled over the comm.

Roger, Rizzo wrote over her heads-up display.

Riot caught sight of Remus for the first time since the battle had begun. Things had happened so fast, she’d forgotten she’d even lost track of him. The elf-like alien waved his hands into the air like he was summoning some kind of magic spell over the dragons.

As one, the dragons hovered over the battle scene. Their presence alone caused panic, as well as their massive wings blowing huge gusts of wind at the Trilords on both sides of the engagement. The hovering beasts were close enough for Riot to make out long braces around their necks, ones that glowed a faint green and pulsated up and down.

The same faint ebony color grew in Remus’ hands as he ushered the dragons down. Whether it was mind control, magic, or some kind of alien tech Riot didn’t understand, the dragons seemed to register the commands. Like a pair of comets, they dropped from the sky, one toward the ship, the other toward Riot.


30

The blue dragon dove for the ship. Its mouth, which was large enough to swallow a man, dropped open. Fire gushed out and shot toward the ship as Rizzo angled up the forward guns and let the oversized serpent have it.

The first few rounds struck the underside of its belly, making the creature roar in pain before it broke off its flight. Riot, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky.

The black dragon came for her. The green light pulsated up and down, its steel chain collar like a manic light show. Riot still covered the injured Kila and Hemming fifty yards from the ship, but it might as well have been a mile. Already those Savages who remained were providing what fire they could as they ran to help, but no one was outrunning a dragon.

I can’t believe I’m doing this, Riot thought as she aimed her weapon at the approaching black dragon and opened fire. She walked to meet her death. Come and get it. If you thought this would be easy, you’ve never met a Marine!

Boom! Boom! Boom!

Riot aimed down the weapon’s shaft. Lifting the end of the heavy weapon was harder than she’d anticipated, and her muscles screamed with a burning pain as she hefted the weapon once more.

The dragon opened its gigantic maw, revealing rows of wicked-looking teeth. A dull, red glow crept up its mouth. Riot landed two shot to its neck and another to the inside of the monster’s mouth. The two shots that hit the dragon’s golden collar glanced off. The one shot that made it into its mouth just pissed it off even more.

BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!

The amazing sounds of heavy weapons added their power to Riot’s smaller caliber blaster. Riot glanced to her right as the red blaster fire from the ship, as well as Vet on the Vulcan SP101, slammed into the black dragon’s side. The beast roared in pain before breaking off its attack just a few yards from Riot’s position.

Riot didn’t wait to ask questions. Instead, she sprinted to where Vet kneeled beside the open end of the ship. She lifted Rizzo’s Vulcan and tore into the night sky. Between her effort and the firepower from the ship, the dragons were kept at bay, swirling and avoiding the fire. It was only a matter of time before they would come in for their next attack.

“Vet, did you bring the A9?” Riot asked. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a group of Savage Trilords assisting Kila and Hemming into the ship. “We need to bring that magic-using elf-mother down. He’s the one controlling the dragons.”

“Just inside.” Vet didn’t take his eyes off the sky. “It’s locked and loaded.”

Riot ran up the open cargo ramp to the massive bay that, at the moment, was being used as a place to store the wounded. More than half of Kila’s soldiers were either dead or down for the count.

There was nothing Riot could do about that now, but she could try to end the killing. Riot grabbed the Fire Breath A9. The three rocket tubes made it look like a trinity of RPGs all strapped together. The weapon was heavier than she remembered, but Riot ignored the strain and forced it up onto her left shoulder.

Setting the weapon made her wince in pain, though. The blow she had taken to the opposite shoulder screamed with a burning fire that penetrated to her bones.

Time for pain later, Riot reminded herself as she made her way back outside to the left of the ship. Vet had gone down to a kneeling position. The Vulcan in his hands spewed a light show of red blaster fire through the night sky.

The dragons flew just out of range from the red bolts coming from Vet and Rizzo, who pumped round after round at them, keeping them at bay. When blaster fire did hit, the dragons veered off or roared in annoyance.

“I don’t think our weapons are piercing their scales,” Vet grunted as Riot took a knee next to him. “Their skin is too thick, even for the ship’s guns.”

“Roger that.” Riot aimed the weapon through the heads-up display of her helmet. Frantically, she searched the battlefield for Remus. “I think they’re being controlled somehow. We just have to cut the head off the snake.”

Yellow fire from the Brutes was still being exchanged with the few Savages who remained. What was keeping Riot’s much smaller force from being overwhelmed at the moment was the fear the Brutes had for the dragons.

The Brutes looked frightened as they gazed up into the sky. Not one of them dared charge Riot’s position for fear they would get caught up in the collateral damage.

“Where are you, you son of an oxenheim?” Riot grinned to herself. “Hello.”

Riot caught sight of Remus’ tall figure at the rear of the Brute force. He was swirling his green hands, maneuvering the dragons through the air. Riot locked onto her target, her finger hovering over the trigger of the Fire Breath A9.

As if sensing what was about to happen, Remus broke off his control of the dragons and looked directly at Riot.

“Good night, you elf-looking son of a—” Riot pulled the trigger.

SHHH!

The Fire Breath sounded like a loud whoosh as a red beam exited one end of the three barrels.

Whether it was pure dumb luck, or Remus somehow brought the pair of Brutes in front of him with his magic tech, two unlucky Brute soldiers stepped in the way of the rocket at the last minute.

An explosion rocked the ground as the rocket made contact with flesh and bone. Smoke poured from the A9’s mouth. Riot used her heads-up display to check to see if she had hit her target.

Something that sounded like a horn echoed over the battlefield, blasting a long, single note.

Her heads-up display told her Remus was still alive. A tall, white outline, along with dozens of the bulkier Brutes, fled into the jungle. The dragons overhead disappeared. Riot aimed the Fire Breath at the retreating figures, but they disappeared into the jungle before Riot could fire another shot.


31

How is he?” Riot asked Wang, who was checking the vitals on the Savage prince. “Did he make it?”

“Yep.” Wang nodded down at his sleeping patient. “The Syndicate has another type of nanite capable of repairing the body at extreme speeds. It’s something I’ve been wanting to try on us. Now that it looks like it works, I’d like to inject the squad with them. Imagine that. Won’t work on old injuries, but it has the ability to heal almost as fast as you’re wounded.”

“Sounds like something a superhero would have.” Riot wiped a hand over her sweaty face and grimaced again. Now that the adrenaline was ebbing, it was harder and harder to ignore her shoulder. “How long until he’s awake?”

“Infection is clearing as we speak, and his body is healing now with the aid of the nanites. He could wake up at any moment. I think by morning, he should be able to walk.” Wang zeroed in on Riot’s wounded shoulder. “Want me to take a look at that?”

Riot was so tired, she almost said yes, but groans coming from the rest of the med bay reminded her there were others who could use Wang’s help. He and Deborah were the only two with medical training. Vet and Rizzo would help where they could, but they were just following instructions from the other two.

Riot pulled back the curtain from the small section of the med bay they had set up for Ketrick. The rest of the room was a mess, with all the beds filled by Savages. No one had come out of the conflict unharmed. Five of Kila’s Savages were dead, while everyone else was wounded, including Kila herself.

“No, go help Deborah and the others.” Riot placed her helmet at her feet. “I can take care of my own shoulder.”

“Roger that.” Wang left the room and moved to a table where Kila was holding a large gauze pad to her leg. Hemming lay in the bed beside her, moaning.

Riot looked around the small, curtained-off section she now shared with Ketrick. In the cabinets along the wall was an army of bottles and medicines Riot had never seen.

“When did medicine get so complicated?” Riot scanned the shelves for simple hydrogen peroxide and gauze. “Come on, where are you?”

“What are you looking for?”

Riot jolted, looking over to Ketrick, who’d propped himself up onto his elbows. His red eyes were studying Riot like something was funny. His lips parted in a smile, showing off his canines.

“I don’t know why you’re smiling.” Riot grabbed the bottle she had been looking for and a roll of gauze from a bottom shelf. “You almost died. Your leg looked like a dead possum there for a while, and not even a cute one.”

“Who are you?” Ketrick looked around his curtained room. He listened to the noises coming from the rest of the med bay. “Where are we?”

“Oh boy, that is a lot of information to pack into one conversation.” Riot grimaced as she detached the top layer of her crimson liquid armor to gain access to her wound. “We’re from a planet called Earth. We came here seeking allies. When we got here, we met your mother and found you all diseased and sweaty. We brought you back to our ship and healed you. Oh, and on the way back, we ran into your Brute friends and their ally, Remus.”

Riot winced at the pain brought on by removing her dragon skin under armor. It was almost unbearable, one of those deep, aching sensations that, for some unknown reason, brought a laugh to Riot’s lips.

Down to her sports bra, she was able to get a real look at her wound. The blaster shot that had found its way around the liquid armor and through the dragon skin. It looked more like a burn than a gunshot wound. There was a small amount of dried blood around the front of her right shoulder, but it seemed like the wound had cauterized before it had had the chance to do any serious bleeding.

Riot gritted her teeth, ready to pour the disinfectant over her shoulder.

“Here, I can help.” Ketrick swung his legs over the edge of his bed and rose before Riot could stop him. “If this isn’t some lucid dream and what you said is the truth, then we are allies already.”

“Uh, you’re naked, like as in ‘naked as the day you were born,’ naked.” Riot was trying to get over the shock at the Savage being able to get out of bed, let alone walk. “You shouldn’t be walking, either, in all of your nakedness and all.”

“I’ll be fine.” Ketrick limped to Riot’s side, seemingly unabashed at his own nudity. “You need assistance.”

Riot wasn’t really sure what to do in this situation around a naked, six-foot-seven alien with fangs and eyes that glowed red in the darkness. So, she gave him the bottle and motioned to her shoulder.

“Pour it over the wound to kill any infection. I don’t know if this part is still necessary since it looks like the wound was cauterized with the shot, but better safe than sorry.”

“Understood.” Ketrick accepted the square, brown bottle of disinfectant. “I’ll count down to one before I pour.”

“Really?” Riot was having a hard time looking up at his eyes. His body was a rippling mass of muscle beneath a myriad of tattoos and, now that Riot had a closer look, scars. “Do we have to do a coun—”

“Three, two, one,” Ketrick interrupted.

Nothing happened.

Riot had clenched her jaw and waited for the oncoming pain, though nothing had come. She looked up at Ketrick again, her eyes already telling him everything she was about to say.

Ketrick poured the bottle over Riot’s shoulder.

A fiery stinging exploded across Riot’s shoulder, adding to the pain she already felt from the injury. Unbridled anger at having been played with screamed across her mind.

“What are you doing?” Riot tried not to yell. Still, her words came out louder than she’d anticipated. “What kind of countdown was that?”

“I’ve found in these situations, it’s best to take the person by surprise.” Ketrick smiled at her. If he did register her anger, he didn’t show it. Instead, he reached for the gauze clenched in her hand. “Let me dry and wrap it now.”

“You’re testing my patience, Red Eyes,” Riot allowed him to take the gauze from her hand. “How’s the leg?”

“Much better.” Ketrick wiped off the excess liquid from Riot’s arm and began wrapping the wound. “A little sore, but this medicine you bring from Earth must be powerful. I think I would have died without your help. You must be a fierce warrior, as well.”

“What makes you say that?”

“The scars on your body look as though they have been earned through battle.”

“Oh, yeah. It comes with a life in the Marines.”

“I would hear more of these ‘Marines.’” Ketrick tied the bandage tight over Riot’s wound. “And learn more of you and your people, once we see to the health of the others.”

“Will do, muchacho.” Riot rotated her shoulder, examining the dress job. “Good work on the bandage. Now, let’s get you some clothes before—”

“Oh God, my eye.” Vet had pulled back the white curtain, immediately slapping both hands across his good eye to cover his vision. “I didn’t see anything. Sorry, you two. Master Sergeant, I didn’t mean to—”

“Relax.” Riot pulled the top bed sheet off the table Ketrick had previously occupied and handed him the piece of cloth. “Red Eyes here was just helping me dress my wound. Apparently, nudity isn’t a big deal to our new friends.”

“Oh, it is.” Ketrick accepted the sheet and wrapped it twice around his lower half. “I just wanted to impress the Valkyrie from my dreams.”

Without another word, Ketrick limped past Vet out into the medical bay.


32

Did he just hit on you?” Vet looked as confused as Riot felt. “Never mind that, did you see the size of his—”

“That’s enough.” Riot grabbed her gear from the floor. “What’s the damage report on the ship?”

“Ship’s in fine working order.” Vet stood straight, understanding it was back to business as usual. “Rizzo and the others are helping to stabilize the rest of the wounded.”

“Good, let’s get them back on their feet and see about being able to fly the ship back to their city. If we leave her here, we’re bound to have the same problem again.”

“I’ll speak to Kila about it.” Vet nodded. “So, we’re just not going to talk about it?”

“Talk about what?’

“Those were dragons we were firing at with our alien blasters. That’s insane.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty crazy, but this is our new normal. And we haven’t been given all the pieces to the puzzle just yet.”

“What are you talking about?” Vet looked sideways at Riot. “You think they’re lying to us?”

“Nope, not lying. We just don’t have all the facts.” Riot walked past Vet out into the packed med bay. “Get working on moving our craft inside their walls. I’m going to help out with the wounded, then have a conversation with the prince.”

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

By the time Riot was done helping Wang and Deborah patch up the wounded, the sun was beginning to rise. Riot was so tired and hungry that she almost felt sick. This was normal for life in the Corps, though. She had been trained to look beyond being hungry, tired, and in pain.

With dawn’s light came a lull in the madness. It was decided Vet would go back to Silna with Kila, who insisted she was ready to travel despite her injury. If the pair got into any trouble, Vet could relay the situation to Evonne via his nanites, and Evonne would alert the cavalry.

Vet and Kila left that morning after a brief nap. They would eat their alien MREs on the way. It was just like the freaking Syndicate to introduce them to artificial intelligence, intergalactic travel, and nanites, but leave them eating MREs. The mess hall in the ship was capable of cooking up whatever food they would like, but when it came to traveling on the go, nothing beat a good old MRE breakfast.

Riot was on her way to her room for a shower and then food before the ship would be taken to Silna for their sit-down with the queen. Above all, Riot needed answers. On the top of the list: Who was this Remus, and what did he want? Right behind that question: How was the alien, Karnayer, controlling the dragons?

“I saw you in my fever dreams,” Ketrick said, standing outside Riot’s room, still wearing nothing but his bed sheet from the waist down. He held a white paper bowl in one hand, a plastic spoon in the other. “You looked like a Valkyrie.”

Riot stopped in her tracks. She was too tired to try to figure out what he was doing waiting for her. Half-amused, half-annoyed, she lifted her signature eyebrow.

“A Valkyrie is an angel of death that—”

“I know what a Valkyrie is.” Riot didn’t bother to mask the annoyance in her voice. “What do you want? You’re standing in front of my door. Are you eating oatmeal?”

“Yes,” Ketrick said as he scooped another spoonful of the brown mush into his mouth. “The ghostly voice aboard your ship recommended it as a breakfast food. She said it was one of your planet’s signature dishes.”

“Great.” Riot shook her head. “Evonne, can we please not feed the strays? You give them food once and they’ll keep on coming back.”

“My apologies, Master Sergeant,” Evonne’s voice rang out from nowhere and everywhere at once. “He looked confused in the mess hall.”

“Wondrous magic,” Ketrick said, looking all around him, trying to pinpoint the origin of Evonne’s voice, with no luck. “Are you a sorceress?”

Riot pushed past Ketrick and placed her hand on a square pad. The door to her room whooshed open as soon as it recognized Riot’s unique print. “Listen, I need a shower, and I have to get my own food before we get word from Vet and Kila and head to Silna in the ship.”

“Please, do so.” Ketrick followed Riot into her room as if he were invited. “I will not keep you.”

“Well, I’ve got to take a shower. I move fast, but not that fast, Muscles.” Riot nodded to the door. “Maybe it’s time you take a hint and go.”

“I owe you my life, Sorceress.” Ketrick took a seat on her bed opposite the bathroom. “I would tell you everything you wish to know while you rinse the smell of war from your skin.”

Riot rested her hands on her hips. She wasn’t really in the mood for a stranger to sit on her bed and talk to her while she was in the shower, but she did want answers. If there was some insight Ketrick could give her as to who Remus was, then maybe it was worth putting up with the annoyance. Plus, if she was being honest with herself, Ketrick wasn’t hard on the eyes. How long had it been since she’d had any sort of relationship or had gotten any action? She knew exactly when. The event that had spiraled her into a drinking depression before she joined the Marines. Riot forced the memories from her mind.

“All right, Muscles.” Riot maneuvered Ketrick by his arms and positioned him on the other side of the bed with his back to the bathroom. Her hands didn’t even wrap around half his biceps. “Here’s the deal: you sit with your back to the shower and answer honestly all the questions I have, and you can stay.”

“Agreed, Sorceress.” Ketrick plopped down onto the bed, scraping the bottom of his bowl. “What would you like to know?”

“First, I’m not a sorceress.” And Riot laughed despite her fatigue. “Second, I want to know everything you know about Remus and how he was controlling those dragons.”

“You mean the fire serpents.” Ketrick nodded along with her words, understanding what she was getting at. “I’ll tell you honestly everything I know, although I do not have all the answers myself.”

“Just what you know will be fine.” Riot made her way to the bathroom and left the door cracked so she could still talk with Ketrick. “Who is he?”

The bathroom Riot was given was small but clean. On one side stood a white shower with silver handles, and on the other was a white toilet and sink equipped with a mirror and a cabinet underneath for storage.

Riot waved her hand under the hot water spout. A second later, the shower turned on, spraying glorious heated water onto her tired, sore body. Riot washed as Ketrick told her his impossible story.


33

You are the second stranger we have been visited by in eleven days now.” Ketrick’s voice was distant but still audible over the running shower water. “Remus came to us offering peace and an opportunity. My mother realized he wanted more than friendship. He wanted power. Within the first few days, he revealed his true plan. He wanted to ally with us only to use the fire serpents as weapons.”

As she maneuvered in the shower, Riot was reminded from a half dozen bruises on her body where the Brute weapons had hit her. Her armor had turned the deadly shots into purple-and-blue marks across her skin instead of life-threatening injuries.

Riot scrubbed at her armpits and lathered her hair as Ketrick explained the events leading up to her arrival. It made sense so far, but the biggest question still hadn’t been answered. Was Remus and his race of Karnayers the coming evil the Syndicate had promised, or were they just another bad apple in the barrel that was the universe?

“We hold respect and admiration for the fire serpents that occupy our planet,” Ketrick said, pausing as if he was debating telling Riot what he was about to say next. “I told you I’d be honest with you, so I will. Every few generations, what my people call a ‘judge’ is born. The judge has the ability to communicate with the fire serpents that rule our sky. I am one of those judges. When my mother and I realized what the Karnayers were really up to, we banished them from our planet. We hoped that would be the end of them.

“We were wrong. We should have known they would go to the Brutes and offer them the same lies. Believe it or not, Boris is not a bad leader. His biggest issue is that he’s an easily manipulated idiot. Our clans have gone to war in the past, but for the last century, we have had a peace treaty. Remus went to Boris and the Brutes, promising power if they aided him in capturing the fire serpents.”

“And they did,” Riot finished as she rinsed off the last of the soap and turned off the water. She began to dry herself as she asked the next question on her mind. “How many attacks have the Brutes staged with Remus?”

“I was injured in the first battle by an energy weapon Remus and his kind have. I have never seen anything like it before. It halved my weapon in two and struck me as if it were a steel blade cutting through paper. You and your party participated in the second engagement. Unless I am mistaken, the third battle will take place soon. Boris is not known for his patience.” Ketrick yawned. “I suspect he will attack before the day ends. Remus will be with him, and so will the fire serpents chained to his rule. I’ve heard the others talking about the fight. The fire serpents would not have attacked us unless they were forced to.”

“You’re sure about that?” Riot dressed in her black-and-red uniform. “They didn’t seem too friendly when we arrived in your orbit. Do you know they can fly in space?”

“It is known the fire serpents can fly farther than the heavens,” Ketrick said, turning around as Riot exited the bathroom. “If they did attack you, it was because they perceived you as a threat to their nest or to their young.”

“Probably both.” Riot towel-dried her hair, looking at the massive Trilord sitting on her bed still wearing a sheet. “Come on, I need food, and you need some pants.”

Riot tossed her towel onto the bed and motioned for Ketrick to follow. The Trilord did so without question. His red eyes looked into hers in a way that made Riot look away.

“Listen, Romeo”—Riot exited into the hall—“I’m on a mission from my planet, and that mission doesn’t entail hooking up with the locals.”

“What does ‘hooking up’ mean?”

“It means sex, relations, lying together in the biblical sense.” Riot looked up at Ketrick. “We need to keep the main thing the main thing, here.”

“As you wish, Sorceress.” Ketrick shrugged. “I agree with you. You must learn to contain yourself around me. The main thing, as you say, is to deal with Remus and his Karnayers. They will be defeated, and the fire serpents freed. Then you can have your way with me.”

The Marine and the prince reached the mess hall again, and as they entered the wide room, Riot was still trying to understand if Ketrick knew what he was saying or something was being lost in translation.

The mess hall was filled with benches and tables in the middle. Along the far wall, large screens with meal slots below stood ready. The touch screen had everything from bananas to cheesecake to coffee and sushi. Within seconds of making your selection, your ordered item would be ready in the meal slot below the touch screen.

Riot and Ketrick weren’t alone in the mess hall. It seemed Riot wasn’t the only one seizing her opportunity to grab a bite. Rizzo sat at one of the tables, an extra large pepperoni pizza and diet cola in front of him. He grinned as he saw Riot walk in, and did a double take at Ketrick’s bed sheet skirt.

“Don’t ask.” Riot waved away Rizzo’s questioning eyes. “Diet cola with a pizza?”

Had to draw the line somewhere, Rizzo signed with another grin. Tastes like heaven.

“Yeah, I bet.” Riot went over to the closest screen and ordered enough for a small family. Everything looked good at the moment. “Let’s see: pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, coffee—my God, do I need coffee, hash browns, orange juice, toast, and yeah, we’ll add some fruit in there, too.”

“You speak with your hands?” Ketrick asked Rizzo.

Riot looked back in time to see Rizzo nod.

“Why must he speak with his hands?” Ketrick’s eyes doubled in size as he saw Riot grab her two trays loaded with food and join Rizzo at the table. “And who is meeting you to consume food in such quantity?”

“First, don’t fat shame me, not cool.” Riot chugged her orange juice, then attacked her pancakes like they were her mortal enemy. “Second, Rizzo is a warrior like you and me. He lost the ability to speak against a foe we vanquished from our planet. He’s also the best damned pilot I’ve ever seen. He talks using his hands as a form of communication called sign language.”

“I like it, but strange.” Ketrick leaned in, examining the hand sign Rizzo was showing him at the moment. “What does this one mean?”

Riot almost choked on her forkful of eggs and bacon. Rizzo had a thick slice of pepperoni pizza in one hand, with the other he was flipping Ketrick off. The Savage prince was leaning in, examining Rizzo’s hand as if he thought it were going to perform a magic trick at any time.

“Uh…” Riot shook her head furiously at Rizzo. They were here to make allies. “That just means hello.”

“Interesting.” Ketrick folded his arms over his massive chest. “You beings from Earth are truly unique.”

“I feel like I could sleep for a day.” Deborah entered the mess hall. Bags hung under her eyes, her blonde hair was a frizzy mess behind her head, and she grabbed at her stomach in mock pain. “I just sent another report to the Bulwark. The whole time my stomach was rumbling. Feed me.”

Ketrick smiled at Deborah and raised the middle finger of his right hand at her. His enthusiasm for the act was confusing.

“Ketrick, why are you flipping me off?” Deborah walked to a screen and tapped in her order. “You know what, on second thought, I don’t care. I just need food and sleep.”

“Eat up and rest while you can.” Riot shoved another load of hash browns into her mouth. “As soon as we get the call from Vet and Kila, we’re off again. How are the Savages faring in the med bay, and where’s Wang?”

“He’s still down there, eating an MRE. He said he’s fine. He actually looks fine. I don’t know what he’s made of, but he has just as much energy as if he’s had a full night’s sleep.” Deborah grabbed her tray of grilled fish and vegetables, and sat down at the same bench with the others. “The injured Savages will all recover, Hemming included. Those healing nanites are worth their weight in gold. I’d like to inject the squad with them in preparation for any injury that may be sustained in the field.”

Riot nodded along as she crammed down her pancakes. She was just partially hearing what Deborah was saying. Her actual thoughts were on Wang. He was still popping pills. She’d have to go talk to him, after Ketrick put on some pants.


34

Riot left Ketrick in Evonne’s care. She would be able to guide him to finding some clothing while Riot talked to Wang. Just like Deborah had said, she found him in the med bay where most of the Savage Trilords were sleeping. Those awake nodded at her in greeting.

She exchanged the act, catching sight of Wang, who studied something against a back table. A microscope in his hands, he hunched over the tool.

“Amazing.” Wang looked up from his work as he heard Riot approach. “Take a look at this. It’s the medic nanites the Syndicate left. I’ve been able to supercharge them. Once we have these in our bloodstream, they will be able to heal the most grievous wounds within seconds.”

“Sweet.” Riot blinked a few times to keep her eyes open. “I’m not here about the nanites, though. I’m here about you. Everyone is dead on their feet, and you look like you just rolled out of hibernation. The pills, Wang, it’s time for you to stop.”

“I’m fine, Riot, really.” Wang looked at her with large eyes as he tried to protect his stash. “I can control myself. I only take them if I really need them. Everyone else can get some sleep while I stay awake. It’s a win-win.”

“Yeah, until you crash, or worse, make a mistake because you haven’t slept in two days. Trust me, I know a thing or two about addiction.” Riot shook her head. “I don’t want to make this a thing. Get some sleep. I would tell you to hand them over, but you’re the freaking medic on board. You have access to those drugs twenty-four-seven. The only way for me to really keep them from you is to lock you up and let you sweat it out.”

“You won’t have to do that.” Wang shook his own head. “As soon as the last dose wears off, I’ll get some sleep.”

“See that you do.” Riot turned on her heel and began walking to her quarters. She stopped and looked back at Wang. “Good job today, Corporal Wang. You and Deborah saved a lot of lives.”

“Thank you, Master Sergeant.” Wang grinned back.

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

When Riot finally did fall asleep, her dreams were not those of rainbows and butterflies. Riot was on a hill, looking out over a sea of Brute Trilords. Their chanting made her insides vibrate. Yellow eyes looked up at her as they prepared to charge.

A scream? No, many roars clouded the sky as dragons came down from the heavens, each one of the different-colored beasts fitted with a collar around its long neck. Behind the gathered force were three alien ships, the likes of which Riot had never seen.

Although she couldn’t see who or what was piloting the crafts, she could guess the Karnayers, and more specifically, Remus, was behind the attack.

“Here we go.” Vet appeared next to her in full uniform, his one eye sad, almost watery. He looked through Riot, at someone else on her other side. “This is for her. Let’s send as many of these freaks to the grave as we can. If it’s our time to die, then it’s our time to die, but we’re not going alone!”

“Aaarrrooo!”

Riot looked to her right, where the rest of the squad stood equipped with heavy battle armor. Even Deborah carried a Villain Pulse Rifle.

The thought that they were talking about her crossed Riot’s mind. Was she already dead and seeing this from some kind of celestial state?

Before she could wake, the battle began. The yellow-eyed warriors surged against the walls surrounding Silna. The Savage warriors were outnumbered and outgunned. The dragons dove down on them, along with the three larger alien ships.

A shadow crossed the twin suns that reigned over Hoydren. Everyone fell silent as a giant, white dragon raced toward the battlefield. A rider carrying a war hammer as long as a lance descended to aid the Savages. A cheer from the people of Silna rose up and echoed into the air. The rider was Ketrick.

“Riot, wake up!” Evonne’s voice blared into Riot’s room. “Wake up!”

Riot’s eyes snapped open, a long line of drool came off the corner of her lower lip. She wiped away the spittle, still trying to wake up from the vivid dream she’d had of Ketrick riding on the back of the dragon.

“Riot,” Evonne’s voice continued from the ship. “You asked to be notified as soon as Vet came into communication with me via his nanites. He has arrived safely in Silna with Kila, and they have received permission from the queen to land the ship inside Silna’s walls.”

“Great.” Riot rubbed at her tired eyes. “How long did I sleep? I feel like I barely shut my eyes.”

“You were down for three hours,” Evonne informed her. “I apologize for yelling; however, since I don’t have any arms, it’s not like I could shake you awake.”

The tone Evonne used, what sounded like a scorned child talking about a toy she really wanted, made Riot think twice. “Evonne, do you want a body to walk around in?”

“Well, thank you for asking.” Evonne paused as if she was thinking, but it didn’t fool Riot. They both already knew what the answer would be. “That would make things simpler.”

“You have body envy?” Riot shook her head, stretching and smoothing down her hair as she exited the room. “Great, I have an addict, a beast man walking around in a bed sheet, and an AI that wants a body.”

“Ketrick is dressed now,” Evonne informed Riot. “Well, at least from the waist down. He still refuses to wear a shirt.”

“Not surprising.” Riot made her way to the bridge. “Tell Rizzo to meet me on the bridge.”

“Right away.”

Riot walked the rest of the way to the bridge in silence. The memory of her dream, the fact that she was dead in her dream, haunting her with every step.


35

You have given me a gift I can never repay.” Queen Revna hugged her son close in the same large throne room where Riot had first met her. “My people will be your allies until the end.”

“Thank you.” Riot stood next to Deborah, the only member of her team who insisted on being present. Wang, Rizzo, and Vet were getting some much needed shut-eye. “With Ketrick healthy, that only leaves one thing on our to-do list.”

“Remus and Boris must be dealt with.” The queen had read Riot’s thoughts. “Together, they make an imposing enemy, but with you at our side, we have more than a chance to curb this uprising.”

“Curb it to what end?” Deborah asked uncomfortably. She was the only one in the room not trained in combat, so she, more than anyone else, would try to find a peaceful solution. “Do you want to kill the Brutes along with the Karnayers?”

“We have had a lasting peace with the Brutes until the arrival of these strangers.” The queen looked to her son in deep thought. “We must drive out Remus and his kind from our world, but I do not think a total extermination of Brutes would be required.”

“Boris is an idiot, not a villain,” Ketrick said, confirming his mother’s thoughts. “We slaughter Remus and his kind first. They are the ones warping Boris and the Brute clan to become our enemy.”

“And if Boris gets in your way like last night?” Riot asked with a questioning stare. “What then?”

“We can’t save the fool from himself.” Queen Revna took a seat in her high-backed throne chair. “If he gets in the way, then we must kill him, as well. Maybe this is an opportunity to finally get the Brutes to bend the knee.”

“Perhaps.” Ketrick pursed his lips. “But he may be too far poisoned with the thoughts of power Remus is feeding him. They are using fire serpents in combat now. The Boris I know respects those creatures as much as I do. He’s being manipulated, there is no doubt.”

“So what’s the plan?” Riot looked from the queen to her son and back again. “Do we wait for them to attack? Do we go out and find them? What?”

As if to answer her very question, the doors to the room burst open. Kila ran in, taking a knee in front of the queen’s throne. The guards in attendance raised their blasters to fire.

The queen waved their weapons down. “What is it, Kila?”

“A large army of Brutes is reported to be coming along the main road toward Silna.” Kila looked up from her kneeling position. “They will be here tomorrow night.”

“How many?” Ketrick was the first to ask the question they were all thinking.

“Ten thousand strong, with the stranger and his ships.”

Again, Riot remembered her nightmare with a shudder.

The room stood quiet for a moment before Deborah spoke. “How can we get rid of Remus without going to war with Boris and his army? If Remus is the true threat and he’s only using Boris, he’s who we need to focus on first.”

“I can challenge him to single combat.” Ketrick nodded, looking to his mother and Riot for approval. “I’ll take him out, then we can finally be free of his lies and manipulation.”

“That didn’t go so well the first time you met him on the battlefield.” Riot shook her head, ignoring the shock on Ketrick’s face. “Oh, come on, we’re all thinking it. You said he had some kind of energy weapon you’ve never seen before.”

“What course of action would you recommend, Riot?” the queen asked with genuine curiosity. “You’ve seen them on the battlefield now.”

All eyes in the room turned to take in Riot’s thoughtful pose. She felt their stares, realizing they were looking to her for direction. Leadership wasn’t anything new to her, but leadership on this scale was. Riot had led her squad into space, and before that, led a platoon against the Syndicate when they’d invaded, but she had never commanded an entire army.

“We find a way to expose Remus.” Riot’s mind was working overtime. “If that doesn’t work, then we fight. We’ll cut our way through the Brute ranks if it means getting to the Karnayer. Maybe if the Brutes see their god bleed, they’ll come to their senses.”

“Peace talks?” Deborah looked at Riot with an open mouth. “That was the last thing I expected to hear from you.”

“Not talks toward peace.” Riot grinned at the doctor beside her. “Talks geared toward exposing Remus so we can kill him. One way or the other, that pointy-eared freak needs to go.”

“That sounds more like you.” Deborah shrugged, looking over at the queen for a consensus. “What do you think?”

The queen in turn looked to her son.

“I’m for killing the Karnayers without having to harm our own kind, if we can.” Ketrick narrowed his eyes in thought. “I can send a messenger to set up a meeting when they arrive tomorrow night. Either Boris will see Remus for what he is and we can kill him together, or he won’t and we’ll kill them all.”

“Let’s hope we can band together and take out the strangers without having to engage in a full-out war.” The queen nodded to Kila. “Send out a messenger and arrange peace talks for tomorrow night. Have the army ready in case things do not go as well as we hope.”

“Immediately.” Kila turned and speed walked out of the room.

“I hate to ask so much of you.” The queen looked to her son with nothing but love in her eyes as she continued to address Riot and Deborah. “You’ve already given me so much, but will you stand with us as our new allies?”

“Of course.” Deborah bowed her head. “We’re with you.”

Riot understood what Deborah was doing—she was solidifying their pact even further now, because one day, in the future, they would call on these same allies with their red eyes and blunt instruments to help them.

“Thank you.” The queen rose. “Ketrick, would you take Deborah to her quarters? I’d like to speak to Riot alone.”

Riot exchanged shocked glances with Ketrick and Deborah. Whatever the queen was about to tell her she had not been expecting.

“Of course.” Ketrick ushered Deborah from the room, shrugging his shoulders as if to answer the question on Riot’s face. “Deborah, please follow me.”

“Behave yourself,” Deborah whispered to Riot as she followed Ketrick out the door.

When the prince and the emissary from Earth were gone, the queen spoke again.

“Good,” she said and smiled a sad smile as she stood. “Now we can speak honestly.”


36

The queen motioned for Riot to follow her. The two women walked through a back door into the throne room. They crossed two halls, then made a right onto an outside veranda. The area was small, with two stone stools and a stone table. The veranda offered the women an amazing view of the city on the hill.

Silna was much larger than Riot had originally thought. The city started at the base of the hill, where Riot had entered the day before. It rose up until it reached the pyramid where they sat now, but it didn’t stop there. It also sloped down the opposite side. From their vantage point, they could see the tops of thousands of homes. Smoke from cooking fires rose from short chimneys, only to be lost in the sky a moment later.

The queen sat beside Riot, as regal as ever. Her long, white hair speaking of her age, her bright eyes warring against the years she had seen. In those eyes, there was also a sadness.

“Riot, I wanted to speak with you alone because you and I are more alike than you think.” The queen smiled at her with a mischievous grin. “Take that as a compliment, or a curse.”

“I’m sure that’s a good thing.”

“Be that as it may, I want you to know that I realize why you are going so far out of your way to help us. To strengthen our alliance, yes, but you know you’ll need the backing of my people one day, as well.”

“Agreed.” Riot didn’t see the point in lying to the woman, even if she thought she could get away with it. “Earth is not in a war now, but we suspect one is coming.”

“I hold to my word; we will help you when you call for our aid.” The queen stopped, choosing her next words carefully. “However, it will more than likely be my son who answers your call. I’m dying, Riot, only the doctors know, and now you.”

“From what?” Riot felt confusion, then a simple idea came to mind. “Let Wang and Deborah take a look at you. I’m sure they have something that can cure whatever it is you have.”

“I’m an old woman.” Queen Revna waved away the idea like a bad smell. “Much older than I look. It’s my time to go. I’ve trained my son well. You’ve already done so much for us, but I’d ask that you look out for him when the time comes. He’s told me how much he respects you.”

“Respects me?” Riot had said the word as if she didn’t know the meaning. “I’ve known the kid for a day.”

“Regardless of the time you have known him, he says that you’re different.” The queen waggled her eyebrows. “I’ve never seen my son like this before.”

Riot felt a hot flush of heat cover her face. She wasn’t the dating type, or the hook up type, or least of all, the get-fixed-up-by-an-alien’s-mom type. Whatever the queen was getting at, Riot wasn’t sure how to respond.

“All I’m saying is, when I’m gone, whether I have a few months left or a few years, look out for Ketrick, now that he is part of your alliance.” The queen smiled as fond memories came to mind. “Ketrick is a great man, but he can be a kind of blunt instrument at times. The ‘attack now and plan later’ type. But I’m probably overwhelming you with information you don’t need to worry yourself with.”

“I … I’ll do my best to look out for him.” Riot wasn’t sure if the queen wanted more, but that was what she had to give at the moment. “We should plan for the meeting tomorrow. I think—”

“We will plan.” The queen rose, motioning Riot to follow. “But right now, you need sleep, and tonight … tonight we celebrate a prince brought back from the brink of death and an alliance that will last for centuries to come.”

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

“Nope, I don’t think I’m going to fit into that. Where’s the rest of it?” Riot looked to Kila with a raised eyebrow. “I’m a Marine, not a supermodel.”

Kila stood in Riot’s room, a plainly decorated square with the usual articles of furniture, a bed against the far wall, a dresser, a mirror, and a large balcony on their left. A small washroom rounded out the essentials for the living space.

At the moment, Riot was shaking her head at the skimpy outfit Kila had brought her. Riot didn’t realize just how much sleep she’d needed. When she awoke, the twin suns had set, and the giant moon now reigned supreme in the sky. Kila had arrived a few minutes later.

“This would be normal celebratory attire.” Kila laid the short, leather skirt, sandals, and what looked like a tube top, onto Riot’s bed. “Everyone will be wearing similar clothing.”

“Yeah, well, Marines aren’t everyone.” Riot shrugged. “I appreciate the gesture, but I’m fine with the clothing I have.”

“As you like.” Kila shrugged, too. “In that case, I can escort you—”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

A horn sounded in the distance.

Riot was on the balcony the next moment, looking for the danger. She was a second away from contacting Evonne via her nanites, when Kila calmed her fears.

“It’s signaling the beginning of the celebration,” Kila said. “The drums and the horn are letting everyone know the feast is about to begin.”

“Right.” Riot felt her heart rate slow and the tension in her shoulders release. “Well, let’s go party. I’m starving.”


37

Are you freaking kidding me?” Riot and Kila met the rest of the War Wolves at the base of the pyramid before they went out to enjoy the feast. “What are you wearing?”

Wang, Deborah, and Rizzo had remained in their uniforms. Vet, on the other hand, was shirtless with a leather skirt and sandals. If he was worried that he was the only one not in uniform, he didn’t show it.

“Ketrick brought it to me.” Vet shrugged, flexing his own muscles as he did. “He said we were all going to wear the same thing to fit in.”

“Corporal Mohammad Vetash.” Riot shook her head again, trying not to laugh. “Go put some clothes on.”

“Oh, come on, he looks great.” Ketrick walked up to the entrance of the pyramid. He wore shorts and leather sandals. No shirt, as usual. He flipped them off with both hands, a wide grin on his face. “Hello to all. With your permission, Sorceress, I would request that Vet be allowed to wear our traditional clothing.”

“I can change if you want.” Vet looked at Riot with his one good eye. “Say the word.”

“It’s fine.” Riot rolled her eyes. “I just hope you’re wearing underwear under that skirt.”

“Why is he flipping us off?” Wang looked to Rizzo for help in understanding what was going on.

Rizzo just grinned and raised the middle finger on his right hand to Ketrick.

“Please, follow me.” Ketrick lowered his middle fingers and motioned for them to accompany him.

Riot followed the group around the pyramid and to a large, grassy section that sloped up the hill the city of Silna sat upon. Savage Trilords ran to and fro, carrying platters of steaming meats. Riot didn’t recognize any of the food, but the aroma wafting from the dishes smelled heavenly.

Oh, I’m going to have to unbutton the top of my pants tonight, Rizzo signed as he stood on his tiptoes to get a look at a large bowl of something passing that looked like steaks. Hell, yeah.

Ketrick directed the group to three long tables that made a large U. Below these tables, numerous other long, wooden tables were set up in rows. Every table was loaded with massive amounts of food and large pitchers filled with beer and wine.

Hundreds of red eyes looked at Riot and her approaching group. A massive cheer rose up from all those gathered as they walked to the head table where Queen Revna stood waiting for them.

The cheering was so loud, it reminded Riot of a parade more than a dinner. Massive hands clapped and feet stomped the ground.

“We’re freaking celebrities,” Wang said, nudging Deborah in the ribs. “Not too bad, huh?”

“Ow, that hurt.” Deborah rubbed the spot on her ribs where Wang had landed his elbow. “But yes, the recognition from our new allies is nice.”

The cheering continued until Riot and her squad had reached the queen’s side. Ketrick moved to sit next to his mother’s right. Riot was placed on the queen’s left, along with the rest of her squad.

All eyes were on them. The Savage Trilords were not only out in force to show their support, but they were also dressed for the occasion. Long, slicked-back hair and combed beards for the males, along with silver gauntlets and gold chains. The Savage females were adorned with simple yet elegant jewelry in their ears and hair. Some even had piercings in their nostrils and belly buttons.

The air around the scene was alive with gladness and cheer, a sentiment Riot didn’t share. They were less than twenty-four hours away from their meeting with Remus and Boris. If things didn’t go well, they were a day away from war. Still, the people of Silna didn’t seem fazed by that possibility. They laughed and joked with one another, cheered for the strangers who had saved their prince, and clinked large mugs together in celebration.

“Please.” Queen Revna lifted her hands to still the noise. “Take your seats, friends and family.”

The queen wore a long robe of black that was slitted to show off her shapely legs and midsection. A simple silver crown rested on her head. Along her neck was a long chain of silver. Two rings adorned each pointer finger.

The crowd obeyed their queen. A stillness settled over the entire gathering as everyone waited to hear what she had to say.

“For ages, dating back into the very beginning of our history, we have wondered what lies beyond our stars. Now, not one, but two strange visitors have answered that question. While one seeks to destroy us, the other offers a hand in friendship. A friendship that has saved my only son, and a friendship that promises a united front. They will stand with us against the Brutes and the visiting Karnayer force. And together, we will overcome any power that seeks to break our alliance.”

A roar erupted again, this one more violent than the first. Large mouths with long, canine teeth yelled their approval. A wildness Riot wasn’t used to danced in the red eyes of all of those gathered. There was no doubt these warriors would fight and die to the last man or woman if they were asked.

“Now”—Queen Revna raised the tall goblet in front of her—“we drink to friendship with Earth and the humans we now call friends. May our alliance last until the last star fades.”

Riot reached for the mug in front of her. It was filled with a slick, brown liquor that smelled like wood varnish. Riot raised the glass with the rest of those gathered, but just set the edge to her lips without taking a drink. She had a long, messy history with alcohol, and this was neither the place nor time to test her resolve.

Riot waited for everyone to lower their drinks before she did the same.

“Now, let the games and feasting begin!” The queen lifted her hands with a smile.

The rest of the night passed with everyone gorging themselves on steaming plates of mystery meat, soft breads, and a variety of alien vegetables, and stuff that tasted like cheese but looked like play dough.

“Whatever this is, it’s amazing.” Riot shoveled another forkful of brown meat into her mouth. “It tastes like a combination of beef and pork.”

“That’s bowvine.” The queen leaned in with a wink. “There, that’s what the animal looks like.”

The queen pointed to under one of the tables, where an animal that looked like a dog waited for scraps. It was stocky, with four legs and wide paws. A canine face ended in a long snout like a wolf’s. Riot shrugged and nodded along, continuing to enjoy her meal. Beside her, Deborah opened her mouth, letting her own bowvine drop to her plate.

“We’re eating dogs?” Deborah whispered to herself as she practically turned green at the thought. “I can’t eat dog.”

“Easy, Bubbles.” Riot nudged Deborah in the ribs. “You don’t want to be impolite to our new friends.”

“Owie.” Deborah rubbed her ribs for the second time that day. “What’s with you people and the poking today?”

Riot stuffed her stomach until she thought she would burst, and then ate dessert. As the night progressed, there was entertainment ranging from knife throwing skills to wrestling matches.

Wang impressed everyone with his ability with the blade, only coming second place to Hemming, who used a massive blade shaped like a boomerang that hit the bull’s-eye every single time.

Ketrick took first place in wrestling. It was truly amazing how fast his leg had healed; in twenty-four hours, he had gone from his death bed to maneuvering around on the ground and body slamming his opponents.

I’m going to have to remember to get shot up with those healing nanites before our next battle, Riot thought around a mouthful of some delicious dessert called “nutbutter,” which didn’t taste like peanut butter at all, but rather a mix between thick cream and strawberries. These aliens know how to eat.

As the evening’s festivities began to wind down, Ketrick approached Riot’s chair. He grinned and offered her his hand.

“Will you accompany me for a walk?” Ketrick didn’t seem embarrassed at all as he asked the question loud enough for everyone at the table to hear. “I would talk with you if you have a moment.”

Wang was off with Rizzo and Hemming, practicing with the boomerang blade. Vet was engaged in a conversation with a group of warriors, explaining to them how their ship worked. Deborah was still poking at her food, trying to figure out what she would eat and what might have looked like a dog or a cat before it was cooked.

“All right.” Riot moved from her seat and followed Ketrick. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a smile pass over the queen’s face. “But just a walk. No funny business. I—”

Riot was about to say more, when a massive form moved in the shadows, and she had to blink twice to comprehend what she was seeing. To the east and away from the celebration where their craft rested, a form nearly as large as their ship itself waited in the shadows.


38

The illumination from the fire pits that had been dug and now burned with a crackling delight did not extend this far out from the celebration.

“Easy,” Ketrick reassured her. “She’s a friend.”

“She?” Riot understood what she was seeing now. A large, silverish grey dragon waited next to the ship. It sniffed the craft in long, drawn out breaths as if it were getting high from the scent. “Oh yeah, you have that whole thing going on where you can speak to them.”

“Yes, I’m a judge, and ‘speak’ is a strong word. More like we can sense each others’ thoughts.” Ketrick smiled through the dark. The dim light caught his white teeth. “Judges only appear to our people when we need them the most. The last judge to come was over a hundred years ago, during a conflict with our enemies.”

Riot examined the gigantic dragon in front of her. Wings folded across its back, and four legs as large as tree trunks supported a thick, scaly body. On one end was a long tail with spikes down the entirety of its spine. On the other end was a thick neck topped with a head as large as a midsize sedan.

The dragon blinked serpent-like eyes at Riot. Although it made no aggressive move, Riot couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable around a beast that could swallow her whole.

“Her name is Vikta.” Ketrick motioned for Riot to keep on following him. “Don’t be scared. She won’t harm you.”

“I’m not scared,” Riot lied. “I’m just cautious around things that can step on me and flatten me like a pancake.”

“Vikta is a special fire serpent.” Ketrick stood next to the dragon now. It lowered its giant head so he could scratch the right side of her jaw. “She can change her size from what you see to something as small as an oxenheim. She’s one of only a few fire serpents able to perform this.”

“She can shrink?” Riot shook her head, trying to wrap her mind around this. “And you’re calling me a sorceress?”

“You don’t have creatures that can change their size on your world?”

“No, not at all. Not even close.”

“Interesting. Come and touch her. She says you’re being a baby.” Ketrick grabbed Riot’s hand before she could protest and pressed it against the dragon’s snout. “There, not so bad, right?”

Riot swallowed hard. Under her right hand, the scales felt like thick, uneven stones. The warmth coming from the beast was pleasant in a strange way. The dragon looked at her through red eyes that reminded Riot of a book she once read called Lord of the Rings, where a single eye could see everything.

“She likes you.” Ketrick left his hand over Riot’s, sending a tingle down her arm. “She likes you a lot.”

“What is she saying?” Riot asked, aware that Ketrick was still holding her hand, but finding comfort in the fact. Comfort she had refused herself for so many years. “Is she rethinking her stance on taking a bite out of me?”

“No, she says you have a strong heartbeat, like a warrior’s.” Ketrick moved his hand down her arm and turned Riot to look at him. “She sees what I see, that you are different from any other.”

“Listen, listen…” Riot shook her head. She pulled her hand away from Vikta and Ketrick. Her emotions were beginning to get the best of her. She felt light-headed. She could feel the warmth Ketrick’s body promised, and all she had to do was go along. She wouldn’t—couldn’t. “You’re a nice kid, and a prince, and you have a great body. Any girl in her right mind would be all over you right now, but I’m not just any girl. I have a mission to finish and—”

“Is that what’s going on?” Ketrick didn’t move to embrace her again. Instead, he gave her her space. A look in his eye said he was just trying to understand. “You’re afraid we’d ruin your mission?”

“No.” Riot shook her head again, trying to calm her racing heart. “I just don’t get involved in these types of situations.”

“I see.” Ketrick stood up straight, nodding along as if he’d suddenly figured out why Riot was pushing him away. “You are promised to another.”

“No, I mean, unless you call the Marine Corps ‘another,’ but no.”

“What then? What happened to you to make you push people away like this?”

All Riot wanted to do in that moment was to walk back onto her ship, pop a few of Wang’s pills, maybe throw back a bottle of Jack Daniels or two, and call it a night. But that would mean taking steps backwards from the person she was trying to become.

“It’s your typical sob story.” Riot rolled her eyes. She massaged her temples with the pointer finger and thumb of her right hand. “God, am I really going to have a heart-to-heart with you right now? I don’t do feelings, as a general rule.”

Vikta cocked her head as if she sensed a very serious moment was about to take place. The dragon went down on all fours and rested her head on the ground between her front claws. Her eyes never left Riot.

“If something haunts your past, you should deal with it.” Ketrick leaned against the craft, giving Riot even more space. “Deal with what is in front of you now. Worry tomorrow for what tomorrow will bring.”

“Yeah, well, that’s easier said than done.”

“I agree, but it can be a way of life. Look at the celebration we just took part in. Those same Savages may be in for the fight of their lives tomorrow if the talks do not turn out well. Tonight, they have forgotten their worries and live in the moment.”

“You’re really going to make me do this, aren’t you?” Riot felt a wave of unease pass over her as she realized she was about to talk about her past. “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

“Nope, not at all.” Ketrick waited for her to continue. His eyes never strayed from hers. “I’ve been told I’m a good listener, and if it helps, I’ll lay my past in the clearing, as well. My father died at an early age. I’m known to be dog-headed, I act first and think later, and I owe my life to an alien from another planet.”

“You don’t owe me anything.” Riot waved away the words as she grappled with the idea that she was, in fact, an alien to Ketrick. “I did it for the mission, if that makes you feel any better.”

“You still saved me.” Ketrick shrugged his massive shoulders. “Your turn.”

Riot took a deep breath.

Why is this so hard? She wrestled with the idea in her head. There was some kind of mental block that made speaking about her past beyond difficult. Just start, just get it over with.

When Riot started talking, she couldn’t stop. It was like looking—no, more like reliving her past. With each sentence, memories long buried pushed their way to the surface.


39

My childhood wasn’t the worst, I wasn’t bounced around from foster home to foster home or anything like that. Compared to a lot of people, I actually had a happy childhood. My mother loved me, that I know from the few memories I have of her. She died in a car accident when I was still young.” Riot paused in her story to see if Ketrick was tracking along with her. There was no way he knew what a car accident was, but he didn’t interrupt her story. “A car accident is a when two vehicles we use for transportation collide. It was no one’s fault.”

“I see.” Ketrick remained quiet as if he were afraid more words from him would derail Riot’s resolve to tell her story. “Please, continue.”

“After my mom died, my dad was never the same. I know he loved me, but he buried himself in work. I can remember seeing him a few hours at night and a few hours over the weekend before he went back to work. I was raised by a handful of babysitters, rather than my own parents.”

Again Riot paused, this time to take a deep breath before she continued. The truly painful part of her story was still to come.

“When I was in my early twenties, I fell in love—correction, I fell in what I thought was love. I didn’t understand the meaning of the word at the time. I still don’t. Long story short, I was engaged, and he cheated on me. When I called him out on the fact, he hit me. Nothing crazy; only once. He begged for forgiveness after, but as you can probably imagine, I’m not the forgiving type. I went through a dark time where I dealt with my pain by finding the bottom of a lot of bottles.

“When I finally sobered up, I joined the Corps, and from then on, I promised myself I wouldn’t let anyone hurt me like that again, either physically, mentally, or emotionally. Looking back on it now, he didn’t even hit me that hard. The person I am now would have curb-stomped that prick up and down the street.”

Riot expected Ketrick to say something, but he didn’t. Instead, the two stood in a comfortable silence. Vikta breathed a heavy sigh of smoke from nostrils the size of dinner plates.

Riot hugged herself, removing her gaze from Ketrick to the giant moon in the sky that orbited Hoydren. Why had she opened herself up to those memories, those feelings?

“I’m sorry you had to go through all of this on your journey.” Ketrick moved to stand beside her and, as if he could sense she didn’t want to be touched, he did not offer. “But the sorceress who is named Riot, the one I have come to know is better for it. You’re like a piece of iron.”

“That’s a new one on me.” Riot let out a long sigh. “No one has ever called me a piece of iron before.”

“The very toughest iron is forged in the hottest fires,” Ketrick continued. He remained quiet for a moment longer, then placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, sorceress. Maybe I shouldn’t have pressed the issue.”

“I’m not a sorceress.” Riot shrugged off his touch. “And you should be sorry. I hate talking about my feelings.”

“I know you’re not a sorceress.” Ketrick smiled. If he took offense at having his hand brushed off, he didn’t show it. “But it’s funny, and it makes you smile. Well, at least the edges of your lips twitch.”

“Like I said before”—Riot shook her head, heading for the cargo ramp of her ship—“I’m not the kind of girl you’re looking for.”

Riot walked away from Ketrick, hating herself for not being the type of woman who would entertain Ketrick’s advances. Even hating him a little for having to relive her past.

“Evonne, open the cargo ramp,” Riot said in a low voice to the AI that communicated with her via the nanites that lived in her body.

“Immediately,” Evonne’s voice said in her ears. “Riot, are you all right?”

Riot ignored the AI as she walked through the ship to the mess hall. Already she was silencing the voice in her head that said what she was about to do was a very bad idea.

The ship was still empty and would remain so, until the rest of the crew either decided to sleep on the ship or stay in the pyramid in the rooms Queen Revna had prepared for them. Either way, Riot wouldn’t see them in her own room.

Riot pressed the display on one of the screens and ordered a Jack Daniels. Why alcohol was available at all in the mess hall was something that must have been overlooked, but at the moment, Riot wasn’t complaining.

She grabbed the cold, glass bottle around the container, ripped off the cap, and began to drown the memories. The fiery liquid coursed down her throat, threatening to make her gag. Riot refused to cough, and she took another long swig.

This doesn’t mean anything. Riot thought. You’re choosing to drink because you want to. You don’t need to.

Riot stopped trying to justify her actions to herself, and instead, continued to pound the bottle. She stumbled to her room. The ship suddenly felt as though it were slanting from side to side like a boat on the ocean.

“Riot?” Evonne’s voice quietly came over the ship’s comms, almost like a whisper. “Riot, are you all right?”

“I’m fine … fine.” Riot stumbled into her room and made it onto her bed, the weight of responsibility, her duty as a leader forgotten for the time being. There was only this blissful feeling of letting go. “I don’t need him. I don’t need anyone. I’m fine by myself.”

Riot’s vision began to blur. Anger took over a moment later as she remembered why she had begun to drink in the first place. She stumbled into the bathroom, taking another swig of the alcohol.

A look in the mirror gave her a twisted view of herself as she stumbled and hit her head on the counter. Blood poured into her eyes from a cut just above her hairline.

A moment later, she felt like she was floating. She opened her eyes to see Ketrick looking down at her. He carried her in both arms to her bed.

“What … what are you doing?” Riot blinked in and out of consciousness. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“Sometimes, when you bury memories too deep and then dig them up, they pack a serious punch.” Ketrick placed Riot onto her bed and took away her bottle. “Shhh, sleep now.”

“Why do I have to be this way?” Riot slurred, her grasp on consciousness fading with every heartbeat. “Why can’t I just be free of this?”

“Because this is your fight.” Ketrick covered her with the sheets from her bed. “Because this is your burden to bear in this life, and you will be stronger for it.”

The last thing Riot remembered was Ketrick pressing a cloth to the cut on her head. His red eyes distant, he hummed a tune that sounded only vaguely familiar, then everything went black.


40

I’m never drinking again,” Riot mumbled to herself as she stumbled out of bed. She barely made it to the toilet before she threw up. Her stomach convulsed and the hot liquid shot up her throat, splashing into the toilet under her so ferociously, it sent the toilet water back up into her face. “Great.”

Memories of the night before, of the conversation that had triggered her actions, flooded back. Riot looked into her room through the open bathroom door. The first good thing met her eyes. Ketrick was gone. Or had he even been there at all? Did she just imagine his presence?

“Evonne.” Riot hurled into the toilet again, this time managing to get some of her hair into the toilet water. “Was Ketrick here last night?”

“Yes, I was going to deny him access to the ship, but you didn’t seem well.” Evonne paused like she was trying to think of the right way to put it. “I would have notified the other members of the squad but … I didn’t imagine you wanted them to see you like that. You know, if I had a physical body, I could have aided you.”

“I don’t need anyone’s help.” Riot spat out a last mouthful of bile before she stumbled to her feet and looked at herself in the mirror. She felt like death, and she didn’t look much better. Her hair was a mess, and a laceration barely visible through her hairline still let out a trickle of blood. “What time is it?”

“It’s zero-five-hundred on the planet,” Evonne informed her. “May I suggest a visit to the med bay? I can walk you through the steps to set up an IV and the proper medication that will have you feeling better soon.”

“Let’s do it.” Riot mentally prepared herself for the trip to the med bay. She kept one hand on the wall. “Where are the other members of the squad?”

“Corporal Sean Rizzo and Mohammad Vetash returned to the ship and are sleeping soundly in their rooms.”

“And Deborah and Wang?”

“They did not return. They said they were going to stay in the Trilord pyramid. Each of the members of your squad asked about you before turning in for the night.”

“That’s precious.” Riot fought back another wave of nausea. “Tell me what I need to do to feel better. I have a meeting this afternoon that could mean the difference between peace and intergalactic warfare.”

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Wang looked at Riot with a raised eyebrow. “You seem … off.”

“I’m fine,” Riot growled. She stood in the cargo bay of their ship with the rest of the members of her squad. “Now get on with it.”

Riot had spent that morning recovering from her hangover. The effects were still lingering, but she felt a hundred times better than she had. She had assembled her squad before the peace talk meeting would take place. If things went badly, then war would soon follow. After everything Riot had seen about the healing nanites Wang had injected into Ketrick and the injured members of the Savage Trilords, she knew they needed them before the next confrontation, if or when that would be.

Wang wore his grey-and-black uniform, pacing in front of the group like a drill instructor speaking to his recruits. “Well, it’s pretty simple and a lot like the nanites we used before. The main difference is, these nanites are programmed to live in our bloodstream and repair our wounds when inflicted. It will accelerate our healing to such a degree … well, you all saw Ketrick’s wound heal in a day.”

“It’s going to make us immortal?” Vet eyed the needle gun on the steel table next to Wang. “I hate needles, but if it’s going to turn us into Greek gods…”

“It’s not going to stop the aging process.” Wang loaded the first vial of silver liquid into the needle gun and motioned for Deborah to move the blonde hair from the side of her neck. “And you can still die. If the wound you receive kills you, or there is nothing to repair, then you’re gone for good.”

Wang went from member to member, injecting them with the new nanites. When it was Riot’s turn, she hoped Wang wouldn’t be able to smell any kind of alcohol on her. If he did, he didn’t say anything. A sharp stab in the side of her neck, and it was over.

Freaking tiny machines in our body, Rizzo said with his hands. He rubbed the spot over his neck where the needle had pierced his ebony skin. I’m a minority—handicapped and a Marine. Haven’t I been through enough?

“Hey, Wang.” Vet picked up a scalpel from a cabinet in the med bay. “Let’s see if these nanites work. How long until they kick in?”

Riot was about to stop Vet from cutting himself, but she was interested in seeing the healing process, first-hand. If Wang was right, then he was basically turning them all into a squad of superheroes.

“You should be good.” Wang shrugged, doing some quick math on his fingers as he muttered the numbers. “Carry the one, take away the twelve … Yeah, you should be good to go.”

“Should be?” Deborah asked, looking over to Riot to see if she was going to stop the madness.

“Good enough for me.” Vet brought the steel scalpel down across the palm of his hand. A second later, a long, thin laceration separated the skin on his palm and a burst of crimson blood oozed out of the wound.

Deborah looked away as if she were going to be sick, though everyone else in the med bay leaned in. As soon as the blood sprung from the cut on his hand, the leak stopped. The skin grew over the slash as if the wound had never been there at all.

Vet looked, wide-eyed, as he wiped away the excess blood on his pant leg. He showed the group his palm again. There was no wound at all.

Who’s that old superhero you like? Rizzo asked Riot. He held his left fist tight, then pointed to his knuckles with his right hand. The one with the claws?

“Glad to see my love for the classics is rubbing off on all of you.” Riot thought back to one of the heroes she related to the most. “Wolverine.”

“We’re a badass group of Wolverine Marines.” Wang smiled. He grabbed a bone saw from another cabinet in the med bay. “Let’s see how fast Vet heals from this.”

Everyone in the room looked at Wang like he was crazy, most of all Vet himself.

“It was just a thought.” Wang wrapped the cord around the tool, muttering to himself again. “Jeez, calm down, people.”

“Ketrick is approaching the rear cargo bay,” Evonne’s voice spoke loud and clear. “He’s alone.”

“Probably here to get us for the meeting.” Deborah looked over to Riot. “Ready for this?”

“Let’s do it.” Riot was actually looking forward to talking to Boris and Remus more than she was looking forward to seeing what Ketrick had to say about the previous night. Riot doled out orders to the rest of the squad before she left. “Rizzo, Vet, if things go south, we may not have that long until the fighting starts. Have the ship ready to rock and roll.”

Rizzo nodded along with Riot’s words.

“Roger that.” Vet was still looking at his healed hand like a kid with a brand new toy. “We’ll be ready.”

“Wang”—Riot looked over to the medic—“get full combat gear for you and Deborah ready. If things turn bad, the safest place for her will be in the ship. But you and I will do the most good out in the field. The Savages will need your medical skills.”

Riot walked out of the room with Deborah in her wake.

“So, if things get bad, I’m just supposed to get back to the ship?” Deborah tossed the idea around in her head. “I can help Wang in the field with the wounded.”

“No way.” Riot shook her head. “You’re too important.”

“I want to help.”

“You will, you are.” Riot pushed back the memory of her dream where she was dead. “If things get bad, I need you to get these Marines back home. You know the alien tech better than any of us.”


41

Ketrick didn’t say too much when Riot and Deborah disembarked from the ship. He walked with the women back through the grounds that had held the celebration the night before. The field that was once alive with laughter and joy was now empty.

A foreboding feeling hung in the air and worked its way down to Riot’s stomach. The next few minutes would dictate full-out war or a chance for peace.

Ketrick walked next to her, his red eyes as serious as she had ever seen. Today, he wore long, black pants and boots. Iron greaves rested on his forearms, his bare chest a canopy of muscle and black tattoos. His long, black hair was tied behind his head.

When the trio reached the entrance, Kila motioned them inside. Deborah followed her instruction, but Ketrick grabbed Riot’s hand before she could follow.

“A quick moment.” Ketrick looked into her eyes and released her hand.

“I’m not like that.” The words had gushed out of Riot’s mouth in a rushed whisper. “I’m not that person you saw last night. It won’t happen again.”

“I know.” Ketrick shook his head. “That’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Oh, really?” Riot staved off the rest of the apology she had been thinking about since early that morning. “What’s going on, then?”

“I just wanted to apologize for forcing you to talk about something you didn’t want to. I can be a bit stubborn at times, and it gets people I care about into trouble.”

“Wait, are you apologizing to me?” Riot almost laughed out loud. “You took care of me when I was trying to drown my pain. You have nothing to apologize for. You were right. I needed to take a hard look at myself and come to grips with who I am.”

“So you’re not mad at me?”

“No, stop worrying. It takes away some of your bad-boy charm.” Riot slapped Ketrick on the shoulder so hard, it hurt her hand. “You gotta lay off the shoulder press, Muscles. Now come on, let’s go make peace or start a war.”

Riot didn’t wait to see if Ketrick would follow. She was in a great mood. It was as if a weight she hadn’t even known she was carrying had been lifted from her shoulders.

For a moment, a disturbing thought crossed her mind. Was she falling for the Savage prince? No, that couldn’t be it. Riot didn’t fall for guys anymore. She had killed that part of herself a long time ago and buried it down deep. Maybe not as deep as she thought, given the events of the previous night.

Riot shook her head clear of these thoughts as she jogged to catch up with Kila and Deborah, who were about to enter the throne room. Ketrick joined them a moment later.

“Into the belly of the beast?” Kila asked with a heavy breath. “Remus and Boris are already sitting with the queen.”

Riot nodded. “Let’s do this.”

Kila opened the doors, leading them into the familiar throne room. A long table had been brought into the chamber, with chairs facing one another from across the table.

Two dozen Savage soldiers stood behind the queen on one side. On the other side sat Boris and Remus. Behind the leader of the Brutes and Karnayers stood a handful of their own guards. Yellow-eyed giants dressed in brown vests and leather pants, and four slender, blue-skinned Karnayer warriors dressed in what looked like black body armor.

No one in the room carried weapons, but that didn’t mean blood still couldn’t be shed. When Riot and her companions entered the room, Boris gave them a sideways roll of his yellow eyes. “Finally, we can begin.”

Riot and Deborah took up seats on the queen’s left, while Ketrick assumed his position on her right. Kila joined the ranks of soldiers standing at attention behind the queen.

Remus eyed them all one at a time. His stare wasn’t intimidating or menacing, but rather weighing them up as if they were all on some kind of mental scale.

Boris, on the other hand, didn’t mind glaring at all of them.

“If we can begin.” The queen held Boris’s stare with an even look of her own. “I hope we can agree that war is the worst scenario for all of us seated at this table. If we meet on the battlefield, many will die, both trusted friends and perhaps even family.”

“There doesn’t have to be war.” Boris leaned back in his chair and crossed his scarred arms over his barrel chest. “If you simply swallow your pride and agree to our terms, we can all leave and have a mug of Borshock before the day’s end.”

“And what terms would these be?” Ketrick said. “The same ones that imprison the fire serpents we’ve held sacred for so long? The same terms that see us allied with an enemy who manipulates us for our strength?”

Boris and Ketrick glared at one another. For a moment, an immovable object met an unstoppable force, and the tension grew in the room to such an extent, even Riot was beginning to feel uncomfortable.

Holy crapollie, Riot thought. It’s going to go down right here, right now.

“There is a huge universe out there, beyond your stars.” Remus took hold of the lapse in conversation like a skilled politician. “We would all be better equipped to deal with threats in the universe if we had strong allies to support us. A rope woven with many cords is not easily broken.”

Not for the first time, Riot wondered if Remus and the Karnayers were the threat the Syndicate had warned about. It stood to reason that they very well might have been.

“Allies that bend the knee to one another are not allies at all.” The queen looked from Remus to Boris with an accusatory stare. “What did he promise you, Boris? Your aid in turning the fire serpents into weapons along with your army, for what? For rule over Hoydren, and then rule over the universe?”

“Our dealings are none of your business, Revna.” A look of shame crossed Boris’s eyes momentarily and then it was gone altogether. “You had your chance. I have to do what’s best for my people.”

“So you’re going from planet to planet, collecting weapons and soldiers for an intergalactic war?” Deborah asked from her seat beside Riot. She looked at Remus with genuine interest. “Those like the Savage Trilords who refuse your request are either killed or enslaved, and then you move on to the next planet? Your offer isn’t one of alliance, it’s an ultimatum: join us or else.”

Everyone was surprised by the words coming from the usually meek Deborah, but none more so than Riot. She hadn’t always been the nicest person to the doctor, but now she felt a swell of respect in her chest.

“You may see it as such, and you are welcome to.” Remus shrugged. “I can’t help what you believe. Our mission is simple, it’s only a matter of time before we arrive at Earth with the same proposal.”

“Is that a threat?” Riot already knew where these peace talks were going. She would be seeing Remus on the battlefield soon. No need to pull punches now. “Are you planning to invade Earth?”

“Oh, it’s not us you have to be worried about.” Remus gave her a wicked grin. “There are far more ancient, far more powerful forces lurking in the corners of the universe other than the Karnayers.”

“Who are you talking—”

“It’s clear there is no peace to be had here,” Boris interrupted. “You will not surrender and join us. You would rather have war.”

“We will not see the creatures of this world harnessed for war and treated like slaves.” Queen Revna stood from her seat. “Neither will we join strangers who are tyrants disguised as friends.”

“We have nothing more to discuss.” Boris stood from his seat and stomped out of the room, yelling for his retainer of guards to follow. “To war, then!”

Remus stood with a small smile. He nodded to everyone at the table, but held Ketrick’s eye. “Maybe a rematch is in our future.”

“I’ll be coming for you.” Ketrick stood with a look of focus so intense, Riot thought he would drill holes through the Karnayer. “Believe that.”

Remus smirked and followed Boris out of the pyramid with his own guards.

Boris could still be heard roaring through the pyramid, “To war! To war!”


42

They won’t wait to attack.” Ketrick stared at the backs of Remus and the rest of the Karnayers as they left the failed peace talks. “They’ll come now, and they’ll come quickly.”

“I agree.” Kila stepped forward from her place beside the other Savage Trilords. “We should expect an attack within the hour.”

“What does the size of their force look like?” Riot’s mind was running through a dozen different scenarios at once. “How many ships does Remus have?”

“He has only the one that we’ve seen.” Ketrick motioned for Riot and the others to follow him through the pyramid and up multiple flights of stairs. “Boris’s forces should be in viewing range soon. As much as I would like to face that son of an oxenheim once more, Vikta and I are the best suited to deal with the fire serpents under his control. Perhaps we can put them down without killing them, or maybe I can get through to them.”

Riot followed Ketrick through a short hall and up flights of stairs that doubled back on one another. Deborah, Kila, and the queen also followed.

“I’ll see that they do not breach the walls of Silna,” Kila promised. “We might be outnumbered, but I’d take a Savage warrior over five of the Brutes any day.”

“I understand everyone’s eagerness to fight and die for each other,” the queen cautioned as they crested the last flight of stairs and walked back into another hall in the pyramid. “However, wisdom followed by action will see us through this battle.”

Ketrick turned a corner again and led them out onto a balcony. They were about halfway up the pyramid, but still high enough to see the city of Silna that sloped down below them, the city wall, and the approaching army.

The Brute army was a sea of yellow, brown, and black. They were still too far away to make out specifics, but there was no denying the size. It was something Riot wasn’t used to seeing. Warfare had evolved on Earth to a degree where standing and facing each other, army to army, was suicide. It took her breath away to see an entire militia marching in their direction.

“What do you think, Riot?” To the queen’s credit, her voice did not waver. Her red eyes were hard and full of determination. “You’re versed in combat. I heard what you did to save Kila and Hemming when you restored my son to me. I would hear your council.”

“Ketrick and Kila are both right.” Riot nodded as the only course of action became clear to her. “Kila should hold the walls. Ketrick is our best chance at dealing with the dragons—er, I mean, fire serpents. Let my team and me handle the ship or ships Remus brings with him.”

Nods all around settled the matter. From the oncoming Brute horde, a low, steady war beat drifted on the breeze. Like the heartbeat of a giant, the pounding continued, always on time, always steady.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

“All of you be cautious.” Ketrick’s eyes strayed to Riot’s. “Don’t take unneeded risks.”

Kila, the queen, and even Deborah looked at Riot now.

“What?” Riot looked around her. “Why is everyone looking at me?”

“Because we know you,” Deborah said with a tilt of her head. “Come on, let’s go.”

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

“I thought you said the best plan would be for you and Wang to go fight on foot.” Deborah jogged next to Riot as the two women exited the pyramid and made for their craft. “What happened to that?”

“Remus happened to that,” Riot answered back. “He wants to kill Ketrick. I saw it in his eyes. He’ll be behind the Brute army like a real hero. The only way I’m going to get to him—”

“Is if you have Rizzo drop you off behind their lines,” Deborah finished Riot’s thought. “Are you crazy? Didn’t you just hear them tell you to be careful? Even the queen was looking at you.”

“I never said it was a good plan,” Riot admitted as they reached the rear of the ship. “And if the queen knew I was saving her son, I don’t think she’d mind.”

“You’re the bravest, craziest person I know,” Deborah said as they waited for Evonne to lower the ship’s rear loading platform. “The rest of the squad isn’t going to like it.”

“They don’t have to.” Riot jumped onto the platform before it was done lowering to the ground. “They just have to follow orders.”

Rizzo, Vet, and Wang were already waiting for her in the cargo bay.

They heard the drums, Rizzo said with his hands as he motioned to Vet and Wang who stood beside him. Same plan?

“Wang and I are staying in the ship with you. When the fighting starts, you’ll drop me off wherever Remus is on the battlefield. He needs to be taken out.” Riot didn’t wait to argue with them. Instead, she marched straight to the armory. “Let’s get this bird in the air, see what we can see.”

Riot speed walked to the armory, where her gear and weapons were waiting. She expected there to be flack from her squad, but not as much as she received.

“You have to let us come with you,” Vet said as the rest of the group crowded in the doorway. “We can’t just drop you off behind enemy lines, alone.”

“Rizzo and I can come, too,” Wang said with an emphatic Rizzo nodding along. “Evonne can fly the ship. I mean, not as good as Rizzo, but good enough.”

“I’m standing right here,” Evonne said in an irritated tone. “Or I would be, if I had a body.”

“I can get it done.” Riot stripped in front of them, down to her underwear, before getting into the black, dragon skin armor. “You can cover me from the air while I take him out.”

Rizzo caught Riot’s eye and signed: Why not just take Remus out with the ship’s guns? Let’s at least try it that way first.

“Because we should try to capture him if we can.” Remus was much too smart to leave himself exposed to capture. He would have some kind of shield or other means to protect himself from their ship; he was too smart for anything else. “Now stop gawking at me. Get the ship in the air.”

Four head nods returned her order as they ran to obey. Riot visualized the fight in her mind as she continued to prepare. Vet had fixed the area on her dragon skin that had been burned by the blaster bolt, so that only a slight discoloration remained from the hole the blaster had burned through her armor.

Dragon skin on, next came the layer of crimson red liquid armor that covered her like plate mail. Riot looked over the armory for weapons. “Evonne, did Vet load you with other classic songs from Earth, besides the Beastie Boys?”

“Yes, he did.”

“Can you get Rage Against the Machine going? Maybe their song ‘Bulls on Parade?”

“Certainly,” Evonne said.

A moment later, the familiar chorus echoed through the armory. Riot looked over the weapons like a kid in a candy store as she bobbed her head to the music. The ship shifted under her feet as it rose into the air.

Out of her peripheral vision, Riot caught sight of a pile of weapons in the corner of the armory. These weapons weren’t their own, but rather the weapons used by the Trilords. A few axes, maces, and war hammers.

“Evonne, where did these come from?” Riot went to the stack and picked up the weapon that was a hammer and spike built around the end of a blaster. It was the same weapon she had used before in their first fight. “They were left in the cargo bay after the initial fight with the Brutes. Rizzo put them here to return to the Trilords, should they ask.”

Riot liked the feel of the war hammer in her hands. She’d have to take other weapons, of course, but taking this weapon with her just felt right. In the end, Riot decided on her molten blade, a belt of various grenades, the Villain Pulse Rifle, and the war hammer.

“Paging Riot to the bridge,” Deborah’s voice came over the ship’s comms. “You better see this.”


43

Their ship hovered over the pyramid, looking out over the oncoming Brute force. An ocean of Brute warriors stood ready to charge the Silna walls. Riot was horrible at guesstimating large groups of anything, but there had to be at least ten thousand Brute warriors ready to attack. They carried ladders with them, ready to scale the walls, as well as a massive tree-trunk-like battering ram supported by twenty Brutes on each side.

Yellow banners with a black axe in the middle were carried by hundreds of the warriors throughout their rough lines.

“This is like those crazy medieval wars we read about as kids,” Vet breathed. “This is nuts.”

“Remus has at least one ship, maybe more,” Riot cautioned Rizzo. “Plus at least two dragons he’s controlling, so watch out for them. Don’t think they’ll show up—know they will.”

“Um … is that the prince?” Wang pointed out through the right side of their front window. “And is he riding a dragon?”

All eyes swung over to see a massive, greyish white dragon come to a halt beside their craft. The dragon gazed at them with wild eyes alive with the promise of battle. Ketrick sat on the dragon’s back where its neck met the rest of its scaly body.

“Yep, that’s him.” Deborah nodded. “And he’s still not wearing a shirt.”

Ketrick wore the same black pants and boots he had at the meeting. Gauntlets protected his forearms, but only a few chains hanging from his neck did anything to protect his chest. A helmet with two horns coming from the top rounded out his armor. In his right hand, he held a long pole with the end made up of an axe on one side and a spike on the other. In his left hand was a kite shield. Both weapons had blasters fitted into them in true Savage Trilord fashion.

Ketrick mouthed something they couldn’t hear before removing his kite shield and flipping all of them off with a large smile spreading his lips.

“Did he just give us the finger while riding a dragon?” Vet asked, not believing his own eye. “Tell me that just happened.”

“It did.” Riot shook her head as she, along with the rest of the crew, returned Ketrick’s one finger salute. “As soon as it stops being fun, one of us should tell him what it really means.”

“Do we have to?” Wang was smiling and double-flipping off Ketrick. “I like it.”

Rizzo stopped, lowered his middle finger, and turned to stare out through the ship’s front window. Two flapping images came into view: a blue and a black dragon appeared on the horizon, traveling quickly.

“Evonne.” Riot took her seat in the command chair behind Rizzo for the time being. “Enhance the dragons flying toward us, and can you allow us to hear what’s going on on the ground?”

“Yes and yes,” Evonne replied right away. “Enhanced view on the front screen now, and picking up audio from the ground.”

At once, the middle and largest window allowing them to look out was filled with the image of two dragons speeding toward their location. The same long, yellow collars around their necks hummed with a green aura.

Sounds of guttural shouts and stomping of feet filled the bridge. The Brute force was preparing for their assault on Silna’s walls. Weapons were pounded against armor, blood lust in the eyes of all those assembled.

“Evonne, can you detect what those dragons are wearing on their necks?” Riot adjusted in her seat so her weapons weren’t poking into her back or sides. “What kind of metal or technology is being used to manipulate the dragons?”

“Checking.” Evonne was silent for a moment. “I can’t find anything in my databanks. It is either new tech or, less likely, I was not programmed with the information.”

Before Riot could give another order, a horn from the ground below blared into the bridge. A roar immediately followed, then the sound of thousands of rushing feet. The battle for Silna had begun.

Without warning, Ketrick and Vikta left their side like an arrow loosed from a bow. They made a beeline to intercept the two approaching dragons before they could wreak havoc on the defenders of Silna.

Rizzo moved the craft as if he were about to follow, then thought twice as an alarm went off. Riot had never heard the noise before, not when they flew into the storm of dragons in space, or when they lifted off from the Bulwark. By the blaring red lights going off and on, it was clear something was very wrong.

“Rizzo?”

Rizzo pointed to the left, then turned the craft that way for everyone to see. Not one, not two, but three alien ships were approaching. A second later, a pair of green blaster fire raced from the lead ship and pounded into their shields. The ship shuddered.

“Shields at ninety-seven percent and holding.” Vet looked at the holographic dashboard that rose in front of him from his station. “She’s good to go.”

“All right.” Riot looked out through the window that had now gone back to showing in actual magnification what lay on the opposite side. “Let’s deal with them quickly. I need to get on the ground. Rizzo, light them up.”

Rizzo accelerated toward their targets, twisting and weaving through the green enemy fire. Riot had to remind herself to buckle up. In her full suit of armor she was less than comfortable; still, it was better than being flung halfway across the ship.

All three enemy ships were now firing as the opponents raced to meet one another. The Karnayer ships were a fraction of the size of Peace Envoy One, but more maneuverable. The exterior of the enemy ships were black with sharp, rigid lines along the frame. Each had three long talons that stretched out past the ship’s body. From these three talons came the blaster fire, heavy and unrelenting.

“Rizzo, keep control of the primary guns but shift the secondary to Wang. You have enough to deal with.” Riot looked over to Deborah who, with wide eyes, gripped her safety harness with both hands. “Vet, report?”

“Their ships are fast and they can unload rounds in a hurry, but they’re not as strong as they look.” Vet maneuvered around something on his hologram display that looked like the ship’s blueprints. “We’re like a tank in this fight, and they’re firing machine gun rounds at us. Shields are ninety-five percent and strong.”

“Good. Wang, Rizzo, line up your shots on these little bastards. We want—”

An explosion rocked the ship, making Riot’s teeth chatter. Her body was flung against her harness so hard, she knew she’d have bruising later. More warning lights went off in the bridge.

“What the hell was that?” Riot looked to Vet, then to Deborah for answers. “Did they hit us?”

“Shield’s been penetrated,” Vet answered from his seat, his furrowed brow never more pronounced than now. “But not by enemy fire—by a ship.”

“What?” Riot asked, trying to understand what Vet was getting at. “They kamikazied us?”

“No, their ship penetrated our cargo area at the rear of our ship,” Evonne informed them from overhead. “It seems those three talons on their ships were created to tear through metal and attach to other crafts. Enemy soldiers are boarding our ship now.”

“Take those other two ships out before they can attach to us,” Riot ordered as she unstrapped herself from her seat. She tossed Deborah her belt of grenades and molten blade. “Probably not a good idea to use the grenades in here. Have Evonne shut the door when we leave. Come on, Vet, it’s time to bring the thunder. We’re going Karnayer hunting.”


44

Here, you’re a better shot.” Riot tossed her Villain Pulse Rifle to Vet. She shoved her helmet onto her head and started down the hall. “No one gets past us. We can’t allow them to gain access to the bridge. If we can get to the armory first, we get you your gear. If not—”

She heard running boots heading up from the cargo bay. They had already breached the ship and were wasting no time in making for the bridge.

“Evonne, how many?” Riot held her war hammer low like a mini gun. Her thumb pressed the button on the top of the shaft that released the trigger on the opposite side. “What are we looking at here?”

“Ten,” Evonne said immediately. “All armed in body armor and carrying gauss weapons of their own.”

“Sweet.” Riot steadied herself as the ship took a hard turn. “Vet, put that one good eye of yours to use and stay behind me. I’m going to get as close as I can.”

The noise of heavy boots on the ship’s metal floor echoed down the hall. The first Karnayer soldier turned the corner. They were dressed like the soldiers Riot had seen standing behind Remus at the failed peace talks. Black helmets and visors hid their face. Their armor was thinner than Riot’s, all black with thin, metal plating.

BAM!

Vet took out the first one with a headshot. His victim’s black visor shattered in a spray of black glass and blue blood. Then all hell broke loose.

Riot understood her weapon worked as a blaster but was better suited as a hand-to-hand weapon. She raced forward as Vet covered her from behind.

BAM! BAM! BAM!

Vet took another in the chest, and a third through the stomach. They were all racing around the corner now. Riot met them head on. She swung the heavy war hammer with the hammer side up in a wide uppercut and caught the first soldier under his chin, snapping his head back and breaking his jaw.

BOOM! BOOM!

Karnayer soldiers caught by surprise at an enemy attacking them point-blank shot in panic. They struck one of their own soldiers with wild shots. The spray of their gauss rifles firing blindly painted the hall corner green in blaster fire.

Riot continued her upward swing full circle, allowing the weapon to ride the momentum. She caught it once more in mini-gun grip and unloaded on the Karnayer soldiers, point-blank. She hit two more in the chest before one of their own weapons found her stomach and left leg.

That was the danger of fighting so close; the impact of their weapons hurt that much more. Riot doubled over from the shot to her stomach. She felt something give in her leg as she was forced to the ground under the pressure. The remaining four soldiers were on top of her before she could get up.

BAM! BAM! BAM!

Vet’s Villain Pulse Rifle lit up the hall with its red blaster fire. Two more Karnayer soldiers fell. They exchanged fire while Riot struggled to her feet right in front of the last two Karnayer soldiers.

The ship banked hard right, still in a dog fight with the last two Karnayer ships. Riot slid sideways into the wall. On one knee, she fought past the pain of the gut shot and the round that struck her left leg. Her right hand was still on the war hammer’s shaft.

“Ugh!”

The cry was Vet’s as a round hit him. Something like a manic rage overtook Riot as she heard Vet go down. There was no time to look to see if he was okay; there was only time to act.

Riot bottled the pain and stood up. At the same time, she brought her war hammer sideways with the pointed end first. It bit deep into the side of the Karnayer’s helmet. The weapon punctured the head protection, as well as the skull underneath. Blue blood oozed from the helmet.

Riot maneuvered the soldier’s body still stuck to her weapon in front of her to block the shot of the last remaining Karnayer soldier. She rammed the dead figure still attached to her war hammer into its living counterpart.

“Rawww!” Riot tore her weapon free from the head of her last victim and shoved the war hammer into the corpse’s chest, pinning it and the struggling Karnayer behind into the wall. She pressed the trigger on her weapon and held it down. Yellow bolts tore bloody holes through the dead soldier and into the living soldier behind.

After far too many rounds pumped from the end of her weapon, the war hammer overheated. Riot’s heart pounded in her ears as war rage took over. The two dead soldiers fell to the ground.

“Remind me never to piss you off,” Vet coughed from down the hall. “You’re kind of a scary chick.”

Riot dropped her hammer and ran to where Vet lay on the ground. She tore off her helmet to get a better look. The shot had hit him on the right side of his chest. It burned a hole through his black-and-grey uniform, charring the skin and flesh underneath.

In front of Riot’s eyes, his body began to mend as the microscopic nanites went to work and repaired his wound in seconds.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Vet moaned as he struggled to sit up. “I’m okay. It hurt like a bitch, but we’re Wolverines now, remember?”

Riot looked down at her own wounds. Her armor had turned the round that struck her stomach and leg, but she knew she would have had internal bleeding and a shattered kneecap if it had not been for the nanites. Maybe she did have those wounds for a few seconds when she went down, before the nanites kicked in. When she was shot, it still hurt like hell.

The constant weaponfire from the ship and the return fire from the Karnayers’ crafts had dulled to a white noise in the background of their fight. Now, a much larger explosion ripped through the air, and Peace Envoy One shuddered under the impact.

“Evonne, patch me through to the bridge.” Riot helped Vet to his feet. “Wang, what’s going on out there?”

“Wahoo! We just lit one of those suckers up,” Wang shouted back. “Rizzo’s a flying god out here. We’re chasing the second one now, but he’s turned tail and run.”

Riot grabbed her helmet and war hammer. They raced to the bridge side by side. Evonne opened the thick doors for them as they approached.

A wide-eyed Deborah held the molten blade in both hands. An expression of overwhelming relief crossed her face when she saw it was Riot and Vet entering the bridge.

“I almost cut myself with this thing, like, twice.” Deborah turned off the weapon. She handed back Riot’s belt of grenades. “Here, I don’t think I should be allowed to hold these. Did you get them all?”

“The ship is Karnayer free.” Riot accepted the belt and clipped it onto her waist. She nodded to Vet. “Between his trigger finger and my hammer, they didn’t have much of a chance.”

“Oh, my gosh!” Deborah looked at Vet’s torn and bloodied uniform. “Are you okay?”

“Better than okay.” Vet ran to take a seat at his control console. “I have new baby skin already growing in over my wound.”

Riot looked out through the window. The much smaller and faster Karnayer ship was almost lost to sight. They were already miles from the fight at Silna.

“Get the ship turned around and back into the fight with the Brutes,” Riot ordered Rizzo. “Evonne, what’s the status with the dragons and on the ground?”

“Not good,” Evonne reported as Rizzo banked hard and headed back to the battle between the two warring Trilord races. “Ketrick is locked in combat with the other two dragons, neither one gaining the upper hand. The Brute forces have breached the walls of Silna.”

As Evonne related the news, images popped up on the screen. Ketrick and Vikta were literally locked in combat with the other two dragons in the air. Vikta had her front talons clenched around the gold collar of the blue dragon, while Ketrick fought on her back. His long weapon was fending off the black dragon above them.

The next image was from the battle on the ground. A wave of yellow banners carried by the Brutes streamed in through the broken front gates of the city. The fighting now took place inside the courtyard.

“Evonne, where’s Remus?” Riot asked, searching the image for the tall Karnayer.

A moment later appeared a picture of the white-haired alien swirling his hands in front of him with a weird, green glow. He looked up at the dragons he’d maneuvered into the air as they attacked Ketrick. His position was behind the Brute army in a copse to the left of the path leading to the city.

“Rizzo, hover a few feet from the trees. I’ll jump.” Riot slammed on her helmet. She grabbed her war hammer and ran from the bridge. “After that, grab your gear and join the fun. Evonne and Deborah can handle the ship.”

“We can?” Deborah asked her back. “We will?”

“Roger,” Vet and Wang said at once.

ROGER, Rizzo said in her heads-up display.

Riot pounded down the hall, jumping over the dead bodies of the fallen Karnayer soldiers. She reached the cargo bay just as the ship’s forward momentum stopped and the rear ramp began to open. Riot ran up the still-opening ramp and hurled herself into the air.


45

Riot hit the ground hard. Her armor absorbed most of the ten-foot drop. She rolled as soon as her feet made contact with the ground to cushion the rest of the fall. Riot stood from her roll, hammer ready. Her eyes and heads-up display giving her the lay of the land in a second.

The ship hovered above her, a hundred yards from the outcropping of thick trees where Remus controlled the dragons. He eyed the ship and her fall with a smile that worried Riot.

Her heads-up display soon told her why. A group of Brute Trilords’ outlines had appeared in the jungle’s thickness, just past Remus. Four of the warriors had been left with him as a personal guard.

As far as Riot was concerned, there could be double that number. If Remus thought he would be kept safe by a handful of Brutes, he was wrong. Riot raced across the open dirt road and into the jungle that bordered it.

Her heart was beating out of her chest as she sprinted in full armor, the war hammer held across her chest as she ran at a diagonal angle. Fifty yards from Remus, she saw him give his guards a nod. They burst from their poor hiding spaces, shrieking like the damned.

Riot saved her breath for fighting. Seeing that she wasn’t lowering her weapon to fire, the four Brutes also held their fire, preferring to use their weapons up close. One held a sword with saw teeth, another a double-bladed axe, and the last two, maces with spiked balls on the ends.

Without pausing her stride, Riot saw the fight play out in her mind. Much like the Karnayer ships, she had to play to her strength of speed. She didn’t need to kill all the Brutes right away; she just needed to get past them.

The Brutes ran in a line, which made Riot’s job easier. Yards from the first Brute, Riot vaulted into the air, feet first. The heels of her boots crashed into the Brute’s face, sending him staggering back. The other three Brutes crowded her, bringing their weapons down in heavy arcs.

Riot rolled out of the way, dropped a grenade, and sprung back to her feet. She ran like her life depended on it, straight toward Remus.

WHOOMP!

The concussion grenade went off two seconds later. Riot didn’t turn to see what had happened to the group of Brutes; her attention was on Remus. The Karnayer’s grin was gone.

She felt the grenade’s backblast push her forward as she ran the last few yards to Remus. The Karnayer looked surprised, but not frightened. The green glow emanating from the bracelets he wore on his wrists faded. He reached to his waist and pulled out a long scimitar hidden in the folds of his black cloak.

At once, the blade of his weapon lit up a bright green. Riot slowed her run to a trot, then stopped. The two opponents circled one another. As much as Riot would have liked to bulldoze into Remus, an enemy such as this demanded she stop and think. The two feinted and maneuvered around one another like heavyweight boxers preparing for a championship fight.

“You humans are so pathetic.” Remus shook his head. “You have no chance against us or the Ancient Ones we serve. You should have bent the knee when you had the chance.”

“Two of your ships are destroyed,” Riot said through her helmet. “One of my Marines and I took out ten of your Karnayer soldiers when they tried to crash our party. I wouldn’t call that pathetic. I’d say we opened up a can of whoopass on you.”

“No matter.” Remus glared at her. “You won’t live long enough to enjoy your meaningless victory.”

He came at her so fast, Riot barely had time to bring her war hammer up to block the glowing green scimitar. Instead of sparking and glancing off, it cut deep into the hammer’s metal.

Riot took a step back, breaking the contact between the weapons. A quick look at the handle of her weapon told her the worst: Remus’s blade had cut nearly halfway through her weapon, rendering its firing capability useless.

“Ha, ha, ha!” Remus barked. “Come on, little human, with your borrowed weapon. Come and die.”

Remus struck again and again. Riot ducked what she could and blocked where she had to. With every slice of Remus’s weapon, Riot’s hammer was notched with more and more cuts. It was only a matter of time before her weapon would break in her hands. Whatever glowed over Remus’s weapon was similar to the technology the molten blades were made from.

Another problem surfaced as Riot’s heads-up display noted the movement of the four Brutes she had managed to sidestep. The fight with Remus was taking longer than she had anticipated.

She only had one chance, and it meant gambling with her life. When Remus came with his next attack, Riot sacrificed her weapon. He sliced from the bottom up. Riot blocked with her hammer, putting her full weight down against the blade.

Remus was caught off guard. He wasn’t expecting her to knowingly allow her weapon to be cut in two. The scimitar cut the head of the hammer off at the shaft. Riot took the split second to step in closer toward Remus, her hands grabbing at his own. The two struggled for a moment, locked in a deadly tug of war for the scimitar blade.

Riot’s heads-up display was going crazy with movement as the four Brutes arrived. Riot felt a hammer blow to her right leg and one to the side of her head.

“Ahhh!” Riot screamed. She was so close to wrestling the weapon from Remus’ hands, she could feel the alien’s grasp weakening. Another blow glanced off her leg, sending her to a knee. Pain exploded across her body as another blow rocked her shoulder. Only the will to win embedded in her DNA by the Marine Corps kept her hands on the weapon now bearing down on her.

“This is where you die.” Remus’s teeth were clenched tight as he drove the weapon down on top of her. “This is where your story ends.”

HI. NEED A HAND?

Rizzo’s red lettering flashed across Riot’s vision, right before the air exploded around her.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

“Yeahhh!” Wang screamed into his comm. “Get some!”

“War Wolves!” Vet shouted as he tore through one of the Brutes to Riot’s left. “I don’t want to be Peace Envoy One anymore!”

Riot took advantage of the moment. Every ounce of strength she had left went into ripping the weapon from Remus’s hands. It fell to the ground beside them, losing its green glow.

Riot staggered to her feet, blood from a wound she had received by a blow from one of the Brutes beginning to seep into her eyes. Riot took off her helmet to wipe her eyes from the mixture of blood and sweat that blurred her vision.

Remus’s mouth was open as the Brutes around him were cut down. He seized what he thought was an opportunity and struck Riot across the jaw. Riot turned her head with the punch. A new wave of blood erupted in her mouth, the familiar, metallic taste recognized like an old friend.

“You hit like a bitch.” Riot threw a right cross of her own that leveled Remus. The Karnayer fell at her feet, stunned. Riot tore from his wrists the metallic bracelets that he had used to control the dragons. “You’re done. Give yourself up, or I have no problem killing you, believe that.”

Remus must have seen something in her eyes, because he stayed on the ground.

“Are you sure we can’t just kill him?” Wang walked over to Riot and pointed his Villain Assault Rifle at Remus’s groin. “Nobody will know.”

“We can say he tripped on a blaster and shot himself.” Vet joined the group. “It happens.”

I say we kill him, Rizzo supported the motion in sign language. He’s kind of a douche bag.

“We take him alive.” Riot looked around at the group. “But if you guys want to kick him a few times, I’m okay with that.”


46

Riot’s nanites had done their job. Her willpower had kept her in the fight, and the nanites had kept her alive. Her armor was bent or torn in a dozen different directions. Adrenaline, combined with the nanites, had kept her from realizing how bad her wounds really were at the time of impact. Fresh skin covered the areas on her body that should have been bleeding.

After Remus had been taken out of the fight, the battle was over. The dragons he had manipulated were once again free to make their own decisions, and they decided to help Ketrick rather than fight him.

A new respect for the dragons and Ketrick’s ability to talk to them grew in Riot. She had witnessed Ketrick and all three dragons swoop down and wreak havoc on the Brute army, both with fire and claws. That, coupled with Rizzo doing a few passes with the ship’s guns on the bulk of the Brute force, and the battle was over. The Brutes laid down their weapons, pleading not to be thrown to the dragons.

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

That night, as the Savage Trilords buried their dead and drank to their heroic deaths, Ketrick found Riot. She had just seen to Remus’s incarceration in the pyramid. She was walking out toward her ship, thinking she, instead of Deborah, should be the one to make the report to Captain Harlan this time around.

“Some fight you had up there.” Riot motioned to the sky. “I’m not easily impressed, but you fought two dragons in the air, and that’s pretty cool.”

“You, too.” Ketrick jerked his head toward the rest of Riot’s squad who were joking with one another as they made their way to join them. “I heard of your heroic exploits both on your own ship and on the ground against Remus.”

“Well, you know, a girl tries.” Riot cracked a grin, admiring Ketrick for his ability to make her smile. “So I just turned Remus over to your mother. He has to account for his crimes against the Trilords. Whatever is done to him, though, we need him alive. He has information we can use.”

“My mother rules with a less brutal hand than I would.” Ketrick moved to the side for the rest of the squad to join them. “If she says she will return your prisoner, then she will.”

“Your people don’t look too solemn as they bury their dead.” Deborah motioned over to a group of Trilords laughing and crashing mugs together. “Is it a cultural thing?”

“Yes.” Ketrick smiled as he looked over at his people. “The Trilords see the sadness in death, but the beauty in dying a good death. We lost our brothers and sisters, but they died so we could live. What better way to honor their sacrifice than living life to its fullest?”

“That’s beautiful.” Wang looked over at Riot as if he were asking his parent for permission to partake in the festivities.

“You’re all free to go ahead.” Riot gave them a motherly look. “But be ready to take off in the morning. I don’t know how long we have left here, but I’m guessing SPEAR will want us back, ASAP.”

“Roger that,” Vet said as he, Rizzo, and Wang ran off toward Hemming and a group of Trilords who were carrying wooden kegs of beer toward the pyramid. “Hey, you need help with that?”

“I want to ask both of you if I can come with you,” Ketrick said, blindsiding both Riot and Deborah. “I will need to return to rule one day, but not now. We need an emissary to send back with you to Merth, anyway. I would go with you, if you would have me.”

Riot looked over at Deborah for consensus. At the same time, she remembered what the queen had told her of her condition and how she may not have long to live.

“I would have to clear it with Captain Harlan, but it makes sense.” Deborah looked over to Riot. “Now that our alliance is intact, we’ll send a force of scientists to learn as much as we can from one another.”

“And your mom is okay with this?” Riot looked at Ketrick, trying to keep as much of a poker face as possible. “She’s okay with you leaving?”

“She is.” Ketrick gave Riot a sad smile as if he knew what she was thinking. “We all must embrace when our time is over, but for the present, she is our queen. One day I will have to return, but I’d see what lies beyond our stars first.”

“Well, I guess the War Wolves have one more member in their pack.” Deborah shrugged then nodded to Vet, Rizzo, and Wang, who were waving them over to join the celebration.

“Did you just call us the War Wolves?” Riot raised an eyebrow at Deborah. “I thought we were a peacekeeping force?”

“Oh crap, I guess I forgot.” Deborah winked at Riot. “Maybe we can be both.”

Without another word, Deborah left Riot and Ketrick. Ketrick motioned with his head to a spot just inside the pyramid entrance where, for the time being, they were alone.

“Riot, I just want to say th—”

Riot rose on her tiptoes and planted a kiss on his mouth. The feeling was intoxicating as she pressed her lips harder against his. His hands found the back of her head as she wrapped her arms around his bare torso. How long had it been since she was kissed? How long had it been since she was kissed like that?

Riot didn’t know, but by the time they pulled back from one another with the sounds of feet approaching, she felt lightheaded. Her eyes were still closed, her breath hot and heavy.

Deborah appeared in the entrance door a few moments later, irate. “Who did it? I was trying to be flexible with the whole ‘war wolf’ thing, but this is too much.”

“What are you talking about?” Riot still felt her lips tingling. “Who did what?”

“Follow me.” Deborah turned on her heel and marched around the pyramid.

Riot and Ketrick followed. Rizzo, Vet, and Wang were already on the other side of the pyramid, howling with laughter as they guzzled their beers.

“That.” Deborah pointed to the side of their ship, where “Peace Envoy One” had been crossed out, and in white paint, “Valkyrie” had been written above the words “Click, Click, Boom.” “That is defacing military property. I try to understand things with you people, and this is how I get treated.”

Riot looked at Rizzo, Wang, and Vet.

We didn’t do it, Rizzo signed as he mimed a cough and jerked a thumb toward Ketrick.

“Evonne helped me with the spelling. ‘Peace Envoy One’ made no sense,” Ketrick said, rubbing a tiny splatter of white paint off his left hand. “There is nothing peaceful about you people.”


END BOOK ONE


Book 2 - Click Click Boom


Prologue

Rippa held her breath and made her move. Her mech warrior dug its foot into the hard soil found on the planet of Raydon. She did a complete one-hundred-eighty degree turn as her heads-up display confirmed her worst fears were now a reality.

Hold it together, Rippa thought, calming herself. You’ve engaged them a dozen times before and have always come out on top.

The Zenoth were in a frenzy. Bulging black bodies gave way to manic insect faces. Six spindly legs sprouted from their dark bodies. Two massive pincers set in the front of their heads slammed against one another over and over again, peppering the air with a thunderous wave of sound.

SNAP! SNAP! SNAP!

The Zenoth foot soldiers were only a quarter of the size of Rippa’s mech armor. When they stood on their hind legs, they only came up to the area around her armored chest where she sat in her cockpit. Still, when there were this many of them, the odds were not in her favor, or that of her Spartan warriors.

Rippa stood side by side with the three other mechs assigned to her squad, the armor hulls a dull grey, each warrior deadlier than the next. Fear may have been present amongst the squad, but it was a controlled fear, one harnessed and used to make four fight like four hundred.

The Zenoth were two hundred yards and closing fast. Rippa had decisions to make, and they had to be made soon. Stay and fight, or report back to the Dreadnaught. No one would blame her if she decided to run, no one besides herself. Major Rippa Gunna was a Spartan, and Spartans never ran.

“Orders?” a husky male voice said over the comms. “We didn’t get the intel we needed.”

“Gunna?” Another male voice, this one excited with the promise of a fight. “Evacuate, or lower the boom?”

“Atlas, Ragnar, light ’em up.” Gunna gave the two men in her squad the go ahead. “Brimley, watch the flank.”

“Roger!” three voices answered in unison.

Gunna maneuvered the controls in her cockpit to face the wave of oncoming Zenoth. With her own hands, she pushed the handles in front of her to extend her mech warrior’s fists and the steel cannons that rested on either forearm. There were so many of the insect alien creatures racing toward them, aiming wasn’t an issue.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The air lit up around the four warriors as they poured hot metal rounds into the enemy. They had accomplished what they’d come for, the very worst of their suspicions confirmed.

The Zenoth weren’t a particularly intelligent race, but there were hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of them. Hatched in their underground nests, they were born hundreds at a time.

Gunna fired hot steel rods from the twin cannons on her forearms, through the coming horde of Zenoth. Their green blood painted the ground in front of her squad a hundred yards away. At this rate, they would run out of ammunition before they killed half of the swarming force.

Already a pile of corpses was beginning to grow, making it harder for the live Zenoth to reach them over their dead brethren.

Dreadnaught.” Rippa opened a link to the orbiting battleship over Raydon that awaited their return. “This is Major Rippa Gunna, requesting an orbital strike at 0991 2429. Do you copy?”

“Your coordinates are received and locked,” said the nasally voice of some desk jockey who had no idea what it meant to have boots on the ground.

A deep breath, and then a hesitant sigh from the same nasally voice came over the line as he found an error with the request.

“Major, fleet regulations specify any friendly is supposed to be at least—”

“I know the rules; there’s no time.” Rippa turned her giant battle mech left to protect their flank as a dozen Zenoths tried to catch them off guard. “Send the strike!”

“Strike incoming,” the nasally voice came back to her. “Keep your heads down.”

“Roger that.” Rippa switched over to the link to speak with her unit. “Orbital strike incoming—anchor in!”

Gunna punched a button on her control panel set in front of her in the small confines of her mech unit. The area that made up her cockpit was just large enough for her to move her limbs in every direction. A black control no larger than a keyboard was set in front of her, giving her the option from everything of firing the rockets under her mech’s boots, to opening up with her laser cannon on the enemy horde. Right now, she was only interested in her mech’s anchoring capabilities.

Once she hit the button, spikes from both of her mech’s feet buried themselves into the ground a foot and a half deep. Once inside the rough terrain, each spike opened with four smaller steel rods pointing out, cementing the mech’s position.

“That orbital strike coming soon?” Brimley shouted over the comm. “It’s going to come down to claws and flame throwers in a few minutes.”

Both of Rippa’s forearm cannons pounded round after round into the Zenoth horde, but still they came. It seemed like for every Zenoth they sent to its grave, three more jumped over its body and charged forward.

“Thunder is on the way,” Rippa yelled into her comm as she split a Zenoth fifty yards in front of her completely in two with a barrage of steel rods. “Hold those claws in tight.”

“Incoming!” Atlas roared over the comm.

BOOM!

Gunna closed her eyes as the orbital strike hammered the Zenoth a few hundred yards from their position. Multiple munitions detonated on the hard Zenoth soil as the bombing run began.

She got small, her mech hunched down as low to the ground as possible. Even then, the shock from the blast nearly tore her unit from its place in the ground.

As soon as the blast subsided, Rippa looked at the aftermath through her screen. It was now or never. They had come to Raydon to figure out what the Zenoth were up to. They had minutes to climb down into one of the Zenoths’ hive holes and perform a holo sweep before the Zenoth mounted another attack.

“Spartans, on me!” Rippa slammed her hand against the control board, retracting the anchor spikes protruding from her mech’s feet. “We have a small window of opportunity before the Zenoth regroup. Let’s get this done.”

Rippa didn’t wait to hear her unit respond; she was already on her feet, sprinting over the charred and still burning crater the orbital strike had made. Zenoth husks and body parts lay strewn across the strike zone like confetti thrown without care. Varying shades of green blood and gore painted the scene in carnage.

Beyond the dark smoke from the orbital strike in front of her, Rippa saw the Zenoth hive entrance. If she could get inside, the holo tech would do the rest, sweeping the interior of the underground hive and providing all the info they needed.

“Spartans, hold the entrance to the hive.” Rippa raced toward the entrance that looked like a dormant volcano. A steep incline led to a hole that would take her a quarter mile into the planet’s core and the hive of the Zenoth. “Give me sixty seconds.”

“Major, we can help!” Ragnar sounded borderline panicked over the comm. “You don’t have to do this alone.”

“Hold the line,” Rippa responded. Her heads-up display tracked her route to the top of the mound and what lay beyond. “That’s an order. Give me sixty seconds; that’s all I’ll need.”

Gunna sprinted her mech to the top of the hill and launched herself the last few feet. Sweat poured into her face from the inside of the mech. The sensors strapped to her legs and arms meant everything she did in the tight space was mirrored by her armor. Sprinting up the slope was harder than she had imagined.

Here we go, Rippa thought as she launched into the air over the ledge of the hive entrance and fell straight down the black hole. Into the belly of the freaking beast.

Rippa engaged the dual rockets located on the underside of each giant metal foot. The tunnel leading straight down was wide enough for her entire unit of mechs to stand side by side and still have room to maneuver.

The farther she fell, the faster the light above her dissipated.

Gunna had killed thousands of Zenoth in her day, but she had never been in a hive before. The darkness gave way to a dull blue glow that seemed to come from the walls of the tunnel itself. A weird luminescent light showed her all she needed to see.

A dozen feet below, her mech came to a stop on the rough, uneven floor of the hive. Four tunnels branched out around her. Hungry black eyes from thousands of Zenoth filling every tunnel stared back at Rippa. They seemed just as stunned to see a Grovothe mech in their hive as Rippa was to see them.

Strength, finish the mission, Gunna reminded herself as she pressed the button on her display for the holographing of the hive to begin. Green lights raced from her mech in the direction of all four tunnels. The mapping technology would be quick; no more than a few seconds.

Gunna didn’t have a few seconds. As if they were waking from a spell, the Zenoth charged the mech. Despite their lack of weapons or armor, hive mentality took over.

“Come on!” Rippa screamed at them. She clenched her right hand. Three individual blades, each four feet in length, sprung from her right fist. The sword-like weapons sprouted from between each knuckle as her left hand blasted a wall of flames at the Zenoth. “Let’s go!”

Zenoth screamed in pain as they were engulfed in flames. Gunna severed the heads off two of the Zenoth with a single stroke of her right arm. Still, there were too many. They were on her, under her, climbing up her back in a matter of seconds.

Warning lights went off in front of her. The one weapon the Zenoth did have, their incredibly strong pincers, were being put to good use. They clamped onto Rippa’s mech’s legs, arms, even around its throat.

BEEP.

The mapping technology was complete. She had her scan of the hive.

Another warning light went off. Rippa’s mech armor was compromised. The Zenoth all around her were applying an incredible amount of pressure.

Gunna slammed her fist, firing up the jets. She put them on maximum power as she rocketed from the ground. All around her, Zenoth fell off, clicking their pincers in fury.

Gunna shot straight up, back through the hive tunnel, shaking off Zenoth as she went. By the time she could see light, only two Zenoth remained—one attached to her right foot, the other wrapped around her left forearm.

She struck out with her left foot, crushing the exoskeleton of the Zenoth attached to her foot. The claws on her right hand hammered through the eye sockets of the Zenoth attached to her arm. The Zenoth geysered green blood, soaking her mech.

Cresting the lip of the hive, Gunna cut the power to the rockets under her feet. The fuel supply beeped with a red indicator. She was almost out of fuel.

“Are you all right?” Atlas’s rough voice came over the comm. “Did you get it?”

“I got it.” Rippa’s mech touched down beside the other mechs. “Let’s get to the rendezvous and off this godforsaken planet. The Zenoth won’t be far behind.”

Three metal heads nodded in unison as they turned and sprinted to the extraction zone where an Archangel A4 transport ship waited to take them back to the Dreadnaught orbiting the planet.

Gunna did a sweep with her scanners to ensure any Zenoth in pursuit would still be behind them when they reached the extraction point. They were on track to reach the Archangel transport ship a full minute before the Zenoth could catch up, so she took the opportunity to review the information the mapping tech had taken of the underground Zenoth hive.

Her heart sank when she saw the display on her screen.

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

The room of Grovothe leaders aboard the Dreadnaught sat quiet, gawking at the images the holograph of the Zenoth hive had brought back. The information was horrifying. If the Zenoth were able to build ships, the end would be near. The only reason the Zenoth horde was able to be contained at all was the fact they were a lower life form capable of nothing more than crude weapons at the very best.

“If they’ve allied with the Karnayers, we’ll need the full support of our armada behind this strike,” Admiral Tricon said. He rubbed a wrinkled thumb over the deep scar on the right side of his face. The wound itself was rumored to have been from the Zenoth hive queen. “And that still may not be enough. We’ve been holding the Zenoth at bay for hundreds of years, but with this new ally feeding them tech, it may be enough to tip the scales in their favor.”

The war council assembled in the Dreadnaught was as quiet as a tomb. The information Rippa and her Spartans had brought back was the very worst kind. The sheer number of the Zenoth, coupled with Karnayer technology, was a disturbing thought.

“Sir?” Major Gunna raised her hand, remembering a transmission received a few days before.

“Yes, Major Gunna?” The admiral placed both hands on top of the table in front of him. The sleeves of his tight, grey uniform hugged his thick arms. The concentrated hulk of medals, those won in dozens of offenses, hung over his heart and caught the room’s light, glistening. “What is it?”

“I heard reports of a planet reaching out for allies.” Rippa looked around the table for support. “Perhaps we have more friends than we know?”

“I doubt any of our current allies will be able to send help to quell an offense that as of yet does not exist.” An intelligence officer named Jaroth scowled at the situation. “No one is going to believe us when we tell them the Zenoth have figured out how to build ships capable of traveling to other star systems.”

“The report I heard was of a new planet reaching out for allies.” Rippa tried to recall the exact information. “A planet called … Merth?”

“Earth.” Jaroth leaned away from an assistant who had just whispered into his ear. “We received the hail, but did not respond. The species that lives on that planet only have their technology because it was given to them by an alien force that has since been overtaken.”

“Still”—Admiral Tricon looked from Rippa to Jaroth—“if this planet is willing to help, we are in no position to refuse the offer. If they received their technology from another race, let’s hope they’ve managed to evolve with it.”


47

CHUG! CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!

Ketrick and Rizzo raced to finish the twenty-ounce glasses of beer they pressed to their lips. Amber liquid ran down each of the corners of their lips as they gulped large mouthfuls of the alcohol.

At once, the two men lowered their mugs to the table, trying to be the first; the sounds of the glasses striking the circular wooden table in the bar came in unison.

“It was me!” Ketrick looked over at Vet and Riot for confirmation. “I was the first to claim victory!”

Rizzo shook his head emphatically, waving a finger at Ketrick and pointing to a milliliter of beer still in his mug.

“I don’t know, there, Prince,” Riot said with a nod toward Ketrick’s glass. “It doesn’t look empty to me.”

“No matter,” Ketrick said, slapping Rizzo on the shoulder. “I love this game. Let’s do it again!”

Riot couldn’t remember smiling as much as when she was around Ketrick. The Trilord prince was like a kid. Ever since he had come back with them from Hoydren as an emissary between his people and Earth, Riot felt happy.

From his genuine fascination with things like elevators and jeeps, to the way he spoke with strength and determination. After the War Wolves had completed their mission and returned to Earth, Ketrick was kept in the Bulwark for observational tests. Today marked their first run outside of the top-secret facility.

Riot and two other members in their unit had decided to take Ketrick to a bar where he could try to fit in. Riot, along with Vet, Rizzo, and Ketrick wore civilian clothing—jeans, sneakers, and T-shirts. The fabric felt strange on Riot, with the weirdest thing being not having on her combat boots that usually hugged her feet so tightly, they nearly cut off circulation.

Ketrick wore a pair of dark sunglasses to hide his red eyes, and a mouthpiece that fit onto the upper part of his jaw that camouflaged his abnormally long fangs. Wang and Doctor Deborah Miller had fashioned the mouthpiece for him, allowing Ketrick to walk freely among the rest of humanity.

Wang and Deborah had stayed behind, despite the offer of a night out. Wang was deep into his next sci-fi novel, while Doctor Miller simply said she had work to do. When she was prodded for more information, she had stonewalled them.

So it was left to the three humans and one Trilord to go out into the Southern California sun and relax. They had decided on a bar called “The Derelict” and had ordered three beers, along with an energy drink for Riot.

Her long past with alcohol abuse was still too fresh to even think about taking a sip. The memory of drinking her worries away while on Hoydren haunted Riot. She’d thought she was stronger than that. What had happened?

“You okay?” Ketrick’s six-foot-seven frame leaned on the bar next to her. “You look like you are disturbed by your thoughts.”

“Yeah, well, you’re not too far from the truth on that one, Muscles.” Riot lifted the orange energy drink can to her lips. The carbonated chemicals tickled her throat as they rushed to her stomach. “How’s Vikta holding up with you being gone?”

Vikta was Ketrick’s dragon who could control her size, ranging anywhere from the dimensions of a horse to a house. The dragon had been friendly enough on the ride back to Earth, and thus far, had behaved herself in the Bulwark.

“She’s patient, but she’ll need to spread her wings soon,” Ketrick said, adjusting the dark glasses on his face. The long hair tied behind him, and his short dark beard, made him look like a cross between a barbarian and a hipster. “I was going to speak with you, see if you could talk to General Armon about allowing Vikta to fly at night.”

Riot cocked her head, weighing what she thought the general’s answer would be. General Armon was the new head of SPEAR (Special Purpose Exploration and Recon). The secret organization’s former leader, Captain Harlen, had been sent to Hoydren with a platoon of scientists to act as emissaries to the Trilords. Their mission was to learn and share whatever they could. A tit-for-tat that could prove the best way to protect humanity in an increasingly dangerous universe.

“Maybe.” Riot shrugged. “I don’t know him that well. But seeing as how you’re a prince of your people and all, I think it would be hard to deny you. As long as you took Vikta high over the ocean, I can’t imagine you would be sighted easily.”

“So it’s a date?” Ketrick wagged his eyebrows above his sunglasses.

Riot took a deep breath. The memory of their kiss on Hoydren and the feelings she had for Ketrick couldn’t be denied, but neither could her position as the leader of her unit. “Listen, what happened with us on Hoydren was … great, I’m not going to lie, but…”

Riot looked around to make sure Vet and Rizzo were preoccupied. To her delight, a pretty brunette had strolled over and had begun making conversation with the men. They were more than preoccupied for the moment.

“We can’t do this.” Riot tried to imagine the look in Ketrick’s red eyes past his dark sunglasses. “No matter how we feel. We both have duties to attend to. You, to your planet; and me, to the Marines.”

“And you don’t think an opportunity exists for these two ideas to coexist?” Ketrick took a seat next to her at the bar. The stool he sat on groaned under his muscular form. “We can have both and be better for it. We have a saying on my planet. It would be hard for you to pronounce, but it means ‘two are better than one.’”

“Yeah, we have that saying here, too, Romeo,” Riot said, feeling a flutter of panic race down to her stomach as she found herself actually considering the idea of pursuing something with Ketrick.

“Who is this ‘Romeo’ you speak of?” Ketrick pounded his hand on the bar with a wide smile. “He sounds like a wise human. I would meet him.”

“No,” Riot said, and she rolled her eyes, laughing out loud. She found herself laughing a lot these days. “Romeo is a fictional character. He’s a—”

“You eyeing my girl, Cyclops?”

Riot and Ketrick’s conversation was broken by a wide man with inflated muscles and a nonexistent neck, yelling at Vet and Rizzo. Apparently, the pretty brunette that had strolled over to the Marines was not unaccompanied.

“Leave them alone, Stan,” the brunette said, placing a hand on the large man’s chest. “I was just talking to them.”

“Answer the question, you one-eyed freak.” Stan ignored his girlfriend’s petitions to turn away. “Were you talking to my girl?”

Everyone in the bar quieted to see if the confrontation would escalate into a full-on fight. Riot already knew the answer. Rizzo wasn’t going to let anyone talk to his friend like that. In the Marines, there were ties stronger than blood, one of which was you never let your brother be singled out for verbal abuse. Plus, Rizzo liked to fight.

Riot took the lull in the events around her to examine their surroundings. The meathead had at least four friends sitting at a table to their right. The bartender behind her was already reaching for something under the bar. Whether he would use the weapon to end the confrontation or he was one of Stan’s friends still remained to be seen. Either way, Riot wasn’t going to let him draw a bead on her friends.

The powder keg was lit, the fuse already burning. Vet decided to speed up the process.

“I don’t see any livestock around here,” Vet said, peeking around the massive man in front of him, squinting with his one good eye. His left eye was made up of a steel plate that looked like an eye patch. “So, no, I guess I’m not talking to your girl.”

So much blood rushed to Stan’s pale face, Riot thought his head was about to explode. A vein the size of a rope pulsed on his neck.

The next moment, the bar erupted. Vet took the big man down, while Rizzo launched himself at the group of Stan’s friends who came from their table, running to help.

“Oh, good.” Ketrick bolted from his seat, already sprinting to throw himself into the fray next to Rizzo. “I love Earth!”

The bartender brought an ancient-looking, double-barreled shotgun up from behind the counter. As soon as he cleared the muzzle over the bartop, Riot vaulted over and landed next to him. A look of shock clearly written across his face.

Riot swatted away the barrel of the gun while delivering a hard strike to the man’s wrist, then to the side of his neck. The bartender’s grip on the shotgun loosened enough for Riot to rip it free.

The bartender stumbled back, stunned for the moment. Fear lit his eyes as if he thought Riot was going to turn the shotgun on him the next second.

The bartender must have been a local favorite, because there were other members in the bar who were already moving in on Riot to help their fallen friend. Riot pointed the shotgun at them as they tried to scramble over the bartop.

“Easy there, muchachos,” Riot said, cocking back both hammers on the shotgun to lend emphasis to her words. “I’m not looking to add to my body count tonight. No one has to be shot in the groin.”

The bartender scrambled back on his hands and knees until his back hit the end of the bar. His bad combover and stained shirt made him look so pitiful, Riot almost felt bad. Still, she kept the weapon trained on him and the handful of bar patrons who looked to one another with indecision in their bloodshot eyes.

Behind her, Riot could hear yells and grunts as her Marines and Ketrick finished the fight. Riot chanced a glance over her shoulder to see pretty much what she expected. The big man named Stan was unconscious on the ground below Vet. Rizzo wiped blood from the corner of his mouth with a grin. The two men he had dispatched lay in various states of borderline semi-consciousness. One was crawling for the door.

Ketrick held the last two’s heads, one in each of the crooks of his elbows. They looked as though they were rag dolls caught in the arms of a monster.

“I love this planet!” Ketrick lifted his chin to the ceiling and roared.


48

Did you see the look on the little one’s face when our Corporal Sean Rizzo picked him up by the throat?” Ketrick was roaring with laughter as he recounted the night’s events. “Marines are truly impressive warriors, both with weapons and in hand-to-hand combat.”

Riot and the group had decided to call it a night after the events at the bar, but it seemed he, Vet, and Rizzo were continuing to bond over the experience, even after their return to the Bulwark.

The Bulwark was an underground military installation built below the remains of Port Hueneme’s naval base. After the Syndicate had leveled the military base above ground, it was a perfect cover.

As they walked down the halls of the barracks level, their excited voices ringing off the walls, Riot caught sight of General Armon turning the corner down the hall. His uniform laden with medals looked freshly pressed despite the late hour. His perfect military buzz cut and greying mustache made him look every bit the part of a commanding officer.

“I thought that guy was going to piss his pants,” Vet said, roaring with laughter. “I—”

Riot shot her right elbow out and caught Vet hard in the ribs.

“Ugh…” Vet winced, rubbing the spot. “Why … ?”

His words trailed off as he caught sight of the stern-faced general closing in on their position.

“We should go to a bar every night and beat on the local populace.” Ketrick took off his sunglasses and removed the mouth guard on the upper section of his teeth.

Rizzo noticed what both Riot and Vet had seen already. He also nudged Ketrick in the arm and made a slicing motion with his right pointer finger across his own neck to signal for the Trilord to cut it out.

Ketrick looked at Rizzo and at General Armon, who was no more than a few yards in front of them now.

“That is taking things a bit too far,” Ketrick said with a shake of his head. His long, black hair came loose from his bun as he made the motion. “We don’t need to kill the people at the bars; just a friendly brawl would be enough.”

Riot looked over with large eyes at Ketrick, trying to catch his line of sight.

“Next time we get into a bar fight, we should—”

“Hello, General Armon,” Riot said, cutting off whatever else Ketrick was going to say, with a crisp salute to her superior. “Is everything all right, sir?”

Rizzo and Vet did the same kind of salute. Ketrick smiled and waved.

General Armon saluted back. Eyeing the four with a look that said, we both know I know what you were talking about, but we have bigger fish to fry.

“At ease,” General Armon said, looking each one of them in the eyes. He gave a brief, forced smile when he came to Ketrick. “Master Sergeant Riot, I need you to follow me, please.”

A look of unease passed over Rizzo’s and Vet’s faces.

“General Armon,” Ketrick said, finally catching on to why Rizzo was giving him the “cut it” sign. “If this is about tonight, I take full—”

“No, Ketrick,” General Armon said, shaking his head. “You’re fine. I need Master Sergeant Riot for a briefing, that’s all.”

Ketrick eyed Riot, looking to her as if waiting for the okay to leave.

What the heck does this guy think he’s going to do? Riot shook her head furiously, trying to hide another smile. He thinks he’s going to save me from the general?

Vet and Rizzo steered Ketrick away, toward their shared quarters.

“Come on, big boy,” Vet said with a yawn. “Let’s hit the sack.”

General Armon nodded in approval. He turned and led Riot down the hall to the elevator. Riot matched his stride, step for step. His silence was unnerving, but that’s how these officers liked to operate; they let you sweat it out until the last possible minute, before telling you everything was okay.

Unfortunately for Riot, everything was not okay.

“Doctor Miller and the rest of the staff are waiting for us in the briefing room,” General Armon said as the elevator doors opened for them. The general waited for Riot to follow before pressing the button for the first floor in the Bulwark where the conference rooms were located. “We received an answer to one of our calls.”

“Sir?” Riot asked, trying to think what calls he was referring to. “Are you talking about the messages sent out to the list of potential allies the Syndicate left?”

“I am.”

The elevator doors closed as the steel box traveled to one of the many underground levels. Riot’s mind raced with the information she knew. The Syndicate had left them advanced technology, along with a warning that a much darker, much greater foe was coming for Earth. The Syndicate explained that their presence had been for mankind’s greater benefit to make them stronger in the end.

Some people believed the Syndicate. Others still saw them as monsters. Whatever the case was, the fact remained that they had brought advanced alien tech, and with the warning, a list of potential allies that might help defend Earth in time of its greatest need.

Ketrick and the Trilords were the first name on that list. Thus far, everything the Syndicate had told them had been true. A message had been sent out to the second name on the list of possible allies, as soon as Riot and her crew had arrived back safe on Earth a week before. No answer had come, until now.

The doors to the elevator dinged open again. General Armon and Riot walked out onto the catwalk that overlooked a massive bullpen with floor-to-ceiling screens on every wall. Dozens of additional screens rose from the floor in front of desks and in the cubicles of the workers below.

The room was a living data stream of scientists, both military and civilian, who were busy monitoring and mapping the known universe. The data the Syndicate had left behind when it was defeated would take years to analyze, even with a full staff sifting through the information day and night.

Riot followed General Armon to a set of steel spiral stairs that spilled out onto the main floor. They passed red-eyed technicians hard at work at their desks. Coffee cups littered nearly every workstation, like some kind of ancient burial ground where caffeine went to die.

“We’re over here,” General Armon said, pointing to a hall. The first door on the right was his own office, previously occupied by Captain Harlan.

He led Riot past his office and to a set of double doors on the left. Riot entered the room, still dressed in her civilian clothing. She was tired, but she dealt with it like any good Marine. She acknowledged her fatigue, then cleared her mind and focused on what was in front of her.

The meeting room was mostly bare with plain walls. A large, brown oval table sat in the middle of the room, with rolling high-backed chairs all around. A large blank screen was set in the wall at the far end of the room.

Nearly every seat was taken by a gathering of military uniforms and white-lab-coated technicians. Riot recognized a few faces and returned head nods. She noted the ever peppy Doctor Deborah Miller, who was waving to her with a high hand in the air. As luck would have it, the only two empty seats in the room were on either side of the doctor.

The light chatter in the room died down as General Armon made his way to the head of the table, next to the monitor.

“Riot,” Deborah said, motioning to her again in a loud whisper. “Riot, over here. Over here, I saved you a seat. Riot?”

“Oh, hey, Sunshine,” Riot whispered back just as loudly, a plastic smile on her face. “I didn’t see you there.”

“Really?” Deborah smiled as she moved the chair back for Riot. “I was waving to you since you entered the room and whispering really loud.”

General Armon cleared his throat.

The room fell silent.

“We all have things to do, so I’ll make this quick.” General Armon reached for a remote on the edge of the table. “We’ve been trying to contact the list of possible allies that the Syndicate has left for us. After the Trilords, the second group is a race called the Grovothe. We have some FTL and a gate to reach them, but it can be done thanks to Syndicate tech and information left by one called Hadrian. As for communication, it’s been a week since we sent our message. We were already debating whether to send another or move on to the third name on the list, when we received a response from the Grovothe.”

General Armon moved aside from the large screen so everyone would be able to see. With his remote, he dimmed the lights and played the message.

The black screen sprung to life with color. To Riot’s utter surprise, what looked like a heavyset dwarf with hard eyes and a scar on the right side of his face filled the screen. A thick, greying beard added to the overall sense that this alien was straight out of a fantasy novel. He sat behind a steel desk with a window behind him that displayed a kaleidoscope of twinkling stars in space.

He wore a blue uniform pinned with so many medals, Riot wasn’t sure how his uniform fabric kept them all up. His firm gaze bored into the screen. When he spoke, his booming voice demanded every ounce of attention his viewers could muster.

“My name is Admiral Tricon. I am the leader of the Grovothe forces on Shaynar. We received your transmission a week ago. In all honesty, we have been debating whether to contact you in return. Our indecisiveness was based not on questioning your morality; rather, it was a question of your strength. But dire times call that all holding the banner of hope and freedom band together. We are offering a meeting to talk about the possibility of an alliance between our two worlds. A time and location will be sent along with this message.”

That was it. The screen went black.

“Heartwarming,” Riot said as General Armon turned off the screen and raised the lights in the room. “I just feel so wanted and loved right now.”

If General Armon were capable of cracking a smile, Riot imagined he would. Instead of a grin, all she got were a few nods from her commanding officers around the table. A few of the other military officers and scientists smirked at her comment and mumbled agreements. It was as though the Grovothe had run out of options for the school dance and Earth was the last option.

“Unlike the Trilords, the Grovothe seem to be a fairly advanced race,” Deborah said, speaking up. “They may be either at the same level of technology as the Syndicate, or perhaps even ahead.”

“They’ll be powerful allies when war returns to our planet,” General Armon said, nodding to a major who had his hand in the air. “Major Noe?”

“Sir.” A muscular officer sitting on the opposite side of the table cleared his throat. “Are you hinting that you are aware of an impending attack?”

The room was silent as a tomb, every eye awaited the General’s response.

“War is always on the horizon, major.” General Armon took the opportunity to sweep the room. “It’s not a matter of if, but when. The sky will fall.”


49

Your team is to leave tomorrow,” General Armon said, sitting in his high-backed leather chair.

Riot stood at ease in the small office that had once been occupied by her friend, Captain Harlan. The room was just like she remembered, with an old flag mounted on the wall to her right, splattered with dark crimson spots. In front of her, the general sat behind a desk, and behind him, an empty bookcase.

“Admiral Tricon sent us the location of where the meeting is to take place. Our navigation team tells us it’s above a planet called Raydon.” The general paused, steel brown eyes looking past Riot’s shoulder as he thought hard.

“But we’re wondering why there,” Riot said. “It’s clear we’re not their first choice when it comes to allies. They want something from us. Or could it be a trap?”

General Armon’s dark eyes shifted to Riot’s. “I don’t think so, but you’re to use all caution when dealing with the Grovothe. We have no reason to think they are luring us into a trap, but neither do we have anything but the Syndicate’s words saying we can trust them.”

“Understood.”

“You and your team are to gear up and leave in the morning.”

“By my team, you’re talking about Wang, Rizzo, Vet, Doctor Miller, and Ketrick?” Riot asked. She had never directly addressed the inclusion of Ketrick into her unit, but there was no assuming in the Marines.

“The Trilord Ketrick is an ambassador between his planet and ours. I’m not eager to put him in harm’s way, even if he is.” General Armon leaned back in his chair as if he were anticipating a rebuttal from Riot.

For the first time, the real possibility of Ketrick not being by her side confronted Riot. The feeling of loss and disappointment she felt surprised her.

Hold it together. You’re not a teenager, Riot chided herself. He’ll be here when you get back.

“Would you be willing to hear what he has to say?” Riot asked as a light bulb exploded in her head. “I’d hate to disappoint the newest member of our intergalactic alliance if he had other ideas than the ones planned for him.”

General Armon gave Riot a sideways glance like he had when he ran into her and her unit after they’d returned from the bar. Instead of answering Riot, he pressed a finger to a comm key on his uniform collar. “Lieutenant Mahaffey, will you see if Ketrick is still awake, and if so, escort him to my office? Thank you.”

“I appreciate it, sir,” Riot said, nodding her thanks.

“It’s the least I can do,” General Armon said. “Doctor Miller’s very, very, very long and extremely detailed report of the goings-on during your first mission with SPEAR makes you look like a hero. That, with your track record and the shining recommendation by Captain Harlen, makes your request an easy one to accommodate. So does my decision to promote you to Warrant Officer.”

Riot’s jaw dropped. Not only was she unaware of her consideration for a promotion, but jumping from the rank of Master Sergeant to Warrant Officer felt unprecedented.

“Sir, it’s not … it’s not that I’m not grateful, but is that even possible? I mean—”

“You’re really going to ask me if a change in your rank is possible?” General Armon shook his head and took a long breath. “We have a dragon in an underground bunker where we are decoding alien technology that allows us to travel the universe. Point is, we need more officers and, if you’re going to be basically in charge of a ship, you need the promotion. That’s the most I can justify. It’s more than that, too. The soldiers need leaders, and I see you as leadership potential.”

“Point taken, sir,” Riot said, understanding the irony in her previous statement. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. You made the choice an easy one. I’m willing to give credit where credit is earned.” General Armon tilted his head as he listened to a report that came through a tiny earpiece in his left ear. “Ketrick is on the way.”

Riot nodded along with the words. Rising to the rank of Warrant Officer was something she had never dreamed of, but to the general’s point, neither had she dreamed of traveling past their solar system or meeting a dragon in real life.

“I’ll have all the information we have on the Grovothe sent to your quarters,” General Armon said, giving Riot a glance that actually looked like something past his normal hard stares. A look that showed he might actually care for her past her being a Marine. “Be careful, out there. You took excellent care of your team during the last mission despite overwhelming odds. I trust you will do the same on your second outing.”

“I will, sir.” Riot was going to say more, but heavy steps from outside stopped her next words.

A hard knock came at the door.

“Come in.” General Armon stood from his seat. He pulled down his uniform jacket to smooth out any wrinkles.

Ketrick moved into the room, his massive frame making the small room seem even tinier. His red eyes glanced over to Riot for direction.

Good luck, kid, Riot thought. You’re going to have to convince him on your own.

“Ketrick, thank you for coming. I know it’s late,” General Armon said, filling the silence. “I’ll get right to it. Riot and her team are leaving on a mission tomorrow, and she expressed concern that you may want to accompany them.”

“She would be correct in assuming so.” Ketrick moved his inquiring eyes from Riot to the General. “I understand I am an emissary between your people of Earth and my own, but I am also a warrior. I don’t intend to stay at the Bulwark if there is work that needs to be done.”

“I would caution you that the mission she is going on is dangerous. If something were to happen to you…” General Armon paused, trying to think of the correct words.

“You’re concerned that if I fall, my people will hold you responsible.” Ketrick nodded along, understanding everything the general wasn’t saying. “General Armon, my people understand how much a debt we owe Earth, and especially Master Sergeant Riot, for saving my life. If I were to fall in combat, my people would only hold stronger to their word. My mother is a wise and stubborn woman. Oh, and if I may, Vikta would like to stretch her wings under the cover of night.”

“Who—” Realization hit the general. His eyebrows rose as he considered the fallout. “I’m willing to allow you certain privileges in light of our new alliance. If you want to take your dragon out, you take her out high over the ocean at night. The last thing we need is reports from terrified citizens of a giant dragon soaring over the California coast.”

“Thank you, General,” Ketrick said with a wide smile.

“Well, I can’t keep you or your dragon against your will,” the general said as if he had always known the conversation would go this way. “You’re free to go out tonight, and with Warrant Officer Riot on her next mission.”

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

Riot stood in the lowest level of the Bulwark next to Ketrick and Vikta. The underground hangar was a massive room filled with varying sizes of ships the Syndicate had left them. There were fighter crafts meant to hold a single person, midsize cruisers like her own, The Valkyrie built for long distance travel and a dozen or more Marines, and finally, the battleships that looked like flying cruise liners.

Riot admired the crew of mechanics and technicians who worked around the clock to maintain and build even more of these crafts. Once the Syndicate had given them the technology to build spaceships of their own, it was game on. The far end of the hangar was reserved for new crafts in varying states of repair.

These ships were all primarily dark grey. A few of the cruisers had deep purple undertones, and the smaller fighter crafts were etched with bright blue around their hard corners and sleek surfaces.

“Easy, easy, fierce one,” Ketrick said, stroking the snout of his dragon. “We will be away in a moment. First we have to convince Riot to come.”

“Say what?” Riot grabbed her flat stomach as she feigned laughter. “No, no, no, I’m here to make sure you and Vikta get out and have a good time. This Marine is fine right where she is.”

Ketrick looked over to Vikta, who snorted.

The dragon was capable of altering her size from the height and bulk of a compact car to an entire building. Vikta changed now. Her whitish-grey scales elongated as she made the transition from kind of scary to truly horrifying.

Riot took a few steps back to allow room for the dragon to change. The hammering and white noise of voices and machines in the hangar quieted as every worker took a moment to pee their pants.

Vikta was a true wonder. From a mouth that could swallow Riot in one bite to her swishing tail and folded wings, she was a perfect combination of beauty and horror, rolled into one large package.

“She says you’re afraid,” Ketrick laughed, approaching Vikta. He patted her on the side of her massive left forearm.

Riot reminded herself to close her jaw. The walls of her mouth were dry. “Yeah, I’m not even going to try to lie to you on that one. I’m standing in front of a dozen tons of muscle and teeth. You bet your red alien eyes I’m a little hesitant.”

“Hmmm, you think?” Ketrick looked from Vikta to Riot and back again. He ignored Riot for the time being and carried on a conversation with Vikta. “I don’t know if she’s ready. She’s tougher than she looks, though. Maybe I’ll ask her.”

“Would you and Vikta like to share with the rest of the class what you two are talking about?” Riot asked, folding her arms over her chest. She had the sinking suspicion that she was about to be peer pressured into something she didn’t want to do.

“Vikta thinks you should ride with us tonight.” Ketrick shrugged and raised both his hands in sign of surrender. “Not my idea. She’s the one who likes you.”

“Oh, and you don’t?”

“You know I do.”

Riot’s cheeks flushed. She was suddenly painfully aware they were still the center of attention in the hangar. She turned on her heels, scowling at a mechanic with a steel rivet in one hand and a gigantic metal tool in the other. He was gawking at the trio, his mouth wide open.

“Come on, back to work, people,” Riot said, clapping her hands together. “There’s nothing to see here. Chop-freaking-chop.”

At once, the noise of work in the hangar picked up again. Hammering sounded, and the sound of steel being cut filled the air.

What are you going to do? Riot asked herself as she turned back to an inquiring Ketrick and Vikta. It’s not every day you get invited to mount a dragon with a muscled warrior that rivals Conan. It could be your only chance.

“I’m in,” Riot said, pushing away any fear she was feeling, and took a step toward Vikta. “How do we mount up? Is there a roll-out stairwell or something?”

Ketrick shared a shocked glance with Vikta. The dragon narrowed her eyes. Riot swore the corner of the dragon’s mouth turned up in a grin. The beast brought its head down and nudged Riot with the heavy tip of her snout.

“Vikta approves of your courage,” Ketrick said, about to put his hands on Riot’s waist to give her a boost onto the dragon’s back. He paused for a moment. “May I?”

“Let’s get this show on the road,” Riot said with a nod. “Are there seat belts or something to strap in to up there?”


50

Maybe I was too hasty in my decision-making process.” Riot sat behind Ketrick on Vikta’s back. The massive dragon rose to all fours and unfurled its wings.

Vikta’s left wing clipped a small blue-and-grey fighter craft that looked like a Corvette with two small blasters fixed on each wing.

The tiny craft skidded on its wheel into a much larger destroyer. A dozen mechanics’ heads rose from their work and eyed Riot with scowls.

“That’s our bad,” Riot yelled lifting her hands up to calm the dirty looks. “That one’s on us. Back—uh … as you were. As you were.”

“Ready?” Ketrick asked Riot.

“As ready as I’m ever going to be.” Riot felt sturdy on Vikta’s hard back. The dragon’s scales were as solid as stone but at no point did they point up. Spikes ran down the dragon’s spine. Riot grabbed the one in front of her.

Without further warning, Vikta launched upwards. The sound of the dragon’s gigantic wings beating the air on either side of Riot was like listening to the sounds of a gathering storm as the wind picked up speed.

All around them, the mechanics in the hangar ducked their heads. Workers widened their stances so as to not be blown over.

Ketrick said something Riot couldn’t understand, before Vikta shot forward. The jerk was so sudden, Riot grabbed on to Ketrick’s firm torso in front of her.

Riot’s adrenaline spiked as Vikta aimed for the circular tunnel built into the side of one of the hangar walls. The tunnel curled up, sending them out into the night sky.

The feeling of riding without a harness as the wind rushed past Riot’s short, brown hair was like nothing she had ever experienced. The closest thing she could relate the feeling to was riding on her Harley down the Pacific Coast Highway.

One moment, they were in the hangar; the next, they were engulfed by the dark steel that made up the underground tunnel. Lucky for Vikta, the diameter of the tunnel was made large enough for the destroyers to pass through.

Bright, white lights set into the walls of the tunnel clicked on as they progressed upward. Riot leaned to the right to see past Ketrick’s wide shoulder. The tunnel exit was already open, providing a view of thousands of sparkling stars that made up the Milky Way galaxy.

Cold air caressed her face as Riot experienced a surge of happiness and something she hadn’t felt in a very long time: Freedom. The unlikely trio soared higher and higher until the shoreline below them was nearly invisible through the darkness.

Vikta finally evened out. She beat her wings slowly in time, like a metronome, as they flew farther and farther away from land. White-capped waves grew and diminished below them. Tiny lights on the dark ocean signified ships.

Riot could only imagine the looks on the sailors’ faces if they happened to look up and see Vikta pass.

“What do you think?” Ketrick leaned back and shouted into Riot’s ear.

“Perfect,” Riot shouted back. A jittery feeling of contentment climbed up her spine as she cracked a huge grin no one could see.

When they finally came to a stop on the side of a mountain, she leaned back and stared into the sky, and just felt like laughing.

“It wasn’t always like this, here,” she told him. “When the Syndicate was still in charge, you wouldn’t believe the trash heap Earth was. It felt like living in a cockroach infested toilet, if you know what I mean.”

“Cockroach?” he shook his head.

“They’re these little bugs that can’t be killed. I mean, it’s like—”

“Like you,” he replied with a wide smile.

“Excuse me?”

“You and the War Wolves. I’m quite certain there’s nothing that could kill you. You’re cockroaches.”

For a moment Riot couldn’t decide whether she should be flattered or offended, but then she just started laughing and laughing. Soon Ketrick joined in, though he didn’t seem to know why. When they were done, they stayed up half the night sharing stories about their worlds and the old days. It was a perfect night, with the warm breeze of the dragon’s breaths at their back as it slept—or pretended to sleep to give them privacy—and Ketrick’s smile reminded her why she was fighting here. For all of these moments. So that they would never stop.

That night was a memory Riot knew she would always keep close. It was a memory she would need to get her through her next mission.

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

“Are you sure we have to go today?” Corporal Chen Wang said, brushing lint off the shoulders of his uniform. SPEAR had provided them with special uniforms when traveling in space. Wang wore his dark-blue-lined grey uniform, signifying his class.

He was the first to arrive at the hangar the morning after Riot had received the news. Riot was still on an emotional high from her outing with Vikta and Ketrick the night before. She felt rested and ready to dominate whatever task stood in her way next.

Her own uniform was dark grey, but lined with red where Wang’s was blue. Her uniform was plain except for the circular SPEAR patch on her right shoulder and her rank on the left side of her chest.

“I’m sure we have to go,” Riot said, nodding to the rest of her squad as they entered the hangar. “I’ll brief you all once we’re in the air.”

“It just couldn’t be worse timing,” Wang said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I had such a hot date lined up for tonight.”

“Your mom in town again?” Vet asked, joining the two.

“My mother is a beautiful woman,” Wang said, glaring at his friend.

“No argument there,” Vet said, waggling both of his eyebrows, the one over his good eye and the other over the metal patch set into the socket of the other. “I remember last time she came down and visited.”

Your mom’s hot. Rizzo used sign language with a shrug. Sorry, but it’s true.

“I’m going to kill you both—”

“Riot, what’s that on your chest?” Doctor Miller pointed to the new insignia designating Riot’s new position.

Everyone gawked at the promotion. Ketrick was the only one who seemed confused by the doctor’s question.

“Doctor Miller”—Ketrick looked to the others, confused—“those are called breas—”

“Congratulations, Warrant Officer Riot!” Wang, Vet, and Rizzo all snapped to attention and saluted.

“Sorry we didn’t recognize sooner.” Vet’s signature scowl turned into a lopsided grin. It was one of the few instances that anything but a frown touched his face.

“It’s all right,” Riot said, saluting her men in return. “It just happened last night. Is everyone ready to settle in? We need to be in the air within the hour.”

“Roger,” the responses came back, even from Doctor Miller. It seemed that the civilian scientist was picking up on the native dialect.

“Who is this ‘Roger,’ and why do you always refer to him?” Ketrick asked. He looked from one Marine to the next, searching for answers.

“I actually have no idea.” Wang picked up the duffel bag at his feet. “Ask Evonne when we board. She’s full of useful information.”

Wang was referring to the ship’s Artificial Intelligence that inhabited their ship, the Valkyrie.

Riot’s unit crossed the hangar floor, heading for their ship. The Valkyrie was a military-class cruiser equipped for long-distance travel, with enough weapons to defend itself in a firefight.

The exterior of the ship reminded Riot of a bat emblem she had seen on an old superhero movie a long time ago. The Valkyrie had a long nose and a heavy wing that sloped up toward the front of the ship on each side. The wings each ended in a sharp edge. Each wing end was fitted with an intimidating cannon. The back cargo ship door sat under a row of thrusters that powered the ship.

The door was closed now as Riot and her unit approached.

Rizzo pointed to the side of their dark grey-and-purple ship. A huge cheshire smile crossed his lips, revealing a set of perfect white teeth.

Everyone’s gaze swung up to see what had brought Rizzo such joy. On the side of the ship’s hull, in large white lettering, were the ship’s name and a mantra below it that read: The Valkyrie, Click, Click, Boom!

“Huh,” Vet huffed. “They let us keep it, and they actually touched it up so it looks good. No offense to Rizzo or Ketrick, I’m just saying it looks nice.”

The Trilord and Rizzo shared a glance. They had been the key influencers of changing the ship’s name from Peace Envoy One to what they saw now.

“I thought it would be nice to have everyone on the same page, since the ship’s previous name was a constant subject of scrutiny,” Doctor Miller said as she brushed a long strand of blonde hair behind her ear. “And no, before you ask, the answer is already no.”

“How do you know what we were going to ask?” Riot lifted a brow in the doctor’s direction. “We could be asking what you want for breakfast.”

“Unlikely, though that would be nice,” Doctor Miller said, shaking her head with a laugh. “You cannot call yourselves the War Wolves on a mission where we are trying to build alliances, but—”

Doctor Miller lifted a finger to hush whatever was about to come out of Wang’s and Vet’s mouths. The two already had their jaws open ready to protest.

“But after much debate and filing the right paperwork, I have a surprise that I think will make everyone very happy,” Doctor Miller said, clearing her throat and adjusting her black-rimmed glasses as if she were preparing to give them the news of their lives. “We now have SPEAR’s permission to refer to ourselves as … wait for it … Oh, this is so exciting. I can’t wait to see the looks on your faces. PE-One!”

This chick, Riot thought as she studied the Doctor. She thinks she’s doing us a favor by allowing us to call ourselves by an acronym. She actually thinks she’s helping us.

Everyone looked to each other, trying to figure out if the doctor was serious or if this was some kind of weird joke.

“Well, what do you think?” Doctor Miller looked around at the squad, then zeroed in on Riot. “Do you like it?”

For a split second, Riot remembered watching a movie where a kid had made a wooden pickle for his father as a gift. A freaking wooden pickle that looked like a piece of excrement. He thought it was the best present in the world. His father had looked at it and thrown it away.

Be nice, Riot said to herself as she forced a smile to her lips. She means well in her own weird way.

“That’s … thoughtful … of … you,” Riot said the words like a robot. It actually made her feel sick to be so nice.

“Oh good, I’m so glad you like it!” Doctor Miller jumped up and down, clapping her hands together in front of her chest. “I was so worried you weren’t going to think it was a big deal.”

“Actually it kind of suck—” Ketrick stomped his booted foot onto Wang’s left foot. “Awww … suuuuuper.”

“Evonne, can you open the cargo doors, please?” Riot looked up at the ship’s metal cargo door.

“Immediately, Warrant Officer Riot.” Evonne’s ethereal voice drifted from the ship. “Congratulations on your promotion, Warrant Officer, and on the new uniforms.”

“I thought they were new,” Vet said, looking down at his clothes. “Kind of tight in the crotch, though, if you ask me.”

“Yes, we all have the SPEAR insignia on our uniforms now, and the secondary color of our uniform better fits our class,” Doctor Miller said, smiling up at the ship as the cargo bay ramp slowly lowered. “Riot’s secondary color is red, for leadership. Vet’s and Rizzo’s are yellow for engineer. Corporal Wang and I share blue for medic and scientist.”

“Well, I’m glad that mystery is cleared up.” Riot rolled her eyes as the cargo bay finished lowering. “Let’s settle in. Briefing when we hit hyperspace. Time to go to work, Marines.”


51

Riot stood on the bridge behind Rizzo, who touched the holographic display on the pilot’s control panel in front of her. She watched as he ran through the ships pre-flight system checks without really seeing what he was doing at all.

Riot was deep in thought about their mission and what she was going to tell her team. She was going to give them all the facts, of course, but should she also bring up what she suspected? That the Grovothe only wanted to meet with them now because they wanted something from them?

The metal doors to the bridge slid open with a whoosh.

“How is she not a spirit?” Ketrick strode in, wearing long, dark pants and boots with a cut-off brown shirt. “I understand she is everywhere on the ship at once, so she’s a spirit, by definition.”

“Artificial Intelligence is closer to a computer program than a supernatural event,” Evonne said, her Australian accent cutting through her words. “I assure you, I am no spirit. Is your dragon aboard and secure on the ship, Prince Ketrick?”

“Vikta has resumed a smaller state and is lounging in the ship’s cargo bay.” Ketrick looked up at the ship’s ceiling as if he were expecting to see Evonne at any moment. “Truly wondrous.”

“Thank you,” Evonne said as the doors to the bridge whooshed open again. The three other members of the unit walked in, all taking their seats. Deborah and Wang to her left, Vet, and now Ketrick, to her right.

Riot took the captain’s chair in the middle of the bridge.

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

“Incoming call from General Armon,” Evonne said. “Shall I put him on the main screen?”

“Yes,” Riot said, directing her attention to the large glass window that looked out the front of their ship.

A second later, General Armon’s perfect buzzed haircut, groomed mustache, and crisp uniform filled their field of view. His eyes were hard, his tone serious as he began.

“Marines, I know you didn’t have much downtime between missions, but when you’re the best of the best, you take what you can get when you can get it. Warrant Officer Riot will be briefing you while you are en route to your objective. I just wanted to remind you that, although the general populace will never know what you are doing today, the entire staff at the Bulwark, as well as my superiors and the President of the United States himself, see you for what you are: men and women willing to put themselves in the way of danger not only for our great nation, but also for the entire planet.”

General Armon paused for a moment as if he were gathering his thoughts. The look of pure determination never left his square jawline.

“There is a word for those people who do the right things, the hard things, even when no one will know. Those people are called heroes. Take care of each other, remember your training, and come back safe. God speed, Marines. Oohrah!”

“Oohrah!”

The deep sound from the three Marines on the bridge and Rizzo, who pounded a fist to his chest, accompanied the act of the screen disappearing and the window transitioning to clear glass.

“Are we ready to rock and roll, Corporal Rizzo?” Riot said from her seat as she secured the harness over her chest.

Rizzo’s answer came up in large, red letters across the main screen on the bridge: READY TO ROCK

“You have permission to take off,” Riot said, glancing over to Vet, who looked at her expectantly with his one good eye. “Where are we flying to today?”

Vet’s constant frown changed from his nose down. His brow remained furrowed but his mouth turned into a grin.

“Evonne,” Vet said to the AI, “play the soundtrack I most recently uploaded to the ship’s mainframe, please.”

“Right away,” Evonne responded. A moment later, the bridge was filled with a melody by a classic rapper from many years ago, Biggie Smalls; his song “Hypnotize” blared over the ship’s speakers.

Rizzo activated the engines. The ship shuddered to life. The next moment, they were lifting off the hangar floor, turning in a tight circle so the nose of their craft aimed at the exit tunnel.

In front of Riot, Rizzo’s head bobbed up and down with the music. Out of her peripheral vision, she could see the rest of the crews’ heads follow the motion. Even Doctor Miller and Ketrick were feeling the beat.

Riot’s stomach clenched and felt as though it hit her spine as Rizzo punched the thrusters. The Valkyrie rocketed forward into the tunnel and up the long, metal tube to the surface.

“Do we always have to take the tunnel this fast!?” Doctor Miller shouted, her face pale. She pressed the back of her right hand to her mouth like she was about to puke.

Rizzo turned in his seat, the craft still ascending through the tunnel. He looked at the doctor with a worried expression and a head nod, asking if she was all right.

“Keep your eyes on the road! Eyes on the road!” Doctor Miller practically screamed. “Oh God, I’m going to be sick.”

Rizzo smiled and turned back to the control panel. The next second, the ship was through the tunnel and headed up. The bright, orange star they called the sun blazed to the east.

Riot went with the feeling of the G-force pressing against her body as the ship barreled through the atmosphere. The Marines had taught her a lot about life. One of the harder lessons was that when things got tough, you embraced the struggle and, knowing it would pass, continued on.

Soon, the sky transitioned from blue to black. Thousands of stars twinkled out in the blackness of space, each one of these bright spots on the ebony map carrying a unique story waiting to be told. A story that could now be explored, thanks to the help of faster-than-light-speed travel.

Sooner or later, Riot understood other Peace Envoy Units would be assembled, if they weren’t already. Mankind’s greatest urge was to explore. They wouldn’t settle until they had reached the ends of the universe. Riot was sure of that, more than anything in her life. For now, that meant gathering allies. How long before they discovered enemies?

Thoughts of the alien race of Karnayers that Riot and her team had encountered while on Ketrick’s home planet of Hoydren swam across her mind. Earth had already discovered their next foe. At present, the Karnayers had been dealt with, either killed, retreated, or captured, while their leader, Remus, was being kept alive in a Trilord prison.

When the Trilords were done ensuring he paid for his crimes, he would be transported to Earth. What they would find out from him would be crucial to preparing for the next time they encountered the race of aliens. There was no doubt the alien would refuse to speak. Riot had heard stories of black ops interrogators and what they were willing to do to gather information.

Let’s just focus on what we have in front of us, Riot reminded herself. There’s enough to deal with here and now without worrying about the next conflict with the Karnayers.

The sound of someone puking brought Riot back to the current task at hand.

Doctor Miller had vomited all over the floor. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

She lowered her head, sending another wave of grey liquid onto the bridge floor. There were chunks of creamy mush in her vomit, and even a few brown lumps.

“Let me guess,” Riot said, eyeing the doctor with an amused expression. “Oatmeal, banana, and … raisins?”

Doctor Miller looked up, wiping a uniform sleeve across her mouth. “Yes, how … how did you know?”

“It’s like her superpower,” Wang said, looking down at the vomit with a grimace. “She can pick out vomit like a pro.”

“Get yourself cleaned up,” Riot said to her, then looked over to Vet. “Can you plot the course for us to the designated rendezvous? I’ll send you the coordinates now.”

“Roger that,” Vet said as he started maneuvering his hands around the hologram control desk in front of his station. See-through red images designating controls and readouts popped up in front of him.

Riot looked down at the right armrest of her chair where a control panel rested. She punched in a few of the keys, bringing up a file and sending it to Vet.

“Received and sending it over to Rizzo,” Vet said as he turned to Riot with a raised eyebrow. “Permission to ask where we’re going now?”

“As soon as we hit faster than light speed, FTL, I’ll tell you all the good stuff.” Riot looked up to the main screen where Rizzo was typing.

Coordinates locked. Ready on your go.

“Should we do something about that first?” Wang asked from his seat next to Deborah Miller. He looked green and was holding a hand to his own mouth. “It’s going to start sliding around when we hit FTL. I know it.”

“Suck it up,” Riot said, shaking her head and motioning to Rizzo. “Rizzo, let’s go.”

Roger that. Rizzo’s answer appeared in typed out red letters on the giant screen.

There was a slight jolt as the windows in front of them transitioned from a black canopy of white stars, to a warping mixture of colors that spanned the spectrum of the rainbow. Ethereal lights transitioned from red to blue to orange and every other color Riot could think of.

Who would have thought FTL would be like looking at the Northern Lights, Riot thought. Kinda makes you forget you’re traveling at breakneck speed through galaxies.

Wang leaned over and vomited on the floor next to himself and Doctor Miller.

“Ugh, I’m usually good on trips, until I smell someone else’s vomit,” Wang said, letting out another torrent of his last meal. “We really need to clean this up.”

“It smells. His smells so bad!” Doctor Miller looked up at Riot with panic in her eyes. “I’m going to throw up again.”

“Easy.” Riot scrunched her own nose as the sour odors wafted in her direction. “Fine. Let’s get this cleaned up, and then I’ll tell you about the dwarves we’re off to meet.”


52

Riot sat in the captain’s chair on the bridge as Wang and Deborah mopped up their vomit. Her eyes tracked back and forth, scanning the information on her hologram display built into the side of her chair’s arm.

The piece of technology mirrored her hand’s movements, bringing a screen to the front as she motioned upward. When she slid her hand to the side, it transitioned to the next screen. Information matching what Riot had heard in the briefing the night before came to the front of the screens as she shifted through the reports for any piece of new information.

After her ride on Vikta the night before, Riot had stayed up into the early hours of the morning, looking through the information given to her on the Grovothe. To be honest, there wasn’t much.

Rizzo and Vet were busy at their consoles. Riot could feel Ketrick’s eyes on her.

“Yes?” Riot looked up at the Trilord. “Can I help you with something, or do you just want to stare?”

Ketrick shrugged. “I’m just admiring the technology you have at your disposal, Sorceress. I’ll have to get Evonne to teach me more of these wonders so I, too, can use the controls.”

Riot bit back a retort about being referred to as a sorceress. Riot and Ketrick both knew she wasn’t a witch, but they also knew Riot thought it was funny, whether or not she would admit it to the Trilord.

“Man, no more jalapeño spaghetti for breakfast for this Marine,” Wang said, shaking his head. He tossed a rag into a steel bucket. “That was rough.”

“If I had a physical form, I might have been able to assist in cleaning up the human vomit,” Evonne said. “However, since I am simply an artificial intelligence that lives in the ship, I cannot help.”

“Yes, we all know you want a body,” Riot said, shaking her head as she rehashed an old topic with the AI. “I’ll put in a request with the general.”

“I’ll be right back.” Doctor Miller coughed as she picked up the steel bucket they had used to clean the mess. She carried the vessel as if it had the power to vomit on her.

Rizzo’s text popped up on the screen. The course we’ve plotted will keep us in FTL just over twenty-four hours, with just the one gate to travel through.

“Good,” Riot said, interlacing the fingers on both hands and cracking her knuckles. “We’ll have plenty of time to rest and prepare.”

“Sorry, I’m back.” Doctor Miller rushed to her seat. “What did I miss?”

“We’re going to arrive at wherever it is we’re going, tomorrow,” Wang said, recapping Rizzo’s report. “Warrant Officer Riot was just about to tell us where we’re going and who we’re going to meet.”

Riot sent an image from her controls to the large window on the ship. A picture of the same stout admiral who had sent them the video in the briefing appeared.

“They’re called the Grovothe, and they live on a planet called Shaynar,” Riot started. “They’re just as advanced as the Syndicate, maybe even more so. We reached out to them in friendship, and they ignored us for a week. Then we got a message from them asking to meet. We’re on our way now to rendezvous with the Grovothe and see what they want.”

“How do you know they want something?” Ketrick scratched the underside of his jaw. “They could be simply willing to ally with us.”

“Possibly,” Riot said, shaking her head, “but in my experience, they didn’t wait a week to respond because they were having problems with their cell phones. They want something from us, or it’s a trap.”

“Oh, I hope it’s a trap,” Vet sighed, leaning back into his chair daydreaming about the possibility. “We have some new tech I’ve been working on and—”

“Let’s not hope it’s a trap, but in the same breath, be ready for whatever comes our way,” Riot corrected her executive officer. “We already have the Karnayers to think about, plus let’s not forget about the cryptic race they referred to as the Ancient Ones.”

“Point taken,” Vet said, sitting straight up in his chair.

“Weapons when we get there?” Wang asked, looking to Riot with a raised eyebrow. “Armor?”

Doctor Miller looked up at Riot, her mouth already open, about to interject.

“We’ll take sidearms only,” Riot said in a voice meant to placate the doctor. “I understand this is a peace-keeping mission, but I think a standard sidearm, holstered, won’t rub our new friends the wrong way.”

There was a rippling of nods as the Marines, the doctor, and the Trilord agreed with Riot’s plan.

“All right,” Riot said, rising from her seat. “Rest up. We’re auditioning for new friends tomorrow.”

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

Riot passed the rest of her day going over the information they had on the Grovothe one more time. She hadn’t missed anything, but it made her feel better to study the race she would be meeting the next day. The things that stood out to her the most was that fact that the Grovothe had, on their own, been able to conjure up technology that far surpassed anything Earth would’ve been able to create in the absence of the Syndicate.

The second thing that struck Riot was the level of information they must have, not only in weapons and technology, but also in knowledge of the universe. What would they be able to tell her about the Ancient Ones, or the Karnayers, or the thousands of other alien races who were sure to live amongst the stars.

After studying and a quick meal at the mess hall, Riot headed for the sparring room. The Valkyrie consisted of three levels, each standing about ten feet in height. These levels met at the rear of the ship to form the cargo bay, which was one wide-open room filled with equipment.

The sparring room was located on the middle floor, right before the ship opened up into the cargo bay. Riot wasn’t too surprised to find herself alone. The ship was large enough to give them all privacy. She wore a black tank top and pants, with sneakers meant for running.

The training room was as large as any gym Riot had been to. A square blue mat sat in the middle of the room. Circling the mat was every piece of machinery Riot could ask for: squat bars, dumbbells, kettle bells, battle ropes, and benches were just a few she made mental notes to visit.

The next hour was spent beating her body into submission. She lifted, squatted, and pressed until her muscles screamed with fiery accomplishment. Sweat trickled down her forehead. Her shoulder-length brown hair tied behind her, Riot ignored the rise in her body’s temperature and kept going.

“You look like you’re going to hurt someone,” Ketrick said from the doorway. He still wore the same clothes as before, seemingly ill-prepared for exercise.

“That’s just my normal face,” Riot grunted as she heaved the two black dumbbells in her hands back onto the rack. “What’s up?”

“I was checking in on Vikta and heard someone moaning in here. I thought I should come to be sure no one was having a stroke.”

“I was grunting. It’s called working out. You should try it sometime.”

“You should try sparring sometime.”

Riot looked up at the playful grin on the Trilord’s face. His short, black beard accented the white teeth and elongated canines as he smiled. Riot took a swig from a water bottle. “Is that a challenge?”

“I have nothing but respect for you as a Marine, but I don’t think it would be a fair fight. I have nine inches and more than a hundred pounds on you.” Ketrick glanced down at his body, then to hers.

“You’re just doing this to rile me up.” Riot could read Ketrick like a book. “Let’s go, center of the mat. Let’s see how a Trilord prince stacks up against a Marine.”

“If you insist,” Ketrick said, grinning even wider as he took off his shirt. His rippling chest was a mix of scars and black tattoos. Riot made out a dragon on his chest that looked like Vikta and numerous words written in what had to be his native tongue.

Riot took her stance in the middle of the mat, knees bent, hands up. There was no doubt Ketrick was stronger than her, maybe even as fast as her, but she refused to think he was smarter or had more experience.

Ketrick threw his shirt on the ground and tightened his long, black hair into a knot behind his head. He stood opposite her, grinning, with his own hands in front of his face. He had to look down at her, his six-foot-seven inch frame dwarfing her respectable five-foot-eight.

“I’m going to knock that stupid grin off your face,” Riot said, unable to stop herself from cracking a grin at her own words. “You’re ridiculous.”

“Come, then.” Ketrick licked his lips in anticipation. “Let’s see what humans can do in hand-to-hand combat.”

Riot didn’t waste any time. She ducked and weaved around Ketrick, making him move his feet to keep him off balance. She threw her fists at him, poking and prodding for any openings.

Ketrick parried her blows while dropping into a low crouch, staying on the balls of his feet, rotating to keep her in front of him. The reach he had on her could only be dealt with in one way.

The Trilord loosed a flurry of jabs, searching for weak spot, trying to find a crack in Riot’s defenses. Riot returned the favor, batting his fist away or avoiding it altogether. Ketrick kicked out with a right foot. It grazed off Riot’s hands.

Strong, and just as fast, Riot thought. But he doesn’t have much of an offensive game plan. He’s waiting on you to make the first mistake. We can do that for him.

The chess match continued, neither scoring any serious strikes, until Riot feigned a trip. Ketrick followed in hard and fast after seeing what he thought was Riot legitimately stumbling on her own footing. Ketrick closed the distance between them with a right fist.

Riot sidestepped the block, landing two strikes to his face in quick succession before battering the back of his right knee with her own leg. Stunned, Ketrick went down to a kneeling position.

If Ketrick thought Riot was going to go easy on him, those thoughts were quickly erased from his mind. Riot placed her right hand on the back of his head and brought her right knee up, making contact with his chin.

Blood spurted from the Trilord’s split lip. Riot retracted her knee and brought it up again. Ketrick recovered from his brief moment of shock and blocked her second knee by crossing his forearms over his face.

Ketrick shoved Riot back and rose to his feet.

Riot wasn’t going to let him separate himself again where he would have the advantage in ranged attacks. She landed two more strikes to his stomach and jaw before he threw a right cross of his own that glanced off her chin.

The impact of his blow rattled her for a brief moment, and Ketrick took the opportunity to tackle her, taking them both to the ground. Riot used this momentum to fall and roll, landing on top of the Trilord.

“A human you would beat,” Riot said, fighting through his large arms as he tried to push her off. She dug her legs into either side of his torso pressing hard to hold her top position. “A Marine will give you a run for your money, no matter how big you are.”

With a grunt, Ketrick bucked up hard with his hips. He combined the action with a roll sending both of them onto their sides. Riot abandoned her position, taking a spot behind his back. She hooked her right arm around his neck, her legs wrapped around him, squeezing hard.

A few seconds of Riot pressing down on the Trilord’s windpipe was enough for the alien to realize he was beat. He tapped on the forearm wrapped around his throat in sign of surrender.

Riot released her hold. She scooted out from underneath him and regained her feet.

“Impressive,” Ketrick said, pushing himself to his feet. He pressed the back of his left hand against his still bleeding lip. “I wasn’t expecting the strategy you used, and your use of grappling skills is something I have never seen.”

“Trust me.” Riot went to the corner of the room, where a stack of white towels stood ready for use. She grabbed one for herself, and threw another to Ketrick. “You learn fast when you have to. I’ve had plenty of time to practice in the Marines.”

Ketrick nodded along with her words as he pressed the towel to his lip. “I wouldn’t want to count you among my enemies.”


53

That night, Riot slept like a baby. She woke with her dreams a distant memory. Thoughts that she could remember what she had dreamed about caressed her mind, but when she concentrated on bringing those memories to the surface, they fled.

She spent the day checking the team’s weapons and armor before visiting her crew. Ketrick was in the cargo bay, wrestling with Vikta. Doctor Miller and Wang were in the med bay talking about medical case studies and theories of alien anatomy, and Riot popped her head in and out just as fast before she could be sucked in to the conversation.

Her last inspection was in the engine room where Vet and Rizzo were hunched over a table. The engine room was a long hall with a strange rotating generator in the middle that hummed in a deep tone. A dark blue glow emanated from the power sources as it propelled the ship through light speed.

Along the walls, different panels were covered. Other openings showed a series of clean, clear valves and pipes. Vet did an outstanding job of taking care of the engine room.

The table the two Marines were hunched over was at the back of the room. A dirty blanket obscured something that ran the length of the table, but Riot knew what a body looked like, even if it was covered by a cloth.

“Are you kidding me?” Riot’s voice made both men spin around. The sounds of her strides had been hidden by the hum of the generator. “Who did you kill and bring on board?”

Rizzo pointed a finger at Vet.

“It’s not what you think,” Vet sputtered, trying to keep his cool while being caught red-handed.

“Really?” Riot said. She couldn’t believe Vet, a trained Marine, would do something so stupid and weird. “Because it looks like there is a body under that blanket.”

“Okay, well, then maybe it is what you think,” Vet said. He swallowed so hard his Adam's apple bobbed down and back up. “It is a body, but it’s not human.”

“You’re not making me feel any better,” Riot said, crossing the distance between herself and the Marines standing next to the table. “Who, or what, is under there?”

It’s not as bad as it looks, Rizzo said with his hands. He signed slow so Riot could understand. Okay … maybe it is.

Riot reached for the top of the stained blanket concealing the form of a body and pulled it back. Lying in front of her was the figure of a nearly completed robot body. Its head was bald; however, the features made it clear it was a female representation of a human. The torso was missing but a metal skeleton connected completed arms and legs to the rest of the frame.

“I can explain everything,” Vet said in the same tone a child would use when about to be scolded by a parent. “It’s for Evonne. She wanted a body, so I thought I’d help make her one.”

Riot looked to Vet and Rizzo, trying to come up with the right words. “Have neither of you seen any old movies about robots, ever?”

I’m going to wash my hands of all of this, Rizzo signed. I was just checking in on Doctor Frankenstein here, and stumbled in on him and his project.

“I do not wish to get any one in trouble,” Evonne said, her voice wafting from the walls of the ship itself. “If Corporal Vetash is wrong in trying to fulfill my request for a body, I will take full responsibility for his actions.”

“No, no. No one is in trouble.” Riot folded her arms over her chest. She looked down on the half finished robot in silence. “It’s just the first time I’ve had to have this conversation.”

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

A red light in the engine room pulsed with a steady beat.

“As requested, I am warning you fifteen minutes before we are scheduled to exit FTL, Corporal Rizzo,” Evonne said.

“We’re going to talk about this later,” Riot said to Vet, pointing two fingers to her own eyes before directing them at Vet. She focused in on his one good eye and lowered one of her fingers.

“Roger that,” Vet pulled the blanket back over the robotic skeleton.

“Evonne, notify everyone to convene on the bridge,” Riot said, already following Rizzo out of the engine room. “Tell them to gather there in uniform, in ten.”

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

Riot took her seat in the captain’s chair again. Her crew sat around her, going through another round of systems checks and monitoring everything from engine strength to the force field shields that would protect their ship when they exited FTL right into the gate. As much as Riot wanted to believe the Grovothe, things just didn’t add up.

Once they exited the protection of FTL, they had to be ready for anything.

A timer in red block letters counted down their exit into space. The numbers were at sixty seconds now as they wound down to zero.

“We’ll need to inject the nanites into Ketrick before we land,” Wang said from his seat to her right. “Until then, he won’t be able to understand or speak to them.”

Riot nodded along with Wang’s words. The Marines, along with Doctor Miller, had injected tiny robotic nanites that clung to their eardrums and throat both translating words said to them and words they said to others.

This technology, much like their ship and weapons, had been given to them by the Syndicate. Without the intervention of the Syndicate, they would be in a much less advanced stage in the game. Think whatever you wanted about the aliens who had invaded Earth, they had advanced humanity centuries into the future.

“Nanites?” Ketrick repeated from the seat behind Vet and to Riot’s right. “The drug you injected into me that helps me heal faster?”

“Well…” Wang said, looking over to the alien prince. “Yes and no. A different breed from the ones that help you heal. I’ll explain later. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Microscopic insect-like robots that attach themselves to the inside of your ears and throat… Okay, maybe that does sound bad.”

“Let’s focus,” Riot reminded her crew as the timer wound down to zero. “Best case scenario we land in a big warm Grovothe hug and all goes as planned. Worst case scenario, we’re walking into an ambush.”

The countdown screen hit zero.

The light show that made up FTL travel dissipated around them, and their view went from swirling colorful light to one large gate of purple and turquoise. Then they were through, and into the blackness of space and distant stars once more.

Except, Riot had been wrong. The worst thing that could happen to them was not walking into a trap. The worst thing was exiting FTL into the middle of a war.

One second ticked by, introducing Riot to a whole new kind of warfare: a space battle. Through the front windows, Riot could see two massive ships that made the Marine destroyers back in the hangar at the Bulwark look like toy airplanes.

Around these two juggernauts of war, hundreds of smaller crafts zipped through space. Nearly every craft was exchanging fire with an enemy on the other side of the fight.

Two seconds ticked by, and Riot knew she had to give orders soon.

The two factions slugging it out in space were easy to distinguish. On one side, cruisers and fighters looked sleek with smooth lines and various shades of grey paint. Red laser fire peppered the enemy and lanced through space.

The other side’s ships were made up of sharp edges, black with green lasers hammering into their enemy. Riot witnessed a pair of the black fighters slam into a grey cruiser and lock on to its hull.

Riot was familiar with this Karnayer tactic. They had used this ploy on her own ship when she and her crew had liberated the Trilords from their rule.

“Evasive maneuvers, Corporal Rizzo,” Riot shouted. “Vet, give shield control to Doctor Miller, then take the heavy guns. Wang, Ketrick, gear up and bring me my weapons.”

Everyone rushed to obey. An excited electricity filled the bridge. Wang and Ketrick ran for the armory. Vet and Deborah focused on their duties, and the best pilot in the Marines went to work.

Rizzo took them through the thick of the fight, dodging fire from both factions. He maneuvered the ship like a pro, avoiding all of the smaller boarding Karnayer ships and taking only the hits he had to. Their shields held.

“We’re being hailed.” Doctor Miller looked over from her station, a controlled panic in her eyes as she looked for instruction from Riot. “Send it to your holographic display?”

“Do it,” Riot answered.

The next moment, a small screen rose from the armrest on Riot’s left and folded out in an angle to an open screen in front of her. A second later, the same dwarf-looking admiral who’d sent the initial message appeared. He sat in a low-backed chair. A swarm of activity was taking place behind him as other Grovothe ran back and forth. He was yelling at someone off screen at the moment.

“Deploy the Warwings and tell them to target the Karnayer destroyer, don’t bother with the smaller enemy Scarab ships. Have Shock teams one through five dispatched to every floor. Karnayer Scarabs will be sure to get through our hull. It’s only a matter of time.”

Riot felt a sense of respect already grow in her chest for the alien admiral, even though they had yet to officially meet. His orders came blunt and fast. There was no room in his tone for argument or questions. He expected to be obeyed immediately.

His hard gaze fell on Riot. “You’re the Earth ship we were supposed to rendezvous with. The Karnayers ambushed us when we exited FTL. If you’re with us, then stand with us.”

The decision for Riot was easy. She had no love for the Karnayers after they had tried to kill her and her crew during their first run-in with one another.

“We’re with you.” Riot glanced to her right, where the Karnayer destroyer headed for the giant Grovothe flagship. “Looks like that big Karnayer son of a gun is giving you some trouble. Leave it to us.”


54

The Karnayer destroyer class craft has more weapons on it than some planets,” the admiral said, raising thick eyebrows up to his bald head. “Are you sure you’re up to it?”

“Ask me in ten minutes, if I’m still alive,” Riot said to the admiral. “My name’s Warrant Officer Riot of the Valkyrie, by the way. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Admiral Tricon of the Dreadnaught. It’s a pleasure. We can clear the way for you if you think you can take out their destroyer,” Admiral Tricon barked with a twinkle in his eye. “Get behind us.”

“Roger that,” Riot said, ending the transmission. She looked up at the back of Rizzo’s head. “Rizzo, you heard the conversation. Get behind the Dreadnaught. We’re taking out that Karnayer destroyer.”

Rizzo threw a fist into the air, wagging an outstretched pinky and thumb. He never broke his concentration on the window in front of him as he dodged a burst of green fire from a Karnayer Scarab that screamed right past them.

“Uh, Riot?” Doctor Miller asked from her seat on the left of the bridge. “It’s great that we made new friends and all, but how do you plan on taking that out?”

Doctor Miller pointed to the massive black ship that bore down on their location. The ship looked more like a floating fortress than a battleship made for space. It was roughly in the shape of a diamond with thick spikes that protruded from a flat base. If there was any specific design in place for the harsh protrusions from the ship, Riot couldn’t tell. It was as long as a city block, with four massive engines that pushed it forward.

As opposed to the much smaller Scarabs, the Karnayer destroyer moved slow and sluggish. Giant cannons rested on the surface, splattering the Grovothe Dreadnaught with green laser blasts as it approached.

“I don’t know. I’m still coming up with that part,” Riot said, studying the enemy ship that was more than ten times the size of her much smaller cruiser.

“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Vet said under his breath.

Rizzo maneuvered the Valkyrie behind the Dreadnaught as instructed, staying in its wake.

Come on, Riot thought to herself. You’ve got something up your sleeve. They’re stronger, but not necessarily faster.

A light bulb exploded in Riot’s mind. Her eyes never left the battle in front of her. The smaller, faster Scarab ships with three prongs protruding from their sterns were everywhere. They raced through the sky, harassing the Grovothe with their attacks when they could, slamming into their hulls and attaching when they couldn’t.

The Grovothe held their own, with dark grey fighter ships Riot guessed were the Warwings. The Grovothe fighters looked like single pilot compartments with two wings sloping down and blasters connected to the end of each wing. A single engine in the back propelled them forward.

It was clear the Grovothe were outnumbered from the beginning. They had not been expecting a fight.

Orders?

Rizzo asked, with big letters popping up over the window.

“This is what we’re going to do,” Riot said as Wang and Ketrick ran back onto the bridge. The former dressed in his double layer of body armor, the black dragon skin underneath the crimson red liquid armor; the latter wearing nothing more than a pair of iron greaves with a black Kevlar vest over his bare torso.

Wang dropped a suit of armor and duffel bag of gear next to Riot. Ketrick did the same for Vet.

“I thought you’d want Vet ready, just in case,” Ketrick said, nodding to Riot. “We’re ready if they board. I say if they want a fight, then let them come.”

“Good, because that’s exactly what we’re going to do.” Riot grabbed on to either side of her captain’s chair as the ship shuddered from the impact of Karnayer fire.

“Say what?” Wang looked up from checking the sights on his Villain Pulse Rifle, the equivalent of a M16A4 that the Syndicate had left them. The weapon was painted black with a heavy mag that never needed to be reloaded, and a thick barrel. “For the record, I’m always down for a fight, but we’re just letting them attach to us like last time?”

“When the Dreadnaught breaks off its run, we’re going to get as many of those Scarabs to follow us as we can. Hopefully, when they see us making a run on their destroyer, they’ll flock to try and intercept us. When we have as many of those buggers following us as we can, we increase the speed right at the destroyer and pull up at the last minute.”

“Sending all those Scarabs that aren’t able to make the tight turn straight into their own ship,” Vet said, finishing the thought.

“Rizzo, you need to be on top of that destroyer before your turn. We have to be hugging that mother freighter. We’ll need those Scarabs right on our tail at top speed if this is going to work,” Riot said, asking and already knowing, what the answer would be. “Can you do it?”

I can do it. The War Wolves ride again!

Rizzo’s response had come over the screen in large, red lettering once more.

“Let’s rock and roll,” Riot said, motioning to Vet, who was still changing into his armor. “I’ll take the guns. Vet, you’re the XO. You take point with Wang and Ketrick. Be ready. We’ll do our best to keep those Scarabs from attaching to the ship, but if one or two gets through, you’ll be our line of defense.”

“Oohrah!” Vet said.

“Oohrah!” Wang echoed.

Ketrick looked unsure if he was allowed to echo the words. Instead, he brought his weapon, a long staff blaster with an axe on one side of the barrel and a sledgehammer on the other, hard onto the floor twice.

“I love the energy,” Riot said with a laugh. “But let’s not put any holes in the floor.”

Ketrick just smiled wide and slung his weapon over his shoulder.

“Let’s go,” Vet said, grabbing his weapons and armor. He headed for the door with Wang and Ketrick in his wake.

Riot gave her full attention to the gun controls that appeared at the captain’s chair in front of her. She commanded the holographic interface to allow the two triggers to appear at the edges of her chair’s armrest. On command, two joysticks with triggers set into the handles and buttons near her thumbs appeared in the air.

The ship shuddered as a trio of Scarab fighters screamed past their front window, en route to chasing a Grovothe ship.

“Still holding strong,” Doctor Miller reported in. “Shields at ninety percent. If I remember, the Scarab ships’ blasters aren’t particularly strong. It’s them crashing into our hull we have to worry about.”

“Agreed,” Riot said, remembering their last run in with the Karnayers. Doctor Miller was right. The real threat the Scarabs possessed wasn’t their long-range weapons at all; rather, it was their ability to latch on and unload a squad of Karnayer soldiers onto the ship.

The Dreadnaught providing cover in front of them shuddered under the onslaught of the larger Karnayer destroyer. The Dreadnaught let out one last salvo of fire before breaking off its run at the Karnayer ship and turning right.

The two massive crafts passed one another like wooden ships on the ocean sea. They exchanged a broadside of weaponsfire with one another. The Dreadnaught’s shields finally failed. The Karnayer ship scored multiple shots across the Grovothe battleship’s left side. Explosions and fires rippled across the Dreadnaught.

“That’s our cue.” Riot grabbed the firing controls in front of her. Immediately, a heads-up display popped to life in front of her seat. A red, circular targeting system tracked with her movements as she tested out the controls. “We can’t let them take much more of a beating.”

Rizzo was the best pilot Riot had ever known during her time in the Corps. After the accident that had cost him his voice at the hands of the Syndicate, Rizzo had become even better. It was as if the loss of his voice was channeled into other parts of his body. His eyesight and reflexes were extraordinary.

The Valkyrie weaved in and out of the hundreds of Scarab ships that lay in between them and the Karnayer destroyer. Rizzo moved the ship like it was an extension of his body, adding more and more acceleration with each passing second.

The Karnayer destroyer took its attention off the Dreadnaught to meet the new threat the Valkyrie presented. Green laser beams raced through the air, headed for Riot and her crew.

“Get some!” Riot roared as the first wave of green fire splattered against her shields. Riot returned the favor by targeting two Scarabs who raced toward them. Riot tracked them on her targeting display like the trained professional she was. The trigger fingers on each of her hands pressed down hard on the joysticks. Red blaster fire erupted from the cannons set on either wing of the Valkyrie.

Red fire blasted from the Valkyrie’s guns. The two Scarabs heading for them exploded in balls of yellow fire.

Riot kept her trigger fingers pressed down hard as Rizzo took them below the Karnayer destroyer. She ripped a line of fire in the underbelly of the ship. The enemy destroyer’s shields held strong. Riot’s fire stopped a few yards short of the actual ship. They disappeared, striking a blue force field that showed for a moment, then vanished a moment after the blast hit it.

Scarabs raced after them from all sides.

It seemed from its underbelly the Karnayer destroyer was forced to rely on the smaller Scarab ships for offense and their shields for defense.

“Shields at seventy percent,” Doctor Miller reported in. “The guns on that destroyer are hella strong.”

“Don’t ever say the word ‘hella’ again,” Riot said, not taking her eyes off the screen in front of her. “Evonne, I need to hear what I’m doing here. Pressing triggers with no noise is weird. I want to hear the booms.”

“Understood,” Evonne said at once. “Redirecting audio to your chair.”

Riot checked a square window in the bottom right of her heads-up display. The smaller screen was like looking into a rearview mirror. More than a dozen Scarabs raced after them.

“One more pass, then let’s take them out,” Riot yelled to Rizzo as she targeted a Scarab coming in from their right.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Riot unleashed a barrage of fire from the ship’s guns and was rewarded with an explosion.

BAM!

“Yeah!” Riot yelled. “That’s more like it!”


55

They passed from under the Karnayer destroyer. Rizzo brought them in a tight turn, pointing them up toward the sky. Their ship shuddered as they were once again in the destroyer’s range. They had the full attention of the destroyer now as all the ship’s guns zeroed in on them. Another wave of green fire struck them.

Riot shook in her seat. A tremor ripped through the ship. Warning lights blinked off and on. A shower of sparks sprinkled the bridge from a control panel against the wall.

Sparks, Riot thought. Why are there always sparks inside spaceships when they get hit?

“Shields at fifty percent and dropping.” Doctor Miller grabbed on to her station with both hands as the ship was hit with another tremendous force from their left. “Two Scarab ships have attached to the Valkyrie! Med bay and cargo hold.”

Processing these thoughts, Riot gave into the adrenaline pumping through her body. Rizzo brought them up past the enemy destroyer’s rear side. They headed higher and higher, away from the massive Karnayer destroyer.

Riot looked in the corner screen showing a swarm of Scarabs chasing them. There were too many to count.

“Evonne, connect me to Vet.” Riot stared out into a target-free screen for the time being. They were heading up and away from the fight. Every enemy ship was trailing them for the moment.

“Done,” Evonne said. “You know, if I had a body, I could carry a weapon and help—”

“Not now,” Riot growled. “Vet, you have company. One ship attached to the med bay, the other to the cargo hold. And brace yourself. Rizzo’s about to let loose up here.”

“We’re on it,” Vet responded back through the comm.

READY? Rizzo asked, sending his message to the smaller screen Riot was using to target the enemy from her chair.

“Do it!” Riot yelled back to her pilot. “Let’s show these Karnayers, Earth isn’t going to take it lying down.”

Rizzo stopped his forward momentum. For a moment, the ship was weightless as it redirected angles and pointed down.

“Oh, God,” Doctor Miller gasped. “I’m going to be sick again.”

Rizzo spun the Valkyrie around, pointing the ship down directly over the Karnayer destroyer. Between them and their target was a swarm of Scarab ships still heading for them.

“AHHHHHH!” Riot screamed as she let loose on the enemies headed straight for them. “Come on!”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Riot let the red blaster fire hammer over a dozen Scarab fighters, exploding three and striking a dozen more. Green return fire from the enemy struck the Valkyrie’s shields and dissipated before it could do harm. Rizzo weaved around the Scarabs trying to slam their ships into the Valkyrie. Riot took out another headed straight for them.

BAM!

Riot hit a Scarab dead center, right in the pilot section of the ship, in between the trio of protruding talons.

Rizzo increased the speed. The thrusters went to full power. A line of Scarabs pulled their same maneuver now and pursued at breakneck speed. A moment later, they were through the dozens of Scarab ships and heading straight for the Karnayer destroyer.

Over her comm, Riot could hear the sound of weaponsfire discharging from the fight taking place on her own ship. Right now, she had to deal with what was in front of her. She would have to trust that Vet, Wang, and Ketrick could take care of themselves.

Green fire spewed from the Karnayer destroyer. As the Valkyrie streaked toward their ship, the Karnayers evidently believed they were going to pull a kamikaze move of their own. Little did they suspect, Riot and her team had no desire to die.

Riot fought the G-force pushing her back into her seat as Rizzo embraced the dive and sent every ounce of power to the engines. The Scarabs chasing them were forced to do the same if they were going to have any chance of catching up with them and saving their destroyer.

Green laser fire coated the Valkyrie’s front screen. Riot kept her trigger fingers locked on tight, sending a constant stream of red fire at the ship.

Let’s see what you think of this. Riot’s right thumb pressed down hard on a button on the top of her control stick. A bright red beam shot a constant stream of energy at the destroyer. It looks like a freaking Christmas light show.

The Valkyrie shook again.

“They’re sending everything they have at us,” Doctor Miller screamed as another shower of sparks erupted over the bridge. “Shields at twenty—no, ten percent!”

They were so close to the enemy ship now, Riot could make out more details of the monstrosity. The black ship was made up of numerous thick spike-looking structures protruding from the base. The closer she got, the more she could see there was a method behind the construction.

What looked like spikes before were actually a combination of cannon barrels and towers. Riot hosed the ship with her weaponfire, but still the shields of the much larger destroyer held.

A warning light began to blink off and on, informing Riot her guns were in danger of overheating.

“Warrant Officer Riot,” Evonne’s voice came over the sounds of fire and explosions.

“Not now,” Riot yelled back.

The Valkyrie was so close to the destroyer, Riot thought for sure Rizzo had miscalculated how much room he would need to pull back.

“Pull up!” Doctor Miller implored. “Rizzo, pull up! Pull up!”

I’m going to freaking die in space. A smile turned the corners of Riot’s lips. Well, I guess there are worse ways to go.

Then the impossible.

Rizzo cut power to the thrusters, turned up hard, and hit the ship’s engines again, full power. The belly of the Valkyrie scraped one of the protruding Karnayer towers.

Another rumble through the ship. Warning lights went off. A hose disconnected from the wall, spewing a shower of cold gas.

Rizzo raced forward. Behind them, the Scarabs tried pulling the same maneuver. Only half of them were able. In such a tight pattern, trying to pull up in time was near impossible. The first few Scarabs struck the destroyer’s shields. The next few that hit, however, made it through the shield, exploding over the ship’s surface.

Riot watched it all happen in her rearview screen. Her heart was racing as fast as the ship, and her chest heaved.

“Rizzo, I take back everything bad I ever said about you,” Riot said. Her eyes never left the rearview screen. “And that’s saying a lot.”

Rizzo looked over his shoulder for the first time since the fight began, giving Riot a rueful grin.

Riot checked the rearview screen on the display in front of her seat. A dozen fires were erupting from the Karnayer destroyer. The numerous Scarabs that still remained did not give chase. They hovered around the injured destroyer. The Scarabs wouldn’t pursue now. Their primary responsibility was keeping the destroyer safe.

“We’re being hailed.” Doctor Miller looked over to Riot with a mix of fear and surprise.

“By who?” Riot asked, still looking at the Karnayer destroyer, as the massive ship slowly turned from the battlefield. “Admiral Tricon calling to pat us on the back?”

“No.” Doctor Miller went pale. “The Karnayer destroyer is hailing us.”

“Oh, interesting.” Riot turned to her monitor. She closed the targeting system in front of her chair. “Put him on the large scree—”

“Corporal Vetash is requesting to be patched into the bridge,” Evonne said, interrupting Riot. “His voice pattern would suggest whatever he has to say is urgent.”

“Put him through,” Riot said at once.

“Riot.” Vet sounded out of breath. “We thought we got them all, but Evonne informed us two Karnayer soldiers are still on the ship. My best guess is that they’re headed to the bridge. We’re on our—”

“It’s fine,” Riot said, standing from her chair. She looked at her armor and weapons Wang had brought back from the armory and had left by the command chair. “Let them through.”


56

Roger that,” Vet said without second-guessing his superior. “Evonne will be able to track them.”

“Understood,” Riot grunted, leaning down. In her right hand, she picked up the heavy war hammer she had become fond of from Ketrick’s world. With her left, she grabbed the Villain Pulse Rifle. “Rizzo, let Evonne autopilot for a minute. We’re about to have company. You’ll take the target one on the left when they breach the door.”

Rizzo pressed a few buttons on the holographic display that had risen from his controlboard. He stood from his console, opening his hands, ready to receive the weapon.

Riot tossed Rizzo the pulse rifle.

The Marine took a stance behind his chair, staring down the sights of the weapon toward the door to the bridge.

“Should I take cover or something?” Doctor Miller looked from Rizzo to Riot. “I’m guessing something dangerous is about to happen. Oh, the Karnayer ship is still hailing us.”

“As Corporal Vetash stated, there are two Karnayer soldiers making their way to the bridge,” Evonne added in. “What would you like me to do about them?”

“Bubbles.” Riot took a stance with her war hammer by the bridge doors. “Patch through the Karnayer ship on the screen. You’ll be fine where you are; Rizzo doesn’t miss.”

Riot stretched her fingers around the blaster staff on her war hammer. In her eyes, the ancient runes on the weapon made it look even more badass. On either side of the blaster staff’s end were physical weapons meant to kill—on one side, a sledgehammer end; on the other, a slightly curved spike that looked more like a giant tooth.

The screen flashed to life on the front of the ship.

Riot adjusted her stance so she could see the screen and the doors to the bridge. The screen showed a seething Karnayer. True to his race, his skin was a light blue, his long, white hair draped behind him and pulled into dreadlocks. A black uniform with buttons down the middle made him look much like the Karnayer Riot had run into on Ketrick’s planet of Hoydren. The way his eyes squinted in a glare, the point of his chin, and the high cheekbones all made Riot think of Remus.

“To whom do I speak?” The Karnayer’s language was translated for Riot thanks to her nanites. “Who are you?”

“Warrant Officer Riot, from Earth,” Riot said, readying herself to use the weapon in her hands. “And I don’t want to be raci—speciest, but you look a lot like a Karnayer I’ve run into. Are you related to Remus, or does your whole species look similar? That’s an honest question; I’m not trying to be funny.”

“You!” The Karnayer filling the screen roared in rage. “You are the one that imprisoned my brother Remus!?”

“Wow, small universe, huh?” Riot shook her head with a sigh. “What are the odds of that? We imprisoned your brother, and we crashed your party with the Grovothe. It’s just not your year is it, Sunshine?”

“I will rend your bones. I will extract my vengeance upon you in ways you can’t imagine, Warrant Officer Riot from Earth,” the Karnayer screamed, showing off all his yellowed teeth. “Remember my name well, you stupid human. Alveric from the house of Karn will—”

“Hold on, hold on just a second Alveric,” Riot said, raising a finger to the screen.

“Three seconds until the enemy reaches the bridge,” Evonne said, using the nanites in Riot’s ear. “Two, one.”

The metal bridge doors slid open. A pair of Karnayer soldiers ran inside, their weapon up and ready to fire. They never got the chance.

BOOM! BOOM!

Rizzo’s weapon went off. Two blasts caught the soldier, one in the chest, the other in the helmet. The Karnayer went down in a heap.

At the same time, Riot brought her war hammer down in a wide arc. The tooth end pointed toward the soldier’s head crushed through the top of the helmet worn by the second Karnayer. The soldier wobbled, then fell to the floor. Riot placed a boot on the fallen soldier’s back and wrenched her weapon free. Blue blood spattered her war hammer and the ground around her.

“Okay, Alveric.” Riot turned giving her full attention to the screen in front of her. “You were saying?”

Alveric was so angry, he was shaking. Spittle ran down the left side of the corner of his lips. “I will come for you. I will come with the might of the house of Karn. Mark my words, human, your days are numbered!”

“Bring more soldiers with you next time,” Riot said, hefting her war hammer in both hands. She tossed the heavy end of the weapon up and down. “We’ll be waiting.”

With that, the screen in front of her clicked off.

Rizzo placed his weapon beside his chair and signed with his hands. He was pissed. I thought he was going to shoot steam out of his ears.

“What did we miss?” Ketrick entered the bridge with Wang and Vet in his wake. He stared down at the two dead Karnayer soldiers. “We missed everything by the looks of it.”

Vet and Wang ran to their consoles, still dressed in full black-and-red battle armor.

“The Valkyrie is in a bad place.” Vet scrolled through a list of flashing icons on his holographic screen. “We’ll need to set down somewhere soon for repairs.”

“Grovothe transmission coming through,” Doctor Miller said.

“Put them on screen,” Riot ordered. She dropped her war hammer and resumed her seat in the captain’s chair.

A moment later, the large screen in front of Riot came alive once more. This time, Admiral Tricon’s face appeared. Past the heavy beard he looked like he was about to smile. “Well done, Warrant Officer Riot, to you and your team. I have to say, that was some impressive flying.”

“Our pilot is the best money can’t buy, Admiral,” Riot answered. “We’ll need to set down somewhere for repairs.”

“Of course,” the Admiral said, looking down to check some dials on his own controlboard. “You are invited to board the Dreadnaught. We can use our tractor beam to pull you in, if you’d like. You can repair your ship in our hangar. You’ll have our full assistance, of course. Is everything all right there?”

“Yeah everything’s—” Riot looked over her left shoulder to see Ketrick taking the two dead Karnayers off the bridge. He had one slung over his shoulder, and the other he dragged by the back of its uniform collar.

Ketrick seemed oblivious to the scene he was making and carried on with his work.

“We’re fine.” Riot tuned back to the admiral. “We’d appreciate the help in.”

“Stand by,” Admiral Tricon said before his screen went black.

“What’s the plan?” Wang asked from his seat on Riot’s left.

“We go and make some new friends and get our answers.” Riot drummed her fingers on the armrest of her captain’s chair. “The Karnayer destroyer we just sent packing was captained by Remus’s brother.”

“Remus?” Ketrick asked, reentering the bridge. “The Karnayer who attacked my home world?”

“One and the same,” Riot said. Her mind was working on overdrive to find the connection. “I don’t believe in coincidences. What are we missing here?”

The bridge sat quiet.

As the Valkyrie drifted in space, the Dreadnaught pulled up alongside. A blue cone of light covered their vessel, a tractor beam pulling them in toward the ship.

“What aren’t the Grovothe telling us?” Doctor Miller mused, adjusting her glasses.

“I don’t know, but until we find out, stay ready,” Riot warned. “Our visit might be shorter than we think.”

Slowly, the Valkyrie moved in space, crossing the distance between the two ships until it reached the massive, wide-open bay doors to the Dreadnaught ship. As soon as they entered the bay, they passed through a protective dull blue force field that kept the cold of space in check.

Riot stood along with the others to get a better look at the Dreadnaught’s hangar bay. Dozens of ships, ranging from cruisers like their own, to smaller single-manned fighters sat in rows. Grovothe soldiers scurried across the bay in every direction, preparing for their landing.

A closer look at the Grovothe ships told Riot there were many docking now that had been damaged in the fight with the Karnayers. The smaller fighters with wings slanting down from the main single-manned cockpit were also landing in the hangar bay in various states of damage. A larger Grovothe cruiser with a saucer-like head and three thrusters extending from the back, lay smoking in the hangar bay’s far-right corner.

“Shall I patch in the Grovothe hangar bay?” Evonne asked through the ship’s communication channel. “They are requesting a connection now.”

“Yes,” Riot answered.

“This is Grovothe hangar command,” a gruff female voice spoke into the ship. “We’ll be setting you in a free landing space. Touchdown should be within ten seconds. Admiral Tricon is on his way to welcome you now. Thanks for the assist with the Karnayer destroyer. We could have taken them ourselves, but it was nice not having to.”

“Understood, and you’re welcome?” Riot asked more than stated. She turned to her crew. “Let’s meet them at the cargo bay.”

Riot took the lead, listening to the shuffle of her crew’s boots as they followed behind her.

They’re a proud race, Riot thought. Let’s hope that pride doesn’t get in the way of making allies and agreeing on the enemy we so obviously share.

“And let’s take it easy on the dwarf jokes,” Doctor Miller said, looking over to a whispering Vet and Wang. “These are our allies. Let’s not get off on the wrong foot.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Vet coughed into his hand.

Riot ignored her men’s laughter, climbing the steps down to the cargo hold in the rear of her ship. A Karnayer Scarab stuck in through the wall. Three metal prods had pierced the Valkyrie, then bent outward, allowing the enemy soldiers access to the inside of the cargo bay.

Unlucky for those soldiers, Vikta had made the cargo bay her home. The white dragon was already on her feet as the crew entered the hold. The eviscerated bodies of the Karnayer carpeted the hold, blue blood painting the floors, the walls, and even the ceiling. A dozen scorch marks on the wall of the cargo hold told a story all their own. The Karnayer soldiers had not anticipated that a dragon might be aboard, and evidently had fired in panic, when teeth and claws greeted them.

Vikta swished her long, white tail back and forth when she saw Ketrick enter the room. The horse-sized dragon galloped toward them.

Despite her understanding the dragon wouldn’t hurt her, Riot still shied away. There was just something unnatural about welcoming hundreds of pounds of scales and teeth into your arms. Ketrick, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have an issue with this.

“Ahhh…” the Trilord said, catching Vikta around the neck and rubbing the underside of her jaw. “There she is. Who’s the best fire serpent in the galaxy? You are. Yes, you are.”

Before anyone could comment on the comical scene happening in the cargo bay, a slight shudder ran up the Valkyrie’s frame. They touched down in the Dreadnaught’s hangar.

Slowly the cargo bay’s rear door began to lower. This was it. The Grovothe waited.


57

The cargo door gently lowered to the floor, revealing a line of uniformed Grovothe. The tallest of their order couldn’t have been more than five feet in height. This put them a full head shorter than Riot, and her five-foot-eight-inch frame was nothing to brag about.

The aliens wore dark grey uniforms with dull silver buttons. A mix of male and female Grovothe waited for them on the hangar bay floor. Every male Grovothe had a long, well-groomed beard, some in braids, some grown out, while others wore a combination of the two. Some were bald, and others sported Mohawks, their long hair pulled back behind their heads.

The females were just as stout as the males. Their hair was better kept, most in braids pulled back into ponytails. One red-headed female soldier stepped forward. Her hands were behind her back. Her face was stern, but her voice was not unkind.

“Welcome to the Dreadnaught. My name is Major Rippa Gunna,” Rippa said, extending an arm and waving them down. “The admiral is on his way, but he wanted to make sure you were greeted as allies when you arrived.”

Riot walked down the cargo bay’s ramp, doing her best to smile and put everyone at ease.

“I’m Warrant Officer Riot,” Riot said, motioning to her crew behind her. “This is my crew, Doctor Wang, Corporals Vet and Rizzo, Doctor Miller, and Ketrick.”

Riot reached Rippa and extended a hand.

The short Grovothe woman looked at the hand, and then back at Riot with a raised eyebrow.

“Okay, I guess that’s not a thing here,” Riot said, retracting her hand.

“Why do you travel with such a primitive species?” Rippa nodded toward Ketrick. “The Trilords don’t have the technology to travel off their own world, let alone be commissioned as soldiers to fight against the Karnayers.”

“Why don’t you speak to my face, child?” Ketrick said, moving forward to stand next to Riot. “You do a lot of talking for someone so small.”

Rippa’s face reddened.

Before she could open her mouth to respond, Vikta poked her head out of the cargo bay.

“Ahhh!” one of the other Grovothe screamed. Those who carried weapons lifted them in panic.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Riot said, putting herself between Vikta and the Grovothe. “We’re all friends here. Vikta’s a gentle dragon once you get to know her.”

“Holster your weapons,” a gruff voice commanded from around the side of the Valkyrie. “Do it now.”

Admiral Tricon rounded the corner with a contingent of Grovothe soldiers carrying weapons on their shoulders. He approached Riot and, standing next to Rippa, nodded with a smirk.

“I can’t wait to hear how you came to have a space serpent traveling aboard your ship,” the admiral said with a relaxed tone in his voice. “But in the meantime, we have more pressing matters to discuss.”

His sparkling eyes traveled over Riot’s crew, pausing for a moment on Ketrick and Vikta before moving on. He took in the state of the ship, as well as the two Karnayer Scarabs still sticking out of its hull. Their airtight holds on the much larger Valkyrie like tiny leeches on a larger animal.

“We can do this however you’d like,” he said. “I can have my engineers start on repairs to your ship now. We can do it ourselves, or you can have some of your men stay and help. We can begin after you rest or, if you prefer, a different arrangement.”

Admiral Tricon’s willingness to be so accommodating with Riot and her crew took her off guard. This was a man used to giving orders. The fact that he was being so understanding was a relief, and it worried her at the same time. What was it that he wanted from them?

“That’s very kind of you,” Riot said, looking back to Vet and Rizzo. If things did go bad, they would need to leave in a hurry. Plus, she didn’t trust the Grovothe enough yet to let them go poking around in her ship, unsupervised. “Vet, Rizzo, have Evonne link our comms. You two will stay back and help the Grovothe engineers with the repairs.”

“Roger that,” Vet said as if he understood exactly why they were staying back.

Rizzo gave a sharp nod.

“And then there is the matter of your space serpent.” Admiral Tricon looked with hard eyes at Vikta. “My engineers will be able to work a lot faster if they aren’t in fear of being eaten.”

Riot understood. She looked over to Ketrick, then motioned to the large hangar doors that led out into the darkness of space. “Do you think Vikta can stretch her wings for a while? I’m sure if she chooses to rest on top of the Dreadnaught, the Admiral can tell his men not to target the dragon.”

Ketrick looked over to Vikta as the two communicated in a way Riot still didn’t understand.

“She says to help alleviate the stress level she senses in the air, she’ll agree to go.” Ketrick turned back to Riot and Rippa. He gave the former a quick wink and the latter a rib. “Try not to get blown away.”

“Why you—”

Whatever expletive Rippa was going to use was lost as Vikta leapt into the air. In one quick motion, she exited the open cargo bay and maneuvered into the Grovothe hangar. Amid the yells of the Grovothe, Vikta grew in size. Once no larger than a Shetland pony, the dragon’s wings elongated and her body grew until she was nearly as large as the Valkyrie itself.

“All units stand down,” Admiral Tricon spoke into a square button located on the left side of his uniform. “Do not fire. I repeat, do not fire.”

With a rush of wings, Vikta was gone out the force field separating the hangar from the cold of space.

The white noise of workers in the hangar gradually picked back up. The show was over, and it was back to business as usual. The shouts, roars of engines, and sounds of heavy tools being used made Riot think of the Bulwark’s hanger bay.

“If you’d follow me,” Admiral Tricon said, motioning to Riot to join him. “We have much to discuss. I imagine you have a list of questions of your own.”

“I do,” Riot said, following the admiral through the hangar. Ketrick, Wang, and Doctor Miller followed, as well as Rippa and the rest of the Grovothe officers and soldiers.

The group made their way through the long hangar, up a lift, and down a wide hall. While they were walking, Riot noticed a few gawks and mouths drop as they passed. She got the sense that they weren’t necessarily looking at her, but at Ketrick.

“Is there something wrong with bringing a Trilord on board your ship?” Riot asked the admiral as she tried to match her usual long strides to the much shorter Grovothes. “Am I missing something here?”

The admiral looked up at Riot with a hard stare. Riot had seen that look before. She had seen it in General Armon’s eye when he was deciding exactly how much she needed to know while on a need-to-know assignment.

“We do our best to monitor and understand as many species as we can on alien planets. The more we know, the better off we’ll be. The Trilords are a race we’ve monitored closely. Their size and brutality make them a concern if they ever reached a point where they were able to travel off-world.”

“I get that. They’re a tough species, and like all of us, can be rash at times,” Riot said, thinking back to her run-in with the Brute faction of Trilords on Hoydren. “But the Trilords are just like us; some good, some bad, and others fifty shades of crazy. You can’t label an entire species on the acts of a few.”

“Well, that’s something I’ll have to take your word for.” Admiral Tricon stopped in front of a room with a pair of steel doors. The doors slid open as soon as the admiral moved to enter.

Inside the room was a small, grey, circular table. Around the table, a much larger circle of chairs were placed in perfect distance to one another. The admiral took a seat, with Rippa on his right and the other uniformed Grovothe on his left. The guards who accompanied the admiral stood sentry by the door.

“Please, sit,” Admiral Tricon said, motioning to four empty chairs by the door. “I prefer to talk openly. I’m an old war dog, so I’m not used to politics or word games. Tell me what it is you want. If I can be of assistance, I will let you know.”

I like him already, Riot thought. Too soon to trust him, but so far so good. Maybe we can work with these Grovothe after all.

“We can start with what the heck we ran into when we arrived at our rendezvous point,” Riot said, nodding over to Wang, who was still dressed in his black-and-red armor. “I had to have half my crew gear up for battle as soon as we arrived.”

“The Karnayers have been one of our enemies for a very long time,” Admiral Tricon answered. “We’re orbiting a planet now the Karnayers have taken a special interest in. We had no way of knowing a Karnayer destroyer would intercept us when we arrived, but maybe we should have. We’ve had suspicion they’ve been militarizing the planet’s populace, but no real proof until recently.”

“How recently?” Doctor Miller leaned forward, speaking for the first time.

“I take your meaning,” the admiral said. He pursed his lips. “And you’re right. When we found out what the Karnayer were up to, we decided to take you up on your offer to meet.”

“Before that, you didn’t want to?” Riot asked just to be sure. She felt like she already knew the answer, but they had come this far to get the whole truth. No stone left unturned. “You didn’t think we were worth the trouble.”

“We knew the Syndicate had advanced your species hundreds of years by giving you the tech you use today. We weren’t sure if you were ready and/or capable of becoming a strong ally in the war against the Karnayers. Even after seeing what you did on Hoydren,” the Admiral answered. “New information encouraged us to reach out. The Grovothe Empire is vast, but even we are spread too thin. Keeping peace throughout the known universe has depleted our resources.”

“What did you find?” Ketrick asked, leaning forward in his seat. The Trilord’s massive bulk looked almost comical in the tiny Grovothe chair. Riot wondered whether or not, when he stood up, the seat would stick to his butt. “What did you find that would encourage you to reach out for assistance?”

“We didn’t reach out for assistance,” Rippa growled. “We returned your call for help.”

“Regardless,” Admiral Tricon said, giving Rippa a hard stare, “we’re all here now.”

The admiral pressed a few buttons on his chair’s armrest. The small table in the center of the seated group came to life. A blue holographic display appeared in the space above the table. A picture of the planet they orbited now came to life.

“This is the planet Raydon, inhabited by the local species of Zenoth.” The admiral changed the image to a blue see-through picture of what looked like a massive insect. Large pincers erupted from the alien species’ face. Giant black eyes were set in its head. The creatures looked like they traveled on four of their six legs. Their bodies were segmented, like an ant’s. “The Zenoth are an insect species that has dominated control of Raydon to the point that there are no other living creatures on the planet except for the Zenoth. Their need to spread and control has made them kings of their planet. Now that they have completely consumed Raydon, they have been working on ways to spread to other planets in their star system.”

“The Zenoth don’t seem technologically advanced enough to do that.” Doctor Miller leaned in even further from her chair to get a look at the insect-like Zenoths. “Unless I’m missing something. How far have they advanced?”

“For this, I’ll hand the conversation over to Major Gunna,” the Admiral said, motioning with his hand to the Grovothe on his right. “Major Gunna has been boots on the ground with her Spartan fire team, gaining intelligence over the last few weeks.”

Major Gunna pointed to the blue see-through holographic image of the Zenoth. “You’re correct Doctor Miller. The Zenoth are not technologically advanced enough to create a means of transportation beyond their own planet. From the data we gathered, I suspect they’re only just becoming familiar with computers and data of their own. However, the last visit to one of their hives on Raydon showed us that the Karnayers have shared their technology with the Zenoth. They’re building ships, weapons, and armor far past their own understanding. We believe the Karnayers are militarizing them, sharing their own tech in exchange for their loyalty, and if we’re right, we’re all in a hell-load of trouble. The Zenoth number in the billions.”

Just like the Syndicate did with us, Riot thought. She leaned back in her chair, thinking of the repercussions of the information. Well, not exactly. The Syndicate tried to wipe us out to make us learn. The Karnayers are exchanging tech for soldiers with the Zenoth.

“That’s why the Karnayers were here,” Riot said out loud. “They were en route to give the Zenoth more tech, or check in on their progress.”

“More than likely,” Major Gunna said, looking to the admiral and nodding at the hologram.

The admiral flicked another button on the control arm of his chair. The holographic image transitioned once more, this time showing a ship that looked like a blimp, along with schematics for armor to fit over the Zenoth and a crude type of blaster with sharp points and a wide grip.


58

You can see what they’re manufacturing in their hives below ground,” the admiral said, motioning to the hologram. “Needless to say, we can’t let them arm their billions of Zenoth soldiers.” Major Gunna looked through the hologram, directly at Riot. “We need to shut them down, permanently.”

“And I’m sure you’ve tried to reason with them.” Doctor Miller looked at Riot as if the two were thinking the same thing. “Wait, does this mean you’re in a declared state of war with the Karnayers?”

The gathered Grovothe officers sitting on the opposite side of Riot and her team smirked at the doctor’s questions.

“The Zenoth will not be reasoned with,” Admiral Tricon said, reining in the conversation. “You’re, of course, welcome to try if you like, but every attempt has been met with aggression. They only understand one thing: spread. As for your second question, that is a bit trickier. I told you before, I don’t do politics. The Allfather knows there are enough Grovothe back on our homeworld to do that. The Karnayer military will deny any mention of their activity in militarizing other species. When we bring them proof, they renounce any of the allegations, stating they had nothing to do with the occurrence and that those Karnayers found guilty were rogue, acting on their own accord.”

“Seems like a nice alibi,” Riot said. She ran her tongue across the inside of her teeth while she thought. “The Karnayers can then do whatever they want. If they do get caught, they just brand those found out as working on their own. Kinda ingenious, if you think about it.”

Everyone in the room looked at Riot with wide eyes.

“What? I wasn’t saying I like it, but it’s smart. So, what’s the game plan here? You decided to take us up on our offer to combine forces because you can’t do this alone, right?” Riot asked, looking between the admiral and the major. “You want us to help you take out this Zenoth threat.”

“The Grovothe are more than capable of dealing with the Zenoth on our own,” Major Gunna said, bristling as if Riot had just insulted her height. “We’re a warrior race. We don’t back down from anyone.”

“Easy there.” Wang extended his hands, palms up. “We don't mean you couldn’t. Let’s just say it would be nice to have a few more guns on your side of the fight when you assault the Zenoth hives.”

The Grovothe looked to one another, consulting in low whispers. They grunted past thick beards and nodded to one another.

“We’re a proud race,” Admiral Tricon finally spoke. “But like I said before, even our vast resources are spread thin. When we assault Raydon, it wouldn’t hurt to have backup.”

“And when do you plan on attempting this assault?” Ketrick asked, crossing his large arms over his chest.

Admiral Tricon turned off the hologram display in the middle of the council meeting. He looked Riot and the rest of her team in their eyes before speaking. “We’re going to attack tomorrow at dawn.”

“Huh. I’m sorry, it sounded like you said that you’re going in tomorrow.” Riot chuckled, shaking her head. “Must be all the FTL travel warping my inner ear.”

“You heard me correctly.” Admiral Tricon’s firm tone made it clear he wasn’t in a joking mood. “We can’t wait any longer. We’ll hammer the three hives where the Zenoth are building their weapons and crafts with long range fire from the Dreadnaught, tonight. We’re not expecting the orbital strike to put any major dents in their numbers, as the hives are located below the surface. Still, we have to try. In the morning, we’ll send in three teams. Major Gunna will lead the team, striking the largest Zenoth hive. I’d like you to go with her.”

“Well, is that all?” Wang stood up from his chair, shrugging into his armor. “Get into a space battle, kill a few Karnayers boarding our ship, and then assault an alien planet full of billions—you did say billions of insect soldiers, right?”

“Wang,” Riot said, glaring at her corporal. “Sit down.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Wang said, swallowing hard as if he were ashamed of himself. “I’m done.”

“If you don’t think you’re up to the task—” Major Gunna started.

“We’re not going to do the reverse psychology thing here,” Riot said to the major. “We’re with you. If everything checks out when we have boots on the ground, we have a common enemy.”

“Good.” Admiral Tricon stood from his seat. “Warrant Officer Riot, you and your team are, of course, welcome to stay aboard the Dreadnaught or, if you prefer, in your own ship.”

“I should send a transmission back to General Armon and SPEAR,” Doctor Miller said, and rose from her seat.

“Vikta will need looking after,” Ketrick said.

“I’ll bunk with the dwar—our new friends,” Wang said, catching himself just in time.

Riot rolled her eyes, glaring at Wang for the second time that day.

“On second thought, I’ll be fine on the Valkyrie.” Wang avoided eye contact with Riot. He shied away. “It’s a comfortable space I’m familiar with.”

“Understood.” Admiral Tricon looked over to the rest of his officers. “You are all dismissed. Major Gunna, will you make sure our new allies receive a proper meal?”

“Yes sir.” Major Gunna walked over to Riot and her crew. “I’ll show you to the mess hall.”

“Warrant Officer Riot?” the Admiral asked as Wang, Ketrick, and Doctor Miller moved to follow the major. “Will you stay for a moment longer? I promise it won’t be long.”

“Of course.” Riot looked Wang in the eyes. “Behave yourself.”

“Why are you just looking at me?” Wang motioned to Doctor Miller and Ketrick. “What about them? I’m feeling a bit singled out, here.”

“Because I AM talking to you,” Riot said, walking away from the group exiting the room. Over her shoulder, she could hear Major Gunna and Ketrick already picking up where they left off.

“So giant, what is it that you eat on Hoydren to grow so disproportionately large?” Major Gunna asked.

“Definitely not what you’re eating here that stunts your growth to such a puny extent.” Ketrick’s voice faded into the distance as the group left the room.

“Well, aren’t we just all getting along.” Admiral Tricon walked to a far wall where a panel with a grey lever was set in an indention on the right. The admiral pulled the lever down, raising steel shades along the wall. “It’s a good sign that they’re ribbing each other out loud. If they carried it inside, it might lead to something more.”

Riot slowly nodded along with the admiral’s words. In all honesty, she was having a hard time paying attention at the moment. What she thought had been a stationary wall a moment before was actually a long window that opened up into space and an approaching planet beyond.

The planet was a dull red, in some places almost cream. It looked massive, even larger than Earth. Riot understood she was the last person qualified to gauge how large planets really were compared to one another. The thing that took her off guard was how beautiful it seemed. A single planet alive with red-and-cream colors standing against the blackness of space.

“I suspect you have your reservations about us bombing the hives and the validity of what we have told you today.” The admiral moved to stand next to Riot. He didn’t look at her, just stood beside her, gazing out onto the planet of Raydon. “I guess you’ll have to trust us, so far as going along with us bombing the hives tonight, but tomorrow, when you’re on the planet fighting alongside us, you’ll see first-hand that everything we’ve told you is true.”

How can something so perfect, so amazing, be as evil as they say it is? Riot thought. But isn’t that life? Judging a book by its cover gets you dead faster than a trigger-happy private in his first real firefight.

“You’ve given us no reason to think you’re lying to us,” Riot said, turning from the window to look at the admiral. She had to tilt her head down. He came up to her chin. “Like you said, we’ll see for ourselves soon enough.”

“Your ship won’t be ready when it’s time to go. One of our Archangel A4 transportation ships will give you a ride down and back.”

“Understood,” Riot said. There were still so many unanswered questions about the Karnayers and the massive universe Earth now found itself a part of. There was no time to ask them all, so Riot concentrated on the ones bothering her the most. “On Hoydren, we captured a Karnayer trying to enslave the dragons there and use them as weapons. I fought him. He created a kind of green … magic, for a lack of a better word, to control the dragons and also use over his blade. It gave his weapon the ability to slice through my own. Do you know what that is?”

“Magic is as good a term for it as any.” Admiral Tricon scrunched his bushy eyebrows. He ran a hand down the right side of his face, where a long scar dug into his skin like a shallow canyon. “It’s a force that exists in the universe; a magic controlled by the power of one’s internal fortitude, tied closely to their very will itself. It’s used by more than a few of the advanced races, including my own people. If you are interested in a more detailed answer, there are those among my staff who practice and could tell you more.”

“Thanks. I’m sure Doctor Miller will take you up on that offer once things calm down a bit,” Riot said, trying to gauge how important harnessing this power would be to SPEAR. “One more question. When the Syndicate were destroyed, they warned of an oncoming force of evil. I thought at first they might have been talking about the Karnayers, but Remus, the Karnayer we’d captured on Hoydren, referred to something or someone called the ‘Ancient Ones.’ Do you know what he was talking about?”

“Only rumors, the weight of the truth resting on what you believe.” Admiral Tricon blew air from his lungs as if he were trying to decide how much to say. “Some believe the Ancient Ones are merely a story told around the universe by parents to their young.”

“Galactic boogeymen,” Riot muttered.

The admiral continued. “They are the creators or destroyers of the universe, depending on what you believe.”

“And what do you believe?” Riot asked.

“I think there is truth in both. I think that there is the possibility of a race existing that far surpasses us in knowledge and age. Maybe even a species that deems themselves responsible for destroying galaxies and then allowing them to rise up, only for the cycle to begin anew. The universe is a big place, Riot. There is much of it that has yet to be explored.”

Riot nodded along with the admiral’s words.

“Get some rest.” Admiral Tricon strode from the room. “Tomorrow, we go to war.”


59

Riot?” Doctor Miller emerged from the cargo hold on the rear of the ship just as Riot was walking around the corner of the Valkyrie. “General Armon wants to speak with you as soon as you get in.”

“Well, I’m in,” Riot said, rolling her tired shoulders, trying to ignore what time it must have been. “I’ll open up a link from my quarters.”

“Here.” Doctor Miller pushed a bottle of water and a protein bar into her hand. “You’re not going to be of use to anyone if you don’t find time to eat.”

Riot accepted the food, grateful for the promise of something in her stomach. Her gut rolled with the thought of putting food into her mouth.

“You’re all right, Bubbles,” Riot said, tearing into the protein bar. “You’re all right.”

“Of course,” the doctor said, brightening up at the hint of praise sent her way. Deborah Miller’s eyes shone and her lips parted in a smile so genuine that Riot had to look away. “I mean, I’m here for you and the team. You all are like fam—”

“Easy, take it easy,” Riot said around a mouthful of food. She twisted the cap on her water bottle and drained the entire contents to buy her some time from having to address the cheerleader in front of her. Riot finished with a loud burp. “When we head to the surface of Raydon tomorrow, we’re heading into a fight. It’s up to you whether or not you want to come with us. I know you’re a noncombatant, and well, there’s going to be a lot of combat. If you choose to stay behind on the transport ship, you can coordinate with us from there.”

Riot could see the struggle in the doctor’s eyes. She was a scientist, but she considered herself a part of the team. Who was Riot kidding? Deborah was a part of the team. Not going would be hard for her, but she had to realize she was a scientist, not a Marine.

“I want to come, but maybe it’s best if I help coordinate from the transport ship,” the doctor said, taking solace in the fact that she would be able to do something. She had chosen to take the out Riot had given her. Riot couldn’t blame her. “Anything you and the War—the team needs, I’ll get it done.”

Riot ignored the fact that the doctor had almost called them the War Wolves and not a peacekeeping team. “I know you will.”

Riot walked into the cargo bay and toward her quarters. If General Armon wanted to talk, something must be important, and normally, generals didn’t like to wait. Riot passed a dozen Grovothe engineers working alongside Vet and Rizzo to repair the interior of the ship from the Karnayer attack.

A large, yellow crane was in the process of removing the small Karnayer Scarabs from the hull of the Valkyrie. The dead Karnayer bodies had already been removed, the blue blood left in their wake mopped off the floor, walls, and ceiling.

Vet and Rizzo nodded to Riot as she passed.

It was a short trip to her quarters. Riot’s room was a simple affair of a desk and small seating area to her left. To her right was her bed, closet, and a washroom just large enough to fit a shower, sink, and toilet.

For whatever reason, as soon as Riot entered the room, memories of a night not long past resurfaced. When she had relapsed. Memories had driven her to drink again, something she knew she couldn’t handle, but had done anyway. That night, Ketrick had taken care of her.

Ketrick.

I wonder what that idiot is doing right now. Riot found herself imagining him as she walked to her desk. Probably discovering new ways to sling insults at Rippa.

The thought made Riot smile. It felt good. These days she didn’t have much to smile about.

Riot sat at the desk, pushing thoughts of Ketrick from her mind.

“Evonne,” Riot said out loud to the AI that lived in the Valkyrie. “Patch me through to General Armon please.”

“Right away,” Evonne’s ethereal voice answered back.

A moment later, the mirror on Riot’s desk transitioned to a screen. General Armon was sitting at his desk. “Riot, good to see you. Doctor Miller has briefed me on your progress with the Grovothe and the confrontation with the Karnayers. You’ve done an excellent job on both fronts.”

“Thank you, sir,” Riot said, thinking she really should be nicer to the doctor. “It was a team effort. I couldn’t have done it without the crew.”

General Armon nodded along as if he expected Riot to say those exact words. Bags hung under his eyes. For the first time, Riot got a glance at the human part of the general. In the brief time she had known him, he had exhibited nothing but a strict no-nonsense front; he was strong and in control. What Riot saw on the screen now was a leader who was still very much all of these things, but exhausted at the same time.

“We’ve received word from Captain Harlan on Hoydren,” General Armon said. “He’s been interrogating the Karnayer prisoner Remus with the help of the Trilords. Remus has given us information on the Karnayer technology you witnessed, as well as agreed to share information about the Karnayers’ larger scheme, in return for his freedom.”

“Sir,” Riot said, taking the opportunity to speak up as soon as the general paused. “We’re going to make a deal with Remus and set him free?”

“At this stage in the game, we need as much information as we can get,” General Armon said, looking off screen deep in thought. “Both from the prisoner and from our new allies. Find out as much as you can about everything you can. Doctor Miller will be doing the same.”

“I understand, sir.” Riot cleared her throat. She winced as uneasy scenarios came to mind. There had to be something more, something they were missing. Remus wasn’t going to give in just like that. Not when he knew his brother was still out there.

“Speak your mind, Riot,” the general said with a sharp edge in his tone. “You’re one of the few people who does around here.”

“It’s just that the Karnayer we ran into today claimed to be Remus’s brother. Why would Remus give in so quickly, when he’s as loyal as they come and he knows his brother is still out here. He must realize he has a chance if his brother comes for him.”

“I take your meaning. Still, we have to play the cards we’re given. I’ll double the Marines we have stationed on Hoydren. They, along with the Trilords there, should be more than enough to curb any rescue attempt.”

“How’s the fleet on Earth?”

“We have a dozen ships ready to fly.” General Armon grinned. “If anyone comes knocking, we’ll be ready. I’ll let you prepare your men for the joint attack with the Grovothe tomorrow. Remember your training Warrant Officer, and get your men back safe.”

“Yes, sir,” Riot said, saluting over the screen.

General Armon returned the salute before the screen winked off.

At the moment, food, caffeine, and preparing her unit for combat the next day, in that order, were at the forefront of her mind.

“Evonne,” Riot said as she rubbed tired eyes on her way out of her quarters. “Have the crew meet me in the armory in ten minutes.”

“Right away,” Evonne answered. “Riot, if I may. Would this be an appropriate lull in the normal death and destruction we reign on alien planets to discuss the physical body Corporal Vetash has been constructing for me?”

Riot rolled her eyes as she maneuvered through the ship’s interior on her way to the mess hall. A physical body for the AI had been a topic of discussion since Riot had first met her. Not only did Riot not understand SPEAR’s stance on such a topic, but she also didn’t know how she felt allowing the AI to inhabit a robotic body.

I can’t just shoot down her request, even if she is a computer program, Riot thought. Neither can I give the thumbs-up for her to take on a robotic body. I’ve seen way too many movies where that goes bad.

“The body question goes past my pay grade, Evonne.” Riot entered the mess hall to see Ketrick sitting at a table with heaping plates of food Riot didn’t recognize. He nodded to her, shoveling another forkful of what looked like purple meat into his mouth. “But I will have Doctor Miller send your request to the general. You have my word.”

“That is more than enough for me.” Evonne sounded hopeful, if AIs could sound hopeful. “Thank you, Riot.”

Riot could feel Ketrick’s eyes on her as she moved to one of the many stations built in the mess hall’s far wall that distributed food. A touch screen set above a square indent in the wall allowed the crew to select whatever nourishment or drink they desired. In seconds, the chow appeared in the hollow below it.

“The Grovothe may be small, but they know how to eat,” Ketrick said from his seat on the bench. “I brought back some food from their own mess hall if you’d like some.”

Riot turned around to see the plates of multicolored meats and mush. The aroma the food let off was like charred meat and mashed potatoes. Riot’s mouth started to salivate as she was reunited with familiar smells. Tonight wasn’t the best night to try out new foods. The last thing she needed was a case of the runs while she landed on Raydon the next day.

“I’ll pass today.” Riot turned back to the display, ordering a large black coffee, a breakfast burrito, and a side of hash browns. “Gotta stick with the essentials. We have a big day tomorrow.”

A moment later, the food appeared in front of her. “We need to meet the rest of the crew in the armory in a few minutes, so pack in what you can.”

Riot took a seat opposite Ketrick on the bench and began devouring her food. Time was never on her side. Table manners were a thing of the past. The familiar taste of food she knew and loved felt heavenly as it slid down her throat and into her grateful stomach.

“How are you holding up?” Ketrick asked, wiping his hands with a thick napkin. “You know what I mean.”

“I’m fine.” Riot took a humongous bite from her breakfast burrito. Melted cheese mixed with eggs and sausage coated the inside of her mouth. “That was a one-time deal, I told you.”

Riot was torn. On one hand, she appreciated Ketrick asking her how she was doing. He was the only one who had seen her relapse that night into her old habit of drowning her memories in alcohol. She understood he genuinely cared for her. On the other hand, he had witnessed a side of her Riot didn’t allow anyone to see.

Not only had Ketrick seen Riot vulnerable, but he also knew why. Riot was struggling with herself when Ketrick spoke again.

“When this is all done,” Ketrick said, softly pushing himself up from the table. “I’d like to court you.”

Riot didn’t know what to say. Heat rose to her face and her heart doubled in speed. Instead of answering, she shoved the rest of the burrito into her mouth. Her cheeks bulged on either side of her face like a chipmunk at an all-you-can-eat nut buffet. Riot nodded along with Ketrick’s request. She gave him what grin she could.

“You try and build yourself up as a merciless witty warrior that doesn’t have a soft spot.” Ketrick ignored Riot’s attempt at not answering him. He waited for her to finish chewing as he stood at the entrance to the mess hall. His large frame filled the doorway. “And you are all of those things, except you do have a side of you that you have locked away from the world. In time, I hope you will see you can trust me. You can be that self once more.”

Riot swallowed hard, grabbing her coffee and heading for the door. Everything Ketrick was saying was true. Why was it so hard for her to talk about her past? She hated herself for being too afraid of who she once was; she just couldn’t bring herself to open up once more.

“The Corps, and I’m sure SPEAR, has strict rules about—”

“I am not part of the Corps, neither am I a member of SPEAR.” Ketrick moved aside for her to pass, but his red eyes never left her. “I’m not giving up on you, Riot. I don’t know if I could, even if I wanted to. Tell me you don’t feel the same way.”

Riot was intent on heading past Ketrick to the armory for a weapons check with her unit, when Ketrick’s last words stopped her in her tracks. She was right in front of him, sharing the space of the doorway.

Looking up into his kind, wild eyes made Riot’s mouth go dry.

Here’s a guy who really cares for you. A muscular, well-built, handsome warrior who’s showing his guts to you right now. Riot licked her lips, trying to come up with the words that were so hard to gather. You have to tell him the truth. He deserves that. He deserves whatever it is you can give him.

“You’re … you’re not wrong about everything you’ve said,” Riot managed to say. “Gosh, I hate talking about my feelings. I’d rather fight a Scarab full of Karnayers on my own. I’m broken, Ketrick, but if you give me the time, I do want to see what a future with you could be like. No promises; my men and the mission need to come first.”

“I’ll be here.” Ketrick took one of Riot’s hands in his own and lifted it to his lips. He planted a gentle kiss on her palm.

“Holy cannelloni, what are you trying to do to me here?” Riot said, feeling weak in the knees. She lifted herself on her tiptoes, pulling Ketrick’s head down and planting a hard, hot kiss on his mouth. As soon as the moment happened, it ended. Riot pulled herself away and walked down the hall. “Sorry if it tastes like breakfast burrito. Come on, there’ll be plenty of time for that later. We have a mission to prepare for.”


60

Were you eating breakfast burrito?” Wang said, leaning in toward Ketrick with a sniff. “How did you even know to order that from the mess hall? They have breakfast burritos on Hoydren?”

Ketrick’s eyes darted toward Riot. She gave a short, stern shake of her head.

“Doesn’t every planet have their own version of a burrito breakfast?” Ketrick said, turning to Wang with a raise of his brow. “Burrito breakfasts are wondrous events on my planet.”

“When you put it like that…” Wang shrugged and went back to work, cleaning his Villain Pulse Rifle. “It’s hard to argue.”

Riot sat on one of the closed cases, preparing her own weapons for the next day. The armor for the crew was in a translucent case to the right of the armory. Four black-and-red uniforms stood upright, with lights shining down on them. A grey-and-black armored uniform was also set aside for Doctor Miller.

Ketrick was adamant about only needing his gauntlets and a Kevlar vest on the battlefield. Riot would have been more persistent that he wear full gear, had it not been for the nanites they were all injected with.

Wang had bioengineered the nanites left behind by the Syndicate to heal their wounds on a cellular level. As long as the injury did not kill them right away, the nanites they had been injected with would heal them in seconds. It had been tried, tested, and proven useful on more than one occasion already.

The other four sides that made up the armory were stocked with rows of weapons ranging from Boomballs, to heavy rocket launchers and sniper rifles. Vet sat on the floor, dismantling his Longshot 1000. Rizzo was on his left, checking and rechecking his Vulcan SP101 that was a mini-gun more than anything else.

Rock music played in the background, courtesy of Vet and Evonne. The familiar tunes listened to so many times before made Riot forget where they were and what they were about to do the next morning.

“Do we have any idea of what the plan for tomorrow looks like?” Vet said, looking up at Riot. “You know I’m ready to go wherever, whenever you need me. I’m just curious.”

“We’re heading out at dawn after the Dreadnaught pounds the Zenoth hives with long-range fire,” Riot said, placing her Pulse Rifle beside her and beginning to clean her secondary weapon, her Cannon FP 290. “They expect the Zenoth will find shelter in their hives, but maybe they can get a few hundred before they can take shelter.”

Why are people always attacking at dawn? Rizzo signed, shaking his head as he put down the Vulcan and walked to his armor. He began inspecting every inch of his protection from the helmet to the boots. In every movie, in every book.

“Huh,” Riot grunted. “I was wondering the same thing. I—”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Everyone in the armory stopped what they were doing and looked to Riot for direction. The embedded instinct to run toward the sound of conflict itched in every Marine in the room. Vet held his sniper rifle close, while Rizzo and Wang actually took a step toward the door.

“Easy,” Riot said, standing up from her seated position on the weapons crate. “The Dreadnaught has started firing on the Zenoth. Let’s go take a look.”

The constant booming in the distance echoed into the Valkyrie as Riot and her crew made their way through the craft and down the cargo bay ramp. Exiting into the hangar showed Riot she wasn’t the only one interested in seeing the fireworks.

The work in the Dreadnaught’s hangar had ceased for the time being. The Grovothe engineers who had been a flurry of activity repairing ships were all lined up against the force field that separated the Dreadnaught hangar bay from the cold dark that space promised.

Riot found a place next to Rippa, who nodded at her as she approached. “It’s a deadly beauty the Dreadnaught brings. They’re softening the Zenoth hives for us now, but we’ll have more than our hands full when we arrive in the morning. Our weapons can only penetrate so far. The Zenoth hives go deep.”

Riot heard and understood all of these words as she nodded along. Her eyes never left the scene in front of her. On the other side of the protective force field, Riot had a bird’s eye view of planet Raydon.

The Dreadnaught had traveled close, so close now, Riot wondered how they weren’t being pulled into the planet’s atmosphere yet. Blue bolts of energy, as well as massive rockets, were being hurled at the planet below.

The reddish cream texture of Raydon exploded in smoke and dust as the first explosions rocked the planet below. A mushroom cloud that looked like the size of Riot’s thumb erupted a moment later.

“It’s hard to believe much can live through that,” Vet breathed. “You Grovothe don’t mess around.”

“We do not. But be that as it may, there will still be thousands of Zenoth protecting the hive when we land.” Rippa motioned to the far side of the hangar, where four giant suits of armor stood against the wall. “If it weren’t for the mechs, we wouldn’t have a chance of close-range combat.”

Riot followed Rippa’s gaze to the far end of the hangar. What she saw shocked her. Four twenty-foot tall robotic suits stood ready. They looked like walking tanks, with two thick armored legs and arms sprouting from the center. An intimidating helmet looked out onto the hangar bay with judgment in its eyes.

“Holy nachos, and the almighty Taco Bell.” Wang breathed hard as if he were hyperventilating. “Are those what I think they are?”

“Mechs,” Vet whispered, answering his comrade’s question. “We’re going to get mechs?”

“Easy there,” Rippa said, pushing past Riot’s unit. She waved them to walk alongside her. “Learning to pilot a mech of this size takes years of dedicated practice and discipline. Even if you humans could master this type of mech, you’d need a very long time to practice. These are Juggernaut class mechs that are piloted by my unit and myself—the Spartans.”

“Spartans? Like… on Earth?”

“Actually,” Rippa laughed, “the way I understand it, the ones on Earth took it from us when our ancestors were called down to train them.”

Riot was having yet another moment where she was listening and understanding everything Rippa was saying, yet her eyes never left the twenty-foot armored mech units standing in front of them.

As they got closer, Riot saw there were already three other Grovothe checking and inspecting the armored units. The shorter race of aliens used powered lifts to move up and down the height of their battle suits.

The smell of oil and grease assailed Riot’s nostrils as the constant booming of the Dreadnaught’s guns drifted in the background.

“This is my unit,” Rippa said, motioning forward to the three Grovothe who were coming down from their lifts to greet the newcomers. “Brimley, Atlas, and Ragnar.”

“Hello,” Brimley said, nodding to Riot and her team.

Atlas gave them a suspicious stare, but nodded, as well.

“Wow, this is going to be just the best.” Ragnar hopped off his lift and went around shaking everyone’s hands. He stopped when he came to Ketrick. “Is it true, giant?”

“Is what true?” Ketrick asked, trying to free his hand from the much smaller Grovothe’s grip.

“Do you have a space serpent with you at your command?”

Ketrick finally pulled his hand free. “I do. Her name is Vikta.”

“Oh, my lucky stars.” Ragnar ran a hand through his short, dark Mohawk. “We’re riding into battle with humans, a giant Trilord, and a space serpent!”

“Control yourself,” Rippa commanded her soldier. “How do the mechs look?”

“All checked out and in working order.” Brimley reached down and grabbed a checklist clamped to a folder on the ground. “We’re reloaded and fuel is stocked.”

“So the four of you are going to be in your mechs when we assault the Zenoth hive tomorrow, and we’ll be in what?” Riot asked, glancing up once more at the giant bodies of armor. She couldn’t remember seeing anything more intimidating. Okay, one thing more intimidating: a charging dragon.

“We’ll lead the assault,” Rippa said, lifting her eyes from the report in Brimley’s hands. “You’ll be our backup. Will the human armor you brought with you not suffice?”

“Oh, we’ll be just fine,” Riot said.

Wang, Rizzo, and Vet were all walking around the mechs, having all their questions answered by a very talkative Ragnar.

“Is there a problem, giant?” Rippa said as she looked over to a scowling Ketrick. “Do our weapons not fit to your liking?”

“No, no, it’s fine … I guess,” Ketrick said, shrugging. He coughed into his right hand, “If you’re too afraid to fight with your own hands and feet.”

“What did you just say?” Rippa’s head swung up so fast, Riot thought she would have whiplash for sure. “Don’t hide your words, giant.”

“I won’t, dwarf.” Ketrick took a step forward, pointing his chin at the mech units. “I just wonder why you hide behind a machine, instead of challenging your enemy face to face.”

“What did you just call me?” Rippa moved away from Brimley to face Ketrick. The red-headed Grovothe female was comically short compared to Ketrick, but if this concerned her, she didn’t show it.

“Wow, okay then,” Riot said, pushing her way between the two. “You know the universe has gone to hell in a handbasket when I’m the voice of reason. That’s enough. Like it or not, we have to work together. Let’s keep it civil, at least until we get through tomorrow, then you two can have your pissing contest.”

Ketrick raised his hand and walked backwards. “I do not care to piss in any contest.”

Rippa glared at Ketrick, shaking her head. Under her breath she mumbled, “Savage.”

“Great, can’t wait to go into battle with you all tomorrow,” Riot said with wide eyes. “This is going to be one for the diary.”


61

Overnight, while the Dreadnaught pounded the Zenoth hives with orbital strikes, Riot lay awake in her bed, staring at the dark ceiling. The constant booming of the Dreadnaught guns was almost soothing in a way. It was a noise Riot knew well; a familiar note in an unfamiliar world.

She ran through the events of the next day in her mind. Riot had coordinated a time to meet Rippa in the hangar where the Grovothe transport ship would take them to the planet’s surface. Their departure was less than eight hours away. More than anything, Riot wanted to sleep, but the weight of leading her unit into battle the next day weighed on her like never before.

A rogue thought whispered in her ear: You just need a taste to take the edge off, the voice cooed. A single shot of whiskey will help you sleep. It would be as easy as walking to the mess hall and ordering a shot. Why shouldn’t she? She deserved it. She more than deserved it.

Riot sat up in her bed. She even got as far as walking to her door. The one thing holding her back was the woman she knew she had to become. If her men were going to have a chance against the Zenoth, the Karnayers, the Ancient Ones if they existed at all, was with Riot at her very best.

Riot forced herself to lie down again. Her mind wandered to her past, to mistakes made and lessons learned, and to Ketrick.

When Riot woke, she understood she was in a dream. Despite how real the empty, white room felt all around her, she knew she had to be imagining it all. Every direction she turned, another white wall. There was no furniture in the room.

Riot walked around the strange room, testing the walls one at a time. The third wall she pressed on blinked once, transitioning from a wall to a window. An old woman sat in a rocking chair. A single light shined down on her wrinkled face. The woman’s aged hands traveled over the familiar shape of a handgun. A Kimber 1911 lay on her lap as she cleaned the weapon before reassembling it.

There was something familiar about the woman. Something Riot knew she should recognize, but for whatever reason, just couldn’t put her finger on. Only the profile of the woman’s face was visible. An idea as to the identity of the woman raced down Riot’s spine.

“No,” Riot breathed out loud. She knocked on the window, trying to gain the old woman’s attention. As soon as her fist made contact with the glass, more lights clicked on in the room.

The woman still didn’t turn.

With more illumination, Riot could tell it was the woman’s small apartment. A clean kitchen with a microwaved dinner for one set out and ready. A made bed and, what Riot guessed was the bathroom, to her right.

“Hey, hey!” Riot shouted, hitting the glass harder. Somehow she already knew who the woman was; still, she had to see her face. “Look at me! Look at me!”

The woman slowly rocking in the chair looked up as if she had heard Riot for the first time. Leathery hands placed the weapon parts down beside her chair. She turned to the window to her right, providing Riot with an unobstructed view of her face.

It was Riot. An aged, soul-worn version of Riot, but still Riot.

Riot’s heart dropped into her stomach. This couldn’t be her future. What had happened to her?

The older Riot stood up from her seat and walked to the window. For a brief moment, both Riots stared at one another without saying a word.

“If you push everyone away,” the older Riot said with a voice so sad it sounded as if it weren’t human at all, “one day there will be no one left to push back.”

Riot didn’t know what to say.

“Why did you do this to us?” The older Riot pounded so hard against the window, tiny spider web cracks spread out from where her fist had hit the glass. “Why did you do this to us?”

The woman screamed over and over again. She beat the glass with both hands, sending more and more cracks over the window.

“Why! Why! Why!” the woman howled.

Riot woke up, when she realized it wasn’t the woman in her dreams yelling. It was her.

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

“You okay?” Wang was already in the armory room when Riot arrived ten minutes before their designated time. “You look like you didn’t sleep at all. Was it the Dreadnaught’s weapons going off all night? I could have given you something to help you sleep.”

“I’m fine,” Riot lied, hiding her fatigue behind another large drought of the coffee she had picked up from the mess hall on her way to the armory. “Speaking of giving me a little something, are you straight for our mission?”

Riot was referring to the drug use Wang had battled with. He swore up and down to her every time she brought up the subject that he only used them when he absolutely needed to when his ADD got out of hand, even though Riot suspected otherwise.

“I’m good to go, Captain.” Wang was already at his armor. He’d stripped down to his underwear, preparing to get into his dragon-skin under armor. “I only use it when I have to. I wouldn’t put you or any other members of the team at risk if I thought I wasn’t good.”

Riot took a moment to study Wang. He looked fine, and he was acting normal. Well, normal enough for Wang.

“Does everyone get here early?” Doctor Miller poked her head into the armory. “Vet and Rizzo are right down the hall.”

“Good,” Riot said, placing her coffee mug at the foot of her armor. She followed Wang’s example of stripping down before getting into her own armor. “Let’s get this party started.”

Vet and Rizzo filed in. A moment later, Ketrick showed up with a frown. “Am I tardy? I thought this was the time we were all to meet.”

“We’re Marines,” Vet said, pulling off his pants to expose an adult diaper strapped to his groin. “If you’re on time, you’re late.”

“Oh, my eyes.” Riot winced, looking away. “You gotta warn us when you’re going to start flashing around your huggies, Vet.”

Are you wearing your diapers again? Rizzo signed, shaking his head. We are going to have an intervention for you soon if you keep this up.

“I’m not rehashing this conversation again,” Vet said, shaking his own head. “When we’re on the transport or in the middle of a firefight and you have to piss, I’m going to be prepared. You all are going to be straining your bladders, while I’ll be clearheaded and taking care of business.”

Riot chuckled to herself as she pulled on the first layer of her armor, the dragon skin. Besides being a cool name, the dragon skin was made up of thousands of small overlapping metal scales. The scales bent enough to give the wearer maneuverability while still protecting them with its overlapping design. For all intents and purposes, it looked like an updated version of the chain mail ancient knights would wear into battle.

Next came the crimson red liquid armor. The armor reminded Riot of advanced football pads. The thicker armor was made up of multiple thin layers of Kevlar, with a liquid substance separating each layer. The substance absorbed impacts from weapons this way, spreading the force over the armor instead of on one specific point, like when throwing a stone into a mass of water, with the water absorbing the blow by spreading out the force of the impact with ripples.

“Evonne,” Riot said to the AI as she buckled on her red boots. “Do we have access to any AC/DC tuneage?”

“Certainly,” Evonne’s voice answered back. “Playing now.”

The familiar sounds of one of Riot’s favorite rock bands reverberated into the armory.

Ketrick was on Riot’s right. The largest black Kevlar vest they had looked tiny on his massive chest. The Trilord wore his own thick, metal gauntlets that were covered in ancient runes. His hair was tied back behind his head. The weapon he favored, a long staff with a blaster at the end, had a hammer and an axe on either side at the end.

The Trilords were notorious for mixing hand-to-hand weapons with blasters. It was from their homeworld of Hoydren that Riot had adopted her own war hammer.

Riot grabbed her own weapons. Memories of the nightmare she had the night before still plagued her. She banished these thoughts from her mind. She needed to focus on the task at hand. Allowing thoughts of dreams to rule her would do no one any good.

Riot grabbed her sidearm, the Cannon FP290, and clipped it into a holster on her left thigh. The retrofitted weapons left by the Syndicate and repurposed by SPEAR were nothing like Riot had ever seen. Their stocky frames and unlimited ammunition supply were revolutionary.

Riot’s Villain Pulse Rifle was the Syndicate’s version of an AR15A4. A short, powerful scope was fitted above the flat, black weapon. A new addition to the weapon was a short tube fitted under the rifle’s barrel.

“We added that on back at the Bulwark,” Vet said as he caught Riot examining the augmented weapon. “It’s like an alien grenade launcher.”

“I noticed when I was cleaning it,” Riot said, nodding to Vet. “The more firepower the better. I like where your head’s at.”

“Where is his head?” Ketrick asked over the sound of “Highway to Hell.”

“It’s just a saying.” Riot hefted her own war hammer and placed it on a clip on her back. Her armor had been fitted with a special holding rack just for the weapon. “Final weapons check, people. We need to rendezvous with the Grovothe in the hangar in ten.”

Ketrick reached for a small circular metal container in his locker. On the container was the symbol of a skull that reminded Riot of a pirate. Ketrick dipped two fingers into the tin and brought them back covered in red dye. He swiped two lines under his eyes like a football player. Then on each side he drew four lines coming down from the paint that looked like tears.

What are you doing? Rizzo signed to Ketrick. Rizzo wore his own black-and-red armor. He held his helmet in the crook of his right elbow as he asked the question with his hands.

Confusion washed over Ketrick’s face as he tried to piece together what Rizzo was saying. Unlike the rest of the unit, Ketrick did not have the time to study the basic signs used in sign language. Even with Riot going through a month of practice, she still didn’t know them all and would regularly miss signs.

Rizzo pointed to the can of paint in Ketrick’s hand and then to the spot under Ketrick’s eyes where he applied it. Rizzo then followed it up with a shrug and a confused look on his face.

“Oh,” Ketrick said, clapping Rizzo hard on the shoulder with a grin. “I grasp your meaning, brother Rizzo. This is ancient war paint my ancestors have used since our people began ruling Hoydren. It is a tradition that we apply it before a battle. I did not have the opportunity to apply it last time we fought side by side, but I will not miss this opportunity.”

“Cool,” Wang said, coming over alongside Vet. Both men wore their own armor. “Can we try some, too?”

“Certainly.” Ketrick smiled, extending his muscular arm with the circular can of red dye inside. “Apply it generously. Rub it into your skin vigorously. It will aid your warrior spirit in the confrontation to come.”

Even Rizzo joined in as the three Marines lathered their faces in different designs with the thick red goop. Ketrick extended it to Doctor Miller. “Would you care for some?”

“No disrespect to your kind,” Doctor Miller said, shaking her head. The action sent her blonde hair waving behind her. “But I think I’ll pass.”

“How do I look?” Vet asked. He had spread the red dye in a hand print design over his face. “Pretty deadly?”

“That’s one way to put it.” Riot shook her head, waving away the offer as Ketrick came to her. “I’ll have my helmet on for the engagement. Thanks, anyway.”

“Hey, what’s this stuff made of, anyway?” Wang asked. His whole face was covered in red from his chin to his forehead. “It smells weird.”

“The battle blood is made from pulverized remains of my ancestors. We will be carrying them into battle with us. Their fighting spirit will give us strength,” Ketrick said, replacing the cover on his tin.

Wang’s mouth dropped open. “Say what again?”

Rizzo began to gag as he tried wiping the dye off his face, but only managed to press it in deeper.

“We’re wearing your dead ancestors?” Wang looked over at Rizzo, who had his hands on his knees, dry heaving. “No … no, don’t throw up. You’re going to make me—”

“Yes, it is a common practice among the Trilords to sever a hand from the dead once a member has passed. The limb is then dried and pulverized into a paste,” Ketrick explained as if he were talking about the weather. “Is there something wrong?”

“I don’t know.” Vet shrugged, the constant scowl on his face lightening for a moment. “I think it’s kinda cool. I like it. It makes my face tingle. It’s like I’m exfoliating or something. ”

Rizzo found a cloth smeared with grease used to maintain their weapons and began scrubbing his face.

Wang went down on all fours and vomited.

Riot was torn between laughing and gathering her crew to meet Rippa and the rest of her Spartan mech unit.

Ketrick sidled up next to her, his long staff blaster rested on his right shoulder. He leaned in and whispered, “It’s just paint. Dye from my homeworld mixed with mud.”

Riot couldn’t help laughing now. “All right, ladies. Let’s get it together. We’re moving out. It’s time to rendezvous with Rippa, and then off to meet the Zenoth. Wang, did you have bananas for breakfast?”


62

The Archangel A4 transport ship they walked toward as they exited the Valkyrie looked like a metal squid to Riot. A massive bulkhead gave way to a smaller body, with two fins followed by eight thrusters in the rear that were maneuvered into an octagon shape. The ship itself was twice the size of the Valkyrie. If there were weapons mounted on the craft, Riot didn’t see them.

Even at this early hour, the hangar hummed with activity. Grovothe engineers ran across the hangar floor, carrying hoses and tools. The sounds of busy hands at work echoed around the massive room.

As the War Wolves made their way to the transport ship, Riot caught sight of one of Rippa’s men, the Grovothe named Atlas. He was kneeling near the transport doors that opened up on either side of the massive transport. He was re-buckling his boots.

He wore a skin-tight grey uniform with the marking of his unit across his chest. The symbol for his unit was a black helmet resembling something an ancient warrior would wear before riding into battle.

“Why do you reek of vomit?” Atlas looked up at Wang as they stopped next to him. He continued in his gruff, no-nonsense voice. “The fear of the Zenoth have you returning your last meal?”

“No, just the fear of getting diseases from Ketrick’s dead relatives.” Wang grimaced, rubbing his face again. “I can still taste his grandma’s hand in my mouth.”

“Is he touched in the head?” Atlas stood up, raising a dark eyebrow toward Riot.

“Jury’s still out on that one,” Riot answered back. If she wasn’t carrying her pulse rifle in her right hand and her helmet in her left, she would have swirled a pointed finger around the side of her head. “We’re all a little broken upstairs, if you know what I mean.”

Before Atlas could answer, Rippa appeared in the ship’s doorway. The female Grovothe wore the same tight, dark grey suit as Atlas, the only difference being the striped insignia on her collar to designate her rank.

Rippa wore her hair in braids on the right side of her head. The other side was pulled behind her ear. Her red hair made it look like her head was aflame with fire.

“I thought I heard you out here.” Rippa nodded toward Riot and her crew. She gave Ketrick a raise of her brow as she continued. “If you’ll step in, we’re ready to go. I have the details of our mission we can go over as we approach the planet.”

“Let’s get to it, then,” Riot said.

Rippa motioned for them to enter as she retreated back into the transport ship. Riot stepped aboard the ship, where she was met with a dozen different new sights at once. The ship seemed large from the outside, but the inside made it look even bigger.

To her right and to her left, the transport ship extended out. To her left, the four armored mech suits Rippa and her unit would pilot into battle stood back to back. Four sentries poised for battle. Ragnar and Brimley were by their units, going over last minute checks.

To Riot’s right, seats lined either side of the wide ship. In the middle were crates of ammunition, shelves of weapons, and stores of what Riot guessed was some kind of gasoline.

The inside of the ship was painted the same dull grey as the outside. The seats had a black fabric pulled tight over thin cushioning. Each seat came equipped with a shoulder buckle and lap harness.

Farther to her right, Riot could see where the doors to the pilot’s section closed off the rest of the ship. A circular pane was set in the center of the door leading to the pilot’s section, with a panel of see-through glass.

“Hey, guys!” Ragnar dropped what he was doing and welcomed them with a warm smile. “Take a seat and make yourselves at home. I’m just super excited to be going on this mission with everyone. I mean, the War Wolves and the Spartans, fighting side by side? Seriously? Oh, man—epic!”

“Ragnar,” Rippa said, giving the member of her team a stern look. “We talked about this.”

“Right, right, sorry, sorry.” Ragnar waved to Riot and her unit again before moving to a seat alongside the far wall.

It was then that Riot noticed the constant booming of the Dreadnaught’s guns had come to a halt. She had ignored the weaponsfire until now. Now that it was gone, it was strange to have a moment of quiet.

“Hello, ladies and gentlemen, Trilords, humans, and of course, our resident Grovothe. I’m your pilot Troy, and we’ll be lifting off in five,” Troy’s voice cracked over the ship’s comms. “We’re just waiting on our escorts now.”

“Understood.” Rippa touched her right ear. “Strapping in.”

Rippa moved to the far wall where Ragnar was already strapping himself in. She pressed a blue button on a control panel. Another line of seats rose slowly from a hollow space in the floor, facing the seats on the far wall.

“We can’t be sitting on opposite sides of the ship, now can we?” Rippa asked. “Please take a seat and settle in. We have a lot to go over.”

Riot followed the Grovothe’s instructions. She chose a seat in the middle of the row, facing Rippa and her unit. She made sure the safety on her weapon was engaged before crossing it over her lap. Her helmet went under her seat.

Humans, Grovothe, and the Trilord all buckled in. To Riot’s surprise, the buckles that came over her shoulders actually unraveled themselves and locked into place with the belt across her lap. The technology was something like one of the wristbands that was straight when you slapped it onto your wrist then conformed to your arm once it made contact.

“The objective today is pretty simple.” Rippa sat across from Riot. Her expression was hard as she took the time to look each of them in the eyes. “We’re one of three teams hitting the three Zenoth hives on Raydon today. We have the privilege of taking down the largest target. We can expect heavy resistance. We get in, destroy the ship the Zenoth are building, and hightail it back to the rendezvous. Any questions?”

“Do the Zenoth have these new weapons and armor of theirs operational?” Riot asked. “If they don’t, how durable is their exoskeleton?”

“Good question.” Rippa looked over to Brimley. “Brimley is our resident genius on the Zenoth. Brim, care to take this one?”

The dark-haired Grovothe nodded, pursing her full lips. “We don’t know if the weapons they have been developing thanks to the Karnayers are operational yet. The last time we went down into one of their hives, they did not have the weapons ready yet. If they charge us as usual, their greatest assets are their sheer numbers and the pincers that extend from their mouths. Don’t get caught in one of their holds, and whatever you do, don’t get surrounded.”

“Since we have the mechs, we can take the front assault and clear the way,” Rippa said. “Your team can—”

“I’m not trying to piss in your cereal here,” Riot said, raising a hand, “but the War Wolves aren’t going to play second fiddle. We’ll be up there on the front with you. Our armor is stronger than it looks, and we have nanites injected into our bloodstream that will heal us instantaneously.”

Rippa opened her mouth as if she were about to argue, then thought better of it when she saw the intensity in Riot’s eyes.

Atlas slammed the transport ship’s door closed before coming over and taking a seat with the rest of his unit.

“Firing engines,” Troy said over the ship’s comms. “Hold on to your butts.”

The thrusters roared to life, filling the transport ship with a heavy thrum. The transport ship shuddered as it lifted from the hangar bay floor and maneuvered into space.

Riot was rattled in her seat for a brief moment as the ship exited the force field bay screen that separated them from space. She stared past Rippa’s head at the windows behind her that showed a black background with hundreds of bright lights in the galaxy.

“If you put these in your ears, we’ll all be connected.” Ragnar reached for a case under his seat. Inside were a dozen small earpieces with a short wire coming from the top. “Just put it in your ear, and I’ll do the rest.”

Riot took the offered earpiece. It looked harmless enough. It was a dull cream color with a tiny antennae poking out of one end. She placed it into her right ear.

“You’ll be able to hear us talking with you, via the earpiece,” Ragnar explained, pointing to his own ear. “When you want to say something back, you’ll have to press your ear to speak.”

“Gonna be kinda hard to apply pressure on our ears when we’re wearing our helmets,” Wang said, looking over to Riot for agreement. “What do you think?”

“Vet, maybe you and Doctor Miller can get with Ragnar on this and figure something out?”

“Roger that,” Vet said. He unbuckled his harness and switched sides in the row of seats to sit next to Ragnar.

Doctor Miller did the same thing. The trio began talking in low, excited voices.

Riot took the opportunity to fill Rippa in on her plan. “Doctor Miller may be staying here on the transport ship. She’s a noncombatant, and well … it doesn’t look like we’re going to do a whole lot else besides combat, here.”

“Understood.” Rippa placed a hand on either side of the harness that was keeping her still in her seat. “Why do your people only refer to you as Warrant Officer Riot? Do you not have a first name? Or a last name?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Riot saw Ketrick perk up at the question.

“Better not to go there with the warrant officer,” Wang warned from his seat.

Rizzo shook his head and made the motion of slicing his throat with this right pointer finger.

“She’s a bit sensitive when it comes to her first na—”

“That’s enough Corporal Wang,” Riot said, leaving no room in her tone for argument. “I prefer to go by my last name.”

Wang shut his mouth.

“It’s something that I’ve wondered myself.” Ketrick leaned forward to look past Rizzo, who sat on Riot’s right. “But I’ve never asked.”

“Maybe she is ashamed of her first name?” For the first time Rippa looked at Ketrick without disdain.

“Perhaps,” Ketrick answered.

“You know, maybe you two always going at it isn’t so bad after all,” Riot growled. Her name was one she had inherited from a grandmother on her father’s side. It was a name she had been teased and ridiculed for at an early age. As soon as she’d reached high school, she’d started to go by “Riot.”

“Are you afraid we will laugh at you?” Brimley asked from her seat between Rippa and Atlas. “I assure you, we will not.”

“It’s Gertrude, okay?” Riot shouted.

“There is nothing wrong with that name.” Rippa looked let down, as if she’d been expecting something truly horrific. “I have an aunt back home named Gertrude Widebottom. She is a beautiful woman.”

Brimley and Atlas nodded along with shrugs as if they, too, saw nothing wrong with the name. Ketrick, on the other hand, wore a wide grin on his face. The two canine teeth that extended out like a predatory animal fell over his bottom lip.

“Not a word.” Riot set her jaw so hard she could feel her muscles twinge with the pressure. “Not a word, you Trilord son of a gun.”

“No words, Gertrude.” Ketrick settled back into his harness.

The only thing keeping Riot in her seat besides the straps was the need for the mission to succeed. Heat touched her face as she thought about a dozen ways to kill Ketrick. “I’m going to make you pay for that, you little ba—”

“Heads up to enter your mech units as requested,” Troy warned over the ship’s comm. “We’ll be touching down shortly.”


63

It’s a temporary fix,” Vet said, working on Riot’s helmet. “But with Ragnar and Doctor Miller’s help, we’ve been able to splice into our comms. We’ll be able to talk to Rippa and her unit, as well as each other now.”

“Good,” Riot said.

As soon as Rippa had heard the announcement over the comms to prepare, she had unstrapped herself along with the rest of her unit. Ragnar had passed last minute instructions to Vet and Doctor Miller before joining his unit by their mechs.

The four Grovothe warriors that made up the Spartans knelt before their mechs and lowered their heads. Riot could barely make out what they were saying over the hum of the engine. It sounded like some kind of prayer, led by Rippa.

“If it’s our time to go, then it’s our time to go,” Rippa said with her eyes closed and her voice as cold as iron. “Our death day has already been decided long ago. Let us fight without compassion for our enemy, fearless in the face of combat. Defeat is not an option. Today, we will teach the Zenoth horde the meaning of fear. We are Spartans, and we are strong. We stand as one!”

“We stand as one!” the other three members in her party repeated.

As one the unit said, “Strength in struggle. Victory at all costs. Death to our enemies.”

The Grovothe opened their eyes. They stood up, preparing to mount their mech units.

“Wow, I’m glad we’re not going to have to fight them,” Doctor Miller said, blinking her large eyes a few times. She worked on Wang’s helmet, syncing his to the Grovothe comms. “Kinda intense, right? I have goosebumps.”

“Perhaps the halflings are not as weak as I thought.” Ketrick shrugged.

Riot looked on as Rippa and her Spartans mounted their mech units. A control panel near the left foot of their suits of armor had a built-in hand scanner. Each pilot placed their hands on the instrument. A loud hiss filled the room as the center of the mech units opened.

Each armored suit stood twenty feet tall. For the five-foot-nothing Grovothe, it would be a high leap to enter the chest cavity of their mech units. This had been fixed with a narrow stepstool that slid out of the chest fissure, allowing the Grovothe access to their cockpit.

A moment later, Rippa and the rest of her unit disappeared into their mechs. With a hiss of hydraulics, the steps retreated back, and the openings to the cockpits closed. One by one, the blue lights showing through the armor’s helmets blinked on with a sinister glow that made the flat black mechs even more intimidating.

“How come we don’t have a prayer when we go into battle?” Vet asked with his ever-present scowl. Ketrick’s war paint still on his face in the shape of his own handprint made it hard for Riot to take him seriously.

“Touchdown in four minutes, boys and girls,” Troy warned over the ship’s communication speakers. “Get ready.”

The mech Rippa had entered turned its helmeted head over to Riot and the others. Rippa’s voice came from the armor suit. “My unit will drop a minute before touchdown and secure the landing zone.”

“Roger that,” Riot said as the ship shuddered. Out of the small, square windows in front of her, Riot could see the ship entering the planet’s atmosphere.

The transport ship rocked harder. Riot was pressed against her seat’s restraints as the oxygen around the ship burned. Entering the planet’s orbit was strikingly similar to entering Earth’s orbit.

The ship rocked and rolled. Riot clenched her rifle in her right hand, her helmet recently updated by Vet in her left.

Here we go again, Riot thought. It’s on you to get them in and out in one piece. You can do this. You got this.

The Archangel transport ship finally came to a steady glide. The windows outside showed what looked like a red-and-cream desert stretching out for miles in every direction. Two other transport ships moved in the distance farther to their right. The other two Grovothe teams tasked with taking out the two smaller hive targets moved on.

“Helmets on,” Riot said, looking around her squad as she donned her own. Everyone besides Ketrick obeyed.

As soon as Riot had placed the helmet on her head, her visor came to life with readouts and displays of weapons and equipment. Her heads-up display showed her everything in running columns on the right, left, and even on the bottom of her visor.

When Riot looked over to Ketrick, the display pointed out the weapons he held on the right column, his race on the left.

“We’re ready for descent, Spartan team,” Troy’s voice came into Riot’s helmet.

“Roger that,” Rippa barked. “Let’s do it.”

The Grovothe started a countdown as the Archangel transport ship came to a hovering spot above the planet. “In three, two, one.”

The four mech units had actually been standing on top of a deployment hatch. As soon as the pilot’s countdown reached one, the hatch snapped open, dropping the four mech units.

Whoosh!

In a blink of an eye, the mech units disappeared through the floor. A strong gust of air rocketed through the ship. A moment later, the doors slowly closed.

“Warrant Officer Riot,” Troy spoke into her helmet, “we’re about a minute until touchdown. You’re clear to unharness.”

“Understood,” Riot said as she slammed her fist against the harness release button on the center of her chest. At once, the harness and lap belt strapping her in began to coil back into itself. “War Wolves, on me.”

Riot strode to one of the side doors, grabbing on to a handle near the hatch. Everyone followed, except Doctor Miller, who moved to join them, then thought better of the moment and remained seated.

Memories of the doctor’s genuine interest in her well-being, as well as the safety for all those in the unit, crossed Riot’s mind. The nightmare she had of being an old woman alone also pushed to the surface. Before Riot could convince herself it was stupid, she motioned to the doctor. “That means you, too, Bubbles. If you want to stay, you have my blessing, but the team’s not complete without you.”

“Me?” Doctor Miller stood like a kid who had been called in from riding the bench all season. “I don’t know. At first I thought I wanted to stay, too, but now I don’t know. This is a combat mission, not an exploratory venture.”

“It’s your call,” Riot answered back.

“Okay, I guess I can go. But we really shouldn’t call ourselves the War Wolves. I mean we’re a peacekeeping exploratory team sent out—”

“We get it, we get it,” Riot hushed the doctor, already regretting her decision. “Right now, we need to focus.”

Riot’s helmet below her eyes came out into a shallow point that ran the length of her nose to her chin. The visor extended from halfway up her nose to just past her eyebrows. Once again, Riot was struck by how much it reminded her of an ancient knight’s helmet.

One of the new updates to their armor was the ability for her visor to shift from a dark tint to clear. Riot tapped a button on the back of her left forearm, where a control panel regulating different functions of her armor stood ready. With a flick of a button, the dark visor on her helmet went clear.

Every member of her unit, minus Ketrick, who didn’t wear a helmet, did the same, to look Riot in the eyes.

“Here we go again.” As she spoke, Riot took the time to look them all in the eyes, even Doctor Miller. “Into the belly of the unknown. But it doesn’t matter. We could be entering a fight against the entire universe, and I wouldn’t rather have anyone else by my side. When we go out, we’re not alone. We’re not single individuals looking out for his or her own safety. We’re looking out for each other first. Nothing breaks us—nothing!”

Riot pounded a fist on the chest of her armored suit. Heavy thumps from everyone in the circle around Riot answered back. “Let’s introduce the Zenoth to the Marines and make them remember forever, this day! The day the corps paid them a visit! Oohrah!”

“Oohrah!” everyone shouted back.

Adrenaline raced through Riot as she felt the familiar tingling sensation spread through her body, to every finger, to every toe.

“Touchdown in three,” Troy said over the comms, “two, one.”

The transport craft landed with a jolt on the planet’s surface. The door in front of them slid open from the middle, out to either side. A bleak landscape greeted them. The orange sun just cresting the horizon was already promising a hot day in the near future. Dry, red sand crunched beneath Riot’s boots.

Rippa and her team had already set up a perimeter around the transport ship. One giant armor suit at each corner created a secure box for the ship to land inside.

Everything looked calm. No wind blew at their unit, no sounds of scurrying animals or alien birds overhead. The only noise came from the Archangel transport ship that lifted off once more.

Sand whipped at Riot’s armor as the ship regained the air. Riot’s heads-up display marked each mech unit with the Grovothe pilot’s name on the bottom of the outlined unit.

The mech unit with the name Rippa underneath jogged toward Riot. The twenty foot armored beast moved like a human in long, easy strides; nothing like Riot had imagined.

The mech armor’s metal arm reached with a long finger and pointed east.

Riot’s helmet compensated for the brightness of the rising sun. She followed a straight line to where the mech unit directed her attention. In the distance, no more than a click or two away, a mound rose from the ground.

The mound reminded Riot of a volcano that had recently been pounded by an orbital strike. All around the mountain-like form were blackened craters, courtesy of the Dreadnaught’s attention during the night.

“That’s the hive we’re going to take out,” Rippa’s voice came over Riot’s comms. “I’d say we’d take the lead, but I don’t think you’re going to go along with that.”

How hard are you going to make this, Riot? she asked herself. As much as she didn’t want to take orders from a commander she wasn’t familiar with in the field, she understood the importance of a command chain while in the field. Rippa knows the enemy, and she knows the terrain. Arguing with her will only weaken the unit. Give her a chance.

“This should be your show,” Riot said into her comms. “This is your backyard and you’ve engaged this enemy before. Take the lead.”

“Understood,” Rippa’s voice came back, a bit surprised. She recovered immediately and started barking out orders. “Ragnar, Brimley, you’re on our six. Atlas and I will take point with the War Wolves in the center of the pack. We’ll reach the hive in minutes if we hurry. We need to get in and out.”

“Major, if I may?” Brimley’s voice came over the comms, stressed.

“I know,” Rippa answered the member on her team as if she were reading her mind. “Let’s move out. The faster we get there, the faster we’ll be able to see why.”

Atlas arrived next to Rippa, and the two mech units began to move toward the hive. A steady pace for them meant Riot and the others on foot ran in a light jog.

“Care to enlighten us with what you’re talking about?” Doctor Miller asked Rippa. “What’s going on?”

“Something’s wrong,” Rippa said. Her mech unit didn’t turn back as it strode toward their objective. “The Zenoth have always challenged our arrival on their planet. Something is very wrong.”


64

Vikta is approaching and will keep our exit point secured,” Ketrick said over his comm. “If that meets everyone’s liking. Or, I could always try to bring her inside the hive.”

“She’s fine outside,” Riot said before Rippa could lay into Ketrick with another sarcastic comment. “We’ll need someone watching our back, anyway.”

“And your space serpent can be trusted to obey?” Rippa voiced her concerns. “She understands you?”

“We share a bond,” Ketrick growled. “My word should be good enough. Vikta will die before she allowed our exit path to be compromised.”

Rippa remained quiet as if she understood further talk in this train of thought would be pointless.

Grovothe, humans, and the Trilord walked and jogged to the hive. The mound rose higher and higher as they approached. Soon, they were in the pockmarked terrain around the hive, where the Dreadnaught had unleashed its wrath. Craters in the sand ranging from no more than a few feet wide to yards in diameter marked the ground in every direction. Even the slope leading up to the entrance of the volcano-like hive was dented from the blasts.

“What does the absence of the Zenoth mean?” Ragnar asked what they were all thinking. “Are they dead? Gone?”

“There’s not a single corpse we’ve discovered on the way to the hive,” Vet answered back. “It seems unlikely that they’re dead.”

“I agree,” Rippa said as the unit reached the base of the hive hill. “Gone, maybe. Maybe they’ve gone deeper into their hive, waiting for us to come.”

“Great, I can’t wait to go inside,” Wang said with a cough.

“Spartans, on me,” Rippa instructed as her armored unit placed a heavy foot in the sand. The mech’s foot barely sunk into the hard-packed mound. “Warrant Officer Riot, follow close behind.”

“Roger that,” Riot said, forming a line with her unit behind the four armored giants. “Wolves, let’s get ready for battle when we crest this hill. Eyes open, trigger fingers ready.”

A chorus of “rogers” met her orders.

The hive hill was a lot higher than Riot had first anticipated. The journey up the steep slope was rough. At times, it was easier for Riot to sling her pulse rifle on her back with her war hammer and use her hands to claw her way up the hill.

The sun was higher now, and hotter. Riot said a silent prayer to Vet and the engineer team back on the Bulwark. Before they had left, the engineers, along with Vet, had installed temperature control systems in their armored suits. Without the aid of the cooling system regulating their temperature now, the trek would be unbearable.

“I should workout more.” Doctor Miller breathed hard into the comms. “Missed too many yoga classes, and now look at me.”

“We’re almost there,” Ketrick answered back. “I don’t know who this Yoga is, or what kind of classes he teaches, but steel yourself. The ridge approaches.”

Riot looked up to realize Ketrick was right. No more than fifty yards away, the four Grovothe mech units were reaching the lip of the hive. Now that she saw the end so close, Riot pressed harder. Her calves and quads burned with the exertion, but Riot forced the feeling from her mind and willed herself on.

Despite the cooling agents circulating her armored body, a cold sweat had gathered on her forehead.

“Still nothing,” Brimley said, her mech unit looking down into the depths of the hive. “They must have retreated deep when the Dreadnaught unleashed on them.”

“Let’s assume the worst,” Rippa said as Riot finally reached the edge of the hive. “That they know we're coming, and that they’re down there waiting for us.”

“Sounds lovely,” Riot said. She pressed her right foot on the lip of the edge and swung her pulse rifle into her hands. She looked down into the hive through the sight of her weapon. “Oh, great. At least we’ll have light.”

As soon as the sunlight failed to illuminate the deep hole into the ground, a blue, luminescent glow began. The glimmering came from the walls of the tunnel itself, like someone had linked together thousands of black lights and lined them up to light the path.

“The Zenoth exude an excrement from their body they use to plaster the walls, ceiling, and floor of their hive,” Brimley explained. “We’ll have no problem seeing while we’re inside.”

“That makes me feel better,” Wang said, joining Riot at the lip of the hive. “At least we’ll be able to see what we’re doing, courtesy of their piss and saliva. I can’t wait.”

“She said excrement,” Vet corrected his friend. “That could be eye goop or sweat, as well.”

YOU’RE NOT MAKING THIS ANY BETTER, Rizzo said over bright red text that popped up on all the Marines’ heads-up displays.

A rush of wings sounded from their right. Everyone, minus Riot and Ketrick, jumped at the noise. Red sand kicked up in all directions. Riot hunched down to make herself a smaller target for the buffeting wind that threatened to push her over the edge.

Rippa and her Grovothe looked like toy soldiers compared to Vikta’s true size. Riot wasn’t sure if she would ever get over how massive the dragon really was. White scales covered her from tail to chin. Leathery wings folded on her giant back as she settled on the edge of the hive.

Vikta lowered her head as if she were saying hello. A wild gleam that Riot loved shimmered in the creature’s eyes.

“She says we can trust her,” Ketrick said out loud. “She will hold our exit point, no matter the cost. She also says your armor units are quite fascinating. She likes the way they look.”

Vikta cocked her head as if she were examining Rippa and her Spartans.

“The hive floor is too far down to jump or propel,” Rippa said over the comms. “I’ll head down first. Spartans will provide a ride for the War Wolves after me. One on each of the mech’s shoulders. Let’s get this done.”

Blue flame shot from the bottoms of Rippa’s armored unit as she lifted gently into the air. She maneuvered over the edge of the circular opening to the underground hive, then slowly lowered herself down.

The remaining three Spartan mechs each took a knee and bent their back waiting for Riot and her team to mount up.

“Well, come on,” Atlas said in his deep, baritone voice. “We won’t bite.”

Well, what did you do today, Riot? Riot asked herself as she waved the others to follow her lead. Oh, nothing much. Just rode giant mech units into battle against bug creatures from another planet.

Riot placed her rifle on her back again as she hefted herself onto Atlas’s right shoulder. Climbing onto the armor felt like taking a ride on a tank. The steel was as unforgiving and as firm as any piece of heavy military equipment Riot had ever felt.

Ketrick followed her lead. He mounted the opposite shoulder Riot had taken on Atlas’s mech. Vet and Rizzo climbed up on Brimley, and Wang and Doctor Miller settled in atop Ragnar.

“Easy does it now,” Atlas warned. “I’ll need to stand up, so adjust yourselves accordingly. Hold on. There will be a brief moment of turbulence as I fire the lifters on the mech’s boots.”

“Hold on to what?” Riot said out loud. She settled on placing her right hand by her left butt cheek where the mech’s shoulder armor provided a grip. Her left hand grabbed ahold of the mech unit’s helmet.

As promised, Atlas slowly shifted into a standing position. A moment later, his armor shuddered and lifted off the ground. Something like the sound of giant blowtorches going off accompanied the lift from the ground.

Vikta watched in fascination from her spot opposite them on the hive ledge.

“No, Vikta,” Ketrick shouted to her with a smile. “Even in your smallest form, you would crush them. What? ... No … I’m not calling you fat, just … not suited to ride these war machines…. We will be careful. Strength and honor my friend.”

Riot wasn’t sure what she was more fascinated by, the fact that Vikta seemed to have a nice personality, or that she was descending into the bells of hell on an alien planet.

As Atlas lowered into the hive, the bright orange sun that rose over the planet lost its dominance. Riot looked up to see Brimley and Ragnar following close behind. Beyond them, the entrance to the hive grew smaller and smaller.

Soon, varying shades of bright and dull blue luminescent light coming from the walls lit their path. Lower and lower they descended, until nothing remained from the entrance above other than a tiny speck of light.

“Reached the bottom,” Rippa voiced over the comms. “This is definitely a trap. Still no hostiles to be seen. They’re waiting for us somewhere in there.”

“That’s good, right?” Doctor Miller’s voice came over the comms in a mixture of nervousness and frightened curiosity. “I mean, if we know it’s a trap, we don’t go in, right? We head back up to the surface and figure this out.”

“Nothing to figure out, Doctor.” Rippa had said the words Riot would have herself, if she were the one speaking. “We are the answer to this. Trap or not, we can’t allow the Zenoth to travel from their planet to any other.”

There was a loud gulp over the comms as Doctor Miller’s hope of turning back to the surface died.

“I’m scanning their tunnels now,” Rippa said.

Riot leaned out over Atlas’s mech to see how much farther they had to descend. No more than three stories down, Riot saw Rippa’s armored mech. Her unit stood at the entrance of four different tunnels that all slanted deeper toward the planet’s core.

The tunnels leading down were each large enough to fit the Valkyrie through. They would provide enough room for the Spartans to walk side by side if they so chose.

Atlas touched down next to Rippa.

A jolt ran through Riot’s butt and up her spine.

Atlas slowly bent over, making sure Riot and Ketrick would have plenty of time to readjust their seating.

Riot jumped off his shoulder as soon as she thought she could stick the landing.

All around her, Marines were dismounting from their rides. Riot reached behind her back and pulled out her pulse rifle. Her heads-up display was going crazy with data and readouts of the surrounding area.

“This way.” Rippa pointed to a tunnel on her right. “Still no life signs, but it has to be this way.”

“How can you be so sure?” Ketrick asked.

“Because the holograph technology we have says the ship lies in a cave down this path,” Rippa answered. “They will not leave it unprotected. Ragnar, Brimley, watch our six; everyone else, with me.”

The unit fell in line with Rippa’s orders as they entered the tunnel the Grovothe Major had pointed out. The tunnel itself reminded Riot of a freeway. The ground was rough, but always the same width as it sloped down. The walls rose so high, Vikta might have been able to come after all.

Riot’s heads-up display calculated the wall height to be forty feet tall. Hanging from the ceiling were an army of razor-toothed stalagmites that looked like some kind of ancient monster’s mouth. Everything was lit by the blue luminescent glow the Zenoth had left.

The team walked in silence, their weapons up and ready. Rippa and the Spartans swept the area with cannons mounted on the backs of their forearms. Riot walked between the two front mechs Rippa and Atlas piloted. Her pulse rifle was ready, safety off, finger hovering to the side of the trigger.

“Shhh…” Vet whispered through the comms. “Do you hear that?”

Everyone stopped and listened.

Riot was about to tell Vet to calm down and head forward, when she heard the noise he had picked up. It sounded like … engine thrusters?


65

Double time.” Riot couldn’t wait for Rippa to figure out what she had already realized. “Their ship is already operational!”

The engine sounds from deeper in the cave only grew louder. Rippa and Atlas took off at a sprint, their long legs outpacing even Ketrick, whose six-seven frame was made for quick travel.

Riot’s heart pounded in her chest as she checked to make sure the others were still keeping up. Doctor Miller was falling a bit behind, but Wang stuck by her side.

Up ahead, Rippa and Atlas rounded a sharp corner.

“Holy Allfather, protect us,” Atlas said over the comms.

“The rest of you get up here—now!” Rippa screamed over the comms. “Atlas, aim for the engines!”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Heavy weaponsfire filled the cave tunnel, echoing off the walls and making it sound like an entire army of mechs were fighting in the large underground space.

Riot forced her legs to pump harder under her body. Her muscles burned, but she ignored the pain. A second later, she rounded the corner. Her jaw dropped.

In front of her was the largest spacecraft she had ever seen. The cavern it rested in was barely large enough to hold its impressive size. Larger than either the Dreadnaught or the Karnayer destroyer, the ship’s size was a wonder.

The Zenoth ship was made for one reason, and one reason only: to transport as many Zenoth from point A to point B. The ship looked like an oversized whale had mated with a blimp. Along the bottom, thrusters hummed, coming to life. On the opposite side of the ship sat ready another grouping of engines ready to propel the behemoth forward once it reached space.

“We can’t let this thing break through to the surface!” Riot screamed into her comm as she skidded to one knee, aiming down her rifle barrel. “Light it up! Fire everything!”

Rippa’s voice took over as soon as Riot’s ended. “Spartans, firing line, weapons hot. Bring out the laser beams. Focus fire like Riot said. Ragnar, give us a target.”

Rizzo appeared on Riot’s left with his Vulcan SP101 that was for all intents and purposes an alien adaptation of a mini-gun. Ketrick leveled his war hammer blaster. Wang readied his pulse rifle, and Vet took a knee with Riot to aim down his Longshot 1000 sniper rifle. Doctor Miller took up a defensive position behind the unit.

“The engines are what’s pushing them higher,” Ragnar answered Rippa’s question. “It’s a small target, but that will cripple their ascent for sure.”

Riot was already aiming down her sights. Ragnar was right; the lower thrusters pushing the giant ship high were extremely wide, but not very tall. The circular outer rim of the thruster made for a target no more than two feet in height. Still, it would have to do.

“Do they think they’re going to break through to the surface?” Vet asked as he let another shot off through his rifle.

As if the Zenoth heard his question, they answered. Their ship was free of any weapons, but that didn’t stop the very top of the ship from striking the cave’s ceiling and beginning to push through. Stalactites the size of the mech units began falling from the ceiling. The entire cavern rumbled and shook.

“We can’t let it get away!” Riot screamed over the weaponsfire and the sound of crashing rock. “Pour it on ’em!”

A stalactite as large as a Volkswagen bug crashed down next to Riot. She looked up to see another one falling on an unsuspecting Wang.

There was no thought process for her own well-being. One of her own was in harm’s way—that was it. With a grunt, Riot dropped her pulse rifle. She lunged to her right and slammed into Wang just in time.

Riot bulldozed Wang out of danger, but wasn’t successful in saving herself. Hundreds of pounds slammed into her left leg with all the weight that velocity had added to the overgrown rock icicle.

“Ahhh!” Riot roared into her helmet, more pissed about allowing herself to get hit than actually feeling the pain. Riot focused on crawling out from the boulder.

“Riot!” Her unit was by her in a second.

“I’m fine.” Riot waved them away with a boldfaced lie. Pain like she had never experienced before told her something was very wrong. Grunting past the discomfort, Riot ordered her men back into action. “Don’t let that ship get away.”

VOOOOOOM!

Riot wasn’t sure if her pain level was taking her into unconsciousness and making her see things, or if Rippa’s mech units were really firing blue laser beams from their helmets.

It seemed the helmets on top of the Spartan mechs were for more than just looks. The blue light that usually remained dull under their helmet cracks now shot blue laser beams at the Zenoth ship.

“Your leg’s broken.” Wang knelt by her side. “The nanites running through your bloodstream should fix it.”

“How do you know it’s broken?” Riot fought for her consciousness past the pain. Something told her that adrenaline was playing a large part in her being able to withstand the discomfort racing up her leg.

“Trust me.” Wang grabbed her left wrist and punched a command into her suit’s armor. A second later, a sharp prick pierced the skin on her left arm. “This is for the pain. I’m going to have to reset the bone so the nanites heal it correctly.”

Riot nodded along with the words, the effects of the drug already taking effect. A warm swimming feeling enveloped Riot as she looked down at her left leg. It was definitely broken. The bottom of her left boot was facing up at her. Her shin and knee had to have been demolished.

“This is going to hur—”

“Just do it!” Riot screamed, bracing herself for the pain.

“Are you sure?” Wang asked, holding her leg in both hands. “You don’t want a countdown or some—”

“Wang, you son of a—Ahhhhh!” Riot bellowed into her helmet as Wang took the opportunity to reset her leg. The pain was something even the drugs he had applied couldn’t mask.

Riot was sweating so much in her armor, the cooling system was having a hard time keeping up.

“There.” Wang came to her side again. “You should be good to go in no time. The nanites are already hard at work.”

Riot nodded.

VOOOOOOOOM!

Rippa’s Spartans leaned their mechs’ helmets into the act as four laser beams focused on the engine closest to them.

“You’re seeing these mechs go all cyclops on the Zenoth ship, too, right?” Riot asked Wang, who handed her her pulse rifle. “I thought it was the pain at first, but now it might be the drugs you pumped into me.”

“No, they’re going full-out,” Wang responded back. “Riot, you shouldn’t have tried to save me. Not if it mean—”

BOOM!

Heat exploded across the cavern as the Zenoth ship’s thruster exploded in front of them. A shout went up from all in attendance. Thus far, the blimp-like craft had managed to force half of its bulk through the cavern ceiling and toward the surface. As the first of the giant thrusters exploded outward in a ball of blue-and-orange flames, the ship hesitated and dipped a few feet in the air.

Now that Riot’s head was clearing and the ship was high enough in the cavern to get a complete view of the underbelly, Riot could see that there were six of the gargantuan thrusters hefting the colossal craft skyward. They looked like six massive circles lined three by three, almost like the bottom of a six pack of beer.

“Hell, yeah!” Ragnar yelled.

“Focus on the engine next to the one we just blew up,” Rippa commanded her unit over the comms. “We’ll celebrate when it’s on the ground.”

From her spot on the cavern floor, Riot hefted her pulse rifle and pumped round after round of her weapon’s red blaster fire into the bottom of the engine. Along with Ketrick’s war hammer shooting yellow blaster fire and the blue laser beams coming out of the four mech units, it looked like the world’s greatest light show was taking place inside the cavern.

Out of the smooth surface of the ship’s forward bulging dome, a crease appeared. Riot wasn’t sure what she was seeing at first, she was so concentrated on firing on the next engine. The craft hovered thirty feet in the air, a quarter of its bulk still lost in the ceiling as it compensated for the lost thruster and still pressed through to the surface.

The Zenoth must have realized they did not stand a chance of escape as they tried to make their ascent. The crease in the front of the ship widened.

Riot understood that what she was seeing were doors opening.

Ready or not, you gotta make this happen, Riot said to herself as her intuition kicked in once more. She didn’t know how, but she already knew what was about to take place. Come on, tiny nanite super bugs. Do your work.

Riot wobbled on her feet. Most of the pain was already gone. Her left leg still ached, but it was more of a dull sensation now. Every time she applied her full weight on the leg, it wobbled.

“Bubbles.” Riot tossed her sidearm to the doctor who, thus far, had remained behind the main assault. “You’re going to need this.”

“Oh, I’m a non-combatant.” Doctor Miller fumbled with the weapon.

“There’s no such thing today.” Riot looked back to confirm her worst fears.

The Zenoth had realized what they all had by now, and it was only a matter of time before the next engine blew, and the next engine after that. The ship wasn’t rising fast enough to escape the fire from the Marines and the Grovothe.

The ship’s bulkhead door was wide open now, and thousands of Zenoth warriors poured from the craft. They fell more than jumped the remaining way to the ground. The exoskeletons were enough protection on the insect-like race to pad their fall and get them up on their feet and running in no time.

Riot got her first live look at the Zenoth. What she saw inspired fear and sickness at once. The Zenoth reminded her of five-foot-tall, stocky ants. A three-part segmented body with six legs held a massive head with black orbs for eyes and deadly pincers over a mouth full of sharp teeth.

A wave of Zenoth, too many to count, raced toward them, some on all six legs, others on the back four legs with the front two up and reaching for the Marines.

Rippa and the others broke off their assault on the next engine to deal with the oncoming horde of enemies. Riot understood this was exactly what the Zenoth wanted.

“Rippa, you have to focus your fire on that ship.” Riot took a moment to look up at Rippa’s armor unit, whose helmet smoked. “You know your unit is the only chance of taking that ship down. Trust my team to hold them off of you long enough.”

A moment’s hesitation.

“Hold them back, and we’ll take care of the ship,” Rippa said into the comm. “Spartans, gauss rounds and laser beams. Everything you’ve got. Let’s go!”

Rippa and her Spartans resumed the assault on the next engine. Bright blue laser beams erupted from their helmets once more. Each unit pointed their arms forward as well, pumping round after round of heated steel rods from the gauss barrels mounted on their forearms.

Riot had seconds before the Zenoth wave broke against the defense she would mount. The stalactites that had fallen in front of them made for perfect cover. The more firepower they could muster at once, the better.

“Wolves, on me!” Riot shouted over the booming gauss rounds being fired at the ship.

Her Marines paused for a moment, directing their attention to Riot. Ketrick came to her side with concerned eyes toward her leg, but remained silent.

“We hold this line!” Riot roared at them as she pointed out placements for her men, creating a half-circle around the Spartan mechs. She made sure she was up front, the first to meet the Zenoth if they reached their defenses. “Rizzo, far left, then Vet. I’ll take center with Ketrick on the right, and Bubbles attached to Wang’s hip far right. Boomballs first, and then everything you’ve got. Molten blades if it comes down to it. No surrender, not for anything. We hold this line no matter what!”

“Oohrah!” the shouts came back to her loud and clear. Rizzo even managed to press a button on his armor’s control panel that sent a OOHRAH! flashing across all of their heads-up displays.

“Come on!” Riot screamed at the Zenoth. “You want some? Come get some!”


66

Riot grabbed the two Boomballs on her belt and placed them on the stalactite in front of her. The Boomballs were nothing more than glorified grenades. One was a concussion grenade; the other, an explosive. Riot pressed the safety, and then jammed her finger on the black circle’s red button sitting on the top of the sphere-shaped explosive. First, the concussion ball, and then the explosive ball arced high into the air.

The Zenoth were fifty yards and closing fast.

Riot’s heart was beating like a drum. Her senses were on overdrive as she pumped round after round at the oncoming alien ranks of Zenoth. She took one in the head and another in the mouth.

All around her, the cave was alive with the sounds of combat. From the Spartans’ booming gauss weapons to Rizzo’s mini-gun and Ketrick’s war hammer blaster.

Riot moved from one target to the next, her trigger finger never wanting for action. As soon as she lined up a shot, she took it, and moved on to the next. Blaster fire lit up the air between the Marines and the Zenoth. Dozens fell as the Boomballs went off.

BAM! BAM!

The Zenoth’s green blood ran free on the ground. Hundreds were falling now, and still they came. Crawling over their dead comrades’ bodies, they charged ever onward. Twenty yards away from Riot and her line, they stumbled. It seemed like the Marines may have even had a chance.

The light chatter the Zenoth whispered that sounded like a million low-talking cicadas suddenly stopped. The luminescent blue light that glowed over everything, the various colored blasts from their weapons, reminded Riot of a rave.

The Zenoth were forced into a bottleneck as they approached Riot and her unit. The Spartans stood at the mouth of the cave, with Riot and her team a few yards in front of them. The Zenoth were restricted to a distance of about a hundred yards wide where they could attack.

Weaponsfire battered their lines, every Marine, along with Ketrick and the doctor, pumping round after round into the horde. For a moment, it seemed like the Zenoth had come to a standstill.

“I think we’re holding them!” Doctor Miller said over the comm. “They can’t get any clo—”

As fast as hope had swelled in Riot’s chest, it vanished. Doctor Miller also sensed something was wrong. The incessant chatter coming from the Zenoth grew in volume.

Their ranks parted to allow something through.

Green blaster fire erupted from some massive figure moving toward the Marines. The unexpected fire from the Zenoth caught Vet square in the chest, throwing him backwards through the air. Vet smacked into the ground, the back of his head striking the rock cavern floor so hard, everyone could hear it despite the noise of war.

“Vet!” Wang yelled over the comm. “Warrant Officer?”

“Go!” Riot said, understanding Wang’s request to leave Doctor Miller and rush to Vet’s side.

Riot tore her eyes away from Vet’s smoking armor. His body was limp. She focused on what enemy still lit up Rizzo’s position with green blasts of fire. Rizzo hunkered down behind a fallen stalactite. How long the rock would hold under the pressure of the green weaponsfire was anyone’s guess. With each blast, chips of rock flew up into the air.

Finally, the Zenoth creature wreaking havoc on her unit appeared. It was a Zenoth, or at least at one time had been one. The same pincers sprouted from the front of its face, the same six legs carried it forward. This is where the similarities stopped. This Zenoth was twice as large as any of its counterparts. Nearly ten feet tall with a bloated body, it walked slower under a harness of steel armor and twin cannons. The cannons were held on either side of the armor by steel arms.

BAM!

A second massive explosion rocked the cavern as Rippa and her team of mechs took the second engine. More stalactites dropped from the ceiling as a hot wave of air threatened to knock down everyone on the battlefield.

Riot looked up to avoid any of the falling debris, as did her team. Ketrick rolled out of the way as a stone icicle as big as his torso crashed to the floor where he had once stood.

“Hold them off a few more minutes,” Rippa said over the comms. “One more engine should bring the whole thing down.”

Riot looked up to see what the Grovothe had noticed. Now with two engines down, the Zenoth craft was failing to remain in one place. It shuddered and shook as fires raced across its frame. Its ascent was not only held now, it seemed even staying in the air was a challenge.

“He’s not breathing!” Wang’s voice brought Riot back to the current situation.

The Zenoth were making a push again. Now, with their new weapon pinning down Rizzo and his Vulcan mini-gun, and Vet and Wang out of the picture, victory fell on Riot’s shoulders.

“Bubbles, Ketrick, hold the right flank,” Riot said, tossing her pulse rifle to Doctor Miller. “We need you on this one, Doc.”

Doctor Miller nodded, trading the handgun she had used to fend off the Zenoth for the much larger pulse rifle.

“I’ll take care of our new friend.” Riot looked over to Ketrick. “Hold the line!”

There wasn’t time for any further instruction. Riot reached behind her and pulled out her own war hammer. The heavy weapon felt like power incarnate in her hands. She jumped up on the stalactite in front of her and raced to meet the Zenoth juggernaut.

The Zenoth were holding in line with their new weapon and closing fast. The Zenoth were ten yards from Riot and her crew when she popped up and made her move. Riot jumped from stalactite to stalactite as she raced to close the distance.

The rock Rizzo hid behind was all but demolished under the onslaught of the green blasts from the Zenoth Goliath. Rizzo hunkered down, fragmented rocks bouncing off his armor. Every time he tried to look up or get his Vulcan around the rock and firing once more, he was buffeted back by the enemy weapon.

The Zenoth Goliath reacted to Riot’s charge much too slowly. It seemed what the giant Zenoth lacked was a sense of speed. It tried tracking Riot with green blaster fire, but it was too slow. Its weapons spat death at her, always a second behind.

A plan so ridiculous erupted in Riot’s head it made her smile, even as she jumped from rock to rock. Finally within striking distance, Riot gathered herself and pushed off a stalactite, arcing as high into the air as she could. She grasped the war hammer’s hilt at the base, swinging the weapon back so far it almost touched her own lower back.

Riot brought the swing down onto the giant Zenoth’s head as she landed on the creature’s back. The war hammer’s tooth opposite the sledgehammer head dug in so deep, it disappeared into the back of the Zenoth’s skull.

The Zenoth monster thrashed about, bucking from side to side, trying to dislodge Riot from its back and head. Green blood spurted from the wound as Riot fought to stay atop the beast. Hot green gore and blood painted her armor.

The noise it made was ear-piercing. It, along with the rest of the Zenoth, went into a frenzy. The Zenoth foot soldiers surrounding Riot and their champion rallied to his aid. The large insects mounted their comrade’s back and tried grabbing Riot around her legs and back.

Riot felt her right leg clamped by a pair of pincers. Another pair wrapped around her left arm.

“OORAH!” Riot ripped her hammer free from the skull of the giant Zenoth below her. She swung the weapon down onto the Zenoth clinging to her leg. She struck his skull like a hammer slamming into a pumpkin. More green blood sprayed through the air all around her.

The other Zenoth trying to pull her down by her arm received similar treatment. Riot hefted the war hammer right next to the heavy front of the weapon and brought the steel head down onto the black eyes of the Zenoth over and over again.

The monstrosity Riot was standing on bucked so hard, she nearly fell into the sea of eager pincers all jumping to grab ahold of some part of her body. Riot fell to her knees atop the beast, driving the blaster end of her war hammer into the oozing green wound she had already inflicted.

“Eat this, you ugly son of a—”

Riot’s words were lost as she pressed the button on the weapon’s staff that released a trigger by her right pointer finger. Riot pressed down on the trigger.

THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!

The Trilord weapon discharged round after round of yellow energy into the top of the creature’s skull. By the third shot, the weapon had worked its way through the creature’s brain matter and out the bottom side of the Zenoth’s chin.

The monstrosity fell with a shudder.

Riot was thrown off the creature, rolling as she hit the hard cave floor. Despite Riot’s success in taking down the giant, the Zenoth had reached the Marines and fighting had evolved from weaponsfire to hand-to-hand combat.

To her right, Ketrick bellowed a war cry, severing a head of a Zenoth in front of him with his long war hammer’s sharp edge. He brought the weapon around in wide circles, keeping them at bay. One unlucky Zenoth got too close, only to have his skull caved in by the hammer side of Ketrick’s weapon.

On Riot’s left, Rizzo and Wang were fighting the Zenoth off Vet’s unconscious body. Rizzo had a Zenoth by the pincers, a hand on either side as he drove it backwards. Wang opened up his molten blade and stabbed a Zenoth who grabbed Vet by the foot, trying to drag him back into their ranks.

“Hold the line!” Riot roared into her headset. “Together! Hold the line!”

Riot jumped into action, shoulder-checking an oncoming Zenoth and bullying it backwards. Next to her, Rizzo was taken to the ground by a pair of Zenoth. Their pincers tore at his armor.

Wang got there before Riot could, slamming into the Zenoth like a linebacker. War rage had taken over the Marine. He was acting in desperation, attacking without a plan. All he saw was his brother needing his help, and nothing else mattered.

The Zenoth horde took advantage of this act, surging forward on their side once more. Pincers reached for the Marines’ faces, seeking to end Rizzo and Wang at once.

This is it, Riot thought as she prepared to charge. This is how I go.

Riot lunged forward, thrashing at the Zenoth on Rizzo and Wang. Her hammer was getting heavier and heavier to heave by the moment, but for those dozen strokes, she was death incarnate. Everywhere Riot placed her hammer, she ended a Zenoth’s life.

Her chest burned as she pivoted in all directions, keeping the Zenoth off her Marines for as long as she could. Her arms ached. Green gooey blood coated her weapon. The sticky substance covered her armor to the extent it was more green now than anything else.

Right when Riot didn’t think she had anything else to give, as the never-ending Zenoth horde swelled and rushed again, help came in the most unexpected form.


67

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Zenoth body parts flew in the air, accompanied by sprays of green blood. Riot sank to her knees as the Zenoth grabbing at her with their steel-like pincers gave way to meet this new threat.

“Leave my friends alone!” Doctor Miller screamed over the comms. “I didn’t want to come on this mission anyway! I just wanted to be part of the team! You’re gross and bug-like, and you want to take over the galaxy by spreading to different planets. You should be ashamed of yourselves!”

Riot’s lungs were still recovering as she looked up behind her, where Doctor Miller had taken up a stance on top of a stalactite. She held both Wang’s and Riot’s pulse rifles, one in each hand, as she unloaded a barrage of fire.

“Remind me not to piss her off.” Wang pulled Riot to her feet.

BAM!

The Spartans succeeded in blowing the third engine that pushed the massive Zenoth ship skyward. A wave of heat hit Riot for the third time. The ship was aflame as it tipped front end first and began to plummet to the cavern floor.

“Out—now!” Rippa screamed over the comms. “It’s going to blow!”

Riot and her Marines hightailed it back the way they had come. Ketrick bled from a dozen different wounds across his upper arms, legs, and neck, but he refused help as he hefted a limp Vet over his shoulder and ran for the tunnel. Wang helped a limping Rizzo.

“Go, go, go!” Rippa yelled. “It’s our turn to cover you. Spartans, switch to flame throwers.”

Doctor Miller still stood atop the fallen rock, pumping round after round into the oncoming Zenoth. Riot couldn’t see her eyes due to her visor, but she imagined they would be wide with a mixture of fear and exhilaration.

Riot jumped onto the stone next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Stop. Let go now. You saved us. It’s time to go.”

Doctor Miller’s chest heaved. She finally let go of the triggers, looking to Riot for meaning to a feeling she had never experienced before. “I just killed. I mean … I’ve killed so many of them. They deserved it, right? It was us or them.”

Riot felt some long-buried emotion surge within her. It was a question everyone struggled with when taking a life. Apparently, this emotion even extended to bug aliens on faraway planets.

Riot could feel Doctor Miller shaking underneath her hand. Her actions had rocked her moral compass so hard, it was spinning. As much as Riot wanted to tell Doctor Miller she had done the right thing, there was no time. The Zenoth craft was seconds away from imploding on the ground. The Zenoth aliens still surged toward them, only kept at bay by the flames warding them off by Rippa and her Spartans.

Doctor Miller came to her senses long enough to follow Riot off the rock. The two women followed Ketrick and the rest of the Marines as they ran for the tunnel that would take them to the hive entrance.

Riot chanced a look behind her before they rounded the corner. Rippa and her steel giants formed an impenetrable wall. They walked backwards. From their right hands, flamethrowers erupted into the Zenoth lines that still surged forward.

Any Zenoth who braved the flames and charged was met with three metal claws that sprouted from each of the Spartan’s fists. The metal claws were as long as swords. They came from housings located between the armored giants’ knuckles.

Riot and her crew were around the corner in minutes. Ketrick carried Vet on his shoulder as if he weighed no more than a newborn kitten. Riot grabbed Rizzo around his other arm, opposite Wang, as they ran with him up the sloping tunnel hall.

“Run! Run! Run!” Rippa yelled over the comms. “Impact in three!”

Riot braced herself for the explosion she knew would be strong enough to come around the corner. Ketrick was the only one of them who didn’t have armor. Sure, he had in him the nanites that would eventually heal him, but he would feel the full weight of the burn as it scorched his skin.

You idiot, Riot thought as she looked at Ketrick’s exposed shoulders, arms, and neck in front of her. You’re wearing armor next time we enter the field.

“Bubbles,” Riot said, motioning to the stunned doctor who still traveled beside her. “Take Rizzo’s arm.”

Doctor Miller numbly obeyed, draping Rizzo’s arm over her shoulder and aiding Wang in taking the large man up the slope.

BOOOOOOOM!

The whole cavern shook once more. Riot raced toward Ketrick. The impact of the crashing Zenoth ship was enough to shake the floor itself. Stalactites rained down all around them. Flames from the explosion raced around the corner and up toward the tunnel and hive exit looking for a way out.

Riot was hurled through the air, lifted by the shock wave of the explosion. She tackled Ketrick to the ground, shielding as much of him as she could.

Riot grabbed him around his arms and pressed her helmeted head against the back of his neck. Orange flames raced all around them and toward the surface. In an instant, the flames were gone, but the cavern rocked and quaked like a dying man in his death throes.

“Rawwwww!” Ketrick roared at the pain.

“Get up,” Riot screamed at him, even as she regained her own feet. A quick look at his body told her she’d had minimal effect in saving his skin. Angry red splotches grew over his legs and feet, though his upper body was slightly less burned, thanks to her effort. “Pain later! Get up!”

Ketrick grunted as he pushed himself back on his feet. Without asking for help, he grabbed Vet’s still body once more and swung him over his right shoulder.

A quick look behind her told Riot the others had been saved by their armor and were already on their feet. Beyond them, the Spartan mechs had turned from their position fending off the Zenoth. That close to the blast, the Zenoth on the ground were either dead or in no shape to give chase.

“Hurry,” Rippa said as she ran toward Riot and her wounded Marines. “The hive is going to come down any second.”

As if to punctuate her words, more rocks fell from the ceiling. The floor below their feet rocked and quaked once more.

Dodging the falling debris, Riot led her unit to the relative safety of the chamber they had first descended into when entering the cave. Riot looked up past the bright blue luminescent glowing walls to see tiny specks of sunlight from above.

“Mount up!” Rippa shouted as she transitioned her mech down to one knee. The three other armored units did the same.

Riot helped Ketrick lift Vet onto Rippa’s unit. Wang and Doctor Miller aided Rizzo on Ragnar’s back before climbing up, themselves.

“Hang on,” Ragnar said over the comms.

Riot held on tight to Rippa’s mech’s helmet as she transitioned to a standing position. The thrusters under her unit’s boots roared to life and began carrying them to the surface.

There was no question that the hive was coming down. Rocks ranging from the size of Riot’s fist to Rippa’s mech unit fell from the sides of the walls and rained down on them like a storm of hail.

Riot was struck violently, but managed to hold on. One particularly large fragment hit her in the back of her head, sending stars dancing across her vision.

“Almost through!” Rippa said to the team.

A moment later, they were past the worst of it. The tunnel below them collapsed, burying the Zenoth ship and any Zenoth survivors. Riot looked up to see the edge of the hive only a few hundred yards ahead.

“Prepare yourselves,” Ketrick yelled over the comms. “The fight is not yet done.”

“Wha … what are you talking about?” Riot looked over at Ketrick, who rode on the shoulder opposite her. He held on to Vet with one hand and his weapon in the other. “The ship is destroyed, so we completed the mission.”

Ketrick’s red eyes were a mask of stern severity. He shook his head and was about to say something, when Rippa started to talk.

“Our feeds were down while we were underground, but I’m getting word from the Dreadnaught now.” Rippa was quiet as she took in the information. When she came back over the comms a few moments later, her voice was strained like a cord about to break. “Get ready. The other strike teams sent to take out the other two ships haven’t been heard from. We have to expect the worst.”

Riot was full of questions, but before she could ask any of them, the Grovothe mech units crested the edge of the hive. Riot blinked while her helmet adjusted for the severity of the scorching sun.

Vikta was flapping her massive wings overhead as she flew in a circle over the exit point. The constant vigil she had promised over their escape route had remained intact.

Out in every direction, the desert-like planet was a sea of red sand. Too small to see with the naked eye but made visible by the technology in their heads-up display, a hive mound rose to the north. At the same time, a shadow approached from the east.

Rippa lowered as steadily as she could, along with the rest of the Grovothe on the sloping hill of the hive. They bent their knees and dropped the Marines to the ground.

Riot’s heart plummeted as the realization of what Ketrick had meant gripped her. Rippa’s words were made clear, as well.

A Zenoth ship, an exact duplicate from what they had been successful in destroying, was traveling to their location from the east.

“I’m opening the line,” Rippa said over her comms as she shouted orders to her Spartans. “Laser cannons need time to recharge. I know you’re low on ammo, but conserve what you have in your gauss forearm blasters.”

“The other two units haven’t responded since their attack, but with the emergence of the ships, we can assume they have failed,” General Tricon’s firm voice said over the comms. “I’m ordering the Dreadnaught in to take on the ships that have broken through the surface. Your job is to keep them preoccupied. Buy us enough time to get there. Don’t let them enter orbit.”

“He said two ships had broken through to the surface?” Riot scanned the horizon searching for the second. “I don’t see—”

To the north where the other hive was just barely visible, the ground was undulating. A Zenoth transport ship’s bulkhead broke through the sand.

“You had to say something,” Wang said from his position where he checked on Vet and Rizzo. “You just had to say something.”

“How is he?” Riot looked down at Vet. Wang had removed his helmet and was checking his vitals. More than anything, Vet looked like he was sleeping.

“That blast hit him pretty hard, but his armor protected him from the majority of the damage.” Wang bent down and hit a few buttons on Vet’s forearm control panel. “He’s unconscious, but his nanites are already at work. He’ll be fine once he wakes.”

Riot wanted to do more for Vet, but right now, there was no time. She turned to Rizzo, who sat with his helmet on next to Doctor Miller. “Rizzo, you ready to rock and roll?”

Nanites kicked in. Let’s do it! Rizzo said in big red letters over her heads-up display.

“How are we going to take the one in the sky as well as the one breaking through the ground?” Ragnar asked in his excited hyperactive tone. “We were barely strong enough to take down one.”

“We’ll find a way,” Rippa’s resolved voice answered back. A crack in her confidence showed as her next phrase came out a bit stressed. “We have to.”


68

Let me and Vikta go.” Ketrick looked up to Rippa’s mech. “We can keep the airborne ship at bay until the Dreadnaught arrives.”

“What?” Rippa looked over at Ketrick.

“You heard me.” Ketrick was already motioning for Vikta. The dragon obeyed immediately, digging into the side of the hive hill with massive talons. “You showed the strength of your people, as did Riot and her Marines. Let me show you what the Trilords are made of.”

“Well, I guess we don’t have too much of a choice, since you have the only airborne asset at the moment.” Rippa looked over to Riot.

“If he says he can do it,” Riot said, hating the words coming out of her mouth, but understanding this was the only way, “then he can do it.”

“I still don’t like you, giant,” Rippa said over her comms. Her tone was lighter now as if she had a grin on her lips. “Go and make your people proud. If you come back, maybe we’ll let you dine at our tables.”

“Whatever you say, dwarf.” Ketrick climbed onto Vikta’s back. He looked to Riot and give her a wink before Vikta rose into the air, kicking up a maelstrom of sand.

In a flash, Ketrick flew off to meet the Zenoth ship headed in their direction. If Riot estimated correctly, it was no more than three klicks away.

“That leaves us with the ship breaking through the surface,” Riot said, pausing to give Rippa the space to lead the mission.

“Any ideas are welcome,” Rippa answered back, sensing the reason for the hesitancy in Riot’s words. “Now is not the time to be prideful. If you have any ideas, I’m open.”

“How long are those claws?” Riot asked, motioning with her chin to the three sword-length points that had receded into each of the Spartan’s fists. “The Zenoth won’t be able to travel in space if there are multiple holes breaching their hull.”

“I take your meaning,” Rippa said, already shouting orders to her unit.

Riot ignored Rippa’s shouts to her Spartans for the time being. She had her own unit to worry about.

“Weapons check,” Riot said, reaching over her own shoulder to unclip the war hammer from her back. “What do we have left for round two?”

Wang held the handle of his molten blade in his hand, along with a Destroyer T9 he had recovered from Vet who used it as a secondary weapon to his rifle. Rizzo produced a Cannon FP290 from his hip holster.

Doctor Miller still seemed stunned. She opened her hands, showing she had nothing.

“This will be enough,” Riot said. Hands on her hips, she worked out the details in her mind.

“Oh, almost forgot,” Wang said, reaching into the sides of either boot. He pulled out four throwing knives. He was an expert marksman with the blades and never left on a mission without them. “I’ve got the trusty foursome with me, as well.”

Great, Rizzo wrote on his keypad. The words popped up on all of their heads-up displays. We’re saved.

“You’d think you’d be nicer with having to write out every word, but you’re just as sarcastic,” Wang said, shaking his head at his friend.

Rizzo responded by clapping Wang on the shoulder. He gave him a thumbs-up sign for good measure.

“All right,” Riot said, reining in their attention. “Someone has to stay with Vet.” Riot picked up Rizzo’s Cannon FP290 and handed it to Doctor Miller. “You watch over Vet like you watched over us in the hive and you’ll be fine. I don’t think you’ll even have to use this weapon, but better be safe than sorry.”

“But what if I—”

Riot didn’t let the doctor even finish her thought. In times like these, there could be no room for doubt or second-guessing herself. “You’ll do fine, because I know you. You’re not going to let anything happen to Vet while he’s in your care. You’re stronger than you know.”

Doctor Miller nodded slowly.

“Say it,” Riot ordered.

“I’m stronger than I know,” Doctor Miller said, and with each word she gained more strength. “I’m not going to let anything happen to Vet.”

“Again,” Riot said, punching the doctor in the arm.

“Ouch!” Doctor Miller rubbed her arm. “That hurt.”

“Say it again,” Riot repeated.

“I’m not going to let anything happen to Vet,” Doctor Miller said with more emphasis. “I’m stronger than I know!”

“Oohrah!” Wang added for good measure.

“Good.” Riot tossed the Destroyer T9, that looked like a cross between a tommy gun and a Benelli shotgun, to Rizzo. “Riz, you’ll watch Wang and my back while we do the hacking. Wang, the molten blade and throwing knives will do the most damage in your hands.”

Before Wang could say or Rizzo type the words “roger” in the heads-up display, Rippa’s voice entered the comms. “Time to mount up. The Zenoth ship is getting through the ground slowly, but it’s going to take us some time to sprint there.”

Riot and the remaining members of her team climbed on top of the outside of the mech units. They held on for dear life as the monstrous armored machines began to sprint to the emerging Zenoth ships. Amid the long strides of the metal warriors, Riot found herself worried about Ketrick.

He was being a brave idiot, but still an idiot. Riot searched the sky for him as Brimley’s mech unit ran down the hive hill underneath her. The second Zenoth ship loomed larger and larger in the distance.

Riot’s helmet shaded her eyes from the planet’s harsh rays. The Zenoth ship was easy to spot in the cloudless sky. Vikta and Ketrick were a bit harder to identify as they maneuvered around the gargantuan craft.

Riot used the zoom feature in her heads-up display to get a better look at what she was seeing. Ketrick and Vikta maneuvered around the much larger ship like a fly around a dog’s ear. Both dragon and Trilord prince were wreaking havoc on the ship. Strictly a transport craft, the Zenoth had no weapons to fire back. The ship’s bulk was the only thing they could use to try to hit Vikta from the sky, but the dragon was much too fast and the ship much too slow for that to be effective.

Fiery blasts shot from Vikta’s maw. Ketrick dragged the axe side of his weapon across the ship’s hull, as well as sending a barrage of yellow blaster fire into the ship for good measure.

You gotta trust he can take care of himself, Riot coached herself. He’s a big boy. He’ll be fine. Concentrate on the objective in front of you right now. What the heck are you going to do about this ship?

Riot turned her attention to the task at hand. The Zenoth ship breaching the sandy floor of Raydon was still a klick or two out, but Rippa and her Spartans were covering the distance quickly.

So far, only a quarter of the massive ship had reached the surface. It was a slow act of getting the entire ship’s bulk through the underground hive’s ceiling, but it was happening minute by minute.

“We have to assume they’ll use the same tactics here that they did in the hive,” Atlas barked. “Orders, Major?”

“We’re not going to be able to bring it down the same way we did before,” Rippa said. “And we don’t have to. We just have to buy the Dreadnaught enough time to get here. We’ll all rip it up and do whatever damage we can. When they offload their troops to stop us, the Spartans will keep them at bay, while your team continues to inflict damage, Riot.”

“Roger that,” Riot said. Her right hand on Brimley’s mech’s helmet tightened as she reached behind her shoulder with the left hand and grabbed her war hammer once more. “Wolves, when we land, follow my lead.”

“Roger,” Wang said.

Roger, Rizzo replied.

For as fast as the armored units were moving, it was a smooth trip atop Brimley’s left shoulder. Riot almost felt like she was riding a horse as the mech crossed the distance in long, heavy strides. With each step, the Zenoth transport ship became larger and larger.

“That’s one big mother,” Wang said over the comms. “I don’t know if I brought enough throwing knives.”

As they got closer, the loud roar of the engines pushing the ship through to the surface hummed in their helmets. The sound of sand giving way as it pushed upward added to the cacophony of noise.

Fifty yards from the ship, Brimley and the rest of the Spartans came to a halt. Brimley maneuvered her mech down to one knee to allow Riot to jump off.

“Good luck,” Ragnar yelled over the comms. “We’ll keep them off you while you take care of business.”

As soon as Riot’s boots hit the ground, she was bolting toward the side of the ship that stuck up through the sand. The Zenoth craft was about a third of the way through Raydon’s surface.

Riot felt the fatigue of battle creeping over her muscles. It told her she couldn’t really take down the ship. Doubt whispered in her ear—promises of failure and defeat.

Riot understood exactly what to do with those voices; she had been hearing them her entire life. Instead of giving them room to grow, she snuffed them out and went to work.

“Rizzo, light ’em up with everything that Destroyer T9 has in it. Wang, get that molten blade lit, and let’s hack this bad boy to pieces,” Riot said as she pumped weary legs over the hard sand of Raydon.

Before Riot could let herself doubt anymore, she was in front of the craft. Right in front of her, the blimp-shaped ship was emerging from its underground hive hangar like a submarine from the ocean floor.

Riot gathered herself. She had to make sure her footing was just right. The ground was giving way just in front of her as the ship berthed.

“Rawww!” Riot yelled, rearing back with her hammer and sinking the tooth end of her weapon into the ship.

Wang was right beside her. He lit his molten blade. The Syndicate technology allowed for liquid metal to grow and rise from the hilt of his weapon until it was the length of a katana blade. Wang sunk the heated metal sword into the ship’s hull, up to its hilt.

The ship’s exterior was unlike anything Riot had ever encountered. It was something like a cross between hard foam sandwiched by two sheets of thick, metal plating.

Again and again, Riot sent her hammer into the ship. She tore her weapon free as fast as she could before sending the war hammer back once more.

Rizzo lit up the ship’s hull with his weapon. The best thing about the repurposed weapons the Syndicate left was that they didn’t overheat or need to be reloaded. This meant Rizzo was able to keep up a steady barrage of laser-like slugs into the ship’s bulk.

Despite the cooling system in her uniform, sweat poured into Riot’s eyes. It was like the most intense workout she had ever had, but in a full armored suit on a planet that felt like a sauna.

Gears moving in the ship’s interior signaled something was happening. Apparently, they were doing enough to get the attention of the Zenoth inside.

Riot caught movement out of the corner of her left eye. Two hundred yards down the ship’s body, Rippa and her Spartans were tearing away at the hull with their sword-like claws.

“The doors in front of the ship are opening,” Brimley reported over the comms. “Here they come.”

“We’ll handle the Zenoth this time,” Rippa reminded Riot, Wang, and Rizzo. “Don’t let up. What we’re doing is working. They might be able to fly with these punctures in their ship, but there’s no way they’re making orbit with rends like this in their hull.”

“Make ’em pay! Everything you’ve got left in the tank, right here, right now!” Riot responded as she drew her exhausted arms back once more. The most frustrating part about pounding at the ship was that the craft was in constant movement. As it continued to inch its way up, a new spot on the ship’s hull was exposed to Riot. She could never get more than a few strikes in one spot before another flat panel of the ship’s surface was exposed to her.

The idea of bringing her weapon’s blaster to bear on the ship was becoming more and more of a temptation. She had withheld thus far due to the fear of her weapon overheating and being unusable, when and if she would need that function. Unlike the repurposed Syndicate weapons, the Trilord weapons were susceptible to overheating.

Screams ripped over Riot’s comms, telling her she would need her blaster sooner than later.


69

What is that?” Ragnar screamed.

“Watch out!” Atlas shouted.

Riot turned in time to see the front entrance of the craft open and a dozen Zenoth drop to the ground. The front of the ship slanted slightly skyward, obscuring Riot’s vision of what the Grovothe were yelling about.

“Hold your ground!” Rippa ordered over her comms. “Brimley, you’re the resident expert on the Zenoth. What is that thing?”

“It’s … it’s…” Brimley’s voice was distant, like she had been dunked in an ice bath and ordered to repeat some kind of complex code. “I … I don’t believe it.”

“I need answers—now!” Rippa screamed.

“It’s the Zenoth Queen,” Brimley managed.

“Fire whatever you have left of your gauss cannons,” Rippa ordered. “Take her down before she can get off the ship!”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The Spartans opened up with the ammunition they held in reserve.

“Everything okay over there?” Ketrick’s voice broke into the confusion from the Spartans’ comms. “Vikta and I have done enough damage to the hull on this ship. They’re not going to enter space any time soon. They’re headed in your direction, though. We’re trying to turn their ship now. Should I break off? Do you need assistance?”

“Negative. Keep that ship off us,” Rippa growled. “We’ll take the queen!”

Fear raced down Riot’s spine. There was something she heard in Rippa’s voice, something only a leader would be able to pick out from another person in command. Rippa’s voice was resolved, but in a way that was grim and did not hold hope for survival.

“I’m out!” Atlas shouted.

“Me, too,” Brimley added.

“Get those laser cannons running,” Rippa said. “I know they’re not fully charged, but they’ll have to do.”

Riot paused on her assault on the ship. She glanced to her left where two hundred yards away she was able to catch a portion of the fight. The Zenoth were already dropping like flies, piled high on the ground in front of the Spartans. From her vantage point, she could see Brimley’s armored unit, but none of the others standing in front of the ship.

A terrifying insect-like scream joined the much lighter noise of screeching Zenoth. The sound the queen made was like a clicking of pincers with an inhale through an insect-like throat.

“Do you need support?” Riot asked over her comms, already knowing what Rippa would say.

“No, stay the course,” Rippa grunted. “We can’t allow this ship to leave the planet.”

“Ragnar, watch out!” Brimley screamed.

The ship in front of Riot lifted as though a massive weight had been suddenly removed from it.

The sounds of more yells, and then rending metal filled the air.

The Zenoth chatter heightened as if they were cheering.

“Let’s go.” Riot looked over to Rizzo and Wang. “On me!”

“She said to stay here,” Wang said quietly. “Are you sure?”

Riot was already running to the front of the ship. “Positive.”

“Ragnar!?” Rippa yelled. “Ragnar, report!”

“He’s down,” Atlas deep voice shouted in a panic that had not seemed possible earlier that morning. “The Queen killed him!”

“Die, you piece of filth!” Brimley screamed.

From her place next to the ship, Riot could see Brimley’s mech’s helmet come alive with the blue glow from its eyes once more. A beam shot forward. Just as quickly, a long, green, insect-like arm shot out from around the ship and struck her mech in the helmet.

Brimley’s unit crashed backwards in the sand. The helmet on the mech was crushed. The blue lights blinked once, then off, then died altogether.

Riot pushed the pace, rounding the ship’s corner a moment later.

Holy mother of… Riot thought. How does something like this even exist?

In front of Riot and bearing down on Atlas and Rippa was an insect-like monstrosity Riot couldn’t even begin to comprehend. The gigantic queen was at least as tall as the twenty-foot armored mechs. Her slender, greenish gold body started in a thick stump of a tail. A pair of long, spindly legs supported its lower half. Four more elongated arms shot out from its sides. The queen’s head was similar to a Zenoth’s except for one massive detail: a bush of thorns erupted from her upper back and neck to form a kind of high collar of death behind its head.

The closest thing Riot’s mind could relate to what she was seeing was some kind of giant mutated praying mantis. As she wasted precious seconds to take in the scene around her, Atlas’s and Rippa’s mechs shot out the blue laser beams from their eyes.

Riot searched the battlefield covered by the much smaller Zenoth for Ragnar’s mech. It didn’t take her long to see that the queen was standing on top of the metal husk, with no movement from the mech or word from Ragnar to dispel their worst fears.

The Zenoth queen’s scream came again, this time so loud, it made Riot’s ears ring. Atlas’s laser beam hit the queen in the chest, opening a deep hole. The wound gushed green blood a moment later. Rippa’s beams seared off one of the four arms sprouting from the queen’s torso.

The queen retaliated with one of her impossibly long remaining arms. The lengthy appendage that at first glance looked like nothing more than two green limb sections supported by a joint, distended to reveal an arm twice as long. With a snap, it slammed into Atlas, striking his mech so hard, it dented the armor around the pilot’s cockpit in the center of the armored unit’s torso and sent it reeling into Rippa’s unit.

The two giant mech units crashed into the sandy floor of the planet. The Zenoth crowding around the queen’s legs surged forward. Seeing their enemy on the ground sent them in a frenzy, their strange cicada-like way of speaking reaching a new height.

Riot looked from the queen to the army of Zenoth.

Don’t do it. Rizzo’s red words raced across Riot’s heads-up display in her helmet. I know you. Don’t do it.

“No time for politics,” Riot said. “We’re soldiers. We do what needs to be done. Wang, Rizzo, get those Zenoth off the mechs. I’m taking the queen.”

Wang’s voice was thick with disbelief. “Riot, there has to be another way, we—”

“Corporal Wang,” Riot said cutting him off, “that’s a direct order. Corporal Rizzo, get moving. It’s our time to make good on all the sacrifices from our brothers and sisters we’ve lost along the way. This is our moment to make sense of it all. It’s time to sacrifice.”

“Oohrah!” Wang shouted.

Oohrah! Rizzo wrote.

Riot steeled herself and began her run. Thus far, the Zenoth had not noticed them. Even as Riot ran to help the fallen Spartans, she surveyed the battlefield for options. Ragnar’s mech was down, his cockpit torn open. Brimley was struggling to her feet, her mech’s helmet crushed in on itself and non-operational.

Atlas and Rippa were fighting their way to their feet, but the Zenoth were climbing all over them. Insect pincers the size of sickles found their arms, legs, and necks as they tried to pull the two mechs down to the ground by sheer numbers.

Don’t go gently. Riot channeled the anger and aggression inside of her that served as fuel for so many years in the past. Past the fear, she held on to that intensity. Don’t make it easy for them. Never make it easy for them.

There was no plan in her mind as she rushed the queen, the war hammer in her right hand as she sprinted forward.

Wang and Rizzo reached the mound of Zenoth holding down Rippa and Atlas first. Rizzo opened up with a shower of fire.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

To Riot’s disbelief and temporary amusement, Wang actually made use of his throwing knives before opening up his molten blade and hacking away at the Zenoth.

The Zenoth queen’s massive head zeroed in on Riot’s Marines. She moved toward them, readying for another strike.

“Oh, no you don’t, Butter Face!” Riot screamed at the queen, understanding the queen wasn’t able to hear her, and not caring. “We have a date!”

Riot opened up with the blaster the war hammer was built around. The war hammer spat yellow fires that struck the queen in the torso where Atlas’s laser cannon had already scorched a hole. Riot held the weapon like a mini-gun, her right hand lower on the weapon’s shaft, her left hand close to the weapon’s heavy end. She held the war hammer low by her waist.

Riot was beyond tired, her muscles past the point of fatigue. Still, nothing crossed her mind besides the will to fight on, a sensation that had been stamped on her soul by the Marines. Giving up was unthinkable, an impossibility. It was do or die trying, and if dying was the answer, Riot was prepared to take as many of the Zenoth with her as possible.

The queen reared back on her legs, trying to block the yellow blaster fire as it struck the wound Atlas had already given her. The Zenoth queen landed hard, sending a shower of sand all around her.

Riot hit the queen in quick bursts of fire. Unlike the repurposed alien weapon she used, the Trilord war hammer had two options: quick bursts of fire that wouldn’t overheat the weapon, or a salvo of concentrated fire good for a few seconds that would cause the weapon to overheat.

The queen swatted at Riot with the three arms that remained. Riot ducked and weaved around the blows. She adjusted her aim up to the queen’s face and battered it with even more rounds.

The queen screamed in pain. Green blood spurted from one of the queen’s mangled eyes.

Riot jumped over one of the queen’s whip-like appendages. She rolled to her right as another bore straight down on her. It sunk deep into the sand where Riot had just been a moment before.

An idea exploded in Riot’s weary mind, a plan so idiotic that in some kind of twisted way it made sense. Releasing her hold on the trigger, Riot assumed a wide stance next to the queen’s arms still stuck in the sand beside her. Raising the war hammer over her head, she swung down onto the queen’s arm with every ounce of strength she had left.

A loud crack rewarded her efforts as the green appendage was driven deeper into the sandy terrain.

A scream of blind rage erupted from the queen as she swiped down with her last two remaining arms. Riot felt hot searing pain rip through her right calf and her left shoulder as the queen punctured her armor.

“Ahhhhh!” Riot snarled in pain as the fingers of unconsciousness caressed the edges of her vision.


70

There was chatter over the comms, but nothing that was said made any sense at the moment. The agony of white hot pain was making everything else too difficult to comprehend. Riot’s plan was working. She just had to hope and hold on a bit longer.

The queen lifted Riot into the air, bringing her toward her massive mouth. The queen’s one good eye examined Riot, the black orb unfeeling, unforgiving.

The war hammer in Riot’s right hand threatened to fall.

The queen opened a mouth the size of a manhole on a city street. Razor sharp teeth covered the top and bottom. A dark green, thin tongue swished back and forth.

Come on, Riot coaxed the queen in her mind as she went limp in hope of faking the queen into thinking she had actually died. A little bit closer, you overgrown grasshopper.

Two feet from entering the queen’s mouth, Riot reared back. With her right hand she shoved the war hammer into the queen’s open maw. The top of the war hammer pinned to the underside of the queen’s upper pallet. The bottom of the war hammer was pressed inside the lower half of the queen’s mouth.

The Zenoth queen shook her head, trying to dislodge the war hammer. When that didn’t work, she tried bearing down on the weapon in hopes of snapping it in two. The Trilord weapon held fast.

“I hope you don’t have any last words.” Riot pressed the trigger on the war hammer. “Because this Marine doesn’t speak Zenoth.”

Yellow blaster fire ripped through the underside of the queen’s jaw, obliterating bone and flesh as it made its way through her brain. After a handful of blasts, the blaster fire succeeded in cracking a hole in the top of the queen’s skull.

Riot held on to the weapon with both hands. Her left hand gripped the shaft for support. Her right hand was on the lower half of the weapon, holding down the trigger button.

The queen’s two arms still piercing Riot quivered and tore deeper into Riot’s wounds as the queen fell in her death throes.

Her appendages ripped out of Riot, taking chunks of flesh with them. Whether it was the nanites or through Riot’s will to survive, she managed to stay conscious and hold on. The queen toppled forward in stages, collapsing to the ground like a green avalanche.

Riot hit the ground hard in a heap next to the queen. Her head bounced off the sandy soil. The air was sucked from her lungs as she dealt with both the pain from the blow and lack of oxygen.

A dull buzz in her ear told her just how hard she had hit the ground. There was only so much even a high tech helmet could do.

She was on her back, but she knew she had to move. Wang and Rizzo could be in trouble.

With a flurry of pain coursing through her body, Riot managed to free herself from the queen’s grip and roll onto her stomach. The dead Zenoth queen still shook beside her. Riot lifted her head in the direction of her comrades. Rizzo, Wang, and the Spartans were giving as much as they got. It was hand-to-hand warfare. Rizzo and Wang bled across their armor where Zenoth pincers had found openings.

The Spartans’ mechs were rent in a dozen different places. With their sword-length claws, they swung and battered back like heavyweight champions in a fifteen round fight. Their laser cannons were useless as they tried to regain their feet.

The sheer numbers of the Zenoth were overwhelming. It seemed the death of their queen only infuriated them further instead of instilling any kind of desire to surrender. Hundreds more of the aliens fell, more than what had dropped out of the open hatch in the ship.

The ship itself still rose from the ground. The monster of a craft was now three-quarters of the way out. In a matter of minutes, it would fully emerge and be completely airborne.

“There’s too many of them,” Atlas screamed over his headset. Or maybe he had been yelling all along and Riot was only now able to focus on his words. “I can’t get up. They’re tearing through my armor.”

“We’re with you.” Wang let out a wet gasp like there was blood in his mouth. “Don’t give up!”

“Never give up!” Rippa screamed.

Riot propped herself up against one of the extended arms of the dead Zenoth queen. She looked for her weapon, but there was nothing around her beside the carcass of the giant insect. A thousand Zenoth still offloading from the transport ship bore down on her now, no more than a hundred yards away.

“Come on,” Riot grunted, pushing herself to her feet again. She faced the next wave of Zenoth soldiers. With no weapons to use, she put up her fists. “Get knocked down seven times, get back up eight. Let’s go!”

VRRRROOOOOOM!

BAM! BAM! BAM!

It happened so fast, Riot wasn’t sure what she was seeing. A wall of flame engulfed the army of Zenoth bearing down on her. Grovothe Warwings screamed through the air over her, followed by the much larger Archangel transport units that used heavy guns on either side of their open craft doors.

“Heard you could use a hand,” Troy’s voice lit up their comms like the voice of a miracle. “Stay where you are. Warwings are hitting them, danger close. I’m offloading shock troops now.”

Hearing the voice of their salvation sent a wave of relief and exhaustion over Riot. It was as if somewhere her subconscious realized they were safe now, that she didn’t have to be strong anymore.

Riot ignored these false sensations of peace. Her Marines and Ketrick were still in trouble, which meant the fight for her was still far from over.

Riot turned from the wall of flame and the burning Zenoth in front of her, courtesy of the Grovothe Warwings, to the struggling Spartans and Marines behind her. An Archangel transport unit dropped ropes on either side of their open doors and grey-armored Grovothe shock troops rappelled down. Accompanying their descent were additional Archangel transport ships, their weapons loosing a wall of fire that eviscerated the Zenoth.

The Zenoth still struggling with the Spartans and the Marines were cut down in a matter of seconds. The newly arriving Grovothe troops bore heavy rifles that looked like SAWs and wide-barreled shotguns that turned Zenoth into green goop.

Weaponsfire still erupted over the carnage, but the Zenoth were already defeated whether they knew it or not. The Grovothe shock troops had them off of the Spartans and Marines by the time Riot limped over to Wang and Rizzo. The two men looked like they’d been put through a meat grinder. Their black-and-red armor was torn and punctured in a dozen different locations. Their blood spilled from at least half of these spots all over their bodies, from their hands to their shins.

Riot pulled off her helmet. “You two look horrible, like ‘sloppy drunks fell off a curb and messed up your prom dresses’ horrible.”

“If I look how I feel, it must be pretty bad,” Wang said, pulling off his helmet. He ran a hand through his short Mohawk haircut. “We need to go check on Vet and Doctor Miller.”

Rizzo’s right hand was a bloody mess of skin and twisted armor. He ignored the pain as he removed his own helmet. With solemn eyes, he nodded his chin over to the Spartans.

Rippa, Atlas, and Brimley were out of their cockpits, yelling for help as they gathered around Ragnar’s mech.

Riot and the others ran as fast as they could to help, but it was too late.

Despite his own wounds over his head that sent a curtain of red blood down the left side of his face, Atlas ran toward his fallen brother. Tears fell from Atlas’s and Brimley’s eyes as they removed the still body of their friend from his cockpit. Rippa waved away the Grovothe medics who had come to see if there was anything to be done.

With one final push, the Zenoth ship was finally through the ground. The doors at the front of the ship closed as the craft gained altitude. A squadron of Grovothe Warwings began lighting up the craft with heavy weaponsfire as it limped through the sky and made its feeble attempt at escape.

The loud sound of flapping wings accompanied Vikta and Ketrick as they landed next to the group of mourning Spartans and Grovothe. Ketrick jumped off Vikta’s back and threw his war hammer to the side. Relief at seeing Riot safe, then anger at Ragnar’s still body, clouded his eyes.

“I should have come back,” Ketrick said, shaking his head and baring his teeth in frustration. “I should have come back to help.”

“And done what?” Rippa shook her head. “You single handedly kept the other Zenoth craft from escaping or bearing down on us. You did exactly what you should have done, giant. Ragnar wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”

“Rippa speaks the truth,” Atlas said, looking up from his friend’s body. “It played out how it was meant to. Ragnar died like any one of us would have wanted to: protecting his brother and sister. He’s with the Allfather now, and there is no better place to be.”

Feelings and memories of those she had lost since the Syndicate had invaded the Earth all the way to the present day were beginning to bubble to the surface for Riot. Instead of acknowledging her feelings, she pushed them down and focused on a question she had been wondering since Ketrick arrived: Where was the ship he had been keeping at bay?

Riot shaded her eyes with her right hand as she searched the large Raydon sky. Apparently, the Zenoth craft had rethought its initial decision of joining the fight on the ground and made a complete one-eighty. It now gained altitude in the east, trying to make for space.

There was one major flaw in their escape route. The Grovothe Dreadnaught had broken through the planet’s atmosphere, heading straight for the Zenoth craft. Whether the Zenoth didn’t have time to turn their craft or had simply resolved themselves to their fate was uncertain. The one thing that seemed likely was that very soon there would be two more Zenoth ships crashing to the planet’s surface.

“A Grovothe Archangel has been sent to pick up Corporal Vetash and Doctor Miller,” Rippa said as she joined Riot. “They’re safe. Vet will receive the very best care, as will your entire team.”

Riot nodded along slowly. The Grovothe Warwings hounding the Zenoth ship that had just recently broken the planet’s surface hit a fuselage.

KABOOOOOM!

The ship erupted in flames and, losing altitude quickly, it slammed into the ground, sending up a mushroom cloud of smoke. A wave of sand billowed from its final landing spot.

Shouts of approval from the Grovothe force on the ground rose into the air.

“Thank you,” Riot said, turning her gaze once more to the Zenoth ship being intercepted by the Dreadnaught. “Saying I’m sorry for Ragnar just doesn’t seem like enough.”

The Zenoth ship trying to reach space and disappear into hyperdrive was met with blaster fire from the Dreadnaught. Riot almost felt sorry for the weaponless Zenoth ship as it was swatted from the sky like a fly.

Flames erupted from the blimp-shaped ship as the Dreadnaught weapons tore holes through its frame. What looked like a handful of tiny escape pods disengaged from the Zenoth craft as a few Zenoth made it to their escape crafts in time.

Tiny specks Riot knew to be Warwings flew from the Dreadnaught’s hangar bay as they moved to intercept the escape pods.

I could almost feel sorry for them, Riot thought. If I were capable of feeling sorry for an enemy that killed one of our team members and sent another one into a state of uncertain coma.

“Thank you, nonetheless.” Rippa turned back to her unit. “You and your Marines are warriors unparalleled in the universe. Believe me. I’ve seen my fair share of planets and the various militia that protects them.”

Riot nodded along with Rippa’s words. There was no reason to say more.

Rippa walked back to where Atlas and Brimley sat with a still Ragnar, then stopped mid-stride. She pressed two fingers to her right ear.

“What is it?” Ketrick asked the major. “Trouble?”

“No.” Rippa held up a hand asking for a moment of silence.

Riot thought for sure Ketrick would give her grief for hushing him. To her surprise, Ketrick remained content to give the Grovothe her time.

What felt like a full minute stretched on before Rippa removed her hand from her ear and looked to Riot. “They’ve captured the Zenoth escape pods. One … one of the Zenoth was able to communicate. He said … he said he has information for a Warrant Officer Riot from Earth.”


71

The Valkyrie was more of a home to Riot than she realized. It wasn’t until the Marines had been given a ride back by Lieutenant Troy in his Archangel transport craft that Riot realized how much she had missed her ship.

Riot, Wang, Rizzo, and Ketrick all took a corner of Vet’s stretcher as they offloaded him from the Archangel transport and moved him to the med bay inside the Valkyrie.

“Everything I’m reading from his vitals points to no lasting injury. His nanites should have been able to keep him from going into the coma in the first place,” Wang rattled on as they placed the stretcher onto one of the exam tables in the Valkyrie’s med bay. “Now that we’re back, Doctor Miller and I can take a closer look.”

Riot glanced down to a still Vet. His one good eye was closed as if he were sleeping. His chest rose and fell softly as if he would wake up at any moment, ready to give one of his signature scowls. But Vet would not be waking up any time soon. Not until Wang could figure out what induced his coma.

“Get some rest.” Doctor Miller aided Wang in removing Vet’s armor and hooking him up to the equipment in the bay that would monitor his condition. “There’s nothing any of you can do. Rippa is sending over the Grovothe medics to see if there is anything they can do for him. Go take care of yourselves.”

Riot looked over to Ketrick and Rizzo. If she looked anywhere close to the way they did, she understood Doctor Miller’s concern. Both men were streaked with sweat, and their bodies were covered in a combination of their own blood and the Zenoth’s green ooze. Rizzo’s armor and Ketrick’s vest were torn in a handful of places where the Zenoths’ pincers had gotten too close.

In the back of Riot’s fatigued mind she knew, as much as she wanted to, she couldn’t stay by Vet’s side. She had a meeting with Admiral Tricon and a Zenoth prisoner who not only could speak but somehow knew her name.

“Let me know as soon as he wakes up or if there is any change in his condition.” Riot nodded numbly to Wang and Doctor Miller before heading out of the room. The only things on her mind now were a shower and change before meeting with the Grovothe brass.

Riot headed to her quarters, with Ketrick and Rizzo following in her wake. Rizzo peeled off to the armory to return his armor. Ketrick lengthened his strides to join Riot.

“Oh, great. You’re going to want to talk about feelings or something right now, aren’t you?” Riot rolled her shoulders as if she were preparing for a physical confrontation. “You know I’m not good at that stuff.”

They reached Riot’s quarters. Ketrick moved to stand beside her, looking down at her with his bright red eyes. “I was just going to say I’m happy you’re safe. If you were to fall, I would have had to rip the rest of the Zenoth apart with my hands, and we would have missed our date.”

Riot rolled her eyes, laughing at how ridiculous the Trilord was. It was pointless to try to reason herself out of anything at this point. Whether he knew it or not, Ketrick already meant more to her than she was willing to admit to herself.

“Yeah, well, I’m glad you made it, too, Muscles,” Riot said. She felt a twinge of guilt as she thought about Vet lying in his unconscious state. “We all weren’t so lucky.”

“Corporal Vetash will pull through from the fog that is wrapped around his mind. He’s strong, like you,” Ketrick said with such belief, Riot found herself wanting to believe him.

“How do you know, though? How can you be so sure?”

“I have faith.”

“Faith?” Riot rolled her eyes again. “You’re too much sometimes.”

“I don’t believe that Corporal Vetash was spared death with the Zenoth, only to be killed now. He will pull through.”

“I wish I had your faith.” Riot leaned against her doorframe. She looked up at the Trilord prince, discovering yet another thing she admired about the warrior. “You need rest.”

“So do you.”

“Yeah, well.” Riot shrugged. “No rest for the wicked. I’ve got a meeting to find out how a Zenoth can communicate and how it knows my name.”

Ketrick placed his left hand on the right side of Riot’s face.

She leaned into the warmth of his touch.

Ketrick leaned down and placed a kiss on her forehead.

“If you need anything, you know you only have to ask. My heart beats with yours, Sorceress,” Ketrick said, using his pet name for her.

Riot reveled in the understanding that someone cared for her in this way once more. Endorphins hit her system like a sledgehammer, but she snapped back to her senses just in time. “What are you trying to do to me, here?”

“What?”

“Get out of here.” Riot playfully pushed Ketrick back with a shake of her head. “You’re going to have me inviting you into my room in a second. No, that wasn’t an invitation. Go. I mean it, you raging bag of hormones and testosterone. Wait until we get back.”

Ketrick smiled, showing off his long, canine teeth. He back pedaled down the hall. “Whatever you say.”

Riot let out a long, pent-up breath from deep within her lungs. She entered her room, already stripping off her armor. It was incredible to see the two large puncture holes the Zenoth queen had inflicted and her own new, healthy skin underneath. The nanites running through her system did an unbelievable job of stitching her back together. Besides being tired and a bit sore, Riot was no worse for wear. As she undressed and maneuvered into the hot shower, she used the opportunity to find out more information on the Zenoth she would be interrogating in a few minutes.

“Evonne,” Riot spoke out loud to the Valkyrie’s AI as she removed her underwear and walked to the shower. She twisted the hot water nozzle on full blast. “You’re equipped with all the information the Syndicate had access to about the universe, is that correct?”

“It is,” Evonne said, speaking through the ship itself. “Is there a question I can assist you with?”

The steaming hot water against Riot’s skin felt like heaven reaching down and touching her. She lathered her hair and body, doing her best to wash away the fatigue she felt, along with the sweat and grime.

“Do the Zenoth speak their own language?” Riot asked Evonne.

“They do,” Evonne responded back. “Despite their primitive appearance, the Zenoth’s language is quite extensive.”

“But they don’t speak English or the language the Grovothe speak? Are they even capable of something like that?”

“No. However, technology similar to the nanites you use in your body to translate other languages to your ears and in turn transform your words into other dialects exists in various forms across the universe. It would not be out of the realm of possibility for the Zenoth to have constructed some kind of translation device.”

More than anything, Riot wanted to sit down in the shower and feel the glorious water hit her skin in soothing streams, but there was no time for relaxation. Admiral Tricon was waiting. Riot rinsed the soap from her face and body.

“Evonne,” Riot said, transitioning to the next question bothering her. There was only one way the Zenoth could know her name. If it had been given to them by the Karnayers who’d also provided the technology for the bug-like creatures to build their own ships. “Tell me about the Karnayers.”

“The Karnayers are a technologically advanced species heralding from the planet Rinar. They are ruled by a council of founding families. They are politically charged and known for their history of confronting other planets.”

Riot towel-dried her body before exiting the bathroom. The next question she had for Evonne died on her lips when she saw a breakfast burrito and a large cup of coffee on her bed. A hastily scrawled note sat beside the food.

Sorceress,

Keep your strength up.

P.S. What you call coffee is delicious. I feel warm and tingly inside after my first cup.

Ketrick

“This freaking guy’s going to be the death of me,” Riot said out loud as she grinned like a school girl. She gulped the hot coffee and tore into the burrito as she changed into a clean uniform.

“Evonne, tell me about the house of Karn on the Karnayer planet,” Riot said, bringing to memory the name Remus’s brother had used during their brief conversation.

“The House of Karn is one of the ruling families on Rinar. They can trace their ancestry line to the very beginning of the colonization of the planet. They are known for their questionable tactics and a shady history with other planets. It seems they have come close to open warfare more than a few times, with incidents ranging from one of their ships accused of stealing technology from other planets, to accusations of kidnappings. Should I list the discrepancies leveled against the House of Karn for you?”

“No, that’s fine.” Riot winced as she dragged a hairbrush through her short, wet, brown hair. “Admiral Tricon told me as much. It seems the ruling families have a history of doing whatever they want, then, if they are caught, they deny being involved with the accused party, stating that they have gone rogue.”

“That seems correct,” Evonne said.

Riot stuffed her face with another mouthful of burrito before deciding to take the burrito with her in one hand and her coffee in another. Riot walked from her room toward the rear of the Valkyrie, where she was supposed to meet Rippa.

A thought to go and check in on Vet crossed her mind, but Wang or Doctor Miller would let her know if there was any change, she was sure of it.

Riot passed an empty cargo bay, while Vikta was probably out patrolling the skies around the Dreadnaught. Rippa was sitting on the edge of the Valkyrie’s open cargo bay ramp. She was showered and changed, as well. A grey uniform hugged her body, her bright red hair just as wet as Riot’s.

The major stared in silence, her view directed out of the hangar bay force field that showed a setting sun over the red pane of Raydon. She was calm, though bags hung below her tired eyes.

“The Karnayers are as much to blame for this as anyone else,” Rippa spoke, still staring out into the orange-hued horizon. “They may not have pulled the trigger, but they gave the Zenoth the weapons. They killed not only Ragnar, but also the other two strike teams we sent in that failed to take out the Zenoth transport ships. There are teams on Raydon still digging out Grovothe bodies from the two other hives.”

“You’re not going to get any argument from me,” Riot said, thinking back on her own past with the Karnayers. She placed her coffee and burrito on a crate in the cargo bay. “The Karnayers have been at the center of all of our problems, thus far.”

Rippa rose from her seat. There was something past anger in her eyes, something Riot understood well. Wrath and revenge were on Rippa’s mind. “I’m going to kill them, Riot. I’m going to wipe the House of Karn from the history books.”


72

Riot fell in step with Rippa as the two women left the Valkyrie and headed for the meeting with Admiral Tricon and the Zenoth that was apparently capable of communicating with them.

As usual, the hangar was a rolling mass of Grovothe engineers making repairs on ships. Various Warwings and Archangel transport ships came in and out from running their missions on Raydon.

As Rippa and Riot made their way to the meeting, Riot couldn’t help asking Rippa to elaborate on her previous statement. “Are the Admiral and the rest of the Grovothe brass going to give the green light with engaging a Karnayer ruling family?”

Rippa led Riot down two flights of stairs and a long hall that sloped down.

“They will. I’ll make them see it has to be done,” Rippa said, her voice so menacing, it caught Riot by surprise.

The way Rippa was feeling was normal after losing a soldier. The Riot from a few months ago would have agreed with Rippa, maybe even stoking the fires and urging her on. Maybe even not saying a word. The woman Riot was becoming told her she should say something.

Great, Riot thought as a dozen different comforting words came to mind, each sounding worse in her own head than the last. You’ve got to say something.

“We’re not going to let them get away with this.” Riot lifted a hand to place on Rippa’s shoulder. The two women walking side by side made the act awkward. Riot was about to put her hand down, then rethought it and retracted her palm.

“What are you doing?” Rippa stopped in the hall and looked at Riot with a awkward glare. “Were you going to pat me on the shoulder?”

“What? No, no, no. No way. Why would you even think that?” Riot asked, leaning back to further prove her point. “That would be weird and so out of my character.”

Riot stared at the shorter Grovothe for the space of a handful of heartbeats before she shrugged and walked down the hall. “Well, are you coming? Because I have no idea where I’m going.”

Rippa huffed, catching up to Riot and led her into the ship’s labyrinth of corridors once more.

“I’m just saying, I’ve got your back,” Riot said, unable to let the conversation go. “My recommendation to SPEAR once we head back to Earth is going to be to hunt down this Karnayer faction. I don’t think we’ll get any grief from the Trilords. Ketrick’s people want them dead just as much as we do.”

“Good,” Rippa grunted.

The two women continued on, always heading deeper into the ship’s underbelly. The floor under their feet felt like thin carpet, the lights overhead set into the ceilings, the walls a plain grey.

Finally, Rippa came to a stop by a pair of doors guarded by two Grovothe soldiers in grey uniforms. They saluted when they saw who approached.

Riot returned the salute, as did Rippa.

“Admiral Tricon asked that you join him in the viewing room first,” one of the guards said as he opened the door behind him. “He’s waiting inside.”

Rippa didn’t say anything. She walked inside the open door.

Riot nodded to the two guards, who looked up at her with something like a mix of wonder and admiration. The guard on her left, a muscular Grovothe with a long, black beard, coughed into his hand, then turned as bright red as a ripe tomato.

“Sorry, Captain—Warrant Officer Riot,” the Grovothe regained his composure. “My cousin—Brimley—she serves in the Spartan mech unit. She told us what happened down there.”

“Is it true you charged the Zenoth queen with a sledgehammer?” the other guard butted in, saving his friend from stumbling over any more words. “And you were on foot with no support?”

“I heard the Zenoth queen spits acid and has two heads. How did you do that?” Brimley’s cousin asked in awe.

Great. Fan boys, Riot said to herself. No, not boys. Fan Grovothe. They think you’re some kind of hero.

“It’s what had to be done,” Riot said, reliving the moments of battle already. They were nightmares she would take with her to the grave. “She was twenty feet tall, by the way, with a row of spikes around her head.”

The two Grovothes’ jaws dropped open as Riot entered the room. Inside the room was a plain glass window to the left showing the view into a holding room where a particularly small Zenoth sat chained to the wall.

Besides Rippa, there were two other officers in the viewing room—Admiral Tricon and the intelligence officer Riot recognized as Jaroth.

Jaroth sat at a desk with a holographic screen monitoring the creature in the next room. Everything was watched, from its pulse to its breathing pattern.

“Glad you could make it.” Admiral Tricon motioned Riot to close the door behind her. “I wish I could give you more time to rest, but as you can imagine, time is a luxury at the moment.”

“I understand,” Riot said as she closed the door to the room. “I was told the Zenoth is able to communicate?”

“That’s right.” Admiral Tricon looked over at Jaroth who sat at the table, adjusting settings on his monitoring equipment. “I’d butcher the exact words on how it’s able to do this. I’ll hand it over to our intelligence officer to explain.”

Jaroth still sat in his chair, his attention solely on the screen in front of him, with the Zenoth in the adjoining room.

“Jaroth, that’s you,” the admiral said just under a shout.

Jaroth jumped from his desk. “Yes, right, sorry, sir. It’s just that, well … we’re in uncharted territory here.”

“Start from the beginning,” Rippa said as she leaned against the opposite wall of the glass window. “I want to hear it all.”

“Right.” Jaroth looked between Riot and Rippa as he began his explanation. “We’ve studied the Zenoth species in-depth for years now. As we’ve monitored them to make sure they remained on their planet, we’ve discovered they are still a primitive species able to communicate with one another, but not capable of fashioning weapons, and far from space travel.”

“But the Karnayers fixed that,” Rippa said, bristling at the mention of the alien species she held responsible for Ragnar’s death.

“Right.” Jaroth went to the window and pointed at the lone Zenoth. “It seems the Karnayer left a messenger, as well.”

The Zenoth was slumped against the corner of the room. Six chains, one for each of its arms, ensured it wasn’t going anywhere. The segmented body and black eyes looked identical to the thousands Riot had seen earlier that day. Riot was about to ask Jaroth what he was pointing to, when she saw it.

The thin, gold band around the creature’s neck was nearly hidden by the way its head connected to the middle of its body. The gold band glowed with a green hue. Riot had seen this type of decoration before when she fought the dragons on Ketrick’s world of Hoydren.

Karnayer technology or magic allowed them to control various species.

“They’re manipulating and talking through this Zenoth,” Riot said, putting all of the puzzle pieces together. “More exactly, Alveric from the house of Karn is probably speaking through this Zenoth.”

“Do you think they were all tagged like this?” Rippa asked anyone with an answer. “They were all controlled in fighting us?”

“No, more than likely the Karnayers chose a handful from each hive to share a link with so they could monitor the Zenoth and aid them in creating their ships and weapons.” Jaroth crossed his arms over his hefty frame and stared at the Zenoth in the other room. “I can’t wait to get my hands on the Karnayer tech and see what I can learn from it, but we thought it prudent to allow the Karnayers to deliver their message first.”

“And he wants to talk to me,” Riot said, summing up the last phrase on Jaroth’s lips. “Ever since I threw his brother into a pit, he’s been gunning for me. He was the one attacking your ship when we arrived.”

“Alveric and Remus are the heads of the House of Karn, the rogue arm of the Karnayer government,” the Admiral said as his finger traced the scar on the right side of his head. “Warrant Officer Riot, I can only ask that you go in and speak with him. Whatever he has to tell you may give us a clue on what happens next.”

“What happens next is that we find and crush that Karnayer scum and his entire house,” Rippa spat as if the words tasted of venom. “Admiral, I want to go after him right away and…”

Her voice died under the harsh glare from her superior.

“I’m with you on this.” Admiral Tricon looked at Rippa with solemn eyes. “Ragnar was the best of us. I am going to motion that we hunt down Alveric and his contingent of Karnayers, but the more information we have before we do this, the better.”

Rippa looked ashamed for a moment. The expression was soon overtaken by a grim determination once more. “I’m sorry, sir. I understand, of course.”

Riot understood exactly how Rippa felt. More than a few times she had been caught in a similar position, driven by her emotions.

“I’ll go talk to the Zenoth,” Riot said, already turning to leave the room.

“Do you want an escort?” Jaroth asked from his spot next to the one-way glass window. “We have two guards at the door who can go in with you.”

“I’m a big Marine,” Riot said, winking at the short, pudgy Grovothe. “I’ll be fine.”

Riot left the room, nodding to her fan club as she went back into the hall and turned to open the door next to the one she had just exited. Riot released the reinforced door. It was heavy, and swung open with a click.

The lights in this room were brighter than she expected. No furniture, just the chained Zenoth in the corner of the room. With its impossibly inky black eyes, there was no telling if it tracked her movement as she entered the holding cell, but Riot had a feeling it was watching her with more than just mellow interest.

The door closed behind her with another loud click as safety features bolted her inside.

“Well, you wanted to see me, Alveric,” Riot said, crossing her arms over her chest. “Are you ready to surrender yourself? I mean, we squashed your little bug allies like a bad habit. You have to know we’re coming for you next.”

The Zenoth’s pincers twitched. It rose to its feet, the chains around its legs keeping it from traveling any farther. Alveric’s voice she recognized from their brief conversation after the battle in space above Raydon came through the Zenoth’s throat. It was a bit harsher, like the Zenoth was gargling with a mouthful of gravel, but it was him.

“Warrant Officer Riot, ever the impetuous voice in the face of annihilation,” Alveric said, speaking through the Zenoth. “I see you’ve figured out how we are using the Zenoth. I have to admit, I didn’t know if you were mentally capable of connecting the dots.”

“Oh yeah, my daddy didn’t raise no fool.” Riot smiled. She wasn’t sure if Alveric could see her, but in the end, it didn’t matter. She had no desire to keep the conversation going longer than needed. “You were requesting my presence? Did you need another reassuring that an ass-whooping is coming your way?”

Alveric laughed, a horrible sound that resembled something like acrylic nails being scraped across a chalkboard. “I’m going to enjoy hearing you scream.”

“Well, I’m not really into all that kinky stuff.” Riot sighed. “Listen, I’m not saying I don’t enjoy our chats, but, well … I don’t enjoy our chats. If you don’t have anything important to tell me, I have a cold breakfast burrito I left somewhere.”

“I just wanted to tell you that your end is near. I know you consider what you did on Raydon a victory, but let that victory turn to ash in your mouth. All those you care about will be made to suffer in front of your eyes, the Trilords included.”

“Now why would you go and say such a horrible thing like that?” Riot said, feigning indignation. “I don’t think I want to be your friend. And if that’s all you want to tell me, I have better things to do with my time.”

Riot turned on her heel to leave the room.

“I’m coming for you Warrant Officer Riot!” The Zenoth’s screaming voice followed her out of the room. “I’m coming for you!”


73

I was hoping that conversation would be more helpful,” Jaroth said in the meeting room the Admiral, Riot, and Rippa had been shown to after Riot’s talk with Alveric.

The foursome sat in the same chamber as before when Riot’s team had first arrived on the Dreadnaught.

“I think he gave us everything we needed to know.” Admiral Tricon looked to Riot. “Wouldn’t you say?”

Riot understood exactly what the admiral was referring to. The Karnayers’ need to intimidate and play mind games had tipped his hand. Yes, he wanted Riot dead, but he wanted her to suffer first. He also mentioned his brother again.

“He’ll attack Hoydren,” Riot said, as matter of factly as if she had read the headline from a holographic report. “It frees his brother, deals a blow to our alliance, and at the same time, he’ll finish his brother’s mission of capturing the dragons and turning them into weapons.”

The admiral nodded along with Riot’s words.

Rippa and Jaroth looked on with in part confusion, part respect, and part awe.

“You got all of that from the conversation you had?” Rippa asked.

“She’s right,” Admiral Tricon said, standing up from his chair. “I’m going to contact the Grovothe chain of command and see what I can do about solidifying an alliance with both Earth and Hoydren. If I can do that, I can get permission to move the Dreadnaught into a defensive position above Hoydren.”

“Getting a decree to allow a new race, much less two races, into the Grovothe alliance could take months.” Jaroth scratched the underside of his jaw.

“I’ll do everything in my power to make it happen as quick as possible, but we have to respect the process,” Admiral Tricon said, this last part directed more to Rippa than anyone else. “Major, I know you're yearning for a fight, and trust me, so am I, but we have to play by the rules.”

“I understand, sir.” Rippa looked over to Riot with a question in her eyes. “Much like Ketrick is the emissary for the Trilords, I request to be the Grovothe emissary to Earth. I can act as a go-between as the alliance is solidified between our two races.”

Riot’s eyebrows rose as if they had a mind of their own. She didn’t hate the idea of Rippa traveling with them, but it was anything but expected. The Grovothe major had only just begun to warm up to Ketrick. Before this conversation, Riot wasn’t even sure how Rippa felt about her.

“If Warrant Officer Riot is willing to take you on board, I don’t see a reason I should stop you.” Admiral Tricon looked over to Riot with questioning eyes. “If you need time to consider Major Gunna’s request, I understand.”

“She can come,” Riot blurted out so fast, it sounded like one word. “I’ve seen her fight. I know what she stands for. That’s enough for me.”

Rippa didn’t say a word, but her face was worth a thousand thank yous. Her eyes were bright, the corners of her mouth twitched as she tried to hold back her smile.

“Well then, it sounds like we all have work that needs to be done.” Admiral Tricon stood from his seat. “If we’re right, there’s another battle on the horizon. We need to prepare.”

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

Riot returned to the Valkyrie in a haze. Exhaustion wasn’t even the right word anymore. She had forced her brain and body to the point of autopilot. She could go on for hours on end this way. Lucky for her, she wouldn’t have to. The promise of sleep was within reach.

Riot walked up the open cargo bay doors, only to be greeted by a red-eyed but smiling Doctor Miller. She had also changed out of her armor, into her uniform. Her blonde hair fell behind her in a curtain, her black-framed glasses slid down her nose.

“Vet’s going to be okay.” Doctor Miller hugged herself as if she knew hugging Riot was out of the question and this was her consolation prize. “He’s awake now. Wang and Rizzo are with him.”

Riot felt a tension in her shoulders she hadn’t known she was holding, disappear. Her shoulders literally fell an inch on either side of her neck. “That’s great news, thanks Bub—Doctor Miller.”

“What’s with calling me by my actual name? I was getting used to you calling me Bubbles or Cupcake or Sunshine.” Doctor Miller raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Is something wrong?”

“No.” Riot looked confused, her weary mind trying to sift through the conversation. “It’s just I used those names when I really didn’t care abou—”

“Oh, I get it,” Doctor Miller said, smiling. “I understand those are just pet names now to show how much you care about me. I’m cool with it.”

Deborah Miller extended a closed fist for Riot to pound.

“Yeah … right…” Riot said, smacking Doctor Miller with a closed fist. “It’s because I liked you from the start, that’s why I called you all those names, Sunshine.”

“Yeah, ouch.” Doctor Miller flexed her hand and shook the fist Riot had just stricken. “Before you go, see Vet. I reported in to the Bulwark. I told the General what happened, and that we would be returning soon.”

“Great, thanks.” Riot walked past Doctor Miller and made her way to the med bay. How Wang and Rizzo were still on their feet was a testament to how strong their bond was. They couldn’t sleep knowing their brother had just made it out of the woods and was finally awake. On the battlefield or on the ship, they had to be by each others’ sides.

“You popping those stay-awake pills, Wang?” Riot asked, only half teasing. “I don’t know if I should be pissed or ask for some myself.”

“If by ‘stay awake pills,’ you mean minor dosages of epinephrine, then yes,” Wang said, smiling.

The look on Riot’s face must have said exactly what was on her mind, because Rizzo immediately shook his head and signed the words, He’s teasing.

“He’d better be,” Riot said, giving Wang a sideways look. “Although I’d be lying if I said minor dosages of epinephrine didn’t sound like a good time.”

Riot focused on Vet, who was sitting up in the bed. Dressed in a hospital-type gown, he was covered with a white sheet from the waist down, his constant scowl firmly in place, his one good eye looking from Wang to Riot.

“What’s the good word, Vet?” Riot stood next to Rizzo, opposite Wang. “You going to pull through?”

“You know me,” Vet said with a sideways grin. The fact that the scowl never left his face would have made it difficult for someone who didn’t know him that well to tell if he was happy or mad. Riot did know him that well.

“Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of,” Riot said, looking over to Wang. “How’s his noggin?”

“Everything’s checking out, but I’ll keep him under observation.” Wang pointed to Vet’s head. “My best guess at this point is that when his head was cracked, there was severe head trauma. He was knocked unconscious and the nanites went to work. He snapped out of his coma when he was completely healed. But that’s only a working theory for now.”

Riot folded her arms over her chest, looking at each of her brothers. The idea of feeling some kind of emotion like joy washed over her, but was dismissed just as quickly. There was no time for celebration. Not now, not when the final fight still loomed so close.

“You guys did great out there,” Riot said, settling for a language she and all Marines shared when things were going to get emotional. “Besides Vet, I mean. Ketrick carried him over his shoulder half the time, and Cupcake watched over him the other half.”

Vet cracked a wider grin.

“Seriously,” Wang said, pointing to one of his eyes. “Vet you need to get it together, despite the fact you only have one eye. That excuse only gets you so far.”

Look who’s talking, Rizzo signed, raising his eyebrows at Wang. When the Zenoth made that final push, I swear I heard a small child scream over the comms.

“What?” Wang shook his head in confusion. “It’s called a war cry.”

Sounded like a constipated kid trying to push one out, Rizzo signed with a shrug. For real, though.

Riot, Vet, and Wang all burst into laughter. Their level of exhaustion made Rizzo’s joke even funnier. It was good to laugh; it was great to laugh. For those brief moments safe with her family, Riot was happy.

“I do not mean to be the one to break up the merriment,” Evonne’s ethereal voice sounded over the ship’s speakers, “however, there is an altercation in the cargo bay I think you should be made aware of.”

Riot wiped away tears from laughing so hard. “What is it, Evonne?”

“Perhaps you should go and see.” Evonne hesitated. “I do not know how to describe it.”

“Well, that’s a first,” Riot said out loud, taking a deep breath. “Let’s go see what’s happening now.”

Riot left the med bay with Rizzo, Wang, and even Vet, who refused to be left behind. As soon as they exited the room, they could hear the shouting.

“No, absolutely not!” Ketrick yelled at someone. “This has to be some kind of horrible mistake. Your place is here with your people.”

“I’m about to castrate you if you don’t move,” Rippa growled in return. “Check with your warrant officer. She told me I could come.”

“Well, there’s been some kind of mistake, or perhaps you misheard her. Both of you are extremely weary from slaying Zenoth all day.”

“Nope, no mistake. Now move aside, giant, or I’ll move you myself.”

“Guys, we should probably just tone it down for a moment.” Doctor Miller’s voice reached them. “It’s been a long day. Why don’t we just sit down and—”

“No,” both Ketrick and Rippa said at once.

Riot and the others reached the cargo hold just in time. Ketrick and Rippa looked like they were going to start trading blows.

“Wow, wow, wow.” Riot extended both hands, trying to diffuse the situation. “Ketrick, Major Gunna is going to be joining us as an emissary from the Grovothe.”

“I’m sorry, I thought I just heard you say she’s coming with us,” Ketrick said, turning his red eyes to Riot. “I must be more fatigued than I thought.”

Riot took the opportunity to address her entire crew. “I was going to call a meeting and tell everyone, but this seems as good a time as any. Major Gunna will be coming with us while the Grovothe work out the official details of our alliance with them and their alliance with the Trilords, once we all meet.”

“See?” Rippa said to Ketrick as she waved over a team of Grovothe engineers who were carting a brand-new mech unit toward the cargo bay ramp. “Now, get out of the way, Red Eyes, I need to stow my unit.”

Ketrick took a deep breath and moved to the side where a horse-sized Vikta was curled up in a ball. The white dragon watched the conversation with amused eyes.

“You were no help, by the way,” Ketrick muttered to Vikta. “You could have done something. I don’t know, blocked her way in, or stood by my side. Well, I’m happy you think her red hair looks nice.”

Riot sidled up next to Ketrick. “It thought you and the major were warming up to each other.”

“I respect her as a warrior, but I don’t want to be stuck on a space ship with her,” Ketrick said, though he must have heard his own voice in his head. “I’m sorry. You’re the Warrant Officer, and I do understand the need for allies.”

“You’ll get used to each other,” Riot said, watching as the others helped Rippa make space and maneuver her mech unit into the cargo bay. “We’ll need as many allies as we can get in the days to come.”

Vet turned his back to them as he moved a container of supplies to make more room. When he leaned over, his hospital like gown opened in the back, revealing his bare ass.

Riot wasn’t the only one to witness the full moon. Everyone burst into laughter, even the arguing Rippa and Ketrick. In that moment, Riot knew that, come what may, this was the crew to handle the job. They would find a way to survive whatever the future brought.

End Book Two


Book 3 - Light Em Up


74

You need help. I don’t just mean one psychiatrist. I mean, like, a full panel of multiple doctors working with you around the clock,” Riot said, as she shook her head, taking in Vet’s latest work of art. “And medication. Lots of medication. We’re talking anti-psychotics, tranquilizers—the works.”

“She looks good, right?” Vet ignored Riot’s latest barrage. He crossed his arms over his chest. A deep sigh escaped his lungs. “I’ve been working on her day and night, but I think she’s done.”

Riot and Vet stood in the Valkyrie’s engine room. In the rear of the hall-like chamber, past the quiet engine that powered the ship, the pair stood, inspecting Vet’s project: a robotic body for the ship’s AI, Evonne.

Since landing on Ketrick’s planet of Hoydren a week before, they had received permission from General Armon to go ahead with the plan. Vet had been hard at work, finishing the human-like body for Evonne, ever since.

What stood in front of them disturbed Riot to her core, mostly because the robot looked like a human being in every way. Everything from her long, silver hair, to her strong jawline and open, unblinking eyes screamed a human heritage. She wore a uniform like the rest of the crew, her mostly gray top and pants outlined with a white trim.

“I didn’t do it all myself,” Vet said, tapping the pointer finger of his right hand on his chin. “Doctor Miller helped a lot with … with the … with her anatomy.”

“Riiiiiight.” Riot let the word drag on.

“You do not approve of my physical body, Riot?” Evonne’s ethereal voice sounded from the ship. The Australian accent Vet had chosen for her rang in her speaking pattern. “Should I not inhabit the physical form Corporal Vetash and Doctor Miller have prepared for me?”

“No, no,” Riot said, shaking her head as she looked once more into the open grey eyes of the robot in front of her. “We received the okay from SPEAR, and you’ve been asking for this for a while now. You just gotta promise me you’re not going to try to start an insurrection where machines wipe out humanity and the rest of the universe.”

“I am incapable of such things,” Evonne said without emotion in her voice. “The only reason I have been requesting a physical body is to be of greater assistance to you and the crew aboard the ship. I will also do my best to blink around you. Perhaps minor human details such as these will put your mind at ease.”

“All right,” Riot said, and shrugged toward Vet. “How much longer until we put Evonne into the body?”

“I still have a few last minute updates to make.” Vet pursed his lips and squinted at the robot’s hands. His one eye studied the robot. The other eye he had lost in combat, and the area was fitted with a metal plate that looked like a patch. “I think I made her hands too big.”

“Hey, whatever makes you happy,” Riot shook her head, backing away. “I have enough issues to deal with without seeing my XO reshaping female hands.”

“It’s not as weird as you make it sound,” Vet called to her back as Riot walked out of the engine room. “We’re traveling through space and building alliances with aliens. Reshaping hands isn’t that weird.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” Riot said, half laughing to herself.

Once Riot and her crew had departed from Admiral Tricon’s Grovothe ship, it was decided they would travel to Ketrick’s homeworld of Hoydren to support their off-world interests. It was Riot’s and General Armon’s beliefs that this planet once again would be the target of a Karnayer assault.

Not only was Hoydren the location of Earth’s allies, but the Karnayer, Remus, was also being held prisoner there. In addition to this, the Karnayers coveted the dragons that roamed the Hoydren skies and space. They wanted to capture and control them, eventually manipulating them to be used as their living weapons.

The Karnayer House led by Alveric was responsible for all the grief that had come Riot’s way thus far. The captured Karnayer, Remus, was Alveric’s brother, and Riot would bet her shorts that he was going to come to free his brother.

Upon landing, Riot and her crew had linked up with a newly promoted Colonel Harlan and his unit of scientists who acted as emissaries to the planet.

Riot walked through the halls of her ship, going through a checklist of things that needed to be done to fortify their position. If Alveric did attack with his Karnayers, Riot and the others would have to hold them off for the space of a few hours before General Armon could send aid from Earth.

As Riot walked down toward the rear cargo bay, she caught some banter passing between Rippa and Ketrick. The Grovothe major and the Trilord prince had been at one another’s throats the entire trip, though their conversations were mostly playful jabs … or at least that was what Riot kept telling herself.

“You remind me of a creature that roams the woods of my home planet. It’s called a Sasquan,” Rippa said to Ketrick as she worked on her mech unit in the cargo bay. “It’s a smelly ogre of a creature with large feet and an ape-like face. Its intelligence factor is barely on the scale. Some would call it an idiot of a beast.”

“Is that so?” Ketrick said. He stood on the opposite side of the cargo bay, scratching the underside of his dragon, Vikta’s, scaly stomach. “If you were born here on Hoydren, your stunted body would have been sent to live outside the city out of the fear you would frighten the children. We would then tell stories of you to our young, stories that would threaten them, that if they behaved badly, you could come for them in the night and eat their faces.”

“Hmmm…” Rippa nodded along with Ketrick’s words as if she expected as much. She didn’t move from her spot where she worked. “If you were born on my planet, we would call you a monstrosity and send you to work in the coal mines. Your dim wit and gargantuan body would make a great asset to the workers there. And, as a bonus, they wouldn’t have to lay eyes on you. It’s dark in the obsidian mines.”

“It wasn’t that funny,” Ketrick growled at Vikta as the dragon cracked a toothy smile.

Vikta was in her smallest form now, no larger than a horse. It still amazed Riot that the creature was able to shift from something this size to her true form, a white dragon as large as her cruiser class ship.

Riot stood in the entrance to the cargo bay for a moment, admiring Rippa’s twenty-foot armored mech and Ketrick’s white dragon. How outrageous had her life become to now be able to make a trip to the cargo hold and see these wonders on a daily basis?

With a rueful smile, Ketrick raised one of his dark eyebrows in Rippa’s direction. The long canine teeth that set him apart as a Trilord showed through.

“We have a name for your kind on our planet, as well, Major Rippa Gunna,” Ketrick said, patting Vikta on her belly. “We call your kind dwarves.”

Rippa dropped the tools she was working with at the feet of her mech unit. They slammed against the floor with a metallic ring. She stood and turned to Ketrick with a stare that could melt ice. For a moment, her fiery red hair seemed to be alive with the flames of anger.

“What did you call me?” Rippa clenched her hands on either side of her stout body.

“Hey, so the universe is going to hell in a handbasket, courtesy of Vet and Doctor Miller.” Riot stepped into the cargo bay to diffuse the situation. “They’re creating robots that can talk and think and pretty much run things. Insane, right? I mean, has no one ever seen those old Terminator movies, like, ever?”

Rippa remained silent, glaring at Ketrick.

The tall Trilord stood up from his kneeling spot beside Vikta. He ignored the death stares from the Grovothe and addressed Riot. “Interesting. I, for one, would welcome such an addition to the crew.”

“Why’s that?” Riot asked.

“I think it will be helpful to have an extra set of hands aboard the ship,” Ketrick said, nodding along with his own words. “More help to manage weapons inventory, man the bridge, and gather coffee.”

“Coffee?” Riot rolled her eyes. Ever since Ketrick had discovered coffee aboard the Valkyrie, he had been obsessed. “Evonne isn’t going to be your personal coffee assistant when she’s up and running.”

“Oh, of course not, of course not,” Ketrick said, voicing the words while his red eyes twinkled with a mischievous grin.

Riot took a deep breath and shook her head. She hid the smile that begged to touch her lips at the Trilord’s remark. “All right, Ketrick, with me. We need to assess the defenses again before tonight’s meeting. There’s a Karnayer prisoner I’ve been meaning to sit down and chat with, as well.”

“Understood,” Ketrick said.

Rippa finally released her anger and went back to maintaining her mech armor suit. Riot thought she heard the Grovothe mumbling under her breath something like “freaking giant,” although she didn’t actually use the word “freaking.”

Riot strode onto the ramp that lowered out of the Valkyrie’s rear bay. The ship’s four thrusters set above the ramp created a kind of shade for a brief moment against Hoydren’s twin suns.

The planet of Hoydren was both beautiful and brutal at the same time. With two suns in the sky, one white and the other orange, Riot could understand why most of the Trilord men walked around bare-chested, while the women wore short skirts and tops that looked like sports bras.

Riot felt another wave of heat hit her. Not for the first time her mind wandered to the idea of removing her own long-sleeved uniform and long pants for something more comfortable. As soon as the idea entered her mind, though, she pushed it out. She was a Marine, and certain things couldn’t be changed. This was her uniform. She was a soldier, and soldiers didn’t feel discomfort from something as trivial as the heat.

Riot and Ketrick walked past the Valkyrie and the other cruiser class ship, the Titan, that had transported Colonel Harlan and his team from Earth to Hoydren. Both crafts were docked within the capital city’s walls. The city was built around a tall hill that overlooked the surrounding landscape in every direction.

The twin crafts sat next to the city’s palace. Each level of the structure was shaped like a square. Every level that rose on top of another was smaller, giving the building a pyramid-shaped look.

Behind them and down the hill, the city was primarily made up of homes, while in front of the hill, sloping down toward the gates, businesses and markets rose on well-kept dirt roads.

“You’ve been worried these last few days, Sorceress,” Ketrick said, using his nickname for Riot. “You are not yourself.”

“What makes you say that?” Riot looked up at Ketrick. She did her best to not allow her eyes to linger around his bare chest covered in tattoos.

“Because we’ve patrolled the city’s defenses every day since we’ve arrived,” Ketrick answered. He pointed down to the dense jungle on their right and the open plains on their left. “Don’t think I’m not grateful for our walks, but we’ve been over this. When the Karnayers come, they’ll hit us from the sky first. They’ll unload their soldiers in the jungle to give them as much cover as possible.”

“It’s just something ingrained in me, I guess.” Riot shrugged as the two stopped by the side of the palace. She studied the landscape for the hundredth time. “I plan and I plan some more, and then I do it over again. Despite the fact that nothing ever goes to plan.”

“Despite that fact,” Ketrick said, leaning against the side of the palace walls that rose up so tall, Rippa’s mech would be able to fit underneath. “I believe as you do. The Karnayers will come. When they do, we’ll be waiting. We’ll defeat them.”

“Not all of us share your unrelenting faith,” Riot said, joining Ketrick to lean against the palace’s hard exterior, placing a hand on the wall to either side of her. “Some of us, like yours truly, need to obsess about things.”

“Leaders often do,” Ketrick said, placing his hand on her own. “We never did get to go on that date.”

Riot didn’t move her hand away. If anything, she wanted to get closer to Ketrick, but now wasn’t the time or the place. “We’ll have nothing but time once the Karnayer threat is dealt with.”

“You’re not worried about what your superiors will say any more?” Ketrick asked.

“Like you said, you’re not a Marine.” Riot edged a bit closer to Ketrick so their arms touched. “I can’t see them denying the request of the prince of Hoydren, the man next in line to rule over this planet.”

Ketrick’s red eyes lit with a mischievous light. “You know, we don’t have to wait. We could always—”

Panicked shouts shattered the moment. Running feet sounded from around the palace.

“Story of my freaking life,” Riot said, reluctantly removing her hand from Ketrick’s.


75

Killa, the queen’s general, rounded the corner of the palace, barking orders to her Trilords as she ran. “Find Riot at once. Lock down the city. Send out an alert to the city militia. I want everyone to know what happened.”

Immediately, Trilord soldiers ran to do their leader’s bidding. Killa looked up to see Riot and Ketrick as soon as she had relayed her orders.

“Trouble?” Riot asked, already knowing the answer.

“Always.” Killa narrowed her eyes and looked from Ketrick to Riot and back again. “What were you two—”

“If it’s a matter of importance, you should let us know immediately,” Ketrick interrupted her. “We may be able to help.”

“Of course.” Killa motioned past her shoulder to the city below. “As you know, Remus had offered to trade secrets for a reduction in his sentence. He was playing us the entire time. As he was being moved to a different location from the hole we’d thrown him in, he escaped.”

Riot felt her stomach do a backflip. She knew from the beginning that Remus’ offer to cooperate had some ulterior motive, and here it was. He was just biding his time until he made his attempt.

“Clear the ships.” Riot looked to Killa and Ketrick. “Lock the Titan and I’ll leave the Valkyrie’s rear cargo door open. They’re the only ways off-planet. Remus will be forced to try to steal one if he’s serious about leaving.”

“Understood,” Killa said, nodding slowly. “I’ll send word to the crews immediately.”

“I can stay with you,” Ketrick said. His voice told Riot he already knew his words were uttered in vain.

“I’m a big Marine,” Riot said, shaking her head. “Besides, if he sees anyone around, it’ll spook him. I’ve got this covered. Don’t worry yourself, Muscles.”

Ketrick nodded slowly as Killa and her contingent of guards left to fulfill Riot’s request.

“I’ll be far enough away so to remain in the shadows, but I’ll be there if you need me,” Ketrick said.

“Agreed,” Riot said, winking at Ketrick. “Ease up. I took down a Zenoth hive queen with a hammer, remember? I can take down one unsuspecting Karnayer.”

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

Riot sat hunched behind Rippa’s armored mech unit, her back pressed to the cold steel of the Valkyrie’s hull. Why she had chosen this spot instead of a more comfortable one eluded her now. The area outside the ships had been cleared but for the normal Trilord patrol that would pass by every fifteen minutes. They couldn’t make it too easy for Remus, or else he would expect the trap.

Maybe he suspected the trap already. He still had to come if he wanted to escape the Trilord city. The only other option would be to try to escape outside of the city walls. That would be the last thing Remus would want to do. There was no way off-planet for him in that direction.

Riot stretched her back to the limited extent that her small quarters provided. She could see the dying light outside of the open cargo bay doors. The twin suns that warmed the planet of Hoydren were making their final descent as the planet’s giant moon took over its reign of the sky.

Whose brilliant idea was this again? Riot asked herself as she did her best to relieve her cramped aching muscles. Oh yeah, you did this one to yourself. Good job, Riot. Now your muscles are cramping, it’s hot, and you skipped dinner.

Riot’s mind was beginning to wander. Had it been an hour, or three? She was starting to lose focus when a shadow crossed the cargo bay door. In a second, her senses heightened. A rush of adrenaline sent her heart beating faster.

She peeked around the edge of the mech unit’s giant leg. Remus stood in the entry way of the cargo bay doors. He looked nothing like she remembered. The once-proud Karnayer leader was a poor imitation of his former self. His white hair was filthy and matted. His blue skin was bruised around his eyes and mouth. The black clothing he once wore was gone, and instead, he wore pants and a tattered, white long-sleeved shirt.

Whatever the Trilords had done to him to exact their vengeance had been brutal. Riot felt pity for him, but for only a second. Remembering the lives he had taken, the dragons he had so cruelly enslaved and bent to his will, wiped away any of the sprouting pity she held in her chest.

Remus crested the cargo bay ramp. He hugged the opposite side of the ship, trying to make himself as small as possible.

Riot sprang from her place behind the mech unit. She raced across the cargo bay hold and threw herself at a wide-eyed Remus. The two went down in a pile. Remus clawed at her, trying to find a dominant position on top. He was taller and lankier than Riot, but she had the edge in muscle.

Riot fought past his arms and slammed him onto his back. The Karnayer’s head bounced off the steel floor and he lay stunned for a moment. Riot took the opportunity to drag him to his feet and throw him against the cargo bay wall as hard as she could. His nose broke against the metal wall as he slumped to the ground. Blue blood raced down his nostrils while a wild look crossed his eyes.

“This can be as painful as you want to make it,” Riot said, readying herself for another onslaught from the Karnayer. “You’re beaten. Give up. Or don’t, and I’ll put you down again. I don’t care.”

Remus snarled and lunged at her once more.

Riot sidestepped his attack. Letting her guard down was a bad idea. He swung with a wild backhand and hit her in the mouth. Pain exploded across her jaw. The familiar taste of blood touched her lips.

“Oh, hell no,” Riot said. She arched back her right leg and caught Remus in the torso with every ounce of strength she could muster.

Ribs cracked inside the Karnayer’s chest as her boot made contact. He doubled over, falling to the ground.

“Want to go again?” Riot asked, spitting blood from her mouth. The nanites that healed her wounds were already at work. Riot ran her tongue over the place where her lip had been split. It was strange to feel the wound already closing. “I don’t want to commit a hate crime, here, but if you come at me again, I’m going to beat you like you stole something.”

Remus glared up at her again. For a moment, she thought he would try another assault, but she mistook defiance for defeat. Instead of trying to regain his feet, Remus stayed on the ground, clutching his chest.

“You think you’ve won?” Remus snarled. “My brother will come for me, and with him, the full force of the House of Karn. I’m not going to give you or your kind anything.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” Riot said. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ketrick at the base of the cargo bay ramp, along with a unit of Trilord soldiers. They waited there for her signal. “When I heard you offered to cooperate I didn’t believe it. Now I know it was only so you could try to escape.”

“Your superiors were too eager to try to make a deal for the knowledge I possess.” Remus looked to his left to take in the group of Trilords at the cargo bay entrance. “I’ve given them nothing. There is no form of torture I won’t endure. The Trilords have starved and beaten me, to no avail.”

“Interesting.” Riot pursed her lips. “Evonne, are you there?”

“I am,” Evonne, the ship’s AI, said from nowhere and everywhere at once. “What can I assist you with this evening?”

“Can you get Wang in here?” Riot said as a plan formed in her head. “I want to try something.”

“Immediately,” Evonne answered.

Remus eyed Riot with a suspicious glare.

“Come on in, guys.” Riot waved over to the group of Trilords gathered at the cargo bay exit. “You can all be part of this, too.”

Ketrick, Killa, and two other hefty Trilords walked in. Their weapons were lowered at Remus.

“Are you injured?” Ketrick asked.

“What? This?” Riot pointed to her lip. “Already healed.”

Wang came at a sprint from around the corner of the ship. He was out of breath but looked to Riot for direction. “I was … I left the Valkyrie like you ordered.”

Riot grinned at one of her oldest friends. Wang’s short Mohawk-styled hair, his sharp features, and his athletic frame were nothing compared to his intellect. He was the smartest soldier she had ever come across and she was proud to call him her friend. Not that she would ever admit any of that.

“You’re good. I told you to leave,” Riot reassured him. “I was just wondering if you could cook up a truth serum cocktail for our friend, here. It doesn’t seem like he wants to cooperate.”

Wang looked over to Remus with a wide smile. “I think I have just the thing. I’ve been experimenting with concentrated dosages of sodium thiopental and the purest form of Scopolamine. What I’ve found is that, when introduced to the patient’s bloodstream, the effects have been—”

“Wang, Wang.” Riot lifted a hand and shook her head. “No one here understands what you’re saying. I get that you’re super excited about it, but Ketrick’s eyes are glazing over.”

“No, I’m sure he understands,” Wang said, looking to Ketrick for help.

“It’s true, brother Wang.” Ketrick shrugged. “You lost me as soon as you opened your mouth.”

Wang shifted his gaze to Killa and the two other Trilords in attendance. The two Trilords next to Killa shrugged.

“I tried to follow along,” Killa offered, “but it was no use.”

“Wang? Uh, Wang…?” Riot said, reeling him back in. “Just go grab it.”

“Right,” Wang said, shifting from a defeated look back to his normal, jovial nature. He took off at a run through the cargo hold to the med bay.

“If you think injecting me with some kind of arcane liquid that is meant to make me speak the truth will work,” Remus spat, “then you are more of an idiot than I took you for.”

“You are just a miserable person, aren’t you?” Riot said, shaking her head. “Do you have any friends at all? I mean, besides your brother.”

“I am very popular on my planet,” Remus said, glaring at Riot and the Trilords around him. “I have plenty of friends.”

“Uh, I think he’s telling falsehoods.” Ketrick leaned on his weapon, a long staff with a hammerhead and an axe head on either side of a blaster. “No one would want to be his friend.”

“This is childish!” Remus roared. “I’m not going to sit here and argue about my relationships on my home planet.”

Wang sprinted back into the room, carrying a syringe.

Ketrick and Killa pointed their weapons at Remus as he shot them murderous stares. Still, he didn’t move as Wang injected him on the right side of his blue neck with the serum.

“You fools are wasting your time.” Remus wiped his bloody nose. “I will never give up my family’s information. I will never…”

Remus’s voice trailed off like he had forgotten what he was going to say next. A blank look came over his eyes.

“How fast is this stuff supposed to work?” Riot asked Wang.

“I don’t know,” Wang said as he shrugged. “It’s the first time I’ve used—”

“Oh, you’re right, you’re right.” Remus hunched his shoulders as his lower lip protruded. In a sad voice, he admitted, “I don’t have any friends.”


76

Riot couldn’t believe what she was seeing or hearing. Remus looked like a little kid sitting on the cargo bay floor. There was a sadness in his eyes, and his tone said he was nothing but sincere as he continued.

“I push everyone away,” Remus said with a shake of his head. “Even my brother who’s coming to rescue me doesn’t really care about me. He’s just doing it to uphold the family name. When he gets here and I’m free, it will be a constant mocking point for him. I’m never going to live this down.”

Riot exchanged looks with Wang, who shrugged. “I guess it’s working.”

“I just … I just wish there was another way,” Remus said, continuing on. He lowered his eyes to the floor as hot tears streaked his face. “Not only have I failed my family, but now I’ll also be labeled as a failure in life. Captured by a group of primitive Trilords and humans who have only just discovered the ability to travel off their own planet. I’m a disgrace. A no-good, friendless disgrace.”

“Hey, hey there, little guy,” Wang said as he took a seat next to Remus on the ground. “You’ll be all right. We’ve all made some pretty serious mistakes in life. I mean, there was this one time I ate some shady Mexican food from a street vendor in Tijuana. He had a kind face, so I thought he could be trusted. That food ruined me. I spent all night and most of the next day on the toilet, beating myself up. I mean, I knew better.”

Ketrick was the only Trilord who knew Wang well enough to crack a smile. Killa and her two other guards looked at one another in confusion.

“I don’t think Remus is going to pose a problem to us for a while,” Riot said to the Trilords, who still had their weapons leveled at Remus. “Why don’t you let us see what we can find out, and we’ll bring him back to you.”

Killa looked over at Ketrick for a consensus.

“I’ll stay here,” Ketrick assured Killa and her two soldiers. “We’ll bring him back as soon as we find out whatever it is we can.”

“Understood.” Killa lowered her staff and motioned to the two Trilord soldiers to follow her from the ship. “We’ll be waiting to receive him once you are through.”

“Ugh,” Remus exhaled, watching Killa and the two other Trilords walk out of the cargo hold. “She’s so mean. Why is she so mean?”

“I don’t know,” Wang said as he let a heavy breath of his own escape his lungs. “Some people are heartless.”

“Wang, I don’t mean to break up the bromance here, but we need to stay on point,” Riot said, reeling her corporal back in. “Focus. We need to find out what he knows.”

“Oh, right,” Wang said, placing a hand on Remus’ shoulder. “Remus, we need to know when your brother is going to come for you and where he’s most likely to strike.”

Remus nodded along, wiping hot tears from his eyes. “He’s here already.”

“What?” Ketrick said confused. “Where? On Hoydren? How do you know?”

“It’s our way to recruit local militia to do our fighting for us and keep our own ranks strong,” Remus explained. “He’ll be doing what I would have done. He’s meeting with the Brute faction of the Trilord race once more to get them to join his army and fight against you. He’ll probably try to capture more of your dragons, as well.”

“No way,” Riot looked to Ketrick for conformation. “The Brute force wouldn’t fall for the exact same trick again, would they? They were already duped and defeated once.”

“I don’t know.” Ketrick rubbed a hand on the underside of his jaw. “I wouldn’t have thought the Brutes would have taken up the Karnayer banner the first time. Maybe we should pay them a visit.”

“His next move, whether the Brutes agree or not, will be an orbital strike from his destroyer,” Remus continued to relay information, unprompted. “After that, he’ll harass you with Scarab ships, forcing you to keep your heads down while he sends transport ships to unload soldiers and whatever other abominations he has with him. His destroyer is called the Devastation, by the way.”

“I’m going to need some coffee for this.” Ketrick looked over to Riot and Wang. “Do either of you want a cup?”

“How many have you had today?” Riot raised an eyebrow as she looked over at the prince.

“Four or five mugs, I think,” Ketrick said, looking up at the cargo bay ceiling as if his answer was written there somewhere. “I can’t be sure.”

“You have a serious problem.” Riot waved Ketrick away with an open hand. “Go. Go get your fix.”

Ketrick smiled as he left the cargo hold.

“Let’s hope he doesn’t ever figure out what espresso is.” Wang shook his head with a shudder. “He’ll start talking as much as Doc Miller.”

Riot smirked, but refocused her attention on Remus. It seemed that he was being nothing but genuine; however, a number of questions still needed to be answered.

“What abominations will Alveric offload on Hoydren?” Riot asked. “You’re talking about weapons, right?”

“Yes.” Remus nodded. “Like I said, the Karnayer way is to travel from planet to planet, either convincing the local species to join us or forcing them to do so when they refuse. We have done this for centuries and will continue to do so. Why use our own resources when we can send others to fight and die for us? Alveric will come with warriors from other planets—some monsters, some calculating creatures, but they have all bent their knee to The House of Karn, as will you.”

Riot wasn’t one to be shaken or intimidated. A life in the corps had taught her that she was the one to be feared. The thing that did give her pause was the sincerity in Remus’s words; he honestly believed the Karnayers would prove victorious.

“Whoa, whoa … that’s some heavy stuff.” Wang shook his head and got back to his feet. “You’ve got some issues, man. I can’t blame you, either. It sounds like you were born into it. A product of your environment.”

Riot stood quiet, considering her options. She still had so many questions to ask Remus, in the forefront being who these Ancient Ones were that the Karnayers served, and how exactly their magic ability worked. Topics she was just still beginning to understand.

She was forced to deal with the most pressing matter at the moment, though. If Remus was telling the truth, then Alveric was already here with a small force, trying to convince the Brute faction of the Trilords to join him once again.

“He’s not such a bad guy,” Wang said, coming to stand next to Riot. “He’s been brainwashed to believe these things his entire life.”

“He still has to be held accountable for his actions,” Riot said.

“What did I miss?” Ketrick walked back into the cargo bay, blowing on a steaming cup of black coffee. “Anything important?”

“We’re going to go visit the Brutes,” Riot said, crossing her arms over her chest. “If Remus is right, the Karnayers are already on Hoydren. The fight is already at our door. Ketrick, Wang, take Remus back to Killa and let her know what’s going on. I’ll get the others.”

“Roger that,” Wang said, looking over to Remus. He helped the still-bleeding Karnayer onto his feet. “Let’s go, little guy.”

Ketrick moved with them, one hand on his weapon, the other still holding his coffee.

“Evonne,” Riot spoke to the AI living inside the ship.

“Yes, Riot?” Evonne answered back.

“It’s time to assemble the War Wolves,” Riot said, speaking the name for her crew. “Tell them to return to the ship as fast as possible. It’s time to fight.”


77

Why didn’t we just bring the Trilord army with us?” Doctor Miller sat in her seat on the bridge of the Valkyrie next to Wang and Rippa. “We could fit dozens of them on the ship.”

“If Remus is wrong about this, then we’ll have summoned the army to fight for no reason,” Riot answered, looking over to her left from her command chair. “If there is a fight, we can handle it. We’ll need every Trilord warrior ready and rested for the main Karnayer engagement when it comes.”

Doctor Miller nodded along with Riot’s words as she turned back to her control panel.

Two minutes until we arrive, Rizzo’s message appeared on the main screen in red lettering for Riot to see.

“Roger that.” Riot looked over to Ketrick, who sat on her right. “You’re sure this is the best place to touch down?”

“It’s far enough from the Brute capital where they can’t see us, but not too far so that we won’t be able to run there within the hour,” Ketrick said, so fast it was like his sentence was made up of one word. He fidgeted in his seat. His red eyes were wide, and there was a playful smile on his face. “We should gear up before we leave the ship.”

“Are you on drugs?” Vet said, studying the Trilord beside him with his own good eye. “Are you sweating?”

“My heart feels funny.” Ketrick placed a hand over his massive chest. “Your coffee is wonderful.”

Riot was about to give more instruction, when something out of the front window caught her eye. Hoydren’s twin suns had set. A massive silver moon hung in the sky with hundreds, if not thousands, of stars twinkling far above. What caught her attention wasn’t the forest canopy below or the fires of a city barely visible in the distance. It was the sight of roaring fires and billowing smoke that rose into the night sky. The smoke was difficult to see at first, but the fires were clear.

“Are those … are there buildings on fire?” Riot craned her neck forward. She answered her own question as her eyes confirmed the news. “Remus was right. The Karnayers have already landed on Hoydren.”

“That’s the Brute’s capitol.” Ketrick stood from his seat to get a better view. “The entire city’s on fire!”

It was true. As Rizzo brought the ship closer, what had once seemed like a few lights or some small fires suddenly expanded in size. Entire buildings were aflame, and the devastation only grew the closer and closer they got to the city.

Soon, the bright blaster beams of green-and-yellow weapons fire could be seen below.

“Evonne,” Riot said, having seen enough, “you have the helm. Set us down right in the middle of wherever the Karnayers are. Wolves, time to gear up—double time!”

A chorus of “Rogers” sounded over the bridge, as well as Evonne’s own confirmation that she had received the orders.

Riot ran to the armory room with the others. The humans, including Doctor Miller, began stripping down to their underwear to apply their dragon skin layer of under armor, as well as the next layer of liquid armor that would go on over that.

Rippa’s gear was stowed next to theirs; however, her uniform was a tight-fitting grey leotard that would make movement in her mech easier. The emblem of a black helmet on the chest area of her uniform designated her unit belonged to the Spartan mech class.

We need to replace that emblem on her uniform, Rizzo signed to the others as he shrugged on his red liquid armor. He pointed to the fierce wolf sigil of their own unit emblazoned on the shoulder of their armor. We gotta jump her into the pack.

“Yeah, we should do some hazing.” Vet grabbed his Longshot 1000 sniper rifle whose scope was just as long as its barrel. The flat, black weapon was long but lightweight. It fit perfectly in his hands. “Maybe make her get a tattoo like Wang did.”

“Too soon,” Wang said, glaring at his friends. “I thought we were all getting those tattoos together. You all lied to me.”

“You were wasted and did that all by yourself.” Riot grinned as she clipped two Boomballs onto her belt with her molten blade. Along with the warhammer on her back, the Cannon FP290 on her hip, and the Villain Pulse Rifle in her hands, she was armed to the teeth. “Remember how he kept asking us if we were going to howl with him after his tattoo was finished?”

“What an idiot,” Rippa said with a smile on her face. She stood at the door of the armory ready to depart. “No offense.”

“You can’t just say whatever you want to say and then say ‘no offense.’” Wang shook his head, joining Rippa by the door. “Words do hurt.”

“You are like a man-child.” Rippa rolled her eyes as she left the armory room. “I’ll be firing up my mech in the cargo bay.”

“Riot,” Evonne’s Australian accent sounded over the ship’s comms. “We are about to touch down as requested. There are no Karnayer forces that I’ve seen, but there is a gathering of Brutes in the center of the town.”

“Land there.” Riot grabbed her helmet in her free hand and motioned for her unit to follow. “Let’s move out.”

Riot led her crew through the Valkyrie’s halls to the cargo bay where Rippa had just entered her mech unit. The twenty-foot-tall robotic piece of machinery came to life as a dull blue light glowed from its helmet. The helmet was shaped like one found on an ancient warrior in a time long past.

Vikta was also in the cargo bay. The dragon could sense something was wrong. She was probably already communicating with Ketrick through the telepathic bond they shared.

The ship touched down a moment later, sending a brief shudder through the hull. Riot placed her helmet on her head. The familiar heads-up display soon showed her readouts of, not only the weapons she and her men carried, but also of the Trilord and Grovothe on her team.

“Evonne, lower the cargo bay ramp.” Riot tried to sound as optimistic as possible as she continued to her team. “Stay frosty. We don’t know where the Brute’s alliances lie, or if we’ll encounter any Karnayers or creatures they’ve brought with them. Eyes open. Rizzo, if you see anything suspicious, just shout.”

This brought laughs from everyone except for Doctor Miller.

Hahaha, Too Soon, Rizzo typed on the control pad on the back of his left forearm’s armor.

“We shouldn’t tease about other people’s disabilities,” Doctor Miller said as she inhaled a breath of air.

“Take it easy HR, it was a joke.” Riot lifted her weapon as the cargo bay ramp came down in front of them. “Wang, you’re attached to Doctor Miller’s hip. Don’t let Cupcake out of your sight.”

“Roger that,” Wang responded.

As soon as the cargo bay’s doors were low enough for Riot to fit through, she moved forward in a crouch. Her senses were on overdrive as she aimed down the barrel of her weapon, her head on a swivel.

Evonne had indeed landed them in the middle of the confrontation. Although there was no weapons fire being exchanged at the moment, it was clear they had missed by minutes whatever it was that had happened there.

The Valkyrie sat in what looked like a town square. A cracked fountain stood right in front of them, surrounded by charred grass. On every side of the fountain were buildings two to three stories tall made of hard brick and stone.

Riot’s heads-up display read dozens of Trilord signatures. The tech built into her armor outlined the heat signatures to such a degree, Riot could even see that the Trilord Brutes were hiding behind doors, crouched behind windows, even lying in back rooms.

“Ambush?” Vet said through the comms.

“Not an ambush,” Ketrick responded. “They’re hiding, terrified of something. Vikta can smell their fear from here.”

Something that sounded like a whale’s call erupted from their right. Riot held a fist in the air for her team to hold and crouch. The noise came again, reverberating through the night to their position. The only light in the area was from the many fires that had erupted across the town. The buildings in every direction were in various states of repair, and those that had escaped the fires had caved-in walls or roofs.

The noise came again, so deep now, Riot could feel it in her chest. She zeroed in on the sound’s location—a building a block away, one that looked like a warehouse.

Great, so here we go again, Riot thought. Alien planet, check. Weird alien monster, check. Riot, why don’t you go see what’s making all those horrific noises, check.

“Ketrick, you know these people better than I do,” Riot said, making a split-second decision. “You and Doctor Miller with me. Vet, you hold here next to the ship and don’t take your eyes off that warehouse where the noise is coming from. I have a bad feeling about this.”

“Roger,” Vet said over the comms. He started doling out defensive positions to the rest of the unit as Riot made her way to the closest building.

To their left, a two-story building whose right wall had crumbled in on itself stood out against the smoke-filled sky. Riot’s and Doctor Miller’s helmets would filter out the smoke, but Ketrick, who strode next to them, was taking in the noxious fumes. Riot lowered her weapon as they closed in on the building. It was obvious the Trilords had been attacked. If they were hiding, then Riot had no reason to engage them.

“We’re not your enemies!” Riot shouted into the building. “We’ve come to help you. What happened here?”

Riot’s heads-up display that showed her the outlines of four hunched figures in the building beeped to life as it counted everything from their weapons to how fast their hearts were beating.

“Ketrick,” Riot said, motioning with her head to the wooden door in front of them. “I know they’re part of your people’s rival faction, but they’re Trilords, just like you. Maybe they’ll speak with you instead of a total stranger.”

Ketrick nodded his approval. A cough escaped his lips as he took a step forward, lowering his own weapon. They were fifty feet from the closest building now.

“Most of you know me, or at the very least have heard of me. My name is Ketrick Warbringer, Heir to the Savage throne, Judge to my people, and he who speaks with the space serpents.” Ketrick took a breath. “If I wanted you dead, I would rend your heads from their bodies with my bare hands or call the space serpents down on you to extract their vengeance for what you have allowed to be done to them.”

“Okay…” Riot looked over to Ketrick, shaking her head. “Not really what I had in mind when I asked you to speak with them.”

“Trust me.” Ketrick looked down at Riot with a wink. “This is how we communicate.”

Riot was about to tell Ketrick she would take point on dealing with the Brutes, when motion on her heads-up display quieted her words. The Brutes inside the building were moving. Not yet ready to welcome the strangers, they peeked out through broken windows in the building.

Riot caught sight of their large frames and wild yellow eyes that glinted from the reflection of fires raging in the city. The long canine teeth that sprouted from their upper jaws fell past their lips. In any other case, a group of warriors such as these would have made Riot lift her weapon and fire. But something in their eyes, in their very faces, told her she had nothing to fear from them. They were terrified.

“You can come out.” Riot slung her weapon over her shoulder and removed her helmet. “I’m taking off my helmet because I trust that we’re on the same side against whatever it was that did this to your city. If you shoot me in the face, I’m going to be pissed. If you end up killing me, I swear I’ll haunt you from the grave.”

The brute Trilords in the building looked to someone deeper inside the house for direction. Riot picked up on whispers and broken pieces of the conversation.

“She was the one who arrived not weeks ago, during the battle with the Savages.”

“Boris was misled.”

“She’s one of the humans? Maybe she can help.”

More hushed whispers.

Finally, the door to the building opened, revealing a lean Trilord who looked like he was old enough to be Ketrick’s father. A thick, grey beard fell down his chin. Long, braided hair had been gathered behind his head in a knot. He looked at Riot with sad, wary eyes. There was wisdom in his weathered, wrinkled face and, to Riot’s surprise, no fear whatsoever.

“My name is Talon,” he said, opening his hands on either side of his body to show them he carried no weapons. “If you are truly here to help us, then help us.”

The deep, whale-like moan rumbled through the air once more. Riot chanced a quick look behind her. Past the line where Vet had set up the rest of the crew, the warehouse building glowed with a strange white light.

“What’s making that noise?” Riot asked, tearing her eyes from the warehouse building. She directed her attention back to the aged Brute in front of her. “What happened here?”

“The devil came to visit.” Talon stared over Riot’s shoulder with emotionless eyes. “And death came with him.”


78

Riot stood stunned for a moment, trying to process what Talon had just said. It was clear he believed the information he had just related to her; there was no joking tone in his voice, no twitch of his lips.

“The devil?” Doctor Miller repeated, clearing her throat like she had just choked on her own saliva. “The devil?”

Doctor Miller looked over to Riot for direction. “The devil?”

“Yes, yes, that’s what the man said.” Riot refused to acknowledge the fear in the doctor’s voice. “Let’s move on from that.”

“Start from the beginning,” Ketrick encouraged the Trilord. “Who came, what did they look like?”

“It was the Karnayers, like they had come before,” Talon spoke in a firm voice, despite what he had just been through. “Our new leader refused to help them this time. We’ve learned our lesson well, Prince. Boris died in the assault against your home. We elected a leader who is focused on helping us grow outside of war with the Savage faction. When we told the Karnayer as much and refused to help him, he unleashed the devil on our city.”

“And what does this devil look like?” Riot asked.

“As tall as a building, with horns that protrude from its head. And … and the ability to raise our dead and make them fight against us.” Talon had said this last part as if getting the words from his mouth was harder than he’d anticipated. “I’ve seen them. I’ve seen our warriors killed and then brought back like dead, mindless creatures willing to obey the orders of our enemies. They’ve only attacked our capital city now, but if we allow them, it will spread.

“Help us? Will you help us?” A Trilord woman, seeing that Riot and her unit were willing to give them aid, ran from the supposed safety of a dark house. She grabbed Riot by both shoulders, trembling. “Please, you don’t understand what we’ve seen here. It’s … it’s impossible, what’s going on.”

“Get ahold of yourself, woman.” Riot freed herself from the much larger Trilord’s grip. It took all she had not to level the Brute when she had rushed her. The one thing that had stilled her hand, though, was the look of pure dread in the woman’s yellow eyes. “We are going to help. We just have to gather some information.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you,” the woman prattled on. “The Karnayers came from the sky. When our leader refused them, they unleashed the devil on us. It was something out of a nightmare!”

The woman grabbed Riot again, screaming about devils and demons from the abyss.

SMACK!

Riot had slapped her across the face, so hard, it made the Trilord woman’s head turn. Riot was a Marine, not a saint. She didn’t open hand slap people often, but when she did, she had a good reason for doing so. “Control yourself. You’re making this situation worse right now. Let’s focus on the solution now, not the problem.”

The woman looked stunned, but nodded along with Riot’s words.

More and more buildings in the town center opened their doors. Now that they saw Riot and her unit were indeed there to help, they were more willing to show themselves. These Trilords were mostly elderly men, women, and children.

It seemed those Trilords in the area capable of fighting had run off to defend the city.

“That’s what was bothering me before,” Ketrick said, placing his long weapon over his shoulder. “There are no bodies.”

Riot took a moment to process his words. She scanned the area, noting the same thing. Familiar signs of struggle when a firefight opened up in a populated area like this met her eyes: scorch marks from explosions, crumbling buildings, and fires in the area. Ketrick was right, however: no corpses on the ground, no wounded.

“Keep your people inside, and stay down,” Riot told Talon and the woman in front of her. “We share a common enemy. We’ll take care of this.”

“Be careful,” Talon warned. “Stay away from its breath. It brought them back with its breath.”

Riot nodded. She turned and walked back to the rest of her unit stationed by the Valkyrie.

“What do you think that means?” Doctor Miller asked through her comm. “Stay away from its breath? It brings back the dead with its breath?”

“I don’t know, but you’d best believe we’re going to find out.” Riot placed her helmet back on her head. “Even if it does have a bad case of morning breath, I’ve never met anything that can’t be killed.”

“I can bring Vikta along,” Ketrick said, thinking of the crew’s largest member. “She’ll be more than a match for anything inside that warehouse.”

The noise came again. The low, deep sound of moaning, if moaning was done in a singsong wail, and it was unlike anything Riot had ever heard. Goosebumps raced down her arms, and a chill touched her spine like a cold finger racing down her back.

“We’ll keep Vikta in reserve until we find out exactly what’s going on,” Riot told Ketrick. “The last thing we need is our dragon caught in a situation she can’t get out of.”

Ketrick nodded along with Riot’s words.

“All right,” Riot said, reaching the rest of her unit, who had taken up defensive positions around the ship and the broken fountain that rested in the middle of the town square. “It looks like the Karnayers have brought with them some kind of creature that raises the dead.”

“You’re joking, right?” Vet looked over from his crouched position behind a broken piece of stone. “Zombies? We’re going to be fighting zombies?”

“Not zombies,” Rippa’s voice sounded over the comms from inside of her mech unit. Rizzo and Wang were stationed behind her. Rippa’s mech unit’s armor was so durable, it provided cover of its own. “A Devil’s Hand.”

“You know what this thing is?” Riot couldn’t keep the shock out of her voice. “What’s a Devil’s Hand?”

“Nothing more than a story Grovothe tell their young to make them urinate before bedtime,” Rippa answered, her voice distant as if she were willing some long-lost memory to the front of her mind. “Creatures from a planet I’ve only heard of in books. They lived somewhere near the universe’s edge but were all thought to be extinct by now. They’re large and have the ability to sing their dead victims into a state of servitude for them.”

“Well, that would make sense,” Riot said, thinking of what she had learned from Remus earlier that night. “The Karnayers must have captured one and now use it to do their will.”

“Hold up. Are we just going to skip over the fact that this monster is so scary, Grovothe children piss their pants when they hear it?” Wang asked from his kneeling position behind Rippa’s mech. “I’m not the only one who heard that, right?”

“I also heard the urinating story,” Ketrick confirmed. “It is quite unnerving.”

“Whatever,” Rippa said. “It’s the truth. We’ll see how many of these undead you take under your blade compared to mine.”

“Please, I will make my own enemies urinate themselves when they see me coming.” Ketrick bristled. “I’ll kill many more of them than you—”

“Okay,” Riot said, lifting her voice over whatever Ketrick was about to say. “We’re not doing this now. I want Vet and Doctor Miller on over-watch on the right side of the buildings. Vet, choose a spot and have the doctor watch your six.”

“Roger that.” Vet nodded, motioning for Doctor Miller to follow him.

“What? What am I supposed to do?” Doctor Miller looked from Riot to Vet. “That whole thing in the Zenoth hive was a one-time deal. I don’t know what came over me. I’m a non-combatant. I mean, I don’t even like killing spiders!”

Vet must have switched their comm lines to a different channel because Doctor Miller’s voice disappeared for the time being. Riot turned to the rest of her unit.

“All right. Ketrick and Vikta will be the cavalry. Once we check out what’s going on in that warehouse, we’ll signal them to flank the enemy. We need eyes on the target before that can happen. That means myself, Wang, Rizzo, and Rippa will take the left side of the road to the warehouse.”

“We’ll be ready,” Ketrick said, starting to walk over to the Valkyrie where Vikta stood on all fours, her long snout sniffing the air. Ketrick looked over his shoulder a moment later. “Vikta says to be wary. Whatever is in that building is not of this world.”

Thanks for the words of encouragement, Rizzo wrote over everyone’s heads-up display. Ironically, Ketrick was the only one who wouldn’t get the message, since he refused to wear a helmet.

“Let’s go.” Riot checked her Villain Pulse Rifle for the dozenth time. The Marines had turned her into a creature of habit, always checking and rechecking her weapons and equipment. “Rippa and myself in the lead; Wang and Rizzo bringing up the rear.”

Riot vaulted over the waist-high debris they had been using for cover. Rippa matched her quick stride with an easy gait of her own. Her mech was twenty feet tall, which meant taking slow strides to keep in formation with the others.

For the moment, Riot pushed everything out of her mind besides the pulsing white light that showed through the cracks of the doors and windows in the large warehouse building. In the interim, the wailing alien noises had subsided.

“Anything else you can tell us about this Devil’s Hand?” Riot asked as she led her unit to the left side of the road. She hugged the buildings, welcoming any cover they could provide.

“I wish I could remember more,” Rippa answered. “The stories were always horrifying. A monster from the depths of Hell, one that not only consumed your soul but brought your empty husk of a body back from the dead to serve it.”

“All of a sudden I’m wishing I didn’t ask,” Riot said only half teasing.

The four members of Riot’s team made their way down the road. Fifty yards from the building nothing had changed. There were no lookouts, no guards hiding to ambush them as they approached.

The stars overhead and the fires in the city were the only things that gave off light. Riot could switch to her night vision mode on her heads-up display, but there was no point. She would be made aware of any threat via the scanners in her helmet, and when they did get to the warehouse, the pulsing light coming from it promised enough illumination.

Twenty yards from the warehouse, Riot called a stop. There was an open road between them and the building. The pulsing light continued to glow off and on, but there was no noise. The entire city was as silent as a crypt.

“I vote sending Rippa to knock,” Wang whispered in his comms. “She’s got a tank built around her.”

“Geez, thanks,” Rippa muttered. “What a gentleman.”

“I’m just saying,” Wang said. “You’re the best equipped for the present task.”

“There’s a window on the left side of the building about two stories up,” Riot said as her heads-up display searched for access points to the large structure. “Rizzo and Wang hold here. Rippa, you’ll give me a boost when we get there. Let’s see what a Devil’s Hand looks like.”

Riot took off down the street, still sweeping to see if there were any hidden enemies lurking in the shadows. There were none. At the moment, Riot wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

Rippa followed quietly alongside. She took long strides, carefully placing her foot down onto the ground with every step. Despite her massive size, she was as quiet as Riot. Her armored mech moved like a human.

Riot reached the side of the warehouse in no time. A better view of the building told her exactly what she had expected. It looked like a massive warehouse with a slanted roof. Two giant double doors were closed in the front, with a line of slender windows near the roof the only other access points.

“What’s that?” Rippa asked as she crouched in her mech near Riot. She pointed with a massive hand to a wet spot pooling from the entrance to the warehouse.

Riot followed the fat, metal finger of Rippa’s mech to the spot where she was pointing. Liquid was pouring out of the warehouse between the door and the ground. Riot zoomed in on the fluid, confirming her worst fears. It was blood.

“Let’s just get this done.” Riot bottled the fear she felt and reminded herself of the warrior she was. “The longer we wait out here, the more time we have to second-guess ourselves.”

“I agree.” Rippa lowered her mech farther to the ground, crouching so that Riot could climb onto her mech’s left shoulder. “If fear was an option, I might be feeling it right about now.”

“Good thing neither of us are the feeling type,” Riot said. She slung her rifle across her back where her warhammer sat. Riot knelt on Rippa’s mech unit’s left shoulder. With her right hand, she held on to the mech’s helmet, and with her left, she grabbed the mech’s shoulder armor where the upper arm connected to the torso.

Rippa gently moved to a standing position, then placed herself along the side of the warehouse. Riot’s height standing on top of Rippa’s mech was perfect. The window Riot looked through was grimy and streaked with smoke. She gently wiped away the coat of ash to see inside the warehouse. What her eyes found next was enough to chill her to the bone.


79

If Riot let fear get in the way of doing what had to be done, then this would have been the time. Riot studied the inside of the room, sweeping her gaze back and forth. She knew what she was supposed to be doing—counting the enemies’ number, searching for entrance points, gauging their weapons—but with what was going on inside the building, it was nearly impossible.

An army of bloodied Trilords stood shoulder to shoulder. Wounds ranging from severed arms to half of their faces missing told Riot these were warriors who were supposed to be long dead. Something very unnatural was keeping them alive.

And Riot could make an educated guess as to what that unnatural thing was. To the left of the window at the back of the building, a beast out of her nightmares stood on a raised platform. The closest thing Riot could relate the Devil’s Hand to was a giant bull mixed with a crocodile. Horns sprouted from the monster’s head, and it was covered in dark green scales, with a strong tail. It was roughly the size of a short bus. Its huge, bulky body made it clear it was not going to be taken down easily.

All of the zombified Trilords stood still, eyes looking at the creature as if they were somehow communing with the beast. Next to the monster stood a small group of Karnayers—six Karnayer soldiers dressed in black armor and carrying pulse weapons, and a seventh that Riot recognized.

Remus’s brother, Alveric, stood with his hands clasped behind his back, grinning. His tall frame and the long, white hair that cascaded down his black robe familiar to his race was easy to pick out. Riot had only seen him once before while she talked to him over her ship’s display screen, but she was positive it was him.

From out of nowhere, the Devil’s Hand opened its giant maw, revealing rows of sharp teeth that reminded Riot of a shark’s mouth. Out of its throat came the noise Riot had heard so many times already—the bass-like howling of a whale.

The Trilords in front of the beast had to number in the hundreds. They swayed from side to side as if the sounds somehow promised them peace.

Everything all right? Rizzo asked over Riot’s heads-up display.

“Of all the words I could choose for this moment, ‘all right’ would be really far down the list. Like you showed up to the DMV without an appointment down the list,” Riot said, realizing she was dealing with the moment by making light of the situation and not caring. “I’m going to link my heads-up display to everyone’s so you can see what I’m seeing. Just expect the worse, and then double that. You’ll be close.”

Riot pressed a button on the control panel built into the backside of her left forearm. A light blinked off and on in the upper right hand corner of her screen designating, that everyone was now able to see what she was seeing.

“Holy mother of Moses,” Doctor Miller inhaled. “Are they … are they dead?”

“Never mind the army of zombies, look at the thing,” Wang’s voice reached everyone over the comms. “It looks like Godzilla got shrunken down to a miniature size and Cthulhu gave him horns.”

“What’s our move?” Rippa said with an unwavering tone. “I say we blow the entire warehouse to the next life and let the Allfather sort out the souls.”

“I don’t really disagree with you there,” Riot said, considering her options. “All right, let’s get back to the shi—”

“Can they see you?” Vet interrupted her in a very unlike-Vet way. “I think that one Karnayer over there is pointing at you.”

“What?” Riot asked. “No they haven’t seen—”

Riot looked over to the group of Karnayers standing next to the Devil’s Hand on the raised platform. One of the black-armored soldiers was definitely pointing in her direction with panicked motions of his right pointer finger.

“Oh, I think you might be right,” Riot said, scratching the idea of blowing the whole warehouse to Kingdom Come and already forming plan B.

In the space of a heartbeat, every single head in the warehouse, Karnayer, zombie Trilord, and the Devil’s Hand, all swung in her direction.

“Yep, yep, you’re definitely right,” Riot said, doing the only thing she could at the moment. She waved. “They see me, and I’m waving back to them right now.”

At once, the silent, stunned trance everyone in the warehouse seemed to have erupted into an avalanche of chaos. The Devil’s Hand bellowed. The army of Trilord undead woke from their stupor and ran for the building doors. The Karnayer force lifted their weapons and opened fire on Riot.

Riot ducked just in time as green blaster fire shattered the window around her, sending sharp shards of glass over her, and Rippa’s mech below. Riot slammed the button on her heads-up display to remove the shared viewing option.

“Wang, Rizzo, Vet—you’re weapons free on whatever comes out of the warehouse. Rippa, get us back to the rest of the unit. Ketrick, get ready to bring the cavalry.”

Rippa turned her mech slowly enough for Riot to keep her balance but fast enough to make her grab on for fear of falling off. With long, even strides, Rippa made the trip back to where the rest of the unit had taken up defensive positions in the cover of the building.

BOOM!

The warehouse doors exploded outward, releasing a horde of undead Trilords. Nearly all of them still had their weapons intact. Yellow fire from their hybrid staff and blunt force weapons showered the back of Rippa’s mech. Riot dropped into a crouch. Despite her efforts to remain unscathed, a blaster round struck her in the back of her right shoulder.

Her armor held, but it felt like being hit with a baseball bat. A numb sensation raced across her right shoulder as she focused on not falling off of Rippa.

Rippa moved her mech into a tight alley right in front of where Rizzo and Wang pumped round after round into the coming zombie horde. Rippa knelt once more, allowing Riot to jump off.

“What’s the good word, Wolves?” Riot shouted to be heard over the firing weapons. She swung her pulse rifle off her back and moved to peer around the building’s corner.

“These zombies aren’t going down,” Wang shouted back. “I’ve hit a few, center mass, and they shrug it off like I’m shooting a marshmallow gun at them.”

Riot took a knee and stuck her head and weapon around the corner. Wang was right. An ocean of Trilords was less than a hundred yards from their location, and closing fast. When any one of them got hit with a round in the torso, they stumbled backwards for a moment, then continued on.

Riot aimed down her sights and tested a few rounds of her own on different body parts of the oncoming Trilords. She took one in the kneecap. The Trilord fell, but instead of writhing in pain, it continued to crawl forward.

She took one in the arm, with no result, and the final one in the head. The unlucky target was having one hell of a day. One second, the overweight, shaved-headed Trilord was lowering his blaster, which looked like a spear; the next, his head erupted in a shower of blood and gore. The body stumbled once, then remained still.

“Surprise, surprise, boys and girls,” Riot shouted as she ducked back around the corner she used as cover. A hail of yellow blaster fire pinned her down for the time being. “The way to kill a Trilord zombie is the same way you kill any other. Plug them in the head. Oohrah! Let’s light ’em up!”

The thumping sounds the Trilord weapons made were contrary to the loud booms of traditional fire the Marines used. It was a cacophony that covered the battlefield.

Then Rippa appeared around the corner.

VROOOOOM!

The Grovothe didn’t waste any time unloading with her most powerful weapon. A blue laser beam shot out of her mech’s helmet. The beam cut through the oncoming Trilord horde like a group of kids at fat camp through an all-you-can-eat buffet. Trilords fell left and right as their heads were severed in two, bodies cut down the center, and limbs removed in an instant.

“Come on!” Rippa roared over the comms. “Fire everything you’ve got!”

No screams came from the victims, just the ever-present volley of return fire as the Trilord numbers began to thin. Riot and her Marines unloaded along with her. Vet, still in his over-watch position to the right, popped heads like balloons at a fair. Rizzo let loose with his Vulcan-like mini-gun that spewed red blaster rounds into the horde.

Things were just beginning to turn from nightmarish to just a bad dream, when the Devil’s Hand charged through the open warehouse doors. The beast bellowed a war cry in its deep baritone voice. It sprinted at Rippa’s mech with madness in its eyes.

“Bring it down!” Riot ordered, training her Villain Pulse Rifle at the beast, firing a concentrated burst at its head. “Rippa, watch out!”

To her unit’s credit, they realized the threat the Devil’s Hand held, and immediately opened fire on the charging beast. But Rizzo’s Vulcan, and even Rippa’s blue laser beam, failed to puncture the hide of the beast. If anything, they only infuriated it more.

Although the monster was only half as tall as Rippa’s mech, it was twice as bulky. Its charging body looked like a heavy linebacker about to sack the opposing team’s quarterback.

At the moment of impact, Rippa bent her mech’s knees and threw her hands up. The monster dove at her, gripping her outstretched hands in its claws and, lunging forward with its short neck, it gripped Rippa’s left shoulder in its teeth.

At once, the beast fell on top of Rippa’s unit, and the next minute, its bulk bullied the power of her mech backwards to the ground.

“Ketrick,” Riot yelled into her comms as she sent another round of blaster fire at the incoming Trilords closing the distance. “Now would be a good time!”

Right on cue, Ketrick descended from the heavens atop Vikta. The rider and dragon fell on the back of the massive, bull-like Devil’s Hand. Vikta dug her claws deep into the creature’s ribs. She grabbed the monster by the back of its neck in her jaws.

“I hope you remember that a stupid giant saved your life this day, dwarf,” Ketrick laughed over the comms as he plunged the blade of his axe into the monster’s hide. “I would never have fallen to such a simple brute.”

“Yeah, how many enemies have you killed?” Rippa screamed back as she fought off the alien monster still on top of her. “I counted two dozen Trilord zombies I killed, while you were flying around in the sky like a little fairy.”

“Pshhhh,” Ketrick laughed. “Killing this creature makes for a hundred Trilord deaths.”

“What—a hundred?” Rippa cried out in frustration. She battered closed fists at the head of the Devil’s Hand’s. “Who’s making these rules?”

The conversation between Rippa and Ketrick took a back seat as Riot concentrated on the advancing Trilord throng. Rippa’s laser beam had bought them time, but had not solved their problem. Still well over a hundred zombified Trilords were walking, crawling, and dragging their way forward.

For the first time, Riot caught sight of Alveric and his Karnayer guard at the rear of the fight. They stood in what they thought was the safety of the warehouse doors, looking on, while others fought and died.

If you can kill him now, this war can be over before it really begins, Riot thought. It’s not going to be easy getting to him, but then again, when has life ever been easy for you?

“Vet, Wang, Rizzo, I’m going to need you to cut me a path to the Karnayers standing at the warehouse,” Riot said, taking a deep breath and preparing herself for the run past the Devil’s Hand and through the mass of zombified Trilords. “Try not to shoot me.”


80

Oohrah!” Vet yelled over his comms.

Get Some, Rizzo wrote over her heads-up display.

“When in Rome,” Wang added with the others, like the saying belonged.

“I don’t think that means what you think it means,” Riot said as she licked her dry lips inside of her helmet. “Look that one up when we get back.”

Without waiting for a response, Riot bolted from around the corner and made her run. She once more slung her weapon over her shoulder in favor of her two Boomballs that hung on her belt.

To her left, Ketrick and Vikta had managed to get the beefy Devil’s hand off of Rippa. The creature’s hide was so thick, not even Vikta’s massive claws or razor-like teeth were able to puncture it.

But the Devil’s Hand had more than met its match in the Trilord and the Grovothe. Riot had to trust they would find a way to defeat the monster. She had more pressing things to deal with at the moment.

Riot ran in a crouch, doing her best to make herself a small target. She lobbed the grenade-like Boomballs into the ranks of the oncoming horde, then grabbed her rifle again and began making use of the target-rich environment.

Thump! Thump! Thump!

Yellow streaks of enemy energy blasts scorched the ground around her. The air cracked as numerous beams nearly struck her.

BAM! BAM!

Riot’s Boomballs went off in quick succession, clearing her a path in the middle of the Trilord host. Riot’s breath was heavy, her adrenaline adding to the spike in her heart rate.

A Trilord on her right raised a hammer-like weapon in her direction, and Riot took it out with a headshot. Aiming was nearly unnecessary; she was so close to the Trilords now, she was nearly on top of them. She fired again, opening up a hole the size of a grapefruit in her next victim’s throat.

The smoke from her Boomballs washed over the ranks of the Trilords, making it difficult to see.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Riot’s Marines opened up all around her. Riot wasn’t even fast enough to take down her own targets. Before she could line up a shot, their heads were already exploding, thanks to Vet’s high-powered sniper rifle, or their bodies were turned to shredded cheese, courtesy of Rizzo’s Vulcan-like mini-gun.

Riot was in the middle of the throng before she gave herself time to consider how insane her plan actually was. Trilords were firing so close to one another now, every shot that missed her took out one of their own.

Pain danced around Riot’s left side as a blaster round found its mark. At this close range, it tore through her armor, scorching the skin underneath. Riot fought back a scream as the pain almost instantly subsided, the nanites in her body already rushing to the wound and healing tissue and skin.

Riot rolled under a club swing from her right and came back up, running. All around her, bodies were falling and heads were exploding as Vet and Wang opened up a route through the lines. Rizzo did the clean-up work as red blaster fire tore through the Trilord ranks.

Riot had given up firing on the mass, and just ran. A Trilord arm reached out and grabbed her weapon. Instead of coming to a standstill in the middle of swirling arms and weapons, Riot let go of her pulse rifle.

Another wave of pain exploded in her head as an axe landed against the right side of her helmet. Despite the helmet’s protection, Riot saw stars. She stumbled for a moment, nearly falling to all fours.

Keep going, keep going, you got this! Riot screamed to herself. She fell to the ground a moment later as another round of blaster fire caught her in the foot. Riot ignored the pain. Get back up, get back up!

“Rawwww!” Riot forced herself to her feet again and half-ran, half-limped through the last lines of the Trilord army.

In front of her, Alveric stood twenty yards away behind his six bodyguards. The soldiers all leveled their weapons at her, black-painted rifles that looked capable of chewing holes through concrete.

Alveric began to clap. “Bravo. You made it through the lines of the dead. What now, Marine Riot? What did you think you would achieve by reaching me? What did you think you would achieve from fighting this battle at all? The Trilords are an insignificant race of meat shields.”

“Sorry, sorry, you have something right … here.” Riot pointed her right pointer finger to the outside of her helmet where the corner of her right lip would be. “I’m not kidding. I’m trying to pay attention to you, but it’s just so hard. Did you … did you have ketchup or something with your dinner?”

“What are you talking about?” Alveric gave her a deep scowl. “I’m about to kill you, and you make your last words in this life a jest?”

“Just, just here.” Riot wiped at her helmet again. “Just a dab, and we can get on with this. It’s so distracting.”

Alveric ran a tongue along the side of his face where Riot was pointing, then he brought up his right hand to smear away anything that might have been there. As soon as his eyes shifted down to look at his hand to see if Riot was telling the truth, she made her move.

Riot went into a crouch, while at the same time, bringing forward the warhammer on her back. She only had one chance at this; her aim had to be perfect. Riot stilled her beating heart as she aimed for Alveric’s head.

Ignoring the six rifles that bore down on her was one of the hardest things she had to do, but if she wanted a chance of taking out Alveric, then this was it. Blaster fire erupted from both sides at the same time. The last thing Riot saw was the surprise on Alveric’s face before pain erupted across her body. She managed to get off her own shot while she was being stricken by the green beams of energy.

Riot was struck in her left shoulder, abdomen, and right thigh. She rolled across the hard-packed dirt, praying her initial blast had hit her target, and opened up on the six soldiers in front of her.

THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!

The warhammer that was the favored weapon of the Trilords had two firing options, controlled bursts and full auto. The only danger of using full auto was the weapon overheated in the space of a few seconds. But a few seconds were all Riot needed.

Green fire peppered the area around her while Riot hosed the soldiers in front of her with the returning yellow fire. While she focused past the pain and took out soldier after soldier, she got a better view of what had happened to Alveric. The Karnayer leader had been wounded, but not killed.

Riot’s initial shot had been fired while she had been hit herself and the force of the impacts striking her own body had been enough to turn her aim ever so slightly. Instead of her round striking Alveric in the head, it had grazed his right cheek. In a bit of irony, blood now dripped from the wound on his mouth where a minute before Riot had convinced him he’d actually had something.

Riot took down one of the Karnayer soldiers with a burst to his stomach, and the next with a volley of fire to his helmet. Alveric was screaming obscenities Riot didn’t understand, but she was pretty sure it had something to do with her mother.

Two of the four remaining Karnayer soldiers hurried Alveric back through the warehouse. The other two did their best to keep Riot pinned down.

Riot absorbed another blaster round to her torso before mowing down the last two remaining guards. Her overheated weapon felt like fire in her hands. The warhammer clicked dry a second later, refusing to send any other projectiles from its head until it rested.

Forcing her battered body forward, Riot held onto the warhammer and gave chase. Being wounded and instantly repaired by the nanites coursing through her body was a strange thing. She felt all of the pain for a brief moment when the enemy fire had hit her, but then, within seconds, the pain was already subsiding. Her body was healed in under a minute, and she was ready to go again.

Riot vaulted over the four dead Karnayer guards as she entered the warehouse. She screamed the name of her enemy, who fled in fear. “Alveric!”

Three figures sprinting through the warehouse were already halfway across the large building when the last two Karnayer soldiers turned at her words and opened fire.

At this range, Riot’s warhammer was ineffective. Already overheated, it wouldn’t be dispatching any enemies unless she was up close and personal, so Riot dropped the hammer. Her right hand reached for the Cannon FP290 at her hip.

The Karnayers fired wildly as she approached. Something about striking your enemy repeatedly and not seeing her fazed wore on the enemies’ resolve to fight. They understood Riot wasn’t going to die, and they were panicked. Riot almost felt sorry for them. Almost.

“Alveric!” she screamed again, her words echoing off the walls of the open room. She walked forward, her right arm extended with her weapon. Two well-placed shots ended the lives of the Karnayers in front of her. “Alveric! You can run, but I’m coming for you!”

Alveric disappeared though a side door at the rear of the building. Riot turned her walk into a run and crossed the warehouse floor in minutes. She exited the back door in time to see a Karnayer transport ship roughly the size of the Valkyrie powering up. The ship had been hidden behind the warehouse building.

Riot opened fire on the craft, already knowing that her small-arms fire would do no lasting damage, yet refusing to stand there and do nothing. Her cannon was great at shredding body armor, but the hull of a ship was another matter.

The ship fired its thruster and lifted off the ground. A moment later, it was gone.

Riot gritted her teeth. She was so close to finishing this war, here and now. The fight to come would be bloody. Alveric wasn’t exactly the forgive-and-forget type.

“Riot! Riot, are you okay?” Wang’s voice came over the comms. “We’re whipping up the last of the Trilords now. Do you need backup?”

“Negative,” Riot said, turning back toward the warehouse. “I’m coming back to you. What’s the status on the Devil’s Hand?”

“His hide is too thick,” Ketrick grunted over his comms like he was being bucked off a horse. “We can’t get a killshot in.”

Riot forced fatigued legs into a run as she crossed the warehouse again, and got a look at what was going on when she exited the building. The street was covered with the bodies of the Trilord zombies. A few here and there that had not been taken out by headshots still crawled around.

Riot ran back for her warhammer, then returned to wade through the knee-high battlefield of bodies, firing into the craniums of those who still pulsed with undead life. Her main attention was on the struggle still taking place between Ketrick, Rippa, and the Devil’s Hand.

Vikta had the monster’s head pinned down, with her mouth wrapped around its neck. The alien creature was on its side, still struggling to get back on its feet. The dragon’s large frame was enough to keep it from being able to get back up, but only barely. Vikta flapped her wings as she readjusted her stance over her assailant. Ketrick brought the axe end of his spear down over and over again on the creature, to no avail.

Rippa did her part in her mech by controlling the back two legs of the creature’s struggling feet.

“They’ve got it down,” Wang said, as he and Rizzo appeared by Riot’s side. “But there’s no way to get through its skin.”

The Devil’s Hand twisted its head, trying to line its mouth toward Vikta. It opened its maw and sent a white, pulsating light from deep within its throat. The same whale-like echo shattered the air in an eerie song.

“Don’t let Vikta get hit by the Devil Hand’s breath,” Rippa shouted over the comms. “I don’t know what it will do to her.”

Riot looked on, helpless. It was too late.


81

The pulsating and unnerving white luminescent light came from the creature’s mouth and caught Vikta in the face. The dragon reared back, stunned for a moment.

The Devil’s Hand took advantage of the distraction. Getting its front two feet underneath its massive bulk, it flipped its tail, sending Rippa’s mech flying through the air and crashing into a two-story building behind her. The mech disappeared behind crashing walls and a crumbling roof.

“Fire everything you’ve got!” Riot went down to one knee, aiming her now cooled-down warhammer at the alien monster’s face. “Aim for its head.”

The Marines answered her order with a hail of red blaster fire slamming against the head and neck of the Devil’s Hand, but they might as well have been throwing toothpicks at the beast. The monster ignored them and focused, instead, on Vikta. It opened up its giant mouth filled with rows of razor teeth and sent another blast of the strange light at the dragon.

“Gather yourself, Vikta!” Ketrick roared, trying to will the dragon on. “This beast is not stronger than you.”

Vikta shook her head free of whatever psychological attack she was under and opened her own mouth. A stream of fire erupted forward, right into the pulsating light coming from the Devil’s Hand. It was the strangest, most beautiful thing Riot had ever seen.

The pulsating light from the alien necromancer and the fire from Vikta met in the center like two equal forces vying for dominance. For a moment, an immovable object met an unstoppable force. The area was lit up with a golden light that would have blinded Riot had it not been for the protection of her helmet.

A wild idea came to Riot as she forced herself to look away from the battle and come up with a solution. Once again, she placed her warhammer into its holding clasps on her back. She ran to where a stunned Wang and Rizzo stood a few yards to her right.

“I need whatever Boomballs you have left,” Riot said, extending her open hands forward. “All of them.”

Both Wang and Rizzo nodded numbly.

Wang gave Riot two Boomballs, both of the explosive variety.

Rizzo handed her one explosive Boomball and another one meant to stun.

Riot held them all in her hand and ran toward where Vikta and the Devil’s Hand struggled against one another. When one would take a quick breath, the other would gain ground; the macabre light coming from the Devil’s Hand would gain a few yards toward its target when Vikta took a moment to inhale, and visa versa.

The two gladiators were locked in combat, and Riot was going to tip the scales. She looked away from the nexus of their powerful attacks, running toward the Devil’s Hand. She unclipped the safety mechanism on one of the explosive Boomballs and pressed the red button on top of the black ball, activating the weapon. The Devil’s Hand turned its open mouth her way, four feet above her.

The creature seemed to have de-prioritized Riot and her Marines in favor of taking out the dragon first. Big mistake.

Riot winced as she focused on lobbing the Boomballs into the open gullet of the beast. To her delight, the Boomballs went in one right after the other in quick succession. Like playing some kind of strange carnival game, Riot scored a perfect four for four.

The Boomballs didn’t detonate when they came in contact with the alien creature’s bizarre white breath. Still, Riot knew her time was up. Even as she turned to run to safety, the explosives detonated in the creature’s throat.

Riot was lifted off the ground and thrown through the air like a rag doll. She came crashing down fifteen yards from the explosion. A shower of purple gore, blood, and body parts from the Devil’s Hand rained down all over the combatants.

Riot’s body ached from the hairs of her head down to the nails on her toes. Her head thrummed with pain. Her ears rang. Riot picked herself up off the ground still being splattered by the entrails of the Devil’s Hand.

Her eyes told her two things: that the fight was over, and that she wasn’t the only one drenched in the gore. Apparently four Boomballs had been just what the doctor ordered. The upper half of the Devil’s Hand was completely gone; only the four legs and the butt end of the creature remained. The short, stocky green tail quivered all on its own.

Rippa was digging herself out from within the demolished building. Vikta and Ketrick were painted with the purple insides of the monster. The dragon was panting, and Ketrick was wiping his eyes free from the purple slime.

“No, don’t do it,” Wang said over the comms. “Rizzo, don’t—”

Riot removed her helmet. The purple gore splattered across her visor was making it difficult to see. She looked to her right where Rizzo had also removed his helmet. His hands were on his knees as he hunched over, ready to puke. Riot couldn’t really blame him. They were all covered in the monster’s gore from head to foot.

The smell that came with the removal of the helmet didn’t help in making her want to keep in her last meal. The scent that wafted toward her nose was something along the lines of stale fish and sweaty armpits, like the smell you got when you hadn’t used deodorant for a week, then went for a five mile run on a hot day in the middle of the desert.

“If you puke, it’s going to make me—” Wang tried in vain to remove his own helmet. The slippery purple liquid on the outside made it difficult for him to remove it.

Rizzo let loose with a wave of vomit that would have made that little girl in The Exorcist stand up and applaud. This was followed by the sound of Wang vomiting over the comms.

“Ugh, that’s something we’re never going to let you live down.” Vet walked up with Doctor Miller at his side. The two were clean of the purple slime, having been too far out on their overwatch position to get hit by the falling organic debris. “Are you okay in there?”

“Oh, jumping Jehosaphat.” Doctor Miller placed a hand over the mouth section of her own helmet in disgust as she realized what Wang had just done. “You … you threw up inside your helmet, didn’t you?”

“Bahahaha!” Ketrick said, joining the group along with Rippa who arrived in her mech. “Oh, that is so disgusting! Brother Wang, brother Wang, take off your helmet, let’s see.”

“No, no!” Doctor Miller turned away. “I don’t want to see.”

Wang finally fought through the sticky mass of purple alien body matter over his helmet and was able to take it off. He looked like he had been involved in a vomit food fight and lost.

“Guys?” Wang looked each of them in the eyes. “I don’t ever want to talk about this again.”

Even Riot, who had the stomach of a champion, felt queasy looking at him.

“Here.” Vet went over to a dead Trilord and ripped off a clean-ish portion of the soldier’s shirt. “I think this is going to be funny to always tease you about, but right now, you just look sad.”

Ketrick laughed one more time before turning to Riot. “Were you able to take down the Karnayer leader?”

“I wounded him, but he got away,” Riot said, shaking her head. “They had a ship hidden behind the warehouse.”

“He’s going to be pissed that we ruined his little insurrection,” Rippa said over her comms. “I should contact the Grovothe high command and see what they’ve decided about allying with Earth and Hoydren.”

“Agreed,” Riot said, feeling a sense of doom on the horizon. “Alveric will strike hard and soon. We need to talk to the Savage Trilords and get their support, as well. Rippa, head back to the ship and make contact. Doctor Miller, let SPEAR know what’s going on and that we’ll be calling for reinforcements soon. Wang, you go with her and get yourself cleaned up. It’s just … it’s too much even for me.”

Rippa, Doctor Miller, and Wang headed back to the Valkyrie, while Riot and the others went back to the center of town where they had spoken with Talon and the other Brute Trilords.

A gathering of brave souls had assembled, with more reinforcements coming in from the surrounding parts of the city. A few dozen Trilords nodded at Riot and the others as they walked forward.

“It’s done,” Riot said, finding Talon in the crowd. “Whatever past problems you had with the Savage Trilords, I hope you can see that we all share a common enemy now. Not only that, the Savage Trilords, the Grovothe, and yes, even yours truly, humans from Earth, are willing to come to your aid in the time of war.”

A few hard stares remained, but most of the Brute’s heads nodded along with Riot’s words.

Ketrick took the opportunity to speak. “Long have our people fought and died by each other’s hands. Perhaps we will do so again one day. But today, we share a common enemy. Maybe it’s time to see how truly powerful we can be as one instead of as a house divided.”

More mutters of agreement rippled through the gathered crowd.

“Our elected leader was killed by the Karnayers,” Talon said, taking a step forward from the crowd. “We’ll need time to elect another and make a decision. I can’t promise that we will join you, but I can promise that we won’t forget what you did here today.”

“That will have to be enough,” Ketrick said with a slow nod.

Riot was less understanding of Talon’s answer. “Well, do what you need to do, quickly. The next time the Karnayers come, it won’t be with a handful of soldiers and a single creature. They’ll bring an army.”

Talon’s yellow eyes caught Riot’s determined stare, then looked away.

“Let’s get back to the ship,” Riot said, wiping more purple gore from the front of her armor. “I think—”

“Riot!” Doctor Miller’s scream came from the cargo ramp of the Valkyrie where she stood, eyes wide with panic. “Come quick!”


82

Riot ran to the rear of the ship, where she was greeted by a frantic Doctor Miller. The doctor’s usual friendly visage had been replaced by a mask of horror.

“What is it, Bubbles? Spit it out,” Riot said, half-angry, half-frustrated. “What’s wrong?”

“I think … I think you’d better see, there’s … hundreds … hundreds of them.” Doctor Miller turned on her heel and speed walked to the bridge of the Valkyrie. “I was about to hail General Armon, when Evonne alerted me to their presence.”

By the time Riot and the doctor had entered the bridge, Riot was pretty sure she already knew what they were going to find. Everyone except Wang and Rippa followed them.

“Evonne, show Riot what you showed me,” Doctor Miller instructed.

“Immediately,” Evonne answered back.

At once, the front window of the Valkyrie came alive with a display of space. Even as the image relayed information to Riot, she found herself disbelieving what her eyes were seeing. Hundreds of Karnayer ships floated in orbit above Hoydren, with still more exiting light speed.

Riot recognized the small, maneuverable Scarab fighter ships that were capable of locking on to other space ships and tearing through their hull to unload a crew of Karnayer soldiers. Accompanying these vessels were dozens of transport crafts just like Riot had seen Alveric escape in not more than a half-hour before.

Finally, a massive Karnayer destroyer with black spikes protruding from the hull in varying angles filled the screen.

“Well, had I known he had an army that size, I might have been nicer,” Riot said out loud. “Ketrick, I think we’re going to need more coffee.”

“We’re going to need more ships,” Vet said to no one and everyone at once. “A lot more ships.”

“Evonne, how long until they can attack?” Riot asked.

“If they continue to travel at their current speed, they’ll reach Hoydren in the space of ten minutes. Based on the information of tactics used by the House of Karn, they will begin their bombing runs five minutes thereafter.”

Riot gave herself the space of a heartbeat to be surprised. She’d known Alveric would come quickly, just not this quickly.

The next heartbeat had to be spent in action. There was a list of things that needed to be done, people to contact, orders to dole out, and defensive positions to man.

“Rizzo,” Riot started, rattling off orders as fast as her lips could relate what her brain was telling her needed to be said. “Get us back to the Savage capital. Vet, contact Colonel Harlan on the screen. Sunshine, tell SPEAR we need them to send everything. Evonne, tell Wang and Rippa I need them on the bridge as fast as their legs can move. Ketrick, do whatever you need to do to convince the Brutes to join the fight.”

Everyone besides Ketrick ran to obey. Rizzo ignored the state of his gore-soaked armor and immediately went to the pilot’s seat at the front of the ship, starting the engines. Doctor Miller and Vet hit their chairs at their command consoles, following Riot’s orders as fast as their fingers would allow.

Ketrick stood beside Riot with a strange smile on his face. He and Vikta had been on the fringe of the gore splatter from the Devil’s Hand. Purple splashes decorated his large shoulders and the vest he wore. His red eyes looked deep into Riot’s.

“You’re very attractive when you order me around,” the Trilord prince whispered. He winked at her, then raised his voice to a normal speaking volume. “I will stay and speak with the Brute clan once more, but my place is in the sky with Vikta.”

Riot went from being annoyed to being entertained, to being worried all in the space of a few seconds.

“What are you talking about?” She motioned to the screen with both hands. “There are hundreds of ships that will be here within minutes. We need you to stay with the Brutes and get them to come and fight. We’ll need all the help we can get.”

“The Brutes are not the only faction that has yet to enter this war. I told you before, I am a judge with the ability to speak with the space serpents. Vikta and I will find them and gather a force,” Ketrick said as if he were telling Riot what he wanted ordered from a drive-thru menu. “This planet belongs to the space serpents just as much as anyone.”

“What are you talking about?” Riot rolled her eyes as an image of Ketrick trying to communicate with an army of dragons raced across her mind. “We stick to the plan, we—”

“I’ve got Colonel Harlan ready,” Vet said as Doctor Miller reported the same about General Armon at the Bulwark.

Wang and Rippa rushed onto the bridge, the former clean and out of his armor, the latter in her tight grey uniform, looking at the screen in front of her, wide-eyed.

“Go and lead, do what you do best,” Ketrick said. He leaned in as if he were going to hug her, but put a hand on her shoulder instead. “I’ll keep my comm on.”

Why do relationships always get in the way of things? Ugh, I hate feeling feelings, Riot thought.

“Go and be careful,” Riot said through gritted teeth. “We have a date to keep when this is over.”

Ketrick flashed her a grin and ran from the bridge.

If anyone had heard Riot’s last words to Ketrick, they didn’t say anything. At this point, they had to suspect, if they didn’t already know. At least that’s what Riot told herself. She bottled her emotions and steeled herself for what was coming next.

“Rippa, contact Admiral Tricon. We’ll need the Grovothe if we’re going to get through this alive. Wang, you said something about epinephrine shots not too long back. Those are going to come in handy if we have hours of fighting ahead of us.” Riot didn’t skip a beat as she turned to Vet. “Put Colonel Harlan on the screen, then get Evonne up and running. Right now having robots run the world is looking better than staring down a horde of Karnayers. Oohrah!”

“Oohrah!”

Again, everyone rushed to obey. Rizzo, having waited to offload Ketrick, closed the cargo bay ramp and headed back to the capital city of the Savage Trilords. Vet put Colonel Harlan on the screen, then ran with a crazy childlike grin on his face to bring Evonne to life.

“Colonel,” Riot said, placing her war hammer by her command chair as she took a seat. “I’m assuming you’ve heard the news?”

“Roger that.” Colonel Harlan was sitting in his own captain’s chair aboard his cruiser class vessel, the Titan. “I’ve been in contact with SPEAR, but General Armon wanted to speak with you directly. We’re currently holding a defensive position above the Savage palace. What’s your ETA?”

“We’re only a few minutes out. Rizzo is punching it as we speak. I have General Armon waiting on the comms now,” Riot said as the Valkyrie took off like a bullet over Hoydren’s dark, jungle-like planet. “We’ll see you soon.”

“Roger that.” Colonel Harlan stared with stern eyes through the screen. Behind him, his crew shouted to one another. “We’re enough to hold the line until the cavalry comes, believe that.”

“More than enough,” Riot said. The screen went blank. A moment later, General Armon’s familiar face appeared where Colonel Harlan’s had been a moment before.

“Riot,” the general started, “we’ve received the news from Colonel Harlan. The fleet is preparing to leave now. We’re bringing everything we’ve got. We need you to hold out for us, buy us those hours we need to get there. We’ll give these sons of guns the fight of their lives.”

Both relief and determination coursed over Riot. She was relieved to hear the General was bringing the weight of their resources to bear on the fight. The underground bunker called the Bulwark housed more than a dozen ships of their own. Still, even with the advanced weapons and modification, would that be enough? They would still be outnumbered seven, maybe eight, to one.

Determination gripped her heart at the same time. She was a soldier. If this is what had to be done, then she was the one to do it. It was time to put her money where her mouth was. She was the best in her world, or any other. With her crew behind her, Riot would find a way to succeed, no matter what the cost to herself.

“Riot, are you there?” General Armon’s buzz cut, square jaw, and deep stare seemed to soften for a moment. “You and the colonel will find a way.”

“We’ll be waiting for you when you get here,” Riot agreed.

General Armon nodded, then ended the transmission.

“I’ve got Admiral Tricon,” Rippa said from her seat as her fingers maneuvered around the holographic display that popped up above her desk. “Should I put him on?”

“Do it,” Riot answered. When had warfare become more about conference calls than pumping rounds into the bad guys?

Admiral Tricon’s short, stocky frame popped up on the monitor. He was shouting orders to someone off-screen as he appeared. Riot loved listening to every word coming out of the Grovothe’s mouth. “We’re not leaving them to face the Karnayers alone. I understand we’ve only just received the confirmation to ally with Earth but their forces are on Hoydren, and that means that’s where we’re going!”

Riot waited for her turn to speak.

The grizzled veteran turned his scarred face to her a moment later. “It’s good to see you, Riot. I heard you’re about to have a Karnayer infestation.”

“That we are,” Riot said, making a mental note to use a line like that at some point during the fight. “We wanted to extend an invitation your way. We’re going to make a party of it. There’ll be cookies, punch, and even a photo booth to dress up in and take goofy pictures.”

“We’ve only just received permission to count Earth among our allies,” the admiral answered back. “The powers that be are still deciding whether to vote in Hoydren and the Trilords to the alliance or not. Whatever that answer will be, I’m not going to wait. Our human allies are being attacked, and whether they are being attacked on Earth or Hoydren makes no difference in my book. We’re en route. Buy us two hours. We have a full squadron of fighters ready to tear into the Karnayers.”

In a few hours they could be dead.

But Riot silenced the voice in her head that whispered thoughts of fear and doubt. They were going to hold out. They had to.

“Roger that,” Riot said over the screen. Despite the hour, she couldn’t help smiling. “It’s good to see you, Admiral. I’m looking forward to teaming up with you again.”

“As am I.” Then Admiral Tricon spat another series of growl-like orders to someone off-screen before the monitor went black. “All available mech units are to be piloted—that means all of them!”

“All we have to do is hold out for a few hours,” Rippa said quietly as if she were convincing herself it was possible. “Admiral Tricon will be here then, and a few hours later, General Armon will arrive.”

Riot understood what Rippa was doing. She, too, was running through the odds of their survival against hundreds of Karnayer ships and ignoring the outcome.

“Evonne, I need everyone on the bridge ASAP,” Riot said. “Congrats on your new body, as well. I was going to say you deserved it, but truth is, you just bugged us enough.”

“Thank you,” a voice said from behind Riot. “I’ve just notified them.”

Riot turned in her seat to see the robotic body Vet and Doctor Miller had created for Evonne standing on the bridge. Her long, raven-black hair was perfect, as was the rest of her fair complexion.

A grinning Vet appeared behind Evonne. Doctor Miller rose from her seat with a smile as she looked over their work.

Wang ran onto the bridge a moment later, googly-eyed as he took in Evonne’s new form.

“Let’s focus, people,” Riot said, looking out through the window of the ship as Hoydren’s lush vegetation raced past them. “It’s time to go to work.”


83

The bridge sat quiet as Rizzo piloted them back to the Savage Trilord city. As he slowed down their forward momentum, the gigantic moon of the alien city showed them exactly where the battle would take place. The Savage Trilord’s capital sat on a high hill. On top of the hill was a giant, square pyramid. Below it, down the sides of the hill, were everything from homes, to barracks, to stores.

Colonel Harlan’s cruiser class ship, the Titan, hovered high over the city in a defensive position. All alone in the vast skyline dotted with stars, it seemed lonely, or maybe that’s just how Riot felt at the moment and she was projecting her own feelings onto the situation.

City evacuations were still taking place for all of the Savage Trilord children. Riot could see tiny figures running through the night. Torches and fires throughout the city lit their way. Even smaller shadows followed the children.

“I should be down there,” Rippa said, looking over to Riot. “We’ll need every gun we can get capable of firing at the oncoming Scarab ships. The weapons on my mech can take them down if they get close enough.”

“We have two Firebreath A9s in the armory,” Vet said with his constant scowl that somehow seemed deeper at the moment. “We can send them with Rippa, who can dole them out to Killa and her army. There’re only two rocket launchers, but they’re the only weapons we have that are capable of taking down ships.”

“Do it,” Riot said, looking from Vet to Rippa. “Take your mech and the Firebreaths with you. We’ll hold the line with you from up here.”

Rippa nodded and moved to leave. She hesitated for a moment, then turned to look everyone in the eyes. “I realize I’ve only known you all for short time, but you all have my respect. No one dies alone. If we burn, then we all burn together.”

The strength and pure determination in Rippa’s voice quieted any response. She left the bridge, already on her way to her armored mech unit.

“Is it just me, or were her last words unnecessarily dark?” Doctor Miller shook her head. “I don’t want to burn. Do you want to burn? We could still win this fight.”

“We will,” Wang said from his seat beside her. “If anyone can, it’s us.”

“Evonne,” Riot said, ignoring the talk between Doctor Miller and Wang. “How much time do we have until the Karnayers arrive at the city?”

“Two minutes, perhaps more if they take extra time to coordinate their attack,” Evonne replied without any hesitation. Her new physical face looked at Riot, unblinking, like she was staring into Riot instead of just looking at her.

“Evonne.” Riot shook her head. “You’re going to have to blink when you talk to me. You’re really freaking me out with that deadpan stare. I have enough going on at the moment.”

“Oh, right,” Evonne said, batting her eyes as if she had a contact falling out. “Sorry, is this better?”

“Maybe a bit less. You—”

“We’re getting hailed by Colonel Harlan,” Doctor Miller interrupted. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off.”

“It’s okay. Put him on,” Riot said as she felt Rizzo maneuver the Valkyrie to the ground to let Rippa off.

The screen came to life a moment later and Colonel Harlan’s familiar face appeared on the ship’s bridge. “Riot, I see you’re already offloading your mech unit with the two Firebreaths you have on board. We already gave our two to Killa and the rest of the Trilords.”

“Yeah, at least we’ll have some help from the ground,” Riot said, trying to be optimistic even though everything in her body told her otherwise. “Even if they can take some of the fire off of us, it’ll help.”

“Agreed.” Colonel Harlan actually grinned. “You and your crew have the only experience of fighting the Karnayers. I thought you should be the one to set us right. I have the Karnayers making their approach in under two minutes now. I’ll put you on our main screen so my crew can hear you, as well.”

Riot licked dry lips, and the screen in front of her widened to a view of the Titan’s bridge. Nervous eyes looked back at her, waiting for her to give them the words of courage they would need to see them through the fight.

Fear, doubt, despair, and a dozen other feelings were crashing inside of her, begging her to be the person she once was before; the woman who allowed herself to succumb to her weaknesses, whether it be emotional or addiction, was fighting to be heard.

Riot wasn’t that person anymore.

“We can bet on the Karnayer Scarabs providing the main assault on us, as well as on the city. They’re fast but weak, and will probably try to latch on to our ships before they shoot us out of the air,” Riot said, standing up from her captain’s chair. “More than likely, the destroyer will stay in upper orbit, waiting for our reinforcements. We can expect transport ships coming in while the Scarabs keep us busy, and we’ll have to allow that, for now. The main priority is keeping the ships off of the evacuating city. There are kids down there.”

Riot took a breath. Her adrenaline was already beginning to flow with the promise of the fight to come. Talking was getting harder as her heart raced to meet the challenge. She took a brief moment, looking at her own crew, and then at the Marines on board the Titan.

“This is our time,” Riot said, adding strength to her words as her voice heightened in volume. “The Karnayers are expecting to roll right over us and destroy the city. I say we give them a fight they’ve never seen. I say we will hold this line until reinforcements arrive. I say it doesn’t matter how many they have on their side, because there is not a fighting force in the universe like the Marines. We hold to give the fleeing children of Hoydren time to live another day!”

“Oohrah!” the crew on the screen and her own Marines on the bridge shouted in unison.

“We hold for a future free of monsters!”

“Oohrah!”

“We hold for the brothers and sister besides us!”

“Oohrah!”

“We hold!”

“Oohrah!”

“We hold!”

“Oohrah!”

The intensity on the bridge was palpable, and Riot’s heart beat like a war drum. She had managed to get the words out despite the level of adrenaline pumping through her veins.

“We’re with you,” Colonel Harlan said. “Here they come. Don’t give them an inch!”

With that, the screen went back to showing a view of the dark night sky. Rizzo lifted the ship from the ground once more, having already set down Rippa and her mech.

“Before the party starts, I want you all to know I’ve had a blast traveling into space with all of you.” Riot couldn’t help a grin that twitched at the corners of her lips. “From Vet and his diapers, to Rizzo and Wang throwing up, from smearing what they thought were Ketrick’s ancestors across their face. Oh yeah, and Sunshine, you threw up, too, right? What was it? A big breakfast before travel?”

Her crew chuckled around the bridge as images brought from Riot’s words came to mind.

Here They Come, Rizzo said, writing big red letters across the screen, ones that disappeared a moment later.

Riot directed her attention to the main screen. Barely visible through the night sky, hundreds of Scarab ships screamed toward them.

“Did you have some party favors to give out?” Riot asked, looking over to Wang.

“I do.” Wang removed his stare from the oncoming enemy and went around placing three augmented epinephrine pens near each person on the ship. “Take them one at a time when you need a jolt of energy. It should feel like injecting espresso directly into your heart.”

“Awesome,” Vet said, placing his in a side compartment in the leg of his armor. “I freaking love espresso.”

Riot accepted hers, staring down the charging enemy. They had seconds before the conflict would begin. “Evonne, we’re going to need you to go to the armory and bring as many weapons as you can carry to the bridge. Bubbles, go with her—bring everything. When the Scarab ships latch on to us, we’ll need the firepower up here to keep them away from the bridge.”

“Gotcha,” Doctor Miller whispered as she tore her eyes away from the coming enemy.

Evonne and the doctor left the bridge at a run.

“Here we go, Wolves. Let’s do what we do best,” Riot said as Rizzo prepared to begin his defensive maneuvers. The ships were nearly within firing distance. “We’ve got the best pilot in the universe with us. Let’s bring the pain.”

Green rounds erupted from the first line of Scarab ships coming at them. Rizzo punched the thrusters, sending them above the first volley.

“Wang, take the main guns,” Riot shouted to her left. “Vet, I need you to work some magic and take whatever power you can from unnecessary features and put them into the shields.”

“Roger,” both men said in unison.

Wang let loose with the twin blasters on the Valkyrie that shot red weapons fire into the oncoming Scarab throng. Rizzo maneuvered the ship in the air like it was an extension of his own hand.

“Vet, it’s feeling pretty quiet in here,” Riot said to her XO. “Let’s hear some sound.”

Vet didn’t have to ask her what she meant. He took a minute to allow the sound from the blasts outside to enter the bridge before putting on a familiar song by a band named Rage Against the Machine.

The bass in the song added an extra layer of focus as the enemy ships screamed around them. There were so many Scarabs, it was impossible for Wang to miss.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Nearly every one of their shots hit an enemy, but for every ship that exploded, it seemed another took its place. Rizzo did his best to harass the ships, staying away from the bulk of the enemy as much as he could. But they were everywhere. Fighting the ships was like a dog biting at a swarm of bees; no matter how many they swatted from the sky, more came.

The Valkyrie shuddered as green blaster fire struck the ship’s shields. Riot gritted her teeth.

“Shields at ninety percent,” Vet said from his seat to Riot’s right. “I can pull some power to the shields from the non-essential ship operations, but it’s only a matter of time before they break through.”

“Do it,” Riot said, praying they would be able to hold out long enough for the Grovothe to arrive. “Whatever you need to do to keep her in the air.”

“Roger that,” Vet said.

Rizzo took them through a mass of Scarab ships that battered them with fire. Wang shot down another half-dozen. Their view over the Hoydren landscape turned from dark sky and foliage to one of the Trilord city. Scarabs were starting their attack runs over the city on the hill.

Red beams of laser fire came from the four Firebreaths stationed around the city. To Riot’s surprise and amazement, Rippa had positioned her mech on the very top of the square pyramid capital building on the top of the hill. Her mech was firing heated metal gauss rounds from both cannons mounted on its forearms, as well as the blue laser beam that came from its helmet.

Rippa’s location was perfect for gaining the attention of the Scarabs and directing them away from the main section of the city, but on the other hand, her mech was taking an extreme amount of enemy fire.

“Rizzo—” Riot said, cutting off her own words as her pilot read her mind and brought the Valkyrie over Rippa’s mech. Wang lit up another three Scarab ships as they passed over Rippa. Two of the Scarab crafts exploded right there, while the third spiraled out of control and fell, crashing down to the jungle interior.

“We’re back,” Doctor Miller said, gasping as she reentered the bridge. She carried Rizzo’s Vulcan in both hands, heaving it like an oversized piece of luggage. “How do you lift this thing when you’re fighting? It weighs more than … well, I don’t know how much it weighs. It weighs a lot.”

Evonne followed the doctor onto the bridge, her arms loaded down with everything from Destroyer T9 shotguns to Villain Pulse rifles and molten blades. The stack of weaponry was piled so high in her arms, Riot couldn’t even see her face.

“Did you make Evonne super strong, as well?” Riot didn’t take her eyes off the robot as Evonne gently placed the pile of weapons down beside Riot’s seat.

“As strong as Rippa’s mech, and blaster proof,” Vet said, maneuvering his hands around the holographic display that popped up at his station. “Shield is at seventy percent.”

The Valkyrie shook violently. Riot had experienced that feeling before, a few times. She knew what that shudder meant. Rizzo confirmed her suspicion with a quick line of text across the screen: Scarabs on the hull.


84

Roger that.” Riot jumped up from her seat. As she did, she saw Colonel Harlan’s craft, the Titan, flash by their ship’s window. They were giving more than they got, but they, too, looked like some kind of small animal batting away a swarm of gnats. “Vet, you take the guns and the shields. Wang and Evonne, with me.”

“What … what do I do?” Doctor Miller asked, looking on with wide eyes.

Riot motioned to the doctor’s helmet that sat beneath her chair on the bridge. “Get your helmet on and pick up that Vulcan you dragged in here. We’ll bolt shut the doors to the bridge. Anything that gets through, you light it up like it’s the Fourth of July.”

Wang transferred the controls to Vet before getting up from his seat. He slammed his own helmet down on his head before picking up a Villain Pulse Rifle from the stock pile. He placed it over his shoulder before grabbing a molten blade and a Destroyer T9.

“I … I don’t know if I can do this,” Doctor Miller said, shaking as she reached for her helmet. “I mean, I’m … I’m a scientist, not a soldier.”

Riot forwent the molten blade, but also picked up a Villain Pulse Rifle. She swung the weapon onto her back, along with her war hammer. Next, she grabbed the stocky grips of a Destroyer T9.

Another shudder hit the Valkyrie.

“We’ve got another Scarab ship right next to the first,” Vet said from his station on the bridge. “The first is already unloading soldiers. They landed in the training and weight room.”

“Got it.” Riot looked to a frightened Doctor Miller. She placed a heavy hand onto the woman’s shoulder. “You will do it, because you’re stronger than you know. You proved that in the Zenoth hive. You’re Vet’s and Rizzo’s defense. I know you won’t let them down.”

Doctor Miller looked at the men behind her who were busy at the controls of the ship, slowly nodding. She placed her helmet onto her head. “I’m not going to let anything happen to them.”

“I know you won’t,” Riot said, motioning to Wang and Evonne. “Let’s go.”

The two Marines and the robot exited the bridge.

“Evonne, seal the bridge,” Riot said, placing her still-purple-gore-stained helmet on her head.

“Done,” Evonne said with a light whoosh behind them as the bridge doors sealed shut.

“You don’t need a weapon?” Riot asked Evonne as she lifted the Destroyer in front of her as the trio made their way to the exercise room. “I know you’re blaster proof and all, but really, weapons help in a fight.”

“I’m not going to let anything happen to you or Corporal Wang,” Evonne said in such a matter-of-fact way, Riot believed her. “I have a physical body now. I’m going to shield you. The two of you can take cover behind me.”

“I think I’m in love,” Wang said through the comms in his helmet. “Is that weird?”

“Not now,” Riot said as she allowed Evonne to take point. She lifted the Destroyer over the right side of the robot’s shoulder. Wang did the same on Evonne’s left.

The group made their way to the exercise room without encountering any Karnayer soldiers, thus far.

“They are massing en force,” Evonne reported. “Perhaps they are waiting for another Scarab ship or two to make contact with our ship before attacking at once.”

“Well, let’s not give them the—”

The Valkyrie quivered again. Much more than it should have, had it only been hit by another round of enemy fire.

Vet’s voice came through the comms again. “Shields aren’t able to keep off the Scarabs, only the blaster fire. Two more Scarabs have connected to the hull right along side the first two. Shields at fifty percent and falling fast.”

“You and Rizzo worry about taking as many out of the sky as you can,” Riot replied. “We’ll take care of the Karnayer soldiers already in the ship.”

“Four ships now,” Wang said out loud. “Six enemies to a ship. That’s means we’re up against twenty-four alien baddies.”

The group rounded a corner. Down the hall and to the right, the door to the exercise room stood wide open.

“I think it’s time to take a hit of one of those epinephrine shots you hooked us up with,” Riot said to Wang. She had ignored the level of exhaustion and fatigue her body felt from not only being up all night but also already having fought a battle earlier that evening.

With her right hand, Riot reached for a compartment built into the right side of her leg armor. She looked down at what she was doing long enough to smell the purple gore on her armor and see the abuse her protection had already taken.

“Cheers?” Wang lifted his one blue vial into the space in front of his helmet. The vial looked like a test tube with a needle on one end and a thumb depressor on the other. “This probably isn’t a good time to warn you of the side effects, is it?”

“Side effects?” Riot repeated the words as she clinked one of the three epinephrine shots she had against Wang’s. “What side effects?”

“Oh, you know, the usual,” Wang said as if he were some kind of pharmaceutical commercial. “Severe itching in the nether regions, temporary loss of taste, swelling in your tongue, hard of hearing, dry eyes, club foot, hangnails, warts, a severe case of the mumbles, and anal leakage. There are some other ones I forgot.”

Boots slamming against the floor hall and shouts from the Karnayer troops interrupted whatever Riot was going to say.

“Do it, and if I get anal leakage from this, so help me God, Wang,” Riot said as she drove the syringe into a spot in her abdomen where a blaster round had left a small opening in her armor.

Riot pushed the plunger with her thumb. The feeling was a brief prick of pain, followed by the strongest rush of energy Riot had ever felt. It was like liquid electricity coursing through every inch of her body. Her eyes widened, her heart rate doubled, and she had the urge to move—and move fast.

The sensation came at the perfect time. The four Scarab ships full of Karnayers had gathered in force and came charging from around the corner. They came so fast, they nearly collided with Evonne who, true to her word, took a shield-like stance in front of Riot and Wang.

Blaster fire lit up the hall. The Karnayers opened up on Evonne, who waded through the green bolts of energy like she was some kind of bulldozer traveling though a hailstorm.

Riot’s trigger finger was a blur as she aimed around Evonne and mowed down the enemy with her Destroyer T9. The Syndicate weapon modified by SPEAR was like a tommy gun married to a Benelli shotgun. It sprayed a volley of red blaster fire at the enemy, chewing through their black armor and helmets.

The pure focus in Riot aided by the epinephrine shot made her duck and roll out of the way from the incoming fire. Although Evonne was taking the bulk of it, green blaster rounds were still managing to find their way to Riot and Wang.

“Use Evonne as cover,” Riot shouted into her comms as she ducked and weaved through the blasts. She sent another burst of fire that hit a Karnayer in the chest and sent him reeling backwards into his comrades. “Don’t let them catch you standing still.”

“What!” Wang shouted, still firing his own weapon and moving just as quickly as Riot.

“I said keep moving!” Riot repeated.

“What! Who’s chewing?” Wang shouted so loud into his comms, it made Riot’s ears ring.

Riot remembered one of the side effects of the augmented epinephrine shots being hearing loss. It seemed Wang was suffering one of the signs now. Riot wondered if anal leakage was coming next.

Watching Evonne wade into the Karnayers was epic. The robotic AI took blaster fire point-blank and kept moving forward. The Karnayers who lived past the initial engagement were starting to understand this black-haired woman who didn’t blink could not be taken down with their weapons. Instead of trying to push past her, they backpedaled down the hall, ducking back into the exercise room, around corners, and into doorways of other rooms.

Evonne stalked after them like a terminator on a search-and-destroy mission.

Riot and Wang followed, blasting at anything that moved.

Riot tracked along with her weapon at incredible speed. If she were capable of slowing down, she might have, but at the moment, the drugs screaming in her system demanded action.

BAM! BAM! BAM!

Wang took out a Karnayer peeking around the corner to their right. Riot took out two more on the left. A green blaster round caught Wang square on the helmet, sending him stumbling backwards. He struck the ground hard and didn’t move.

“Wang! Wang!” Riot backpedaled and knelt next to her corporal. “Wang, you have to get up!”

“What!?” Wang shouted back, sitting up from his spot. He reached for the Villain Pulse Rifle on his back as he readied himself to return to the fight. “Who? Has what?”

“Fight!” Riot said as she was struck in the torso and the right shoulder. She grimaced past the pain as the rounds took her breath away, causing temporary pain that her nanites would soon repair. “Fight!”

The remaining Karnayers were wising up to Evonne’s impenetrability and began changing tactics. Small disks the size of hockey pucks slid across the floor. They landed feet from Evonne, who was in the lead.

“Get down!” Evonne shouted as she spread her arms and legs, trying to create a larger shield between the explosive and the marines.

BAM!

Riot wasn’t really sure where she landed as she tried to struggle to her feet again. All she remembered was the grenades going off, then being flung into the air so hard she slammed through a door into the weight room, and finally sliding to a halt.

Neither Wang nor Evonne were in the room with her. Riot’s ears were ringing like they never had before. Her armor had held up well under the blast, but burning pain lanced around her body where her armor had already been exposed by previous shots.

Her Destroyer was gone somewhere, lost in the mix. She unslung the pulse rifle from her back to find it still in working order. As the smoke settled near the entrance to the room, a movement caught her eye. Riot rose to one knee, looking down the sight of her weapon. Two Karnayers were using a helmetless Wang as a shield.

Wang was bleeding from his nose and his lip. Swelling was forming and healing was taking place around his right eye as Riot looked down her scope. The Karnayer directly behind Wang held a small firearm to his head. The other behind the two pointed a rifle at Riot.

“Drop your weapon, or we’ll blow his brains into the next galaxy, human scum,” ordered the Karnayer directly behind Wang. “Do it—now.”


85

That was disappointing,” Riot said as she took a breath and aimed down her sights. “I thought I was just going to be able to shoot whatever came at me through the door. You know, kinda like when you get the mail, all excited something interesting might be coming, but it’s just bills?”

“What are you talking about?” the other Karnayer said through this helmet, as he pointed his weapon at Riot,. His voice sounded stressed, like he sensed some kind of trap. “Lower your weapon, or you both die—now!”

“I’m going to have to take a hard pass on that,” Riot said.

BOOM! BOOM!

The Karnayers behind Wang didn’t even have a chance. They fell at the same time as Riot’s two shots hit them, a millisecond apart. Her aim was perfect. Twin smoking holes had blossomed from the center of their helmets.

“You could have shot me!” Wang jumped away from the dead Karnayers, feeling his body with his hands for the signs of an entry wound.

“I was willing to take that chance,” Riot said, handing her weapon to Wang as she unslung her warhammer from her back. “Besides, you would have healed.”

“Not if you shot me in the face!” Wang yelled again, unable to hear how loud he really was.

“It would have been an improvement on your features.” Riot grinned under her helmet and moved past. “Want to take a look at the halls?”

Evonne stood over a pile of broken Karnayer bodies. Her clothing was ripped to shreds, circuitry showing under her skin in a handful of different places. Half of the skin on her face had been ripped away, along with her right hand. Underneath the fake skin, a metal skeleton reminded Riot of a machine. A series of sparks fell down Evonne’s back.

“The Karnayers are gone, but I seem to have taken damage from the grenade—seem to have taken damage from the grenade.” Evonne’s Australian accent failed for a moment as she spoke so slowly it sounded like a song on half speed.

“Riot, are you okay back there?” Vet asked over the comms. “We heard an explosion.”

“We’re still here,” Riot said as Evonne twitched and Wang pounded his right ear with his glove. “We’re okay-ish.”

“Good,” Vet said in a strained tone that worried Riot. “Because we’ve got trouble. We need you on the bridge, ASAP.”

“En route,” Riot said over her comms. She motioned for Evonne and Wang to follow. “Let’s go. Back to the bridge.”

“Why … why do you keep looking at me like that—like that?” Evonne asked Riot as she gave her a last glance before jogging back to the bridge.

“Because you’re doing that whole not blinking thing again,” Riot said, shaking her head. “And half the skin is peeled back from your face.”

Riot jogged back to the bridge with the AI and Wang in tow. She remembered how much Evonne had held true to her promise and took the brunt of the blow from the Karnayers, and a little voice inside her head that had somehow begun to grow in volume since she started the whole space travel thing told her she should say something nice.

“But you worked well as a shield,” Riot said, replacing her warhammer on her back and taking off her helmet. “I mean, for a robot, you did well.”

“Thank yo—thank you,” Evonne said, and if robots could sound happy, she did. “I’ll try to blink—I’ll try to blink more in the future.”

The energy from the epinephrine pen had died in Riot’s body now and the familiar fatigue had crept back in. It seemed Wang’s little miracle drugs shone bright, but not for very long.

“Why does everyone need freaking words of affirmation around here?” Riot said as she stepped next to the closed doors of the bridge. “Evonne, open the doors.”

Evonne stepped forward, still sparking from the wounds she had taken in the fight. The doors to the bridge opened a moment later.

“I am not a victim!” Doctor Miller opened fire with the Vulcan. A wild spray of red rounds careened all around Riot, Evonne, and Wang as the doctor let out a mild war cry that sounded more like a whimper.

A second later, Doctor Miller released her hold in the trigger and dropped her weapon.

“Oh, my gosh.” Doctor Miller tore off her helmet and ran to see if she had hit anyone. “I’m so sorry, Riot, I’m so sorry! I thought you were the Karnayers coming for Rizzo and Vet. I wasn’t going to let them get taken alive.”

“You were going to kill them?” Wang said from his spot behind Evonne, where he had taken cover when Doctor Miller opened fire. “That’s what that saying means.”

“Oh, gosh no.” Doctor Miller looked even more panicked than before. “I just mean I was going to protect them and not let them get shot in the back.”

Riot was about to lay into the doctor, when a shout from Vet drew her attention.

“I didn’t want to worry you before, but shields are at ten percent.” Vet gritted his teeth at his control panel. “Another shot, and we’ll be wide open.”

Rizzo still maneuvered the craft like the expert pilot he was, but it was clear the extra weight of the four Scarab ships in their hull were weighing them down. Riot looked out at the screen to see hundreds of the small Karnayer ships still permeating the night sky. A distant glow of the two rising Hoydren suns told her how close to morning they were.

“Can you send any more power to the shields?” Riot placed her warhammer by her command chair and took a seat. “How is the Titan faring?”

“I’ve sent everything I can to the shields already,” Vet said, grimacing as he looked over to Riot. “The Titan is in as bad a spot as we’re in.”

The Valkyrie shook again. This time, sparks flew through the air and a small fire broke out behind Vet’s command console.

“Shields are gone!” Vet yelled as he looked to the others still standing. “Strap in! The next hit is going to take us down.”

Wang, Doctor Miller, and even a sparking Evonne, obeyed Vet’s words and raced to find their seats.

Riot did the same, bringing the harness down on either side of her shoulders to a clasp that came up from the bottom of the seat.

BOOM!

The Valkyrie shuddered like a whale in its death throes.

We’re going down, Rizzo said over the main screen.

Riot’s stomach clenched, then raced up to her chest as the thruster in the Valkyrie died and the ship began to glide instead of fly.

“Rawww!” Vet still made use of the guns as he lit the night sky with red blaster fire. Riot saw him take out at least two more Scarabs as they went down toward the alien planet’s jungle floor.

Why didn’t you just go out on a date with him? Riot was surprised to have her final thoughts be on Ketrick. Because you’re still damaged goods from the past. Because you don’t want to open up again. Well, now you’ll never get to open up to anyone. Hope you’re happy.

The weightless feeling hit Riot again and snapped her out of her own train of thought while the Valkyrie continued to lose altitude. Rizzo, being the ace pilot he was, maneuvered the ship away from the city and toward the jungle to the south.

The ship scraped the tops of the jungle trees, its lush green-and-purple foliage just visible in the morning light. Riot braced herself for the impact, but her mind was now on her crew.

“Heads between your knees!” Riot yelled as the ship lost more altitude and began battering down the trees and shrubbery on the jungle floor.

The Valkyrie broke itself on the many thick trunks of the Hoydren jungle. It slammed into the ground so hard, Riot thought for sure she’d have cracked teeth. The Valkyrie continued to slide along the Hoydren jungle floor until it finally came to a stop at the base of a giant rock.

Riot blinked past the smoke coming from a dozen different fires on the bridge. Wires had been torn loose from overhead compartments, and sparking electric panels and fuses blown by the impact were hazards all on their own, but none of that mattered to Riot. Her crew needed to come first.

Smoke burned Riot’s lungs as she unhooked herself from her seat. She was lucky the Valkyrie had remained in one piece. Her view outside the front window was nothing more than the jungle interior.

Riot fell to the ground once her harness had been unlocked, still coughing from the smoke. A burning, itching feeling clawed at her eyes as she looked for her helmet. Somewhere in the event of the crash, it had been lost.

Out of the white-and-grey smoke, Rizzo came with an unconscious Doctor Miller in his arms. His eyes were watering, but he looked like he was in one piece.

Riot fought to her feet, keeping her head low to avoid as much of the smoke as possible. “Vet, Wang!”

“I’m here, I’m here!” Vet came in from her right. A metal piece of paneling stuck out of the right side of his body like an open panel showing off the inside of his guts. “I know, I know I have to take this thing out, but let’s get out of here first.”

The smoke was so thick, Riot couldn’t see far enough to her left to make out Wang and Evonne. She was almost on top of them when she found them. Evonne had taken a protective stance over Wang, shielding him from any further debris. Apart from a line of dark red blood that came from the left side of Wang’s head, he didn’t look any the worse for wear.

“On your feet.” Riot coughed into her hand as she led her group from the bridge. “Let’s get out of here before we all die of smoke inhalation.”

Riot grabbed Wang around his shoulders to help him out of his seat and through the Valkyrie to the cargo bay door.

“Evonne, are we in any danger of the ship exploding?” Riot asked as she blinked through the hot tears brought on by the smoke.

“No. The ship has undergone major damage; however, we are not in immediate threat of a—we are not in immediate threat of an explosion,” Evonne said as she walked with the others, impervious to the smoke. “I’ve also opened the exterior hatches and cargo bay doors to help with the smoke. I’m trying to get the emergency systems back online to quell the fires. They were diverted to the shields previously.”

“Good,” Riot said as her group reached the cargo bay doors. “I’m going to need you to gather our helmets and weapons while we get to the exit.”

“Of course—of course.” Evonne stopped mid-stride, looking at Riot while she blinked so many times, it looked like she had something in her eye. “I am so glad I have a body now so I can help you—help you better.”

“Yeah, okay,” Riot said as she and the rest of her unit made it to the jungle outside of the smoke-filled interior of the ship.

Riot let Wang walk under the power of his own two feet. He went to go look at Doctor Miller, who was still unconscious as Rizzo set her down to the right of the ship.

Riot spat the taste of charcoal and smoke from her mouth as her eyes took in the devastation. A deep landing trek had been punctured into the ground of the Hoydren jungle. As far as her eye could see, a lane of dark brown soil had been churned up by the downed Valkyrie. Foliage to either side of the lane burned as tiny flames tried to consume the dense brush of the jungle.

A scream lit up the sky as a unit of Scarab ships circled Riot and her crew. Four of the dark, pointed crafts hovered around her and her defenseless men.

Before Riot could decide whether to try to run back inside the burning Valkyrie, or to just stand there and give them the single finger salute, a roar filled the sky.


86

Riot already knew what the sound was, and despite her situation, a smile cracked her lips. The four Scarab ships hovering above her shifted in the sky as their pilots moved to meet this new threat.

Riot lifted her right hand to shield her eyes from the bright morning suns still cresting the horizon. Dozens of tiny dots formed in front of the bright light as flying beasts took shape.

“Riot, come in, Riot!” Colonel Harlan’s voice cracked over the comms. By the sound of his voice, Riot knew he had been trying to raise her for a while. “What is your status? We saw your ship go down.”

Thanks to the nanites embedded into Riot, she had access to communications, even without her helmet.

“I’m here,” Riot said, not taking her eyes off the scene of a dozen dragons joining the fight. A sense of joy and pride filled her heart. She couldn’t make them out yet, but she knew Ketrick and Vikta were leading the charge.

“What’s your status and, well … are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“Our ship’s out of commission, but we’ll make it,” Riot said, looking over at Wang, who was helping a now-conscious Doctor Miller into a sitting position. “And yes, I’m seeing what you’re seeing. Our allies have joined the fight.”

“Roger that,” Colonel Harlan said. His voice sounded half-stressed, half-full of wonder. “We’ve taken more damage than we have a right to. I don’t know how the Titan is still in the air. We’ve lost forward thrusters and have to set down inside the city walls.”

Riot understood what he was saying without actually saying it. Colonel Harlen and the Titan would not be able to make it to pick up Riot and her crew. They would have to trek through the jungle on their own, back to the city.

“Roger that.” Riot eyed the Scarabs that seemed uncertain what to do next. “We’ll make it back. You hold that city.”

The four Scarabs floating above Riot seemed to have received their own orders in the interim. As one, they raced toward the group of dragons, who were maneuvering through the air, turning their flames and claws on the Scarab ships.

“You there, Sorceress?” Ketrick’s familiar voice sounded in Riot’s ear. His voice was distant and strained, but strong.

“You joined the party just in time,” Riot said, unable to keep a smile from her lips. “Looks like you managed to convince a few of the dragons to join the fight.”

“We’ll hold them for as long as we can,” Ketrick grunted. Wind whipped through the comms, making his voice static-laced and almost unrecognizable. “I saw the Valkyrie go down. Get to the city.”

As much as Riot wanted to stay on the comms with Ketrick, she understood he was in the fight of his life. Even with a dozen full-grown dragons at his command, he was still vastly outnumbered.

“We’ll be fine,” Riot said. For a second, she considered not saying what she wanted to next. Who knew who might be listening over the comms? A second later, she was reminded of her regret as the Valkyrie crashed to the jungle floor. “You get yourself back safe. We have a date to go on.”

“Yes, we do,” Ketrick said.

Riot could picture the goofy grin on his face as he mouthed the words.

Evonne, returning from the smoking Valkyrie, tore Riot from her fond memories of the man she knew she was beginning to love.

“I gathered helmets, weapons, and as many supplies as I could carry—I could carry,” Evonne said, twitching as more sparks erupted from the back of her neck. “Shall I go in to collect more supplies—collect more supplies?”

“No, you did good,” Riot said, looking down at the pile of items Evonne had brought. She had carried as much as three Marines’ worth on her single trip. “Wolves, let’s gear up and head out.”

“Roger,” Vet grunted as he tore out the piece of blood-soaked metal from his leg.

Wang, Vet, Rizzo, and Doctor Miller grouped around the pile of supplies. Helmets were placed on heads, weapons checked, and supply packs shouldered.

While the group geared up, everyone’s line of sight was on the battle taking place in the sky. Ketrick had brought his dragons to bear on the enemy more than a mile from the Savage Trilord capital. Winged serpents ranging in color from burnt orange, to deep purple, to ebony black, maneuvered through the morning sky like no ship ever could. Fire erupted from their mouths. They caught Scarab ships in their claws and tore them apart.

The green blaster fire from the ships that managed to find the dragons did nothing more than infuriate the beasts. It seemed dragon hide was able to withstand even a ship’s blaster. How long the dragons would be able to battle against the overwhelming odds was something else entirely.

Riot placed her warhammer on her back and hefted a Villain Pulse Rifle. Sleep was something to be envied at the moment. With the city under siege, who knew when any of them would get their next chance for some shut-eye?

Worry and fear scratched at the back of Riot’s mind. She knew how to quell their screams of insolence, but there was an old enemy she still struggled with.

“Vet, see if you can get Sparky over here to stop repeating her words.” Riot nodded to Evonne, who was blinking like a maniac. “Wang, check out Doctor Miller one more time before we move out. Rizzo, hit up Rippa and tell her what’s going on.”

Riot moved back into the ship as her men began performing their duties.

“Where’re you going Riot?” Doctor Miller asked as she lowered her head for Wang to examine.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be right back,” Riot said, not answering the doctor’s question. She made her way up the open cargo bay ramp and through the now-less-smoky interior of the ship.

With the exterior ports open to allow the smoke to escape and the emergency system back online thanks to Evonne, the fires were now out with only the smell of smoke on the air.

Riot shoved out of her mind the idea of what she was about to do. Her steps carried her through the interior of the ship and to the mess hall, where she touched the screen of the food dispenser closest to the door. She cycled through the options until she reached the alcohol list and punched in her order for the mind-numbing liquid.

I just need one drink to set me straight, Riot said to herself. One drink will be fine, and I’ll be back outside. I deserve it. I need it.

A glass full of the amber whiskey appeared in the cove below the ordering screen. Riot’s mouth watered as her hand hovered above the cup.

Motion in the doorway to the mess hall made Riot shift her attention. Vet stood there with his ever-present scowl. His right eye wearing the metal eye patch was covered with black smoke that made him look like a pirate.

For a moment, Riot stared at Vet. Vet looked from the glass next to Riot, and then to her.

“Vet, I—”

Vet shook his head, looking down at the floor. “I just came to say that Evonne is ready to go, as well as Doctor Miller. Rizzo reached Rippa. Her mech is in bad shape, but she’s making do with what she’s got. I was going to see if you wanted me to grab anything else from the ship before we began the trek to the city.”

“Good,” Riot said, feeling heat rise to her face. If she was honest with herself, she was almost happy she was found out instead of having to sneak around. “I’ll be right out.”

“Roger.” Vet turned like he was about to leave, and then turned back, his scowl present while he stared down at the floor. “You’ve saved all of us now. All of us owe you our lives. Rizzo would be dead if you hadn’t pulled him out of that crashed chopper, Wang would still be in the brig, and I’d be in the ground, too, if you hadn’t saved me during the Afghanistan campaign.”

“Vet, you don’t need to bring up the past,” Riot said, wondering why her XO was talking about these events in the first place.

“I’m saying all of this because you’re the strongest person I know. By that, I mean Marine, alien, or whatever else we’ve come into contact with.” Vet’s single eye began to water like he was about to cry, yet his voice never faltered. “I’m saying this, because you’re the best person I know by yourself, without the help or comfort of anything. You’ve always been enough. Rizzo, Wang, me, even Doctor Miller, would die for you, because that’s the example you’ve set—you.”

Riot stood, thinking on Vet’s words and what they meant. The need for alcohol had dulled in the midst of the conversation.

“That’s … that’s all.” Vet really turned to leave this time, still not looking at her.

“Hold up. I’ll come with you,” Riot said, leaving the glass of whiskey untouched, still in the alcove. “And don’t give me too much credit for saving you from that anti-personnel mine. I didn’t save your eye.”

“It could have been a lot worse.” Vet grinned as the two left the mess hall and traveled back through the ship toward the rear cargo bay. “I could have lost a hand or a leg.”

“Well then, you could have just been a pirate for Halloween,” Riot said, covering the emotion she felt like she always did—with humor. “Hey, I bet we could get a new eye made for you. I mean, you would know better than I would, with the Syndicate tech we have. Would that be possible?”

Vet shrugged, rubbing his steel eye patch with his left hand. “I don’t know. I’ve kind of grown used to this thing. I like pirates.”

Riot couldn’t help laughing out loud as they exited the ship to join the rest of the unit. Her laugh died on her lips, however, as she saw the worry in their eyes.


87

Riot turned to follow their gaze. The fight in the sky was still taking place between Ketrick and the Scarabs, but the Karnayers were pushing a new frontal assault, not on the dragons or on the city, but offloading ground troops via their bulky transport ships.

The city lay behind Riot and her unit to the north, while the aerial combat took place to the south, and an armada of Karnayer transports were still making their way to the east. There was no way of knowing how many troops they were going to land on the ground, but by the size of the crafts, it looked like thousands.

The Karnayer transport ships weren’t as bloated as the ones they had taken down on the Zenoth planet of Raydon, though they were still massive, each as large as the Valkyrie with extra room in the cargo section to hold Karnayer soldiers or whatever other alien species they had bent to do their bidding.

We’ve got to make it to the city before the ground troops do, Rizzo signed. We’ll be caught out here if we don’t.

“I agree with my brother from another mother.” Wang turned his helmeted head to Riot. “We’re going to have to hump it to make it to the city in time.”

“Let’s do it,” Riot said, hating that the only thing to be done at the moment was running instead of fighting. “I’ll take point. Vet, you and Rizzo bring up the rear, with Doctor Miller attached to Wang’s hip.”

“May I take point with you?” Evonne asked, her white-and-grey uniform streaked with smoke and torn in a dozen places. The skin on her face was still peeled back, showing the metal underneath. She tried to smile, but it just looked like something from a nightmare about to chew Riot’s face. The manic blinking she did wasn’t helping, either.

“Yes, okay,” Riot said, irritated, as she placed her own helmet onto her head. She gripped her weapon and began a light jog down the lane of battered soil the Valkyrie had created as it slid to a stop in the jungle. “We really have to work on that blinking thing.”

“What? Am I doing it wrong?” Evonne asked as she kept pace with Riot. “Please let me know if I should be blinking a different way.”

“You’re blinking way too much. No one does that unless they have lint in their contacts,” Riot grunted as she kept her eyes open and ears alert. “Blink, like, once every ten or twenty seconds.”

“I’ll set an internal timer to do so,” Evonne said.

“Good,” Riot said as she ended the conversation and increased her pace. Her heads-up display was showing the distance of the Savage Trilord city still nine miles from their current location.

Riot took a look behind her and to her right to try to get a reading on how far back the Karnayer transport ships were landing. Her heads-up display rolled though information on a narrow column to her right. It said the transport ships were landing only two miles behind them.

Riot turned back to keeping a steady pace and sweeping the jungle in front of them for any threats. Hypothetically, they should have a clear shot back to the Trilord city, but tombstones were built on hypothetical situations.

“Cardio,” Doctor Miller breathed hard from the middle of the pack. “Why does there always have to be so much cardio?”

“Welcome to the Marines,” Wang said beside her. “I can’t remember a day we didn’t have some kind of run involved.”

Evonne stopped in her tracks, and Wang and Doctor Miller nearly ran into her.

“Let’s go, Sparky,” Riot said, also coming to a halt. She didn’t try to hide her annoyance. “Clock is ticking.”

Evonne stood still as though frozen in time, a very serious expression on her face.

“What’s going on?” Vet asked, arriving with Rizzo by his side.

“I don’t know,” Riot said with a shrug. “Your terminator just decided to stop in the middle of the run and take a breather.”

“We should run now,” Evonne said in a hard tone Riot had never heard from the AI before. “They’re coming quickly.”

“Who’s coming?” Riot asked, looking behind them at the shell of the Valkyrie. “The transport ships are still a few miles behind us.”

“The Karnayer troops are not the ones who will be able to catch up to us,” Evonne said quickly. “They have brought a species of apex predators capable of running great distances at high speeds. These creatures will catch us before we reach the safety of the city walls.”

GREAT, Rizzo wrote across everyone’s screens.

Riot stayed still for a moment longer before realizing Evonne had no reason to lie, and she had never been wrong in the past.

“Let’s go!” Riot motioned for everyone in the unit to go ahead of her. “Double time. I’m bringing up the rear. Vet, Rizzo, set a strong pace. Evonne, you keep talking. I want to hear how you know this and what we’re going to be dealing with. Move!”

At once, everyone began to run. A panicked calm was in the air only hardened soldiers could comprehend. They understood both the urgency of the situation and that they needed to rely on their training.

Riot pumped her legs as the unit ran forward. She chanced another look behind them. To her right, a shadow in the morning light caught her line of sight through the jungle foliage. Was it a shadow, or was her mind playing tricks on her now that she suspected they were being tracked?

Riot couldn’t be sure, but whatever she may have seen was gone now. Nothing showed on her heads-up display. It would have been impossible for anything to cover a stretch of two miles so quickly anyway. Riot directed her attention forward, focusing on the run as she listened to Evonne relay all of the information she had on the topic.

“As you all know, the Karnayers have traveled from planet to planet, weaponizing the fiercest warriors and creatures on each world they have visited,” Evonne said as she ran with the rest of the unit. Her voice never sounded exhausted despite the pace she was moving. She spoke as if sitting at a dining room table. “It seems they have offloaded a pack of apex predators called Osylots from their transport. These animals would be most similar to a cross between a tiger and a cheetah on your planet.”

“How do you know all of this?” Wang asked from his place in the middle of the group. “Are you guessing, or have you seen them?”

“I am still connected with the Valkyrie, and as such, I am able to tap into the ship’s long-range sensors. They have picked up the approach of the Osylots.”

“How many?” Riot said, concentrating on her breathing. She didn’t mind cardio, but she hated having these full-on conversations while she ran. She never understood how people were capable of running while still talking about their frappuccinos that morning. “How many Osylots do you see?”

Evonne ran quiet for a moment. A look of concentration passed through her eyes. “The sensors on the Valkyrie have picked up ten signatures, but there may be more. The Osylots possess a keen trait that allows their skin to meld with the colors of their surroundings.”

“Awesome,” Vet huffed from his spot in the front. “Hunted by camouflaged aliens. This is great.”

“Save your breath for running,” Riot gasped. Although their armor was made of lightweight material, running in the muggy heat of the jungle was far from easy. Riot’s cooling system worked overtime to keep the temperature even.

Soon, the Marines had reached the end of the dirt lane they had used to run, the one the downed Valkyrie had cleared for them through the dense jungle. Vet took the lead as the group was forced to run single file.

Strange birds chirped their alien cries. Something that looked like a monkey with massive, round eyes and a small, furry body gawked at them from a tree limb.

Look, Rizzo typed on his forearm as he ran. It’s Wang’s last girlfriend.

Riot couldn’t help chuckling, and Vet’s laugh also sounded in her helmet.

“Helen was a beautiful woman!” Wang’s voice was on the verge of frustration. “How many times do we have to go over this? It’s part of their culture; they don’t shave.”

“Helen had a mustache, dude,” Vet said.

“Helen was a beautiful woman,” Wang growled through the comms.

Riot could picture her friend’s face right now, and the image made her laugh again, despite the stitch in her side. The idea of stopping for a break crossed her mind, but as soon as the thought had appeared, she pushed it down again.

Riot ran at the back of her pack, searching the area behind them as often as she dared. The footing on the jungle floor was tricky, and more than once, she nearly fell as she scanned the closed-in jungle behind her. Every time she looked over her shoulder, her imagination would play tricks on her.

Bushes would move despite the lack of breeze, or the sound of something moving through the jungle opposite them would catch her attention. But each time, nothing showed on her heads-up display.

They ran like this for another half-hour, the sounds of the battle still taking place overhead between the dragons and the Scarabs becoming fainter and fainter the farther they traveled.

“I can’t … I can’t run anymore,” Doctor Miller gasped as she came to a stop. Hands on her knees, she bent over double. “Just … just a minute.”

“Evonne, how much longer to the city?” Riot studied the area behind her, getting the familiar feeling of being watched.

“Just under a mile,” Evonne informed her. “If it weren’t for the dense jungle canopy, we’d be able to see the city right now.”

“They’re out there,” Riot said more to herself than anyone in her unit. “I can feel them.”

“How come they aren’t showing up on our heads-up displays, then?” Wang asked as he passed a canteen to Doctor Miller, who took off her helmet and accepted the water gratefully. “What are they waiting for?”

“If they are cold-blooded creatures, they may not appear in the heads-up display. If they are moving in the jungle around us, there would be no way for the technology to track movements it cannot see,” Evonne explained.

“Oh, they’re here,” Vet said, backing up to where the rest of the unit stood in a circle. “You’re right Riot. My spider sense is tingling.”

“Your what?” Doctor Miller rose and placed her helmet back on her head.

“It’s an old movie reference. I guess a comic book before that, or something,” Vet said, peering down the sight of his Destroyer T9. “It’s about a bug boy.”

“They were waiting for us to stop.” Riot clenched her jaw, readying her weary body for another fight. She peered into the jungle depths, knowing the alien predators were out there, but still not seeing anything. “We hold this point to fend off their initial attack, then move toward the city in a box formation. Vet in the lead, Wang on the right, Rizzo on the left, and myself in the rear. Evonne, you and Doctor Miller in the center.”

Everyone moved into position.

Something rushed through the jungle on their left. A twig snapped to their right.

“Here we go again!” Riot roared over the comms. “It’s time to go to work.”

“Oohrah!” her Marines answered back.

Then the monsters came.


88

In seconds, it was as if the jungle had come alive to kill them.

Creatures painted in the same green-and-purple of the jungle trees and bushes leaped out at them from all sides. Evonne was right in her description of the Osylots. They were large, feline-like creatures with short hair, just bigger than cheetahs. They ran on all fours, but if they stood on their back legs, they would be as tall as humans.

Their multicolored tails were long and swung wildly behind them. One of the most chilling features about the monsters was that even when they attacked, they remained quiet.

Riot and her Marines, on the other hand, made enough noise for the combatants on either side of the conflict.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The War Wolves lit the jungle up with red blaster fire coming from their Villain Pulse Rifles, as well as the Destroyer T9 like shotguns Vet and Rizzo fired. Along with the sounds of discharging weapons came the crashing trees around them as rogue shots cracked trees and lit brush on fire.

In a fight that was taking place so close, Riot had to rely on her reflexes more so than her marksmanship. The Osylots were jumping from the brush on either side of them. Riot shot one of the creatures in the chest, one that would have crashed down onto her had she missed, and another in the face as it swiped at her legs with claws as sharp as knives.

A particularly large Osylot came at Wang from the side and bulldozed into him. A moment later, Wang’s red armor was completely covered by the creature’s bulk. Its chameleon-like shifting colors made it a beautiful and deadly sight all at once.

Before any of the Marines could move to help Wang, Evonne grabbed the creature with her bare hands, lifted it up over her head, and hurled it back into the jungle.

We should have given this chick a body a lot sooner, Riot thought.

With that show of strength, the oncoming Osylot attack paused for a moment. Bodies from more than a dozen feline creatures smoked at their feet. Riot could only imagine the smell they let off. If not for their helmets cycling clean air, Doctor Miller and Wang would probably be vomiting again.

“You all right?” Riot leaned down and helped Wang to his feet. “Did it puncture your armor?”

“I … I think I’m okay.” Wang looked down at himself, checking his legs and arms.

“Rizzo,” Doctor Miller said in a panicked voice. “Your face!”

Riot turned her attention to her pilot. One of the Osylots had gotten close enough to the Marine to swipe a claw against the left side of his helmet. Long scratches had etched their way into the metal, but as far as Riot could tell, had not punctured the helmet’s dome.

I’m good to go, Rizzo typed into the keyboard on the back of his left forearm.

“Let’s move before they regroup and come at us again,” Riot said. Her thoughts were already on the rest of the drop ships the Karnayers had flown to the planet. There could be hundreds, maybe thousands, of enemies in the jungle by now.

It was also possible the Osylots had been sent ahead to slow them down long enough for Karnayer soldiers to reach them.

Riot and her team traveled through the jungle in the box formation. All their senses were on overdrive as they swept the jungle for any signs of the enemies they knew to be there. But whether they had killed most of the Osylots or the alien felines had been called back, they did not attack again.

With another ten minutes of jogging, the Marines made it to the main road leading to the capital city of the Savage Trilords. The Trilords at the gate leveled blasters at them when they emerged from the jungle foliage.

“Hold your fire,” Queen Revna’s familiar voice ordered from the top of the wall. Despite her age, her voice carried the strength any general would envy. “It’s our allies. Open the gates!”

Riot was shocked to see the queen, Ketrick’s mother, out of the capitol while her city was under attack. She wore steel-and-leather armor over her dark skin. Her long, white hair was put into dreadlocks behind her head. She carried a thick staff with a blaster affixed to the top end.

The colossal double doors to the city opened as Riot and her Marines finally reached the supposed safety of the gates.

The queen traveled down from the top of the wall to embrace Riot.

Riot removed her helmet, extending her right hand to the queen. Revna brushed it aside and wrapped Riot into a hug. Growing up without a mother had made Riot more than awkward around elderly members of her same sex, especially when it came to hugs.

“It is so good to see you again, and safe,” Revna said as she pressed Riot harder. “One day you will understand what it is like to see young warriors return safely from combat.”

“Uh, yeah—” Riot raised her right hand around Revna’s large back and gave her a few quick taps with her palm. “It’s good to see you, too.”

Revna finally removed herself from the embrace. If she noticed Riot’s awkwardness around the hug, she didn’t show it.

“You all fought like a hundred in the sky,” Revna said to the rest of the Marines under Riot’s command. “You must be tired and hungry. Come with me.”

Revna moved swiftly through the city and up the hill where the capitol building stood. Two guards, with dragon tattoos marking them as the queen’s personal guard, moved with her.

“Should you be out here right now?” Riot said, taking a look at the signs of destruction around the city. “I mean, you need to stay safe in order to lead.”

“Would you hide from a fight?” The queen’s eyes sparkled with stores of wisdom. “Leaders lead from the front, Riot, you know that.”

Riot nodded along with the queen’s words. Despite her feelings to want to keep the queen safe, she understood exactly what Revna was talking about. Riot would never ask her crew to do something she wasn’t willing to do herself. As the queen of the Savage Trilords, Revna had the same philosophy, only on a much grander scale.

Despite their efforts to keep the city safe, bombed-out buildings dotted the town, along with rubble strewn on the ground. Smoke from fires only recently extinguished dotted the city. Trilord warriors moved tirelessly to make sure any warm embers had been completely put out.

From what Riot could see, a good quarter of the town had been razed. This fact hadn’t seemed to faze the queen. She walked boldly back to the pyramid that stood on the top of the hill, speaking words of encouragement to those she passed. What’s more, she seemed to know all of her warriors by name.

“Get some rest, Sloan,” Revna said to a muscular, shaven-head Trilord who carried buckets of water in each of his hands down the city hill. “You’ve been at it all night.”

The Trilord bowed his head to his queen.

“Noe,” Revna said to another tall Trilord carting a load of weapons to the front gate. “Eat something, even if it’s a duckhole, before you fall down. That’s not a request.”

“Yes, my queen.” The Trilord nodded and continued on his way.

“The Trilords will run themselves into the ground before they stop fighting,” Revna said to Riot. “As I’m sure you would, as well.”

Riot blinked, trying to keep them open even as the queen made her statement.

“We’ll do what needs to be done to be the last one standing,” Riot said, looking past the city to her left where Ketrick still battled with the ships, keeping the Scarabs at bay. “Your son is holding them back, but they have troops in the jungle now. We need to be prepared for a ground assault at any moment.”

“Oh, I think we can expect a break in the fighting soon,” Revna said as they reached the top of the hill and the pyramid that stood sentry. The square stone pyramid separated in layers was battered and scorched.

More than a handful of pockmarks showered where the Scarabs had landed shots, and though the stone was strong enough to hold up against most of the fire, there was a spot on the south side about halfway up that had crumbled. A small crater stood out. Another spot near the top where Rippa’s mech unit stood showed signs of damage.

As they got closer, Rippa’s mech unit began to slide down the pyramid side, level by level.

Then, something Revna had said caught Riot’s attention. “Why do you think there will be a break in the fighting soon?”

“Because our allies have arrived,” Revna said in the matter-of-fact, faithful way Riot had heard Ketrick speak so many times before. “You, my son, every warrior human, Trilord, or other has done enough to stay the hand of destruction.”

Riot squinted through the bright morning light to try to catch any sign of the approaching Grovothe ships. There were no large vessels on the horizon, only the swooping, swirling fighting going on between the dragons and the Scarab ships.

Riot was about to open her mouth, when Rippa made the final descent down the pyramid wall in her mech. The ground shuddered as the machine came to a halt in front of them.

Unlike the pyramid, Rippa’s mech had not fared so well. The dark armor on her mech was dented, and sparks burst out of a spot around where the left leg of the mech connected to the rest of the body. The torso was caved in and the right arm of the unit looked like it was attached by only a few hoses.

The unit opened with a hiss. The pilot seat was stationed in the torso. As the hatch opened, a slender ladder rolled down. The red-haired Grovothe wasted no time in dismounting as she talked wildly.

“Riot, everyone, you guys made it!” Rippa jumped the last few feet to the floor. Bags hung under her eyes, but the fire of war shone bright. “I was just about to get you over the comms. They’re here. Admiral Tricon and the Dreadnaught are entering orbit. We did it!”

Riot couldn’t help her mouth falling open as she turned to Revna. The queen gave her a small smile and a wink.

“Look,” Vet said, shading his own good eye as he searched the skyline. “There, to the south, just past where the dragons are still fighting.”

All eyes followed Vet’s gaze as they, too, searched for the sign of hope they had so desperately been fighting to see.

Riot shaded her own view as her tired eyes fought the bright light of the twin Hoydren suns and tried to see what Vet was talking about. Then, like a steel angel descending from the heavens, the Dreadnaught started as a tiny black pinpoint. With each second, it grew in size, until the large ship was visible. Its steep lines and sheer bulk made it look just as intimidating as any Karnayer class destroyer.

The Scarab ships swirling around the dragons thought better of their position and retreated to the east, where the transport ships also lifted off the jungle floor and departed.

“Where’s Alveric and the Trilord destroyer we saw earlier?” Doctor Miller asked, a question everyone was thinking. “Why didn’t they try to intercept the Dreadnaught?”

There was a brief moment of silence before the queen answered.

“They have their troops on the ground now. This has all been a distraction to get their ground forces in a position to strike,” Revna said with steel in her voice. “One way or another, the next battle will be the last.”


89

The food that was sent to Riot’s room while she bathed tasted better than anything she had ever stuffed into her mouth before. Maybe it was the fact she was so hungry, or the idea that she was still alive and able to enjoy the food. Either way, the meat tasted glorious, and the warm bread stuff, like manna from Heaven.

Sleep was going to have to wait. Thanks to the temporary lapse in attacks by the Karnayers, Riot and the rest of the alliance had an opportunity to catch their breath. The idea now was for a strategy meeting to be held.

With Admiral Tricon landing his forces on Hoydren and Ketrick pulling his dragons back, a new plan of attack needed to be discussed. It was decided a war council would be held in the pyramid palace building in thirty minutes. That gave Riot thirty minutes to wash herself and feed her face.

Showers didn’t seem to be an option, but luxurious baths, on the other hand, were readily available. Riot soaked in the warm, ceramic tub, trying to ignore what was on her body. When she stripped off her armor, purple flakes of gore from the Devil’s Hand had come off with it. That, along with the smoke smell and her own sweat, had been enough for Riot to want to burn the armor. But she would need to don her gear at least one more time before all of this was over.

The room she sat in was one of the chambers facing the outside of the pyramid. In front of her, a slanted wall with a window showed a view of the open jungle spreading out to the south and east.

Next to her was a tray of food, and one with cleaning supplies like soap, something that looked like a long sponge, and three seashells Riot had no idea how to use.

Soon, the hot, clear water turned soapy and then to a grimy color as the filth left her body and was washed into the bathwater.

I just need an hour of sleep, Riot’s muddled mind thought as she was enticed to slumber by the warm water. Just an hour of sleep.

Riot’s eyes were closing of their own accord, when a harsh knock echoed into her room.

“I’m awake, I’m awake!” Riot’s eyes snapped open as she forgot where she was for a moment and jolted upright in the bath. “Who is it?”

“Only a lowly prince come to see the mighty warrior who stayed the main force of the Karnayer horde,” Ketrick’s voice echoed through the door. “I brought you some clean clothes, and I’m going to take your armor to be washed and repaired.”

“Just a minute,” Riot said, standing from her bath, grabbing a towel, and drying herself off. She was in the middle of wondering how Ketrick was so energetic when the answer struck her. “Ketrick, have you been drinking more coffee?”

“Can I come in?” Ketrick asked from the opposite side of the door.

“Yes.” Riot stepped out of the tub and wrapped the towel around her damp body.

Ketrick opened the door. It was clear that he had not taken the time to bathe. He stepped into the room still wearing the same gear he had charged the Devil’s Hand with. Black smoke marks smeared his face, slimy blue guck clinging to him. In his right hand, he carried a clean uniform, and in his left, a tall cup of steaming coffee.

“Colonel Harlan managed to land his craft, and his mess hall is still working.” Ketrick handed Riot the Marine uniform he had also taken from the ship. “Why didn’t you tell me there were so many kinds of coffee? Espresso, cappuccino, cocaine.”

“Hold on, take it easy there,” Riot said, accepting the clothes with a shake of her head. “Cocaine is not a kind of coffee. Where did you even learn that word?”

“Brother Wang was talking about it like it was something to be used to stay awake,” Ketrick said with a shrug as Riot took another gulp of his coffee. “Anyway, I’m glad you made it back safely.”

“Yeah, you, too,” Riot said, exhaling. Feelings like she had never felt before were causing her to say words she had never said before. Instead of being sappy, though, she redirected the conversation. “How did you get the dragons to come help you? Were any injured when you fought the Scarabs?”

“The dragons, as you call them, love this planet just as much as we do. When they understood the threat, they agreed to send their best warriors to help. Vikta also played a large part in convincing them,” Ketrick said, grabbing Riot’s armor with his free hand. He lifted the gear like it was a toy. “We lost two today. Their hides are near impenetrable, but their eyes and certain parts of their wings where their skin is the thinnest are susceptible to injury.”

Riot noticed the downcast eyes, the slump in Ketrick’s shoulders as he said these words. For the first time, she saw past the false caffeinated front he was putting on and realized how weary he really was.

Riot went to him and lifted his face with her right hand so he would look into her eyes.

“They died protecting something they believed in, like you or I are willing to do, as well,” Riot said with a small smile. “They died a warrior’s death so we could live, maybe to one day do the same for others.”

“Careful.” Ketrick smiled his fangy grin. “You’re starting to sound like me.”

“I know,” Riot laughed, dropping her hand from his face. “I realized that while the words were coming out of my mouth. Who am I?”

“I’m going to give you a hug,” Ketrick said, and before Riot could move, the Trilord wrapped his massive, dirty, sweaty arms around her.

“I just took a bath!” Riot screamed and laughed at the same time. “I don’t even want to move. I’m just going to get even dirtier. What’s with you and your family giving hugs, anyway?”

Ketrick released her a moment later, a smile cracking his own lips. He took another long swig of the coffee. “Listen, I know we talked about waiting, but after the meeting, I’d like to take you out on our first official romantic getaway.”

“Ketrick, we’re in a war zone,” Riot said, stealing the coffee mug from his hand and downing a long swig of the hot liquid. “And we’re going on our second day of no sleep.”

“Tomorrow may be too late.” Ketrick walked to the door and looked back with a smile. “Let’s make the most of this lull in the battle.”

“All right”—Riot took another gulp of coffee—“but something quick. We’re going to need to sleep if we’re going to face the Karnayer forces.”

“Agreed, Sorceress,” Ketrick said, closing the door behind him.

Riot busied herself getting ready. Her weary hands buttoned her uniform while she guzzled the strong coffee in between preparing for the meeting. When she exited her room a few minutes later, Killa was coming down the hall to collect her.

“You look tired,” Killa said to Riot with a worried sideways glance.

“Thanks, thanks for that.” Riot rubbed at her eyes. “It’s because I am. We fought through the night. Has there been any word on Karnayer movement since they landed?”

“None,” Killa said, motioning for Riot to follow her down the halls of the Trilord pyramid. “It would worry me, but there can only be one logical explanation.”

“And that would be?” Riot asked trying to keep pace with the long-legged female general.

Killa led Riot to the end of the hall and down a series of stairs to the main floor. Her silence was strange. Riot knew she had heard her question and it wasn’t like the Trilord to be rude.

Finally, she answered. Her voice was full of worry. “They’re waiting for something. The only thing that it could be is for the remaining forces from Earth to arrive.”

“Wait, that doesn’t make any sense,” Riot said, thinking out the strategy behind her scrunched brow. “Wouldn’t they want to attack now while our forces are divided. Unless…”

Riot and Killa stopped by a set of tall doors leading into a side chamber. Killa turned to Riot, nodding. “Keep talking. You’re right in what you suspect.”

“Unless they are so sure of victory, they want to kill us all at once. They don’t want to be engaged with us on this front, only to have General Armon drop out of hyperspace and attack them from the rear,” Riot said out loud, although at this point, she was speaking more to herself than to the Trilord leader. “Alveric’s one cocky son of a gun.”

“There may be more to his plan, but I suspect you are correct in your assumption.” Killa placed a large hand on the door handle and swung the door open. “After you.”

Riot entered the room where Queen Revna, Colonel Harlan, and Admiral Tricon stood talking on the other side of the chamber. As far as the rooms in the pyramid went, this was more of a mid-sized boardroom. On the bottom level, it was located somewhere on the left side of the pyramid. Long windows along the left wall allowed late morning light to splay inside the room. The area was bare, with only a few chairs wreathing a long, oval table.

Queen Revna turned with a smile. “You’re right on time. My son, on the other hand, is late. He should be arriving soon, shouldn’t he?”

“I, uh, I mean, why would you ask me? How would I know?” Riot said, the words tumbling out of her mouth like a high school-aged student caught playing hooky. “I was bathing and dressing in my room.”

The queen gave Riot a look that said, I know exactly what happened, but let’s move on.

“Good to see you whole,” Colonel Harlan said from his spot next to the Grovothe admiral. He and Riot traded salutes. “When I saw the Valkyrie go down, my first instinct was to go after you. The thrusters in the Titan were gone, though. We were barely staying off the ground.”

“I understand,” Riot said, joining the group, with Killa at her side. “We made it back in one piece.”

Riot turned to salute Admiral Tricon next. The shorter, bearded Grovothe looked dashing as always in his pristine uniform. He replied with a salute of his own.

“Thank you for coming,” Riot said to the newest member of their alliance. “I know the Trilords aren’t technically approved allies of the Grovothe yet. You could have stood down if you wanted to and just looked the other way.”

“Others may have.” Admiral Tricon nodded along with Riot’s words. “But we share a common enemy, and we are stronger united. I have it on good authority that the Trilords will be listed as our allies soon. It took a small act from the Allfather to get Earth acknowledged as allies so quickly. I suspect more than a few on our homeworld see the wisdom in a united front.”

The doors to the meeting room banged open, and Ketrick ran in. His long, black hair was still wet. He wore the traditional Trilord clothing of long pants and boots, greaves, and no shirt.

If there had ever been a gathering of more different beings in the universe, Riot would love to see them.

“Admiral, Colonel, Mother,” Ketrick said to the heads of the alliance before turning to Killa and Riot with a grin.

“Good to see you once more,” Admiral Tricon cracked through a thin smile. “I just arrived and have already heard about your winged attack on the Karnayer Scarabs. That took courage.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” Ketrick returned the nod. His smile soon faded into a frown. “It had to be done. Two winged brothers gave their lives to buy us the time we needed.”

“I understand.” The admiral sighed heavily. “I’m afraid victory against Alveric and the rogue House of Karn will entail more sacrifice from all of us.”

The room grew quiet as everyone took a moment to consider how true the admiral’s words really were.

“Shall we begin?” Queen Revna motioned for the group to gather around the oval table in the center of the room. “It’s time to plan the greatest war this planet has ever seen.”


90

My mech squads should take front positions on the walls when they come.” Admiral Tricon looked down at the table where Killa had spread a cream-colored map. “I’ll leave them here under Major Rippa’s command and take the fight to the Karnayer destroyer orbiting the planet.”

Riot’s eyes raced over the map, tracking the admiral’s words along with what she was seeing in front of her. The Trilord capital was on a hill with the dense jungle extending to the south and west. To the east was flat, then rolling lands that led to the Brute faction, while the north extended miles through rough terrain before a massive mountain range marked the end of the map.

“I wish I could join you, but the Titan is out of the fight.” Colonel Harlan looked down at the map, shaking his head. “The Valkyrie is out, as well. Until General Armon gets here with our space force from Earth, you and Ketrick’s dragons are our only weapons in the sky.”

“We’ll hold them until your general arrives.” Admiral Tricon stroked his grey beard. “We’ll play defense until then. Once the force from Earth arrives, we can concentrate on blowing that destroyer out of the air.”

“We have a great chance of ending the Karnayers here.” Ketrick crossed his arms over his massive chest. “We can’t let them escape.”

While the others were discussing the placement of troops and strategy, memories of the conversation Riot had just had with Killa played back in her mind. She looked over to the Trilord commander, and the two shared a troubled glance.

“We should anticipate we’re doing everything they want us to do,” Riot said, bringing all eyes around the table up to her. “They have creatures fighting for them from every corner of the universe. Creatures they’ve captured and bent to their will. We’ve come up against a few of them already. Who knows what Alveric unloaded in the jungle?”

“You think he wanted all of this to happen?” Queen Revna asked.

“It would seem that he wants us all here together, humans included, in order to kill us in one fell swoop,” Commander Killa said, nodding to Riot. “We should be prepared for anything.”

A moment of silence passed over the room as each of the minds in the chamber thought on Riot’s and Killa’s words.

“Admiral Tricon has the most experience of fighting the Karnayers, and the tactics the Karnayers use,” Queen Revna said, looking over to the shorter Grovothe. “I’m willing to have you take the lead on this conflict.”

“Thank you,” Admiral Tricon said as he looked over at the others around the table. “We keep the plan simple and play defense until the rest of the force from Earth arrives. Then we reassess. If the Karnayers have still not attacked, then we take the fight to them, with myself and General Armon attacking through the air. The Trilords and my mech units will take the ground forces through the jungle. I can even afford to send some Grovothe shock troops with you, as well.”

“The War Wolves aren’t going to sit by,” Riot said, looking over to Colonel Harlan. “I don’t think any Marine plans on doing that.”

“You bet your ass.” Colonel Harlan grinned at Riot. “If and when it comes down to an attack, we’ll be there, leading the charge. Tip of the spear.”

“Then it’s decided.” Ketrick rubbed at his weary eyes. Naturally red, it was hard to tell how tired he really was. “Defense, until it is time to go on the offensive.”

“Let’s get what rest we can,” Queen Revna said, dismissing the room. “I think the next time we have a lull in the fight, we’ll either be the victors or have much larger issues to deal with.”

The room emptied, with Admiral Tricon talking with Colonel Harlan about troop strength and what forces General Armon would be bringing with him. Killa and Queen Revna stayed behind in the room, talking in low tones about their own troops and placement of the city defenses.

But fatigue was muddling Riot’s thought process. She knew she should be thinking of a hundred other things at the moment, but right now, only three things could occupy her mind: the state of her team, sleep, and the mischievous grin Ketrick had plastered across his face.

“Before you pass into a sleeping coma”—Ketrick motioned for Riot to follow him—“I have something to show you.”

“Will do.” Riot stifled a yawn and rubbed at her eyes. “Sorry, I’m still up for our date. Let me just check in on the rest of the squad. I’ll follow you.”

Ketrick nodded along with Riot’s words as he led her through the pyramid and to a stairwell located in the corner of the structure. The pyramid was empty for the most part, with servants turned into soldiers and more than likely guarding the walls or preparing for another attack.

“Evonne, can you patch me through to Vet?” Riot asked the AI via the nanites that connected her to everyone else.

“Right away,” Evonne responded at once. “You are now connected.”

“Thanks,” Riot huffed as she followed Ketrick up multiple flights of stairs. Trying to keep pace with the Trilord prince was nearly impossible. Wherever he was going, he was excited to get there. “Vet, can you hear me?”

“But I want to wear the pretty dress tonight,” Vet responded in a mumbled tone.

Riot scrunched her brow, trying to figure out what was happening. “Vet? Vet, can you hear me?”

“You promised I could be the ballerina tonight.”

“Vet, wake up!” Riot said, finally understanding what she was listening to. “You can be the ballerina when we get back to Earth. Today you’re a Marine!”

“What! Who? Riot?”

“Vet, pull yourself together, man,” Riot said, holding in a chuckle. “What’s your status?”

“Oh, right, sorry,” Vet said with a yawn. “Rizzo, Wang, and I are bunked up. Doc wanted to get a few reports in. Evonne is taking care of repairs on our armor and weapons. Rippa went to speak with the admiral and make repairs on her mech.”

“Roger that,” Riot said, nearly tripping on another step. She looked down at the army of switchback stairs she had just climbed. She was about halfway to the top of the pyramid. “Get as much sleep and food in you as you can handle. One way or another, this fight is going to end soon. We’re on notice to get back into the action when the Karnayers attack, and if they don’t, we’ll be mounting our own offense when General Armon and the rest of the fleet arrive.”

“Copy,” Vet said over the nanites. “We’ll be ready to roll when the time comes.”

“I know you will,” Riot said. “Now get back to your dreams of being a ballerina.”

“What?” Vet sounded half-panicked, half-ignorant to what she was talking about. “I don’t want to be a ballerina.”

“Hey, man, we all have our secrets,” Riot said as Ketrick looked back at her with a wide grin of his own. “I’m not judging you.”

“Dance is a highly respected art and takes years of training,” Vet said, catching himself close to admitting something. “If … if I wanted to be on Broadway, which I don’t.”

“Whatever you say, Twinkle Toes.” Riot didn’t say anything else. There was a silence on the other end, signaling Vet had signed off and was going back to sleep.

Riot’s brow was beginning to perspire as she and Ketrick crested the last set of stairs leading to a hatch-like entrance placed into the top of the pyramid.

Ketrick reached up and opened the latch. The final floor of the stairwell was located directly in the middle of the pyramid.

Riot had to look back at how far they had come to understand that the stairwell they climbed actually sent them on a diagonal path from the corner bottom floor of the pyramid to the center top of the structure.

When Ketrick opened the hatch, a brilliant light made Riot wince. She looked at Ketrick through tired eyes, managing to raise an eyebrow in his direction. “Look, Muscles, this is cute and all, but a girl’s got to get her sleep if she’s going to take on the bulk of the Karnayer army soon.”

“Trust me,” Ketrick said as he winked. He climbed up the few ladder rungs set into the wall and hoisted himself out of sight.

A moment later, Riot followed, grabbing onto the rungs as she pulled herself to the rooftop. What she saw took her breath away.

Ketrick stood at her side as the two looked out on the Trilord city and the surrounding landscape of Hoydren. They were on the very top of the square pyramid, more than a hundred feet in the air. The square landing pad they stood on was no more than a twenty-by-twenty block of brick. Scorch marks and pockets of debris marked the area like acne on a teenager.

This was the place where Rippa had made her stand inside her mech when the Karnayers made their run on the city.

Twin suns beat down warm rays on Riot, but this high up, a cool breeze ran past her body and played with her short, dark hair.

While Riot was still taking in the scene Ketrick was busy unpacking a large basket of what looked like pillows and blankets.

“I’m not much of a cuddler,” Riot said, moving over to help. “Where did all of this stuff come from, anyway?”

“Perks of being a prince is that you can ask servants to do strange things, like arrange for there to be a canopy and a pile of blankets and pillows on top of the capitol building, and they run to fulfill your request,” Ketrick said as he erected a square awning with white metal poles and a blue fabric top. “And you’re in luck. I’m not a cuddler, either.”

“If we make it out of this thing alive,” Riot said, grabbing a handful of blankets and pillows to place under the shade, “you’re in trouble.”

When we make it out, you mean.” Ketrick plopped himself down onto the makeshift sleeping area. “You mean when we make it out, and I happen to like trouble.”

Riot lowered her guard, something that was becoming slightly easier with practice. She took a spot next to Ketrick, her left shoulder and arm rested against his right. The blankets underneath her and the pillows against her head nearly swaddled her in an embrace of sleep.

“You did good, kid,” Riot said to Ketrick as she placed her hand in his. “I can’t remember the last time I held hands with anyone. I feel a little like an awkward teenager right now. Ketrick? Uh, Ketrick?”

Riot looked over to see the Trilord prince fast asleep his mouth wide open and a line of drool rolling out from the corner of his left lip.

Riot couldn’t help grinning to herself. She gave his hand a squeeze, then rolled over onto her side. Sleep came for her instantly, a nightmare only a half-step behind.


91

Riot had a feeling there had been more to her dream leading up to this point, but whatever it had been wasn’t making itself known. All there was now was a nightmare she had relived over and over and over again since it had taken place in college.

It was the moment that had begun her descent into true alcoholism, the moment that had set her on a course that would lead her into the Marines.

She and the man she thought she loved had been drinking. Through his inebriation, it had come out that he had cheated on her. An argument was about to take place, one where Riot would find herself on the ground, stars bursting across her vision after he’d struck her.

Unlike previous nightmares, Riot was actually herself in this dream. He was standing in front of her, spewing out reasons why she wasn’t good enough, calling her names.

It was about to happen.

“Well, I’m done with you,” Riot said as her eyes swam with tears. “We’re over.”

The strike came like it had come a million times before. In her dreams or in her waking memories, it was always the same. A right cross connecting with the left side of her chin. Riot was powerless to do anything to help her former self besides sit in her own body and watch it happen.

She fell backwards, the tang of metallic touching her taste buds as though it were an old friend.

As Riot fell backwards she struck her head on the hard wooden floor of his apartment.

She lay there stunned. She knew what was coming—a thousand apologies and tears from the man she didn’t even really know. He would beg her to take him back, blame the strike on an accident, then the alcohol, and then beg some more.

This is where Riot would burst into even more tears. She’d get up and walk out on him forever. These events would haunt her until she’d buried them down deep. She’d focus on drinking and her career as a Marine in the years to come.

But something was different now. This time in her dream, Riot actually had control of her body. A feeling of strength and contentment started in her left shoulder and slowly coursed through her body.

For whatever reason this time, she wasn’t doomed to repeat the events, only watching out through her eyes like a caged captive. Riot lifted herself off the ground. She waved his hands away. She spat blood as he continued to apologize and try to gather her in a hug.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Gertrude,” he said with panicked, drunken eyes. “I don’t know what happened. We can fix this.”

Riot massaged the left side of her face where his clumsy strike had hit her. She was still in awe that she actually had control of her body at this point.

“Gert, are you okay?” He came to her again, trying to touch the area on her split lip where blood still gushed. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

His right hand reached for her face. Riot grabbed his pointer and middle fingers with her left hand and cranked them to the side so hard she felt his fingers break right before his entire body followed in that direction.

“Ahhh!”

It felt good to hear him scream. In fact, it felt great.

Riot still wasn’t sure why this time she had been granted the power to control her body, but she was loving the freedom it brought with it. Tears, not of pain or sorrow, filled her eyes.

“You—you—” He struggled to his feet again, his inebriated state dulling the pain of his broken fingers. A madness crossed through his eyes as he collected himself from the floor and charged. “You made me do this!”

Instead of side-stepping his charge, Riot crouched against his larger frame and leveraged him back a few steps like an offensive lineman. She grabbed both his arms and sent the crown of her head into his nose, once, twice, three times just for good measure.

Crimson red oozed from his broken nose. From both nostrils, the blood splattered everywhere. His pressed suit and tie were soon dyed red by his own bodily fluids. Riot released him as he slumped to his knees, dazed.

“You did this,” Riot said, looking down at his swaying form. “This wasn’t my fault. This was never my fault. Or maybe it was. Maybe it was on me for letting myself ever give you a chance. Either way, I’m done now. I’m not going to let your memory handicap me for the rest of my life.”

“Gert, Gertrude!” He grabbed on to her right hand, unable to rise from his knees. “You’ll be back. You’re mine. You belong to me.”

Riot grabbed his perfectly combed hair and lifted his already blackening eyes to her own. “My name is Riot.”

Riot drove her right knee up into the bottom of his chin so hard his head snapped back. He fell to the wooden floor, motionless.

The feeling of happiness and closure that had started in her left shoulder was stronger than ever, and more hot tears splashed down Riot’s face. Even in her dream state, she knew something special had just taken place.

Riot woke, lying on her right side. How long the smile had been on her face was impossible to tell. Tears of happiness streaked her chin.

Ketrick’s steady breathing was constant behind her. During the course of their nap, he, too, had rolled onto his right side. His left hand had found its way to her shoulder, his large palm placed gently on her.

Riot wiped her eyes and rolled over onto her left side to look at the Trilord Prince. His hand slipped down from her shoulder as she moved. He opened his red eyes, looking into hers.

Sleep still clouded his eyes he gazed at her. “Have you just been watching me while I slumber, Sorceress?”

Ketrick yawned, showing off his long, canine teeth.

“I don’t know how that translates on your planet,” Ketrick said with a mischievous grin, “but here on Hoydren, that would indicate you care for me. That, or you are plotting to kill me in my sleep.”

“I think we’ll keep you around a little longer.” Riot leaned in and pressed her lips against his. “We need someone to control the dragons when the Karnayers come.”

Ketrick moved into a sitting position. “How long have we been asleep?”

Riot moved to sit next to him. She followed his gaze to where Hoydren’s twin suns set in the distance, their bright rays just now sinking under the horizon. Noise this high up was almost non-existent. Far down below, Riot could hear the faint voices of guards and soldiers doing their part to prepare for the fight to come.

“General Armon will have arrived by now.” Riot stood up, stretching. Memories of her dream came back to her, for once vivid and clear. “We should get down and see what needs to be done. If Alveric and the House of Karn don’t attack soon, I imagine we’ll be on the offensive shortly.”

Ketrick stood beside her, reeling in her gaze from the setting suns that cast a red glow on the sky far above.

“Were you crying? Are you all right?” Ketrick asked with nothing but genuine concern.

“Yeah,” Riot said, smiling over at him. “For the first time in a very long time, I can honestly say I’m all right. But one way or another, a fight’s coming. It’s time to reel in touchy-emotional Riot and bring out the beast. You know what I’m talking about.”

“I do,” Ketrick said, leaning down and kissing her on the forehead. “Just give me one last moment with my Riot before you lock her away.”

Riot felt his warm lips touch her skin. She let herself be vulnerable for a moment longer.

BOOM!

Riot was ripped from the moment of comfort, her eyes darting to where the noise had come from. Far below and to the south of the city, a plume of smoke rose through the dense jungle brush.

BOOM!

The same sound came again, shattering the silence, even at her current altitude. Riot strained harder to see what could be causing it, but just like before, only a plume of dark smoke rose up from the jungle floor.

BOOM!

A third explosion erupted, right next to the first two. A third curl of smoke rose into the darkening sky.

“What are they doing?” Riot asked, straining to see, willing herself to see something in the distance.

“I don’t know, but it’s not good.” Ketrick’s eyes were full of worry. “Let’s go.”

Riot and Ketrick ran down the same stairs they had ascended when climbing to the top of the Trilord pyramid.

The few hours of sleep Riot had taken with Ketrick had been truly amazing. Whether the nanites aided in her body’s repair, or maybe her muscles and joints were just grateful to get a handful of hours of sleep, Riot didn’t know. Either way, she felt refreshed and ready to enter the fight once more.

Riot tapped into the nanites that acted as her comms as she took stairs two at a time with Ketrick. “Evonne, report. What’s going on out there?”

“It seems the Karnayers have begun their assault, or at least the preparation to do so,” Evonne answered back in her even, matter-of-fact way of speaking. “Should I have the rest of the team meet you somewhere with armor and weapons?”

“Yes,” Riot said as her mind went down a mental checklist of places to gather her men and change into her armor. “Have them meet me at the entrance to the pyramid. I want to check in with General Armon and Colonel Harlan before I get ahead of myself.”

“Understood,” Evonne answered. “I’ll let them know.”

Riot and Ketrick finally reached the bottom floor at a run and raced through the ground level of the pyramid.

The booming in the distance neither grew in volume nor became more rapid; it was just a constant boom that somehow brought a feeling of dread.

Ketrick and Riot almost ran right into Rippa and Admiral Tricon as the two Grovothe headed for the main throne room in the palace. Each of the Grovothe wore a look so serious, Riot didn’t even want to ask what they knew.

“I know I’m going to regret this, but—” Riot looked from Rippa to the admiral. “What’s out there? What have the Karnayers brought with them now?”

“Abominations,” Rippa said, swallowing hard. “They’ve brought Abominations.”


92

Maybe just lie to me for a second,” Riot said, trying to prep herself to hear whatever it was Admiral Tricon and Rippa knew. “Tell me they brought some kind of mutant kittens with them.”

Admiral Tricon either didn’t understand Riot’s humor or was too focused on what he was doing next to joke. “We’re heading to Queen Revna’s throne room now where General Armon and Colonel Harlan are waiting. The general came in north of the city a few hours ago but insisted we let you and your squad rest. He said we’d need you at your best very soon.”

“Good to know,” Riot said, falling into step with Admiral Tricon and Rippa as they headed to meet the others. Riot looked over at Rippa with a raised eyebrow. “Abominations, huh? Worse than the Devil’s Hand? Who comes up with these names, anyway?”

“I am unsure.” Rippa shrugged. “Someone with a lot of time on their hands. But the Abominations are … not like what we have seen before.”

“Well, that just makes me feel all warm and tingly inside.” Riot sighed. “Just tell me they bleed. If they bleed, we can kill them.”

Before Rippa could give Riot an answer, they reached the door leading into the palace room. The massive doors were wide open, giving them a clear view of Queen Revna speaking with General Armon.

The two broke off their conversation as Riot and her party entered. General Armon and Riot traded salutes.

“From everything I’ve heard, you’ve done one heck of a job here. I’m sure I’ll be reading all about every detail from Doctor Miller soon in a report the size of an encyclopedia,” General Armon said to Riot with a nod, his perfect, graying buzz cut intact, and as military as ever. “I didn’t want to wake you when we arrived. You and your team deserved the downtime. I wish I could give you more.”

“We’re ready to roll out whenever you need us, sir.” Riot returned the nod to the general. “I think Admiral Tricon and Rippa may have information on the noise coming from the jungle.”

All eyes in the room swung over to the two Grovothe. Admiral Tricon traced the scar on the right side of his head, as if by touching the wound, it would bring back memories of the aliens they now faced.

“Alveric is deploying Abominations across the battlefield.” Admiral Tricon looked past everyone in the room as if he were seeing, somewhere against the far wall, the events he now explained. “I’ve only encountered them once before. I didn’t think Alveric would have been entrusted with the Karnayer unit. The Abominations are like the Karnayers’ ultimate weapon. This is why Alveric wasn’t worried about allowing us to gather en masse. He wanted all of us together to unleash the Abominations on us all at once.”

“What are they?” Riot asked. “What are the Abominations?”

“Something half-dead, half-machine, brought to life by magic.” Admiral Tricon snapped out of his distant memories with a start. “One of them gave me this scar when I was a corporal in the Grovothe shock troop division. We were sent out to investigate a dead planet. There wasn’t supposed to be life there. All of a sudden, we were getting pings of energy readings. I was sent in with my division and what we found there were … monsters, more machine than organic.”

“Anything can be killed,” General Armon said in a soft but stern tone. “Were there any weak points on these Abominations? Where did they come from? What weapons do they use?”

“They’re not an alien species,” Admiral Tricon said, back to his normal gruff self. Whatever memories had been dredged up by the mention of the Abominations had been locked down once more. “They were experiments done by the Karnayers on the dead. They melded machine parts to dead beings and somehow brought them back. When we engaged them, they just kept coming. They cut my unit to shreds. They walked through blaster fire like it was nothing more than rain.”

“How did you get out?” Queen Revna asked.

“We called for heavy artillery drops once we evacuated the war zone.” Admiral Tricon cleared his throat. “We lost more than half the unit for nothing. Archangel transports picked us up, and we sent orbital strikes covering the entire area. When we went back in, they were gone. There was nothing left—no body parts, no machine parts; they just disappeared. We told ourselves we had destroyed them in the orbital strikes, but I think everyone who was there had an idea that they could have escaped.”

“Air support will be difficult,” General Armon said, looking at everyone in the room. “They’ll know that we’ll counter against these Abominations with strikes from the sky. Alveric will move against us with his fleet as soon as we take to the air. He doesn’t even have to beat us in the sky; he just has to keep us busy enough to allow his ground forces to overrun the city.”

“With respect, sir,” Rippa said, turning to the admiral. “I’ve never met an enemy that could stand up against a squad of mech warriors. Let me lead the mechs we have left and stand with the city.”

“Not even a question.” Admiral Tricon’s eyes shone with fire. “Don’t mistake my memories for defeat. We’re going to give the House of Karn a fight. My resolve has not changed. Rippa leads the mechs, as well as a ground contingent of Grovothe shock troops.”

“We’ll see how we fare against the Abominations.” General Armon looked to Queen Revna and Admiral Tricon for consent. “If we’re in danger of being overrun, then we take to the sky and fight it out there.”

“Alveric will be doing the same,” Ketrick said from his spot beside Riot. “He’ll hold his fleet in check, waiting to counter our move if we try to perform bombing runs on his ground troops.”

“We have the intel Admiral Tricon has given us about the Abominations, but we should have eyes on the targets as soon as possible to monitor their movement,” Riot said. “Let me take the War Wolves out into the jungle and get eyes on target. We’ll be better equipped to defend against them if we know their exact force size and movements.”

Ketrick opened his mouth like he was about to protest, but was silenced with a stern stare from Riot.

“Agreed.” General Armon looked to the queen and the admiral to make sure there was no opposition to the plan. When they nodded, he continued. “Take your crew into the jungle and report back. We’ll stay here and prepare to defend the city.”

“Roger that,” Riot said, saluting, and turned to leave the room. Ketrick and Rippa fell in stride beside her.

“I’m not letting you go alone,” Ketrick said in a hurried whisper. “This could be a trap. Alveric has to know we’d send a force out to gather intel.”

“For once I agree with the oversized child-man.” Rippa had to lightly jog to keep up with the other two. “This is a dangerous plan.”

“Listen,” Riot said, traveling through the doors of the room and heading for the entrance to the pyramid where her gear and unit would be waiting. “I’m not asking you two to come. My unit is more than capable of lying on our bellies and viewing the enemy through a pair of binoculars. We can handle this.”

“I need to go grab my weapons,” Rippa said, ignoring Riot’s words. “I can meet you in a few minutes. Don’t leave without me.”

“As do I,” Ketrick said without pausing for Riot to respond. “I’ll be back before Rippa. Her tiny, child-like legs do not accommodate fast travel.”

The Grovothe and Trilord went off in opposite directions before Riot could reply. A part of her was grateful to be surrounded by friends unwilling to allow her to brave the threat of the jungle at night. On the other hand, she wished they would let her go by herself. There was no need to put everyone in danger. If it were an option at all, she would have volunteered to go take a look at the Abominations herself, leaving her unit behind, but she knew General Armon would never go for that.

Riot reached the entrance to the pyramid as the last light of day died to the coming darkness. A million and one stars twinkled overhead in the clear sky. The giant moon that reigned over Hoydren’s night seemed brighter than ever.

So, what’s the word? Rizzo signed. Let me guess: We’re going to go see what that ominous booming sound in the jungle is.

“You’re smarter than you look.” Riot grinned, looking at her men and Evonne, who stood next to them carrying Riot’s armor and weapons. “You all geared up and ready to go?”

“Good to go,” Vet said, dusting off the shoulder of his own armor. “What’s the plan?”

Riot chose a place to change just inside the pyramid entrance, where the alcove would protect her from two sides. She immediately went to work undressing to her underwear and accepting the armor Evonne handed to her. The AI stood right in front of her, blocking her from any prying eyes.

Vet, Wang, and Rizzo turned their backs while Riot changed and explained the plan. “Word on the street is those booming sounds in the jungle are the Karnayers unloading their apex soldiers called Abominations. We’re to go in, not engage, and collect as much intel as we can.”

“Abominations, huh?” Wang said, shaking his head. “Why can’t we ever go up against an enemy called the ‘puppy people’ or ‘butterfly beauties’?”

“That’s what I said.” Riot grinned as she pulled her boots on.

A patrol of Trilords walked by, nodding to the men, then trying to get a look past them at a changing Riot.

“Nothing to see here. Move along, move along.” Vet scowled at the larger alien species with his one good eye. “Keep going.”

“Hey, my eyes are up here, perverts.” Wang extended his arms to try to make a larger shield to block Riot. “You’ve never seen a woman change before?”

Rizzo ushered the amused Trilord patrol along with a wave of his hands.

“Some people,” Vet huffed.

Riot smiled to herself as she grabbed her warhammer and placed it in the holder on her back. The handle of the weapon stuck up over her right shoulder. The armor that had been torn and punctured a few hours before had now been repaired.

Evonne handed Riot her helmet, as well as a Villain Pulse Rifle. “I brought your normal gear; however, now that I understand the mission is to be a recon trek, perhaps I should have brought a rifle with a more powerful scope, such as the Longshot 1000 Corporal Vetash seems to prefer.”

“This will be fine,” Riot said, accepting the weapon. “Our helmets will be able to zoom in for us, and Vet has the sniper rifle. We can use his scope if we need to.”

“Understood,” Evonne said, stepping back from Riot now that she was fully clothed.

“All right, Wolves,” Riot said, placing herself in front of her crew. “I know it’s not really our style, but we’re going to do this quietly. Into the jungle, gain intel, and then we’re out. Oohrah?”

“Oohrah!” Vet and Wang said at once.

Rizzo pounded his right fist against his chest.

From around the corner of the building, Ketrick appeared, with Rippa right behind him. The larger Trilord held his signature staff blaster weapon in his right hand, face smeared with blood-red paint.

Rippa wore light combat armor with a heavy blaster in her hands. The weapon looked like a rocket launcher on crack cocaine.

“In and out, no fighting, we were never there,” Riot repeated for Ketrick and Rippa’s sake.

“My middle name is stealth,” Ketrick said while he twitched his eyebrows up and down.

Rippa rolled her eyes as the group headed down the hill for the city gates. All around them, human, Trilord, and Grovothe were working side by side to prepare the city for an attack.

Grovothe mech pilots ran to their twenty-foot suits of armor, making last minute checks. Trilords stored water around the city in strategic places to put out fires.

Marines manned the walls and fixed stationary weapons on the battlements and on the tops of buildings and structures to repel the attack.

Nods and waves were exchanged from nearly everyone who saw them pass, regardless of their alien species. Word had spread through the ranks of both aliens and Marines about the insane Riot and her War Wolves.

“This is how it should be, right?” Wang said out loud. “I mean, everyone working together, regardless of background, race, or religion.”

“It should be this way,” Ketrick agreed. “But it seems only in the very worst of times will beings be willing to put aside their differences. It takes a catastrophic event such as this before we can see through the veil of hate and judgment.”

“If we could always work like this, imagine what we could accomplish,” Vet said.

Riot took a moment to reflect on their words and agree. They were right. It seemed not only Earth, but also the universe was a distrusting and judgmental place. How far could they come if they put that aside and judged people on their actions instead of on the preconceived notions of what they must be.

“All right, guys. You’re all getting too deep for me,” Riot said, placing her helmet on her head. “Eyes open. Here we go.”


93

The dense jungle interior was made worse with the time of day as evening advanced. Riot led her unit with Wang. Ketrick, Rippa, Doctor Miller, and Evonne walking in the middle, while Rizzo and Vet brought up the rear.

Strange sounds in the jungle soon took precedence over the sounds of the booming coming from the Karnayer troops. A dozen smoke curls still lifted into the sky, but the constant noise that had heralded their arrival had finally silenced.

Alien chirps and howls drifted to Riot’s ears from the jungle night life. Some animals had gone to sleep, while other nocturnal creatures were only beginning their day.

Aided by the night vision option in their heads-up display, Riot was able to see into the darkness like it was as bright as day.

“Do you think we can rename them?” Wang asked as he traveled by Riot’s side along a rarely used trail Ketrick knew. “Why do we have to call them Abominations? Let’s ratchet down the creep factor and just call them Smoochies or PLDs.”

“What does PLD stand for?” Riot asked.

“Poor Life Decisions,” Wang explained. “I mean, come on, we can call them whatever we want, right?”

“I guess,” Riot said with a shrug, her mind less on the conversation and more on the jungle around her. “Whatever floats your boat.”

“Maybe I should wait to see them before coming up with a cute name,” Wang said, speaking more to himself than anyone else. “Or I could just call them bit—”

“Projected distance to the smokestacks is just under a mile,” Evonne said via the units’ comms. “We should be able to get a visual on them soon.”

“Right,” Riot answered before she began doling out orders. “Vet, take Rippa, Ketrick, and Rizzo along the right. Find a spot to hole up and gather as much intel as you can. Remember, do not engage. We are here, observing only.”

“Roger that,” Vet said over the comms as he and those with him peeled off to the right.

Ketrick caught Riot’s eye and gave her a wink before he followed Vet.

“Let’s get off the trail and head into the bush.” Riot looked over to Evonne and Doctor Miller, who followed behind. “Wang, you bring up the rear; Evonne and Cupcake in the middle.”

Wang immediately turned to take up the rear position as Riot led the group deeper into the jungle. The brush was so thick at times, Riot had to turn sideways. Vines hung down from trees whose roots travelled over the ground like a swarm of snakes.

Leaves ranging from the size of raindrops to cymbals made seeing harder than Riot imagined. At this point, they would be able to hear the enemy before they saw them.

Riot was right. Within a few more minutes of travel, a dull hum met their ears. It sounded as out of place in the jungle as an elephant at a high school. Only then did Riot realize the sounds of animal life in the jungle had completely died; only the hum remained, and with it, a sense of despair.

It sounded like an overpowered electrical grid teaming with energy. Riot lifted her hand to the others following behind her, then gave the sign for them to stay while she went on.

“I don’t understand those hand signals,” Doctor Miller whispered over the comms. “What do you want us to do?”

“I want you to be quiet and stay here,” Riot growled.

“Oh, right.” Doctor Miller and the others squatted down on the jungle ground. “Sorry.”

Riot focused her attention on moving forward. With her Villain Pulse Rifle out in front of her, she carefully crossed the terrain. She made sure to keep her feet off any branches or leaves that would sound a crunch. She came around a massive tree as wide as Ketrick and as tall as Vikta. On the other side, she got her first look at the Abomination horde.

Riot’s stomach clenched. She hunched down, making herself as small a target as possible. A newly made clearing had opened up in front of her. Jungle trees littered the ground, while others had been carted away, creating a staging ground for the Karnayer army.

Large transport ships lay in a line at the rear of the gathering, with an army of creatures lined up in front of them. These aliens had to be the Abominations Admiral Tricon was talking about.

They were stationed in a dozen square uniformed ranks right in front of the transport ships. The smoke that still rose into the air was due to what looked like chimneys in the center of each transport ship. The smoke rose high into the sky, as noises like hammering came from deep within the bellies of the ships.

Normal Karnayer soldiers dressed all in black patrolled the perimeter here and there, but the real threat was the Abomination soldiers. They were what looked like corpses from dozens of alien species. Some were short and thick like the Grovothe, others were tall like the Trilords. Some were huge beasts built like bears, while other were short with six arms.

Despite their different organic appearances, they had all been equipped with metal appendages. Some had metal parts covering their heads and torsos, and others had steel arms and legs, while still others seemed as though they were almost entirely machines save for a single eye, an arm, a leg, or a shoulder.

The inhuman hum came from the standing Abomination army. Not a single one of the soldiers moved, but the sound still emanated from the centers of their bodies like some kind of inhuman choir lending their voices to a macabre hymn.

Each one of the Abominations shared the exact same green glow that came from their eyes. Whether their eye was machine-made or organic, a dull, green glow Riot had become familiar with emanated from their eyes.

Magic is controlling them somehow, Riot said to herself. These Karnayer sons of biscuits have figured out how to meld machines with the dead and bring them together using magic.

“Are you seeing this?” Vet’s voice came over the comms. His tone was one part wonder, one part determination.

“I’m seeing it.” Riot’s eyes roved over the gathered horde. “There has to be thousands of them.”

“Thousands of zombie terminators,” Vet breathed. “Check out their skin. The organic parts that are left are decomposing and rotting into their machine hides.”

Riot zoomed in. Vet was right. Whatever organic pieces of the Abominations that remained were rotting and withered.

“I’m counting twelve groups of about a thousand each,” Riot said over the comms. “What’s your count?”

“Same,” Vet answered. “Don’t forget the Karnayer soldiers or the hammering coming from the insides of the transport ships. They’re making something in there, and it can’t be good.”

Riot’s eyes drifted back to the open transport doors, where the smoke and harsh rings of iron workers hard at their craft sounded out.

“Riot,” Vet’s voice came through, stressed, “I think—”

Boom! Boom! Boom!

The previously quiet night erupted with shots coming from Riot’s right where Vet and his unit peered through the foliage. Bright green and red bolts flashed through the night.

The Abomination soldiers closest to the conflict hummed to life. As if they shared a single thought, they charged into the jungle’s interior toward Vet and the rest of the unit. Rippa’s blue weaponsfire and Ketrick’s yellow blaster rang out with their booms and thumping sounds, respectively.

“Vet! Ketrick!” Riot yelled over the comms. Her yells would have been dampened by the weapons discharging two hundred yards to her right. “Anyone—do you copy?”

“Riot.” Ketrick’s voice yelled over the comms as he struggled for breath. “Run!”

No freaking way, Riot thought. No chance in hell am I leaving them behind.

Riot pushed her way back through the dense jungle foliage, heart beating in a quick deep tempo. She reached Wang and the others a moment later. Her heads-up display painted the waiting trio in a light as bright as day.

“You heard everything over the comms,” Riot told the three nodding heads. “Bubbles, head back to the city and tell them a force of Karnayer and Abomination soldiers twelve thousand strong are on the way. Wang, Evonne, with me.”

Riot didn’t wait to see what their reaction would be; there was no time. Instead of waiting to hear a response, she crashed back into the jungle depths, headed for the location where she had last seen Vet and the others.

The fighting had intensified to the extent that there were no further pauses in weaponsfire, just a steady stream of loud explosions echoing through the jungle.

“Rippa, Rizzo, Vet, Ketrick,” Riot said through panting breaths. “Do you copy?”

No response.

A moment later, the exchange of weaponsfire died.

The turn of events made Riot add speed to her strides. She ripped through vines that tore at her armor and over bushes seeking to impede her progress. She could hear Evonne and Wang crashing through the foliage behind her.

A second later, Riot burst into a clearing still smoking from the fire fight that had taken place a moment before. She was just in time to see Vet and Rizzo caught in a stranglehold by a massive Abomination with meaty hands and a domed head. Rippa lay unconscious, being dragged back to the Abomination lines by a pair of Karnayer soldiers, while Ketrick was on the ground, struggling to regain his feet under the onslaught of a dozen Abominations of varying sizes and races.


94

Evonne, get Vet and Rizzo.” Riot leveled her Villain Pulse Rifle and opened fire on the Abominations surrounding Ketrick. “Wang, get Rippa out of here.”

Her aim was perfect. She hit an Abomination between its green eyes with a burst of fire and took another one in the chest with a shot that should have been enough to kill anything.

Instead of her targets falling over dead, they redirected their attention from a bloody Ketrick at their feet and moved to intercept Riot.

“Run!” Ketrick screamed, spitting blood from broken lips. “Riot, run!”

He was only wasting his breath, and somehow, Riot thought he knew that. She wasn’t going to leave him or any of the soldiers under her command. If they were going down, then they were all going down together.

The Abominations ran at her, corpses that were part decaying alien and part machine. Riot pressed her finger on the trigger, going full auto. Red weaponsfire splashed across her targets. Her weapon opened up charred holes when she hit a portion of the Abominations’ flesh and was absorbed when it hit their armor. Still, they came.

No screams or cries of war left the lips of the Abominations. Only the same dull hum of constant energy. Riot wasn’t sure if that was actually scarier than hearing the grunts or roars from her enemies.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Evonne and Wang having more luck than she was at the moment. Evonne had managed to free Vet and Rizzo, who fell gasping to the ground. The AI was using pure strength as opposed to a weapon to overcome the Abomination.

Wang was up against a pair of dark-armored Karnayer soldiers that could actually be killed. Two well-placed bursts from his weapon and they were corpses smoking on the jungle floor.

Riot said a silent prayer, grateful that at least her counterparts had succeeded. The Abominations running at her moved out of the way for those among their order who carried blasters. The weapons had been fitted into the machine parts of their bodies on their arms or up from their shoulders. These weapons seemed to be nothing but random fittings of blasters or blades.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Riot sent a salvo of red rounds into any and every section of the charging figures she thought may be susceptible to fire. She hit one in the neck, another in the kneecap, and a third in the eye.

Her attempt seemed to only piss off the Abominations as they continued toward her. Those enemies with blaster-equipped weapons fired at Riot. Green rounds struck her in the abdomen and her left leg.

“Rrrrrrr…” Riot grunted as she went down to one knee. The entire time her gaze never left the targets rushing toward her. Despite her best efforts, the most she managed was to make one stumble as a round collided with its left ankle. “Die, you sons of biscuits!”

They were about to reach her. Knives, blades, and claws extended toward her, along with a dozen different alien appendages that reached for her face.

Here we go again. Riot dropped her Villain Pulse Rifle and reached for her warhammer that sat in its place across her back. Why can’t anything be easy?

The steady hum coming from their bodies was the only thing heralding the charge of the Abominations.

“Come on!” Riot screamed, doing her best to get herself psyched for the fight. “Get some!”

Mere feet from colliding with the Abominations, a stream of searing hot fire erupted in front of Riot. A wall of flames burst to life, separating Riot from the dozen Abominations in front of her. A handful of the half-corpse, half-machines were even caught in the flames, their organic parts melting off their steel frame.

Riot looked up as a whoosh of wings reached her ears. Vikta’s massive figure was on an upward swing before the dragon turned back for another pass.

“I had them!” Riot yelled at the dragon. There was nothing but joy in her voice despite her words. “I had them just where I wanted them.”

Ketrick was limping his way around the wall of fire on Riot’s left. Wang and Evonne were doing the same thing on the right. Rippa was the only one who seemed to be fine. Evonne was carrying Rizzo, and Wang had an arm wrapped around a limping Vet.

More and more Abominations, as well as Karnayer soldiers, were running toward their position. Vikta let out a roar, sending another line of flames alongside the already burning fire wall.

For the moment, the only thing the Abominations and Karnayers were concerned about was the colossal dragon shooting flames at them. Enemy weaponsfire was solely concentrated on the dragon for a moment.

“We should go,” Ketrick said, spitting out a mouthful of blood. “Vikta’s buying us the time we need to get back to the city.”

“Good, let’s—”

“Riot!” a scream from someone on the other side of the flames interrupted Riot’s next words. “Riot, you coward! I know that’s you!”

Riot didn’t have to wonder who was calling her by name from the Karnayer forces. She recognized Alveric’s voice. Her eyes searched through the flickering fire wall separating the two factions. She finally found the tall, blue-skinned Karnayer on the opposite side of the flames.

“What? Who is it? Alveric, is that you?” Riot shouted. She cupped her right hand to the side of her helmet. “It’s hard to hear you above the sound of all of your Abominations humming. You’re really going to have to speak up. How’s the wound on your face healing, by the way?”

“Run! Run back to your city and supposed safety,” Alveric screamed in anger, ignoring her question. “We will kill you there within the hour. Run! Run, human! You and your allies will burn together before the sun rises!”

Vikta did another pass, barrel rolling through the enemy fire that was peppering her. The flame wall came to life again. As much as Riot wanted to stay and trade words with Alveric, every moment she forced Vikta to remain and defend them was another chance that a Karnayer round could wound the dragon. Riot wasn’t willing to bet on Vikta’s safety. Not like that.

“I’ll look for you on the battlefield,” Riot yelled back to Alveric. “I’ll be the one holding a warhammer with a pile of dead Karnayers at my feet.”

Riot turned back to her team. The nanites were already hard at work in everyone’s bodies. Even Rizzo was already moving in Evonne’s arms. Evonne still held the wounded pilot like a groom ready to walk over the threshold with his wife.

“Let’s go,” Riot ordered her unit. “Double time, back to the city. They won’t be far behind.”

Riot fell in line with her squad as they ran back through the jungle to the city. Riot hated having to try to carry on a conversation while running, but she had to be sure Doctor Miller had gotten the message through to the city.

“Evonne, patch me through to General Armon,” Riot panted as she concentrated on where she was placing her feet.

“Done,” Evonne responded back in her calm, non-exerted voice despite the fact she was outpacing them all.

“General,” Riot gasped as she urged her team on. “We have an enemy force, maybe thirteen thousand strong, made up of soldiers that’ll need heavy weaponsfire and incendiary rounds to be taken out.”

“Roger that,” General Armon’s voice came back over the comms, clear and calm. “Doctor Miller gave us a report. We’ll be ready. Just get you and your team back safe.”

“Roger.” Riot forced herself to breathe past her burning lungs.

Vikta flew above them in circles, dipping back every so often to light another flame wall and protect their retreat.

I’m going to have to get Vikta a treat or something to say thank you. Riot’s mind started to wander as she pushed her body to the limit. Do they even make dragon treats? If they did, would they be the same shape as a dog treat, only bigger?

“There it is,” Vet huffed over his comms.

Through the thick foliage, Riot could see glimpses of the city walls. She wondered how long they had been running while she’d allowed her mind to wander. Riot was at the rear of the group, constantly looking behind her into the jungle depths. She was lucky that, thus far, she had not seen any signs of pursuing enemies. She had a sneaking suspicion she had Vikta to thank for that.

Riot and her team came to a skidding stop in front of the Trilord walls. Riot removed her helmet as the gates to the city swung open. The warm night air hit her face. Whereas helmet’s heads-up display painted the darkness as bright as day made her eyes blink to give her pupils time to adjust.

The night on Hoydren was still warm, but a cool breeze touched her sweaty face and sent her short hair into a frenzy. Riot followed her unit into the city grounds, already barking orders to her team.

“Is everyone okay?” Riot looked from one face to the next. A series of nods returned her question. Not only were these the toughest men and women she had ever served with, but the addition of the nanites also made them that much harder to seriously injure.

“We’re good to go,” Wang said from his spot next to Rizzo. “Where do you want us?”

Riot was about to start going over the plan, when Colonel Harlan appeared with a force of heavily armored Marines behind him. “Glad to see you all back in one piece. General Armon and Admiral Tricon are taking the fight to the sky. I’ll be coordinating our defense on the ground. I’d like Killa and her Trilords to defend the south wall facing the jungle, and you, Riot, to defend the east gate.”

They both knew what he was asking without having to voice their thoughts. The south wall would be the first area to receive enemy contact, sure, but the real fight would be for the main entrance to the city—the east gate.

“Done.” Riot looked to the colonel through the darkness. Torches set into the walls near the gates sent shadows playing across his face. “We’ll hold the gates.”

“I know you will,” Colonel Harlan said with a nod. “Admiral Tricon is leaving us his mechs for the defense. They’ll be air-dropping in soon. You’ll also have a division of Grovothe shock troops at your command. I have Killa’s Trilords placed across the wall with her and the Marines, but if you need additional help, let me know, and I’ll re-route a reinforcement class to your position. We’ll use Ketrick and his dragons as a roving support band where the fighting is the worst.”

“Understood,” Riot said, thinking back to how difficult it had been to take down a single Abomination soldier. “Colonel Harlan.”

“Yes, Riot?” the colonel asked.

“Tell everyone we’ll need to only use the weapons capable of making the biggest booms in this fight. Small arms fire and blaster rounds just glance off these new soldiers.”

Colonel caught the intensity in Riot’s eye. “We’ll roll out the big guns. What were you thinking: mines, grenades, mortars, rockets?”

“All of them,” Riot said, and nodded along with each item on the colonel’s list. “We’ll need them all.”


95

It was Riot’s show now. She was in charge of her crew, along with the squad of mechs and the Grovothe division of shock troops. Luckily for her, the commander in charge of the Grovothe shock troops assigned to the wall was an old friend. Brimley, the pilot that had once been in Rippa’s mech unit during the fight against the Zenoth, was now geared up to fight on foot.

“No armored unit to lead into battle this time around?” Riot asked Brimley as the two shook hands. “I thought you’d be in a mech the next time I saw you.”

“Oh, I’m still planning to fight the battle from the inside of a mech, but I’m going to position the shock troops first and act as a stationary Fortress class mech inside the wall,” Brimley said, releasing Riot’s hand. “You look confused.”

“I am,” Riot admitted. “What’s a Fortress class mech?”

“You’ll see,” Brimley said with a wink. “They should be dropping the mech suits any time now. Until then, let me know where you want the shock troops, and I’ll place them as needed.”

“Right,” Riot said, and as she was about to dole out orders, Wang and Rizzo came up to her, carrying boxes of anti-personal mines. She shifted to direct them before answering Brimley’s question.

Rizzo pretended to trip, and he careened into Wang. Rizzo pushed the Marine who was carrying his own crate of anti-personal mines as if with a single sneeze they would go off.

“Stop it! What are you doing?” Wang said as his face transitioned from a look of concentration to utter terror. “Not funny. Not funny at all, man. We could detonate these things with one wrong move.”

Rizzo rolled his eyes. The two Marines continued their approach to Riot. Wang’s hands slightly trembling, while Rizzo carried the crate like a pizza box.

“Good,” Riot said to her Marines. “Get Evonne, Vet, and Doctor Miller to help you place them. Hurry, we don’t know how much time we have left. And put them far enough away from the wall so none of the mechs will accidentally step on one.”

Wang and Rizzo hurried through the open gates to obey.

“Sorry about that,” Riot said as she turned back to address Brimley’s question. “We’ll need the Grovothe shock troops on the wall over the gate with whatever weapons they have that pack the biggest punch. I’ll be up there with them, with the rest of my team.”

“Understood,” Brimley said, and with a tight salute, she ran toward the rest of the shock troops, explaining their positions and the orders Riot had given.

“Vikta says the main Karnayer force is twenty minutes from arriving at the south wall.” Ketrick approached Riot as she made for the top of the wall. “I should stay here with you. I should be defending the wall with you.”

“We both know your ability is needed to communicate with the dragons and lead them into the battle.” Riot had said the words like she was convincing herself he couldn’t be with her. “You just do your dragon thing and keep these Abominations off the wall.”

“I’ll be close, if you need me, Sorceress,” Ketrick said, giving her one of his signature winks before leaving Riot to her next task.

Riot forced her feet to carry her upward until she came to the top of the wall, where the Grovothe shock troops were already preparing their defensive stations. Tripods were being erected to house massive armaments that looked like Gattling guns. Rocket launchers and stores of ammunition were being set up, along with crates of grenades.

This was going to be a very different fight from the previous one. The initial fight had been an aviation conflict, with the Karnayers swooping down on a near-defenseless city. Now, with Admiral Tricon and General Armon in the air, with Ketrick’s dragons as a backup plan, they would be more than a match for the Karnayer destroyers.

This fight would depend solely on if they would be able to stop the Abomination army or not. A thought that disturbed Riot to no end was the fact that the Abomination soldiers wouldn’t go down. Even with Vikta’s intense flames, had they actually caught on fire? The organic matter on their bodies melted from the heat, but did the metal portion of their bodies go down at all?

Riot couldn’t remember.

“Riot, I’m checking in over the comps to make sure we are linked and can speak to one another over the distance of the city,” Killa’s said in Riot’s ear. “These comps are truly amazing.”

“Comms, Killa, comms,” Riot said over the comm. “Yes, I can hear you, loud and clear.”

“Amazing,” Killa said again. “Commander Killa of the Trilord Savage army, over and out.”

“Killa, you really gotta keep chatter on the comms to a minimum,” Riot said, shaking her head as she looked out over the wall into the darkness. “I get that you’re excited, but you can just say ‘over’ or not say anything, and that would be fine, as well.”

“Oh, right. Over,” Killa said again.

“Is Queen Revna in the capitol building?” Riot asked, braving another verbal download from Killa. “I haven’t seen her.”

“She is, for the time being. However, it’s not in her nature to stay safe while others risk their lives for the city,” Killa answered. “She’ll be out soon.”

Riot nodded along with Killa’s words. More respect for Ketrick’s mother grew deep inside of her. She had no doubt the queen would be out giving encouragement and even helping where she could when the fighting started. She was that kind of leader.

Riot took another second to look over the section of the wall she was in charge of guarding. The jungle opened up to her right. Directly in front of her, a wide dirt path led from the city as far as the eye could see. Below her, thick double doors made of wood and laced with iron gave entrance into the city. Whether the wall had been raised or not, she couldn’t remember, but at her section of the city, it rose three stories into the air. At that moment, it didn’t seem high enough.

Aircrafts coming in sounded in the night sky.

Riot braced herself.

“Archangel transports approaching with the mechs and supplies,” Rippa said over the comms. “Look at those beauties.”

Riot squinted through the dark to see a long, thick ship come in. It was an exact replica of the one that had given them transport to the Zenoth home planet of Raydon when they had made their attack on the Zenoth hives.

A door opened from the bottom of the Archangel transport. The craft lowered closer to the ground, now only a few stories over the wall. Three bulky forms dropped from the ship, one touching down just inside the gate, while two others dropped to the ground outside of the wall.

BAM! BAM! BAM!

A cheer went up from the Grovothe as they witnessed their war machines enter the battlefield. All along the south wall, similar instances were taking place as pilots manning Archangel transports dropped mechs onto the ground.

“Heard you could use some support,” Atlas’s gruff, no-nonsense voice sounded over the comms.

Atlas was the third member in Rippa’s original party. The fourth, Ragnar, had died on the assault on the Zenoth.

“Good to hear from you, Atlas,” Rippa said with genuine joy in her voice. “Let’s gear up.”

Riot watched as Grovothe pilots jumped out of Rippa’s and Brimley’s mech suits to allow the pilots their cockpits. Rippa’s and Atlas’s mechs outside of the wall were similar to the ones Riot had been accustomed to seeing—twenty-foot armored tanks with arms and legs that looked like giant robots ready for war.

Each of their suits was equipped with a rail gun on top of their forearms. A laser beam could be shot from the helmet. A flamethrower and claws could be extended from their hands.

These intimidating figures were known as Juggernaut class mechs. In their own right, they were brutal machines used to deal death and destruction out on the battlefield. The mech that dropped just inside the wall of the Trilord city was something else entirely.

The Fortress class mech was anchored in a wide base with what looked like tank treads on the bottom. It was as tall as the Juggernaut class mechs, but the upper body portion was heavy. No arms extended from the machine, just two massive square rocket housings, and below that, two Gatling-type guns.

It was clear to Riot that the Fortress class mech was made for one thing: destruction. Brimley climbed in, strapping herself in the center of the machine where a cockpit closed to protect her. She maneuvered the machine slowly to an overwatch position just above the wall.

“Atlas and I will keep anything from reaching the gates,” Rippa said into the comms as if asking Riot for permission. “Brimley can assume an overwatch position in the Fortress mech, if that’s okay with you, Riot?”

“Sounds good.” Riot looked over the wall to where her Marines were placing the mines a hundred yards from the city walls. “Rippa, Atlas, mark the spots on your heads-ups displays where the mines are being laid. The last thing we need is you two going too far out and blowing a mine.”

“Copy that,” the two Grovothe pilots said in unison.

“Hey, what do you have there?” Riot looked over to a Grovothe shock trooper who was opening up a case of weapons that looked like a grenade launcher with three barrels at the end.

“It’s a Buster300.” The Grovothe looked at Riot with admiration in his heart. “Want to try one?”

“Buster300?” Riot said, accepting the weapon. “Hell yeah, I want to try it. You had me at ‘Bust.’ It’ll make a good primary weapon to the warhammer on my back.”

“Oh, you bet.” The young Grovothe seemed eager to talk. He started rattling off the weapon’s specs, something about clip size and firepower. Riot’s attention drifted to a noise she caught on the breeze.

She tilted her head, trying to get a better angle to catch the sound.

“The Buster300 just came out of—”

Riot pressed her right extended pointer finger into the Grovothe’s lips to quiet him. The Grovothe shock trooper took the hint and silenced with Riot’s finger still on his mouth. His eyes were wide as he, too, picked up on the noise.

A dull hum wafted from the jungle, the smell of rotting corpses on the breeze.


96

It’s go-time,” Riot said to the Grovothe in front of her, finally taking her finger off the shock trooper’s lips. “Send the word down the line. No one fires until I tell them we’re ready.”

The Grovothe nodded violently before taking off at a run.

The chill that ran down Riot’s spine was one of anxious anticipation. She placed her black-and-red helmet on her head. Her heads-up display once again made her view as clear as day.

“Everybody back inside the gates now,” Riot said over the comms. “We’re about to have company.”

“Roger that,” Vet responded through his own helmet.

“Riot, this is Killa,” Killa said over her own comm. “We’re getting a sound of something like humming from the south side. They’re here.”

“They’ll hit you first, and then swing around to us,” Riot said, watching her Marines, Doctor Miller, and Evonne sprint back to the gate. “Level them with your heavy weapons and let’s hope between that and the mechs we have enough firepower to take them down.”

Riot looked to the right and to the left of the wall. From either side, a dozen Grovothe shock troops looked at her for direction. Riot could hear her own unit closing the city gates below her and locking them in place.

Riot wasn’t the best at giving motivational speeches, but right now, before all hell broke loose, she realized these soldiers needed a pep talk. Word had spread of what they were about to face. The Abominations were something none of these soldiers wanted to go up against. Regardless, they were here, ready to die if need be.

The hum was now loud enough that every set of ears was picking up on the noise. Left unchecked, the warriors who had not yet encountered the Abomination horde were powerless to stop their imaginations from wandering, and fear grow within their hearts.

Riot realized she had to say something. If not for her, then for them. Fear was a cancer that, if left unchecked, would bring the greatest warrior to their knees.

“Listen up!” Riot shouted as she began walking up and down the wall. “I don’t care if you’re human, Grovothe, Trilord, or some weird alien mix of all three. Today, we’re in this together. We’re in this because there are planets left in the universe who refuse to die alone. There are those of us who see the value of lifting each other up and standing as one. Today, that’s us. In one voice, we tell the Karnayers that they’ve picked the wrong planets to mess with. Today, we are telling the Karnayers it is not our end, but theirs. Today, we rise up and make them rethink ever showing their faces in our part of the universe again!”

A cheer erupted from those inside the city, a cheer too loud to have just been her own section on the wall. Too late Riot realized Killa had broadcasted her message to every soldier in the city.

“Oohrah!” the Marines shouted.

“Kill, kill, kill!” the Trilords roared.

“Aaroo!” the Grovothes added.

“If we die today, then we die together!” Rippa screamed over her comms, caught up in the intensity of Riot’s speech.

“Why does she always have to go so dark?” Wang whispered over the comms. “Why can’t we just all live together?”

“They’re here,” Killa said at the same time as weaponsfire lit up the night sky.

From her vantage point, Riot could look behind her to the right and see a flurry of weaponsfire cascading down over the wall and into the jungle interior below. The mech unit stationed outside the wall lent their firepower to the cause.

The sound was so intense, Riot was sure she would have gone deaf, had it not been for the protection her helmet provided.

Dat-dat-dat-dat-dat

The new Grovothe weapons added their own unique sounds to the noise of war, and the cacophony a large engagement brought with it tore across the night sky. Riot had been in enough battles by now to know what to expect. The sounds dampened by her helmet were like hearing thunder and lightning exploding overhead, as if Zeus himself was hurling his lightning bolts just feet away from her position.

Bright colors from the weaponsfire raced across the sky. Red fire from the Marines and the repurposed weapons from the Syndicate mixed with the yellow blaster fire of the Trilords and the blue laser rounds from the Grovothe mechs.

The Abominations and the Karnayer soldiers answered back with their own green rounds shooting upward and aiming at the defenders on the wall.

Everything in Riot told her she needed to run over and join the fight. Her muscles tightened, only relaxing when she concentrated all of her willpower on the action. The muscles in her shoulders bunched up like rocks.

Riot could feel the tension and energy in the air as her Marines and the Grovothe force around her looked back to the right and the south wall. They all wanted to go help.

“We’re going to have our opportunity in a few minutes,” Riot said, embracing the part of her she needed to be in that moment, the part that welcomed a fight. “Lock and load. When they get here, we hold the gates at all costs.”

“Oorah!”

“Aaroo!”

“There’s thousands of them,” Killa shouted over the comms. Her voice was far from fear; it was loud and excited. “Weaponsfire aren’t having any effect on the Abominations. The mechs using the blue laser beams from their helmets seem like the only thing able to keep them back.”

“Do you need additional support?” Colonel Harlan said over the comms. “Give me the word, and I can route a squad of Trilords over to your position.”

“We’re holding now,” Killa said before static covered her voice over the comms. She came back a moment later, loud and clear. “The Abominations aren’t going down, but neither can they climb the walls. Riot, they’re swinging around to the east gate!”

“Let them come!” Riot roared over the comms. Her heart raced as she scanned the outside of the wall through her heads-up display. “We’re ready for them.”

“There!” Vet shouted over the comms in his helmet. “To the right, just in the jungle.”

Riot allowed her heads-up display to see what her eyes could not. Dozens of outlined enemies showed on her screen as they emerged from the jungle’s depths.

Heat signatures weren’t present amongst the cold steel corpses the Abominations were made of, but her heads-up display was able to track movement. They emerged from the jungle depths like a wave of blood oozing from an open wound.

They walked at first, and then ran.

“Open up, boys and girls!” Riot aimed her new Grovothe weapons over the wall. The bulky Buster300 felt good in her hands. “Let’s give them a warm, bloody welcome.”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Riot aimed at a particularly small Abomination soldier who looked like a grub equipped with mechanical arms and legs. She caught the monster in the face, as well as center body mass. Her target stumbled at first, but just kept moving forward.

All around her, Grovothe and Marines were reveling in the target-rich environment. Despite the level of sheer firepower being directed at the Abomination horde, the results were minimal at best. A few enemy soldiers were having a hard time moving forward under the hose of weaponsfire but none of their number remained down for the count.

The two mechs in front of the gate piloted by Rippa and Atlas stood with their arms pointing forward. Gauss rounds pumped from the twin cannons on the tops of their forearms.

“Concentrate all your firepower on those closest to the wall, on the right,” Riot screamed into her comm to be heard over the weaponsfire. “Make them swing wider left and into the road where our mines are set up!”

Immediately, everyone obeyed. Blue and red rounds slammed into the Abominations closest to the wall on the right corner. Brimley focused her Fortress mech’s fire on those Abominations as well, and let loose with her twin Gatling-type guns.

Dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat!

The sound was music to Riot’s ears as the Fortress class mech opened fire behind her. Brimley’s aim took her rounds high over the heads of Riot and the rest of the team and up over the wall.

Abominations fell, got back up and fell again, only to be pinned on the ground by more weaponsfire. But Riot recognized a fatal flaw in their plan. For the time being, they were managing to hold at bay a few hundred Abominations, but what about when the rest of the Karnayers’ resurrected force spilled from around the southern corner?

“Ketrick, can you do a few passes along the southern wall?” Killa shouted into her comms. “The Abominations have reached the wall. They can’t climb over, but the mechs in front of us are in danger of being overrun.”

“On our way,” Ketrick responded.

Riot’s right shoulder shook as she pumped round after round of blue blaster fire from her Grovothe-made Buster300 into the oncoming Abomination horde. High above her in the night sky, Ketrick led a wing of dragons swooping down alongside the southern wall and painting the jungle forests in flames.

A cheer erupted from the Trilords and Marines on that side of the wall.

Riot felt a swell of hope as she hammered another dozen rounds into a large Abomination that had at one time been something close to humanoid. She focused her fire on its right fleshy knee, obliterating the appendage. The half-machine, half-corpse fell to the ground, only to begin crawling forward over the hard-packed dirt. Metal fingers clawed into the earth as it continued its journey forward.

Riot’s weapon soon made a loud clicking sound, signaling it was dry. All around her, Grovothes were exchanging thick mags at the base of their weapon for mags that were full; they threw the empty magazines on the floor atop the wall and reached into crates for new ones.

Some of the Grovothe shock troops carried the same weapon she did. The trio of thick blasters on the end of their weapon rotated, taking turns to hurl blue bolts at the enemy. Other Grovothe-manned massive cannons sat on tripods, and still others, what looked like RPGs, rested on their shoulders.

“Riot, we’re about to have a problem,” Rippa said from the safety of her mech on the outside of the wall.

“Of course we are,” Riot said, looking to Rippa’s mech and following its line of sight into the jungle to pick up whatever it was she had caught sight of. “We’re being attacked by the living dead on an alien planet where fast food doesn’t exist. I would call that a huge problem. I don’t think it can get much worse.”

“No, I mean, look.” Rippa pointed into the jungle depths.

Thousands more of the Abominations created by the strange magic the Karnayers possessed had just emerged, and were now sprinting toward them from the jungle depths.

Thus far, the Abominations spilling over from the south wall had not been equipped with range weapons. A fact Riot should have picked up on, and in turn, expected there to be a reason why.

The force emerging from the jungle was not only ten times as large as the one coming from the south, but they were also all equipped with various blasters attached to their arms.

“Riot, I think it’s worse. And what’s ‘fast food’?” Rippa asked as she pivoted to meet this new threat.

Riot ducked as a salvo of green enemy fire erupted from the new force.

“Ask me again when we get through this,” Riot said over the comms as her mind struggled to compose a new plan.

BOOM!


97

The first anti-personnel mine in the dirt road leading to the main gate erupted in a shower of dust and broken metal body parts. Abominations were tossed into the air like rag dolls. In turn, they fell to the ground, only to detonate more of the mines.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

More and more of the explosions discharged, bringing a cheer to the throats of the defenders on the wall.

Riot, on the other hand, understood that the temporary victory would still not hold back the thousands of Abominations for long. She looked to her right where her crew had taken up positions on the wall. Vet, Wang, Rizzo, and even Evonne, were firing their own weapons into the crowd of gathered enemies, while Doctor Miller ran ammo supply packs to the Grovothe troops.

“We’re not going to be able to hold them back once the mines are depleted,” Evonne said in her matter-of-fact Australian accent. “I’m not trying to be pessimistic, only factual.”

“Rippa, Atlas,” Riot said as even more mines detonated. “You’ll need to use your laser beams soon. Brimley, those rockets you’re carrying, make them count.”

“Roger,” Rippa, Atlas, and Brimley all said at once.

“The beams our mechs are equipped with will run hot and powerful, but not for long,” Rippa reminded Riot.

Riot thought back to the time she witnessed the powerful blue laser beams shoot from the eyes of the mech’s helmet. While Riot had been on Raydon fighting the Zenoth with the Grovothe, she had come to respect the weapons.

“I understand,” Riot said over the comms as she stood up to aim her weapon at the road once more. “Do what you can.”

An eerie silence settled across the front of the gates. Those Abominations that had been spilling around the south corner had stopped. A thick cloud of smoke and dirt from the detonated land mines made visibility impossible for more than a few hundred yards in front of the gates.

Riot breathed steadily. The constant hum of the Abominations was the only thing to tell her they were still out there.

In front of Riot stood Rippa’s mech on the right and Atlas’s on the left. Each of the hulking armor tanks practically vibrated with energy.

Riot thought about requesting a fly-by from Ketrick, Vikta, and his dragons, but she knew she needed to save the call. She also still had the option of asking for reinforcements from Colonel Harlan. Again, she decided to wait for a moment when there was no other option.

Inside her helmet, Riot could hear her pulse pounding in her head. Seconds ticked by slower and slower as all eyes on the wall tried penetrating the haze of smoke and dirt. A blue round fired from somewhere to her left. Riot looked over to see a fidgety Grovothe Shock trooper looking around sheepishly.

“We’ll hold,” Riot said to everyone. “Don’t fire until you can see them. When they come, send everything we’ve got that goes ‘boom.’”

“There!” Wang shouted over his comms. “Twelve o’clock and—limping toward us?”

A single Abomination came out of the haze. Wang was right. Instead of running, it was walking toward them with a hitch in its step. Then hundreds more Abominations materialized from the smoke, sprinting forward.

“Now!” Riot ordered as she opened fire into the throng. All around her, weapons were unloaded.

The Grovothe abandoned smaller firearms for mortars. The rounds sailed from stationary tubes up and over the wall, into the Abomination ranks.

Green fire from the enemy splattered against the wall, taking out an unsuspecting Grovothe standing next to Riot with a round to his head. The soldier fell backwards off the wall, never to rise again.

Rippa and Atlas opened up with the blue laser beams from their mech’s helmets.

VRRRROOOOOOOOM!

Thus far, the laser beams were the most effective weapons Riot had seen used on the enemy. The cobalt blue streams of energy were able to cut through both the organic and metal sections of the Abomination soldiers.

Rippa focused her laser on a rather large creature with a massive torso and tiny metal legs. Her laser ate through the alien’s midsection. She lowered her aim first, then raised it, cutting the Abomination completely in two.

Beside her, Atlas was having similar luck. Although their weapons were effective in taking an Abomination soldier out of the fight for good, the time in which they needed to focus and kill a single enemy was not going to win them the day. In the duration, the two Juggernaut class mechs had dispatched a handful of the Abominations. Running across the open road to the gates, the enemy was nearly on top of them.

“Brimley,” Riot grunted as she lifted one of the Grovothe’s RPG-type weapons onto her right shoulder and took aim. “Now would be a good time to let those rockets loose.”

“Roger that,” Brimley said. “Locking onto multiple targets now, in three … two … one … kill time.”

Rockets zipped down onto the wave of enemy Abominations. The enemy horde had nearly reached Rippa and Atlas, who stood right in front of the gates. Trails of smoke wafted from the afterburn of the small rockets as they all found a target.

BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!

Each rocket struck its intended target, sending up a shower of dead matter and scrap metal. More cheers from the defenders on the wall rose up in an echo of shouts and yells.

The two dozen rockets that had found their marks had given everyone on the wall a sense of joy, except for Riot. She understood that ammunition was a dwindling commodity, especially among the Grovothe who did not have access to the unlimited power packs the Syndicate had introduced to Earth.

“How many more rounds like that do you have in your mech?” Riot asked Brimley over a private comm channel. “Tell me you can do that over and over again.”

“Well, do you want me to lie to you, or do you want me to tell you I have one round like that left once I reload,” Brimley replied. “I can have the second round reloaded in the next two minutes.”

“Save them for when I give you the command. In the meantime, let loose with those Gatling guns,” Riot said, switching once again to the main channel. “Evonne, We’re going to need your muscle at the gates soon. Get down there and brace the supports.”

“Understood,” Evonne’s voice said over the blasts of weaponsfire.

Riot hefted the Grovothe rocket launcher onto her shoulder and aimed over the wall. She looked through a circular scope that popped out of the side of the thick barrel and focused on a shifty Abomination alien that had long metallic scythes for arms.

SHHHHHHHHHOOOOOM!

Riot hit the button, sending the rocket forward. The recoil nearly took her off her feet. The rocket left a blue stream of smoke in its wake. Riot’s aim was true as it collided with its target and sent the Abomination up in a cloud of dirt and smoke.

A decision needed to be made soon. The Abomination soldiers were going down under the onslaught of the heavy weapons Riot and her team defended the wall with, but they just weren’t going down fast enough.

The hum the horde of robotic dead made as they crashed against Rippa and Atlas’s mechs were maddening. The green blaster fire many of the Abomination soldiers used as fire against the Grovothe mechs simply splashed against their metal. The bladed hand weapons the Abominations brought to bear against the mechs, on the other hand, were more than capable of cutting through the steel.

“Off, you sick magically dead,” Atlas grunted over the comms as he crushed one soldier under his boot and tried to shake off another from the opposite leg. “Fire and Claw, Major?”

“Fire and Claw,” Rippa agreed over the comm as she opened a flame from the right hand of her mech. Three long blades sprouted from her other hand in between the knuckles of her closed fist. “Riot, they’re past us now. We’ll stay out here as long as we can, but the gates need to be braced.”

“Roger that,” Riot said, dropping her empty rocket launcher. She ducked under the edge of the fortification as another wave of green blaster fire peppered the wall around her. “Don’t stay on the other side of the wall until your mech goes down. If you’re going to be overwhelmed, you get to this side of the wall. That’s an order, Major Rippa Gunna.”

Riot felt like a parent scolding her young daughter when she used Rippa’s full name. The fact was, Riot wondered if Rippa would ignore the order anyway and seek what she deemed a glorious death in battle.

These thoughts raced through Riot’s mind as she hurried down the steps to the gates. The first wave of Abominations would reach them soon.

Riot took the steps down, two at a time. Right in the middle of the courtyard rising up like a statue of war, Brimley slowly turned her Fortress class mech from side to side, sending a stream of fire into the horde.

Dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat!

Riot jumped the last few feet to the ground before sprinting over to the gate. Evonne stood bracing the city’s entrance, one hand on each gate door, arms extended, legs staggered.

The Abominations hit the wooden gate so hard, Riot could see the wooden structure shudder. Evonne even took a step back from the violence of the impact. Riot slammed into the wooden door so hard, she thought she might have broken something. She shoved her left shoulder into the door, hoping to absorb some of the impact from the forces on the other side.

Even amongst the rockets and blaster fire going off in the background, Riot could hear the scraping of steel weapons on wood from the other side of the barrier.

This is it. Riot gritted her teeth as thoughts ran through her head a mile a minute. This is where they break through and overrun the city. Time to call in the cavalry.


98

At that moment, Evonne looked over to Riot from her position bracing the gates. The AI still hadn’t been repaired from the previous fight. Her skin fell off her body and a portion of her face. The steel underneath grinned back at her like something from a nightmare.

“What are you doing?” Riot asked as her feet fought for traction in the dirt floor. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I understand you are feeling a tremendous amount of stress in this wartime environment,” Evonne said as calm as if she were giving someone directions. “I thought a smile would be in order.”

“No, stop it. You’re just making things worse and freaking me out,” Riot said, shaking her head. She opened up the comms channel in her helmet. “Colonel Harlan we could use those reinforcements at the front gate, and Ketrick, it’s time to bring the pain.”

“Roger that, Riot,” Colonel Harlan’s steady voice said over the comms. “They’re en route to you now.”

“What do you mean by ‘bring the pain’?” Ketrick’s voice came over the comms, faint and distant as if a tremendous amount of wind was being rushed past.

“The dragons, Muscles.” Riot couldn’t tell if he was kidding with her or serious, but she suspected the former. “Get your Trilord Prince rear end over here and light up some of these suckers!”

“On our way!” Ketrick responded.

“Vet, Wang, Rizzo, Sunshine,” Riot said into her comms as the wooden grates swayed and groaned with the pressure coming from the other side. “Get down here and help brace the gate.”

A series of “Rogers” came over the comms.

That was it. Riot had played all her cards now. If they couldn’t hold the position with the reinforcements coming, then the Trilord capital city would be overrun and the end would be near.

Thunk!

A curved steel blade penetrated the wooden gate, its tip suddenly appearing an inch away from Riot’s face like some macabre magic trick. The gate creaked and bent again as if it were going to snap in half at any second.

Maybe you waited too long to ask for help, Riot thought. Maybe this is how it was always supposed to be. Dying on the ground, alone. Well, not exactly alone. You have the smiling Terminator holding the gate by your side.

A rush of wings filled the night air as Ketrick’s dragons flew overhead. Riot looked up in time to see the underbelly of a handful of different colored dragons soar by, led by Vikta and Ketrick. The sight was like some kind of weird rainbow as white, green, blue, yellow, red, purple, and orange serpentine bodies soared over the wall.

“I heard you need a hand, Little One,” Ketrick said, laughing at his newly coined name for Rippa. “I must have killed two hundred of the Abominations by now. What’s your meager count?”

“You’re lucky you’re on Vikta or I’d shoot you out of the sky and call it an accident,” Rippa growled with a hint of merriment in her voice. “It’s good to see you, you giant idiot.”

“Clear the wall,” Ketrick said to Rippa. “We’ll begin our attack runs and try to buy you a brief rest.”

Riot could hear the dragons begin their attack runs on the opposite side of the wall. At the same time, her crew arrived at the gates with the now-empty crates the Grovothe shock troops on the wall had used. Although they had once carried ammunition, they were sturdy enough to use as support.

“Good thinking.” Riot moved out of the way to allow her Marines to stack the extra crates against the gates for an added barricade.

“I bet that’s the first time anyone has said that to you, Vet,” Wang said over his comms.

“Your mom said it last time she was in town,” Vet said back without missing a beat.

“Really, you two?” Doctor Miller hefted her crate against the gate to the left of Evonne. “Even now?”

Always, Rizzo wrote over their heads-up display.

“Look!” Doctor Miller shouted.

Riot followed her gaze to the path that sloped up the hill toward the capitol building, where Queen Revna led a contingent of ten Trilord soldiers wearing the black dragon tattoos of her personal guard.

The queen wore battle gear of what looked like tough leather and iron. Strapped to her shoulder and forearms were a series of iron armor pieces. Over her ample chest she wore a black leather piece that came down to her wide hips and ended in a skirt.

The weapon she carried in her hands was unlike anything Riot had ever seen, and that was saying a lot, since Riot had seen machine corpses being brought back from the dead by green Karnayer magic.

In her right hand, Queen Revna carried a massive sword that was nearly as large as her body. The double-handled sword had teeth on one side of the blade as large as Riot’s own hand.

The Trilords behind the queen each carried a thick, wooden pole.

“We heard you could use a hand,” Queen Revna said, brushing her long, white dreadlocks to the side. “Where do you want us?”

While the queen asked Riot where to be positioned, her warriors stationed the poles they carried against the wooden doors. One end rested on the thick wood, the other end was wedged into the dirt ground.

“We could use you here,” Riot said, relieved. For the moment, it seemed the gate was safe. “I don’t know how long Muscles—I mean, Prince Ketrick, will be able to hold them back with the dragon fire.”

The queen nodded with a smile as if she knew what Riot had been about to say. Her eyes roved over the Marines, as well as Evonne with her skin coming off of her face. “Do your soldiers need medical attention?”

“What?” Riot looked from the queen to Evonne. “Oh no, she’s fine.”

“Does she have leprosy?” the queen asked, peering through the dark.

“No, no, nothing like that,” Riot said, reminding herself it was still dark, and although her heads-up display brightened her vision, the same could not be said for everyone. “She’s a Termina—ugh, Artificial Intelligence.”

The queen looked at her, confused.

“She’s a robot, as in ‘not human’,’” Doctor Miller said, trying to help. “She’s part of our ship, the Valkyrie. She wanted a human-looking body, so Corporal Vetash and I created a frame for her and covered it with synthetic skin.”

Queen Revna blinked a few times at Doctor Miller, then turned to Riot. “I think the doctor has received trauma to her head somewhere in today’s conflict.”

“You would think that, wouldn’t you?” Riot said, nodding along with the queen’s words. “I wonder the same thing about her myself on a daily basis.”

“I’m right here.” Doctor Miller placed closed fists on either side of her hips. “I can hear everything you’re saying about me.”

Riot, the queen, and everyone else had been complacent with having the playful banter, due to the fact that there was no main threat to the gate. Ketrick had his dragons performing alternate passes right in front of the gate. Every time a dragon swooped down, a thick flame of orange, red, and yellow fire erupted from their throats.

The Abomination horde fired their weapons at the dragons, but most of the shots either missed entirely or glanced off the dragons without inflicting even the tiniest bit of damage.

Dragon scales were impervious to small-weapons fire. Even the enemy fire from the Karnayer Scarabs were mostly ignored by the dragons. Along with the fire coming from the weapons and the hum emitted by the Abominations, a new sound began to fill the air.

Maybe it wasn’t a sound at all. Perhaps it was a feeling. Whatever it was, Riot’s sixth sense picked up on something approaching. She looked into the sky, seeing the twin suns of the planet beginning to rise over the horizon.

Riot switched off her helmet’s heads-up display, allowing her to see what everyone else was looking at. She wasn’t the only one to sense the feeling of trepidation. From far off, a massive shadow covered the sky. Riot squinted to try to see what it was.

“Do you hear something?” Killa asked over the comms. “Something in the jungle?”

“No, it’s something in the sky,” Colonel Harlan said over the comms. His voice sounded stressed. He was never stressed. “I’m getting word from Admiral Tricon and General Armon. The Karnayer destroyer has lowered back into orbit. The Scarabs are out in force. They’re preparing their attack run.”

“No, that’s not it,” Killa said, insistent, over the comms. “There’s something else, something big coming from deep within the jungle’s southern wall.”

In that moment, something tickled the back of Riot’s mind, some detail her subliminal consciousness had picked up on while she had somehow managed to forget.

“The smoke coming from the Karnayer drop ships,” Riot said in a whisper to herself. Her voice was so low, no one else picked up on it over the nanites that allowed her to communicate even without her helmet.

Images of the smoke coming from the interior of the drop ships flashed across her mind. The sounds of Karnayer smiths working hard at their craft creating … what? Creating more Abominations, or something worse?

Riot was momentarily taken away from her thoughts as the Grovothe Dreadnaught and the U.S.S. Patton appeared over the Trilord city from their position in orbit and moved in to intercept the Karnayer destroyer.

Witnessing the crafts in the sky sail toward one another was like watching two massive bulls charging at one another. That is, if bulls weighed millions of tons and were equipped to the teeth with rail guns and laser weapons.

Riot ripped her thoughts from the sight of the colossal ships about to engage high in the sky, to an idea she understood was fact. How she knew, she wasn’t sure, but she knew, nevertheless. “Killa, the Karnayers are going to throw everything at us now. They’re engaging our fleet, not so they can win, but so that our ships will be unable to help us on the ground. The Karnayers are about to bring everything, including their own troops and their repurposed monsters.”

“What are you talking about, Riot?” Colonel Harlan asked.

“The Karnayer drop ships in the jungle were hard at work making something and I didn’t know what, until now. They were making wings, maybe armor, for their monsters. They knew Ketrick and the dragons would be able to stand against their ground forces,” Riot said, explaining all of this, despite the fact she had no solid proof of her statements.

“How do you know this?” Killa asked.

“Because it’s what I would do,” Riot said, remembering the hate in Alveric’s eyes. “Because it’s what he would do.”

A scream tore through the air at that moment, solidifying everything Riot had said up to that point. She had heard the sound before, but not on this planet. Riot ran up the stairs to the wall once more, and what she saw turned the blood in her veins to ice.


99

Riot crested the last step on the wall, looking out into the morning light covering the planet. Below her blazed a wall of flame nearly as tall as the wall itself. Just inside, stood Rippa and Atlas in their mechs.

Coming from the jungle interior were creatures Riot had seen before. Zenoth hive queens resurrected from the dead by a mixture of magic and machine. The insect-like monsters lumbered toward them.

That wasn’t even the worst part. It seemed the Karnayer drop ships had been hard at work creating not just one of the terrifying beasts, but seven of the monstrosities.

Distant booms and bangs from far overhead reached Riot’s ears, but in the moment, all she could concentrate on was the impossible freaks of science and magic in front of her.

“I’ve either done way too many drugs in my day, or I’m seeing seven Zenoth queens,” Wang said from beside Riot. “Tell me you’re seeing the same thing.”

“You have done way too many drugs in your day,” Riot said in answer, “but I’m seeing the same thing. Ketrick, if you can hear me, you need to break off protecting the gate and deal with the Zenoth queens.”

“I see them,” Ketrick said, bringing Vikta into a hovering position beside Riot on the wall. “I can deal with them, but that will leave the city without support. It’s exactly what the Karnayers want.”

“And we have to do it.” Riot looked up to her right, where Ketrick sat on Vikta’s wide back. The wind created by Vikta’s giant wings pushed against her. “We’ll hold the gate. You deal with the freaks. This has to be their final push.”

“Vikta says to take care of yourself,” Ketrick said over the comms. “She doesn’t want to live in a universe without you.”

Riot felt a giddy sensation rise in the pit of her stomach and spread across her entire body. The feeling didn’t belong on a battlefield, but it was what she felt when Ketrick spoke to her about “Vikta’s” feelings.

“I’ll be fine, Vikta.” Riot looked past the dragon’s head to Ketrick. “You do the same. We have plans when this is all over.”

Without another word, Ketrick took the dragons high into an arc where they would be better suited to descend upon the Zenoth hive queens.

“Wow, I never realized you and Vikta we’re so close,” Doctor Miller said in a serious tone. “That’s great. A bond between a Marine and an alien dragon. That’s a really beautiful thing, Riot. It gives me hope for the future.”

Everyone looked over at Doctor Miller in disbelief.

Rizzo actually removed his helmet to give the doctor a deadpan stare.

“What? What did I miss?” Doctor Miller said. Even the Grovothe shock troops looked at her, shaking their heads.

“We have massive beasts coming from the jungle,” Killa reported as the sounds of weaponsfire intensified from the south wall. “Hefty aliens walking on all fours with blasters on their backs, firing green energy. Five of them in total.”

At the same time as Killa’s report came in, the familiar wail of a Devil’s Hand drifted over the south wall. Not just one voice, but multiple whale-like cries penetrated the Trilord city.

“Those are Devil’s Hands,” Riot said, already making up her mind on what had to be done. They couldn’t afford to have the monsters’ strange cries resurrecting the dead. “Ketrick, you have to go and take them out. You know you do. Go!”

“I—” Ketrick said.

The single word coming from Ketrick said it all; the hesitancy, the way he already was taking his dragons in a swing to the right.

“I’ll be right back,” Ketrick said through a clenched jaw. “Hold here, Sorceress. I’ll only be a few minutes.”

As soon as the dragons shifted to the right, the Zenoth hive queens charged. Not only them, but also the rest of the Abominations that still numbered in the thousands and a new addition to the battle—actual Karnayer troops dressed in their all-black armor and carrying high-powered blasters.

“Protect the gates!” Riot screamed into her comms. Her brain was working on overdrive as she witnessed the seven Zenoth hive queens spread their metal wings and soar low over the ground toward the gates. “Rippa, Atlas, focus fire on a single queen. Brimley, tell me you’re locked and loaded.”

“I’m ready,” Brimley said over the comms.

“Great. Don’t spread your fire. Just take a single queen down, then move on to the next,” Riot said. She unhooked the warhammer from her back as the enemy closed.

Already the fire barriers from Ketrick’s dragons were beginning to fade. Where once they had risen nearly two stories into the air, they now blazed no higher than Riot’s five-foot-eight frame.

The main Karnayer force was still two hundred yards away and closing. Riot had precious few seconds to dole out orders that could very well decide the fate of the battle.

Her eyes focused on a crate of what looked like Grovothe grenades in a small box at her feet. A plan churned in Riot’s mind as she shouted orders to the forces around her.

“Queen Revna, I need you and your warriors to hold the gates when they break through. I’m as optimistic as the next space Marine, but let’s call a poodle a poodle, here,” Riot said grabbing an armload of grenades. “I need some tape. Does anyone have tape?”

“Tape?” Wang repeated. “Why would anyone in a battle have tape?”

“Here.” Doctor Miller reached Riot with a roll of black duct tape.

“Oh, of course she has some,” Wang said, shaking his head. “So, next question: Why do you need tape?”

“Remember Afghanistan?” Riot asked, going to one knee. She wrapped as many grenades as she could around the head of her hammer. It wasn’t pretty, but the grenades circled it like a ring around a planet.

Not Afghanistan, Rizzo typed over the screens in everyone’s heads-up displays.

“Well, we have to die sooner or later,” Vet said, joining Riot. He brought his sniper rifle from his back and began doing the same thing. He strapped grenade after grenade to the barrel of his weapon. “I guess this is as good as a time as any.”

Wang and Rizzo joined in.

“Is someone going to explain to me what we’re doing?” Doctor Miller looked on, perplexed. “They’re about to reach the gates.”

The familiar sounds of Rippa’s and Atlas’s mechs opening fire on the charging Zenoth queens filled the air.

VRRRROOOOOOOM!

Brimley let her second and last salvo of rockets loose from their berths.

“Evonne, Cupcake, hold the gates at all costs,” Riot ordered. “And pray the nanites work as well as we all hope they do.”

“Epinephrine shots, anyone?” Wang stood up, holding the barrel of his Villain Pulse Rifle. Along the stock were duct-taped a glob of grenades. “I think Riot still has two, but I have more party favors for whoever wants some.”

Riot was reminded she did, in fact, have two of the altered epinephrine pens in a side compartment in the lefthand side of her armored leg.

“No time.” Riot looked to the charging Zenoth queens who were now less than a hundred yards from the gate. “Spread out across the wall, and whatever you do, don’t miss.”

“Oohrah!” Vet and Wang said in unison while Rizzo slammed a fist into his chest.

Riot backed up from the waist-high wall, preparing herself for what she was about to do next. She ran through the plans in her mind’s eye, seeing her actions before she actually committed to them in real life.

Rippa’s and Atlas’s mechs were in bad condition from the waist down. The Abominations that had reached them with blades for hands had done a number on the outside of their armor. The left leg on Rippa’s mech sparked, and with every movement, a huge portion of the armor had been ripped away to expose hoses and cords.

Atlas’s mech wasn’t any better. He was down on one knee. A small fire had broken out on the right leg of his mech near the ankle.

Both of the Grovothe pilots fought on despite their injuries. As one, they zeroed in on the same Zenoth queen flying toward the gate. In seconds, they had cut through its wings. They were now finishing off the freak of science-magic with a series of long laser blasts to the monster’s head region.

Brimley’s fire hammered a second giant Zenoth creature in the torso and skull as it stumbled and fell from the sky. That left five, closing in fast.

“Oohrah, Marines!” Riot yelled into the comms. “If I don’t see you in this life again, I’ll welcome you in the next!”

Riot heard their responses, but she was already moving toward her target. She was able to take two steps before her third landed her with her foot on the wall. She launched herself off the partition and sailed through the air at the same time she brought her warhammer in a wide swing.

Her timing had to be perfect for this to work. For a moment, she thought she had jumped too soon. The lead Zenoth queen she had chosen as her target still seemed too far away. Riot hung in the air as time slowed. Blue blaster fire erupted behind her as green return fire came at her from below.

Riot could see the Zenoth queen, up close and personal. It was the same kind of massive insect she had encountered before on the planet of Raydon. It looked like a giant praying mantis with multiple arms, huge eyes, pincers, and a row of sharp teeth.

Unlike before, this creature now had unnatural metal wings. A green glow came from its enormous eyes, and the arms on the right section of its body, along with a portion of its torso, were also metal.

Riot’s last thoughts were on Ketrick as a roar built deep in her chest.

I wonder what life we could have had together, Riot thought as time began to speed up. I’ll see you again one day.

As if time were trying to make up for its temporary lapse, the next second sped by.

“Rawww!” Riot screamed as her warhammer strapped with grenades came down on the Zenoth queen’s head.

It was a perfect blow. Riot hit the queen with every ounce of strength she could muster. At the same time she pressed the trigger on her weapon.

BAM!

The last thing Riot remembered was a bright light as she was hurled back into the air like a rock thrown from a catapult.


100

Riot didn’t drink anymore, but the events that occurred now reminded her of times before when she would black in and out of unconsciousness. It was like she was getting snapshots of what was happening to her instead of the full movie.

No pain, only a numb sensation raced across her body. She was flying through the air in an upward arc.

Things faded to black.

Riot slammed into the ground, where an explosion of pain erupted in her head. The wind was not just knocked out of her, it was sucked out of her lungs as if from a vacuum hose.

She couldn’t move.

Riot opened her eyes, trying in vain to make sense of what had happened. Half of her helmet was gone, along with parts of her armor. Although her armor had absorbed a portion of the explosion, it had not been able to keep her safe. The impact of the grenades detonating at that close a range meant her armor had been torn open at the chest.

Riot was lying on her left side. She managed to look down. Her chest was a mess of blood and open flesh. Breathing came hard. There was something wrong with her left eye.

“Well, well, well,” Alveric’s voice said from somewhere above her. “What do we have here?”

Riot still couldn’t move. At the moment, breathing was hard enough. She was able to look up at Alveric, who was surrounded by a contingent of Karnayer soldiers.

As much as she wanted to tell him he looked like she felt, her lips wouldn’t move.

“I would kill you now. I could kill you now.” Alveric lifted a curved sword from a sheath at his side. He pressed the tip against the bottom of Riot’s chin where her helmet had been blown away. “But I’d rather have you watch the city burn as you die.”

Alveric laughed as the sword’s razor sharp edge broke into Riot’s skin and brought her head up to look at the city. The sword dug a bright red trench into her cheek.

Riot knew she should be feeling the pain of the cut, but it seemed her system was still in some kind of deep-seated shock. Instead of the pain, she focused on what she was seeing. Her trajectory after the explosion had sent her up and back down the long road that led to the Trilord city. She was now looking up the dirt road to the city, about fifty yards from the gates.

Smoking corpses of all of the Zenoth queens lay along the road to the gates. All but one had been killed by either her Marines or the Grovothe mechs. There was no sign of her War Wolves. Rippa’s and Atlas’s mechs were both down. The only mech still operating was the fortress class Brimley occupied. Its Gatling gun-like arms still firing at the single remaining Zenoth queen who battered at the gates.

Alveric laughed again, then continued on to the city.

Behind the Zenoth queen striking the gates was an army of Abomination and Karnayer soldiers.

Riot coughed blood as the nanites in her body struggled to keep her alive long past the time she should have already died. The comms in Riot’s helmet were beyond repair. At the moment, she didn’t even know if she had it in her to try to contact anyone else with the nanites that connected her to the rest of the crew.

Get up. You have to get up, Riot thought. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for them. Do it for him.

With a loud crack, the gates to the Trilord city finally broke. A cheer went up from the Karnayer soldiers as they allowed the Abomination force to stream inside.

Riot could hear the fire of Trilord weapons as Queen Revna and her dragon-tattooed warriors tried to hold the gate.

They can’t hold the gate by themselves, not for long, Riot thought. Get up! Get up! You have to get up!

Riot moved her right hand first, and then her left. The pain came from her ripped-open chest more than from anywhere else. Other areas of her body screamed to be heard, but they paled in comparison to the fire she felt in her lungs.

Clawing her way through the dirt road, Riot made use of her hands first, then began trying to move her feet. She made it to her knees. She sat back on them, trying to gather herself. The only good news at the moment was that the Trilords and the forces gathered in the city were still holding the enemy in the entrance to the gate. The fighting had turned from blasters to hand-to-hand combat.

Riot’s left hand slid down from her lap to the compartment on her leg where her two last epinephrine shots still rested.

I wonder what will happen if I take two, Riot thought. There’s only one way to find out.

Riot opened the compartment in her armor, grateful it had been an area that had escaped the initial blast. She ignored the multiple open wounds on her body still oozing dark red blood. She opened up the lids on both pens and, without giving her actions a second thought, plunged them into the side of her neck. In one move, she pressed down both plungers.

“Ugh, this was a mistake,” Riot managed to finally groan as lightning raced through her veins. “Ahh!”

Riot’s body was alive with energy unlike anything she had ever experienced before. Her hands shook, her body quivered with so much force she thought she was going to have a seizure. Then, immediately, her mind cleared and her vision came back as if the epinephrine shots had given the nanites in her body the boost they needed to speed up repairs.

Riot got to her feet and began to walk up the dirt road.

“Alveric,” Riot said, at first unable to bring her voice much over a whisper. There must have been extensive damage to her mouth and throat that the nanites would have to repair before she could say anything. “Alveric.”

The enemy forces had their backs toward her. The battle still raged just inside the city gate. The giant Zenoth queen’s head barely touched the top of the arched gateway. Someone on the other side was managing to keep her at bay. On all sides of the archway, the enemy tried to enter, like an ocean of enemies waiting for the dam to break, and flow through the open gates.

“Alveric!” Riot said, louder this time. She wasn’t able to run yet, but she was feeling stronger. “Alveric!”

She saw him standing at the edge of his army, staying at the rear of his men like a true leader.

“Alveric!” Riot screamed, the energy coursing through her body reaching a point where she felt as though she might be able to run. “Hey, you blue-skinned, elf-looking mother gunner. I’m talking to you!”

Alveric finally turned. The look on his face was priceless—one part wonder, one part fear.

Riot started to run the last few yards to Alveric and his group of personal guards. She reached down, grabbing one of the Karnayer rifles fallen from some dead soldier already forgotten.

Still running, Riot aimed down the barrel.

Four shots and four hits took out Alveric’s guards. He reached for his blade. Riot zeroed in on a head shot and pressed the trigger. A click told her she was empty.

Riot slammed into Alveric instead, using the rifle like a club.

The two combatants went down hard. Riot abandoned the hold on her own weapon for the hilt on Alveric’s sword. She remembered her battle with Remus and how the Karnayer blades worked. Their edges covered in a bright sheen of green magic were capable of cutting through any other material like a laser through ice.

Riot and Alveric rolled on the dirt ground, each trying to rip the grip of the sword hilt from one another’s hands. If the Marines had taught Riot anything, it was how to ignore pain and that little voice in your head that insisted you couldn’t. Instead of giving into self doubt, Riot fought on, ignoring all the reasons why she was too weak to win this fight.

The two combatants finally rolled to a standstill on the dirt road. Alveric was on top of her. He leveraged his entire body to bear down, trying to drive the long blade into her neck.

The sword had been wrestled in a parallel position. The edge of the blade was mere inches from Riot’s throat. Riot’s broken helmet had come off completely as the two combatants rolled on the ground. She could see her own reflection in the mirror of the green blade.

Her face was still a ruin of blood and torn skin that was already repairing itself, thanks to the nanites coursing through her veins.

“Why won’t you just die?” Alveric spat through gritted teeth. His blue skin and white hair were stained with dirt, a gleam of sweat gathered on his brow. “Give in. Give in to the death waiting for you.”

Riot’s hands were shaking. Where Alveric had the entire weight of his body to use to push the blade down, Riot only had her arms as if she were using a bench press machine. She understood she had moments left before her strength gave out.

Anger burned inside of Riot. Anger, not only for her, but also for all the other alien species Alveric and the Karnayers like him had enslaved. With one last effort, Riot managed to roll to her left and fling the blade to the side.

Alveric countered by releasing his hold on the blade, allowing it to fall. Instead of losing his top position, he began to rain down blows across Riot’s head and face.

Stars exploded across Riot’s vision for the second time that day. The pain, Riot could deal with. What she was really worried about was being knocked unconscious before she could finally kill the alien bully on top of her.

Riot threw a few punches of her own, landing them across Alveric’s jaw and nose. Blood poured from both of his own nostrils and a split lip.

“Enough!” Alveric screamed, reaching for a long blade hidden in his belt. “Now you die!”

A thought so insane crossed Riot’s mind that it made her smile.

“Why are you smiling?” Alveric demanded. He lifted the blade above his head in both of his hands to drive down into Riot.

“You’ll see,” Riot said.

Alveric screamed as he pushed the blade down.

Instead of doing what he thought she would by lifting her hands to stop the blade, Riot moved to the side, allowing the green knife-edge to enter her left shoulder as opposed to the area over her heart. Doing this meant two things happened.

First, pain. So much pain, Riot thought for sure she would pass out. A fiery sensation started at her shoulder and spread outward as if heat were actually spreading across her body.

Second, by Alveric committing his entire strength to the stabbing motion, his head had bowed down close enough for Riot to grab. Riot reached up, clutched Alveric around the throat with both hands and, with everything she had, she squeezed.

A look of utter panic took hold of Alveric as all sense lost him. Instead of trying to take the blade out of Riot and stab her again, his hands immediately traveled to his throat to try to pry off her merciless fingers.

“You messed with the wrong species this time,” Riot said as she found Alveric’s windpipe below his folds of skin and tore this section of his throat from his neck.

Alveric gasped as blue blood pooled down his neck and onto his black clothes. Both of his hands struggled to hold the wound closed as more and more lifeblood pooled out. He fell to his side, choking on his own plasma.

Riot struggled to her feet. The blade still in her shoulder sent a stab of pain through her fatigued body. She reached for the fallen sword by Alveric and lifted it over the alien.

“You—all of you—will die,” Alveric managed to choke out.

“Maybe.” Riot lifted the sword over her head. “But not today.”

Riot drove the sword down, splitting Alveric’s head like an overripe watermelon. As soon as she had performed the action, she knew it was the last thing she was able to do before her body gave in to her wounds. Nanites or not, she had taken on too much damage.

Riot sank to her knees.

Everything went dark.


101

Riot wasn’t sure if she was dreaming, or if she had died and this is what the afterlife had waiting for her. She was lying in a white bed with clean, fluffy sheets and pillows surrounding her.

There was no pain in her body, but an exhaustion she had never experienced before lay across her frame.

It was only when she sat up to study the room she realized she wasn’t alone. Queen Revna was dressed in a white gown. Her dark skin was free of any scars or wounds. Her white hair seemed to glow all on its own.

“Calm down, Riot.” Queen Revna smiled. “You’re not the one who’s dead.”

Riot had a hard time processing the queen’s words. When she did, a ball of angst grew in the pit of her stomach.

“The battle … I killed Alveric, I—” Riot tried to make sense of what was happening. “You were at the gate.”

“I was.” The queen traveled to the side of Riot’s bed and took a seat. “I fought alongside humans and Grovothe alike, and we held the gate. After the sacrifice you and your Marines made against the giant insect creatures, everyone rallied to hold the city. I died there, taking down the last insect beast, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I died in service for my people and our alliance.”

“I’m sorry … I’m really sorry. I’ve been blown up, stabbed, and hit in the head too many times today,” Riot said, blinking and shaking her head. “Did you say you died?”

“Yes,” the queen said with a smile that was devoid of any sadness. “I don’t have much time left. They’re strict about the rules here. I just wanted to come to you and tell you that when you wake up, he’ll need you. He acts like a stone, but inside, his heart beats like our own.”

Riot didn’t even have to ask who the queen was talking about. She understood now the queen had come back from the dead to give her a final message about her son.

“He’ll be king now, and he’ll need a queen to rule at his side.” Queen Revna eyed Riot with a sly smile. “I’ve seen how you two are together.”

“Hey, I don’t have any desire to be queen of anything,” Riot said, again shaking her head.

“The best queens never do.” Revna took Riot’s hand into her own. “Just promise me you’ll look after him. That will be enough.”

“I will. Of course I will,” Riot said, holding the queen’s hands tightly in her own. “I promise.”

“And give me a lot of human-Trilord grandbabies,” the queen added in a rush of words as she stood from the bed and made for the door.

“What?!” Riot cried, half-getting out of the bed. “I didn’t agree to that. That wasn’t part of our deal!”

Everything faded to a bright white. The last thing Riot remembered was the same genuine smile on the queen’s lips as she walked out of the room.

Riot blinked multiple times, trying to make sense of what she had just seen and where she was now. Gone were all the white sheets and the fluffy, clean bed. Riot lay in the middle of the road where she had killed Alveric. In fact, his corpse was still lying beside her. From her view on her back, Riot looked into the clear morning sky.

“Riot! Riot!” Someone was yelling in the distance. “Riot, where are you!?”

“She would be the one to find me,” Riot said out loud as she remained lying down, but titled her head up to see Doctor Miller racing toward her. “Just my luck.”

“Riot!” Doctor Miller sprinted to her side. She came to one knee beside Riot, looking down at her. She took off her helmet to reveal a face full of concern. “What did you say? Did you say something? Riot! Riot, talk to me. I’m here for you. You’re not alone.”

“I said I’m happy to see you,” Riot lied.

“Oh, you’re alive!” Doctor Miller wrapped Riot into a hug and squeezed so hard, Riot thought the doctor was going to finish the job Alveric had started.

“Easy,” Riot said in a high-pitched voice. “I can’t breathe.”

“Oh, oh right.” Doctor Miller released Riot. She was crying. “I’m just … I just thought I lost you.”

Riot looked up at Doctor Miller. Her tears were so genuine, her sadness so real, it struck a chord somewhere deep within Riot. She felt her own eyes tingle and burn with the beginnings of tears.

“No. No way.” Riot shook her head. “I’m not crying with you. Help me up, Cupcake.”

Doctor Miller reached down to obey and hefted Riot into a sitting position.

For the first time since she had woken, Riot noticed that the sounds of war had vanished. Silence, maybe a few distant voices, were the only things that could be heard now.

“What happened?” Riot asked while she tried out her various limbs, a question she already knew the answer to as memories of the queen’s visit cascaded into her thoughts. “Did we win?”

“We won,” Doctor Miller said, pointing to Riot’s shoulder. “Is that … is that a knife sticking out of you? Want me to take it out?”

Riot looked down to see the handle of Alveric’s knife still in her body.

“That would probably be a good thing,” Riot said, gritting her teeth.

“Okay, here we go—one ... one and a half … two … two and a half…”

“For all that is holy, will you please—”

Doctor Miller tore the blade from Riot’s shoulder. The pain that came with the act was like ripping off a scab still in the process of healing.

Riot’s face must have betrayed her emotions, because Doctor Miller took a step back.

“Sorry, I read in an article that if your patient is—”

“Can it, Bubbles.” Riot lifted a hand to the doctor. “Help me get up and tell me what happened.”

Doctor Miller obeyed, lifting Riot to her feet. “We were holding the gate, but just barely. Queen Revna went down fighting the last Zenoth hive queen. She and Evonne were the ones who’d finally brought it down. It was hell at the gates, the Abomination horde slicing and the Karnayer army shooting like crazy, trying to get in. I thought we were going to be overrun, when the Abominations suddenly just dropped.”

“What?” Riot asked her. “How?”

“I don’t know.” Doctor Miller shrugged. One second we were all fighting for our lives; and the next, the Abominations dropped dead. The lights in their green eyes went out. It was like someone had killed their power supply or whoever it was controlling them. After that, the Karnayer soldiers still standing ran. Same with the Karnayer ships battling it out in the sky.”

Riot turned back to look at the city gates that lay broken. Portions of the wall were on fire. Other sections had been blasted to splinters. Rippa’s and Atlas’s mech lay on the ground around piles of enemy soldiers.

“Where are the others? How long has the fight been over?”

“Not more than twenty minutes,” Doctor Miller said, opening her hands in front of her. “And the others are all okay, too. Wang, Rizzo, and Vet all made it back after their explosions. Wang has a hearing problem now, but I think that’s just until the nanites repair the damage to his inner ear.”

Riot took a tentative step forward, back up the dirt road. When she found she wasn’t in danger of falling, she took another and another.

“Where’s Ketrick?” Riot asked, already thinking of the man she loved. “Does he know about his mother yet?”

“No, I don’t think so.” Doctor Miller walked beside Riot. “Are the communication nanites fried?”

“I think so,” Riot said, still unable to hear anything from the outside comms. Even her link to Evonne seemed to be down. “Evonne, are you reading me? Evonne?”

Nothing.

“Still down,” Riot said, walking back up the road to the burning city gates.

As they approached the city, the carnage they walked over made Riot shudder. She had no problem killing when killing was the only way, but the amount of bodies littering the ground was nauseating. Thousands of Abomination soldiers, either dead by their own hands or fallen inactive when Alveric was taken out, lined the road.

It soon became so bad, Riot and Doctor Miller couldn’t walk without stepping on the dead bodies. Here and there, a Karnayer soldier lay still, but the vast majority of the corpses belonged to the Abomination horde.

The two giant mech warriors Rippa and Atlas had used in the fight both lay on either side of the gates, like two fallen sentries having given up their final claim on the world.

Riot looked up into the bright sky to see both the Dreadnaught and the U.S.S. Patton drifting back their way. They were too far away to see what general state of disrepair the ships were in, but the fact they were still flying was a good sign.

As Riot and Doctor Miller walked between the hulking fallen mechs, shouts came from the wall. Cheers erupted from all those still standing. Vet, Wang, and Rizzo all ran to see Riot. The three Marines were safe, but sections of their armor had been either blown off or torn off.

Vet approached with both hands on his helmet, placed over his groin.

“Man, am I glad to see you,” Vet said to Riot with a smile as she entered what was left of the gate. “I thought for a second you’d taken your final ride.”

I knew you were too stubborn to go out like that, Rizzo signed. He pointed to Vet’s helmet. The XO had a wardrobe malfunction.

“You’re alive!” Wang shouted so loud, everyone in the vicinity gave them their attention. He pushed a finger into his ear as if that would help his hearing. “Have you seen Vet!? He swears he’s still in one piece down there, but I don’t know! I don’t want to look!”

Riot rolled her eyes, yet couldn’t help smiling. To her left, she caught sight of Rippa and Atlas having their wounds patched up by a Grovothe medic.

Inside the walls and to the right of the gate, the remaining Trilords had lain Queen Revna’s body on a clean, white blanket. She wore the same peaceful smile on her lips Riot had remembered in her dream.

What am I going to say to him? Riot thought as she considered the words she would need when Ketrick arrived. How can I take away any of the pain he’s about to feel?

Riot wished she had come up with a plan before the rush of wings signaling Ketrick’s return sounded overhead.


102

Ketrick touched down on Vikta a few moments later. Whether he knew something was wrong because he had been warned, or just sensed it, Riot wasn’t sure.

The Trilord Prince jumped off Vikta’s back before the dragon had come to a complete stop. He ran to Riot and wrapped her in a hug. It didn’t matter to him who was watching at the moment.

Riot hesitated for a moment, but only for a moment. The universe was changing, and she could, too. She grabbed on to Ketrick tight, lost in his huge arms. The Trilord prince had sustained his own injuries. Black streaks of smoke covered his body, while dried blood told stories all their own.

“I’m so happy you’re safe,” Ketrick said, burying his head into her shoulder. “I heard confused messages over the comms and wasn’t sure what happened. I came as fast as I could.”

The same fear of not knowing what to say took hold of Riot’s gut. Ketrick didn’t know about his mother. He had flown back and seemed in such a hurry for her.

“Ketrick.” Riot pushed him gently back and told him how she would want to be told. No beating around the bush; just the truth, however harsh it may be. “Your mother, the queen … she didn’t make it. She died defending the city.”

Ketrick’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion. He looked up, searching the smoking battlefield for his mother. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed hard.

Tears filled his eyes as he searched for someone he knew he would never see alive again. “Where … where is she?”

“Here, here.” Riot took his hand and led him to the spot where the other Trilords had gathered.

As soon as the other Trilord warriors saw who approached, they went down to one knee. Not a single eye was dry amongst the gathered group of ferocious warriors.

Tears fell freely from Ketrick’s eyes as he looked down at his mother. He took one of her hands into his own and fell to his knees. Although tears washed down his cheeks, no whimpers or cries escaped his throat.

Riot felt hot tears gathering in her own eyes as she looked on. What was she supposed to say? What could she say?

Ketrick leaned over and kissed his mother’s forehead. He stood back, laying her hand gently by her side.

“She … she would have … she would have wanted to die like this,” Ketrick finally managed. “She was … a warrior before a queen.”

Riot gathered Ketrick into her arms as if he were shorter than she. In that moment, he fit into her embrace like a small child. Riot didn’t have to say anything. Ketrick cried into her shoulder for a moment. Brief deep tremors shook his shoulders.

Riot held him so hard that, had he been anyone else, she would have been afraid she might crush them.

A moment later, Ketrick pulled away. If he was ashamed for everyone to see the tears spilling down his face, he didn’t show it.

Every Trilord warrior present remained on their knees to pay respect to their new king.

War Wolves: Boxset 1-3

“So you ripped out his throat, huh?” General Armon looked over to Riot with a twitch of his lips. “That sounds like something you would do.”

Riot stood beside the general on their spot next to the capitol building. From this vantage, they could look out over the city, or what was left of it. The fires that had once run unopposed in the city had been put out. The dead belonging to them were being prepared for burial, while the enemy corpses were being burned.

Riot looked over to her left where, just down the hill, Ketrick, her War Wolves, and Rippa were all taking a brief moment to express their gratefulness for each other having lived through the engagement. Ketrick even went so far as to pat Rippa on the shoulder. Rippa nearly stumbled back from the act.

“It’s not over, is it?” Riot asked herself more than the general standing beside her. “It’ll never be over.”

“Planets, people, aliens will always need to be protected,” General Armon said, catching Riot’s eye. “The universe is a sandbox with bullies in it, just like anywhere else.”

“General, I think I may need a br—”

“It’s come to my attention that you and your crew more than deserve a much-needed rest,” General Armon said, interrupting Riot before she could continue. “You know our position, though, so I can’t give you a break, can I?”

“I understand,” Riot said, licking her dry lips. Was she really going to ask for a leave of absence now? Could she, when there was still so much to do? “General, maybe—”

“But what I can do,” the general interrupted again. His eyes told her he knew exactly what she was going to request. “I can assign you to remain here on Hoydren. I’m calling Colonel Harlan and his team back to Earth. They’ll soon leave to be the emissaries between the Grovothe and SPEAR. I couldn’t think of a better person to leave here to help the Trilords rebuild than you and your team.”

“Thank you,” Riot said to the general. He had given her exactly what she wanted without her even having to ask for a break. She was a Marine, and Marines didn’t need breaks. But this time of rest wouldn’t be for her, it would be to keep a promise she had made to a queen. Although, if she was being truly honest with herself, it was a little bit for her.

Laughter, despite the hour, rose up from the group of warriors to her left. Vet or Wang had said something funny, and Rippa, as well as Ketrick, was bent over laughing. Rizzo was shaking his head, while Doctor Miller tried to explain to Evonne what was so funny.

“Use this time to rest and help the Trilords build.” General Armon’s voice was stern. “The fight is far from over.”

“Oohrah, sir,” Riot said, saluting her superior officer.

“Oohrah, Marine.” The general saluted her back.

Riot reminded herself to walk, not run, back to her team, her family. As she got closer, she picked up on Vet’s voice and the story he was telling.

“And I see Doctor Miller, there, all wide-eyed and sweating, and she’s hitting this Abomination over and over and over again. I mean, this thing isn’t moving, and its guts are just plastered all over the ground. I think Rippa’s mech had stomped it already,” Vet said, pausing to laugh. “And I come up, and I’m like: Doc, I think it’s dead.”

“In my defense, I’m not a warrior, like you guys are.” Doctor Miller shook her head with a good-natured smile of her own. “I didn’t know if it was going to get up and try to shank me or something.”

“Shank you?” Wang doubled over, laughing. “What are we, in prison or something? An Abomination would have stabbed you or blown you away.”

“What does the word ‘shank’ mean?” Ketrick asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Here, let me show you,” Rippa said, pulling a knife from a holster in her boot.

“You should really not be shanking one another,” Evonne said as Rizzo plucked the knife out of Rippa’s hand.

“What?” Rippa said and looked around with a shrug. “I wasn’t going to shank him hard.”

“All right, you misfits,” Riot said, joining her family. “If anyone should be showing anyone how to shank someone, it should be me. Who wants to go first?”

The End


About the Authors

Jonathan Yanez

Jonathan Yanez is the author of over a dozen fantasy and science fiction novels. His works include; The Elite Series, The Nephilim Chronicles, Thrive, Bad Land and The DeCadia Code. He has been both traditionally and independently published with his works being adapted into; ebook, print, audiobook and even optioned for film.

Although writing has been and will always be his main love, physical exercise comes in at a close second. When he's not writing his next novel that more than likely includes some kind of zombie, superhero, angel or alternative steampunk universe he enjoys running with his dogs and working out at the gym.

His hobbies include archery, mud runs, collecting the skulls of his enemies and baking cupcakes. He lives in Southern California with his wife and three pets where he stays highly caffeinated 24/7

http://www.jonathan-yanez.com

https://twitter.com/JonathanAYanez

http://www.facebook.com/JonathanYanezAuthor

Justin Sloan

After serving five years in Marine Corps Signals Intelligence, Justin studied fiction at the Johns Hopkins MA in writing program and screenwriting at UCLA. He went on to work in games and screenwriting, where he has optioned several screenplays and written on such games as Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands.

Justin has presented on writing at the Austin Film Festival, San Francisco Writers Conference, the San Diego State Writers Conference, Gen Con, and more. You can hear his interviews with authors on the Creative Writing Career podcast.

His books are available in audio and print editions, and he has sold Turkish and French rights to several of his series, with the Blade of the Sea series being published under Hachette Publishing Group (under the shared penname with PT Hylton of Jesse Nethermind).

Justin loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit http://www.justinsloanauthor.com/seppukarian to join the email list, receive a free book, receive free giveaways, get the latest exclusive news, connect on Facebook and Twitter, and stay in touch!

www.JustinSloanAuthor.com

Facebook: http://facebook.com/JustinSloanAuthor

Twitter: http://twitter.com/justinmsloan

Audible: http://adbl.co/1G4tbIy


Author Notes Book 1

Jonathan Yanez

I can’t believe you not only read to the end of the book but you’re taking the time to read the author note! Thank you for supporting this crazy guy who enjoys writing about dragons, spaceships and crews of broken, awesome, crazy, fun characters.

When I signed on to write in the Seppukarian universe I didn’t realize how much fun I would have and how fast it would go. As I’m sitting down at my kitchen table keeping an ear out for my little space Marine to wake up from her nap, I’m in shock. Book two is already finished and I’m working on the third and final book now.

Coffee drained and a new energy drink to my right, I’m feeling emotional. It could be because my daughter kept me up all night or the unnatural amount of caffeine pumping through my system, either way this has been a blast.

When Justin Sloan first begged me to write in his universe… or was it the other way around? Okay maybe I begged him to take a chance on me and write a book together. The details are hazy but I digress.

As I signed on to the series I knew I wanted to take my crew off planet and explore. My favorite stories are those of the unknown, where anything can happen -- yes, even space dragons.

Here’s a little behind the scenes look at what I was thinking when I created these characters.

I wanted to do a female version of Deadpool and that’s where Riot came from. She’s the best, right? Just says what we’re all thinking or at least what I’m thinking.

I love writing characters with eye patches, don’t ask me why. If you read any of my other books you’ll notice a trend. They just look cool in my opinion. Vet’s character came from a story I heard of someone who actually wears diapers on road trips. I won’t say more. It’s either genius or disturbing, maybe a bit of both.

Rizzo was cool to write. I read an article that twenty percent of the population is handicapped in some way and so I wanted to bring that into our story. I took sign language in junior college and found it really interesting.

Wang started as my typical smart doctor but I wanted to add different dimensions to his character. When I think doctor I think clean cut, definitely not tattoos or Mohawk haircut. Then I really ran with the idea and added in his throwing knives, love for science fiction books, and the shady drug issue. As much as we’d all like to look away from the idea, we all have issues and do or have struggled with something. Wang’s no different.

Ketrick was like my Drax the destroyer. I love that guy and knew my werewolf like Viking hybrid would be similar. My very first series ever have Elite humans with red eyes and I threw in this as an Easter egg to those fans who have been with me since the beginning.

Finally, Doctor Deborah Miller. She’s the straight edged must be done by the book type. I can’t wait for you to see how her character changes. She’s the polar opposite of Riot and, while all the characters in the trilogy evolve over the course of the three books, you’ll see her and Riot change the most.

Well that’s a little insider information on the series. For those of you who want to know more about this guy penning crazy stories about the unknown universe, I’m thirty-two, married, we have one child and my wife and I are in negotiations for a second. Josephine, we just call her Jo, is a year and a half and already training to be a force in this world. As soon as she’s up it’s a cardio routine running around the house, and she takes her lifting seriously as she empties every drawer she can open.

We also have a husky named Daphne, an Alaskan Malamute named Atlas and a white cat named Helen with two different colored eyes.

I’m able to spend my days at home with Jo because of readers like you supporting my work. I wake up early to write in the morning before her reign of terror descends on the day. I get more time to work when she takes her afternoon nap and then again when she goes down for the night. It’s exhausting, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love that crazy kid.

In addition to all of that I try to hit the gym four days a week to try and fend off the dad bod that so many of my friends have fallen victim to.

Another question I get a lot is what my background was in before I started writing. Are you ready for this one? I worked as a used car salesman. Not even a legit used car sales place. I worked for a rental company for five years in California. Yeah, I did that.

I finally reached a point where I was miserable and knew I had to quit. After that, I worked part time as a personal trainer while my writing career took off. I’ve been writing fulltime now for about four years.

Anyway enough about my own origin story. It’s Saturday morning and I can hear Jo in the other room with her mom. Poop may or may not be everywhere by the sounds of it. I’m going to go lend a hand with the fallout. Those of you who have kids understand things like these need to be contained ASAP.

Thanks again for your support,

Jonathan

Justin Sloan

Jonathan has created an awesome story here, one that I am extremely glad to be involved with and have in our universe. For those of you who don't know, yes, this is part of the Seppukarian Universe, which is a series of stories that will all take place in the same universe, but mostly be their own thing. To a degree. They're actually all fighting the same enemy, just different facets of that enemy, different enemy allies, etc. I think it will be a lot of fun for you readers, and I am loving it from a creative standpoint.

We started by having each of the writers do a short in our Shifting Dimensions anthology, where we used this as the backstory and starting point for those stories:

In the not too distant future, an alien empire called the Syndicate has invaded Earth. After the armies of the world are quickly destroyed, a ragtag resistance comprised of Marines and insurgents rises up to overthrow the invaders and save humanity.

With their superior technology and ability to manipulate time, the Syndicate has so far been able to keep the resistance in check, but the stakes are raised when the insurgents hijack an alien time ship.

When the mechanism that allows for time travel is triggered, however, the resistance fighters find themselves thrust into a maelstrom of infinite time loops and possibilities.

The stories that follow are what they experience when the fabric of time is ripped wide open.

And you can see that those came out of the Syndicate Wars series, five books that serve as a bit of a prequel to these other books. You don't have to read those, but if you want to get more of what happened before all of this, the books are there for you to do so.

Jonathan is the first of the collaborators to get his series going, and it's an amazing start, as you have just seen! (Assuming you read the book and didn't just skip to the notes). When I first started discussing this idea with authors, I was a bit nervous. It's always nerve-racking to start writing with someone, because you never know how it will turn out.

I was more than pleasantly surprised. Jonathan's War Wolves books have blown me away, and I'm so excited to bring you this series. He did most of the work, so credit should largely go to him. I've helped with world creation, editing, and little things like that.

If you have followed my author career at all, you know that I did something similar with Michael Anderle, but I was in the position Jonathan is now with this universe. Michael invited me to write with him, and within a year I had twelve books in his series and had been able to go full time as a six-figure author. It's an amazing experience, and one I want to be able to replicate with people like Jonathan. That said, we're taking a much more slow-burn approach to this series, so don't expect me to try and compete with Michael or anything. That's not my goal. My goal is to create another awesome universe that can follow its own rules and bring in a unique set of authors to tell amazing stories about Space Marines and the like.

Have you read my Shadow Corps books yet? They are in the same universe as well, and are my solo spinoffs. I've seen a great launch and amazing feedback, and hope to replicate that or do better with this series.

So once again, thank you so much for reading War Wolves, and please consider leaving a review on Amazon and Goodreads. We couldn't do it without you amazing readers, and thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your support!

Justin


Author Notes Book 2

Jonathan Yanez

Well, well, well, look who decided to stick around for the after party. I’m so glad you did! I was going to write you this message a few hours ago and decided I needed a nap first. Someone thought it would be a good idea to crank out these books, while still personal training at the gym and modeling and on top of that thought he could potty train his year and a half year old little space Marine all at the same time. By someone I’m talking about me. I tried to do all of that. Yeah, didn’t end so well. It all went a lot smoother in my head then in real life. I have a problem with telling myself, “How hard could it be?”

The answer to that question is really pooping hard. Josephine, my beautiful daughter, just isn’t ready yet. We tried an approach that was supposed to have her potty trained in two to three days. Sounds too good to be true right? That’s because it is!

For the last three days I’ve been writing, around taking her to the potty every fifteen minutes. Yeah, you heard that right, every fifteen minutes. I have an alarm on my phone with a puppy barking to remind us. The crazy thing is that she actually doesn’t mind going to the potty with daddy. When she hears the alarm goes off she smiles and we both race to the bathroom. I sit her on the toilet then we just stare at each other smiling like a couple of lunatics.

Next comes the part where she tells me she’s all done without having peed or pooped. Enter the scene where I read to her on the toilet to try and get her to stay on a few more seconds and try.

Inevitably she’s persistent that she’s all done and we wash her hands. She loves this part as much as playing with a new toy. She splashes and giggles and it’s like talking someone off a ledge to try and get her to turn the water off and leave the bathroom.

Minutes later she’s standing in a puddle of her own pee in the family room or if I’m really lucky I get a few brown nuggets in random places like the kitchen or her room. Any who we go back to the toilet and start the process all over again. Today is day three and today I called a break to this madness.

Taking her to the potty every fifteen minutes means by ten thirty AM we had visited the toilet twelve times. She hadn’t gone one in the potty and instead peed twice on the floor. For my own sanity we’re taking a break. I haven’t given up yet, never give up. However, I think it’s time to recess our strategy and consider that the tiny space Marine needs more time or a different tactic to drop her excrement in the potty.

Wow, I feel a lot better just talking about this to someone. Thank you for listening. And I have great news! Even as I’m writing this message to include in the back of book two in the War Wolves series I’m just finishing book three! I should have it edited and along the road to publication in the next day or two.

I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the ride thus far and what’s more have decided to read the author notes at the end of the books. I’m grateful to have friends and readers like you. Some would use the word “lucky” here but if you haven’t guessed from reading my books I don’t believe in luck.

Let’s see what cool things can I tell you about book two before giving you an idea about what book three is about? In book two I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel so if you haven’t guessed the Grovothe are basically space elves in mechs. Along the same line the Karnayers I modeled after elves and the Trilords, aren’t really giants but that’s how they started. I love fantasy as much as sci-fi and wanted to bring those kind of characters to life in space.

Also the Zenoth had to be involved because I really wanted to do bugs and hive queens and all those fun tropes that come with space Marines. A game I play with myself every single time I write a book, and I’m twenty one books in at this time, is trying to think of different ways for the hero to kill the main baddy.

By different I don’t just mean how I’ve written them, I mean how I’ve never seen anyone write the final battle scene before. I’ve come up with some pretty crazy things and I’m looking forward to seeing what you think about the death scene in book three especially.

Nice transition to book three right? So without giving too much away the final book in the War Wolves trilogy is going to melt your brain. I was laughing and crying at different times as I wrote this last book. I know it sounds weird but the characters kind of take the wheel and drive while I write. For most of the book I’m just kind of holding on as Riot gets into her shenanigans and the crew banters back and forth.

I guess that’s all I should say. I don’t want to ruin the last book for anyone. Anyway I better get back to editing book three. It would be awesome to connect with you either on Facebook or on my website. I’m on Facebook almost every day just type in my name in the search bar. If you’d like to join my wolf pack of readers you can visit my site at www.jonathan-yanez.com and join the pack.

As much fun as I have writing these stories I get just as much enjoyment as making new friends and connecting with awesome readers like you.

See you on the other side,

Jonathan

P.S. We just signed contracts with Podium to bring Riot and the War Wolves to audiobook! I can’t wait to hear the voice actress bring Riot to life.

Justin Sloan

Jonathan did it again! If you don’t now, he’s the one doing the majority of these books, and every time he brings me something I’m blown away. They’re so much fun, right?

Working on books like this is the best, because instead of filling your minds with all kinds of drama and heartache, we’re here taking these characters through crazy situations that they will fight their way out of and bring the thunder in a way that makes you, we hope, pump your fist and laugh with the thrill of the fight. It’s like watching John Wick or Jack Reacher, but in space, right?

For me this type of story hits a soft spot because it is, in a sense, a way to escape all of the craziness of the world. My grandma just passed away, we read the news and get depressed, money problems, etc., right? All of these things can tear us down if we let them, but sometimes all you need is a good book to take you away from it all. Maybe Riot reminds you that it’s okay to just punch the enemy in the throat (the enemy here being all that crap—cancer, negative thoughts, whatever) and go back to your friends and enjoy life. Maybe her friends are your friends now? That’s how I am when reading and writing. When I finished Glynn Stewart’s Starship Mage book (which I LOVED) it was like I had just spent a great time with my buddies kicking butt in space with runes and magic and spaceships.

Is it a depressing thought, that our friends are fictional? Hell no! Because our friends simply include the fictional. Now our friends include you, and you, and you, and me! Haha. You get what I’m saying, right? This is a new age of writing, and you can join us on the Seppukarian Universe Facebook page and chat about this and other stories, or just tell us about the new cats you adopted (you know who you are). We love it! It’s a community that the old age of fiction writing never benefited from. So thank you for being part of it. You keep reading, we’ll keep writing!

How could we stop even if you weren’t reading, right? Telling stories is just too much fun!

There’s also the fact that I was in the Marines, so always love a fun action story that takes me back to memories of going into space to kill crazy bugs and fight along mechs. Oh, wait, that part of my service was TS, so… pretend I never said anything here!

But seriously, I had mixed feelings about my time in the Corps, but love to explore those emotions in these stories. Is it all fun and games? No, but there’s a lot of fun anyway.

So how about you all? What makes you keep reading these books, and what other ones are you reading? We’d love to hear from you! You can reach me at [email protected]

And if you enjoyed the book, please leave a review and check out the other series in the Seppukarian Universe (see the links in the What Next? section.

Thanks again for reading this book and hanging out with a couple of authors for a few hundred pages. We appreciate you and think you’re the most amazing fans in the world!

Justin


Author Notes Book 3

Jonathan Yanez

Well, well, well look who decided to come back for more. And I’m so glad that you did! Saying a simple thank you doesn’t seem like enough. You are my family. Not just because you read my books or because you’re reading the author note at the end of book three but because you and I are the same.

We both love stories and our imaginations know no bounds. We’re from the same tribe, the same pack, the very same clan. You’re my people.

Okay, that was starting to get a little mushy so back to sharing with you what’s been going on in my neck of the woods. War Wolves has done better than any of my previous books and I have you to thank for that. The way you have embraced Riot and her crew has far exceeded even my wildest expectations and that’s saying something because you’ve seen my imagination and it’s pretty out there.

The sales numbers for War Wolves have come in and the numbers don’t even look real. I think I’m still kind of processing the success of the series. I’ve refused to let my day to day routine change. Everyday I stay home with my daughter and we play and color and I write while she naps or at night I’m up late after she lays her tiny head to rest.

I promise not to let the success of War Wolves go to my head. My reward to myself once the money comes in is a new pair of gym shorts I needed since one of the drawstrings on my other pair of shorts mysteriously gut sucked into that little hole it comes out of in the waistline.

You know what I’m talking about right? It happens to a lot of hoodies that have drawstrings too. One day out of the wash that lace you pull has for some reason receded into the hole all on its own.

Never mind, this conversation is all to say that I’m being smart with my success. I’m hard at work on the next project and plan on using the money that’s coming in wisely to help support my wife and daughter.

I feel like I owe so many of you another thank you for leaving reviews on both Bring the Thunder and Click Click Boom. I have tough skin from so many years in sales but for some reason there was a review left the other day on Bring the Thunder that really bothered me. I think it was because the review kept using my first name like he knew me. That’s what probably what made the attack feel so personal.

After reading that rough review I was trying to figure out why I was letting his words bother me so much. I was trying to fend off the voices in my head that demanded I spend more and more time thinking about it when you freaking awesome wolves came to the rescue and didn’t even know it!

Wi