Book: Gateway to the Galaxy Universe: The Complete Military Space Opera Series (Books 1 - 9)



Gateway to the Galaxy Universe: The Complete Military Space Opera Series (Books 1 - 9)


Copyright © 2018 by Archimedes Books. All rights reserved.

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

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





Gateway to the Galaxy Universe


A Box Set of Nine Books


Jonathan Yanez JR Castle



Contents


Other Books in the Gateway to the Galaxy Universe

Stay Informed


Into the Breach

Acknowledgements

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

Always Forward

Acknowledgments

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

Chaos Sieged

Acknowledgements

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Epilogue

Jonathan Yanez Author Note

JR Castle Author Note

The Academy

Acknowledgments

Prologue

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

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Jonathan’s Note

Face Toward Enemy

Acknowledgments

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

Jonathan’s Note

JR’s Note

Burn the Night

Acknowledgments

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

A Note For You

Rise Up

Acknowledgments

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

A Special Message For You

Strength in Struggle

Acknowledgments

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

Epilogue

Do or Die

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

The Invasion

Other Books in the Gateway to the Galaxy Universe

Stay Informed

About the Authors


Other Books in the Gateway to the Galaxy Universe

Gateway to the Galaxy

Into the Breach

Always Forward

Chaos Sieged

Face Toward Enemy

Rise Up

Do or Die

The New Arilion Knights

The Academy

Burn the Night

Strength in Struggle

Short Story

Shall We Begin

The Invasion Series

Invasion

Stand Your Ground

Fight Back


Stay Informed

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

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


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Into the Breach Book One of the Gateway to the Galaxy Series


Acknowledgements


If you think this book is awesome at all it’s only because I have a pack of rabid ARC Wolves, a wonderful editor and a talented cover artist. Thank you for your help.

ARC WOLVES

Kelly

Athena

Wayne

Leo

Eagle Eyes

Lois

Editor - Kimberly Grenfell

Cover Illustrator - JCaleb










This one’s for you, Toots. - JR Castle

For YumYum and all the animals who’ve been friends and family - Jonathan


1

“You’re smarter than you look.”

“Yeah, well, I like to manage expectations.” Frank glanced at his flavor-of-the-week date with a wry grin. He tried a playful line he had used so many times before, intentionally misquoting the saying to get a smile. “I’m just a girl looking at a guy, wondering what—”

A message from Frank’s watch blared a familiar tune as it interrupted the two at dinner and all those around them.

“Umm—sir?” A waiter passing by their table gave Frank a parental look.

“Sorry, I’m on it,” Frank said with an apologetic nod.

“What’s ‘butts’?” the ash-blonde at his right asked, scrunching together her perfectly shaped eyebrows. “Why does your watch say ‘butts’ on it?”

“It’s B.U.T.T.S. all in caps, like an acronym. It’s just work,” Frank said, checking the smooth, black face of the watch he wore on his left wrist. He ignored the message from his boss. “So where were we? We were talking about doing something fun after dinner, right?”

“What’s an acronym?” the blonde asked, a quizzical expression etched on her face. “Is that like two words that are the same?”

“I think you’re thinking of a synonym,” Frank said with a signature smile.

BEEP BEEP BE-DOH BEEP BEEP!

Before he could continue, his watch sounded again. Usually, it wouldn’t have been of any major concern; his Power Rangers ringtone letting him know he had a message from work was standard. However, tonight, Frank had taken his newest date to a rather exclusive, highbrow Italian cuisine experience, where the other patrons didn’t look amused by the constant juvenile sounds emanating from his latest communication tech.

“Can you turn that off?” his date asked as she looked around, her shoulders shrinking as she glanced from side to side, avoiding eye contact with the other diners. Her gaze beneath the curtain of obvious eyelash extensions landed on a table in the corner, where a quartet of brawny, well-dressed men sat glaring at them. Their bodies were tense and unnaturally still within their cashmere, fine-tailored suits. If Frank were to venture a guess, their day jobs weren’t exactly of the legal kind.

“Technically, I can. But the boss doesn’t like it when I switch her to ‘off’ or ‘mute.’ They can track all of that stuff, you know,” Frank said, eyes on the same table as Melony … or was it Susan?

Open concept dining area of the restaurant featured low, cushioned seating around polished, olive-wood tables. A warm, orange glow from table candles and low-hung pendant lamps lit the way for the service staff. The team met their patrons’ needs in swift, unpressured movements; their timing and recommendations were as impeccable as their shirts were crisp. It was the type of place one went for a celebration, where the prices on the menu carried an extra digit and the parking was valet only. It wasn’t Frank’s usual go-to, but he was always down to try anything once.

The light chatter in the restaurant picked up again, after having been disturbed for the second time by Frank’s watch. A cellist filled the air with smooth vibrations from a corner, serenading the crowd with songs Frank could recall but couldn’t name.

“Like, what kind of watch is that, anyway?” The blonde leaned over to Frank, revealing a light pink bralette beneath a plunging neckline. “I’ve never seen a triangle one like that before.”

“Oh, it’s not really on the market,” Frank started. “It’s a—”

BOM-BOM BOM BOM-BOM

This time his watch didn’t send him a message—it rang. The theme music to Terminator thundered through the quiet of the restaurant like a war drum in a church. The interruption was too loud for Frank to ignore. A quick look down confirmed his suspicions: two messages and a call.

The first message said: Frank, report in.

The second: Frank we have an urgent matter for you. Report.

The call was from his immediate supervisor.

“Hey, muscles,” a raspy voice said from Frank’s left. “Time for you and your cell phone to make yourself scarce from my restaurant. You can leave the lady.”

Frank leaned back in his chair to look up into the bloodshot eyes of a bald man with a scar across his throat. He was one of the four who had been glaring at him from the table in the corner. Behind him stood three larger men Frank guessed were his own “muscles.”

“Listen, I’m sorry,” Frank said, shaking his head with a sigh. “I understand my watch going off can be disturbing. Trust me, the last thing I want to do is ruin someone’s tortellini. That’s a fun word, right? Tortellini? Anyway, I’ll take the call outside, and we can all go back to enjoying our night.”

“You must not have heard me.” Baldy grabbed Frank by the collar and dragged him to his feet. “You’re done here.”

“This … this is just escalating so fast.” Frank sighed. Although he was being lifted from his seat, his tiptoes barely touching the ground underneath him, Frank kept his cool. “We’re really going to do this right here? Right now?”

“You have brain damage or something?” Baldy leered down at him.

“Probably. All that time in the Corps couldn’t have been good for me.” Frank placed both his hands on top of the man’s who was holding him up. He looked over to his date. “I’m really sorry about this.”

The blonde’s mouth was wide open as she watched the scene unfolding in front of her. She wasn’t capable of saying anything, though she did manage to grab her phone and begin to record the scene. The entire restaurant had gone quiet; from the cellist playing in the corner, to the chattering people at the other tables, everyone looked on, unwilling to intervene.

“Last chance,” Frank said to the gorilla-sized restaurateur still holding him. “Let me go now, or things are going to get … painful, up in here.”

“You idiot,” Baldy said. “You’re—ahhhhh!”

Frank had kept his temper in check for as long as he was able. A long time ago, he had been taught the lesson that someone’s grip could be stronger than your own, but a single finger of theirs was never as strong as your entire hand.

In one quick move, Frank had grabbed the man’s left pinky finger and twisted it backwards past its normal range of motion.

SNAP!

The phalange cracked with a sickening noise. And Frank didn’t stop. It was his turn to grab the hefty man, who was a few inches taller than his own six-foot frame, by the pressed broadcloth collar. Frank slammed the crown of his own head into the man’s crooked nose—once, twice, three times.

There was another crunch as a shower of blood cascaded over the two combatants, as well as the table Frank had been sitting at with his date. Frank’s chambray shirt was a bloody mess. The front of Baldy’s shirt was white no more.

“Damn. I’m going to need another new shirt,” Frank said, considering himself for a brief moment, rolling his eyes.

Everyone was stunned as the bald man moaned and sunk to his knees. Like some spell had been lifted, the three goons behind their downed leader charged at Frank.

Frank’s plan was simple. When dealing with multiple targets, the best idea was to always put down each enemy as fast as possible, with as few strikes as possible, in order to move on to the next target. Not like in the movies, where the hero fights five different bad guys at once.

The first attacker came at Frank with a wide swing. Frank leaned back, letting the blow glance past his face. The strike was so close, a brief gust of wind rushed past his nose.

Frank struck out with his right fist, which landed across the bearded man’s jaw. Then he slammed into the man with his right shoulder, driving him back into his two counterparts who were trying to get around their comrade and join the fight. Frank grabbed the dazed man behind the head with both of his hands, and at once, he drove the man’s head down and his right knee up into his skull.

The man toppled just as pain exploded across Frank’s eyes. Bright dots played in front of him. Another strike from the dark-suited man on his right split the right side of Frank’s lip.

Recovering, Frank caught the third blow intended for him, twisting the man’s arm completely around by his wrist. The attacker fell to his knees in a scream of pain. As though in one single, fluid motion, Frank slammed his right fist into the back of the man’s exposed arm. His blow landed right over the man’s elbow, shattering his arm in multiple locations.

But it had taken too much time. Frank’s final attacker grabbed a dinner knife from the table and lunged for his head. Frank moved out of the way, but too late. A shallow cut opened at his dark hairline on the left side of his face.

Frank knocked into a table behind him, trying to get out of the path of the man swiping his knife through the air like a crazed orchestra conductor.

Frank reached behind him, feeling at the edge of the table and grabbing a utensil he hoped was a knife of his own. It was a spoon.

“Of course I would grab a spoon,” Frank muttered.

The two men circled one another. Frank’s enemy smiled at him with malicious intent. Without warning, the man charged again.

Inverting the spoon so the handle now pointed up, Frank batted the incoming knife to the side and plunged the handle of his spoon into the man’s left eye.

A collective gasp rose up from the restaurant’s clientele. The man screamed, clawing at the spoon coming out of his eye as he fell to the ground.

“Someone should call an ambulance … or two.” Frank looked down at the carnage at his feet. “They’re going to need some help getting up from this one, and a lot of pain meds.”

Frank looked over at his date. The woman’s mouth hadn’t closed since the fight began. Nor had her phone been put down. A spray of crimson blood from the bald man’s nose speckled her cream dress.

“Hey, Faith.” Frank winced, hoping that was her name. “You okay?”

“My name’s not Faith, Frank!” The woman finally recovered from her shock, looking down at her blood-spattered dress. “And no, I’m not okay!”

“Why was I thinking Faith? Amber? It’s Amber, right?”

The blonde shot daggers at him from her blue eyes.

“Nikki?”

“I’m going to kill you myself!” the woman screamed.

Frank’s watch went off again.

“Well, I gotta run, but … raincheck?” Frank grinned at the woman, his split lip still bleeding. “We should really do this again sometime soon.”


2

Instructions always came the same way: a location destination and a time. Nothing more, nothing less. Transportation arrangements were made for him. All Frank had to do was show up where he was told to and introduce the buyers to the weapons and/or equipment.

B.U.T.T.S. stood for Ballistics United Tactical and Tech Systems. His employer was a technology and weapons manufacturer that primarily sold to the United States government. The company, founded by two Marines who had served in Desert Shield and were originally backed by some smart investors, had earned the leading name in the business of everything from body armor that could stop a high-caliber bullet at point-blank range, to the latest and greatest in gauss powered rifles. Not to mention, they developed and launched items most people have only heard of in futuristic and sci-fi cinemas. They credited part of their continued success to employing Marines who had been in the field, who knew their stuff, and who knew how to execute orders.

A quick flight, and Frank found himself in Nevada. An armed escort picked him up from McCarran airport. Frank wasn’t given details on who the buyer was, but when the soldier approached him, he was pretty sure he knew.

“Frank Wolffe?” asked an attractive, middle-aged woman with shoulder-length chestnut hair and clad in military fatigues. “Are you Frank Wolffe?”

“You already know the answer to that.” Frank smiled with a wince. The act had brought on a stinging sensation to the corner of his lip, which was still recovering from the previous night. “I heard you needed some … goods.”

The woman’s astute gaze darted around the small airport to see whether anyone had overheard Frank’s remarks. “Yes, we can discuss the details later. The products have arrived ahead of you and are waiting for us. Follow me.”

She wasted no time on pleasantries. Simply completing an about-face, she walked away.

Frank was used to the military type. He had served his own obligation as soon as he could enlist. It seemed like a lifetime ago that he had been contracted with the United States Marine Corps. As soon as he had completed his stint, he had been hired by B.U.T.T.S. During his decade or so with the weapons manufacturer, he had worked his way up the ranks to be a salesman of sorts for the company. His amiable personality and ability to magnify the effectiveness of their product made him a perfect fit for the job.

“I’m Major Lucy Lopez,” the woman said, still walking briskly to exit the airport terminal. She extended a hand while she walked, making the handshake awkward.

Frank took it anyway. “Glad to meet you.”

That was it. Frank and the woman strode to the terminal exit, where a desert Humvee awaited, with two more Marines riding in front.

Major Lopez opened the door for Frank, and the two ducked into the back of the Humvee.

A pile of paperwork sat in a bulky, foliage-green seat. The familiar B.U.T.T.S. logo stamped on the envelope was enough to tell Frank the paperwork was for him.

“This came for you a few hours ago with the rest of the equipment,” Major Lopez said, taking a seat opposite Frank and slamming the heavy door shut behind her.

The chill morning air of the Nevada desert was just cold enough to create light puffs of mist from Frank’s breath. He pulled his wool peacoat tighter around him, wishing he had worn long underwear or something other than denim jeans. Though the arid desert climate didn’t cut to the bone like the winds of Chicago, it penetrated clothing layers with a slow, still creep.

“Not used to the cold?” Major Lopez looked amused as the Humvee jerked into motion. “Don’t worry, we’ll be there soon.”

“I’m great, take your time,” Frank said, grabbing the manila envelope resting on the seat beside him. Embossed at the top of the otherwise nondescript enclosure was the logo of his employer—a pyramid with the back of a bullet in the center filled the triangle-shaped emblem. A circle surrounded the pyramid.

Frank took the next few minutes to peruse the itemization of equipment and weaponry he would be unpacking and presenting to the United States Marine Corps. The list was extensive; beyond extensive. Frank saw items on the inventory he had previously thought were still in the conceptual stages of development. This order would have totaled in the billions of dollars.

“You all right?” Major Lopez asked across from Frank as the Humvee barreled out of Sin City and into the vast Mojave desert’s rocky red-browns with patches of cactus and grasses. “You look like you’re surprised.”

“What? Oh.” Frank kept his head tilted down, but moved his eyes up to meet the Major’s gaze. “What are you jarheads doing out here in the Mojave? I’ve never seen an order like this before.”

“You know the rules: don’t ask, don’t tell,” Major Lopez said with a twitch of her own eyebrows. It was clear she was aware of her flawless skin and attractive disposition. “Eyes only.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Frank said, shaking his head from side to side as he finished pouring over the manifest. “I’m breaking my own rule. The less I know, the better. I’m going to introduce you and your CO to the goodies then I’ll be off.”

“Sounds good to me,” Major Lopez said.

But the truth was Frank couldn’t shake curiosity that easily. “But seriously, like it’s aliens or something, right?”

“What’s that?”

“I mean out here in the desert, you found aliens. Like Area 51. Don’t try to lie to me about that one. I’ve been there.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny.” Major Lopez actually smiled.

Frank leaned back with a sigh. “You’ve told me everything already.”

“I’ve told you nothing.” Major Lopez rolled her eyes.

“Exactly,” Frank said, putting his hands into the pockets of his peacoat. “That’s my point.”

“You’re a nut.”

“Oh, I’m a lot more than that,” Frank said as his mind ran over the vast inventory once more. The Marines had spared no expense. Everything on the list would equip a small army. The only thing missing was the large hyper-beam weapons Frank had seen in development at B.U.T.T.S. headquarters. He wouldn’t doubt that it was only on backorder.

They made the rest of the journey in silence. Frank caught signs on the road to their destination outside the city of Las Vegas, and it was soon clear where the Humvee was headed. The Hoover Dam was getting closer and closer.

Mile markers counting down the span to the man-made structure popped up every few minutes as they approached. Frank’s mind was working on overdrive. To his knowledge, there was no working military branch stationed at the Hoover Dam.

A sixth sense Frank had grown to trust during his own time in the military tickled the back of his neck.

Easy there, hombre, Frank thought. You’re not in the military anymore. This isn’t different than any other job. Get in, play Santa, give the kids their shiny new toys, and get out. Don’t ask any more questions or show more interest than you have to. This is just a job. Tonight, you’ll be back taking Lisa, or Deborah, or whatever her name was, out on a make-up date. Or if not her, someone else.

Despite his own internal pep talk, Frank couldn’t help noticing when the Humvee pulled off the main road. Major Lopez produced a black hood from her back pocket and handed it to Frank.

“Really?” Frank accepted the hood. “It’s not like I don’t know where we are. And the hood’s still warm from your butt cheek.”

“Oh, I know you know where we are, but you don’t know how we get in.” Major Lopez pointed to the hood. “I’m going to have to insist. And I warmed it up for you on purpose. You looked cold.”

“That’s borderline disgusting.” Frank sighed as he placed the hood over his head, covering his espresso brown hair down to his muscular neck, the end resting on his broad shoulders. The cloth was coarse and irritated the cut on his hairline where the steak knife had scratched him the night before. “I’m going to tack on hazard pay for this one.”

Frank felt the Humvee lurch to life again and bounce down an unmarked road.

“I’m going to have to ask you for your phone, smartwatch, and any other pieces of communication you have on your person,” Major Lopez said, her voice drifting past the hood. “It won’t work where we’re going anyway but just to be sure. They’ll be returned when you’re done.”

Frank had been expecting this new development, but he moved slowly anyway. “Rules, rules, rules. Makes me miss my time in the corps.”

“I’m sure we could find you the right paperwork if you want to re-enlist,” the Major said, accepting Frank’s phone and watch. “Maybe even speed up the process for you and get you back in basic by week’s end.”

“I’m going to have to take a hard pass on that.” Frank was going to say more, when the thundering of water—a lot of water—picked up the conversation for him.

Frank resisted the urge to take off the hood and see for himself. It sounded like millions, maybe trillions, of gallons of water escaping somewhere around or below him.




3

The urge to tear off the black hood that scratched at his fair face was nearly impossible to ignore. Frank had to remind himself to behave and keep his hands by his sides, instead of removing the hood that obscured his vision.

For the time being, the roar made by the rush of escaping water drowned out anything he or the Major could say, and for what felt like a few minutes (but in reality, had to be seconds), all there was, was the sound of water being drained to—well, Frank wasn’t sure to where.

After what seemed like an eternity, the sound of the rushing water receded, and the Humvee jerked to life. Frank felt the vehicle moving forward.

“Either we’re entering the world’s largest toilet bowl, or I have a serious inner ear issue,” Frank said through the hood. “Hey, man, we can make this ride a lot smoother if you’ve got the funds.”

Clearly, the major was not amused at his swipe at their older-model vehicle.

“We’re almost there,” Major Lopez answered as the Humvee came to yet another stop.

This time, instead of there being another rush of water, the electric hum of a slow moving elevator filled his ears. Frank felt the military-grade vehicle begin to sink as if being lowered on some kind of oversized lift. A stale, dank scent accosted Frank’s nose through the wool mask.

“Just a few more seconds now, Mr. Wolffe,” Major Lopez coaxed. “You’re doing great.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me.” Frank leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m great over here, sitting blindfolded in a bag you pulled out from your back pocket. Hey, have you guys washed this thing since the last victim you brought down here?”

The only reply he received was the vehicle jolting to a stop again. The hum of the lift silenced. For the last time, the Humvee rolled forward and came to a complete stop only a few seconds later.

“All right you’re good to go,” Major Lopez said, reaching over and taking the hood off Frank. “Welcome to The Den.”

Frank blinked, then blinked again, not believing his eyes. “Did you roofie me somehow, or something like that?”

Frank looked through the window of the Humvee to a massive enclosed staging area loaded with vehicles and aircraft alike.

The major didn’t answer Frank, but instead hopped off the Humvee, exchanging words with the two Marines who had been in the driver and commander seats. The two soldiers saluted and jogged down the vast warehouse.

Frank’s synapses fired like Pop Rocks on cola as he took in the area around him, calculating the details to deduce their possible location. There were no windows in the warehouse; all four walls, floor, and ceiling were the same cement grey.

The room itself was massive with rows of Humvees, JLTVs, and other four-wheeled vehicles on one side of the chamber. On the other side were lines of Apache helicopters, hovercrafts Frank had never seen, and some kind of spacecraft fighter that looked like a stealth bomber.

Running, shouting, and working amongst all of these pieces of machinery were a handful of Marines. They carried large power tools, had vehicles up on lifts, and wore welding masks as they performed their duties. In the center of the room, a giant octagon lift rose to the ceiling, with a hydraulic system that raised and lowered the platform. The rail it rode on started on the ground and followed a diagonal line to the ceiling more than three stories above.

“Pretty cool, right?” Major Lopez said, prying Frank’s attention away from the scene in front of them. “Not everyday you see something like this.”

“Yeah,” Frank said, noticing the water that dripped from the ceiling where an octagon opening had closed since he had arrived. “I mean, the Russians have something like this, but I’m not going to talk about that.”

Major Lopez’s eyebrows shot toward her hairline. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Am I?” Frank said, deflecting his true emotions with humor. In all honesty, he was worried what he was getting himself into. He had delivered dozens of shipments of weapons, armor, and tech to the military, but never in a setting like this.

“Follow me.” Major Lopez motioned to Frank. “The colonel doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

Frank fell in line with the major, and the two made their way out of the colossal warehouse room, through a twisting maze of cement and steel.

It didn’t surprise Frank there were no windows. He understood enough to deduce they were underneath the Hoover Dam in a hidden bunker. Why he was being allowed to see as much as he was, was the thing that bothered him the most. Did they plan to wipe his memory with drugs or something else? Worse, did they plan on killing him? No, then why the black hood at all?

Hold onto your huevos rancheros, Frank thought. You’ve been in worse jams than this. Besides, no one has made an aggressive move or done anything to make you think they’re going to axe you at the end of this.

Frank and the major passed a few white lab coated technicians and other Marines on patrol before they came to a stop near a steel door that stood open. The room was once again large, but not as big as the first chamber Frank had seen. This room seemed to be reserved for storage and staging. An enclosed shooting range stood at the far end. Still, the sporadic thud and crack of rifles and the whiz of a piece Frank hadn’t seen previously echoed throughout the chamber.

In front of Frank were a series of familiar-looking crates stamped with the B.U.T.T.S. pyramid logo. Standing in front of the green crates was a dark-haired, middle-aged man who wore the same tan military fatigues as the major. He was running a hand over the B.U.T.T.S. emblem as if he thought the pyramid might come alive at any moment.

“Doctor Agarwal.” Major Lopez walked into the room, startling the man so hard, he actually jumped. “I see you got the notice to assemble.”

“What? Who—I mean, yes. I wasn’t unpacking the goods or anything.” The doctor examined Frank with wide, golden eyes. “Son of a biscuit, man. You’re him, aren’t you?”

“I’m who?” Frank looked back and forth from the major to the doctor.

Major Lopez just shrugged. “Better get your bearings on the gear you’ll be displaying. The Colonel is on the way with the rest of the unit, and he’ll be ready for a briefing.”

“You’re the guy fitting us with the gear and leading us through the gateway,” Doctor Agarwal continued as he gawked at Frank. He extended an open hand. “Doctor Raj Agarwal. Just call me Raj.”

“Hey, Raj.” Frank accepted the man’s hand and shook it firmly before moving to the crates of unopened B.U.T.T.S. supplies. “I think you’ve got your wires crossed. I’m not leading anyone. I’m just here to give a blow-by-blow with the ordered equipment, then I’m out. I have a date waiting for me, I think … I don’t know, the whole thing is kind of confusing actually.”

Frank began hefting the boxes, stacking the crates filled with body armor in one pile, while the weapons went in another. The gauss rifles had their own stack, along with the electromagnetic gauss powered sidearms.

Raj and Major Lopez talked to the side in low whispers. As far as Frank was concerned, he was happy to be left alone with a physical task in front of him.

Lifting the crates and dividing the gear soon left him with a glisten of sweat on his brow. He removed his black peacoat and went back to work. The crates with the weapons weighed over a hundred pounds, and the ones holding the armor even more than that. But all of this was okay with Frank. Throughout his whole life, he found a kind of sick, soothing comfort when it came to physical exercise.

In a matter of minutes, he had divided the crates from B.U.T.T.S. into four piles, with the topmost crate open, displaying the contents. Each airtight, watertight case had been lined up, cupping its contents in a bed of egg-crate Polyethylene foam. In order from left to right, Frank had opened the crates holding: diamond steel armor, helmets, gauss assault rifles, and electromagnetic side arms.

His display in the center of the warehouse looked out of place. All around him, the room opened up to neat aisles of the Marine Corps’ own weapons, before turning into the shooting range. Boxes of ammunition and supplies lined the walls in perfect order as though they were judging Frank’s impromptu display in the center of the room.

It wasn’t perfect, but it would do. Frank turned as the sound of multiple pairs of booted feet struck the cement floor. A dark-skinned man with a square jaw and cold eyes entered the room, along with five wide-shouldered Marines and a petite woman who looked of Asian descent. She was the only one who smiled at Frank as they entered. Her jet-black hair was pulled back into a low bun, allowing Frank to make out the thin tubes leading into her ears usually indicating hearing aids. It was both a gift and a curse for him to note each detail when assessing newcomers.

“Mr. Wolffe.” The dark-skinned man came to a stop in front of Frank. He was a few inches taller, and just as muscular. He extended a hand. “I’m Colonel Solomon Breaker. Glad to have you. Shall we begin?”


4

“Yeah, I mean, I guess so.” Frank grabbed the man’s vice-like grip. He forced himself not to wince under the pressure of the handshake, and instead, squeezed harder on his own end. “Your order’s here. I’ll run through the specs and answer any questions you might have.”

“Perfect,” Colonel Breaker said, moving to the side. Every other Marine in the room made a straight line right behind Frank and the colonel. “Let’s see what we’re working with here.”

“Well, boys and girls, you’ve come to the right place for the latest and greatest in smart armor,” Frank began in his rehearsed speech. At once, the salesman in him kicked in as he reverted into full showman mode. “We have ten suits of our diamond steel armor. These bad boys come with their own cooling systems and can stop a high-caliber bullet at point-blank range. The tech we use allows the force of the bullet to be spread over a greater distance reducing the chance a bullet or shrapnel could actually puncture the armor.”

Frank paused to gauge the colonel’s response. If the man had chosen to be a poker player, he would have been a world champion. Cold, brown eyes looked back at Frank. The colonel’s dark hair was sprinkled with white and grey at the temples. Hidden years of experiences and encounters added to his overall mysterious persona.

“We have ten helmets, as well. Each has built-in communications, enhanced vision, heat vision, and night vision.” Frank pressed on to the weapons. “The gauss-powered rifles are named the Punishers. Each magazine carries twenty rounds of tungsten steel rods. They’ll puncture anything from solid steel to armor plating. The smaller version of these are our electromagnetic side arms. These Reckoners will bring the pain much like their larger counterparts, and will make sure whatever you want dead, becomes dead. Both weapons are equipped with the option of red tracer rounds so you can see what you’re shooting. Top-of-the-line gear, the crème de la crème, ladies and gentlemen.”

That was it. Frank looked over to his audience to see what their eyes told him. Colonel Breaker was much the same—distant—but with the others, Frank read something that worried him. They weren’t impressed like most of his clientele would be after such a presentation; they weren’t even excited. They looked concerned, not afraid—the rigid frame, bugging eyes, resolution one had when forcing themselves not to be afraid. Courage in the face of fear.

“All right, then,” Frank said with a forced smile. He brushed off the awkwardness and forged ahead. “So, if there aren’t any questions, I’ll be on my way.”

“Ammunition for the rifles and sidearms?” Colonel Breaker finally spoke, moving to lift one of the rifles from the crate.

“There’s enough here for a small invasion,” Frank said, motioning to a pile of crates underneath the rifles. “You’ll have more than enough for whatever it is you plan on doing.”

“Good.” Colonel Breaker looked back to his men. “Let’s gear up. We don’t know how long the gateway will remain open this time.”

Immediately, the Marines present moved to obey.

Gateway? Frank thought as he moved to retrieve his peacoat and head for the door. That’s the second time I’ve heard that term. What’s going on here? Nope, I don’t want to know. You did your job. Time to get your nosy behind back home.

“Mr. Wolffe.”

Frank turned around to see Colonel Breaker shrugging on his heavy armor that would protect his torso. “Yes, colonel?”

“Gear up. You’re coming with us.” Colonel Breaker speared Frank with a stare, leaving no room for jest in his words. “In case any of the gear malfunctions, or we have an issue with the weapons, we’ll need someone on site to assist.”

A wave of panic washed over Frank. He quickly bottled it and set it aside. “I appreciate the offer, colonel, but that’s not my job. I’m just the pretty face that delivers the weapons and shakes the hands. If you do have any issues with the gear, you can call our main office, and I’m positive they’ll replace anything, or do whatever they can to make sure you’re happy. You know, have your people call my people, and all that.”

Previously, the room had been a cacophony of sound as Marines moved to unpack armor and helmets and place them on their person. After Frank’s words to the CO, the room quieted. Everyone looked to Colonel Breaker for his response.

The colonel, who had been an intimidating figure before now, appeared even larger after having donned his torso armor. The dark, gun-grey metal gave him the appearance of some soldier out of a futuristic video game.

Colonel Breaker closed the distance between himself and Frank, who stood near the exit. The CO’s eyes were still as hard as ever, but not necessarily mean. He arched an eyebrow at Frank before he started to talk.

“Listen, it sounds like your employer didn’t give you the details you need to comply. I get that. Truth is, we’re going on a mission, and you’re coming with us, Mr. Wolffe. Your time in the corps was decorated with exploits. I’m not trying to give you a big head, here, but you’re what we need right now: a soldier who knows the ins and outs of the tech we’re taking with us.” Colonel Breaker paused. “Gear up, and we’ll head to the briefing where exact details of the mission will be explained.”

“So, yeah.” Frank chewed on his lower lip, immediately regretting it as pain shot from his wound, and he shook his head. “You’re probably not going to like this, but it’s still going to be a hard pass for me. I served my time. I don’t have any interest in heading out into the field again, so just unsubscribe me from all of this, okay? But seriously, good luck with … with whatever it is you got going on here.”

Frank finished his last words by leaning around the colonel and waving a finger in a circular motion to take in the Marines gearing up behind the colonel.

“I see,” Colonel Breaker said. “You’re one of those.”

“I don’t know if you’re trying to be racist right now or something,” Frank said with a shrug, “but I’ll be one of those, if it means I’m not going.”

“Major Lopez,” Colonel Breaker shouted over his right shoulder. “Will you return Mr. Wolffe’s watch to him, please?”

“Yes, sir.” Major Lopez ran to obey, appearing by the colonel’s side a moment later. She was half dressed in her own armor. From the waist down she wore the same gun metal armor and heavy assault boots that lifted her by a full inch in height.

“Sir.” Major Lopez handed the triangle-shaped watch to Frank.

As if on cue, the watch began to ring. The main theme music of the Terminator movie filled the room.

“Hey, I know that!” shouted the petite woman who had entered with the rest of the crew as she struggled with her armor. “That’s from Terminator.”

All eyes looked over at the woman who seemed to wither under their stare. “You know … robots? End of the world? Oh, come on, guys, give me something, here. ‘I’ll be back’?”

While the woman pled her case, Frank glanced down at his watch. Like always, it was a call from his immediate supervisor. His triangular watch buzzed and glowed a dull blue.

Frank answered with a light tap of his finger. “I’m glad you called, Chairman. There seems to be a mix-up over here. They think I’m going with them on their mission.”

“That’s because you are,” said a stern woman with a British accent. “Frank, they’ve paid quite well to have someone from B.U.T.T.S. go with them. You’re the best we have.” She’d pronounced the name of their company with a hard “U,” unlike the way Frank referred to them.

Frank’s mouth went dry. Colonel Breaker and Major Lopez weren’t trying to hide the fact they were listening in to his conversation. Frank suspected the other Marines were doing the same, only polite enough to try to mask their eavesdropping with slow movements and attempts to place their armor and gear without making a sound all the while listening in.

“Excuse me, chairman.” Frank cleared his throat, taking a step back from the eyes of the colonel. “Can you repeat that, please? I could have sworn you said I am going with them, but that can’t be right.”

“Frank.” The chairman’s voice wasn’t amused; it was never amused. “We’re prepared to make it worth your while. We’ll double your normal rate for a delivery.”

Now the chairman was talking a language Frank could understand. He still wanted no part of going on a mission with the United States Marine Corps, especially on a mission where they required so much gear. But money spoke to Frank in the way only someone who never had money growing up could understand.

“Double it, huh?” Frank wasn’t a stranger to negotiations. He understood how these things worked. Chairman would never offer him the most she was willing to give him on the first go-round. She knew he knew that, as well. “I’ll tell you what: triple my rate, and I’ll go. Quadruple it, and I’ll put a smile on my face when I’m gearing up to go—well, to go God knows where these jarheads are headed.”

There was a pause on the other end.

“Quadrupling your rate will be fine,” the chairman said over the line. “We’ll deposit your funds upon completion of the mission.”

“You have yourself a deal, chairman,” Frank said, turning his head down to speak into the watch. “And next time, you can tell me in advance. You don’t have to spring it on me the last minute.”

“Would you have gone this far if we told you?”

“Yeah, probably not,” Frank said considering the woman’s words.

“Be careful, Frank,” she said in a tone something less than stern. “We want you back. There … there’s a lot about to happen.

Before Frank could say a word in reply, the line on his watch blinked off. Never before had he heard whatever it was in the chairman’s voice. Worry? Concern? Whatever it was had sent a chill down his spine. In all the years he had worked for the woman, she had never expressed any concern for his well-being.

Everything smells wrong about this. What did you just get yourself into, Frank?


5

When Frank looked up at the Marines after finishing his call, there was nothing but malice in their eyes. For the exception of Raj and the woman who had recognized his Terminator-themed ringtone, everyone glared at him.

“Well, I guess I’m on board, then,” Frank said, ignoring their glares and walking over to the cases of armor. “Oohrah. Am I right?”

No one answered his question, but with a prompt from the CO, the rest of the group continued to gear up for the mission. The Terminator fan struggled with her boots, yet sidled up to Frank as he placed his own upper body armor piece on his chest.

“Hey, I’m Elly,” the woman said, slamming her heel into her boot and nearly toppling over. “You’ve become a fan favorite recently.”

Frank ignored the dark looks from the other Marines. He didn’t have to guess why they were glaring at him.

“Yeah, well, money talks.” Frank worked his hips into the lower body armor pieces before finding his boots. He shook his head. “They had my size ready and everything. They knew days ago I was coming on this mission.”

“Son of a nutcracker, Frank.” Raj had managed to place his body armor on and was now fiddling with his helmet. “Did you have to talk so loud about money? Now every Marine here is going to hate you.”

“I don’t hate you,” Elly said with a shrug. “I get it. Money makes the world go round.”

“Well, money isn’t everything,” Raj said, placing his helmet on backwards.

“Spoken like someone who maybe hasn’t had to worry about money his whole life.” Frank plucked the helmet off Raj’s head and turned it around. “I’m guessing you two haven’t had a lot of field experience.”

“What—” Elly paused to try to wriggle into her upper body armor. Each word came out with a long pause behind it as she grunted and squirmed. “—would—give—you—that—idea?”

The slender woman finally managed to get her head through the hole in the designated section of the armor. Her glasses were askew on her face and her dark bun had managed to make its way to the side of her head. Hurriedly, she wrapped her hair into place to cover her hearing aids.

“Here,” Frank said, motioning to the left side of the body armor, where two thick clasps opened the shell-like gear and offered a much easier means of dressing.

The slate grey armor was thin yet durable. It offered its wearers the best of both protection and mobility. All together, the armor unit only weighed fifty pounds, and that included the boots and the helmet.

“Oh, I … uh, I knew that.” Elly fixed her oversized, wire-and-black acetate glasses.

Frank noticed Elly spoke slowly, making sure to pronounce every word correctly.

“What do you two do, anyway?” Frank asked. He latched his own helmet to a magnetic holder on the left side of his belt. In a series of smooth motions, he equipped himself with a Punisher, Reckoner, and enough ammo to put down a tank. “I’m going to guess you’re not the heavy weapons or demolitions experts on this vacation.”

“You got that right,” Raj said, clipping his electromagnetic, gauss-powered handgun that looked like a marriage between a Desert Eagle and a Nerf Gun to the holder on his thigh. “I have my degrees in aerospace medicine and surgery. Elly is our cybersecurity technician and astrophysicist.”

“Aerospace? Astrophysicist?” Frank looked from Elly, who was struggling to get her helmet on with her skewed glasses and bun, then to Raj who had lifted a gauss-powered assault rifle and was waving the barrel in Frank’s direction while he checked out the safety. Frank lowered the end of the weapon to the ground. “What exactly is the mission?”

“Glad you could be bought into serving your country.” Major Lopez sidled up to the trio. Unlike the others, she had managed to gear up quickly. She had even donned her helmet, which sported a T-shaped glass view shaped like ancient Spartan helmets. “We’re headed out to the briefing before we depart. Let’s go.”

Frank ignored the jab. He had never been worried about what other people thought of him. Growing up, he had always been the kid with shoes too small for his feet, with the jacket bought at the local thrift shop. His parents loved him and had done the best they could, but money had never been plentiful in the Wolffe household.

“Let’s go.” Frank plucked the weapon out of Raj’s hands and placed it across his back, where it magnetically snapped into place. “Easy there, super soldier. Carry it like this and keep your hands free. It’s just an oversized M27 and doesn’t weigh much more. No need to treat it like anything other than a standard-issue weapon.”

“Oh, nice,” Raj said peeking up to look at the grip that sprouted up over his right shoulder. “Thanks, Frank. You probably can’t tell because I’m great at hiding it, but I’m more nervous than I can ever remember being.”

“Nawww.” Frank grinned at Raj. “You?”

“It’s true,” Raj said, missing Frank’s sarcastic tone. “What we’re about to do is … unprecedented.”

“And will someone tell me what that is?” Frank looked around.

“Here we go!” Colonel Breaker’s voice filled the room. “On me, let’s hit the briefing room and the staging ground. Time is sensitive so let's get going—Oohrah!?”

“Oohrah!” everyone in the room, besides Frank, answered. Even Elly and Raj lifted their voices to join the unit.

Frank found himself trotting behind the group of Marines, who moved with a collective cadence. Along with the colonel, major, Raj, and Elly, there were five muscular Marines who didn’t look like they were on their first mission. The one nearest him met Frank’s eyes with a slow glower. As he turned, Frank saw the familiar dimple scars from shrapnel.

Throughout his time in the Marines, and then as a weapons dealer, Frank had grown familiar with his fair share of hard-nosed soldiers. He could tell these men had been handpicked for the job they were about to embark on, whatever that was. Frank was still uncertain, but he was sure it was dangerous.

“Mr. Wolffe,” Colonel Breaker’s voice interrupted Frank from his train of thought. The colonel had intentionally slowed his gait and allowed his XO to take the lead. He strode side by side with Frank. “I understand you may not be in the position you want to be, but I have my men I need to think about on this mission. I need to know that you’re with us, because if you’re not…”

The colonel let his words trail off. Frank understood everything the man was not saying. He knew the colonel’s type. He was here to look after his unit at all costs. At the moment, Frank was a liability.

“I’m with you.” Frank turned his gaze from the long hallway they were traveling and focused on the colonel. “I know we’re doing this for different reasons, but trust me, I’m here to make sure the mission is a success and everyone makes it home whole.”

“Glad to hear it,” Colonel Breaker said, still not moving his stare from Frank. “I’ve fought and lost more than I care to remember. I’m ready to get in and get out, and get my people back safe. You’re one of my people now, too, Frank. You remember how this works. We have each other’s backs, no matter what the cost.”

Frank silently nodded with the colonel’s words.

The two men didn’t say more as the unit moved through the underground bunker. They passed multiple rooms, taking a right turn at a “T” intersection. The overhead lights bathed everything in unnaturally bright white light. Not that there was much to see; cement walls, floor, and ceiling, with steel doors leading into various rooms and chambers.

Just as they took another left turn and Frank was beginning to feel like a rat in a maze, Major Lopez stopped at a set of steel security doors. Two Marines stood sentry with standard-issue M16A4 assault rifles across their shoulders.

Major Lopez said something to them that Frank couldn’t hear from his location at the rear of the squad. Whatever she told them resonated, because they saluted and moved to the side. One of the soldiers hit an unseen panel on the side of the left door. The pair of double steel doors slid open without a sound.

The unit moved inside. Frank’s heart doubled in speed. He couldn’t see it yet, but he heard Elly, who was at the front of the pack, gasp.

“Son of a gun,” Raj said, standing right beside her. “I didn’t know—what … what is that?”

Frank finally made it through the doors with the colonel. The room they stood in now wasn’t a room at all, more of a kind of viewing ledge. The square chamber was longer than it was wide, with a glass wall looking down into another room.

On both sides of this viewing chamber stood automatic turrets armed with .50 caliber rounds, and another set of turrets equipped with small rockets. A Marine stood at attention next to each turret. Frank guessed that even though the turrets were automatic, the powers that be were not willing to risk they’d malfunction at the wrong time.

Frank took in the tiled floors, the viewing walls, and the turrets in one sweep. The turrets were state of the art and capable of carrying one heck of a wallop, but he was more interested in what the turrets were pointed at.

He joined the rest of the squad at a place near the glass. They were looking down, inhaling quickly and whispering to one another. Frank placed his right hand on the bulletproof glass shield as he looked below. No words came to mind to describe what he was seeing. For the first time in a very long time, Frank Wolffe was speechless.


6

The chamber below did not match the rest of the cement maze they had previously navigated—raw stone with squared-off corners to create a wide room. Frank did a double-take to be sure; it was actually a part of the original dam. This explained the wet earth scent that mixed with the sharp metallic and sterile air.

The upper viewing mezzanine overlooked approximately two stories above the ground floor below. Barricades with armed Marines, lab-coated technicians, and scientists taking various measurements scurried across the room in all directions, clanging, tinging, and trotting.

Though impressive, all of this wasn’t even the most mind-blowing feature in the chamber. The most interesting thing was what the soldiers were pointing their weapons at and what the scientists were studying: the pièce de résistance.



A golden sphere filled with shadows of various sizes hovered above the ground about waist high at the center of the room. From this golden orb, a light projected, creating an archway opening in the cragged stone. The top of the archway came level with the viewing room floor, reaching at least twenty feet high.

The arch, although projected by the sphere, seemed solid in its own right. The golden structure looked as hard as stone, with a foreign sort of ancient or perhaps alien runes chiseled into the edges. Swirling mist flowed within the archway, taking on different colors as it moved and reflected light. One minute it was green, the next cyan-and-yellow.

It was impossible to see more than a few feet into the swirling mist coming from the archway. What was on the other side was anyone’s guess.

“Kinda makes you wish you had asked for more money, right?” Elly asked Frank as she sidled up next to him. “You’re—uh … you should close your mouth before your jaw hits the floor.”

“What?” Frank tore his eyes away from the gateway long enough to give Elly a smirk. “Right, funny.”

“Slap me sideways and call me Sally,” Raj said from Frank’s other side. He was leaning so close to the edge, his breath was fogging up the glass. “I’ve heard about it, even read the reports, but to see it is … is…”

“Keep it in your pants, Raj,” Major Lopez said with a wry smile. She was going to say more, when everyone in the room snapped to attention.

Frank followed their gazes as a tall man with the four stars signifying general emblazoned on his fatigues walked into the room. He was lanky with cords of muscle. His perfectly cut mustache and shaved head made him look like a GI Joe straight out of the box.

“At ease,” the general said.

Frank got a closer look at the man’s name and rank on the patch over the pocket on his uniform. He was General Fox. Frank had never heard of the man, but that didn’t mean anything. The United States Marine Corps was a large branch of the military. After seeing all this, he also considered that perhaps there was a reason he hadn’t heard of the man.

General Fox’s gaze maneuvered around the gathered group. His steel grey stare stopped for a moment when it landed on Frank.

“Hey, how’s it going?” Frank couldn’t help himself waving and smiling.

General Fox just nodded and moved on. “I know you are all eager for answers, so let’s get some.” He motioned to an exit behind the turret on the right side of the room. He took the lead, crossing the room and opening the door.

Frank and the others followed behind the man. They trotted down two flights of steps that led to the ground floor. For the first time, Frank’s mind was catching up to the events unfolding around him. The rhythmic sound of boots echoing in the stairwell became white noise as he got lost in thought.

Frank considered himself and the other nine Marines decked out in futuristic armor courtesy of B.U.T.T.S., the state of the art weapons, and now the massive arch that towered in front of them. Here on the ground floor, it was even more intimidating than looking down at it from the viewing room.

So many questions were racing though Frank’s mind, he didn’t know which one to focus on first. Where does that archway lead? What’s on the other side? Does it go somewhere on this planet? Do they even know where it goes? Elly was right. I should have asked for more money.

General Fox finally stopped just behind the erected barricades and the computers and monitors set up for the astronautics, archeo-astronomers, and physicists to work. He nodded to Colonel Breaker before the general began.

“Project Nebula started when the sphere was found in the 1930’s. We studied it for years, to no avail, until it was logged away for inventory here in the dam. Well, imagine our surprise when the power the dam generates was enough to activate the sphere. When the sphere went live, it projected a gateway. We don’t know what’s on the other side, but we’ve been monitoring it and studying it for months now. Nothing’s come out, so it’s time to go in.” General Fox nodded to Elly. “Major Lopez, you’ve worked with our team of scientists studying the gateway. Care to weigh in?”

Frank’s head swung over to Major Lopez, who nodded and moved to take a spot next to the general and address the Marines. She looked stunning in her armor. She was someone who was used to commanding the room with her presence. With her helmet attached to her belt and her rifle behind her back, she was all business.

“We have a working theory that the gateway acts as a kind of bridge, from Earth to—well, we don’t know where exactly. What we do know is that the drones and robots we have sent in show an ocean and a forest terrain. Tests show us that the air is breathable. We’ve ruled out the gateway taking us anywhere on Earth; it leads somewhere else. It’s our job to find out where.”

“Space Marine Corps One,” General Fox said, taking up the story once more, “your mission is to enter the gateway and get us some answers. Find out what we’re dealing with here and where this gateway leads. Questions?”

Frank was made of questions at the moment, but before he could speak, Raj’s voice filled the void. “Yes, sir. How are we to tell for certain we won’t be walking into some kind of trap? Or worse, what if the readings were wrong and the air is poisoned? I mean, we could be talking about intergalactic travel, here. What about viruses, plagues, flesh-eating bacteria that tears us apart from the inside out?”

“Fair questions.” General Fox nodded to Frank. “That’s why we have you traveling in the very best tech money can buy. You’ll do more tests when you get to the other side of the gateway and before you remove your gear, doctor.”

The Marines around him were nodding in agreement. Frank couldn’t believe everyone was taking this in stride. His head was about to explode with the simple fact that the gateway didn’t exit on Earth.

“I’m sorry,” Frank burst out, “I know I’m new here and most of you guys don’t like me, and that’s fine. But to be clear, we’re talking about traveling to an alien planet, in who knows what galaxy, to encounter God knows what kind of aliens, intelligent or not.”

“Yes, that’s right,” General Fox said without blinking.

“Oh, great,” Frank said, shaking his head and taking a heavy breath. “I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting confused.”

“I feel like I’m going to throw up,” Raj said by Frank’s side. “This is really stressing me out here.”

“I already threw up in my mouth—a little,” Frank said, trying to use humor to relieve the stress of the moment. It didn’t work. Raj vomited all over his boots, and he wasn’t quiet about it, either. He projectile vomited onto the ground, and then looked up and sent a hose of greenish grey vomit behind the group. It smelled like sour kale and old cinnamon buns.

Frank had a feeling some of the other Marines would have chuckled, had they not been feeling the same way themselves. The training Frank had received during his own stint in the Marines was already coming back to him in full force.

Sure, he was nervous, but he understood he was equipped and trained to deal with whatever was thrown his way. The main thing was to remain calm. That wasn’t easy right now, as the putrid smell of Raj’s vomit assaulted his nostrils.

“So … sorry about that.” Raj had finally finished his vomiting and wiped his mouth with his gloved hand. “I guess pop tarts for breakfast before going through a gateway to another planet isn’t exactly the smartest idea.”

“That was pop tarts?” Frank looked at the pile of vomit. “Man, they smell a lot different coming out.”

“If we can focus now,” Colonel Breaker’s voice interrupted any further conversation of regurgitated pastries. “I understand we’re dropping a bombshell on you at the moment, but you can understand why something like this has to be kept top secret. You are all trained to handle this. Watch each other’s backs, and we’ll all come out of this together.”

As the colonel said the last bit, he zeroed in on Frank.

Frank looked behind him to see if there was anyone else the colonel was focusing on. There wasn’t.

“Why do I feel like that part was just for me?” Frank muttered.

“It probably was,” Elly said just as quietly. “Not that great on picking up on social cues? You’re kinda the black sheep here.”

“Everything you need to go on a journey like this has been provided on shuttle bots,” General Fox picked up the conversation again. “Godspeed.”

“Last minute checks. Let’s go,” Colonel Breaker said, motioning his unit over to the left of the gateway, where a makeshift staging area had been set up. A path toward the beckoning mist was filled with bots loaded with rugged transit containers made of molded plastic and aluminum in various widths and sizes. “Anything you think you may need, now’s the time to grab it. Speak now, or forever hold your peace, Marines. It’s go time.”


7

The staging area wasn’t much more than a few rows of last minute supplies they’d need on their excursion. Two flatbed remote controlled vehicles had to be what the general referred to as “shuttlebots.” They weren’t much larger than a pallet with a series of four heavy-duty, all-terrain wheels on each side.

Loaded onto the shuttle bots were stacks of supplies. Frank guessed they carried everything from food supplies, to medical equipment, and everything in between.

Now that the mission was clear to the unit, the Marines looked over the stockpiles of equipment at their disposal and made last minute additions to their gear.

Frank’s mind was still spinning, but instead of freaking out, he decided to make sure he was prepared for what came next. A shelf of combat knives caught his eye. He made his way over to the shelf and grabbed a Ka-Bar, testing it for weight.

“You ready for this?” Major Lopez sidled up to Frank, grabbing a Ka-Bar for herself, along with a handful of grenades on the shelf below. “Second thoughts?”

“Second?” Frank shook his head. “I’m having third and fourths, but there’s a sick little part of me that feels excited. This is some science fiction nonsense right here. You’ve known all along, haven’t you?”

Lopez nodded. “The colonel, myself, and Elly have all known. We chose the team we thought would have the best chance of succeeding out there. Even you.”

“Because of my military background, right?” Frank placed the Ka-Bar into a sheath fitted into his right boot. “Or was it my shining personality?”

“It’s because you’re stubborn, Frank.” Major Lopez looked him in the eyes after securing her own combat knife and grenades onto her belt. “You have a knack for pulling through tight spots on willpower alone. We talked to your past CO’s you served under in the Corps. You’re tough and determined. That’s what we need right now.”

“I’m … I’m kind of confused right now.” Frank scratched his dark hair. “Are you giving me a compliment?”

Before the major could answer, Elly walked up to the two with a stencil in one hand and a can of white spray paint in the other. Without asking, she placed the stencil on Frank’s left shoulder and sprayed the white paint for a brief moment.

“Here we go. Now we’re all official. Man, I really feel better now that I’m not smelling Raj’s puke.” Elly leaned back to admire her handiwork. “Perfect.”

She moved on to do the same to the major’s armor.

Frank looked down to see a white emblem emblazoned on his chest. It was a helmet with wings spread out behind it. Around the emblem in a circle read tiny text: Marine Space Corps One (MSC1) .

“Great.” Frank shook his head, wondering if the emblem was official, but knowing that even if it weren’t, he wouldn’t take it off. “I’m back.”

“Welcome back to the Corps.” Major Lopez smiled at Frank as Elly removed the stencil from her own armor. “We get steak and lobster dinners when they pass out bad news, and if you don’t like the orders you’re given, great news—no one cares.”

“All right, Marines,” Colonel Breaker barked. “This is it. I’m taking point with the major. Shuttle bots in the middle with the doc and Elly. Tango and Wilson will bring up the rear.”

“Yes, sir,” they replied in chorus.

Frank eyed the two Marines the colonel had nodded to. Tango was a tall man with shrewd eyes and a short Mohawk. Wilson was a mountain of muscle. Frank was surprised he had even managed to fit into his armor.

“Helmets on, and stay on channel one,” Colonel Breaker said, placing his own helmet on his head. “Mr. Wolffe, anything we need to know about the interface?”

“Yes, sir,” Frank heard himself say. He hadn’t really even meant to call the colonel “sir,” but already old habits were coming back fast. “It’s based on SMART technology. The visor will change to allow for whatever lighting environment it senses. The interior visor tracks your eye movement. On the bottom of the interface, you’ll be able to track through comm channels. On the right, you’ll see the display controlling the temperature in your armor. On the left, you can track through different modes, such as infrared, night vision, and zoom.”

“Very good, that’s why we have you here, Mr. Wolffe,” Colonel Breaker said.

Frank wasn’t sure if the man was being sarcastic or not. One thing was certain, Frank was getting tired of being referred to by his last name.

A tingle of anticipation raced over his body as Frank placed his own helmet over his head. The bucket fit snug, forming an airtight lock with the armor that came up to his neck.

Immediately, the screen in front of his eyes came to life. He was shown the room in front of him in the best lighting possible. Monitors also sprang to life, and options for him to select scrolled on his heads-up display, just like he had explained to the colonel. The eye tracking software meant that he didn’t have to turn his head, it simply followed his pupils and understood where he was looking. If he stared directly at an option for more than a few seconds, the interface sprang to life and gave him options from which to select. From there, all he had to do was stare at his chosen selection to make his choice.

Breathing came cool and clean as the oxygen in his helmet was cycled in and out through filters in the armored suit. Frank fell in line with the rest of MSC1 as they headed for the gateway.

“We have monitors on the other side of the gateway now, showing no sign of danger,” Colonel Breaker reassured his unit. “Still, let’s go into this, weapons hot and ready for anything.”

A series of “Oorah's” answered the colonel. Even Elly and Raj joined in.

Frank found himself next to Raj as they walked toward the gateway. They were just behind the colonel and the major, but ahead of the shuttle bots. The unit passed the barricades that had been set up around the gateway, as well as the team of scientists and monitoring equipment.

There’s no way this can be good, right? Frank asked himself. Best case scenario: there are unicorns and rainbows on the other side. But we know that’s not in store for us. What if they know what’s on the other side, and that’s why we’re armored to the teeth? What if they know exactly what’s on the other side? It would be just like the military to deem that piece of info a “need to know” topic.

But there was no backing out now. Frank and the others walked to the front of the gateway. They had to maneuver around the golden sphere that projected the arch. The sphere was as large as a basketball, with parallel moving parts like a rubix cube. The rotating parts were etched with ancient runes matching the ones on the archway frame. Now that he knew what he did, he guessed they were alien but also probably ancient.

A low hum came from the sphere as it hovered in place. The technology keeping it steady was not of this world.

The archway was even more impressive, standing right in front of it. Fog-like curls of smoke wove and twisted from the massive structure. The thick tendrils of vapor, like a multi-tentacled monster, grabbed for them, employing different colors as it continued to wave in and out of existence. The ethereal blue, then scarlet, then ultraviolet fog was intangible, and although it left a coldness in the air, it was not wet.

“Here we go,” Colonel Breaker’s voice reached them over the comms in their helmets. “Stay close, eyes open. Whatever may or may not be on the other side of this, it doesn’t matter. We’re the best trained there is, and I’d take Marines in a fight over anyone or anything else everyday of the week. Oorah, Marines! Into the breach!”

With that, Colonel Breaker and Major Lopez walked forward, disappearing from view into the fog. Raj broke the radio silence before Frank had the chance.

“The things we do for our country.” Raj lifted a hand to touch the fog, but it evaporated in his grasp. “I should have been an author.”

Frank’s heart was beating like a war drum in his chest. Instead of giving in to the fear, he focused on putting one step in front of the other. His Punisher gauss-powered assault rifle in his hands, he made sure the safety by his left thumb was turned off. If something unfriendly was waiting for them on the other side of the gateway, he was going to have an answer for it.

One moment, Frank had a clear view of the room around him and the gateway in front of him; the next, he was enveloped by the soupy, clouded atmosphere. He knew Raj was to his immediate right, but all he could see of the man now was a dark shape twisted in fog and shadow.

Visibility, even with the advanced tech in his helmet, was a few feet at best. The heads-up display cycled through different viewing modes, trying to find the best solution for the circumstance.

Frank knew it had to be his imagination, but it felt cold as his feet took him forward through the gateway, an icy chill on the wind.

Wind? Frank thought. When does wind exist in an underground bunker?

It was at that moment Frank noticed the ground had also changed. Instead of the even rock floor that had existed in the underground chamber, a rough, bumpy terrain now met his feet.

The fog was beginning to thin now, but only slightly. Visibility was still so bad, Frank narrowed his eyes as though that would help. It didn’t.

Out of somewhere in the fog to his left, something moved—something far too large to be human.


8

“Ahhh!”

Someone screamed over the comms.

“Contact left!”

Frank brought his gauss-powered assault rifle up to his line of sight and pivoted to meet whatever threat had come their way. The fog was still present, but had thinned even further now. Two things registered with Frank at once.

The first was that a cold wind actually was playing across the unit. The gateway had taken them to a fabricated peninsula or dock. They were on a narrow strip of land that started in the water and led to a lush green landscape no more than fifty yards in front of them.

The second thing that caught Frank’s attention was something moving in the water that surrounded their dock. Something massive rolled under the surface of the deep blue waters, sending ripples in multiple directions. The comms units were going off as multiple voices screamed warnings.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The sounds of the gauss-powered rifles filled the air as Marines pumped red tracer rounds into the water. Frank had his target lined up, but his finger hovered over the trigger until he could get a clear shot at the mystery assailant.

“It got Wilson!” an unfamiliar voice Frank figured was Tango yelled over the comms.

“Keep moving forward,” Colonel Breaker’s commanding voice took over the sounds of chaos. “Get out of the fog and off the dock!”

Frank tore his eyes away from the water long enough to see Colonel Breaker waving them forward. “Let’s go—move!”

Frank took off at a run, keeping his eye on the water to his left. Raj ran beside him. Now out of the thick fog, the two men sprinted down the metal dock.

“What the hell is that thing!” Raj yelled. The doctor wasn’t bothering with his weapon; instead, he concentrated on moving forward. “What’s in the water?”

“Don’t know,” Frank shouted, still keeping a wary eye on the water’s surface. “Just run!”

They reached Colonel Breaker, who motioned them forward to solid ground, where Major Lopez waited. She was on one knee with her rifle up and trained on the water where the last sign of movement had been seen.

BOOM! BOOM!

More sporadic bursts from Marines still came from behind Frank. He understood the feeling. More than anything he wanted a target to unload on, but the colonel was right: If the danger was coming from the water, then they needed to be as far from the water as possible.

“Did you see it!” Tango’s voice wasn’t full of fear; rather, one part disbelief, one part hysteria. “It took him in one bite. Its head was bigger than my body!”

“Get a hold of yourself!” Colonel Breaker barked through the comms. “Tango, get off the dock and stop firing your weapon into the water unless you see something to fire at. Hurry, hurry!”

Frank and Raj finally made it off the dock and came to a stop beside Major Lopez. Frank’s lungs were heaving, but he would catch his breath later. Instead of talking, he took up a defensive stance behind the major, training his weapon on the water.

There was nothing—no movement, no ripples heralding the macabre that lurked underneath. Nothing.

“Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic,” Raj repeated behind Frank. He was bent over double with his hands on his knees, trying to regain his own breath. “You’re a strong, independent minority who can get through this.”

In any other circumstance, Frank would have taken the time to crack a joke, but with one Marine gone and others still in danger, it didn’t seem right.

Colonel Breaker was still on the dock, pushing along the Marines who had just come through the gateway. With him were three Marines whose names Frank didn’t know, two of whom were piloting the shuttle bots, Elly, and a still-babbling Tango.

Their unit was running now and was already past the halfway point. In a few more seconds, they would get off the godforsaken dock and reach the supposed safety of dry land.

That’s when Frank saw the monster lift out of the water. Still, his mind couldn’t grasp what he was seeing. A head much larger than the body of a full-grown man, nearly as large as the gateway itself, raced skyward from the water on a thick neck several stories long. Water cascaded down it in droves.

The creature was covered in sapphire blue scales that had made it even more difficult to see in the water. Cords of muscle along its elongated jaw and neck stood out, even under the thick scales. Streams of water huffed out of the creature’s snout. A pair of massive yellow eyes with slitted pupils narrowed in on the Marines still fleeing the dock.

“Bring it down!” Major Lopez yelled.

In moments like this, Frank was grateful for the training the Marines had given him. There was no time to think—just react. Frank zeroed in on the impossibly long head of the beast and pressed the trigger button.

The nonexistent recoil on the Punishers was impressive and built for times just like this, when you needed to put a dozen or more rounds into the target in a single automatic burst.

The air lit up all around the fleeing Marines as Major Lopez and Frank opened fire on the beast.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The tungsten steel rods the gauss-powered Punishers fired screamed through the air, every other round marked with a red tracer. The rounds pierced the air, resembling laser bursts more than steel rods, making contact with their target at mind-numbing speed. The monster roared in pain, a sound that was one part bellow and one part nightmare.

But it wasn’t enough to turn the creature’s attention. With speed that didn’t make sense for its size, it snapped down on the dock, its movements resembling that of a snake snapping down on a scurrying rat. One of the still-fleeing Marines who had not been in control of a shuttle bot didn’t even see it coming. Maybe it was better that way. One moment he was running alongside Elly and the colonel; the next, he was gone.

A wave of cold sweat hit Frank as his weapon clicked dry. A robotic, practiced motion led him to drop the empty magazine in his rifle and reach to his belt for a fresh one.

When the monster had reached down to grab the fleeing Marine, it struck the entire dock, causing the metal structure to buckle and roll. Elly lost her footing. Colonel Breaker saw this and took a protective stance over her, lifting his own weapon to the monster and unleashing a hail of red tungsten bolts at the creature.

“They’re not going to make it,” Frank said as he slammed a new magazine in place and took off toward them at a run. “Cover me.”

Frank darted past the Marines who had now made it to the safety of the ground and were taking up their own firing positions on the beast.

“Frank, don’t!” Major Lopez shouted after him.

But Frank was already gone, sprinting back to the dock that promised death at the mouth of some impossible alien creature.

What are you doing? Frank asked himself, a question he had no answer for. You don’t owe these people anything. You’re not back in the Marines.

He could lie to himself all he wanted, but the simple truth was, he had made an oath a long time ago, and now there was a brother and a sister in need.

Frank skidded to a halt by Elly and the colonel. Colonel Breaker had just lifted Elly back to her feet with his left hand, while his right carried his Punisher and emptied round after round into the sea monster.

The colonel’s aim was true, but the beast was simply too massive for the tungsten rounds to do any serious damage.

The beast swallowed its last victim, turning its attention back on the trio of Marines who stood on the dock.

“What are you doing here?” Colonel Breaker actually sounded mad at Frank. “You were ordered to get off the—”

“With respect, colonel”—Frank lifted his weapon skyward to take aim at the monster again—“can we do this later? The Loch Ness Monster is eyeing us right now like we’re the main course.”

Frank was right. The creature reared back, opening massive jaws. A tongue thick with saliva was set between a maw of teeth, each one as large as Frank’s forearm.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

A new hail of weapon fire cascaded all around the sea monster. The Marines who had made it to land were now firing as one at the monster. Their weapons were still unable to cause any serious damage, but the sheer volume of rounds striking it was enough for the beast to bellow in pain. The creature swayed and did its best to avoid the rounds striking its scaly neck and face.

“Run!” Colonel Breaker shouted.

His order was unneeded. Frank and Elly were off at a sprint right beside the colonel. Frank hated himself for looking back, but he had to. Ten yards from land, he glanced behind him just in time to see the monster make one last attempt at finishing what it had started. It lunged with its long neck for the trio of Marines.

Instinct kicked in, and Frank did the only thing he could. He bullied Elly and the colonel out of the way with his right shoulder just in time. The monster’s teeth snapped on Frank’s armor alone, instead of all three of the fleeing Marines, lifting him into the air.


9

“Aghhh!” Frank screamed in pain as the beast crushed his torso in its steel-trap jaw. To B.U.T.T.S.’ credit, the armor held under the immense pressure, though for how long was yet to be determined.

Sharp pain lanced over Frank’s body where the teeth sought to puncture the diamond-plated armor. Chatter came over the comms, but it was lost on Frank. He had seconds to live and figure out a way out of this, or die.

Come on, you’re not done yet, Frank shouted at himself. You got more in the tank. You’ve always got more in the tank.

Then his opening presented itself. Just as it had done previously, the beast tilted its head back and opened its jaws to fully envelope its next meal down its long gulch. Luckily for Frank, he had never lost hold of his assault rifle. The two seconds the monster took to open its mouth and tilt its head back, Frank used to wedge his weapon inside the beast’s jaws. The base of the weapon he planted against the squirming forked tongue and the barrel of the rifle he pointed up to the soft underside of the roof of the creature’s maw.

Frank fought for traction against the sea monster’s wiggling tongue. When the beast’s mouth clamped closed, it stopped due to the rifle wedged inside its mouth. Frank’s right pointer finger squeezed the trigger like his life depended on it.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Even with his helmet protecting his ears, the confined space of the creature’s mouth echoed the blasts of his rifle so loudly, all Frank could hear was ringing after the initial rounds were fired.

It was enough. Thick blue scales didn’t exist to protect the inside of the creature’s mouth. Thick, cool, grey blood burst out, coating Frank now not only in saliva, but also alien sea monster blood. Things were going swell.

With a roar of agony, the monster opened its mouth, shaking its head violently from side to side. The last thing Frank remembered for certain was being shot from the monster’s jaws like a stone from a catapult.

The next few moments were like seeing scenes on an ancient projector, with every other slide blacked out. He didn’t remember the landing, but he did feel a numbing pain explode over his body and water rushing over his face as he crashed, with his helmet flying off and landing near him down into the shallows where the ocean met the land.

Black tendrils caressed the edges of his vision for a moment. More shouting rose up around him, but Frank still didn’t understand anything being said.

Blackness took him a moment later.

The next thing Frank remembered was the dream that came with unconsciousness. He was a boy again, sitting at a worn table in a small kitchen. The scene was easily recognizable; one of many one-bedroom apartments his parents had bounced around to while he had grown up.

One thing he had learned from this time in his life was that every apartment was basically the same. There were noisy neighbors above them or beside them, vagrants sifting through the trash bins outside, and cigarette and weed smoke drifting in through the windows at least once a day.

Frank sat at the kitchen table, eating the macaroni and cheese his parents had bought at the local discount food store in town named 99 Cent Bargain Superstore. Frank was confused as to why they called it a store at all and not a warehouse. The food was brought in on pallets, and the workers didn’t even bother stocking the sagging shelves with the products.

Sitting at the table, Frank studied the orange macaroni figures on his spoon while he listened to his parents talk in their bedroom. The one-room apartment didn’t afford much privacy. Even though his parents spoke in hushed whispers, Frank could hear them clearly.

“We’ll be fine. Things will pick up,” Frank’s father reassured his mother. “Ted said there’s a possibility for more hours at the factory. If I can—”

“If you can what, Liam?” his mother’s voice cut in. Although she had interrupted her husband, her voice wasn’t laced with anger or frustration, only worry. “You’re already pulling sixty-hour work weeks. I should be the one who tries to get a second jo—”

The rest of whatever Frank’s mother was going to say was cut off by a series of violent coughs. The noise made Frank wince every time the painful sounds escaped her weak lungs.

“Rose, Rose…” Liam said to his wife. “It’s okay. Here, sit down. You’re doing everything you can. Your job is enough. Besides, Frank loves having you around when he gets home from school.”

Rose’s wet coughing fit finally subsided.

“I just wish my medication didn’t cost so much.” Rose sighed. “I wish we could give Frank more. He doesn’t say anything, but kids can be cruel. I know they make fun of him for wearing old shoes and having that torn backpack. I tried to sew it, but he needs a new one.”

“We’ll figure this out.” Liam’s voice came closer to the door.

Frank shoveled another spoonful of macaroni and cheese into his mouth, then directed his eyes from the door of the room he shared with his parents to the sagging sofa in their small living room.

“Let’s go eat dinner with our son,” Liam said. “Trust me, things will get better. We’ll find a way. We always do.”

A moment later the door opened, and Frank’s father walked from their room. He was a wide-shouldered man of average height. His own time in the military had added on his fair share of muscle, but the lack of exercise and standing while he worked at the factory had made him look large without being muscular.

“How’s the chow, kiddo?” Frank’s father ruffled his son’s hair with a loving hand as he walked over to the rusted, two-burner stove and served himself his own chipped bowl of the macaroni and cheese. “What do we have tonight? Scooby Doo-designed characters for our noodles?”

“Yep,” Frank said around a mouthful of food as he noticed the serving his father had placed in his own bowl wasn’t much more than Frank had been given. “Do you think we can read a book tonight before bed? Maybe about Robin Hood or King Arthur?”

“Yeah, I think we can swing that, buddy.” Frank’s father served a second bowl for his wife, emptying the rest of the macaroni and cheese into a third mismatched bowl. “I mean, that is, if your mom is okay with it. You know how she gets stressed out with those battle scenes.”

Liam winked at his son with this last statement as Rose exited the bedroom. He gathered his hands in front of him with intertwined fingers and bent his head for a moment as he always did before eating dinner, no matter how meager it was.

“That was one time.” She laughed, but the act caused her to wheeze, then cough into her hand. “And you can’t blame me for that one. The final battle when King Arthur is wounded and taken away by the Lady of the Lake? Come on.”

“You were on the edge of your seat.” Frank grinned. “Literally.”

Liam and Rose sat at the table with Frank as the trio started talking about the story and what they would read together that night. Those years were some of the happiest and hardest Frank had had to endure. His parents loved him, there was no doubt. But neither was there any doubt about their lack of money.

Each month was a struggle to get by, each day at school was a lesson in Bullying 101, and every year his mother’s health grew worse.


10

“Don’t you die on me.”

Raj’s voice was the first thing Frank remembered hearing as he came to.

“Don’t you go, you son of a sea serpent.” Raj slammed both hands down over Frank’s sternum with another chest compression as he administered CPR. “Come on, Frank, come on!”

Each chest compression Raj administered sent a new tremor of pain through Frank’s already battered body. It was too early to tell if anything was broken, but Frank knew for certain there would be bruising.

“Ugh.” Frank opened his eyes. “If you press on my chest again, I’m going to hit you back.”

“Thank God.” Raj sighed, falling back on his knees. “I didn’t know if you had punched your last ticket or not. You’re insane, by the way.”

Frank blinked, looking up at the dull grey sky. He licked his lips, to find them sticky and salted from the water. Someone—Raj, Frank figured—had removed his chestplate. He couldn’t have been out long. He was lying on the shore just out of the water, helmet in hand.

“Welcome back to the land of the living.” Colonel Breaker’s un-helmeted head appeared over Frank. “How’re you feeling?”

“Oh, you know.” Frank winced as he sat up. “Like I got chewed up and spit out by a water-hydra-monster-thing. Ugh, what’s that smell?”

“Easy there. Let me check you out first before you start moving around,” Raj said, kneeling by Frank. He began running his hands over Frank’s sternum, ribs, and shoulder, searching for damage. “Where does it hurt?”

“Whoa, easy there, doc. You’re not going to buy a guy a drink before you get all handsy?” Frank grimaced as Raj examined his rib cage. “Seriously, though, what am I smelling? Did you puke more pop tarts?”

“I think you’re smelling that monster’s blood and saliva.” Colonel Breaker knelt on Frank’s other side. “You’re covered in the stuff.”

Frank looked down at the lower half of his body still encased in the diamond-plated armor. The colonel was right. A sticky film of white-and-grey liquid covered his lower half and the chestplate of his armor, which sat on the ground beside him. The putrid odor coming off the armor was one part skunk, one part Raj’s pop tart vomit, and one part fetid corpse.

“I think you have some bruised ribs and a mild concussion, but I’m not seeing anything broken. Here, let’s take off that shirt.” Raj helped Frank remove the black undershirt. “That armor of yours really did its job. Without it, your body would have been broken by the fall and you would have been fish food.”

“Lucky me.” Frank grunted as he removed his shirt and looked down at his ribs. The armor had saved Frank from the sea monster’s teeth tearing through his body, but the serrated edges of the teeth had applied a massive amount of pressure to the diamond plating, causing a series of angry, deep pink-and-purple bruises to form around Frank’s rib cage. “I’m so black-and-blue, I look like a Smurf in a tux.”

“Yep, I can give you meds for the pain, but the bruising will have to heal on its own.” Raj examined Frank’s back, then shone a light into each of his eyes.

“Any chance I can get that shirt back on?” Frank forced his teeth not to chatter in the cold. “My nipples could cut glass.”

“Oh, right.” Raj helped Frank maneuver back into his shirt. “Sorry about that. Take it easy for the time being. I’m going to grab some meds to help you on your way to recovery.”

“Will do.” Frank stood on unsteady feet as Raj left to grab a supply case on one of the shuttle bots. Frank and the colonel stood side by side, surveying the landscape.

It was the first real look Frank had gotten of their surroundings without having his eyesight impeded by fog or fearing for his life at the hands of some prehistoric water dinosaur.

The dock where the gateway had deposited them led to a coast that spread out on either side as far as the eye could see. There was no sandy beach area; the water simply ended at a place where the grassy land took up residence. The ground felt like soil and turf under his feet. About twenty yards from the coastline, a temperate forest with a moderately dense canopy of broad evergreen leaves opened up, covering a series of rolling hills. He could see the other members of MSC1 moving around just beyond the treeline.

The trees, dirt, and grass didn’t look much different from Earth’s. The only main change Frank could see was the colors looked brighter somehow—the greens on the leaves were more vivid, the red-brown of the tree trunks richer.

“Elly checked out the oxygen levels again while you were out,” Colonel Breaker said, breaking the silence. “They were the same as when we sent the drones in before us. We’re safe. The rest of the unit is setting up a base camp just inside the treeline.”

Frank hadn’t expected a hug from the colonel for saving his and Elly’s life, but he had expected more than just diving right back into the mission.

You didn’t do what you did for a slap on the butt and an “attaboy,” Frank had to remind himself. It’s the way the colonel’s built.

Something tugged at Frank’s mind. Something that had bothered him during his fight with the sea monster. It came to him like a vase crashing over his head.

“Your drones didn’t see that water monster, either, I take it?” Frank looked the colonel in the eye. “What else aren’t you telling us?”

“You’re right. The recon we did didn’t pick up any readings of that monster that took two of my men.” Colonel Breaker glared at Frank. “You think I would lead a unit of Marines into a situation like this if I had known what was waiting for us?”

“I’d like to think not, but I don’t really know you, colonel.” As soon as those words had left his mouth, Frank understood he had pushed too far.

“Well, get to know me.” Colonel Breaker grabbed Frank by his collar and pulled him in close. His deep baritone voice dropped even lower, reverberating in Frank’s bruised chest. “There’s nothing more important to me than the safety of my unit. You get me? I’ve lost more soldiers under my command than you have years in this life. I remember each and every one of their faces. Every night, and sometimes during the day, they come back to haunt me. Don’t you ever think I would lead my unit into intentional harm. You get me?”

Every muscle in Frank’s sore body screamed at him to break the hold the colonel had on his shirt, but Frank understood that would only escalate the situation. He held his temper in check, allowing the colonel’s hands to maintain their hold on his collar.

Frank looked deep into the colonel’s manic eyes. There was rage there, but also a sadness Frank understood firsthand. He knew for certain in that moment, the colonel had had no idea of the sea monster’s existence. Frank wasn’t sure if that was reassuring or worrisome. If the colonel hadn’t known about the presence of the beast, what else did they not know about?

Tension hovered between the men. Frank maintained eye contact with the colonel, not in a sign of challenge, but because he saw something else there, something beyond rage and pain. The colonel was debating telling him something else.

“Hey, Frank, I got the meds. This stuff is going to make you feel great. I don’t mean ‘relaxed’ great; I mean, straight, opium-induced—” Raj cut himself off as he noticed the tense situation between the two men. “I—uh … I can come back.”

“Stay,” Colonel Breaker said, finally releasing his hold on Frank’s collar. The large officer took a step back. “I’m going to tell the entire unit, but you two might as well hear it first.”

Raj’s mouth opened in a large O. He carried a pair of blue pills in his right hand, a canteen of water in his left. Frank took them, downing the pills with more than enough water to see them at the bottom of his belly.

“We had no knowledge that a sea creature that could be waiting for us,” Colonel Breaker said in a hard tone. “If I had, you best believe we would have been coming through that gateway with armor and enough firepower to send that overgrown tuna fish to the bottom of the sea. But we do have other information the top brass decided to keep under wraps.”

Frank wasn’t sure if the meds were kicking in already or if he was so enraptured with what the colonel was about to say next, that pain was becoming easier to endure.

“Colonel! Colonel!” Major Lopez yelled.

All three heads swiveled up to the treeline where the major had been in charge of setting up base camp. She was running toward them with a wild look in her eyes. Her right hand was pointing past them toward the gateway.

Frank’s stomach dropped. He had already suspected what he was going to see when his eyes took in the dock once again. He was right.

Where once the gateway had appeared at the very edge of the dock, allowing a bridge between their world and this one, now there was nothing.

The only thing past the edge of the metal dock was the flat sea that spread out beyond, as far as the eye could see, a deep blue meeting the grey sky horizon.


11

“Wow, great,” Frank said with a sigh. “Almost killed by a water dragon, now there’s no way to get back home. And I don’t even know if Raj kissed me or not while he was giving me CPR. This is turning out to be one heck of a day.”

“I didn’t kiss you,” Raj reassured him.

“Communications are down with The Den.” Major Lopez reached the trio and began giving her report. “I have the base camp being set up, but Elly’s shaken pretty bad. The others are moving, but well … we knew there was a chance of losing soldiers, though no one expected it to be this fast.”

“I get you.” Colonel Breaker nodded. “Let’s go. I want to address everyone.”

Frank grabbed his helmet and the upper half to his armor as he fell in step with Raj and the major. The Punisher assault rifle he had used was gone, lost somewhere in the now quiet sea. They followed the colonel up to the treeline where the other Marines waited.

“I mean, I know the gateway is closed now,” Raj began, trying to make sense of something no one was an expert in, “but they can open the gate from the other side, right? I mean, that sphere opened it up once, so it can open it up again, right?”

“We’ll find a way back,” Major Lopez reassured the doctor without giving any specifics as to how the feat would be done. “We stick together, and we’ll find a way back.”

The meds were in full swing. Frank would probably have kept his mouth shut, but in the moment, it seemed funnier to say: “Or not, Raj. We might never get back. We might be like that guy in the original Jumanji movie who gets sucked into the game and has to find a way to live off the land.”

Major Lopez gave Frank a hard stare, but he ignored it.

The foursome reached the remaining four Marines waiting for them with the shuttle bots. Elly’s fingers were racing over a keyboard she had unpacked from one of the bots. The other three Marines—Tango, and two others Frank hadn’t yet met—were setting up base camp.

No words passed between them, yet Frank saw the look, felt the cold in the air that had nothing to do with the weather. They had lost two of their own. Their training as Marines would carry them forward completing tasks and following orders, but each of them was dealing with the loss in his or her own way.

“I need everyone to circle up,” Colonel Breaker said when they arrived.

The Marines immediately obeyed, falling into file in front of their CO. Elly caught Frank’s eye and mouthed “thank you.” Frank did his best at a smile and nodded back.

“You’ve all seen the gateway closed,” Colonel Breaker began. “We’ve lost two of our own. I want you to know the military had no knowledge of whatever that beast was. We’ll find a way back. I promise you that much. If the sphere got us here, then the team back home is working on reactivating it. In the meantime, our objective to explore hasn’t changed.”

The colonel took a moment to think on his next words. It was the same kind of look in his eyes Frank had seen when he grabbed him by the collar. There was more to this story, and the colonel was about to share.

“When the gateway opened, we sent in drones to examine the oxygen levels, explore the landscape, and determine the threat level.” Colonel Breaker looked each one of them in the eyes while he relayed the information. “There was no sign of that sea creature ever, but we did find something to the north. Creatures there always intercepted our drones and took them out of the sky.”

The Marines looked at one another for answers. Of course they didn’t have any, but it felt like the right thing to do.

“Elly?” Colonel Breaker asked while motioning to her laptop. “Show them.”

“It’s not much. Even the clearest image we managed to capture is only a blur, but as far as we can tell, it’s some kind of winged creature,” Elly said as she grabbed her laptop and clicked through a few images. “We sent a handful of drones in, and they were always intercepted. We are also limited on the range our drones can operate due to the planet’s interference, which we’re still trying to understand.”

Frank didn’t even pretend to comprehend half the words that were coming out of Elly’s mouth as she talked about 2.4 and 5.8 GHz frequencies, quantum fluctuations, and remotes—blah, blah, blah. What he was more interested in was huddling around Elly with the rest of the Marines and taking a look at the blurred images of the unknown beast that had taken down the drones.

One image showed something that looked like a large bird. Another grabbed a pixelated golden-tan body of what appeared to be some kind of feline. The images appeared to be of the same creature, yet showed feathers and fur.

“Whatever that is to the north is obviously alien,” Colonel Breaker said. “We mourn our brothers, but we do so knowing that, when we get back home, there will be nothing but time to mourn. Right now, our priority is securing base camp and getting Elly and Major Lopez the tech they need up and running to study this place. We’re Marines, and we get the job done. Oorah, Marines?”

“Oohrah!” the Marines answered back.

Everyone minus Frank jumped into action. Tango and the two other men Frank found out were named O’Donnell and Spear set up the parameter defenses that included trip cams, motion sensors, and an updated version of a M18 claymore mine.

Raj and the major busied themselves with erecting the tents, while the colonel began unpacking the shuttle bots. Frank found himself beside Elly as the woman set up a command station of her own in the center of the camp.

“I wanted to make sure I said thank you for saving me.” Elly brushed behind her right ear a strand of her dark hair that had come undone during the attack, when her fingers came in contact with her hearing aid. Self-consciously she brushed her hair back to hide the piece of equipment. “I would have been gone if you hadn’t pushed us out of the way. Both the colonel and I would have been gone.”

“You would have done the same thing for me.” Frank ignored the awkward moment. He was horrible at receiving praise and had no desire to make Elly feel like she owed him. “How are your hearing devices working in your helmet? There’s an option to adjust the volume inside the helmet if you need to.”

Elly looked at Frank, surprised that he would have brought up her disability in such a normal way. Her mouth opened, then closed again. Her dark eyes widened, then narrowed as she studied him. It was clear to Frank she had trouble discussing her hearing loss.

“I’m fine—it’s fine.” Elly shrugged off Frank’s question, making it obvious her hearing loss was the last thing she wanted to talk about. She pushed her glasses farther up her nose. “And my glasses are fine, too, so you don’t have to ask.”

“Hey, I wasn’t trying to—”

“I lost my hearing on a training exercise: a detonation went off too close to my head, okay?” Elly said as though confessing something to a priest.

“We don’t have to talk about it if—”

“The hearing devices help a lot, but I still have trouble pronouncing words if I yell or I’m stressed.” Even as she spoke, Elly’s words slurred a bit. She slowed and looked away. “But I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I get it,” Frank said, watching Elly’s fingers fly over her laptop. It was clear she was in her element behind the keyboard. “So how can I help? I don’t have a designated job setting up base camp, but I suck at not doing anything.”

Elly nodded along with Frank’s words as if she understood the feeling firsthand. She looked up into the sky. Since their arrival through the gateway, the sky had been overcast and grey. Now, clouds overhead had begun to dissipate. An orange sun appeared briefly as it surrendered its reign of the sky to the night. With the fall of evening, the air dropped ten degrees, and the scuttling of the forest nocturnal fauna could be heard amongst the trees.

“One of the things we need to do right away is to get our bearings in our galaxy, if we can,” Elly explained. She pointed to an open case where an interactive screen sat in a protective clear sheath. “Turn on the smart pad and you’ll see an icon on the main screen to track star patterns. Point it up into the sky and let’s see if we can pinpoint our location in space.”

“Right,” Frank said, already moving to obey her words. The smart pad looked like a tablet to him, maybe a little heavier, but all in all the same kind of tool he saw advertised on TV every day.

Frank found the ON button at the bottom of the tool. A moment later, the screen brightened to life with a digital blue light, asking for a username and password.

“Elly?” Frank looked down at the spot where Elly sat cross-legged in the middle of camp, typing away furiously at her keyboard with rapid-fire clicking.

“What’s up?” she asked, looking up while her fingers still danced over her keyboard.

“I need the username and password to the smart pad.”

“Username is Yoloasiangirl29—but the o’s are zeros and the I’s are one’s—and the password is craycray hashtag symbol 2000.”

Elly said the words with such a straight face, it made Frank burst into a smile, and even laugh.

“Okay, okay, but seriously,” Frank prodded. “I need the username and password if I’m going to get in.”

“Ummm … I am being serious.” Elly shrugged, going back to her screen. “Don’t judge me, Frank.”

“Hey, you do you.” Frank typed in the provided username and password. As promised, the smart pad gave him access to a main screen where an icon with a star system sat in the upper righthand corner.

Frank tapped on the icon and moved the smart tab up to take a view of the just-budding stars in the sky. Frank was no expert on astronomy, but he knew the scene taking place in the sky above him was nothing like the stars he had seen a thousands times from Earth.

With the sun just gone, already the sky was filling with thousands upon thousands of bright glowing stars. There were so many winking into existence, it seemed that soon there would be more stars filling the sky with glitter than actual black space between them.

Frank lifted the smart pad, allowing the camera to analyze the alien sky. A blinking screen appeared on the smart pad as the tool studied the night sky and sought to provide an exact position.

Frank’s mouth dropped open as he took in the moons now glowing silver to take their place in the sky.

“My God.”

There wasn’t just one moon. There were three.


12

Wow, just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, Frank thought. But should three moons really get you all bent out of shape? You were just spit out by a sea monster.

Still the three moons in different waning phases all bunched together behind one another was enough to give him pause. The scene of the banana-shaped slivers was beautiful. Frank rarely took the time to look up into the night sky and admire either the moon or the limited stars he could see from Earth. This scene demanded not only to be viewed, but also to be experienced.

A light beep brought Frank back to his senses as the camera on the smart pad finished studying the sky. Readouts began filling the screen; both numbers and terms popped up and blinked. Frank had no idea what they meant. One line of text caught his eye as it scrolled past the screen: Oberon.

“Hey, Elly.” Frank leaned down to where she sat with her own laptop open. He handed her the smart pad. “It’s doing something. I don’t really know what. It looks like those green numbers that fill all the screens on the Matrix.”

Elly accepted the smart pad, scrunching her brow. Her eyes tracked the numbers and readouts as they relayed information.

“This is … this doesn’t make any sense,” Elly said, placing her own laptop on the ground beside her to give her full attention to the smart pad. She clicked a few buttons, opening a digital keyboard on the screen, and began her furious typing once more.

“What doesn’t make any sense?” Frank considered his question. “And when you explain it to me, use small words us mortals can understand. Like, pretend you’re explaining this to a little kid.”

“So Earth is found in the Milky Way Galaxy,” Elly said, smirking at Frank’s last statement. She brought up a map of the universe on her screen. She pointed her finger to a clump of stars on one side of the screen, then moved her finger to the far opposite side of the screen to another gathering of stars. “This is the Oberon Galaxy that hasn’t even been explored yet. It was sort of discovered this past year via particle dust carried over on asteroid 1102 Hearn. We have a few ideas of what we think it looks like, but that’s it.”

Frank leaned in to get a better view of the Oberon Galaxy where Elly had tapped her finger. It wasn’t anything more than a blank section in space.

“So, uncharted space, huh?” Frank asked, shifting his attention from the pad to Elly.

“Yeah,” Elly said, shaking her head. She placed the smart tablet facedown again, giving the camera access to the night sky once more. “I’m going to let it run a few more times to be sure. We’re on the opposite end of the universe right now.”

“Mmm…” Frank said, looking over at Raj, who jumped after stepping on a branch. “Someone should break it to Raj easy. I don’t know if that guy can take another revelation like this.”

“Seriously, though.” Elly opened a case by her feet. Inside, sitting in cushioned foam, was a series of tiny, flat objects. Paired with each one was a slender, longer, silver piece. “So B.U.T.T.S. isn’t the only one making crazy advancements in technology these days. The military has been stepping up its game, as well. By the way, why did they decide to use an acronym like that? They do realize what it spells, right?”

“Hey, don’t make waves, right?” Frank shrugged. “I’ve asked myself that question a dozen times, but as long as their checks keep clearing, I’ll say on my gravestone I work for B.U.T.T.S.”

Elly laughed out loud. “You’re all right, Frank. I don’t care what everyone else thinks about you. And trust me, they have some rude opinions.”

Frank wasn’t about to ask what the others were saying, so when Elly blushed and moved on, he was fine. He had learned to tune out others’ judgments long ago.

“So, anywho, in the occasion we’re met with any intelligent life here, we have a couple pieces of tech to help us communicate. One round pin goes behind your right ear and the flatter piece goes on the side of your throat.” Elly handed Frank one of each. “It’ll feel like a pinprick, but the tech will translate languages for you as soon as it learns and understands the language. Once that’s done, the throat pieces will translate for you when you speak. In your head, it’ll sound like English, but it’ll come out in whatever language you’re trying to speak.”

Frank accepted the two pins. The circular one to be fitted behind his ear wasn’t larger than a button on the top of one of his dress shirt collars. The slender bar for his throat was about the length of his thumb and as thin as a pen clip.

The circular piece of tech was a dull silver with a single pin on the back an eighth of an inch long. Frank felt the cold piece of metal in his hand, debating whether he really should just shove this thing into his ear.

“Come on, sea monster slayer.” Elly rolled her eyes behind her glasses and took the pin from Frank. “Here, I’ll do it. Don’t be a baby.”

“I’m not being a baby.” Frank scrunched his brow in defense of his manhood. “I just want to make sure I get it in the right place so I don’t have to stab myself twic—Ouch!”

While Frank spoke, Elly rose on her tiptoes and pressed the tech in place, right behind Frank’s right ear. It felt exactly like he’d imagined: a cold needle piercing his skin and tissue underneath.

Frank reached a hand to rub at the spot.

“Easy. Give it a few seconds to let it meld,” Elly warned as she reached for the next metal piece of tech to apply. “You may experience a slight hum in your ear. It’ll go away soon.”

Frank scowled at Elly, not appreciating being caught off guard. He eyed her as she searched his throat for the right place to apply the next piece of metal.

“What, you want to do it yourself?” Elly asked with an arched eyebrow. “Because if you do, be my guest. Go ahead and stab your Adam's apple unnecessarily, then have me do it correctly.”

“I can see why you were chosen for this mission.” Frank let his hands fall beside his body. “Go ahead, Yoloasiangirl29. Just do it.”

“You got that right.” Elly grinned and pressed the thin strip of metal to the left side of Frank’s throat. It fit just to the left of his Adam’s apple.

To say the feeling was uncomfortable would have been an understatement. It was like getting a vampire bite to the throat. Well, not that Frank knew what that’s like. Yet, it’s what he imagined. A date tried to bite him like that once, but he wasn’t into it. Or maybe he just wasn’t into her. Elly finished up, and Frank winced, but managed not to move. A warm feeling was coming from both pieces of tech now. A metallic taste filled his mouth.

“Don’t worry, it’s all normal,” Elly said, looking at Frank as he worked his tongue over the inside of the mouth. “I’ll check the status on my laptop, but they seem to be working.”

“Hey,” Frank said, noting through the dark that Elly wasn’t wearing the tech herself. “How come I’m the only one wearing this right now?”

“Oh, I’m going to apply it to every member of the team, don’t worry.” Elly looked at her laptop with a nod. “It’s all good. Readouts are fine. I just needed someone to test it on first.”

“So you chose me?” Frank asked incredulously.

“Hey, you don’t have any of the adverse side effects. Calm down.” Elly bugged her eyes and shook her head, chiding him as she picked up the case holding the remaining sets of tech to distribute to the rest of the Marines.

“Side effects?” Frank repeated, taking a look at Elly’s screen. His eyes scanned a small window that had a list of items to look out for once the pieces of technology were administered. “Swollen face, loss of feeling in extremities? Elly, this list goes on and on. What’s bug eye? How am I supposed to know I don’t have bug eye, if I don’t even know what it is?”

“Easy, easy. I’m a professional, Frank,” Elly said over her shoulder as she headed to where the major and Raj worked on erecting the last tent. “I’ll monitor everyone.”

The rest of the night was spent setting a firewatch schedule, cleaning their armor and weapons, and eating a cold meal of beef franks, MREs he had told himself he would never eat again.

Cleaning his armor from the blood and the saliva was almost as bad as eating his MRE. If he was being honest with himself, he missed the corps. Well, not so much the corps as the people who made up the military.

He sat quiet and listened as they ate their meal, reminiscing on the two lost Marines, Smythe and Finn.

“We were deployed to Iraq in 2003. A few months into our tour, our friend got two weeks’ leave. He had been assigned as the gunner on our lieutenant’s Humvee. The night before we go on mission, the lieutenant asked Finn if he’d like to fill in and be his gunner. Man, Finn had a bad habit of running his mouth and didn’t think spending too much time with the lieutenant would be a good idea. So he declined saying, ‘I would, sir, but I hear your driver is so bad, he voids my life insurance policy, and my Suzie would really need the money.’ The lieutenant just laughed and walked away.”

There was more laughter than tears. Even the colonel chipped in with a few happy memories of the two men.

“We do this because we’re the right people for the job,” the colonel said. “But we do it for Smythe and Finn, too, so their deaths meant something.”

A series of somber nods answered the colonel’s words.

“All right.” Colonel Breaker looked at his watch. Without thinking, he massaged his throat where the metal strip now sat, courtesy of Elly. “The major and Frank have first watch. The rest of you turn in for some rack time. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow. The terrain won’t be the hardest we’ve met, but it’s not a stroll through a mall, either.”

Moments later, Frank found himself sitting side by side with the major. He had replaced his armor, the heating unit inside keeping his body warm, his nose and ears taking the brunt of the cold that seemed to come from the east. It was frigid without being freezing; barely cold enough for Frank to see his own breath.

He leaned against a tree with the major, Elly’s assault rifle in his hands since his was at the bottom of the alien sea somewhere. His helmet was magnetized to the left side of his belt. He looked out into the forest, a smart pad by his feet.

He and the major each had a smart pad. His showed the cameras and sensors erected around the perimeter. The major’s controlled an updated version of the claymore. Frank was still curious as to how the weapon worked.

Frank and the major made small talk about where they were from, if they’d ever been to Nevada or Las Vegas, how long had each been in the military, and such, until about an hour into their watch when the sound of slumberous breaths from the rest of the unit drifted to them on the light breeze.

“You did good today,” Major Lopez said as if she were praising a student. “I mean, you know you did. You don’t need to hear it from me. But you won over most of the unit.”

“Just doing my job,” Frank said, scanning the dark forest in front of him. Something like a bird squawked overhead as it rustled in the branches. Frank decided to put on his helmet to get a better look.

The heads-up display showed him the forest in front of him as if it were day. To his left and above him sat a fat little bird with three eyes and a flat beak.

“Just doing your job?” Major Lopez repeated. “Listen, everyone heard the conversation you had with B.U.T.T.S. about only coming on this mission for the money. I get that. But you have to understand, the rest of us are doing this for our country and probably aren’t getting half of the money you are.”

It seemed the major thought Frank meant he had only pushed the colonel and Elly out of harm’s way because he was getting paid to do it. That wasn’t at all what Frank meant, but he didn’t care to correct the major.

Something was wrong. That sixth sense he had picked up during his time in the Marines was going off like sirens in his mind. What was it? The animals. Before, the birds and small alien wildlife had been restless, but now they were silent.

A scurry of paws directed Frank’s attention to a family of tiny brown rodents that ran to their left. A few more of the fat birds squawked and took flight.

“And you aren’t even going to respond?” Major Lopez sighed. “Whatever, Frank. At least I know where you stand. But there are more important things in this life than money.”

She was going on and on about money, sounding more like someone who had had enough of it her entire life. Frank heard her voice in the background, but he had caught movement through the trees. Something large. Something that looked like a robed man.


13

“We can discuss your privileged upbringing and good looks later,” Frank cut the major off with a harsh whisper. He sank down to his knees and brought his weapon up to his helmet. “We have company, ten o’clock. I just see one now, but I bet there’s more.”

Immediately, the major fell silent. She was already wearing her helmet, but she, too, sank to her knees in a liquid motion and trained her rifle up to where Frank instructed.

Without the help of their night vision display in their helmets, seeing the figure through the dark would have been impossible. The stars and three moons overhead helped a bit, but not enough to pick out movement two hundred yards away in the dense forest.

Seconds passed as more and more figures made themselves seen among the broad and tall trunks. Frank adjusted the zoom in the heads-up display, allowing him to see the figures at one hundred times zoom if he so desired.

The robed figures walked like humans; even gaits of a biped. The flowing cloth robes hooded the head and over their shoulders, cascading down to the ground. The figures inside even looked human with a few noticeable differences: their skin was a light purple, their hair stark white under their hoods.

If they were friendlies, they did a good job hiding it. Dozens of them came from the forests, each holding either a bulky rifle or a bladed weapon resembling a cross between a machete and a butcher cleaver.

“I don’t know how you want to play this,” Frank whispered. “I know this is a discover mission and all, but if I had to guess, they’re not sneaking up in the middle of the night armed to the teeth for an ice cream social.”

The trap cameras and sensors went off around the camp relayed to the smart pad beside Frank. Warnings blinked like crazy across the screen.

In that moment, Frank didn’t envy the major and her decision. Did they shoot first and let God sort them out, or did they give diplomacy a chance? Frank knew what he would pick, but he also understood that the major was about to disagree with him.

The figures were closing fast. Sooner rather than later, their decision would be made for them if the hooded strangers stumbled upon Frank and the major.

“This is how you control the claymore,” Major Lopez said in a rush of words. “It moves by itself, like a drone. You direct where you want it to go with your finger. I’m going to try to talk with these people. You wake the others, and if things go bad, you light these guys up with the claymore.”

Frank nodded, switching to the open channel and calling out to the rest of the unit that lay a hundred yards to their rear, sleeping. “Rise and shine Marine Space Corps One. We have a few dozen possible—probable—hostiles approaching from our ten o’clock position. Get ready. The major insists on playing nice, so she’s about to extend the welcome mat.”

The colonel’s voice answered so fast, and without the slightest hint of sleep, Frank wondered whether he had been asleep at all.

“Roger that. Gear up for defensive positions, Marines,” Colonel Breaker ordered. “No one fires until the command is given.”

“Hmmm? What?” Raj’s sleepy voice sounded over the comms. “No, I don’t want to dance. I’m embarrassed. You know I’m a shy boy.”

Frank grinned in his helmet and would have said more, had it not been for the major’s position. She rose from her concealed position to his right and walked forward carefully, placing one foot after the other to meet the strangers.

All his focus was on her and the shadowed, robed figures approaching. He maneuvered the claymore on the smart pad just behind the major and to the right. It was close enough now he could see it: a square piece of metal floating on a pair of fans, like a drone.

As soon as the figures approaching them noticed the major, they stopped in their tracks, raising their weapons.

“No, wait,” Major Lopez said, raising her hands in the universal sign of surrender. “We aren’t here to fight you.”

The major had barely gotten the words out before the scene erupted in the unfamiliar sounds of alien weapon fire. The major went down.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFF!

Bright light erupted from the barrels of the weapons being fired on the major. They more so resembled flamethrowers than rifles. Giant spouts of fire raced toward the major, seeking to cook her alive inside her armor.

“Fire!” the colonel commanded.

With a flick of his right finger, Frank brought the claymore up on his right, the enemies left flank. They had begun to form a kind of firing line.

“Eat this!” Frank hit the safety button, and then the fire button.

BAM!

Oh, it was a claymore all right, but an updated version that shredded trees and enemy alike.

“Hell yeah!” Tango hit the floor beside Frank and began opening up on the target-rich environment in front of them. “Get some!”

Frank dropped the smart pad, having spent the claymore’s one-time use, and lifted his own assault rifle. He found a target and squeezed the trigger. A twelve-inch tungsten steel rod shot out at breakneck speed, finding its target in the center of its skull and blowing brain matter and bone fragments out the back end.

The firefight was alive now with the sounds of the gauss-powered rifles taking on the strange flamethrowers the enemy used. Red blaster fire from the Marines was met with even more orange-and-red hoses of fire from the enemy.

“Major Lopez, come in!” Colonel Breaker shouted. “Does anyone have eyes on the major?”

Frank looked over to his right and ahead where he had seen the major duck for cover. All he could see were her feet sticking out from behind a copse of trees. They weren’t moving.

“I don’t know if she’s done for, but I can see her foot from my spot about twenty yards in front of me to my left.” Frank turned with his weapon and took down a charging enemy with two rounds to the head.

Who are these guys? Frank thought as he zeroed in and took down another charging enemy that had nothing more than one of these cleavers in his hand. Willing to charge in head-first with a knife?

“O’Donnell, Spear,” Colonel Breaker’s voice sounded over the comms. “Go with Frank and get the major. Everyone else, covering fire.”

Frank glanced to his left where O’Donnell and Spear looked to him with nods. As one, the trio ran in a crouched position toward the fallen major. Frank took out two more enemies, who ran with abandon toward the Marines.

The warring factions had taken up sides now, the Marines just outside of their camp and their enemies firing gouts of flames no more than forty yards in front of them. For as many of the knife-wielding psychos the enemy sent toward them who were killed, more and more came.

The flames racing over MSC1’s heads and all around them actually came in two kinds of projectiles. One was a hose of fire that sought to cook them like a traditional flamethrower, but there was also another that shot out globs of what looked like heated plasma. The rounds spattered all around and burned through trees, dirt, and anything else unfortunate enough to catch it.

Frank and the two other Marines made it to the major’s side. She was lying on her back, propped up against a rock. She had torn off her helmet, a newly burned scar on her face telling Frank why. It seemed one of the rounds of plasma had hit her in the helmet and had begun to eat through the tough exterior.

Her assault rifle was nowhere to be seen. Instead, she held on to her Reckoner with a tight fist.

“We’re going to get you out of here. You just hold on,” Frank shouted over the sounds of weapon fire.

“How bad is it?” Major Lopez asked, snapping out of whatever stunned state she had been in. “Be straight with me.”

“If you’re asking me if I still find you attractive”—Frank winked at the major, ignoring the scorched marring on the left side of her face—“well, then, yes.”

“We’ve got a problem!” O’Donnell shouted from his spot beside Frank. “We’ve got a big, big problem.”

“Son of a beached whale!” Raj screamed through the comms. “What is that thing!?”

Frank didn’t want to look up to see what had caught everyone’s attention, but he knew he had to.

Please don’t let it be another monster, Frank thought. Just not another monster.

Frank looked up to see what could only be described as a monster hurtling toward their location. A manic cheer went up from their robed enemies as the thing approached.

It was larger than a man, maybe eight feet tall and made of crimson armor. The hooves and face with a snout and large eyes similar to a bull’s, including its long horns, had made Frank think it was an alien animal at first glance, but as it got closer, he realized it was a suit of power armor.

The armor suit carried a heavy sword in the right hand and a minigun in the left. It was closing in on Frank’s position quickly with robotic, hydraulic joints propelling it forward.

“Bring it down!” Colonel Breaker ordered over the noise of their cheering enemies. “Focus fire!”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Every Marine still able opened fire on the armored beast. Not a single round got through to the armored power suit. Their rounds stopped and disintegrated before they struck, each hitting a shimmering field about five inches from the target.

Splatters of red energy appeared and disappeared anywhere a tungsten round came in contact with the force field. Their weapons were useless. The monster would be on top of them in seconds.


14

“Get her out of here. I’ll cover you,” Frank yelled to O’Donnell and Spear. “Go! These weapons aren’t getting through.”

At the same time Frank yelled the orders, O’Donnell chucked a grenade toward the charging monolith. The explosive sailed through the air and came to a stop right in front of the beast.

BAM!

For a moment, dirt and smoke hindered their view of the mechanical minotaur warrior. The ground shook as a ton of metal hit the floor. Cheering from their enemy died on the cold air. It only lasted a second as the smoke cleared, showing the armored monster regaining his feet and charging again. It seemed the grenade had been enough to slow the power armor, but not stop it.

“Go, go!” Frank ordered, leveling his Punisher with one hand at the charging enemy. He drew his Reckoner side arm from its place on his thigh, adding its firepower to the barrage he sent forward into the colossal enemy.

Frank focused on hitting the same area of the force field over and over again in the hopes that a section of the force field would weaken and he could possibly get a shot through.

You don’t even know how force fields work, Frank chided himself as he gritted his teeth and stared down the rampaging suit of armor. Well, it’s what you got at the moment.

Red globs of smoldering plasma erupted from the power armor in front of him. The minigun weapon spat the rounds at Frank and the rest of the crew so furiously, Frank didn’t even have time to dive for cover.

His own rounds did nothing against the force field protecting the power armor. Now that the piece of equipment was so close, Frank got a better look at his enemy. He was right to have put the unit at eight feet tall. It was more of a mech than anything else. Crimson alloy plates formed an armor that would have looked like a man had it not been for the hooves over the feet and the head that came out in a snout with two long horns.

Ten yards from the charging piece of armor, Frank’s own weapons ran dry. He had emptied his magazines into the force field without even making a dent. The tungsten steel rods simply disintegrated in a wave of red when they came in contact with the barrier.

The mechanized armor lowered its head, its weapon still firing rounds in sporadic bursts. Frank thought he was going to be gored by the horns on the charging monster’s helmet; instead, a round of plasma caught him on the left shoulder, spinning him around.

It felt like getting hit with a sledgehammer. White hot, searing pain exploded where the round made contact with his armor.

“Focus fire, give them cover!” Colonel Breaker was shouting over the comms. “Elly, get me another one of those claymores up and running.”

Frank looked up at the charging piece of bull armor that was now only yards from his supine position. He ignored the pain in his shoulder, focusing on what had to be done next. His hands grabbed the two grenades at his belt. If this was the day he was going to die, he had no intentions of going down alone.

A screech—no, a roar, or some combination of the two—filled the air. Then a being even larger than the mechanized suit slammed down on top of it, clawing at the red armor unit with a razor-sharp beak and front paws of pointed talons. The creature’s wings beat the air, keeping it balanced as it attacked, covering Frank in a rush of dust-filled wind.

Frank scurried back, grunting in pain in the process. His shoulder wasn’t feeling any better. For the moment, the agony his wound brought had taken second violin to the gladiators raging in front of him.

More and more of the winged creature’s battle cries roared and echoed through the night woods. Frank was pushed back by the gale from the massive beast’s wings.

“Hold your fire on the … flying unit,” Colonel Breaker shouted. “They’re attacking the force in the robes. I repeat: do not fire on this new regime, unless you are fired upon first.”

Frank heard the words as he scrambled backwards, but he couldn’t tear his eyes from the wild fight in front of him. The winged creature looked like a giant eagle except, past its shoulders, it took on the appearance of a massive lion. Snow white avian wings sprouted from its sides, and a tan tail like a lion’s grew from its rump.

Frank’s eyes widened in wonder. For the first time, he realized there was someone riding the creature. A soldier dressed in gold-and-pearl armor held a gilded lance in one hand and a coordinating shield in the other as he battled the powered armor unit.

Wisely, the warrior had his winged creature focusing on the mechanized unit’s weapons. The creature’s beak held in check the limb holding the minigun like a vice grip, while its front talons clawed at the opposite arm of the mech that held the cleaver-like sword.

The warrior on top of the winged beast plunged his lance over and over again into the mech unit’s helmet and in between the moving pieces of armor, searching for a weak point.

A horn added its noise to the cacophony of sound. The horn was an obvious sign of retreat by the faction in the heavy robes, and Frank could see why. Droves of the golden warriors on the winged creatures touched down on the battlefield to fight, or merely swooped down, lifting a robed figure off the ground with it and carrying it high into the sky, then releasing him or her to fall. Fading screams could be heard as they pitched down to their deaths. Frank swore he heard a Wilhelm Scream in the distance.

The creature in front of Frank released its opponent and took a step back to see what the enemy would do.

The force field was finally gone around the mech unit; sparks and scarlet flashes of what Frank guessed were whatever powered the things, shot out. The minigun the mech carried was twisted beyond use, its bladed weapon lost somewhere in the struggle.

The warrior riding the winged beast said something in his foreign tongue. The translation tech needed a lot more than what it was given to be able to translate. In Frank’s ears it sounded like, “Hoodie mooshie mcgibbolets.”

The red mech backed away, joining his fellow soldiers in retreat. He responded with a garbled mechanical voice: “Deng hanna tell more, pineapple pizza.”

Of course Frank didn’t actually think the fleeing mechanized suit was talking about his takeout order of deep dish; that’s just how it come across. In the next few moments, the robed force, along with their sparking mech unit, was gone.

Frank struggled to his feet, the burning pain in his shoulder bearable but not fun. That was another thing that came with Frank’s ironclad will: a higher than average pain tolerance.

The warrior atop the winged creature turned his beast toward Frank. The animal’s eagle-like head cocked to the side, taking Frank in with its wide golden eyes. It almost smirked as if it were saying, “And what the heck are you?”

“Teng galla sushi an rice,” the warrior addressed Frank.

“I’ve really got to talk to Elly about this translation tech,” Frank said. He cleared his throat, opening his arms wide in dramatic miming fashion as he spoke loud and slow: “Friend, we are not your enemies. We are friends.”

Frank made sure his hands were open, his gestures smooth and non-threatening. He had already been in a fight with a sea monster and a mechanized bull. The last thing he needed was to be snatched up by the winged beast in front of him.

“Spear and O’Donnell didn’t make it,” Frank heard Major Lopez over the comms.

“Neither did Tango.” A defeated Raj did nothing to mask the pain in his voice.

“Rally at my position.” Colonel Breaker sounded tired. Not a physical toll, but an emotional strain. “We can’t afford to lose anyone else here. Let me do the talking.”

Frank was all for the colonel taking point on the negotiations, only, he wondered how he was going to convey to the warrior in front of him that he wanted him to follow Frank to where the rest of his unit waited.

The warrior could have doubled for a knight out of a medieval times catalogue. Golden armor covered him, from a winged helmet that showed only his eyes, to the ironclad boots on his feet. The silver moonlight shone off a winged tip. A white tunic over his chest showed a symbol of a descending bird, with two bolts of lightning crossed behind it. The shield he bore on his left arm held the same symbol.

“Take noftey tortellini,” the warrior said in a gruff tone. It seemed he was losing patience with Frank.

“Okay, we’re just going to take it easy, here, Kemosabe,” Frank said, remembering a name his father had called him growing up. A throwback to the adventures of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Frank kept his arms up and pointed with a finger to where the rest of his own unit and the winged warriors had gathered. “Follow me.”

Frank moved slowly, not wanting to spook either the creature or the warrior who rode on top. Frank moved toward the rest of his unit, keeping a wary eye on the winged beast and soldier who followed.

The golden-clad warrior seemed content to allow Frank to lead him toward the others, whether or not he actually understood what Frank was trying to convey.

Frank found the rest of the unit—Elly, Raj, the colonel, and the major—in a tight group. They were encircled by the golden warriors and the soldiers who rode them. Frank pressed through the throng to join the rest of the Marines.

The colonel was already speaking to who Frank presumed was their leader, talking in an even tone, with his hands out. The warrior he spoke to rode a winged creature with brown-and-golden feathers.

Frank turned off his comms and sidled up to the major. She had replaced her helmet now that the metal had stopped melting. A long gash on the left side of the armor still showed where the plasma round had eaten through the metal shielding down to her face.

“You all right?” Frank asked without really thinking on his words. “Can we talk to them yet?”

“No, I’m pretty far from being all right,” Major Lopez whispered back. The pain in her voice told Frank exactly what she was talking about. “We lost Tango, Spear, and O’Donnell. I’m pretty freaking far from all right.”

“We’ll be able to talk to them soon,” Elly said, changing the subject in a hushed, yet confident, peep. “Trust the tech. The language translation unit has already been at work learning their language. It’s only a matter of time.”

Frank was sweating despite the cooling system in his suit. The internal system could help maintain his body temperature, but did nothing to help the beads of sweat coming off his brow. In a slow motion, as not to spook the aliens, Frank removed his helmet.

Big mistake. A loud gasp escaped the throats of the alien warriors. Some leveled their lances at Frank, while others looked to their leader for orders.

“What?” Frank asked. “Come on, guys, I’m a solid nine out of ten.”


15

“Brown face,” Frank caught a warrior mutter to his left. It seemed the language translator was finally starting to pick up on a few words.

“That’s kind of racist, man,” Frank said, looking over to the warrior. “I’m going to let it slide this time because you have crazy flying monsters that could probably kill me in a few seconds.”

“Frank,” Colonel Breaker warned.

Frank closed his mouth and instead smiled at the rest of the warriors leaning down to take a look at him.

More hushed tones and whispers rippled over the gathered group. Frank was beginning to pick up words as the translation tech got better and better at recognizing tones and patterns.

“What are they?”

“Strangers from another planet.”

“They look so weird.”

“Are they in armor or is that their skin?”

“May I remove my helmet, as well?” Colonel Breaker pointed to his head.

“Please.” The lead warrior on top of his beast nodded.

Commander Breaker removed his helmet, revealing his ebony skin to those around him.

Another gasp filled the night air.

“This is so racist,” Frank muttered with a grin. “Wait until they see the rest of us. We’ve brought them the league of nations, here; all the colors of the rainbow.”

“Shhh…” Raj pleaded with Frank. “No need to piss them off if we don’t have to with the running commentary. We don’t know how much our vocal translators are already saying to them in their own language.”

Another moment passed as the rest of the Marines took off their helmets. The alien warriors sitting on top of their winged creatures were also wearing their own helmets, the golden protective headgear covered their faces, leaving only room for their purple eyes to see through.

Frank had a pretty good idea already of what they looked like. He had seen their robed assailants clear enough. They were humanoid with lilac skin and wavy white hair. He assumed the golden-clad warriors looked the same.

He wasn’t disappointed when the leader Colonel Breaker was speaking with took off his own helmet. High cheekbones gave way to long, white braided hair and pointed ears. Besides these features, the only other thing to clearly identify him as not human was the hue of his skin; a lavender tone pigmented every exposed section.

The alien warrior’s eyes were solemn without being intimidating. There were wheels turning behind that stare as he decided their fate. They were stern, focused, with dilated pupils. His white brows furrowed slightly, and his mouth remained a straight line though his contemplation. If he chose to kill them there, he probably could. The Marines were outnumbered four to one, and with the half-bird, half-lions the aliens rode, Frank didn’t see them winning in a fight.

“You come with us,” the leader said to Colonel Breaker. “The empress will decide what is to be done.”

As if an afterthought, the lead purple warrior pointed to himself. “Tamar, General to the Empress of Thunder.”

Colonel Breaker nodded along with Tamar’s words. He pointed to his own chest. “Colonel Solomon Breaker, Emissary from Earth, leader of the Marine Space Corps. May I have a few minutes to gather my dead and prepare to depart?”

“You may.” Tamar seemed impressed with the request. “We, too, honor our dead. Our thunderbirds will make the graves.”

Frank assumed by “thunderbird,” Tamar meant the large creatures he and his men rode. A moment later, this was confirmed as Tamar directed a trio of warriors to a small clearing. Immediately, the thunderbirds began to dig deep graves with their front talons.

“Let’s put our brothers to rest, finish this mission, and get home.” Colonel Breaker didn’t look like he was in the mood for questions. There was a deadness to his eyes and a gauntness to his face. Frank had seen the look before, in the eyes of soldiers before they cracked from having lost too much after having given everything.

Frank and the remaining Marines fell in line to obey. Raj and Frank found Tango behind a fallen tree. It seemed he had taken cover there, only to have his helmet melted onto his face by a plasma blast from one of the alien weapons.

Frank removed himself mentally from the moment as he worked with Raj to carry the fallen soldier to his temporary grave. There was no doubt in Frank’s mind that they would be back for the Marines. As soon as a way home was found and the gateway reopened, they would take the Marines home to rest.

The doctor and the Marine from B.U.T.T.S. worked in silence; they lifted their brother and gently placed him into the deep grave made by the thunderbirds.

It was only when they finished their task that Raj looked at Frank’s sweating face and the burn that had eaten his armor and a section of his skin underneath.

“You feeling alright?” Raj asked, squinting at Frank. “That wound looks bad.”

“I’m fine,” Frank lied. In all honesty, it did burn. But the burning sensation didn’t stop at his shoulder. It had raced up to his head where it had begun to grow in intensity. But right now, Frank was more worried about burying the Marines and getting as far away from this place as possible before another attack came. “Stop looking at me like I’m a zombie or something.”

Major Lopez and Elly brought O’Donnell and laid him to rest in his grave. Colonel Breaker refused any help and brought Spear by himself. There was a moment of silence for the fallen Marines. Even Tamar and his unit remained quiet out of respect.

“Your fight has come to an end,” Colonel Breaker said as if he were speaking to himself. “Ours is still at hand. I swear to you, we’ll make you proud. You didn’t die in vain, and those who killed you will feel the wrath of the corps, so help me God.”

This guy has been through a lot. Maybe too much, Frank thought as he wiped another wave of sweat from his face and fought the onslaught of dizziness. He needs to talk to someone. PTSD isn’t a joke.

“Let’s break down camp,” Colonel Breaker said, moving toward the area where they had set up shop for the night. “Raj, Elly, take only what is absolutely required to see the mission through to the end. Major Lopez, Frank, make sure we’re armored with whatever we need if we come in contact with those robed maniacs again.”

Frank’s feverish mind struggled with the lack of so many unanswered questions. The foremost being who the enemy was who had attacked them. For the time being, he focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

The woods were still dark. Without the help of his helmet, the stars and the trio of moons bathed the scene in silver blue light. It was far from the bright as day scene his helmet had provided through the heads-up display, but it was more than enough to get by.

Frank stumbled again as they made their way back to camp. Raj caught him by his uninjured shoulder.

“All right, sit down, tough guy.” Raj forced Frank to the ground with a gentle tug. “You’re definitely not fine. Let me take a look at that shoulder.”

“Raj, Raj, Raj,” Frank laughed. He was having a hard time focusing. He felt half drunk, half asleep. “That’s a funny name. I mean, no offense or anything, but I like saying it. Raj, Raj, Raj.”

“What’s going on?” Colonel Breaker joined the men as Raj took off Frank’s armor. “Did he get hit?”

“He did, and it’s bad,” Raj said, inspecting the wound.

“Guys, guys, I’m sitting right here,” Frank slurred. “I’m right here. You can talk to me. So, Raj, tell me, is it bad?”

Raj removed his glove and placed a hand on Frank’s forehead. “He’s burning up. Elly, grab my case.”

“I’ll be fiiiiiiiine.” Frank rolled his eyes. Doing so sent him completely off balance, and he fell backwards with his feet a mess over him. “You guys worry too much.”

Frank closed his eyes for a moment, intending on opening them again. Instead, a dream came for him.

“You don’t have to do this, this is too much.” Frank’s father shook his head, trying to understand what was happening. “You’ve done more than enough for us already, son. We got the money you sent to us while you were in the Marines. Just serving your country was enough for us, but sending money back, too, Frank? We’re fine, we’ll be okay, we’ll—”

“You’ll find a way,” Frank finished his father’s thought. “You’ve said that my whole life, and you have found a way your entire life. I’m fine, Dad. I want you and mom to have this money. I have a job lined up already, and they gave me a signing bonus to start. I’m just taking off a few weeks now that my contract has ended.”

“I don’t know what to say.” Frank’s father’s eyes welled with tears of pride. “‘Thank you’ doesn’t seem like enough, son.”

“You don’t have to say anything.” Frank grabbed his father in a hug. “Use the money to get a house for you and mom. I know it won’t get anything big but it should be enough for a two- or three-bedroom of your own.”

“She’d love … she’d love to see you.” Frank’s father held him a second longer before letting go. “I swear she can hear us still. The home care you’ve paid for her says the same thing. Do you want to come in and see her?”

Frank stood outside of the upscale apartment complex where his father and mother now lived. The matching fresh paint on the buildings, promotional and color-coordinated flags up front, the security-coded gate, and the model leasing office that served fresh coffee and cookies were a far cry from the low-income apartments of Frank’s youth. With him now paying the rent for them, his father was able to afford better care for Rose.

His mother had slipped into a coma a year previous. Frank still loved her earnestly, only he didn’t want to see her like that. He wanted to remember her as the joking woman who stood waiting for him every day at the bus stop with a smile when he returned from school.

“I’ve got to get going, Dad,” Frank said, clearing his throat. “With the new job, I’ll be able to help out more. I can take care of the mortgage on the new house you decide on, and her nursing bills.”

“Frank, no, you need money for yourse—”

Frank lifted a hand. “You can’t work forever. Start putting your checks into savings. And don’t worry about me. I’m great. I’m a pretty simple animal, anyway. Just give me a stack of books and a gym, and I’m happy. If you can’t be happy with nothing…”

Frank let his voice trail off.

“Then you won’t be happy with everything,” Frank’s father ended the saying.

“You taught me that,” Frank reminded his father. Liam’s once-strong shoulders slumped. His flannel shirt, though pressed, hung thin and rugged on the man’s tired frame. Years of hard labor at the factory, a Standard American Diet, and the stress of caring for Rose had weighed on him. The twinkle of a man full of joy and hope hadn’t dulled in his aging eyes.

“All right,” Frank’s father said, shaking his head. “I’d argue with you some more, but you’re as stubborn as your mother. You get it from her, you know. Just think about coming in to see her next time you visit. It would be great for both of you.”

“Will do, Dad,” Frank lied, turning to go before his father could see the hot tears spill down his cheeks.


16

Frank blinked his eyes open. He was lying in a soft bed with a view of a ceiling fresco. On the ceiling were painted images of warriors in armor fighting various monsters, waging epic wars, and facing down a dark enemy with raging horns, furious glowing red eyes, in a shadowed form surrounded by fire.

“I did die,” Frank said out loud. “Crap, I did die after all.”

“Go. Tell his physician he’s awake,” said an unfamiliar, soft voice from outside Frank’s peripheral vision. “He’ll want to know right away.”

Frank struggled to sit up in the down bed. The effort sent a fiery lance of pain from his right shoulder to his head. He drew in a deep breath of the floral, fragrant air through his teeth.

“Ugh.” Frank grimaced, closing his eyes to see if that would help stem the pain level. “I feel like I have the worst hangover. Like Vegas on a twenty-first birthday and bachelor party, all rolled into one.”

“You should rest,” the same voice said again. “Also, I have no familiarity with the things you mentioned.”

Frank opened his eyes to see the most beautiful woman he had ever encountered. She was slender while still muscular, with the same lilac skin and long white hair of the local inhabitants he had already came across. Her amethyst eyes danced with a mixture of concern and intrigue.

“You’re safe,” she told Frank. “You were wounded in battle. The wound became infected.”

“And I’m not dead, right?” Frank asked. “I mean just to be sure.”

“No.” The woman smiled. “You are not dead. You are under the care of the House of Thunder. Tamar and his riders brought you here after the conflict in the woods.”

“Right.” Everything came back to Frank in a rush. “I’m Frank. Frank Wolffe, by the way.”

“I am called Vega,” the woman said with a smile. She tried to hide her grin, but she failed.

“What?”

“No, it’s nothing.”

“No, come on, what is it?” Frank persisted. He looked down at his naked torso. He had a feeling he was completely naked under the thin sheet, as well. “Am I naked? It’s because I’m naked, huh? Did you do this?”

“We had to break the fever, but that is not what makes me smile,” Vega said, giving Frank a rueful grin. “It’s your second name.”

“What? Wolffe?”

“Yes, I’ve never heard that name before. It suits you somehow.”

“Well, I’m glad you approve, because it’s the only one I’ve got.” Frank endured the discomfort and maneuvered himself up into a sitting position. A gasp of pain escaped his lips despite his best efforts. “Ugh.”

“Rest easy,” Vega said, placing a hand on his uninjured shoulder. “Your body has been through much. An infection came with the wound you suffered at the hands of the mercenaries.” Her voice was melodic and reassuring. Upon her approach, Frank realized the gentle flowery aroma came from her. He drank it in, finding peace as his endorphins pumped a natural euphoria, relieving his head and stress.

The seated position gave Frank a better view of the room he was in. It was only about three-and-a-half meters squared, with a door leading out in front of him, a three-drawer dresser, and two wooden chairs. To his right, a floor-to-ceiling window was covered with a thin, white drape. The sun shone in bright, allowing more than enough light to illuminate the chamber.

“Mercenaries?” Frank repeated the word. He couldn’t help noticing Vega had allowed her hand to linger on his shoulder. “Those black-robed cowards who attacked at night were mercenaries? Mercenaries hired by whom?”

“If you believe what Kallion says, they are mercenaries hired by the House of Leviathan. However, there are some among us who think otherwise.”

“Wait a minute. I think I met this Leviathan.” Frank tried to sift through the terms being used to make sense of everything at once. “Does the House of Leviathan have an actual leviath—”

Raj burst through the doors leading into the room. “Frank, I heard you were awake, I—”

As soon as Raj noticed the woman with Frank, he immediately fell silent and bowed his head. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty, I didn’t know you were still with him.”

“It’s fine.” Vega rose from the bed with one final look at Frank. “I was the one who sent for you. I’ll speak with the two of you later.”

Frank was too shocked at learning Vega was royalty to give much of a response as she left the room. The best he could manage was a “Later.”

“Son of a inbred hick, Frank.” Raj took up Vega’s place at the edge of his bed. “Did you really just tell the princess of the House of Thunder, ‘later’?”

“Give me a break, here. I’m trying,” Frank said, looking around the room once more. “How long have I been out? Where are we?”

“You’ve been out for a day and a half,” Raj said, shining a pen light into Frank’s eyes. “An infection got into your bloodstream, but you should be fine now. I mean fine-ish. You still have to recover from that burn you got on your shoulder. We’re in a castle. Well, a castle across the universe on another planet, but yeah, basically the same thing.”

“How did we get here?” Frank asked. “And what are you wearing?”

Frank had wanted to save that question for later; there seemed too many other more important inquiries on the table at the moment. However, with the bleached linen tunic draped over Raj’s slim, just-under-two-meter frame, with a pair of wide leg pants and a leather belt, Frank had to ask.

“We rode those thunderbirds back here,” Raj said, leaning in to peel back Frank’s bandage and take a look at the wound. “Well, we rode. You more like … slumped on the back of one of the thunderbirds like a sack of laundry. We had to tie you on and everything. It was kind of funny.”

“I’m glad my unconscious, feverish body could amuse you.” Frank lifted an eyebrow.

“My clothes are being cleaned, so I’m borrowing some of theirs,” Raj said, changing the subject when he heard the edge in Frank’s tone. “Their clothes are super comfortable, FYI. I feel so free. So much extra room in the crotch area. I mean, the last thing I want while we’re here is a rash.”

Raj had leaned over Frank to get to his right shoulder. Raj looked up, and the two men’s faces were centimeters apart.

“Raj,” Frank said with a deep breath. “I don’t ever want to hear you talking about your crotch again, especially when you’re so awkwardly close to me—while I’m naked.”

“Yeahhh,” Raj said, standing up and walking over to the other side of the bed. “Maybe it’ll be better if I examine you from the right side of the bed instead of leaning over you.”

“Good call.” Frank looked down at the open bandage on his shoulder. His skin was an angry red, the likes of one would find on a hot sauce bottle. “Is it supposed to look like that?”

“Believe it or not, you’re healing quickly,” Raj said, replacing the bandage. “When we arrived, Vega and the Neeve physicians took point on patching you up. The medicines they have here killed that infection, cleared the temperature, and are even working on accelerating your healing. It’s truly remarkable.”

“What’s a Neeve?” Frank asked, ignoring the rest of what Raj had said and focusing on the word.

“Oh, it’s the name of their race,” Raj said, getting back up from the bed. “You should be good to go in another day or two. Rest while you can get it. There’s supposed to be an official meeting tonight between the empress and the colonel to kind of sort things out.”

“Right,” Frank said, thinking on the suggestion of sitting in bed and already dismissing the thought. “I’m going to need my clothes back.”

“I’ll see if I can find someone to get you decent,” Raj said, heading for the door.

An unpleasant thought came to Frank in that moment. He had to ask before Raj left. “Are we prisoners here?”

“What?” Raj said, turning with one red brown hand on the door. “No, it’s not like that, but you should still be careful. Trouble seems to follow you.”

“You have no idea,” Frank said under his breath as Raj walked from the room.


17

Clothed in his own garments of jeans, deep brown harness boots, and a plain black V-neck shirt, Frank was beginning to feel like himself again. The pain in his ribs courtesy of the leviathan was all but gone. The burning in his shoulder was still very real, but he pushed the idea of discomfort from his mind and focused on exploring his new surroundings.

Raj had said they weren’t prisoners and there were no guards posted outside of his door, so why not?

Dressing himself had been the hardest part of getting out of bed, but once the shy, young servant girl had delivered his clean clothes, Frank managed. As soon as he opened the door to his room, a low whistle escaped his lips.

“Well, well, Toto,” Frank said to himself as he walked out into the gigantic hall, “I don’t think we’re on Earth anymore.”

Frank’s room was located in the middle of a long hall, each side extending nearly fifty meters. The width of the hall was equally impressive. From wall to wall, there was enough room to have a complete chamber.

The area was spartan, though elegantly configured. Slate stone and mortar made up the floor, walls, and vaulted ceiling. A thick, gold rug ran the width and distance of the empty hall. More doors opened up to other rooms.

Tapestries of cream-and-gold hung on the walls of the hall in decoration. Most of them sported the sigil for the House of Thunder: two gold lightning bolts crossed behind the image of a thunderbird with wings extended.

Frank’s stomach grumbled as he began his exploration of the castle. Food would have to be a main priority on his to-do list, but first, a window at the end of the hall intrigued him. When Frank reached the view overlooking the terrain, his breath caught.

He was on the fourth, maybe fifth, story of an impressive structure. Ramparts and the domed tops of the marble roofs to different sections of the castle opened up in front of him. Beyond that, a town of luscious greenery and carved dwellings lay at the base of the castle, rolling out in every direction until giant walls encircled the city.

The buildings Frank could see weren’t very different from the ones he would imagine seeing in any town on Earth. Single- and double-story homes lined the stone streets. Neeve men and women walked this way and that, all busy to be about their way.

“So you’re the fever boy, huh?”

Frank kicked himself for allowing anyone to sneak up on him. He turned to see an aged Neeve with a wild, grey beard and long hair looking up at him through bushy eyebrows. The man wore a brown cloak with the House of Thunder sigil emblazoned on the right side of his chest.

He chomped on a sort of massive sandwich in his left hand. Frank could smell the odor of spiced meat. His mouth watered.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Frank answered. “Where did you get that sandwich?”

“What’s a sandwich?” The old Neeve asked, taking another bite of his food. “You trying to come on to me, alien boy?”

“What? No!” Frank shook his head, wondering if the language translator he was using had messed up on a word. “What you’re eating. Where did you get it? I’m starving.”

“I bet you are.” The old Neeve chuckled as if he had shared a private joke with himself. “You got to go to the kitchens, two floors down. Or I could always be persuaded to part with my meat pocket in exchange for information.”

“Information?” Frank grinned without even thinking. “Man, are you asking the wrong guy. Information is what I’m in short supply of at the moment.”

“Still”—the old Neeve pressed on—“who attacked your kind in the forest?”

“I don’t have a name for them besides ‘the mercenaries,’ if that means anything to you,” Frank said, recalling the name Vega had used when talking about the robed attackers. “I’m Frank. What’s your name?”

“I’m Heron. But back to these mercenaries. What did they look like?”

Frank didn’t see the harm in telling Heron the physical description of the mercenaries. He assumed it was honest intrigue, or maybe even gossip the old Neeve was after.

“They were robed, with weapons that shot fire and some kind of plasma. A few of them charged with meat cleavers, but one was equipped with a kind of power armor.” Frank thought back to the way his rounds disintegrated off the force field shielding the mech unit. “It was definitely just a Neeve in an armored suit, but it looked like an animal. It was crimson, with hooves and a helmet with horns.”

Heron’s light purple face went white for a quick moment. A look of realization crossed over his eyes. “Alien boy—I mean, Frank, follow me.”

Heron turned, not bothering to wait to see if Frank would even follow. The old Neeve’s robes rustled at his feet. He was already muttering to himself. Frank picked out words like “Lord of Chaos” and “Arilion Knight.”

Why can’t you just have a normal day on an alien planet? Frank thought, debating whether or not he was going to follow Heron or just remain where he was standing. But he does still have that meat pocket he promised you.

“Heron, wait up.” Frank’s stomach had decided to go with the stranger. A quick jog brought Frank beside the elderly Neeve again. “So about that meat pocket?”

“What?” Heron looked at Frank, following his gaze to the food in his hand. “Oh, the sandwich. It’s called a sandwich here, by the way. I was just messing with you and wanted to hear you say ‘meat pocket.’”

Heron handed Frank the sandwich without slowing his short but quick strides. “Now follow me, follow me. We don’t have time to waste. We may be too late already.”

Intrigue prodded Frank on. He followed Heron down the hall and to a stairwell where they descended three flights of stone stairs spiraling downward.

The whole time, Heron kept muttering things to himself. Frank busied his jaws with chewing on the soft bread and spiced meat inside. It tasted wonderful. One thing could be said for certain: the House of Thunder knew how to prepare a good sandwich.

“Hey, what is this, anyway?” Frank asked around a mouthful of food. “And is there more?”

“Hmm … what?” Heron looked up as if seeing Frank for the first time. “Oh, it’s Bakershine. And yes, you can go to the kitchen and stuff your eager face until your heart’s bloated, once you’ve confirmed something for me.”

“Wow, let’s take it easy on the fat shaming,” Frank said, popping the last bite of the Bakershine meat into his mouth. “I have a high metabolism.”

A moment later, the two unlikely travelers came to a set of closed double doors. Each door was intricately carved with a series of runes. Frank would have thought they were just designs, except they looked familiar somehow. He had seen them somewhere before and recently.

Heron withdrew a golden key from around his neck and twisted it into a small lock on the right door. A heavy rumbling came from deep within the doors as they swung open.

A light bulb clicked on in Frank’s head as he remembered where he had seen the runes before. A few of them had been on the sphere that opened the gateway below the Hoover Dam. Others he had seen on the perimeter of the arch itself.

“Hey, what do those runes mea—”

Frank stopped the words coming out of his mouth as he got a look at what was in the massive room. Heron scurried quickly inside, familiar with his surroundings, but Frank took his time walking in.

One foot slowly in front of the other, Frank swiveled his head as he tried to see everything at once. The chamber was a massive circle, something like a library and a museum rolled into one.

Brightly painted tapestries hung on his left. Shelves of books lined the wall on his right. Everything was illuminated by a glass ceiling that allowed the sun’s rays to paint the room in warm light.

In the middle of the room was a series of items under glass cases. Frank did not recognize any of them. There was a scroll, worn and cracked with age, and a dagger that looked as though it had seen better days, with an obsidian blade and a ruby set in the handle.

In the middle of these prized possessions was a pulpit holding a pair of vambraces under a square glass case. He hadn’t seen anything quite like them in real life; they reminded Frank of his Arthurian knight stories from childhood. Something Frank couldn’t describe called to him. Something about the vambraces begged him to step closer.

The boiled leather had a series of crisscross metalwork with riveted buttons at the corners and leather straps to attach to the wearer’s forearms. They began at the wearer’s wrist and extended down up his or her elbow. More runes crisscrossed around the metal.

Frank blinked a few times. Was it his imagination, or were the vambraces actually glowing an ultraviolet black light?

“What the heck did they put in that sandwich?” Frank asked himself as he leaned in closer.

“This!” Heron’s shout nearly made Frank jump. The Neeve hurried toward Frank from where he had disappeared in one of the rows of bookshelves. He held a thick, leather book open in his hands. “Is this what you saw in the forest?”

Frank looked down at the ancient text. The writing was in an alien language and impossible to read, but he recognized the image of the scarlet armor power suit on the left page. The artist had done a great job of bringing the mech unit to life, although there was no mention of the force field.

“Yep, that’s it, all right,” Frank said, nodding.

“Are you sure?” Heron leaned in, looking Frank full in the face. “You must be positive.”

“You need to tone down your intensity a few notches; I’m starting to feel like the sandwich wasn’t worth this. You’re at a nine right now. I need you more like a four.” Frank took a step back from Heron’s crazy stare, his head buzzing at all the activity after being in bed recovering for so long. “But yeah, I’m sure. You can ask the rest of my unit that was in the woods with me. Heck, you can ask Tamar and his warriors. Everyone saw it. Why? What does it mean?”

Heron had traded his wild stare for a look of disbelief. He closed the book without looking at it. “It means everything I have feared has come to fruition. It means the Lord of Chaos has returned.”


18

“Well good luck with that,” Frank said, turning his attention back to the vambraces. “He doesn’t sound like a fun guy.”

“No,” Heron agreed. “That would be putting it lightly.”

“Hey, what are these things?” Frank pointed at the vambraces. He still couldn’t tell if it was the light playing off the metal or if they were, in fact, glowing a blackish purple. “And am I having a mental break, or are they glowing?”

“What!?” Heron ran to Frank’s side staring at the vambraces. He swallowed so hard Frank could hear it. “How can this be?”

“I don’t know.” Frank shrugged, unable to take his eyes from the vambraces that were now not only glowing, but also hovering in the space inside the glass container. “You’ve got a lot of weird stuff in this room. What are you, a wizard?”

“A historian.” Heron tore his eyes from the floating vambraces and directed them to Frank. “You’re him. You’re the next Arilion.”

“Bless you.” Frank grinned, trying to lighten the mood. When that didn’t work, he felt obligated to fill the silence. “It was a joke, Heron. You know, because you said ‘Armilion,’ and I don’t know what that means, so I said, ‘bless you.’”

“It’s pronounced Arilion,” Heron corrected. “And we have so much work to do.”

“I’m just trying to find some more food without being fat shamed.” Frank took a step back from Heron and the floating vambraces. “I have enough on my plate at the moment. You and the Lord of Chaos have a blast, and invite that Arilion guy, too. I’m going to go now.”

Before Heron could say another word, Frank turned and nearly ran into Vega. How long she had been standing in the doorway to the room, Frank had no idea. But she had heard and seen enough. Her mouth was open. She moved her gaze from Frank, to the glowing, floating vambraces, and then back to Frank again.

“You’re … you’re an Arilion Knight?”

The awe in her voice, the way she looked at him, made Frank believe he would be whatever she wanted him to be.

“Yep, yep, that’s me.” Frank nodded, biting his lower lip. “I’m full—fully knighted to be an Armarillion.”

“Arilion,” Vega corrected him absentmindedly. She paused, tilting her head. “You don’t know what that means, do you?”

Vega didn’t wait for a response. She rushed to Heron, and the two stared at the floating vambraces.

“How can this be?” Vega asked Heron. “He’s not a Neeve. He’s not even from this planet.”

“The Arilion Knights are not chosen based on their species or location,” Heron said, lifting with unsteady hands the glass that held the vambraces. “They choose for themselves who is worthy.”

The vambraces floated slowly, almost bashfully, to Frank. They stopped right in front of him, chest level.

“I get that this is all very exciting and wondrous to you,” Frank said, trying to be polite, but failing, “but can someone explain to me what this all means?”

“The Arilion Knights are protectors of the universe,” Vega said, looking at Frank as if seeing him for the first time. “There has not been one on our planet of Atmos for generations. There has been no need.”

“These vambraces are the tools, the very weapons of an Arilion Knight,” Heron said, picking up the lull in the story. “They choose their bearers based on the strength of will of the user.”

“Well, I think they got it wrong this time,” Frank said, shaking his head. “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m still having a hard time saying Armillion. I don’t think I’m your protector. You saw me; I can’t even protect myself, let alone a planet. Atmos, did you say?”

Even as Frank said the words, he knew he was lying. There was something he had never felt before calling to him. A sense of purpose he had only ever experienced during his time in the Marines.

Whether he liked it or not, these vambraces, this Arilion Knighthood, was calling to him. But Frank wasn’t going to give into this whole idea that easily.

“What is this, anyway?” Frank asked, examining the vambraces. “Magic, or some kind of alien technology?”

“Some have referred to it as magic, but that is not what it is at all,” Heron said, taking a step closer to Frank. “Arilion is a tool that feeds off the willpower of its user. It’s a good force forged in the universe long ago to fight the evil they faced then. Try the vambraces on.”

In all honesty Frank wanted to, but for the first time in a very long time, he was unsure of what he should do. It was a strange feeling for him. Always the decisive type, he stared at the vambraces, frozen.

“Wait … wait right here,” Heron said, shuffling to the back of the room again. He was soon lost in the rows of books. His voice drifted back toward Frank. “I have something to show you.”

Frank looked over to Vega. She was gorgeous. He estimated she was in her early thirties. Her slender yet muscular body fit her flowing white gown like it was made for her. It probably had been. Frank had to remind himself that she was the princess of House of Thunder.

“Do I have something on my face?” Vega raised a playful eyebrow.

“No—what?” Frank shook his head. “I was just wondering what the princess of House Thunder thinks of all of this.”

“Ahhh, so the good doctor told you.”

“Yeah, I don’t think you were going to keep that a secret for long.”

“No, I guess you’re right.” Vega closed the distance between the two. “But right now, you’re the topic of conversation. And if you’re capable of wielding the power of the Arilion Knights, you should try. Put the vambraces on, Frank Wolffe. They’ve chosen you.”

This is crazy. This is beyond crazy, Frank thought as he extended his arms forward toward the pair of floating forearm guards. I didn’t even hold a 3.0 grade point average in high school, and now look at me. Yeah, in your face, Mr. McAllsiter! I did amount to something. I’m a freaking Arilion Knight!

Frank took a deep breath as he pushed his arms forward. The vambraces sensed his movement somehow and immediately slid themselves over Frank’s forearms. The cold steel of the vambraces pressed against Frank’s exposed skin. The pressure wasn’t painful; it felt good, reassuring. The leather ties wrapped around his forearms, fitting so perfect, it was like they had been made for him.

The purple glow didn’t stop; if anything, it grew darker while on Frank’s forearms.

“It’s like they were always meant for you,” Vega whispered. Her purple-laced irises were huge. “Frank Wolffe, do you know what this means?”

“No, actually.” Frank moved his arms from side to side, testing out the vambraces. “I have no idea.”

“Wait.” Heron’s voice reached them from somewhere within the shelves of books. The hurried shuffle of his feet could be heard on the stone floor. “Maybe he shouldn’t put the vambraces on just yet.”

Frank and Vega exchanged looks.

“Oh,” Heron said, huffing as he came to a halt in front of the two. Another heavy book was held in his hands. “I’m sure it’s fine. I mean, I think you’ll be okay.”

“I feel so reassured.” Frank looked to Heron, and then to his book. “What did you find?”

“Maybe you should sit down for this.” Heron waved Vega and Frank over to the far corner of the room, where four chairs carved out of wood with a back made of detailed leaves surrounded a square table with matching vine inlays. “Come on, answers are in here.”

Heron placed the book on the table as Vega and Frank pulled up chairs. The book’s leather binding was oil stained and flimsy at the ends from eons of use. Thick, golden letters made up the title on the center of the cover: The Arilion Knights: A History.

“Frank, to truly understand the importance of this moment, we have to start at the beginning,” Heron said, opening the book and showing a picture of a demonic face in space. Red watercolor stains had been used to give the monster a foreboding aura. Opposite the red face was bright white light that held no image. “From the very beginning of time, darkness has waged war against the light. The darkness has taken on a name: the Lord of Chaos. He’d made his grab for power when the universe was still young, the light forged weapons for its champions using the one thing Chaos could not conquer: man’s will to survive in freedom. Weapons that embraced those who were worthy of the calling, and only those who possessed the very strongest determination.”

Heron turned the page, this time showing an up-close picture of a green, four-armed exoskeleton being with two antenna and a small, angular head with narrow eyes wearing the vambraces. Beside this alien was another heavily muscled brute with short, brown fur covering his body, and wide, round eyes, a medium snout, and floppy ears atop his head, also wearing a pair of purple glowing vambraces. Beside them, another and another different alien race, each equipped with similar vambraces.

“The Arilion Knights forged the vambraces as a way to channel their willpower against the enemy and sent to every planet seeking a champion in order to prepare and combat the Lord of Chaos,” Heron continued. “The war was brutal and long. Both sides suffered heavy losses. But in the end, the Arilion Knights proved victorious. They defeated the Lord of Chaos. Some have thought him dead, while others believed that he had retreated into hiding. Centuries passed with no sign of the Lord of Chaos. The few Arilion Knights who remained have all passed away. Every so often, one hears stories of the vambraces reactivating somewhere to defeat a threat.”

“It’s been two generations since we’ve had an Arilion Knight on our planet,” Vega said, picking up the story. “There’s been no need for one. Until recently, we’ve enjoyed a time of peace.”

“What happened recently?” Frank asked. “Do you mean the mercenaries we fought in the woods?”

Vega’s face turned dark in sadness, and her eyes shifted to the ground.

“Not just who some think are mercenaries, but who we know are the vanguard of the Lord of Chaos’ army.” Heron put a hand on Vega’s shoulder. “We recently lost our emperor to a cowardly attack.”

Frank wanted to press for more information, but he realized what this meant. Vega had recently lost her father. He wasn’t going to make her talk about it.

“I’m sorry,” Frank said, catching Vega’s eye. “I didn’t know.”

“How could you know?” Vega shook her head. Glistening sadness filled her eyes; the fire of anger lit them up. “He’s gone, and there is nothing we can do about that. What we can do, though, is to find those responsible and make them pay.”


19

The hard edge in Vega’s tone took Frank by surprise. There was more to this princess than met the eye. She was beautiful, but her looks were only a shell to the warrior that lay within.

“My father was poisoned by our enemies.” Vega clenched her fists that lay on the table in front of her. “There is reason to believe House Leviathan is to be blamed. It’s only a matter of time before we bring the enemy to rightfully due justice.”

Heron opened his mouth, and then closed it again. Frank noticed the man contemplate his next words, then hold back, unsure of himself.

“My mother hates surprises,” Vega finally said, standing from her seat. “I’ll tell her that the strangers have brought an Arilion Knight with them, whether they knew it or not.”

“Yeah … okay then, I guess we’re doing this,” Frank said, looking down at the vambraces. “Can I take these things off, or are they attached to me forever now?”

“You can remove them like any piece of armor or clothing,” Heron said, looking over to Vega, who moved for the door. “Keep an open mind, princess. Yes, we have cause to suspect House of Leviathan for our emperor’s death, but no hard evidence. Please consider this.”

Vega nodded before she left.

“Well, it’s pretty clear you don’t agree with House Leviathan being responsible for the emperor’s death,” Frank said, undoing the leather binds on his vambraces. They loosened, but it seemed as though they were reluctant to be removed.

“House Leviathan has never been our enemy,” Heron said, drumming his fingers on the table. “‘Allies’ is a strong word, but I cannot fathom them wanting to poison our emperor. He was loved by all.”

“So who do you think’s to blame?” Frank said, finally removing the vambraces and setting them onto the table in front of him. “What other enemies does House Thunder have?”

Heron gave Frank a long stare directly into Frank’s eyes, as if he were trying to glance at his very soul.

“You gotta blink, man,” Frank said, furrowing his eyebrows. “All that staring is starting to weird me out.”

“I’ll tell you exactly what I know for fact, and then I’ll tell you what I suspect,” Heron said, licking his lips. “You’re an Arilion Knight. If anyone needs information, it’s you.”

“Maybe we can do this later?” Frank glanced over his shoulder. “I’m still kind of hungry.”

“Years ago when our current empress was quite young, she was kidnapped.” Heron began, ignoring Frank’s request for food. “She was discovered weeks later, wandering the city outskirts. We never found out what happened to her. She has no recollection of her time gone. There were whispers of maleficence, of sightings of the horned red warrior. When these resurfaced during the emperor's betrothal to the empress, he declared his love and shut down all talk of impropriety. Now, the emperor has been poisoned and the vanguard for the Lord of Chaos, whom others would call mercenaries, have arrived at the same time? Coincidence? History does not believe in coincidences.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Frank raised his hand, trying to wrap his head around Heron’s story. “So you think the reemergence of the Lord of Chaos and the emperor’s death are linked?”

“House Leviathan has denied any involvement in the emperor's death, and I believe them. They have nothing to gain from his demise,” Heron said. “There is a party pushing for war between our house and House Leviathan, however. Such are they who have named the attack by the Lord of Chaos’ vanguard an attack of mercenaries. They insist that House Leviathan has hired these mercenaries to further weaken us.”

“And who is doing all of this?” Frank asked, growing genuinely intrigued.

“His name is Kallion. He is the head of the church. More of a cult, if you ask me.” Heron spat the words. “He’s a snake in the empress’ ear. Always has been. The emperor had no love for him, either.”

“So you think this Kallion killed the emperor?” Frank asked.

“No, Kallion isn’t the type to get his hands dirty, but I’ll be a chumpkin’s nephew if he wasn’t involved somehow,” Heron said.

“What’s a chumpkin?”

“You don’t have chumkins on your planet?”

“Nope.” Frank shook his head. “We have munchkins, but I don’t think that’s what you mean.”

Before Heron could reply, there was a buzzing in Frank’s ear. Colonel Breaker’s voice came through the translator unit.

“Frank, this is Colonel Breaker. I’m talking to you through the translation unit installed behind your ear.”

“Yeah, I gathered that,” Frank said, pointing a finger to the unit on his throat to a confused Heron. “You didn’t tell me we’d be able to communicate with these, as well.”

“Yeah, well, the corps is full of surprises these days.” Colonel Breaker didn’t sound amused. “I went to go check on you, and you’d left your room. Raj says you should be resting.”

“All due respect, colonel,” Frank responded, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

“Oohrah to that.” Colonel Breaker sounded like he was smiling. It was a weird, unnerving sound in Frank’s ear. “We’ve been requested to join the empress tonight for dinner and to discuss our options for a return voyage. She asked everyone be in attendance.”

“Oh yeah, count me in.” Frank’s eyes drifted down to the vambraces in front of him. “I have some news to fill you in on, as well.”

“Roger that.” Colonel Breaker didn’t sound fazed. “Let’s rendezvous in your quarters in thirty minutes. Think you can find your way back?”

“I’ll be there,” Frank said.

The translator behind his ear buzzed gently again, signaling the transmission was closed.

“Are you on some type of narcotic?” Heron asked, looking Frank up and down again. “Perhaps I misjudged you.”

“No, no. I mean, I experimented in the past, but—” Frank saw Heron’s eye widen. “It’s not like that. The unit installed on my throat and behind my ear allows for communication with the rest of my team.”

Frank once more pointed to the thin slice of metal on his throat, then turned his head so Heron could see the metal stud behind his ear.

“Wondrous,” Heron said, biting his lower lip. “I assumed you were suffering from some kind of disease or deformity that made these items grow on your skin.”

“What? No.” Frank stood, imagining Heron’s expression should he see some of the folks back home with plugs, lip rings, and the bedazzled works. He lifted the vambraces and placed them into his back pockets. “Anything I should know about being an Arilion? I said that right that time, yeah?”

“Yes.” Heron smiled. “Only that you will be bound by the extent of your imagination, that the rest of your life is about to begin, and that your willpower is the only thing that can hold you back.”

“Oh, is that it?” Frank let out a large breath of air, depleting everything from his lungs. “Great. Well, I guess I’ll see you at dinner, then? I can’t wait to meet this Kallion character.”


20

“Wait, are you saying you’re a superhero?” Major Lopez looked around Frank, eying the vambraces in his pocket with a wary expression. “That’s what I’m getting out of this conversation.”

Elly looked on with an open mouth, while Colonel Breaker remained quiet.

“Son of a robbing monkey, Frank.” Raj lifted his hands into the air in defeat. “What are you getting yourself into, here?”

“I don’t know.” Frank shrugged. “I didn’t choose to be one of these Arilion Knights. You have to talk to their historian, Heron. He can tell you about it. All I know is that this is what they think I am. Here, check this out.”

Frank removed the vambraces from his back pockets. Just like before they glowed an ebony purple. The vambraces floated in front of Frank until he extended his hands. As if they understood Frank’s intent, they slipped onto his forearms and tied themselves snugly in place.

“Griffins were just the beginning,” Elly breathed.

All eyes in the room turned to her, confused.

“Oh, come on, guys. You have to realize the thunderbirds are just griffins, like in Harry Potter? Gryffindor? Kind of like the eagles in Lord of the Rings, but just with the bodies of lions? No? Nothing?” Elly stared at their confused looks incredulously, her eyes wide behind her oversized rimmed glasses. “You guys really need to read more.”

“Maybe this isn’t the worst thing that could have happened.” Colonel Breaker crossed his arms, leaning against the wall. “I mean, if you are this knight they hold in high regard, maybe it will get us home faster.”

“What do you mean?” Frank asked.

“Major Lopez and I had an audience with the empress when we first arrived and you were still unconscious,” Colonel Breaker explained. “Having just lost her husband, she’s understandably wary. She confirmed she has a sphere similar to the one that opened the gateway from Earth. The catch is she’s hesitant to trust us with the object, even if it’s only to get us back home.”

“Oh man, this keeps getting more and more complicated,” Frank said, massaging his temples and eyeing his room for a chair nearby in case he collapsed. “My freaking head is going to explode. I could really go for some coffee right about now.”

“Mmm,” Elly said from her spot sitting on the bed beside Raj. “Caffeine.”

“There’s more,” Frank said, telling the group everything he had learned from Heron about the empress’ kidnapping, how Heron believed the mercenaries in the woods were the vanguard for the Lord of Chaos and the leader of the church named Kallion. “So yeah, we freaking stepped into Game of Thrones here.”

“Nice reference.” Elly winked at Frank.

“I thought you’d like that one.” Frank smiled.

“We’ve really ‘stepped into’ it this time.” Major Lopez ran a finger down the left side of her face where her burn scar ran from the corner of her eyebrow to her lips. “Whatever is happening here, we have to be smart before we take a side, before Earth unintentionally takes a side through our actions.”

Raj was breathing heavy. “Unintended actions … hooooo. Easy,” he whispered to himself. “Slow even breaths. No panic attacks today.”

“The major’s right.” Colonel Breaker frowned. “We have to be careful. There are so many moving parts here, so many factors to be considered. We’re not only representing our country, but also our species. Our assignment hasn’t changed: we’ve come to make allies and we need to find a way back home. If allying with the House of Thunder gives us access to the sphere, then maybe our choice has already been made for us.”

“We’re going to be late for this dinner if we don’t head down now,” Major Lopez added. “Sir?”

“Let’s go,” Colonel Breaker said, moving toward the door.

Frank fell in step beside Elly as they moved through the castle interior. He was surprised to find that the colonel was able to navigate his way to the bottom floor without getting lost—back into the hall that reminded Frank of The Shining, to an open staircase with ornate railings and a plush gold runner, and on to the next landing.

The few servants and attendants wearing similar tunics as Raj, except dyed a subdued grey, who the team encountered as they made their way through the castle, smiled and gave them constrained head bows.

“This is so crazy, right?” Elly said, keeping stride with Frank. “I mean, us being here? If you take a minute to think about where we are and what we’ve been through, I’m kinda freaking out right now.”

Frank contemplated Elly’s words. She was right. They were not only on an alien planet in the farthest galaxy, but they were also encountering alien beasts the likes of which had only ever been imagined before. They weren’t alone in the universe. More than that, there was a history that the universe held, a history Frank was now a part of, whether he liked it or not. He felt small, dwarfed in the grand scheme of the world, yet significant. That an ant could matter in the space of greatness.

“You’re right,” Frank said, shaking his head. “I’ve been so caught up on the next thing and the next thing after that, just tackling what’s in front of me, I haven’t really stopped to think about what all this means.”

“I’ll tell you what it means,” Elly said with a grin. She pushed her glasses up from the end of her nose. “It means, with the sphere, we now have access to an unlimited supply of everything. If the gateway can open a bridge to other planets—which I believe it can—then we’re never going to stop exploring.”

“It’s exciting, but it’s not all going to be rainbows and butterflies,” Frank warned her as the group came around a corner to a set of wide-open double doors. A pair of golden-clad warriors stood on either side of the entrance. They held long lances like the ones Frank had seen Tamar and his warriors use while on top of their thunderbirds.

Turning a corner, they entered a gigantic chamber with smooth stone pillars rising to a ceiling at least three stories high. Three tables over twenty meters long had been brought in for dining, forming a U shape. Tall windows provided light from the many stars and trinity of moons. Lit braziers crackled, lighting up each corner of the room the natural illumination missed. The shadows from the flames danced in the space, creating a celebratory atmosphere among the stars. The slight scent of burning oil mixed with a vanilla-type incense to greet the guests.

Steaming piles of food sat on the table, sending a mouthwatering aroma to Frank’s nose. His mouth began to salivate as if on command. His stomach did a backflip, reminding him he had only eaten the rest of Heron’s sandwich that day.

Frank and the rest of the unit walked in, not being hindered by the guards on duty. It seemed they were the last to arrive. At the head table sat a woman Frank figured was the empress. She was talking with Vega, who sat at her right.

It was clear where Vega had gotten her strong features and beautiful looks. Although older, the empress was still breathtaking. Her white hair fell on either side of her shoulders, nearly reaching her waist. Her lavender skin was firm and dewy, filled with health. Everything about the woman screamed “royal born” except for her eyes. There was that same sad, boiling fury Frank had seen in Vega earlier that day.

To the empress’ left was a Neeve Frank had not yet seen. He was bald with thin lips. He wore a red robe and a necklace of ringed metals. To the stranger’s left sat Tamar. The general wore a long-sleeved tunic with slim breeches of gold fabric with white trim. A leather sash crossed his left shoulder to his waist. The familiar sigil of House Thunder was emblazoned on the right side of his chest.

Servants ran to and fro, carrying silver plates of food and attending to the braziers, while others remained at attention in case they were needed.

Colonel Breaker took command of the situation, crossing the space of the large room and stopping in front of the empress’ table. He bowed his head out of respect. Frank and the others followed suit.

Amongst all the splendor, Frank was beginning to feel underdressed. While the other Marines wore their green military fatigues, Frank sported his boots, jeans, black shirt, and newly acquired vambraces.

Maybe you should have taken these glowing vambraces off after all. You look like an idiot, Frank chided himself. And why do they have to glow purple, of all colors? Red or blue would have been so much cooler.

Frank directed his gaze downward along with the others, avoiding initial eye contact, when the empress spoke. Her voice was strong, unwavering in a way Frank immediately admired.

“Welcome, allies from Earth, and welcome to our Arilion Knight,” the empress addressed the Marines. “My daughter has told me the vambraces reacted to your presence. I didn’t believe it until now, when I see it with my own eyes. No living Neeve has ever seen an Arilion Knight.”

Frank looked up to not only see the empress, but also the focused gaze of all four Neeve at the head table. As she spoke, her graceful arms and hands extended, emphasizing her direction and her welcome, her silvery gown reflecting the many lights illuminating the room. Frank wasn’t the shy type; he just didn’t know what to say in the moment.

Frank opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again. Everything coming to his mind at the moment seemed silly to say in the presence of such royalty.

“I hope I can live up to your expectations, empress,” Frank finally decided. “Your daughter and Heron have been quite helpful.”

“I’m sure.” The empress cocked her right eyebrow.

Tamar and Vega smiled in approval of Frank’s words. The Neeve in the robe stared at him so hard, Frank thought he would have holes bored into his chest.

“Come,” the empress waved them forward. “Let us eat and discuss the future of our races.”


21

Servants came, escorting Frank to a seat beside Vega at the table to the right of the empress. Colonel Breaker sat beside him, while the rest of the unit was shown to the opposite table to the left of the empress.

Heron, upon entering the banquet hall a moment later, bowed to the empress and the princess, then took a seat on the opposite side of Colonel Breaker.

“You didn’t have to wear the vambraces to dinner,” Vega told Frank with an amused smile on her full lips. “Showing off?”

“No.” Frank swallowed hard. Although the empress was not making eye contact with him, he had a feeling she was listening into the conversation. “I … I guess they just feel natural somehow. I took them off earlier, then put them back on and now … I don’t know, they just fit.”

“As if they were always meant to be yours, maybe?” Heron said from his place on the other side of the colonel. “Fate has a hand to play here. Mark my words.”

Frank was relieved to see the empress and other Neeve starting to serve themselves and eat. If he looked busy enough getting his plate ready and then stuffing his mouth, then maybe he could slide by without having to talk too much.

No such luck.

“I’d give my right eye to see you in combat, brother Frank,” Tamar said from his end of the table. “Stories of the Arilion are legend among the universe. If you’re half of what the legends say you are, I’m already impressed.”

“He’ll need time to train,” Heron chided Tamar around a mouthful of food. “We’re going to start tomorrow, bright and early. I’m looking forward to it, as well.”

“We are?” Frank said, looking at the colonel to see what the CO would have to say about the decisions being made for him.

“If Frank is this Arilion Knight and he is able to help your people,” Colonel Breaker began, “then I think, as allies, we should do so. Perhaps this will bring us closer to earning your trust and allowing us access to the sphere and our way home.”

The empress was about to say something, when the bald man to her left leaned in and whispered something into her ear.

“I agree, colonel.” The empress dabbed at the corner of her lips with a fine linen napkin with lightning bolts embroidered on the corner. “Trust is built over time, but if your intentions are what you say they are, I see no problem in granting you access to our sphere to send you home.”

Frank was piling his plate high with food, trying to dodge eye contact with anyone at the moment. Not because he was trying to avoid everyone who stared at him and his vambraces, but because he was starving.

The grey stuff, the mystery meat on the platter in front of him, even the strange vegetables, all went onto his plate. The food didn’t disappoint. The flavors of tender, savory meat and hot, roasted, seasoned vegetables exploded in his mouth. Frank had to remind himself not to overdo it. No matter how hungry he was, he was in the presence of alien royalty.

You’ve come a long way, Frank thought as he shoveled another forkful of the delicious food into his mouth. You’ve got a long way to go, though, if you’re going to get out of this one alive. So far, so good.

“Frank, I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure of meeting yet,” said the bald Neeve in the robe, his tight smile causing his cheek muscle to twitch in pain at the effort. His eyes, however, remained shifty. “My name is Kallion. I lead our church, the Heralds, here on Atmos.”

“Hey, how’s it going?” Frank said, looking up at the Neeve. The alien scrutinized him, anticipating more. “How about that weather out there? Am I right?”

“I imagine hearing this news, the burden of supposedly being an Arilion Knight, is a lot to take in.” Kallion had added emphasis on the word “supposedly.” “Do you believe you are an Arilion?”

It became apparent why Heron didn’t trust Kallion. The Neeve had a certain way of speaking that put him in a position of power. It wasn’t exactly condescending, but Frank guessed that the leader of the Heralds placed everyone on a peg lower than himself.

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Frank said, choosing his words carefully. “The vambraces seem to think I’m an Arilion Knight. I guess time will tell.”

“Yes.” Kallion weighed Frank’s words. “I guess it will. If you are what Heron and Vega say you are, then perhaps you will be able to help us with this mercenary threat the House of Leviathan has employed.”

“Mercenary threat?” Heron practically shouted from six seats away. “You know what they are.”

“Oh, yes, of course. The stories of a historian.” Kallion rolled his eyes and sipped a cherry-spiced red wine from a golden chalice in front of him. “Tell us: the Lord of Chaos has returned, and this is his force trying to invade Atmos.”

“For someone who leads a religion, I thought you’d have more faith,” Heron growled.

“For a historian, I thought you’d be less naïve,” Kallion returned.

Frank saw the ancient historian grab the dinner knife in his hand so tightly, he thought the old Neeve was actually going to bound across the table and slit Kallion’s throat. The two men trusted each other about as far as they could throw one another. This passive aggressive sparring seemed like a dinner table ritual.

“Please.” The empress raised her left hand. Frank noticed a six-carat ruby red gemstone ring on her middle finger. “Let’s have one meal that doesn’t end in an argument. Tamar, you battled this force firsthand. What do you make of them?”

The general of House Thunder ran a tongue across his teeth. He took a deep breath, gathering his thoughts.

“There have been reports of strangers visiting from time to time. We know we are not alone in this universe,” Tamar started. “I do not know what the force is we found in the forest, but the bodies were Neeve. It’s not uncommon to hear of roving Neeve mercenary bands, but what is uncommon is their weapons. How did they get them, and from where?”

“Atmos is a large planet.” Kallion waved his hand dismissively, shaking his head. “Not everything must be scrutinized to such an extent. The House of Leviathan hired the mercenaries. And as to the origin of their weapons, what does it matter?”

The room quieted again. Frank took the opportunity to try the grey stuff on his plate. It was delicious. It was a gravy mixed with bread chunks. The caloric intake of the dish had to be off the charts, but Frank was going to chalk this up to a cheat day.

“The spheres,” Major Lopez said from the table across from Frank. “If I may ask, who created them, and how many are there?”

“Oh, no,” Vega whispered to Frank, “here we go.” Her nearness and breath on his ear and neck sent more energy up his spine than his first encounter with the vambraces.

Frank turned to her with a quizzical look. The princess motioned with her chin to Heron. The little historian was already wiping his mouth with a smile.

“Well, interesting you should ask,” Heron said, looking at Kallion with a wink in hopes of riling the Neeve. “The spheres were created by the forces of light when the first war with the Lord of Chaos reached its peak. The battlefronts were on too many sides and spans of the universe. They needed a means to gather their own forces and coordinate attacks. Specialists within the ranks fabricated the spheres and distributed them throughout the universe. An exact number is unknown, but some records report a total of seven hundred and seventy seven of the spheres were made.”

Heron paused for dramatic effect before picking up the story.

“When the Lord of Chaos discovered how the forces of light led by the Arilion began defeating him and pushing back his dark forces, he made it his priority to take and hide as many of the spheres as he could on primitive planets.” Heron tapped a finger on his chin. He looked up and right toward the ceiling as if he were reading words written above. “Scholars disagree with this next idea, but I believe the Lord of Chaos was hiding the spheres for his own use. He saw the value of his army being able to travel from one planet to another in a matter of minutes.”

Kallion seethed.

“Thank you.” Major Lopez nodded toward Heron. “When we are able to examine the sphere here on Atmos, it would be extremely helpful if you could tell us how exactly it’s activated and used.”

“All in good time,” the empress said, reining in the conversation again. “Our main priority now is to consider what should be done with House Leviathan. My husband lies in the ground, and no one has yet paid. Tamar reassures me our army stands ready. I’ve sent a final messenger to the House of Leviathan today, asking them about their knowledge of the unknown force in the forests.”

“You give them too many opportunities, empress.” Kallion sneered. “We should be at full-out war already. The evidence found at the scene of the murder should have been enough.”

“Be that as it may, every chance for peace must be taken,” the empress answered. “I will not order the young male and female soldiers from our homes to march to war without absolute certainty.”

Frank wanted to inquire about the evidence found, except at the moment the person nearest to ask was Vega. The last thing Frank would do was question the princess on the details of her father’s loss.

“There were reports of a fleeing figure the night of my father’s death,” Vega said, catching Frank’s attention. Somehow she realized what he was going to ask. “The guards at the gate tried to stop him, but in the end, he got away. During his escape, he dropped a Leviathan dagger. The obsidian-handled, curved dagger is said to resemble the body and deadliness of the Leviathan. It is given to officers in their army.”

“I see.” Frank leaned in closer to Vega. “I know how much you’re hurting. Everyone grieves in their own way, but if you needed someone to talk to or to just be there, I know an Arilion Knight who could do that.”

A smile touched Vega’s lips right before she rolled her eyes. “Are all human men as ridiculous as you?”

“No, that’s a skill I possess entirely on my own.” Frank winked.

The rest of the night was passed exchanging information about Earth and Atmos: schooling, dinosaurs, griffins, organized religion, ruling families, World War I, World War II, Galactic War I, Bieber, and hiphop vs. gangsta rap. Dessert came and went. That is, sweet cakes, crème bruleed custards, and truffles all came to the table and down Frank’s gulch. It was cheat day, after all. Thankfully, there were no more arguments between Heron and Kallion, although it was clear the two men despised one another.

If Frank had known what was in store for him that night, he would have enjoyed his dessert a bit longer.


22

When dinner was over and the goodbyes had been said, Frank had a standing appointment at first light with Heron to begin his Arilion training. The little historian was practically bursting with excitement.

“Of course, I am no Arilion Knight, but I have the knowledge and texts with which to train you,” Heron said, rubbing his hands together as the two men walked up to Frank’s room. “Get plenty of rest tonight. Tomorrow morning, we start at the crack of dawn.”

“What if we started at the crack of noon instead?” Frank asked as the two men reached his doorway. “We shouldn’t underestimate the power of a good ten hours of sleep.”

“At dawn,” Heron repeated, either missing or ignoring Frank’s joke. “Sleep well.”

Frank entered his room with a heavy sigh. He wasn’t sure what time it was, but it was late. The pain in his shoulder was bearable but still present. It was just strong enough to keep him up. After tossing and turning in his bed for what felt like an hour, Frank decided to further explore the castle.

They never said you had to stay in your room, Frank rationalized, donning his bleached linen drawstring pants, his black V-neck shirt, and the vambraces which beckoned to be worn. Besides, you’re not going to fall asleep with the pain in your shoulder and the weight of being an Arilion Knight on your mind.

As much as Frank hated agreeing with Kallion, the man was right. Frank was worried about what his new banner would mean. Yes, he was sure he would rise to the occasion; throughout his life he always had. This was something different. This was worlds apart from anything he had done before.

These thoughts ran through Frank’s mind as he walked the empty, quiet halls of the fortress. It seemed on his level there were no guards stationed, no servants running to complete late-night tasks. It was still.

Frank soon found himself at a stairwell leading up. He climbed the stairs higher and higher, enjoying the simple rhythmic motion of putting one foot in front of the other. When his legs began to burn, he even found comfort in that. Here was something he knew; here was something simple he could bend his will to and keep going.

By the time Frank finally reached the top story, his legs were on fire and a light sheen of sweat glistened on his brow. The faint glow the vambraces made showed him a mahogany-type distressed wood door in front of him. There were no more stairs to climb, no halls or rooms; just a door.

Frank placed his hand on the cold, bronzed handle and pushed. The door swung outward, emptying into the exterior of the castle. A few hundred yards of ramparts extended out in front of him until it was stopped by another tower.

A silk-robed figure stood on the ramparts, looking out at the castle below and the open indigo sky above. It was Vega. The princess turned to Frank with tears in her eyes. It was clear she hadn’t been expecting company.

“I’m sorry.” Frank moved to step back inside. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“Ugh, it’s all right.” Vega sniffed and wiped away the tears. “I’m tired of crying anyway. I’m so tired of crying. Tears aren’t going to bring him back. Come, stand here with me.”

“It’s beautiful up here,” Frank said, joining Vega. He didn’t want to talk about the dead emperor unless Vega started the conversation. “We don’t have three moons on Earth, just one.”

“It sounds like a wonderful place,” Vega said, staring up at the sky. “I’d like to visit one day. Elly was telling us of wonders like Netflix and peanut butter.”

“Yeah, it can be a great place, just like anywhere else, I guess.” Frank tried not to shiver in the cold wind. “We have our own set of problems—religious, political, sports-related.”

Vega laughed. It was a great sound to hear, not just because Frank had discovered a growing bond with the princess, but it also meant if she was laughing, at least for the moment, she wasn’t hurting.

“My father would have liked you, Frank Wolffe.” Vega beamed at the memory. “He never took his title too seriously until it was time to be serious. He was a great emperor, but a better father. I miss him. But listen to me. I said I wasn’t going to cry anymore.”

Frank nodded along with Vega’s words, taking in the scene of the castle beneath them, the walls, and the city beyond. Tiny lights almost like the stars overhead dotted the city below. There were lights in a few windows and candles lit in street lamps lining the sidewalks.

“I know this is going to sound super cheesy, but your father isn’t really gone. His same blood flows through your veins.” Frank hated thinking about his mother and her current condition, but he would if it meant it gave Vega some peace. “My mother is in a coma. In a way, she’s already gone, but not really. What she taught me growing up has shaped me; I carry a part of her with me. And we never really know…” He motioned up to the sky. “Now, I don’t want to talk about this anymore or I’m going to start crying.”

Vega chuckled, wiping away more tears. “I know, you’re right. Thank you.”

Frank only nodded. He was afraid if he looked at her, he would start to think about his mother more and the cold wind would irritate his eyes, causing them to “water.”

Amongst the chill of the night, Frank picked up a strange sound, a kind of cooing in the wind. He cocked his ear to the side, trying to figure out whether or not it was a malfunction to his translator.

“Do you hear that?” Frank asked, looking over to Vega. “It sounds like … like birds, maybe?”

“The thunderbirds have their roost in the next tower.” Vega turned and pointed to the tall stone tower opposite the one Frank had exited. “Come on. They’re calm and playful at this time of night.”

“You know, I have this training thing with Heron tomorrow morning, and—”

Vega grabbed Frank by the hand with surprising strength and led him down the castle ramparts to the next tower. “You’re not getting out of it that easy. Come on, it’ll be fun.”

Frank allowed himself to be taken to the tower. In all honesty, standing face to face with a thousand pounds of beak and talon wasn’t on his to-do list, but Vega seemed excited by the notion.

The knight and the princess made their way to the tower. Vega opened the heavy wooden door, granting them access to yet another flight of stairs. The sound coming from the upper floor was louder now. Rustling of wings and more cooing similar to snoring now filled the stair landing and around them.

Vega had no qualms cresting the stairs two at a time. Two more flights up, a wide, circular room with massive windows on every wall opened in front of them. The floor was made of wood planks, while straw mounds were piled to provide bedding. Massive troughs of water sat in the middle of the room.

Along the perimeter of the immense chamber, the thunderbirds lounged and slept on their stray mounds. There were dozens of them. Some asleep, while others cocked their heads and watched the visitors with large, unblinking golden eyes.

Frank immediately knew what a piece of meat at the butchers went through. The smell coming from the beasts and the hay reminded Frank of a stable.

“Here, come on,” Vega said, motioning Frank to the opposite side of the room. “They won’t bite. I want to introduce you to Warrior.”

Frank followed Vega, maneuvering around the troughs. He did his best not to show fear. He understood how animals operated. If they felt like you were a lower member of the pack, then they treated you like one.

The light from the triple moons and stars lit the room just enough to maneuver. Harnesses and various leather tack hung from the ceiling, ready for use.

On the complete opposite side of the room, Vega stopped by a muscular thunderbird with specked snow and tawny feathers on its front half, including its wings, and short, tawny-yellow fur on the back half of its body.

“This is Warrior. He’s mine.” Vega petted the side of the thunderbird’s beak. The creature leaned into her touch. “Go ahead. He’s great. He won’t bite if I tell him not to. Warrior, Frank’s a friend.”

Warrior looked Frank up and down before settling on his faintly glowing vambraces. The thunderbird ruffled his feathers to remind Frank of his position, but ultimately bowed his head to Frank.

Frank reached out his right hand to stroke the thunderbird on the head. The feathers were softer than Frank anticipated. A low, gratifying rumbling came from deep within Warrior. So far, it seemed like the beast wasn’t much different than a horse or dog—just wanting some attention and affection.

A door opening below accompanied by rushed footsteps drew Frank’s hand back. Vega stood up beside Warrior. Frank could feel the thunderbird rustle at her side, ready to protect her should the moment arise.

That same sixth sense the Marine Corps had honed in Frank kicked in. He moved beside Vega and crouched next to Warrior, motioning the princess to do the same.

“No one should be here this time of night,” Vega whispered, crouching behind Frank. “Unless … unless something’s wrong.”

Frank and Vega waited, partially blocked by the night, partially by Warrior’s massive frame. Frank ignored the drop that waited for them if they shuffled back a few feet too far to their rear. They could fall out of the square, floor-length windows set at every thunderbird’s stall, if they weren’t careful.

In the darkness they waited to see who had arrived. Frank could hear his own heart beating amongst the snoring coos of the thunderbirds. A moment later, a cloaked figure appeared. It was too dark to make out exact features, and the deep hood the person wore hid their face.

The figure moved to the left, reaching for a harness that hung from the ceiling. Kallion’s familiar voice drifted to Frank and Vega’s hiding spot. “Easy, easy. We have a very important trip to make.”


23

Vega caught Frank’s eye. She was as confused as he was.

“Kallion never travels on a thunderbird,” Vega whispered close to Frank. Her hot breath tickled his ear. “His position as leader of the Heralds keeps him here.”

Kallion paused his work saddling the thunderbird in front of him to look around the stable.

Frank held his breath, folding his arms behind his back to ensure that no matter how dull the vambraces might be glowing, they wouldn’t be seen.

Kallion threw back his hood, peering into the darkness. Luckily for Frank and Vega, he was staring at a stall to the left of Warrior’s. A moment later, he shrugged and continued his work.

Shortly thereafter, the clergy leader mounted his chosen thunderbird. With a tug at the reins, the flying beast turned, spreading its wings and vaulting out into the night sky.

“Let’s go.” Vega didn’t hesitate, reaching up for her own harness. “Kallion is definitely up to something. No way he’s out for a midnight flight. It has to be early in the morning by now. The way he was sneaking around? Come on, hurry.”

“Listen, I agree with you that there’s something weird going on here, but maybe we should get Tamar and some of the soldiers,” Frank said, catching a heavy leather cloak Vega threw to him as she mounted Warrior.

“It’s going to be cold.” Vega turned Warrior around to the open sky. “Please, by the time we muster Tamar, it’ll be too late. Kallion could be lost to us already.”

What are you doing, what are you doing? Frank asked himself as he threw the cloak around shoulders and accepted Vega’s hand. Instead of an angel and a devil on opposite shoulders, you have a devil on each.

Frank found himself on the back of Warrior a moment later. The beast was solid, so large, Frank almost had a hard time getting his legs around him.

“Hold on,” Vega said, motioning Warrior forward.

“Hold on to what?”

Frank answered his own question a moment later as the thunderbird not only jumped, but also plummeted from the tower. Out of instinct, Frank grabbed out in front of him, wrapping both arms around Vega’s waist. Her long, white hair flowed past his face. It carried her floral aroma.

Wind rushed past Frank’s body, making his cloak flap behind him like a cape. Frigid air accosted his face, making him blink in the second of what he was sure was the moment of his death.

At the last minute, Warrior pulled up, leveraging the air and lifting with his strong, outstretched wings to gain altitude. With a WHOOSH, they were ten meters above the ground and rising with each powerful flap of Warrior’s eagle-like wings.

“Frank Wolffe,” Vega playfully gasped, “while I’m open to exploring the notion of you grabbing me, a girl needs to breathe.”

“Oh—oh, sorry,” Frank exhaled. “It’s just my first time on a thunderbird. Well, I guess second, but the first time doesn’t count, because I was unconscious.”

“I heard,” Vega said as Warrior continued to gain altitude. “There.”

Frank followed Vega’s outstretched finger to a tiny dark speck in the sky to the south. The dark figure was moving quickly.

“We’ll follow him from above.” Vega encouraged Warrior even higher before leveling off. She maintained a healthy distance from her prey. “He’s going south. House Leviathan’s to the south.”

There was no point in asking; they were both thinking the same thing. Rushing off in the middle of the night toward the enemy. Things did not look good for Kallion.

Frank relaxed his hold on Vega even further, feeling more and more comfortable in the sky. If he didn’t think of falling to his death, the idea of being unseated from the thunderbird, or how icy the night air felt, it wasn’t that bad.

From the vantage point on Warrior’s back, Atmos seemed to extend out below him in every direction. Far to the east, a flat body of water marked where his unit had encountered the leviathan. Behind them to the north were smooth rolling lands and the castle of House of Thunder. To the west, a rocky mountain range.

Talking wasn’t exactly easy while riding a thunderbird. Vega would have to lean back and shout to Frank; likewise, Frank would have to lean in and yell in her ear. For the time being, the two remained quiet, each lost to his or her own thoughts.

The speed at which the thunderbirds traveled was truly impressive. In minutes, the castle was lost behind them. After no more than an hour of hard flying, the terrain beneath Frank and Vega was totally different. Lakes pockmarked the ground below, along with giant hills that rose and fell out of nowhere.

Vega had done an excellent job following Kallion, and to their knowledge, he had no idea he was being tailed. He would have to look up and behind him and stare long enough to catch their figure in the dark night sky.

Just when Frank was starting to lose feeling in his butt, the figure they were following made a series of tight circles, disappearing into the wooded area below.

“There,” Vega shouted behind her, pointing to an outcropping with trees a few hundred yards away. “I’ll set down there, and we’ll have to go the rest of the way on foot.”

“Roger that,” Frank shouted back.

“Pardon?”

“It means ‘okay, I understand.’”

“Oh, all right.” Vega directed Warrior to their predestined landing spot a few minutes later.

Warrior landed with the grace of a giant cat as he touched down softly on the forest ground.

“Stay here, Warrior.” Vega slid off the thunderbird and placed a gentle hand on its beak. “Do not make a sound. We’ll be back soon.”

Frank followed Vega’s lead, dismounting the thunderbird. He pulled the cloak tighter around his shoulders, as did Vega. Their breath made light puffs of condensation as he and Vega maneuvered through the forest.

“I should probably take point,” Frank said, moving past Vega.

“Why? Because you’re a male and think I’m not capable of protecting myself?” Vega asked, catching up to Frank and walking side by side with him. “Is that what you think?”

“No, because I have military training and tracking experience. Oh, and now I’m this Arilion Knight.” Frank raised his eyebrow at the princess.

“Oh, okay, then. I guess that makes sense,” Vega said, although she didn’t follow behind Frank more than half a step.

Placing each foot carefully on the dense forest floor, the two traversed the cold, dark woods. The thick coverage of foliage overhead made seeing difficult, though the illumination from the moons and stars made it easier to trek the rough terrain.

Hooting, scattering, and the scraping of tiny feet told Frank the nocturnal animals of Atmos were out. He only hoped that they were of the smaller variety. He didn’t know if he could handle more surprises.

“Do you hear that?” Vega placed a hand on Frank’s left shoulder. “Voices.”

Frank stood stock still. He was sure they were going the right way, but in the dark, even he wasn’t impervious to making mistakes. Frank paused, pouring all his attention toward the sounds coming from the forest. Just when he was about to turn to Vega to shake his head, he picked up the sound of voices.

They were only barely loud enough to hear; still too quiet to actually make out the words being said. Frank crouched low to the ground and began moving to his right. The trees were so thick and abundant in this section of the woods, it was impossible to maintain a straight line of vision for more than a couple meters.

Frank and Vega crept forward slowly. As they did, the voices grew louder. It was two men. One of the voices Frank recognized as Kallion. The other, a deep baritone, he did not.

Right when the voices became clear, Frank found himself on a small hill. He stopped, crouching in a stand of thick bushes. Vega squatted beside him. As one, they peered through the rough leaves of the bush.

The ground sloped down below them, opening into a small clearing. The light of the moons showed Frank there were indeed two men and the thunderbird. Kallion stood in his robe with his arms crossed. He had his back to Frank and Vega. The thunderbird lounged in a hedge of grass, looking bored.

The other man was tall and muscular like Colonel Breaker. He wore silver-and-black armor with a helmet in the shape of the head of a leviathan, complete with ear frill and side horns. They were far, too far away to hear the tiny gasp escape Vega’s throat.

“What is it?” Frank whispered. “Who is that?”

“His name is Gars.” Vega swallowed hard. “He’s the general of the Leviathan army.”


24

“You know I don’t trust those creatures,” Gars said in his deep voice. He motioned to the thunderbird with a gloved hand. “Can’t you send it away?”

“Our time here won’t be long enough for it to matter,” Kallion said in a rushed voice. “I must get back to the castle before anyone suspects I’m gone. There has been a new development. We need to accelerate our plans. We must go to war tomorrow night.”

“Tomorrow night?” Gars asked incredulously. “Why? What’s happened?”

“Strangers have arrived from a planet called Earth. They want to reopen the sphere, and on top of all of this, one of them has been parading around as an Arilion Knight.” Kallion paused for a moment to let his words sink in. “We stand on the verge of victory. We can’t fall apart now.”

“I’m not parading around, am I?” Frank muttered to Vega.

The princess was too wrapped up in the conversation below to answer.

“One of our leviathans came back the other day, injured.” Gars took off his helmet, revealing a long face with the same hue of purple becoming of the people of Atmos, but with short, white hair instead of long. “It must have been these strangers, this Arilion Knight. Is it true? There hasn’t been an Arilion on Atmos in two generations.”

“I wouldn’t have believed it either, had I not seen it for myself.” Kallion sighed. “He must be dealt with before he grows stronger in the ways of his order. The empress told me she sent a messenger to your house with a final attempt at peace talks.”

“I’ll see to it he’s killed and only his head returns to the empress. The king and queen will give the messenger their attempts at peace, but I’ll see to it my men intercept him on the way back,” Gars said, crossing his arms, he stroked his chin. “The king and queen of my house are reluctant to go to war. The messengers they have sent to your empress have all been killed before they could reach your walls. For all the blood on my hands, Kallion, you better make sure I am well rewarded.”

“The Lord of Chaos rewards those who remain loyal.” Kallion bowed his head low. “When my empress sees the head of her last messenger brought back to the gates, she’ll marshal for war. I’ll see to that. With any luck, the two greatest houses on Atmos will destroy one another. The legion in hiding sent by the Lord of Chaos will make little work of the depleted victor.”

“And I’ll take rule of both houses,” Gars said, reminding Kallion of the fact.

“Yes, of course, just as we discussed,” Kallion agreed.

“I have to say, when you first approached me with this plan, I had my doubts.” Gars laughed out loud. “I mean, how many years have you been planning this? The fact that you had abducted the empress and incepted her mind so long ago, that she would one day be triggered to poison the emperor herself and have no memory of it? It’s perfect.”

Frank’s jaw dropped. He looked over at Vega. She was trembling, her eyes glossing over in a storm of rage, confusion, astonishment, and sorrow. Frank grabbed her, pulling her into his arms and placing a hand over her mouth as she screamed in silence.

“Be that as it may, we can’t afford to lose momentum now.” Kallion mounted his thunderbird. “Not even with an Arilion Knight entering the scene. Tomorrow night, we march to war.”

Gars said something in return, but his voice was lost in the rush of wings from Kallion’s thunderbird. Frank held on to Vega, peering through the bush leaves in time to see Gars turn and disappear into the shadow of the woods.

Vega was rocking in Frank’s arms. Hot tears splashed down onto his hand that still covered her mouth. She was still crying, though no sound escaped. She shuddered under the exertion of her sobs. Her heart broke within the protection of the knight’s embrace.

Frank couldn’t begin to imagine what she was feeling. If Kallion was telling the truth, and he had no reason to lie, then he was responsible for kidnapping the empress years before and training her to trigger at a certain time. Vega had lost her father at the hands of her own mother. Now, her people would be marching to war.

A few more moments passed. Kallion was gone and Gars had to be distant enough now where he wouldn’t hear Vega unless she full-out screamed. Frank removed his hand from her mouth but held on to her. Something his mother had taught him: sometimes there were no words. Sometimes the people you care for just need you close.

Frank and Vega sat on the cold dirt-and-moss ground of the woods, Frank holding on to the princess while her heart was torn, her soul broken.

“I—she would never— This has to be lies,” Vega said, battling for composure. “My parents loved each other. If there’s even the smallest chance she could have poisoned my father, she had no idea what she was doing.”

“We’re going to figure this out.” Frank used his thumbs to wipe the tears from Vega’s eyes and cupped her face in his steady hands. “When your mother was abducted, tell me everything you know about what happened.”

“I was a small girl when they spoke about it, so I don’t remember much.” Vega cleared her throat. “As I’ve heard it told, she disappeared for a few days from her home village. My grandfather was the lord over the lands to the east. Everyone suspected she had been kidnapped, but then she wandered into the city with no recollection of the time she was gone. Just a girl, in her family colors, dressed and somewhat confused. The royal family commissioned their physicians to look her over, but she was fine. No damage. No harm. She was fine—until now. Kallion must have had her abducted and brainwashed. No … no, this is crazy.”

“We heard him,” Frank said, biting at his lower lip. “We heard his plan and who’s really behind this. Heron is right. The Lord of Chaos has returned.”

Vega took a deep breath, calming herself with closed eyes. Frank understood exactly what she was doing. She had had her moment to break down. Now, she needed to focus on the treachery revealed. Now, she had to plan her next move before House Thunder and House Leviathan suffered loss at a schemed war.

“You need to train, Frank.” Vega looked deep into his dark eyes. “You need to train like your life depends on it. You could be the deciding factor. People will listen to an Arilion Knight. Even if we are able to prevent the houses of Atmos going to war, you heard Kallion. The Lord of Chaos has a legion in hiding.”

Frank slowly nodded, understanding how much was riding on him now. His success or failure as an Arilion Knight could mean the safety or death of the rest of his Marines, and most of a nation of innocent people. No pressure.

Are you calling them your Marines now? Frank thought. Yeah, I guess they’ve always been your Marines. You can lie to yourself all you want, but the corps will always be your family.

“I’ll talk to Tamar,” Vega said, reluctantly leaving Frank’s embrace and rising to her feet. “Our general can be trusted, I’m sure of that. I’ll also speak to the physicians who saw my mother all those years before. You’ve got to train, and I have to play the political game to get the answers I—we—need.”

Frank rose. Together, the two traveled through the forest back to find Warrior and return to the castle. Frank’s head was spinning with the newly found knowledge. He could only imagine what Vega was going through.

“I hate feeling feelings,” Vega muttered. “If this is all true, how am I going to tell my mother that she was the one who poisoned my father? How—why would she even believe me? I’m still in doubt myself.”

“You’ll figure out a way,” Frank said with no room for doubt in his tone. “If we have to waterboard Kallion into a confession, we’ll figure out a way. In the meantime, until you’re ready to make your move, you have to keep this quiet. If Kallion knows that we know, he’s the type of guy who’d plant a knife in either of our backs.”

“Agreed,” Vega said. “What’s waterboarding?”

“It’s a form of interrogation,” Frank said, trying to think of the right way to explain it. “It’s frowned upon by some. I agree that the act is torture, but sometimes torture is all that the monsters in the world understand.”

“I would like to be the one who waterboards Kallion,” Vega growled. “He’s lied for all these years. He works for the Lord of Chaos. I can’t believe I’m even saying that name right now. The Lord of Chaos is back, Frank. This universe is about to be plunged into full-out war again.”

“We’ll be ready,” Frank assured the princess. “This time around, Earth will be involved. We’ll have Marines in the fight. I’d take a unit of Marines over the Lord of Chaos any day.”

On the ride back, Vega and Frank were quiet, each lost to his or her own thoughts of the impending future. When they arrived back at the castle, their goodbye was brief.

“Sleep well.” Vega kissed Frank on the cheek before she retired to her own quarters. “Tomorrow may be the only training you get before we need to fight.”

Frank watched her go before leaving to find his own room. There was no doubt in his mind a fight was coming. If he would be ready, if he could be ready, with a single day of training, that was yet to be seen. Whatever happened, it sounded like in twenty-four hours, it would all be decided.


25

“You look horrible,” Heron said, rapidly blinking his eyes as he took in Frank’s state. “Did you sleep at all, or in the gutter, or worse?”

“Don’t you worry about me.” Frank shivered in the morning cold. “This is just my normal face. I suffer from a case of RTF.”

“What’s RTF?” Heron asked with concern.

“Resting Tired Face.” Frank rolled his neck on his shoulders and stretched his arms. “I contracted it in the Marines.”

The historian and the knight were in an outside courtyard found at the rear of the palace. It appeared to be a designated training ground. A wide-open patch of square grass a few hundred meters in depth and width had been cleared. On the sides of the square area were dumbbells, barbells, and other weights; targets for arrows and spears; along with training dummies and other pieces of equipment Frank didn’t recognize.

Heron stood in front of Frank in a natural, heavy, cotton robe. In his hands he carried a thick tome of leather-bound work that had to be well over a thousand pages long.

“The top two things on the list I need to learn from you today is how the vambraces protect me and how to go on the offensive. Everything else is going to have to wait,” Frank said, trying to make his request sound as polite as he could. “We’re running out of time.”

“Running out of time?” Heron scrunched his brow. “We only just started. What you need is an understanding of what an Arilion is and practice in channeling your Will. The first few weeks of training should be more book knowledge than practical application. It’s going to take years to master this, Frank.”

Frank stood in the courtyard, arms crossed over his chest. The vambraces on his forearms continued their dark purple glow. The sun rising overheard was beating back the cold, but not fast enough. Frank had anticipated running and drills, not standing still, or he would have worn something over his plain, black shirt.

It was clear to Frank in that moment he needed to tell Heron what he had seen the previous night. He trusted the man fully, and if he was going to have any chance at controlling this new power, he needed all the help he could get.

“There’s a lot you have to know,” Frank said, exhaling a heavy breath. “You may want to sit down for this.”

“What? What are you talking about?” Heron eyed him suspiciously. “Have you been doing drugs?”

Frank examined the area to make sure they were still alone before they started, and even then, he spoke in whispers to be certain. Even if someone was spying on them in a tower, there would have been no way for them to hear what Frank was saying. Frank told him everything—from following Kallion, to seeing Gars and the conversation they overheard.

When Frank had explained the situation to Heron, the historian placed his book down gently and sat down on the dew-laden grass. He was in shock, that much was clear. Frank wasn’t sure how many more breakdowns he wanted to be a part of. That was most definitely not highlighted in the history of the Arilion Knights.

“I can see how this is a lot to take in, but we can’t waste time in this Sixth Sense, ‘he’s been dead the whole time’ revelation. You need to know, so you can teach me what I need right now. I don’t take many things seriously, but family is one of the things I do. I’m always faithful to family, the corps, and saving the innocent against jacked up, power-hungry bad guys—especially those named Lord of Chaos.” Frank kneeled on the ground and placed a hand on the historian’s shoulder. “You know everything there is to know about the Arilion Knights. We have today to teach me just the most important features of attack and defense. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be pretty; we just need to start.”

“The princess. She needs to be careful,” Heron said, blinking wide eyes. “If Kallion suspects she knows…”

“She is,” Frank reassured him. “She’s going to Tamar for protection first and forming her own plan. We need to trust that she knows what she’s doing and focus on what we need to be doing here and now.”

“Right. Of course.” Heron rose to his feet once more. “The first thing you need to realize is that your power comes from Will. That means your strength of will, your fighting spirit. It has nothing to do with how big or strong you are physically. Some of the greatest Arilion Knights have been elderly, handicapped, even a master paralyzed from the waist down. But none of that matters. All that matters is your determination, your strength of will, your desire to get back up. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Frank nodded. Nervous energy made him bring one of his legs behind him and grab his foot with his hands to stretch. “Like Rocky Balboa. Never give up. Unleash the dog in me. Yeah, I can do that.”

“I’m not sure who this Rocky stone formation is, but yes, never giving up is a large portion. Never doubting yourself, willing yourself to victory at all costs.”

“So let’s do this,” Frank said, squatting down and then jumping up and down on his tiptoes, nodding his head side to side. “Where do we start?”

“We start by channeling your Will, your inner strength and creating physical manifestations of it via your vambraces.” Heron reached out with his right pointer finger and tapped the place over Frank’s heart. “Channel from here and use your imagination to create a shield, through your vambrace.”

“A shield?” Frank looked at his vambrace confused. “You mean, I’m going to create things from my mind?”

“Yes, in time, you’ll only be bound by your imagination, free to construct whatever you like. These constructs will be created by your will and remain as strong as your resolve,” Heron instructed. “Close your eyes, reach deep within for the Will that drives you. It’s always been inside, whether you knew it or not.”

“This is some may-the-will-be-with-you meets sorcerer supreme stuff right here,” Frank said, but obeyed by closing his eyes. He took deep, even breaths, focusing on latching on to his will.

It was easier for Frank than he expected. For years, he understood he had a will stronger than most. Others called it stubbornness or obstinateness, whether it was at the gym, completing an assignment, or even during his time in the corps. He always imagined it as a force, a beast that lived inside him, willing him to complete whatever task had been laid out before him.

Frank reached for that now, feeling his heart rate quicken. An exhilarating feeling heated him from the inside out.

“Frank, open your eyes,” Heron breathed.

Frank obeyed, seeing his entire body alive with the dark purple force. No longer was the glowing color constrained to his vambraces. The force of energy surrounded him as if it lived off his very being. It wrapped around him like a protective second skin—his very own force field.

“How does it feel?” Heron asked.

“This is—I mean, it feels great,” Frank said, turning his arms over to see the buzzing energy covering his body. “How—what do I do now?”

“Now imagine whatever you’d like,” Heron said, pointing to his vambraces. “You said you wanted to figure out how to defend yourself and attack. Let’s start with defense. Can you create a shield? A force field? Armor around your body?”

“I do have a pretty overactive imagination,” Frank said, concentrating on his left arm. A moment later, from thin air, a square shield appeared on his arm. Frank laughed out loud. “And it’s solid? How long will it last?”

“It’ll last as long as you command it to,” Heron said, motioning to the ground under Frank’s feet. “As for how solid it is, try it.”

Frank brought the translucent purple shield up and slammed it into the ground. It shivered, sinking deep into the dew-laden soil. Frank ripped it out again.

“The possibilities of what I can create will be endless,” Frank said, willing a sword into his right hand. A moment later, a medieval straight-blade sword with a double-cutting edge over a meter in length sprung into glowing, violet existence.

“That’s what I’ve been telling you.” Heron grinned. “You’re learning quickly. You’ll find your abilities don’t only extend to creating these constructs. Your force of Will will eventually be able to make you stronger, faster, more durable, even be able to fly.”

“I can fly?” Frank asked incredulously. “Did you just say I can fly?”

“In time. Let’s focus on defense first,” Heron chided him. “You said something about armor and a force field?”

Frank and Heron trained over and over again until Frank was comfortable creating defensive constructs. By the time they were done, Frank could call the power of his will and form a round buckler shield, a kite shield, and even a ballistic entry shield; liquid armor reinforcement to his diamond plate; and a force field that surrounded him.

The sun was high overhead by the time Heron called a stop. Frank’s stomach was grumbling, but as far as he was concerned, food would need to wait. Half the day was already spent and he had yet to go on the offensive with his new ability.

“We need to rest,” Heron said in a voice that would not tolerate question. “You’ll be no good to anyone if you fall on the field of battle from fatigue.”

“I can keep going.” Frank wiped the sweat from his forehead. “I need to if I’m going to stand a chance when everything goes down.”

Heron turned his head, and Frank’s gaze followed to see the door of the courtyard open. Elly and Raj walked out, each carrying a tray loaded with cold cuts, cured meats, salty bacons, and juicy sausages; sharp, smelly, soft and sweet cheeses; crostinis, rolls and loaves of bread; and dried, stone, and berried fruit; along with a cold pitcher of water.

“Take a few minutes and eat with your friends,” Heron said, jogging to the open door inside the castle. “I have an idea for you to train to go on the offensive.”

Frank was going to ask what he was talking about, but the historian was already gone. The old man could move quickly when he had to.

Raj and Elly smiled at the historian as he vanished into the castle.

“Did we scare him?” Elly asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Naw,” Frank reassured her. “He’s going to grab something for training.”

“How’s training going?” Raj asked as he and Elly placed the food down beside the wall of the courtyard. The trio of Marines took shelter from the heat of the sun under the shade the wall afforded. “You look tired.”

“Yeah, everybody keeps saying that.” Frank started digging into the food. “Training is easier than I thought. I mean, once I wrapped my head around what the vambraces can do, it’s just a matter of what I can create.”

“Create?” Elly asked, popping a piece of fruit into her mouth. “Colonel Breaker sent us to check in on you and report back. He’s going to want to know what you mean by, ‘create.’”

Frank opened his hands, still chewing on a piece of bread. A moment later he was holding a purple M203 grenade launcher.

“My gosh, man,” Raj said open-mouthed. “You can make guns out of thin air?”

“More than that.” Frank channeled his will and exchanged the gun for a brick wall in front of him, then a spear in his hand, followed by his fists covered in boxing gloves.

“I’m not even going to pretend to understand what I’m seeing, but this is awesome,” Elly said, shaking her head in amazement. “Can you do animals? Vehicles? Make me a bicycle, clown.”

“I don’t know, I—”

Frank and the others turned as movement from the castle into the courtyard caught their eye. It was Heron returning, and with him were five of the largest House of Thunder soldiers Frank had yet seen. In their golden armor they appeared to be larger-than-life gilded statues.

“I found you some sparring partners.” Heron threw a thumb over his shoulder. “Meet the Berserkers. I told them not to go easy on you. That’s not going to do anyone any good.”


26

“Dang, those are some big aliens,” Elly said as she chomped into a piece of salami. “Good luck, Frank.”

“If you don’t make it out of this,” Raj added with a grin, “can I have your vambraces?”

“Thanks for that, guys. You’re no help at all,” Frank said, swallowing the food in his mouth. He walked over to Heron and the Berserkers. “And they were just hanging out in the main hall, huh?”

“As luck would have it, they were actually waiting until we were done to use the training field,” Heron said with a large smile. Whether he noticed Frank’s stare or not, he didn’t let off the gas. “So, here we go. Let’s practice those defensive constructs first.”

The five golden-clad warriors ranged from a dozen to thirty-plus centimeters taller than Frank. Though their armor hid their muscles, Frank knew they worked out and trained regularly based on their bulk and movements. The tallest warrior took off his winged helmet and bent his knee to Frank.

His face was scarred, his white, shoulder-length hair braided in the shape of a Mohawk. The other four Berserkers followed the example of their leader, removing their helmets and bowing their knees.

“Tamar told me an Arilion Knight had been chosen, but I did not wholly believe until now,” the Berserker said, speaking to the ground and not even looking Frank in the eyes. “It is the privilege of our lives to help you learn the ways of the Will. We will hold nothing back and give you only the most brutal form of combat we know.”

“Thanks. That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.” Frank scratched the back of his head with one hand. He moved to the lead Berserker, raising the gigantic warrior to his feet. “Get up, get up. You don’t need to kneel to me. We’re on the same side, here.”

“Yes, yes. We are on the side of the light,” the warrior said, placing a hand on Frank’s shoulder. It weighed twenty pounds. “Let us begin.”

“Can’t wait,” Frank said, taking a few steps back as the Berserkers placed their helmets back on their heads. “This looks like it’s going to hurt.”

I’m insane, that’s the only explanation, Frank thought as he watched the warriors jog to the edges of the training ground and open chests of weapons that included war hammers, morning stars, maces, and spears. Well, here we go. Buckle up, buttercup. This is going to get bloody.

“Remember, this is to test your defensive constructs.” Heron stood beside Frank, giving him advice. “If you absolutely have to fight back, try using the will of strength, instead of forming offensive constructs.”

The Berserkers had chosen their weapons now and were returning to the field, preparing to charge.

“You know, the fact that you’re standing with me staring these Berserkers down means a lot,” Frank said, looking to his right where Heron had been a moment before. He saw Heron’s back as the old historian ran off the field to join Elly and Raj. “Right…”

“You can do it, Frank!” Elly cheered.

“Show them how a Marine slash B.U.T.T.S. employee slash Arilion Knight does it!” Raj yelled, one hand cupped on either side of his mouth. “Get it done!”

Frank quieted his mind, focusing on the power of his will. He brought a kite shield up on his right arm, at the same time covering his body in a protective, glowing shell of purple armor. He mirrored the armor of his opponents, the only difference his being transparent and theirs being solid gold.

“No mercy!” the lead Berserker roared, pointing his war hammer forward. “Charge.”

Frank was still trying to wrap his mind around the size of the war hammer the lead Berserker wielded. The head of the weapon was the size of an anvil. The shaft looked like a solid branch.

The ground actually shook as the Berserkers charged Frank. Instead of waiting for the inevitable, Frank ran to meet the threat like a football player after receiving the opening kick off, except he wasn’t trying to get around these opponents, he was trying to go through them, and he didn’t have anyone on his team blocking for him. Actually … it was nothing like football.

Strength, speed, Frank reminded himself. You’re as strong, as fast as your will. Move faster.

Heart pounding, Frank pushed his legs to a full-on sprint. He had to be traveling faster than ever before; within a second of running, he had crossed dozens of meters. The war hammer in the lead Berserker’s hands came sailing down toward his head.

Frank twisted to the right at the same time bringing up his shield.

CRACK!

The brunt of the gigantic hammer striking his shield should have broken Frank’s arm. At the very least, it should have driven him to the ground. Instead, Frank held fast, a slight tremor running the length of his arm.

All Frank could see of the Berserker past his golden helmet were his purple eyes, but in those eyes sat wonder and awe. Frank took this opportunity to try out the strength of the power of his will. He shoved the hammer off his shield with his left hand and planted a fist into the center of the Berserker’s armor.

Frank’s right fist connected with the metal plating on the warrior, creating not only a dent in the breastplate, but also knocking the Berserker off his feet and throwing him into the air.

If the other four warriors weren’t on him already, Frank would have liked to see how far the lead Berserker flew. But his attention was needed elsewhere.

Frank dodged a mace to his head and sidestepped a spear thrust, yet was caught by a morning star at the base of his skull. He felt that. Frank staggered back, blinking past the stars racing across his vision.

Come on, come on, Frank screamed in his own head. You’ve got more to give. Get back in the fight.

The Berserkers truly weren’t holding back. The four still surrounding Frank pressed the attack, striking out with blows to his head and chest.

Frank blocked another blow with his shield, and another, and although the defensive construct he had created was holding strong, there were too many blows coming through to block all of them at once.

A strike landed to the left side of his ribs, another across his neck. Pain lanced across his body as his iron resolve gave way to panic. The strength of his will was being challenged in the face of impossible odds bearing down on him.

“Rawww!” Frank screamed, pushing back the doubts, the thoughts of defeat. He rallied himself, disregarding his shield. “Come on! Bring it!”

With his right hand, Frank formed a towering brick wall that loomed over the two soldiers to his left. He let the construct fall, slamming against the warriors. Already he focused on the other two Berserkers to his left.

Massive purple handcuffs clamped down, one on each of the warriors. Another smaller pair wrapped around their feet, sending them to the ground. Victory was within his reach … or so Frank thought. He had lost track of the lead Berserker he had struck at the beginning of the battle.

Frank was reminded of the warrior’s presence as he was bulldozed from behind. One moment, he was sure of victory; the next, he was flying through the air, gasping for breath.

A numb pain met him as he crashed down to the ground below. Frank struggled to his knees; the air refilled his lungs painfully and slowly. The familiar taste of blood filled Frank’s mouth. He had bit the inside of his cheek some time during being struck from behind and his rough landing.

The Berserkers were already getting to their own feet. Elly, Raj, and even Heron, were all yelling at him to get up.

Get up, Frank, you’ve got more to give, get up, Frank coached himself, getting back to his feet. You don’t want to kill the Berserkers, but you need to put them down for good. Get it done, Frank. Get it done.

This time, when the Berserkers charged, they approached in a closer unit instead of being spread so far apart. Rather than running to meet them, this time Frank decided to let them come to him.

From within his chest, within his being, within his spirit, Frank Wolffe channeled the power of his will. Warmth spread to his fingers and toes as he allowed the power to build in his hands. A glowing, livid orb took shape.

The charging Berserkers did not stop their rampage despite the bright purple light glowing in Frank’s palms.

The level of commitment it took Frank to gather and maintain such a force began to wear on him. It felt like holding his arms out as someone stacked more and more weight onto the limbs.

Frank waited until the Berserkers were nearly on top of him. Feet away, already readying their weapons to swing, Frank unleashed the power he had gathered.

BOOM!

A concussive shock wave ripped forward. It caught all five Berserkers, slamming into them with the force of a clashing grenade, at least that was what Frank had imagined when he created the construct.

The Berserkers were all lifted off the ground, their bodies going parallel with the mossy grass that lined the training grounds. They were flung back, coming to crashing stops like rag dolls on a green carpet.

Frank stood heaving. Sweat dripped down from his forehead. Exhausted, the purple armor covering his body dissipated. He wanted to sit down, even take a knee and recharge his mind and body. Neither was an option. His work had just begun. He was more than an emissary to the people of Atmos now. A mind shift was required. He had to start thinking of what being an Arilion Knight truly meant and how that would inspire hope in these warriors when the fight began.

The Berserkers slowly and painfully picked themselves up from the ground. Heron, Raj, and Elly all stood stunned with their mouths gaping. Elly must have been in mid-chew, because something fell out of her mouth as she stared. Poor girl.

The Berserkers took off their helmets one by one, nursing bruised foreheads, pounding heads, banged ribs, and cuts on their noses and temples. Together, they once more knelt to their Arilion Knight.


27

The rest of the day consisted of practicing offensive constructs with the Berserkers. Frank found it was easy to use and create weapons he was already familiar with; everything from 1911 handguns to the Punisher gauss rifles were immediately created when called upon.

It was only as the sun began to descend for the day that Frank realized his audience had grown. Colonel Breaker and Major Lopez had come to see how he was progressing. Although it made him smile to see the pair slowly nodding approval with pursed lips and arms crossed, as he trained, his mind wandered to Vega, the progress she had made, and how she had decided to handle her mother.

Heron called a water break in the training. The Berserkers’ armor was dented and scraped from Frank’s attacks. On his part, he felt sore and a black eye was beginning to form around his left eye. He had lost concentration when a meaty fist had found him.

Frank wiped the sweat from his forehead and accepted the pitcher of cold water handed to him by the Major.

“Thanks,” he said, gulping down the cool liquid. “It tasted good. Maybe even better than a beer.” She side-eyed him. “Okay, maybe not that good.”

“You’re learning quickly.” Heron grinned, then his face contorted into a frown.

Frank knew exactly why. He was feeling the same thing. He did feel like he was making strides, but would it be enough? War was at their doorstep. Was he going to tell the colonel what he knew? Should he?

“It’s impressive,” Elly agreed, interrupting Frank’s line of thought. “So what’s the over-under in making a kitten or a puppy?”

“I think Frank has more important things to do than create animals with his new powers,” Colonel Breaker said. “Frank, walk with me.”

Frank’s heart sank as he matched the colonel’s gait. In his time with the corps, he understood what it meant when a commanding officer used those words. It was never good. On the other hand, Frank had been debating when and where to tell the colonel about the events that transpired the night before.

“Sir, I’d like to start, if I may,” Frank said as the men put distance between them and the rest of the group. They traveled to the far side of the training field where stacks of shields and targets sat pressed against the stone wall. “There’s something you need to know.”

“Go ahead, Mr. Wolffe.” Colonel Breaker nodded.

“Last night, Vega and I overheard Kallion speaking with the head of the Leviathan army. They are the ones who are behind the emperor’s death. They want the houses to wipe each other out in order to make room for the Lord of Chaos and his army.” Frank bit his lower lip, wondering if he should tell the colonel about the Manchurian Candidate situation with the empress. He had come this far. “Also, you should know, years ago the empress was abducted by Kallion. He incepted her mind and triggered her now, years later, to poison the emperor. She has no memory of what she’s done.”

Colonel Breaker’s eyes danced with the information. He continued to walk with Frank in silence until the two men were on the far side of the field. Finally the colonel stopped, his pressed uniform following every motion of his body perfectly.

“I’m not going to ask what you were doing out late last night with the princess, or why you didn’t tell me sooner.” Colonel Breaker’s jaw muscle tightened in agitation. “How much time do we have?”

“Not much,” Frank said, trying to put his best guess forward. “The empress will receive word sometime tonight that her messenger to House Leviathan was killed. She’ll assume it was the king and queen of House Leviathan inciting war. I’m assuming she’ll rally and march soon after that.”

“You said the Lord of Chaos is behind this.” Colonel Breaker was already forming a plan. It was truly impressive to watch the Marine work. “How many men does he have?”

“A legion,” Frank said, remembering the words spoken the previous night. “I’m not exactly sure how many that is, but it sounds like a lot.”

“It is. It’s five thousand strong. And they’ll wait until the houses slaughter one another to make their move.” Colonel Breaker rubbed at the bottom of his chin. “The empress has to be told. Whether she accepts the hard truth or not, there’s a chain of command.”

“I agree,” Frank said, crossing his arms over his chest and looking back at the castle. “But I believe Vega should do it. It’s her family and her place as next in line. That’s why I didn’t tell you first thing this morning. I wanted to give her the time, the chance to do what needed to be done. I guess I’m telling you now out of respect for your position on this mission. I know how much you want to get your people back home.”

“You’re right.” Colonel Breaker looked Frank right in the eyes. “All of my people are getting back home. That means you, too, Frank. You’re one of us.”

HAROOOM! HAROOOM! HAROOOM!

Ear shattering sounds of horns being blown vibrated across the field. Frank and Colonel Breaker looked to one another in confusion.

Heron was already running toward them, the rest of the Marines looking to the colonel for orders. The Berserkers were grabbing their helmets and weapons and running for the front of the castle.

“War horns,” Heron shouted as he reached shouting distance to Frank and the colonel. “The House of Thunder marches to war!”

Frank and the colonel looked at one another.

“We can’t just sit this one out, knowing what we know.” Colonel Breaker began jogging back to his unit. “We have to do something. We can’t let these people slaughter one another on account of some storm of drivel lies.”

Frank jogged back with the colonel, matching him stride for stride. Heron did his best to keep up. The war horns were dying as the sun settled.

“Orders?” Major Lopez asked, looking only to Colonel Breaker for direction.

“We recently came upon some game changing news,” Colonel Breaker told the others. “I want you three geared up and ready to roll. Bring mine and Frank’s armor with you to the main meeting hall. If we’re not there, call us on the comms and I’ll tell you where to meet.”

It was clear the other three Marines had a million questions to ask, but instead, they only nodded and ran to obey.

“Sir,” they chimed in unison.

“Heron, where would the empress be right now, right when the horns sound?” Colonel Breaker asked the historian.

“I’ll show you.” Heron took the lead into the castle. “Either in the main hall as you suggested, meeting with her advisors, or in the courtyard already preparing to ride to war.”

Frank and the colonel let Heron lead as the men hurried through the halls and rooms of the castle. Servants and soldiers sprinted all around the castle like ants after their hill had been kicked. Excited, nervous chatter died on all their lips when they saw Frank. Every head bowed out of respect.

There was no time to greet them or even nod back. Frank was running down the hall in Heron’s wake, hoping he knew enough to wage the war that was coming.

Heron finally led them to the room they had eaten in the night before. The guards were doubled. Four golden-clad soldiers stood ready with spears twice their height and square shields half their body length. When they saw who approached, they granted them entrance.

Frank was still contemplating whether they had opened the doors for Heron or himself when the trio entered the room. There was a heated discussion taking place as they walked in. The square tables had been removed and replaced with one two-meter-wide circular table. On the table sprawled a map of Atmos as he had seen from the back of Warrior the previous night, with pieces placed on the board representing castles and military units. One piece in particular caught Frank’s eye. It was a black figure of a leviathan just off the coast.

The light of the sun was still strong enough to illuminate the room through the tall windows. The only people in the chamber were Vega, her mother, Kallion, and Tamar. While Kallion wore his floor-length burgundy wool robe, the others were dressed more becoming a time of battle: Tamar in a full suit of gilded armor, save for his helmet which sat on the table; the majesties sported coordinating gold breastplates with their sigil inlaid over brocade, pearl battle gown with matching pants.

The House of Thunder’s general boiled in anger; his jugular vein bulged ready to pop at any moment, his right hand clenched tight on his sword hilt. He had placed himself between Kallion and the two women staring daggers at the leader of the Heralds.

“Vega.” The empress studied her daughter, mortified. “Why would you say such a thing?”

“You must trust me,” Vega said, shaking her head, her white hair falling over the shining vestment. “Mother, I know it’s difficult to believe, but our eyes and ears did not deceive us. The Lord of Chaos has returned, and Kallion is helping him wipe out the houses of Atmos to make room for his return.”

“What?” the empress looked at her daughter, then to Frank and Kallion. Her face was a mask of confusion and weariness. “Kallion was not the one who killed your father; he isn’t the one refusing negotiations. He’s not the one who killed our messenger and sent back his head.”

“No,” Vega agreed, grabbing both her mother’s hands in her own. “He’s working with Gars, the general of House Leviathan, to make all of this happen. They’ve been planning it for years, Mother.”

The empress set her jaw. She turned to Kallion. “Kallion Sef, you’ve been head of the Heralds for years now. You’ve served my husband and myself, never questioning our orders. My daughter seems to believe you have a hand in what is happening here. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Frank looked over to the thin, conniving man in the robe. Kallion should have had a look of worry or fear in his eyes. When Frank saw that the man was as calm as someone waiting for their movie to begin at the theater, he knew they were in trouble.


28

Tamar must have thought the same thing. The loyal general edged closer, inching his blade from its steel sheath.

“I have served you diligently for years,” Kallion said after clearing his throat. “The princess must be confused. Perhaps the weight of losing her father and the stress of looming war. After all, she has no proof.”

“I don’t need proof.” Vega pointed to Frank. “The Arilion Knight saw it, too. We followed you last night. We heard everything.” She inclined her head and scrunched her eyes. “Everything.”

All eyes turned to Frank.

“Don’t look at me.” Frank jerked a thumb in Kallion’s direction. “Everything Vega is saying is true. This guy is the worst. He has got to go.”

The empress’ mouth gaped in shock. She took a step backwards and grabbed at her heart. All eyes shifted once more to Kallion. Still, the man was as cool as a cucumber. He shook his head from side to side. “Tsk, tsk. Vega, oh princess Vega, what have you done? The truth will ruin your mother. Do you think you solved anything by telling her she is the one who killed your father? Do you think this will stop the war? There is no scenario where you win. The Houses of Atmos fall this night.”

“Traitor!” Tamar ripped his sword from his sheath, charging forward. His blade cut through Kallion’s neck. It would have severed the man’s head from his body had he been there at all.

Instead of deathly steel slicing through skin and muscle, Tamar’s blade sliced through a hologram.

“What sorcery is this?” Tamar growled, cutting through Kallion’s lit figure once more for good measure.

“Not sorcery, you idiot.” Kallion grinned. “Science. Go to war with the Leviathan House or don’t. I don’t care. Perhaps Gars will lead the House of Leviathan against you once the king and queen find their son dead at the hands of a House of Thunder assassin. Maybe not. The Lord of Chaos will march on each of you one by one until all that remains of your lineage, of your home, is ash and rubble. The Lord of Chaos is coming, and there is nothing you can do to stop it.”

A second later Kallion vanished.

“What did he mean, Vega?” The empress turned to her daughter. Her face had gone pale. Her hands trembled. “What did he mean, that I killed your father?”

“Mother.” Vega went to the empress and held her up. Tears did not fall from her face. She was being strong now, strong for both of them, and the truth that had to be told. “It wasn’t you. You didn’t do it.”

“What, what was it that I didn’t do?” The empress looked at Vega with unseeing eyes, her voice barely above a whisper as her subconscious tried to pull forward the memory.

“When you disappeared all those years ago.” Vega swallowed hard. “Kallion kidnapped you. He brainwashed you to trigger at a certain time and poison Father.”

The empress lost strength in her daughter’s arms, slumping to the floor.

Tamar ran to her side and helped Vega support her mother.

“No—I … How could I?” The empress was staring at the far wall, her mind shattering as the truth of her deeds broke the surface like a leviathan through water. “How … how could I not remember? I loved—I love your father! How … how could I have done that to him?”

Vega held her mother close, whispering into her ear.

The empress continued to mumble incoherently. The strong woman Frank had seen before now lost in her own mind.

“General.” Colonel Breaker was the one to end the silence. His voice was soft, but his eyes were anything but. “There’s a young prince in danger at House Leviathan. Whatever is happening here, you can save him and perhaps stop the war between your houses before it begins.”

Rage boiled across Tamar’s eyes. He stood, moved from his spot beside the empress, swallowing hard. “No one else dies at the hands of cowards and traitors. I’ll send my most trusted men.”

“Tamar, you need to go,” Vega said, still holding her mother closer. The empress wore a blank stare on her face now as something inside her mind had been broken. “I don’t trust anyone else with this, save you. Fly hard, get there, and stop this murderous plot. Encourage House Leviathan to march to war and meet us on the battlefield. I have a plan to end this.”

“Encourage them to march to war?” Tamar shook his head, trying to understand Vega’s plan. “I shouldn’t leave your side. Who knows if Kallion has another ploy to end your life?”

“I won’t let that happen,” Frank said, stepping forward and meeting Tamar’s intense eyes. “I’ll die before anyone touches her.”

“All of my Marines will.” Colonel Breaker joined Frank. “Nothing is going to happen to the princess.”

Tamar slowly nodded. He looked back to the princess. “As you command.”

“Get them to come to meet us,” Vega reminded her general, “as quickly as you can. We’ll wait for you on the silver meadow. Hurry.”

Tamar bowed and ran from the room.

Major Lopez, Elly, and Raj ran into the room a moment later. They were suited up in their own diamond-plated armor. They carried Frank’s suit as well as the colonel’s.

“The guards made us leave our weapons outside the room, but we’re ready to rock and roll,” Major Lopez said, handing the colonel his armor. She bowed her head in respect to the princess and empress.

“So … what’s going on here?” Elly asked in a quiet voice, sensing the tension in the room.

Frank, feeling like he was explaining the situation for the dozenth time, brought the rest of the Marines up to speed in as few words as possible as he and the colonel suited up in the room.

“What the f—”

“Our focus right now has to be on helping the princess,” Frank interrupted Elly. He placed the vambraces over his armor. They expanded to once again fit perfectly. “She has a plan.”

“That’s right.” Colonel Breaker attached his helmet to the magnetic bond at his waist before crossing the room to where the princess sat with her mother. Heron stood with them, a hand on each woman’s shoulder, doing his best to comfort. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now, but your people need a leader in this hour, Princess Vega.”

The princess moved, releasing her mother to Heron. She gave the woman one more kiss on the cheek, whispering into her ear. “It’s not your fault. We’re going to find the ones responsible. We’ll hold them to justice. I promise.”

Princess Vega was tall without towering, toned without being brawny, and in that moment as she released her mother, her persona completely changed. Gone was the simple, young woman Frank had met. In front of him stood a leader. Her eyes blazed with righteous anger. Back straight, she gave her orders without hesitation.

“We have to believe that Tamar will reach House Leviathan in time to save their prince and convince them to march to battle,” Vega said, looking each Marine in the eye. “I’m mobilizing my army to march to war within the hour. I’ll send riders to comb the forests and the woods for the legion the Lord of Chaos has in hiding. There are only a few places where a force that size can hide and still be within striking range.”

“I think I understand your plan,” Frank said, narrowing his eyes as the details came together in his mind. “You’ll convince House Leviathan to join you, and together you’ll fight the Lord of Chaos’ legion. But what if they don’t see it like you do? What if they insist on a fight?”

“I have to have faith that they don’t want to see Neeves slaughter one another,” Vega said, resolved. “I have to trust Tamar will get there in time and convince them to prepare for war against our common enemy.”

“You’re going to try to convince them when you meet them,” Frank said, pursing his lips. “You want them to join you and march on the Lord of Chaos. You’re putting a lot on faith.”

“I’m betting a lot on an Arilion Knight.” Vega smiled despite the hour. “They’ll join us when they know the truth and see an Arilion leading our army.”

“Leading your army?” Raj burst in. “Son of a pigmy, I like Frank probably better than most people, but with all due respect, none of us have ever led an entire army into battle.”

“Thanks. Thanks for that,” Frank said with sarcasm dripping from every word.

“Yeah, no problem,” Raj said, missing the sarcastic tone in Frank’s voice. “We have to play to our strengths, here.”

“You can do it, Frank Wolffe, Arilion Knight.” Vega moved around the large, circular table to stand right in front of him. “They’ll listen to me and follow you.”

So what did you do today, Frank? Frank thought. Oh, nothing much, just led a freaking army of purple aliens into battle, flying on thunderbirds and charging the Lord of Chaos’ front lines. You know, same old, same old.

Frank smiled and winked at Vega. “Sign me up. Where do we start?”

“I need someone familiar with military tactics to advise me.” Vega looked at Colonel Breaker. “With Tamar gone, I could use your skill set if you are willing.”

“We’re with you.” Colonel Breaker looked at his Marines. “Here we go, into the belly of the beast, Marines.”

“Oohrah!” the other Marines shouted.

Frank even joined in. If he was about to go to war on an alien planet, there was no one else he’d rather have at his side than a unit of Marines.


29

The silver meadow had earned its name because it was a wide open field of grass that ran as far as the eye could see. The trio of moons that owned the night over Atmos shone so brightly that here the grass shimmered.

Frank stood beside Vega at the head of the House of Thunder forces. The thunderbird riders had arrived at the meadow in advance of the main fighting force. Stationed at the castle there were more thunderbirds than Frank had realized. It seemed the stable he had been shown by Vega the night before was only one of many stationed throughout the castle and city.

Five hundred of the thunderbirds had been mobilized, each carrying two warriors on its back. They had deposited the first wave of soldiers and gone back for the second. Two thousand Neeve soldiers under the House of Thunder banner would soon be prepared for war.

Colonel Breaker was working with commanders in Vega’s army to coordinate plans should their parley with House Leviathan go sideways. They were also planning a strategy should House Leviathan agree to team up against the Lord of Chaos.

Frank stood in the light of the moons, taking in the unbelievable scene around him. The meadow they were in was an open area hundreds of meters wide before it ended in the forests to either side. House Thunder was an impressive force. One thousand warriors on the ground ready for battle in their golden armor, shields, spears, swords, and bows.

Another one thousand would arrive soon on the backs of the thunderbirds, ready for war. It seemed one way or another they were going to fight someone before the sun rose.

There had been no word from Tamar as of yet. Frank knew that that didn’t mean anything, but they could use all the good news they could get. Neither had there been word from the handful of riders Vega had sent to locate the hidden Lord of Chaos army.

“Don’t look so serious.” Raj nudged Frank. “We’ll get through this. What happened to your helmet?”

“Lopez’s was burned through, so I gave her mine,” Frank said, looking down at his armor. “I guess I don’t really need the armor if I can build constructs to protect me.”

“Hey, it couldn’t hurt,” Raj said, following Frank’s gaze.

Both men looked at Vega. The princess was in the middle of her army, giving orders and checking reports. She wore golden armor with white trim, fitted just for her. A white cape fell behind her. A winged helmet, with the visor raised, sat on her head.

“Even on an alien planet, boys will be boys,” Elly said, approaching the two Marines with an eye roll. “I wonder if Tamar made it—”

Two sounds broke the relative quiet on the meadow. One was a sound like thunder—five hundred pairs of wings flapping at breakneck speed to the battleground.

The other noise was the one that worried Frank. Drums rumbled through the night, rivaling the sound of the approaching wings for dominance of the moment.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Shouts filled the air as soldiers from the House of Thunder ran to find their places. Frank, Elly, and Raj hurried to the front lines. They joined Vega, the colonel, and the major in the center of their force.

“What’s that noise?” Major Lopez looked to the princess. “House Leviathan?”

“They’re here,” Vega nodded, looking across the field to the opposite side, where a wall of trees hid the approach of the other army. “One way or another, this all ends here.”

A moment later, the approaching thunderbirds deposited their second riders, while those at the reins lifted back into the sky waiting for their commands.

Frank did the rough math in his head as the war drums sounded louder. House Thunder had two thousand troops, five hundred thunderbirds, five Marines, and an Arilion Knight. If things weren’t about to end in blood, Frank would have thought it was funny. Counting the troops reminded him of a Christmas song.

All thought of anything else but the present moment evaporated as the army of House Leviathan exited the forest. Hundreds—thousands—of soldiers walked in a straight line. The front lines of the army were made up of warriors carrying round pharmashields and one-and-a-half meter long tridents, their silver-and-black armor topped with helmets shaped like the heads of leviathans.

“Son of an underdog,” Raj breathed next to Frank. “How many of them are there?”

Frank only shrugged. His best guess was the House of Thunder would be outnumbered two to one, maybe more. To the rear of the oncoming force, a cavalry unit made up of stocky, native horses with short tails, elongated necks and long ears like a rabbit, was led by riders carrying a series of banners,the sigil of House Leviathan painted on the fabric: the black, roaring head of a leviathan on a blue field.

Half a kilometer from their own lines, the Leviathan army came to a halt. The war drums also stopped. The ranks parted for a trio of riders to emerge.

Frank’s heart jumped in his chest. In the presence of the adrenaline coursing through his body, the weariness of the day’s events faded. All there was was the task at hand. He couldn’t let anything else cloud his judgment.

The riders came closer, stopping in the empty space between the two armies. The moonlight made them easy to see. One was a grinning Tamar, the other were two Neeves Frank didn’t recognize, but the man and woman in glittering armor looked like they could be the king and queen of the other house.

“The king and queen,” Vega said, motioning to one of her officers. “Thunderbirds, two of them, quickly.”

Immediately, two harnessed thunderbirds were brought forward. The creatures stood on all fours, eyes alert and ready.

“Frank, will you go with me?” Vega asked him, although he guessed she already knew the answer to the question. “The name of an Arilion Knight will mean as much to them as my own. They respect and admire the title.”

“Of course.” Frank jumped up onto the saddle of his thunderbird. Misjudging the jump, he fell onto his back with a thud. Instantly, he rose to his feet again, waving everyone off. “I’m fine, I’m okay. As you were.”

Frank swallowed hard, taking more care this time to mount the beast. This time, he landed on the saddle. Accepting the reins, Frank followed Vega’s thunderbird. Luckily for him, the winged creature he rode seemed content to follow Vega without much direction from Frank.

With each passing moment, Frank was put at ease. Tamar rode his own thunderbird next to the Leviathan king and queen. He was neither chained nor tethered. Unless this was an elaborate trap, things were looking up.

“If this is some kind of ambush,” Frank whispered to Vega, “no arguments, I can build a barrier to protect us. You get back to your army, and I’ll get Tamar.”

“Ordering a princess?” Vega turned slightly to look at Frank. “This whole Arilion Knight thing has really gone to your head.”

There was no more time for banter as the princess and Arilion Knight arrived in front of the king and queen of House Leviathan.

“I don’t know where to start,” the king said, looking at Vega. “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize the deception sooner.”

The king looked to be in his fifties, with a thick beard and short hair. An intricately carved trident sat in a sheath near his saddle.

The queen on his left was elegant, with high cheekbones and long hair that fell around her face in curls. A silver horn hung by her hip.

Both of the rulers of the Leviathan House sat atop a creature that looked like it was half horse and half bear—thick, muscled creatures with deep fur, that wore their own armor.

“The prince?” Vega asked, looking at each one of them in the eye and landing on Tamar. “Is your son safe?”

“Thanks to you, he is.” The queen shook her head, thinking on the possibility. “Tamar reached us just in time. We caught Gars red-handed, trying to sneak into our son’s room. If a few more minutes had passed he … he wouldn’t be with us now.”

“I should have come when I heard your father had been killed.” The king looked down, shaking his head. “Instead, I remained in the safety of my own castle once I knew we’d been suspected of killing him. Gars spat venom in my ear that I would be killed if I went to House Thunder in their time of grief.”

“We have both been lied to,” Vega said, refusing to place blame on the king. “What matters the most is what we do now. The past is the past. We have to learn from our mistakes and move on.”

“Tamar tells me we share a common enemy,” the king practically growled. “I have near four thousand warriors ready to draw blood, a thousand mounted on borses, and a leviathan ready to let loose. Let us enter the battlefield as we should, shoulder to shoulder.”

“Agreed,” Vega said with a smile of relief. “I have scouts out who should be returning any moment with news. The Lord of Chaos’ legion can’t be that well hidden, not with so many warriors so close.”

“And the stories are true.” The queen looked Frank over, her gaze landing on his vambraces. “The Arilion are back to fight the darkness the Lord of Chaos brings.”

Frank wasn’t sure if that was an invitation for him to speak, or a general comment. When everyone looked to him, he realized he had to say something.

“I’m ready to fight,” Frank said without blinking. “I’m still learning, but whatever strength I possess, I’ll pour into this battle until I have nothing else to give.”

This seemed to please the Leviathan king and queen. Before they could say more, a faint tremor rolled over the ground, accompanied by a rough shout as if ten thousand voices were barking at once.

“They’re here.” Tamar looked to the west. “The enemy has come to us.”


30

Everyone looked to the west, along with Tamar, but with the trees obscuring their vision a few hundred kilometers away, it was impossible to see anything.

“Infantry should form side by side in the center of the field, if that is agreeable with you.” Tamar looked to the king and queen for consent. “Cavalry unit in reserve and ready to be deployed once we see the enemies’ formation.”

“Agreed,” the queen said, urging her borse to turn around and head back to her own lines. “We’ll meet you in the middle of the field.”

Both the king and queen retreated to their lines, as did Vega, Frank, and Tamar.

“Berserker unit, rally to the princess. Everyone else, take position in the center of the field, facing west,” Tamar roared at the top of his lungs as he returned to his men and women. “We fight alongside the Leviathan House tonight. The Lord of Chaos has returned. Let’s send him back to the hell in which he belongs!”

Pandemonium ensued across the field as everyone moved to obey. Tamar continued to shout orders to his flying thunderbird unit. Frank moved with the Marines and the princess, who was now guarded by the Berserker unit as her personal guard.

In the matter of minutes, both armies had moved to stand side by side. House Thunder infantry units on the ground led by Tamar joined forces with House Leviathan. Frank stood on the front lines with the rest of the Marines.

There was nothing left to be done but wait. The ground hadn’t stopped trembling, and the barking shouts coming from the enemy came every five seconds as if they were using it as a beat to march to. The air sizzled with excitement. The fresh dew of the evening’s falling temperatures filled the air with a crisp, clean scent.

“I think I’m going to do something bad,” Raj said, looking over to Frank and Elly. Raj frantically pulled off his helmet. “Incoming!”

Raj removed his helmet at the last possible second, projectile vomiting forward onto the grass. The liquid throw up came out like water shot from a hose.

“That could have been so bad if I’d thrown up in my helmet,” Raj said, wiping his mouth with his hand. “I would have been scarred for life.”

“I think I’m scarred for life just watching that,” Elly shouted, the words coming out slightly off tone due to her change in pitch. Then Elly realized how her voice must have sounded over the comms. “Sorry.”

Elly cleared her throat and tried to say the words perfectly again without raising her voice. “I said—”

“We got you.” Frank gave her a thumbs-up. “That was perfect.”

“Let’s reign it in, Marines,” Major Lopez reminded the group. “Focus.”

“When the fighting starts, we stick together,” Colonel Breaker said. “Remember what their weapons can do. When they show themselves, we’ll deploy as needed.”

“Roger that,” a series of voices returned.

Each second that ticked by, the morale of the combined forces of the House of Thunder and Leviathan declined. Frank knew exactly what the Legion of Chaos was doing; they were inspiring fear and doubt before they even took the field. Left to its own devices, the imagination could be a horrific place. Right now, each soldier’s imagination was being allowed to wander.

Frank looked to his left, past the major and the colonel, to Vega. She stood on the frontlines, the visor on her helmet lowered, only showing her eyes. But she turned to Frank and nodded.

Though there were no words exchanged, Frank knew exactly what she meant. Right now, in the face of carnage, the warriors needed a symbol. Something to cheer for and look to, instead of being lost in their own fear and doubt.

Frank’s heart pounded wildly in his chest as he stepped forward. Frank was far from shy, but he wasn’t exactly comfortable speaking to thousands of soldiers. All eyes turned to him as he moved to address the warriors.

Major Lopez caught his eye. She was miming something.

“Just tell me,” Frank uttered over his comms. “I can’t make out all your hand gestures. Are you telling me to steal third base?”

“Use your will to construct a symbol,” Elly responded over the comms. “You’re the right man for the job, Frank. Everything that’s happened to you in life has prepared you for this moment.”

“Right,” Frank said. He channeled his newly discovered Will and wrapped his body with the purple power, creating armor constructs. As an afterthought, he created a spear with a rippling banner. On the banner were the sigils for the two houses: a thunderbird and a leviathan.

Though the ground still trembled and the shouts from the enemy raged on, Frank added his own voice to the fray.

“Your enemy comes, our enemy comes. They march on you and your brothers and your sisters. They have manipulated, lied, and laughed at you from the darkness. They come now to take your homes, your futures, your lives!” Frank shouted as loud as he could as he walked up and down the lines. “And I say, let them come. Because they do not know the ferocity of the will to survive that lives in each and every one of us! Let them come—they’ll be sorry they did!”

“Arilion Knight! Arilion Knight! Arilion Knight!” the chant started, slowly rippling through the army as Frank’s words were relayed to others out of earshot.

“I come from a place called Earth, where the very elite of our soldiers are called Marines.” Frank looked over to his unit. “We have our own war cry, it sounds like this: Oohrah! Together as one, yell it at the top of your lungs, stomp your feet, and let your weapons crash. Let them be afraid of us! Oohrah!”

“Oohrah!” the gathered force of the Houses of Thunder and Leviathan shouted in one voice. Boots stomped the ground, thunderbirds shrieked. Shields were bashed against swords and spears. “Oohrah!”

The sounds of their own chanting was beginning to drown out that of the enemy. Frank stood his ground, staying ahead of the main force, and turned to see their foe.

Despite the level of noise, Frank could hear the Berserkers guarding the princess, screaming their own war cries: “To the death! Tonight, we join our ancestors!”

Come on, guys, Frank thought. I just inspired these people. Let’s not get so dark. Some of us want to live.

Frank was trembling with the adrenaline coursing through his veins and the promise of a fight minutes away. The first wave of enemy soldiers filtered through the trees. The ground had been trembling, not due to the sheer number of the enemy, although that was a major contributing factor, but a line of power-armored mech warriors who led the charge.

The mech warriors were the same ones Frank had seen in the forest before. There were five of the mechanical beasts now. Behind their hoofed feet and horned helmets, waves of soldiers came.

These weren’t the robed enemies they had met their first night on Atmos. These enemies were clad in bulky red armor. The sigil stamped on their chest and drawn on their shields was a black flame.

Their weapons were the same—the flamethrower and plasma-type weapons, the thick machete-like swords.

There were thousands of the warriors, easily matching Frank’s force for number, but definitely holding the upper hand in firepower.

They’re not going to stand a chance unless you do something crazy. Frank eyed the weapons the enemy was already pointing at him. They’ll be cut down before they reach the frontlines.

As if someone pressed the mute button on the scene, the chanting from both sides ceased. A lone figure emerged from the ranks of the crimson red enemy troops. He wore his own red armor with the sigil of the Lord of Chaos. It was Kallion.

The former leader of the House of Thunder church sneered at Frank. He looked past his shoulder and gave the same look to Vega.

“Kill them!” he shouted to his own forces, turning back like the coward he was and returning to the rear of his army. “Kill them all.”


31

The Chaos army charged with a deafening roar. Weapon fire from their frontlines ripped open as they ran to meet their enemy.

Frank allowed the spear he was still carrying to dissipate in favor of a purple force field, ten feet high, that he placed in front of him. He extended the wall as far as he could to either side, trying to shield as many soldiers as possible.

Rounds from the enemy weapons splattered against his wall, both the plasma-like superheated rounds, as well as those that gushed a stream of flame. When the rounds struck the force field, they sent ripples of energy over the wall like a stone thrown into the water.

Shouts permeated the air as the Lord of Chaos’ soldiers bellowed in rage, firing even faster into the barrier. Likewise, shouts of courage ripped from the Neeves’ throats as they found a shield to take cover behind as they advanced.

“Ahhh!” Frank bellowed at the cost of holding up a construct this large. His arms shook; sweat was already forming on his brow and along the back of his neck. It felt like pushing a vehicle that had run out of gas, up a steep slope. “I can’t—I can’t hold it!”

“You can and you will,” Colonel Breaker said over the comms. “Push, Frank! Dig deep. We’ve got you, son! Come on, Marines, let's go!”

Frank had both his arms extended in front of him, trying to take steps to advance the barrier. He moved inches, trying to press the barrier forward despite the onslaught of weapon fire battering him back.

Colonel Breaker grabbed Frank under his left armpit. Major Lopez did the same on his right. Frank felt Elly and Raj’s hands on his back and shoulders.

“Come on, Frank,” Major Lopez said behind her helmet. “You hold the barrier, we’ll push your sorry ass forward.”

Together, the Marines pressed forward, advancing on the enemy. The soldiers from the Houses of Thunder and Leviathan pressed in close to the barrier, ready to charge as soon as they got to the enemy lines, or Frank was no longer able to hold the shield.

“Let’s help him out!” Tamar ordered from somewhere behind Frank and the Marines. “Thunderbirds, drop troops and attack!”

Frank wasn’t sure what the order meant, but he was open to receiving any help he could get at this point. His hands were quivering from the strain.

“Keep it going, Frank!” Elly yelled. “Every second you’re able to keep this up, you’re saving lives. Let’s go, come on.” The last bit slurred a little, but no one, including Elly, paid it any mind.

“We got you, you son of an Arilion Knight,” Raj screamed over the comms. “Don’t give up!”

Frank was heaving his lungs, working overtime to try to provide oxygen to his overexerted body.

Keep it going, keep it going! Frank said to himself. You’ve got more to give. There’s always more to give. You hold this, you hold this barrier. Keep going, keep going!

Frank stumbled; he wasn’t even sure his feet were touching the ground anymore. The rest of his unit was practically carrying him.

The distance between the two armies was closing, but Frank didn’t know if he could hold out the next few seconds, which could mean the difference between hundreds of their own dying from the enemy weapons fire.

“I was wrong about you, Frank,” Colonel Breaker said over the comms. The large man still held on to Frank’s shoulder, propelling him forward. “That’s not something I admit often. And if any of you bring it up, I’ll deny I ever said it. But you’re the right man for the job, Frank. You’re not money-hungry; you’re driven to succeed.”

For a moment, Frank wondered if the colonel knew he was about to pass out and decided to take his mind off what he was doing. Whatever the case, it worked.

“Do you think—do you think the Marine Corps has room for an Arilion Marine?” Frank gasped with a chuckle.

“Do we have that on record?” Major Lopez laughed. “Frank, I think you’re lightheaded.”

The unit chuckled despite their current situation. It was what Marines did in the face of adversity. Fear wasn’t an option, and neither was giving up.

Frank’s hands were falling. The dark purple shield in front of the army was beginning to fade. They had crossed nearly a hundred meters, but still another hundred remained.

Frank was beginning to see the black fingers of unconsciousness caress his peripheral vision, when the barrage of weapon fire slamming against his barrier lessened.

Soldiers were falling from the sky.

Frank shook his head, trying to focus on what he was seeing. The thunderbirds had entered the battle carrying soldiers on their backs, as well as another in their front talons.

The thunderbirds swooped down low, depositing the soldiers they carried into the frontlines of the enemy ranks. Next, they began harassing their opponents as they performed raids on the enemy.

What had been thousands of rounds striking Frank’s shield before, had now lessened by fifty percent.

“To me! To me! Riders of the deep! Our country men are dying!” The king of House Leviathan appeared next to the Marines on his steed. His trident crackled with a kind of blue electricity. “You’ve done well, Arilion Knight! Rest now.”

Frank didn’t need to be told twice. His arms fell as he sunk to his knees.

The barrier vanished, allowing both houses to charge the remaining distance toward the enemy.

The ground thundered as the king of House Leviathan led his riders, slamming into the front ranks of the Chaos Legion. Whatever his trident was made of, it shot bright cerulean electricity from its head, eviscerating soldiers left and right.

“Let’s give Frank some cover fire,” Colonel Breaker shouted as his soldiers took up positions around Frank. “Gather yourselves, Marines! This fight is far from over.”

Frank nodded, taking in deep breaths, slowing his heart rate and allowing his body a few seconds to recharge. The scene in front of him was something out of a science fiction novel. Thunderbirds clawed at armored chaos soldiers. The giant enemy power armor units battered both houses with weapon fire from their miniguns.

“We’ve got to take those powered armor units out of the fight,” Major Lopez observed. “If we can neutralize those, we have a chance.”

Frank regained his feet, wobbling as he did. He saw exactly what the major observed. In close quarters combat, the Neeve had the advantage. They would be able to hold their own against the enemy, despite their lack of firepower.

The power-armored units, however, with their force fields, were nearly untouchable. Thunderbirds swooped in, battering against their shields, to no avail. In return, the armored mech units blasted the thunderbirds out of the sky like target practice.

“It looks like their shields are stronger since our last meeting.” Colonel Breaker pointed to the closest armored unit on their right. “What do you say, Marines? I think it needs to be taken out.”

Frank followed the colonel’s line of sight, pausing to witness Vega in battle. The princess wielded a two handed great sword nearly as large as she was. She waded into the battle with the Berserkers around her, swinging her weapon with abandon.

“Are you listening to me, Frank?” Colonel Breaker broke his concentration.

“Oh, gosh. He’s gone into shock,” Raj said, grabbing Frank by the face and looking into his eyes. “Frank, Frank, can you hear me? Do you know who I am?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine.” Frank pulled his head away. “Yes, colonel, I agree, the power armor needs to be taken out. I think I have something for the job.”

Frank channeled the Will, psyching himself up by bobbing his head. “It’s too bad we don’t have any music. I could use the extra pump right about now.”

“Funny you should say that.” Elly looked over at the colonel for permission. “I may have linked our comms to a certain playlist.”

“Go ahead,” Colonel Breaker said, “if it’s going to help him. But Frank, we have to move—now.”

“Got it,” Frank said as the familiar beat of Bad to the Bone, played over his comms.

Frank clenched his jaw, willing his imagination to create the weapon he needed for the job. All around him, the purple energy swirled, forming his construct. Frank grinned as the weapon took shape in his hands. Together with the purple armor still around him, he looked like he was in his own power suit armor.


32

“What the heck is that?” Major Lopez asked. “It looks like an RPG on crack cocaine.”

“No one says ‘crack cocaine’ these days,” Frank said with a grin. “You can just say crack. And yeah, B.U.T.T.S. is working on something like this. I saw the schematics, and well … now here it is.”

“Actually, for your information, crack and cocaine are two different things,” Major Lopez corrected.

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t know,” Frank said in a judging tone.

The others were gawking at the weapon Frank held. It was a huge tube, at least ten feet long, on Frank’s right shoulder, with a sight sprouting out of the side for an aiming mechanism. A simple trigger and handle rested in his right hand.

“There’s no time to waste,” Colonel Breaker reminded the Marines. “When Frank opens fire, we can bet the enemy will target our location. When they do, we’re his defense while he takes out the power armor. Oohrah!?”

“Oohrah!” the Marines responded.

Frank aimed down the violet sight of his weapon. He zeroed in on the center of the power armor closest to their location. “Eat this.”

WHOOSH!

An ultraviolet rocket raced toward the power armor, slamming into the force field. A red rippling effect crackled around the armor as Frank sent rocket after rocket screaming toward the mech unit. They hit the target in quick succession.

Frank gritted his teeth with each shot as his still healing shoulder was jerked back with the kick of the weapon.

The third rocket broke through the force field, leaving the armor exposed. The power armor swung its horned head toward Frank, raising its minigun.

“Too late, sucker.” Frank released another rocket that hit the power armor a second later. The helmet on the power armor’s head exploded as the unit sank, first to its knees, then fell face-first onto the pink, blood-soaked ground.

A cheer from both houses filled the sky.

“Nice shooting, but we’ve got their attention now!” Raj said, pointing to the other four power armor units leveling their weapons at Frank and the rest of the Marines. “Incoming!”

Frank understood he didn’t have enough left in him to create another protective barrier, but if there was one thing the Marines had instilled in him, it was how to dig one hell of a foxhole.

An oversized shovel appeared in Frank’s hands, so large it looked comical. He had enough time to get out one deep shovel full of ground, thanks to the power of his will behind the tool.

“In, get in!” Frank yelled as he dove into the hole.

The other Marines didn’t need to be told twice. A rain of red plasma peppered the surrounding ground. Frank kept his head low, cycling through his options. The truth was, he was fatigued. It was the first time using his powers in a combat scenario after a full day of training.

He would give everything he had, but would it be enough?

The answer to his question came in the most unlikely of ways: a horn blast. Not like the horns that signaled the House of Thunder to go to war. This one was different. It was deeper, louder.

ROOOOOOOOM!

“What the heck is that?” Elly asked, keeping her head down as plasma hit the ground right behind her. “What now? Seriously! This is enough!”

Elly stood up from her spot, pulling the trigger on her gauss-powered rifle and screaming at the enemy as she peppered their ranks. A warrior’s bellow ripped from her mouth as she did. “AHHH!”

It was only when her weapon had clicked dry that she returned to her hunched position. It was a miracle she hadn’t been hit.

“Remind me never to piss you off.” Frank couldn’t help grinning.

“My freakin’ ears!” Elly began to explain. “That sound, it—”

ROOOOOOOOM!

The horn came one more time, before the ground shook and a monster’s roar reverberated through the sky. The action on the battlefield paused. The sounds of constant weapon fire and war cries ceased as all the combatants turned to look at the nightmare that approached.

Frank’s blood turned to ice water in his veins as he stood from the impromptu foxhole. Charging across the land was the leviathan he had first encountered when arriving at Atmos. The creature was apparently not contained to the water, it looked more like what Frank had seen of drawings of dragons.

The elongated neck came down attached to a thick body covered in scales, seaweed, and barnacles, with wide, webbed feet galloping across the land, sending tremors into the ground. The body was as long as a blimp, the paws as large as cars.

Frank took a deep breath, wondering if there was any way he could construct his own mech warrior to combat the beast.

ROOOOOOM!

The horn came one last time, answered by the creature’s roar. Frank turned to see the queen of House Leviathan lower a silver horn from her lips. She looked to Frank with a wink.

Frank felt a wave of relief as he realized the leviathan was an ally, not an enemy.

“Lucky for you, we don’t have to go round two.” Frank smirked at the leviathan as shouts of warning came from the Chaos soldiers.

The suits of power armor now lost all interest in the Marines. Instead, the enemy reformed ranks with the four remaining power armor units, concentrating their fire on the charging leviathan.

The hard scales of the monster was enough to hold the first wave of fire from penetrating its hide. For how long the wet scales could endure against the barrage was yet to be seen.

“Let’s go!” Colonel Breaker shouted as the leviathan thundered by. “Push the attack. We can break them right here.”

Frank found himself running alongside the Marines as they fired their gauss-powered weapon at the enemy. Frank joined in, constructing his own gauss rifle and bombarding the aliens in front of him. Purple- and red-laced rounds assailed the egomaniacal enemy before them.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The leviathan crushed the first suit of power armor before reaching down with its massive jaws and chomping on a second. There was a deep wound on its snout where Frank had injured it days before. A yellow eye found Frank and glared at him as if telling him, “Hey, I remember you.”

The fight was already over and the enemy was beginning to realize they had lost. Some were even beginning to break and run. Frank was about to move with the rest of the Marines and bombard the force field on one of the last two suits of power armor, when a certain bald head in the mass of swirling red caught his eye.

Kallion was trying to rally his troops for another push. He was screaming at them to turn and fight.

“I have Kallion,” Frank said over the comms. “Permission to pursue?”

“Go, finish this,” Colonel Breaker yelled back.

Frank fought his way forward through the thinning lines of enemy soldiers. He took one chaos soldier right through the eyes; his purple ammunition punctured the red helmet and whatever alien was underneath.

The best thing about his Arilion-constructed weapon was that it didn’t need to be charged or reloaded.

Frank let off another three rounds, catching an enemy in the chest. A moment later, he constructed a shield on his left arm, sheltering himself from a flamethrower blast. He returned a series of short bursts of his own, turning the soldier into Swiss cheese.

“This isn’t over, you impostor,” Kallion said, standing in front of Frank. “You’re no Arilion Knight.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Frank leveled his weapon at Kallion’s chest. “But I know I’m a Marine, and that’s more than enough.”

“You will all die. This was just a taste of the true power of—”

Frank had heard enough. He put a round through Kallion’s left lung.

BOOM!

Kallion sunk to the ground still muttering, “You’re already dead, you’re already dead…”

“Not yet.” Vega appeared by Frank’s side, spattered in blood. She still carried her great sword. “But today, you pay for what you’ve done to my family.”

Frank lowered his weapon, allowing Vega her moment of vengeance.

“He’s coming. The Lord of Chaos comes, and there is nothing you can do.” Kallion pressed a hand to his bleeding side. “He comes for the universe.”

“Then we’ll be ready,” Vega said, swinging her sword down and severing Kallion’s skull in two equal parts.

Frank wasn’t the squeamish type, but even he wanted to look away as Vega planted her boot in the corpse’s chest and pulled her sword free.

All around the battlefield, the last of the enemy soldiers were fleeing into the forest. Cheers of victory filled the air.

Frank was happy the battle was over, but he understood the war had just begun.


33

The conflict had taken place overnight. The sun was beginning to rise as Frank and the others were taken back to the castle and to the sphere that Vega had promised them use of once the battle was over.

Frank felt like a zombie. An exhausted, hungry zombie. But Colonel Breaker refused to take another moment of rest. If the sphere was accessible to them now, then they needed to get back to The Den and give a full report on what had transpired here.

The thunderbirds deposited the Marines, along with Vega, back to the castle grounds. A quick trip inside the castle led them to the meeting hall where Heron stood ready for them. He had brought the sphere, which now hovered in place. He was in the process of turning the different sections and locking in the coordinates for Earth.

“It’s so good to see you all,” Heron said with a childlike grin. “Vega sent word ahead about the importance of your need to return to your home. Elly, if you would assist me with the symbols on the sphere designated for Earth?”

Elly said her goodbyes to Vega before moving to assist Heron. Frank waited as the princess said her farewells to Raj and Major Lopez. Colonel Breaker was next.

“There’s a lot we have to learn from each other.” Colonel Breaker offered his hand. Vega accepted it with her own. “Once we get back to our world and debrief, we’ll be back. With your permission, of course. We’ll need each other’s help to battle this Lord of Chaos.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Vega said, looking over to Heron. “That’s why I want Heron to go with you. He can teach you about the sphere, the gateway, and continue to instruct Frank on the ways of the Arilion.”

“I am so excited and happy to go with you.” Heron peeked up from his spot next to the sphere. He pointed to the corner of the room where a mountain of books and a large pack sat. “If you wouldn’t mind helping me with my belongings. I’ve packed light.”

“Thank you,” Colonel Breaker said with a smile. “He’ll be able to teach us so much. I can’t imagine we’ll be gone for more than a few days before you hear from us.”

A light hum reached everyone’s ears as Elly and Heron locked in the last symbol. The sphere projected the gateway on the far wall. A moment later, the same thick fog appeared, changing every color of the spectrum.

“Come on, let’s go.” Colonel Breaker moved to help Heron with his books. “Everyone lend a hand through the gateway.”

Frank stood by Vega as Heron looked at Frank with concern in his eyes. His nose was barely visible over the pile of books he carried. “Frank, aren’t you coming?”

Raj whispered something in his ear, inclining his head toward Frank and the princess.

“Oh. Oh, my,” Heron said, nodding and following the rest of the Marines through the gateway. A moment later, Frank and Vega were alone.

“So,” Frank said searching for the right words.

“So, yourself.” Vega still wore her armor. Her boots made her nearly as tall as Frank. “Go, but don’t be gone for too long. I like having an Arilion Knight around.”

“Yeah, I was thinking when you come and visit me on Earth, or I come back, maybe we can go out on a date?” Frank asked with no idea if princesses from Atmos were allowed to go on dates.

“Date?” Vega cocked her head and raised her brow. “I don’t understand.”

“You know…” Frank cursed the translator for not catching the right term. “Like, go out to dinner together.”

“Oh, like a meal with friends?” Vega said, still confused. “Should I invite Tamar? We’ll have another banquet.”

“No … no, not like that. It would be just you and me, and—”

Vega grabbed Frank around the collar and drew him in close. Her lips pressed hard against his. A lightheadedness took over Frank before she released him.

“I know what the word ‘date’ means.” Vega gave him a mischievous smile. “Go, and come back quickly. I’ll be waiting for that date.”

Frank wasn’t sure how, but he knew Vega was different from any other woman he had known. Not just because she was an alien, or a princess, but because she was Vega.

“I’ll see you soon,” Frank said as he walked through the gateway.

The experience was just like when he’d arrived on Atmos. Thick fog so dense he couldn’t see more than a foot in front of him, followed by its eventual dissipation and the change of floor beneath his boots. The chill grazed his face. Once-smooth stone at the castle and now the floor tipped down as he re-entered The Den and the ramp that lowered to the ground.

Frank blinked, remembering the underground room where the gateway resided, the turrets, and the Marines guarding the gateway, and the scientists wearing their lab coats. He was back.

“Aw, there he is.” Heron moved to the sphere, turning a few symbols and powering down the device. “That should do it.”

Colonel Breaker was already in a deep conversation with General Fox. Major Lopez and Raj removed their helmets and reassured the scientists and soldiers that Heron was a friend.

“And that’s how you turn it off,” Heron instructed Elly.

The gateway projected by the sphere vanished a moment later.

Frank walked down the ramp to Heron and Elly.

“Now where should I put my books?” Heron asked, rolling his eyes and smacking his hand against his forehead. “Oh no, I forgot my toothbrush. I knew I was forgetting something. I always forget something.”

“I’m sure the US government can find you a tooth—”

Elly’s next words were cut off as the gateway sprung to life once more. The symbols that lined the perimeter of the arch glowed to life. They were an entirely new configuration.

“Heron.” Colonel Breaker looked to the historian. “Power down the sphere, please.”

“I can’t.” Heron motioned to the sphere. “I didn’t touch it. The gateway is being opened from the other side. It’s not from Atmos, either.”

Before anyone could comprehend what Heron was saying, someone floated through the gateway. It was a muscular, green-skinned woman with a patch over her left eye. Two blasts from her own purple vambraces annihilated the turrets standing guard from the viewing room above.

BAM! BAM!

The granite-and-cement cave echoed with the blasts. Soldiers lifted their weapons in her direction. The alien hit the entire room with a concussive blast, just like Frank had used on the Berserkers. A wave of purple energy took everyone off his or her feet, including Frank.

Frank struggled to stand, trying to make sense of what was happening. A ringing in his ears kept him from hearing anything except for what the alien woman said as she floated toward him.

“Frank Wolffe.” She sneered. “Did you think we wouldn’t know? Did you think you were the only one?”

Gateway to the Galaxy Universe: The Complete Military Space Opera Series (Books 1 - 9)

End Book One


Always Forward Book Two of the Gateway to the Galaxy Series


Acknowledgments


If you think this book is awesome at all it’s only because I have a pack of rabid ARC Wolves, a wonderful editor and a talented cover artist. Thank you for your help.

ARC WOLVES

Kelly

Athena

Wayne

Eagle Eyes

Lois

Editor - Beth

Cover Illustrator - JCaleb











To Leo, Wayne, Babs, Lois, Athena and Kelly. You’re the best wolves a pack could ask for.

-Jonathan Yanez

For those who've yet to lose their sense of wonder; who look beyond the stars in hopes and dreams of more; who never give up the fight on possibilities. For those who won't be blinded by the light. You know who this is for.

- JR Castle


1

“Lady, I don’t know who you are, how you know my name, or why there’re horns growing out of your head,” Frank said, pushing past the fatigue that reached every inch of his body. His ears were still ringing from the concussion blast. “But I’ve just had one heck of a road trip. You do not want to push me right now.”

The green-scaled alien touched down on the stark cement in front of Frank. Her one good eye looked him over like an apex predator examining its prey. Her dark hair gathered between her horns like a Mohawk before falling behind her head in a thick braid. She wore dark leather vest and pants over her physique, sculpted from endless hours of training.

“You don’t look like much for an Arilion Knight,” she said through snarled lips; her disapproval clear on her face.

“Yeah, well, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” Frank stood up, preparing himself for yet another fight. Even when he stood, he was still a good six inches shorter than the lizard-scaled woman. At least he figured she was a woman by the curve of her hips, waist, and modest bosom. “Well, we going to do this or what?”

“You’re coming with me.” The woman formed a purple shield in her left hand and a set of manacles in the other using her Will. “You have a duty to perform.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Frank could see the other Marines in the room struggling to their feet from heaps and prone positions scattered in the expansive room carved into the dam and canyon. In moments, they would be ready to help.

“I’m not going anywhere except to bed and then maybe to Starbucks.” Frank willed a gauss rifle construct into his hands. He narrowed down the sights at the advancing alien.

“Insolent fool!” The woman charged forward from the gateway. “You will come with me whether you like it or not.”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Frank opened up with a series of blackish violet rounds that streaked from his rifle toward the approaching alien.

She lifted her shield, blocking the incoming rounds. A sharp “pinging” sound came every time a round struck her shield. She was on top of Frank so fast he didn’t have time to transition to another weapon before she hammered into him with her shield.

Whether it was his lack of sleep, the exhaustion, or she was actually that fast, Frank wasn’t sure. All he knew was that he was being bullied backward by the woman. Her crest shield pressed against his chest. His boots lost traction on the sleek floor beneath him. He was forced to give ground.

With her free clawed hand, the alien latched Frank’s left arm with one of the manacles. The cold purple construct clamped on to his wrist so hard, Frank thought he was going to lose blood flow to the appendage.

Frank constructed the first thing to come to mind at that moment. A laser sword appeared in his right hand. A moment later, he severed the chain holding him prisoner. He created separation by pushing her back, driving his shoulder into her, then placed a boot in the woman’s shield smack in the middle of the winged inlay, forcing her even further back. He traded out his sword for a pair of thin boxing gloves.

“Stubborn, but as an Arilion Knight, I should have guessed as much.” The alien woman allowed her shield to evaporate, also placing purple gloves on her fists. “I approve of your weapons of choice.”

“Frank.” Colonel Breaker’s voice interrupted the battle taking place in the underground chamber. “Give us a clear shot.”

Frank looked over to where the other Marines had gathered themselves, taking up firing positions on the alien. He also knew how powerful this distant visitor was. She could create a force field around her, allowing her to wreak havoc on the Marines while rendering their own weapons useless. Their best chance right now was Frank.

“I’ve got this,” Frank said, bounce-stepping and rolling his head on his shoulder, trying to shake off some of the tension. He extended a hand and beckoned for the alien to approach by waving his fingers forward. “Come on, bring it.”

“You humans are so cocky,” the reptilian woman said, squaring her shoulders, looking down to him, and stomping forward. “If we were not on the same side, I would have already killed you.”

“We’re on the same side?” Frank asked, confused.

There was no reply from the alien warrior as she advanced. What ensued next was a series of strikes Frank and the woman traded that had less to do with technique and more to do with power. Frank gave as good as he was given. A blow to his ribs doubled him over, while a strike across his jaw split his lip.

The combatants traded a torrent of blows with one another in a flurry of purple-blurred wallops. A swing to a gut was answered by a jab to the ribs. Dodge. Slam. Dig. Belt. Frank was certain he broke something inside the alien’s nose when lime-green blood oozed from the slits that were her nostrils. He hammered her with a kidney punch that would have felled an ox. She remained on her feet.

A few moments later, both gladiators stood heaving, examining each other for their next opening. They were like two heavyweight boxers in the ninth round of the match.

“You’re a blunt instrument,” the alien woman said, spitting blood. “But you can be trained.”

“We really need to define our relationship here,” Frank said, wincing as he drew in breath through heaving lungs. “Are we enemies or is this some kind of weird hazing ritual?”

Instead of answering, she feigned with a punch before tackling Frank and driving him to the ground. Pain exploded in Frank’s chest as he was slammed to the cold ground.

He didn’t even attempt to halt the momentum the alien had initiated; Frank went with it as he crashed into the ground and rolled to the left. Leveraging the inertia, he straddled the alien woman, grabbing on to her left arm and wrapping her chest with his legs, nailing her down with an arm bar. His whole body wrapped around her single limb. He forced her elbow and shoulder to their breaking point.

“Enough,” the alien ordered.

Upon her voice command, Frank let go of her appendage without thinking twice. He stood from the ground, wiping at a line of blood that fell down the right corner of his lip.

“My name is Sava Sargard. I am an Arilion Knight and I have come here to take you back to my planet and train you in the way of our order,” Sava said, speaking to everyone but looking only to Frank. “Time is short; the enemy is at our doorstep.”

“You could have started with all of this,” Frank said, shaking his head and already feeling a wave of new bruises forming over his tired torso. Deep within, he knew she was telling the truth. Whether it was his own intuition or the Will he now was able to channel, he wasn’t sure. “You didn’t have to take the nuclear option here. We could have talked about this.”

“Talking rarely gets results. Politicians talk. We are warriors; we act.” Sava lowered her hands. She looked over to the group of Marines that trained their rifles on her and Heron, who looked like he was going to burst with questions. “Lower your weapons, soldiers of Earth. It is not me who you need fear.”

When the Marines kept their gauss rifles and M4A16s pointed at Sava, she turned to Frank for guidance.

“Hey, don’t look at me,” Frank waved off her stare. “I don’t give the orders around here.”

“Hold your fire,” General Fox said as ranks of Marines made way for him to pass through. His steps steady, he strode toward the Knights, not missing a beat. If he was worried about the situation they found themselves in now, he didn’t show it. The weathered Marine stared down Sava with no hint of being intimidated. “I need to know who you are and your intentions. Until then, we look at you down the barrel of our weapons.”

“As I stated, my name is Sava Sargard. I come from a planet called Brytanna, where we have taken the brunt of the Chaos Lord’s blows for too long while you humans and the rest of the universe remain safe in your beds.” Sava bristled, narrowing her eyes. “When I discovered there was another Arilion Knight, I made all haste to come and recruit him. As Arilions, we carry a burden to fight the darkness.”

“I need to know you’re not going to try anything with those purple weapons of yours. You’re lucky none of my Marines were injured during your little performance when you arrived.” General Fox looked up at Sava. Her green and towering frame did nothing to impact the seasoned soldier. Frank got the sense that General Fox had faced the mercenary of death on more than one occasion and stared him down and won. “If you are an ally, then act like one.”

Sava’s upper lip rose in a sneer, but she managed to beat back her anger. She cleared her throat a moment later. “I apologize. If I seem blunt, it would be because there is no time to banter or debate. I needed to know Frank was an Arilion Knight and now I need to take him back to my planet to fight. We may have a chance now that two Arilion Knights have been called.”

Colonel Breaker appeared at the general’s side and whispered something into his ear. The general nodded without saying anything. Instead, he turned back to Sava.

“It appears we all need to get on the same page here,” the general said, turning to Frank. “You have it in you for a briefing? You look dead on your feet.”

“If you have some kind of caffeine stimulant, I can make it,” Frank said, blinking to try and keep his eyes open. “I want to know what this crocodile is talking about too.”

Sava raised her eyebrow at Frank at the mention of her, but it was clear she didn’t understand the term. “If that was an insult, Frank, Arilion Knight or not, you will be paid for your jab in pain.”

“Don’t threaten me with a good time,” Frank said, looking to the general for orders. “Where do you want us?”


2

A strange group made up of Marine SpaceCorps One, Heron, Sava, and General Fox all made their way through the Den. The sound of their collected steps echoed in the hall with swift, long movements mixed with tired or short scampering. General Fox took the lead with Colonel Breaker speaking quickly into his ear.

Major Lopez walked with her gauss-powered Punisher GS2000 in her hands behind Sava along with Elly and Raj. Frank strode alongside the major, ready to jump into action if Sava was going to make a play to turn traitor. He knew she wouldn’t. They shared an unseen link that soothed his worries, gave him reassurance.

Sava took long strides with Heron by her side. He double-timed his steps to keep up with her, his feet nearly catching in the long fabric of his robe. The Neeve historian spat out questions as fast as he could get answers. Frank listened in.

“You said you were from Brytanna?” Heron asked. He looked like a child compared to Sava’s muscular six and a half foot frame. “You’re a Draconian, aren’t you?”

“I am,” Sava said without even looking at Heron. “How did you know that?”

“It’s my job to know,” Heron said, skipping along the cement floor. “When were you chosen as an Arilion Knight?”

“I don’t wish to repeat myself, Neeve,” Sava said as the group reached a set of steel doors. “I’ll tell everyone once.”

General Fox placed his hand on a scanner alongside the door. A light hiss sounded as the metal doors slid open. The group entered a room with recessed lights fitted into the ceiling that turned on as soon as they sensed motion.

An oval mahogany table sat in the middle of the sparsely decorated room. A closed media cabinet sat on the left while a map of the known universe hung on the right.

Frank noticed both the general and the colonel kept their hands close to the sidearms resting on their waists. It was clear they were willing to give Sava a chance but not much more than that.

General Fox motioned them to sit.

Frank took a spot between Sava and a wide-eyed Elly. If something were to go down, he wanted to be close to their alien visitor. His weapons were the only ones that would do any good in a fight with her.

“I have more questions than I can count.” General Fox leaned forward in his chair. “Even with Colonel Breaker getting me up to speed. Sava, I can see you’re in a hurry to get back to your world but we’re new to all of this intergalactic travel. I want you to tell me from the beginning who you are and what you need from us.”

Sava licked the green blood that was beginning to dry on her upper lip. The wounds she suffered from Frank in their fight didn’t seem to faze her in the slightest.

“Brytanna, the planet I come from, is on the edge of the known universe. For the last two years, we’ve heard whispers in the night, murmurs of an evil growing in the dark. My people have listened and prepared. Still, we are no match for him alone.” Sava stared down at the table and her shoulders slackened for a moment, for the first time exuding anything save strength. She looked tired, beaten but not broken. “Then, months ago, he came. The Lord of Chaos who was defeated all those years past, it seems he was never killed. He has been growing in strength in the darkness. Now he’s making his move.”

“You were attacked?” Major Lopez pressed for more information. “I mean, your planet was attacked, wasn’t it?”

“Attacked is a polite way of putting it. The Lord of Chaos and his legions are ravaging us. Our numbers are only a fraction of what they once were.” Sava looked up, turning her head to match her yellow eyes with each person sitting at the table. She stopped at Frank. “But as long as a Draconian draws breath, he will never defeat us. We stand despite our thinning numbers and we fight.”

“If I may?” Heron spoke up, pointing to Sava’s vambraces. “When did you discover you were an Arilion Knight?”

“Five years almost to the day,” Sava answered as if she were expecting the question. “I’ve trained religiously, knowing I was chosen for a reason and that reason would soon be revealed. When the Lord of Chaos made his move, I was ready, but… but there are hundreds of thousands of Chaos soldiers, not to mention the power armor they bring and his own personal Blood Guard. I fight day and night, though it is not enough. It is never enough.”

Sava wasn’t looking anyone in the eye now. The muscles under her jawline twinged and jumped with pressure. Frank understood how she must feel, to be powerful but not powerful enough. To be the only one able to wield the power yielded from the vambraces, to fight day after day without end, must have been a lonely burden, and must have wreaked havoc on her chi.

“When the vambraces chose Frank, I knew there was another,” Sava continued her story. “Something I can’t explain called to me. It directed me here through our own sphere.”

“How is it that you speak English?” Elly blurted out like she couldn’t hold in the question any longer. “I know I can understand because of our module, but the general and… I mean, seriously, is no one else thinking that here?”

“The thought passed my mind,” Raj said from his seat, nodding along slowly.

“We have our own internal implants that allow us to hear and speak different languages,” Sava growled as if the question annoyed her. “Now I’ve given you all of your answers. We need to return to Brytanna. The planet is our first best hope of stopping the Chaos Lord’s march on the universe. With another Arilion Knight entering the fight, we can turn the tide of battle.”

Sava closed her mouth with a click of sharp teeth. Her yellow eyes turned to General Fox.

Everyone in the room followed her gaze. The general leaned back in his chair. He had a stern look of his own on his face. He was lost deep in thought. The pointer finger from his right hand tapped a steady beat on the table.

“If everything you’re saying is true, then yes, we’ll help you.” General Fox looked over to Heron. “Heron, I understand we have yet to formally meet but Colonel Breaker tells me you’re a historian of the universe.”

“Yes, that’s right,” the old Neeve said, sitting up straighter in his seat. “I can confirm Sava’s story as far as Brytanna. The planet is indeed found at the edge of the universe. They are a warrior species known for being forthcoming; there is no room for lies or manipulations in the time of battle. Centuries before, the Lord of Chaos emerged with his Legion, reaching toward the rim of the known universe to pick off peoples and grow his following. Where he is from is not known for certain. Some say he was born from hell itself, some say he’s the offspring of two races gone wrong, others think he’s a power-hungry middle child. During the first Chaos War, it was a Draconian who established the Arilion Knights and led the charge into battle.”

“Saber Sargard,” Sava said, nodding toward Heron, appreciating the acknowledgment. “I am his descendent and I will lead as he did to whatever end.”

As much as Frank wanted to stay awake, after a night out spying with Princess Vega, a full day of training, and then fighting through the night once more, the pull for sleep was too strong.

He felt his eyes close and his chin tilt forward. He wasn’t sure how long he was out. It had to be a matter of seconds.

“Frank,” Colonel Breaker called just below a shout. By the way he said Frank’s name, it was clear this was not the first time he had called him. “Frank, wake up.”

“I can still win the spelling bee, advantageous.” Frank jerked his head up, blinking at everyone. “Oh, it wasn’t a dream after all.”

“As you can see, our people have just returned from an off-world visit,” General Fox said, looking to Sava. “We are going to help you but even you can understand that, with no sleep, they’re not going to be any good in a fight. Give us a few days. We’ll go over details and come up with a strategy. I’ll send a unit back with you to your world.”

“A few days?” Sava jumped from her seat, placing her giant hands on the table and shaking her head from side to side. “My people burn and die by the hour–especially with me gone. We must go as soon as possible.”

“I hear you.” General Fox relaxed the grip on the handle of his weapon. Although he had not drawn his Kimber 1911, Frank understood he was less than a quick second away. “Give me a day then. Give us a day to grab some sleep and form a plan. You as a warrior understand the importance of solid tactics.”

Sava licked a thin tongue over her lips as if she were deep in thought. “I agree. One day. Then we depart.”

“Frank, get some rest; you’re depressing me,” General Fox commanded. “Everyone else, I’d like a debriefing report before you go. Then I’ll meet with Heron and Sava, if that is agreeable with you two?”

“Oh, yes I can’t wait,” Heron said, rubbing his hands together. “I’d like to hear all about this coffee Frank keeps talking about. I hope I pronounced that right.”

“Major, show Frank where he can pass out for a few hours and then rejoin us,” General Fox directed the major.

“Of course, sir.” Major Lopez stood from her seat, waiting at the door for Frank to follow.

Frank rose from his seat, only to feel Sava’s vise-like grip on his right arm.

“Rest well; there will be no comfort for you once we engage the Lord of Chaos,” Sava warned with solemn eyes.

“Great, now I’m going to have nightmares.” Frank jerked his arm free. “I’ll see you all on the other side.”


3

“I was kind of surprised when the general offered you sleep, but you do look like death,” Major Lopez said with a sideways smile in the elevator as they were lowered deeper into the secret underground bunker. “I bet Colonel Breaker suggested that to him after seeing you fight through the night.”

“We all fought through the night,” Frank sighed, remembering the previous night’s events. “We’re all tired.”

“Yeah, but we didn’t train all day with magical gauntlets or steal away the night before with an alien princess,” Major Lopez ribbed as the steel box lowered them smoothly below. “What happened between you two anyway? You have a girlfriend now?”

“A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.”

“I don’t see any of those here.”

“Good call,” Frank said with a grin and a yawn. “I don’t know what we are. I guess that mystery will have to wait until next time we visit Atmos. Hey, how big is this military bunker anyway?”

Frank concentrated on the bright row of floor numbers on the elevator control panel. There were twenty floors displayed. It wouldn’t surprise Frank if there were even more than that remained hidden to all except a select few.

“It’s a city underground.” Major Lopez shrugged as the elevator came to a halt. The doors slid open. “We have our own floor for chow, PT, bunks, storage and weapons range, and more for the civilian scientists working here.”

Frank let out a low whistle as they walked down a long hall featuring doors to their right, each opening up into large rooms with bunks. To the left were washrooms with enough showers and heads to keep an army clean and relieved.

“This is you.” Major Lopez led Frank to the end of the hall and turned right at the T intersection. Another row of rooms on their left marked the chambers of higher ranking Marines. The major opened the first door. “Welcome back to the Corps.”

Frank looked into the tiny room. There was enough floor space for a twin-sized bed, a three drawer-dresser, and a small desk with a chair.

“This looks great,” Frank said, entering the room and throwing himself face first on the bed. “I could sleep on a leviathan right now.”

“Too soon.” Major Lopez shut the door.

Frank was out in seconds. To his relief, no dreams came with this sleep; just the complete and utter blackness of giving in to exhaustion.

Underground with no windows to tell the position of sun or moon, it was impossible for Frank to know how many hours he had slept. All he knew was at some point through the night, he had kicked off his boots.

Vaguely, he remembered removing the vambraces from his forearms. The dark purple glow had made it hard to sleep, like a child’s night light too close to his face.

Frank smacked his dry mouth and looked for water when he again heard the shout that had initially woken him come once again. It came through the wall to the right of his room. Frank lay in his bed staring up into the darkness, listening for it one more time.

If this place is haunted on top of there being intergalactic travel, I’m out, Frank thought to himself. Really, an Arilion Knight can only take so much.

The sound came again. It was more like a tortured cry. Frank rose from his bed, reaching for the vambraces on the floor. He slipped them on, not bothering with his shoes.

When he opened the door to his room, bright lights from the hall assaulted his retinas; he blinked in an effort to adjust his pupils. Frank could smell himself. The showers called to him, whispering that whatever was going on wasn’t his problem. His stomach growled, reminding him that the last time he had eaten was on Atmos.

Still, there was something familiar about the sound. Frank reached the closed door next to his own room. He leaned in closer, listening for the cry.

It came again, this time like a wounded animal.

Frank reached for the Will, channeling a shield around him. Without wasting another second, he opened the door in front of him.

It was a room exactly like his own, except for the photos of a handsome woman with the colonel, a young man in a graduation cap, and a group of Marines. Colonel Breaker lay on his bed in white boxers and dog tags. He was sweating as he wrestled with the nightmare plaguing him that night.

“Colonel,” Frank said from the doorway. “Colonel, wake up; you’re having a dream.”

Thick beads of sweat showed across the colonel’s tense body as he turned back and forth, moaning something now. Frank could barely make it out.

“No—Sam—get back—they’re dead—they’re all dead.”

Frank couldn’t leave him like that. He released the construct protecting him and strode into the room. He placed a hand on the colonel’s bulky shoulder, gently shaking him. “Hey, you got to wake up.”

The reaction was instant. Colonel Breaker reached under his pillow for the standard issued Marine Ka-bar. In the next heartbeat, he launched himself at Frank, slashing for his throat.

Frank backpedaled, tripping as both men went to the floor. Frank constructed the first thing that came to mind, a net. A purple net caught the colonel as he reached out with the knife. The weapon stopped inches from Frank’s throat in the violet glow of the otherwise dark room.

“Hey, Colonel, can you hear me?” Frank said, forcing the net back as he rose to his feet. “It’s me; you were just having a nightmare.”

Colonel Breaker stopped struggling. He blinked a few times, trying to bring a hand up to wipe the sweat from his face. The net still holding him refused him this act.

“Frank—I was—I—did I hurt you?” the colonel asked, looking down at the combat knife he still clutched in his hand.

“No, you didn’t.” Frank lowered the colonel to his bed and allowed the net to dissipate. “Must have been one hell of a nightmare. Were you stuck at the DMV or were they all out of pumpkin spice latte at the coffee house?”

“No—no nothing like that.” Colonel Breaker placed his Ka-bar on the bed and looked at his watch. “We better get going. Showers and chow, and I’ll have the major come get you in twenty minutes.”

Frank was about to leave the room. He had used comedy to dance around the very real issue of PTSD he understood the colonel was suffering from. Frank took a closer look at the pictures around the room. They showed a very different Colonel Solomon Breaker than the one Frank knew. He was smiling with his arms around other Marines, throwing up peace signs and thumbs-ups. There was a light in his eyes that Frank did not see in the man before him.

“I know we still aren’t that close or anything,” Frank said, looking back at the colonel as the muscular man dressed in his dark fatigues. “But I also know I can’t just walk out that door and pretend everything’s fine.”

“You going to offer to talk to me or hear my deepest, darkest woes?” Colonel Breaker paused, buttoning up his shirt to raise an eyebrow at Frank. “I tried going to a counselor, even attended a few of those meetings for military members suffering from PTSD. I quit after a few rounds. There was an ex-Army officer there complaining about his kids. He was going on and on how they were misbehaved and some other nonsense I don’t have time to listen to. The point is, I don’t suffer from what they suffer from. I’m an old war dog who’s seen more than most can imagine. All my kids have died in the field.”

“You fear being alone the most because that’s when your mind has time to wander,” Frank said, leaning against the doorframe leading from the colonel’s room. “What most people don’t understand is that rest is the worst thing you can do when you have memories branded into your thoughts of brothers bleeding out beside you. How hearing any helicopters overhead takes you right back.”

The room was quiet. Each man thought on Frank’s words, weighing the truth there was to be found there.

“Exactly.” Colonel Breaker stared at the pictures on the wall.

“Four years in the Marines and a stint with the Raiders was enough to scar a few memories nice and deep.” Frank let out a long breath as images of friends and brothers lost during his own time in the military raced past his thoughts. “It’s not my place to tell you what to do. You’re a colonel, but if we were friends, I’d tell you that you aren’t alone, and if you ever did need an ear to listen… you could go talk to Elly or Raj.”

A grin spread over Colonel Breaker’s lips. “I heard Elly and Raj are good listeners.”

Frank nodded, then left the room for his own quarters, the brief conversation already bringing memories from his own past from the pit of his stomach, past the mask of sarcasm, and burning in the front of his mind.


4

Stepping into the hot shower felt like stepping into a new body. Frank didn’t realize how dirty he was or how wonderful the refreshing and unwinding of a dozen tiny jets of water against his body would feel.

He had more scratches and bruises than he thought. His body was sore, but no serious injuries hindered his movements. There was no one else in the shower area; either he was way late or super early. Either way, it was okay with him having the locker room to himself.

Frank had to force himself to turn off the steaming shower spout. He probably could have spent an additional ten minutes in the shower if he had his own way. For a final moment, he allowed the cleansing waters to drench his head, roll down his face and shoulders, and down his back to the drain below, taking the past few days of loss, betrayal, and battle with it.

“Wow, full frontal,” Major Lopez said, interrupting his moment and tossing Frank a towel. “Got some clothes for you that you’re going to love.”

Frank grabbed the towel out of the air, patting himself dry as he followed the major out of the shower section and to the adjoining locker room. The room was wide with aisles of beige portable lockers and thick maple finished benches.

“You didn’t strike me as the shy type.” Frank wrapped the too-small towel around his waist. “I know I’m not.”

“I’m not shy, just offering you some privacy that you’re clearly not interested in.” Major Lopez pointed to a stack of neatly folded charcoal and grey utility uniforms. They matched her own, a pair of hot black Danner Reckonings with charcoal and grey trousers. A black belt, standard issue skivvy undershirt, and blouse. The good old Eagle, Globe, and Anchor stared back at him.

“Here we go again,” Frank said, dropping his towel and beginning the act of dressing. “I’m back in the Marines, aren’t I? I mean, all I’m missing is just the signature to make it official.”

“You said it, not me,” Major Lopez answered.

While Frank dressed, he noticed the major go over to a mirror and dab at the makeup she had placed on the burn scar that ran down the left side of her face, the souvenir from Atmos, courtesy of their first encounter with the Chaos Legionnaires.

She hadn’t made a big deal of her injury when it happened or since, but Frank could surmise it bothered someone like her, even if she wouldn’t admit it. The major was attractive in every sense of the word. Her curvy shape, full lips, and big brown eyes were enough for any man to look twice.

“You can probably get that removed,” Frank said as he took a seat on a bench and laced his boots. “I mean, I know right now you probably can’t get time off since the Lord of Chaos is coming and all, but when this is all over.”

“It’s silly,” Major Lopez turned from the mirror. “Stupid thoughts really, I should be concentrating on how our engagement plans look like not what I look like.”

“I get it,” Frank sighed, tucking in his undershirt. “It takes a lot of work to look as good as we do. I mean, this just doesn’t happen.”

“Are you ever serious?” Major Lopez rolled her eyes and headed for the elevator.

“I try not to be, but every once in a while, it still manages to happen,” Frank said, following her as he ran his fingers through his still damp hair before strapping on his vambraces. “Food? My stomach feels like an empty grave.”

“Yeah, we’ll hit the mess hall floor before we go to meet the rest of the unit.” Major Lopez glanced at the ebony watch on her left wrist. “We’ll have to pack it in. We only have a few minutes until the briefing starts.”

“Say no more,” Frank said, nodding to a pair of Marines that gawked at his glowing vambraces as they passed. “Hello, humans.”

They looked at one another in disbelief as Frank and the major passed them.

“You shouldn’t tease like that.” Major Lopez chuckled. “They’re really going to think you’re an alien.”

“I can live with that,” Frank said, remembering the last conversation he had had with his employer before he handed over his own comm watch. “Do you think I can use a computer while I’m here?”

“Frank, we’re about to embark on a journey to another alien world that’s under attack by an ancient evil known as the Lord of Chaos.” Major Lopez paused to let the words sink in. The pair reached the reflective steel elevator doors. She pressed the button to go up. “What can be so important that you need a computer? Got to check your profile on match.com?”

“Close; need to make sure my employer knows that I’m back and deposited my funds as promised,” Frank said as the elevator doors slid open and he and the major entered the steel box. “I have responsibilities outside of this. Payments still need to be made, the world keeps running.”

“You’re incredible.” The major rolled her eyes as she pressed the circular button for their floor. “Intergalactic war is at our doorstep and you’re worried about paying your rent and cable bill.”

Frank didn’t feel like he owed the major an explanation. It was none of her business that his money went to take care of his mother, who had fallen into a coma, and his father, who was too old to work despite the fact that he still had to make ends meet. They had no retirement funds and hardly enough money to meet their needs living paycheck to paycheck.

“Whatever.” Frank shrugged as the elevator moved to take them to the chow level. “Not all of us went to a fancy college and officer training school.”

“What would make you say that?”

“The way you carry yourself, intuition.” Frank again shrugged. “I’ve known my fair share of officers from elite families while I was in the Corps.”

“It doesn’t matter where I’m from or my background,” Major Lopez snarled. It was clear Frank had hit a chord. “I’ve clawed and bled for everything I have.”

“Sucks when someone thinks they know you, but really, the truth is more than they could assume, huh?” Frank didn’t wait for an answer. At that moment, the elevator doors dinged open. He stepped out onto the floor and made a right turn. “Now let’s get something to eat if you can stop judging me for two seconds.”

“Uh, Frank?” Major Lopez said from the elevator.

“What?” Frank didn’t mean to raise his voice, but the word came out loud anyway.

“The mess hall is the other way.”

“I knew that.” Frank turned around and headed down the corridor to the mess hall.

The tinny, soggy scents of canned vegetables and salty meat, which probably also came out of a can, hit Frank’s nose at once. In that moment, he would have eaten anything, but to be fair, he actually didn’t mind military food. Maybe that was because he hadn’t been eating it day in and day out for years.

The mess hall, longer than it was wide, held sentinel rows of cafeteria tables with a serving counter along the wall furthest from Frank. Food service specialists stood behind the glass partition at the ready to ladle their wares.

There were a handful of Marines sitting down, along with half as many scientists. The room was quiet as all eyes were directed to a table in the middle of the room where Heron sat with Raj and Elly. It seemed the purple-skinned alien was enough to give even the most hardened Marine pause.

“There they are.” Heron waved manically from his bench. “Your Earth food is delicious. I’m already learning so much and it’s only day one. Do you think there’s a way I can package these biz-kits and send them to Atmos for research?”

“Yeah, I don’t see why not.” Frank grinned as he headed for a stack of clean trays on the left of the counter and made his way through the line. His smile grew at the sight of the food being piled on his plate.

When he got to the specialist serving slabs of tri-tip, Frank couldn’t help but give some words of encouragement. “Keep it coming, there you go, I’m a growing boy.”

The specialist smiled, then his eyes landed on Frank’s vambraces when his mouth turned into a large O shape.

“We only have a few minutes left,” Major Lopez warned the rest of the unit as she and Frank joined the group at the table.

“Roger that,” Raj said, looking at Frank as he wolfed the meat down. “Easy there, partner. You’re going to give yourself a case of the meat sweats.”

“I’m not worried about it going in,” Elly said with wide eyes as she witnessed Frank power down the pile of food in front of him. “But I mean, not to get too graphic, but that’s going to have to come out and we’re about to go on a mission here. Those diamond-plated armor suits from B.U.T.T.S. aren’t exactly potty-friendly.”

Elly said the words as Frank shoveled in another forkful of seasoned, medium rare meat into his gulch.

“Oh, god,” Raj said, dry heaving into his hand. “Elly, stop. Come on; heck, I’m not even hungry anymore.”

“This stuff is delicious,” Heron said, taking another bite of the meat and biscuit sandwich he had made himself. “Do you think I could get the recipe?”


5

After a hurried meal, Frank found himself beside the others in the armory. It was the same large room filled with the echoes of boots stomping, weapons firing, and tires screeching to which he had delivered the cases of weapons and armor to the Marines mere days before when his reality was still normal. Or whatever passed for normal these days.

General Fox was present as MSC1 geared up to travel to Brytanna and assist in the coalition against the Chaos Lord. While fitting on his chest plate, Frank noticed a circular clamp on the front of the armored chest piece. It looked like it held something, although at the moment, there was nothing in the hollow, circular indentation.

“Elly, what’s with the addition to our armor?” Frank asked as he snapped his helmet to the magnetic hold on the left side of his belt. “It looks like that thing in the center of Iron Man’s chest.”

“Oh yeah, well, I was thinking, when we fought the Chaos Legion, their weapons ate through our armor like nothing, no offense to B.U.T.T.S. and their quality of gear.” Elly raised two open hands in sign of surrender.

“None taken,” Frank responded, checking his gauss rifle, the Punisher GS2000 model that roughly resembled an M27. “Go on.”

“But I also remembered how the large, power armor the Chaos army has is equipped with their own shields.” Elly’s pitch spiked as she tried to recalibrate her hearing devices amidst the din of the room. “So if we come across any more of these power armored suits, I think I can use their own tech on our armored suits. Having our own personal force fields could save lives.”

“No doubt.” Frank nodded along with Elly’s words. “Good thinking, Wong.”

“Alright, listen up.” General Fox strode into the room. “You’ve had time to rest, shower, and get a hot meal in your stomachs. In the meantime, we’ve come up with a strategy that will advance our mission on multiple fronts. Heron, you’ll be returning to your planet explaining everything that you’ve heard here and our plans to go with Sava and assess the threat level. The sooner we can get the Neeve to stand with us and the Draconians, the sooner we can coordinate to form a defensive front.”

“Of course,” Heron said, smoothing down his tan crushed velvet robe near the deep side pockets where he had stuffed dozens of biscuits. “I’ll go right away. I know Princess Vega will be willing to lend her aid to you and the Draconians. She understands what the reemergence of the Lord of Chaos means to all of our planets.”

“Good.” General Fox turned to Colonel Breaker. “Colonel, your team will head back with Sava to determine the strength of the enemy and our next steps. Mr. Wolffe, I know you’re in a tough spot right now. Technically, you’re not even an enlisted man at the moment. Moreover, you have a mantle that’s been placed on your shoulders as an Arilion Knight. Sava has high expectations for you.”

“All due respect, sir,” Frank said, sliding his Reckoner P7, the electromagnetic handgun into a holster on his right side. “I’ve never stopped being a Marine. That’s something I’ve only recently figured out. I can sign a paper if you want me to make it official again. One thing’s for sure, I’m not walking away from this.”

“Oohrah to that, Wolffe.” General Fox seemed pleased, but there was more he wanted to say. “I trust that you’ll follow Colonel Breaker’s order to a T despite your being chosen as an Arilion Knight. You’re responsible to the United States of America and the Earth first and foremost.”

“I’m with you, sir.” Frank had given General Fox his full attention.

“Good to hear.” General Fox looked over to Heron. “Heron, I hope you’re smuggling biscuits back and that’s not some kind of alien growth you have coming out of your pockets.”

“Oh, no.” Heron looked embarrassed.

“Good.” General Fox nodded to Colonel Breaker. “Godspeed.”

He about-faced and left the room a moment later.

Colonel Breaker filled the silence in the room. “We’ve done this once before, but that doesn’t mean anything. We’re walking into a war zone this time. Yes, we’ll help where we can, but our mission this time around is to assess and gather information. If the events are as dire as Sava claims them to be, then it’ll take a lot more manpower than our unit to get this resolved. We stay close, remember our training, and we’ll get back together. I can’t lose—we all get back home safe.”

“Yes, sir,” a chorus of voices answered the colonel’s words.

“Yes, sir,” Heron said a half second too late.

“All right.” Colonel Breaker took the lead through the Den. “Let’s move.”

Frank fell in line beside Heron. The historian looked up at him and opened, then closed his mouth before opening it again.

“What are you going to say?” Frank asked with a raised eyebrow. “You look like you’re going to explode.”

“Oh, it’s nothing; I really shouldn’t say anything on speculation. I need facts before I spread slander.” Heron shook his head and wrung his hands.

“Whatever you say—”

“Okay, I’ll tell you if you must know,” Heron interrupted Frank. “It’s Sava, and not just her; her people. They are warriors through and through, Frank. Their tactics may not be as honorable as our own. Or so I’ve heard.”

“You think she’s lying or something?” Frank looked down at the historian, confused. “Just tell me, Heron.”

“No, not lying; it’s just that they’re a brutal race.” Heron chose his words with care. “Keep in mind you may see things on their planet that have no place in war. Don’t compromise yourself for the sake of the Arilion Knights. True Arilion Knights would never ask that of you.”

Frank had a dozen questions to ask. However, it seemed as though they would have to wait. Colonel Breaker led them into the square viewing room. This chamber overlooked the room where the sphere rested below. Frank stood in awe as though seeing it for the first time again.

On either side of the bulletproof glass showing the room below were twisted hunks of metal that had at one time been turrets. Sava’s grand entrance through the gateway had led to the destruction of the battlements.

There were a handful of technicians that were in the process of replacing the hunks of steel. They looked up at Frank and Heron with matched awe.

Colonel Breaker led them to a door on the right of the room where a steel staircase led down to the ground floor. The ground level was a combination of barricades, should the sphere be activated and enemies enter, and computers monitoring the gateway with a crew of scientists. Though the barricades had proven hardly effective against Sava just yesterday.

Sava paced back and forth in front of the sphere. Her hands were clasped behind her back, spine straight as she waited for the Marines to join her through the gateway and to her own world.

Her reptilian head snapped up when she heard the boots on the ground. Her eyes roved over the band.

Frank heard Heron’s words of warning in his mind as they approached the Draconian. What was it he was so afraid of?

She can’t be that bad, Frank told himself. She’s a warrior, an Arilion Knight just like you. She was chosen for a reason.

“Finally, we can be away,” Sava said, nodding to Frank and the rest of the crew. “I will set our coordinates on the sphere for Brytanna.”

“Oh, teachable moment, teachable moment.” Elly ran up to stand next to the Draconian. “Walk us through the dial-up process again. Heron showed me once, but you know what they say about practice.”

Sava blinked with the side, then outer eyelids over her yellow eyes at Elly, who stood a full foot and a half shorter than her. “No, what do they say about practice? And who is ‘they’?”

They are just people, just random people,” Elly said, shaking her head. “And practice makes perfect. It’s a saying here.”

“Interesting.” Sava turned back to the sphere. “Well, you know what they say about death?”

“No, I don’t think you understand how to use—”

“It comes for us all,” Sava finished with a satisfied head nod as if she were patting herself on the back.


6

The sphere was no larger than a basketball and hovered just feet off the ground. It was bronzed gold and let out a soft hum with its faint glow. The surface of the sphere contained seven movable rows, which could be tuned independently of one another, such as the dials on a codex. On each of these rows were a series of ancient markings resembling runes, some of which Frank had seen on Atmos.

Sava turned each row methodically, stopping the segment to align a series of seven symbols in the center of the sphere. She then pressed the top portion of the sphere and the bottom of the sphere together at the same time to lock in her destination coordinates.

The light grew brighter and projected on the canyon wall before the sphere. An archway two stories tall began to appear in front of them. On the perimeter of the gateway, the same seven symbols that Sava had chosen illuminated. A deep opening appeared to fill the space of the arch with a loud WHOOSH sucking in air.

Thick, rolling fog tumbled out of the opening as tendrils of the frigid air curved outward like a kraken’s tentacles. Within the dense interstellar cloud, lights flickered, transitioning between every color on the spectrum, from magenta to aqua, yellow to emerald.

“How will we know where this is going to take us on your world?” Frank asked, remembering the last time they had walked through a gateway and been deposited on the leviathan’s doorstep.

“When dialed correctly, the spheres only open gateways from sphere to sphere,” Sava explained, already making her way up the ramp to the gateway. “It’s only when you misdial are you in danger of opening a gateway anywhere in the universe, on a random planet or even in space itself.”

With that, the Draconian walked through the gateway. A moment later, even her braid-covered head and massive shoulders were lost in the multicolored swirling fog.

“Does that mean the sphere was misdialed before?” Raj asked what they were all thinking. “We could have walked into the vacuum of space or an uninhabitable planet?”

“Don’t think about it too much,” Frank said, only half teasing. “You might throw up in your helmet.”

Raj looked over to Frank, a mask of horror on his face as he paused in putting on his own helmet.

“Let’s get our minds right, Marines,” Colonel Breaker warned them as he took the lead. He pressed his own helmet down on his head, removing the safety from his weapon. “On me.”

Frank also placed the diamond-plated helmet on his head, although he thought the act was silly now. At a moment’s notice, he could form a protective barrier around him or his own armor. But old habits die hard.

The heads-up display popped up on the screen, giving him readouts of temperature in his suit, sight recommendations and more. Frank ignored these options for the time being, following the colonel through the gateway.

Fog swirled all around him. It wrapped his limbs in its embrace, drawing him deeper and deeper into the abyss. The lights reflected in the fog were almost non-existent now as Frank went deeper into the unknown.

Seconds ticked by before the fog began to clear.

“Watch your step,” Colonel Breaker warned his crew. “Eyes open.”

Frank lifted his Punisher GS2000 and sighted down the barrel. The fog was beginning to clear. What waited for him on the other side was anyone’s guess.

The first thing he made out was a line of Draconian soldiers pointing their weapons at Frank and the rest of MSC1. The heavy rifles the Draconian soldiers carried looked like bulkier versions of his own Punisher GS200 with three barrels instead of one. The body armor covering their emerald scales was drab green. They were helmetless at the moment. Sava was talking, rather commanding the Draconian officer in charge to stand down.

Once the Draconian leader and the soldiers got a look at Frank’s glowing vambraces, they all lowered their weapons and knelt on a single knee.

Frank relaxed his own gauss rifle, moving his eyes from the soldiers in front of him to the scene around him. A golden sphere connected this gateway to their own. They were in a room enclosed in sheets of riveted metal with detonating cord and various wiring running to the gateway and sphere. It took Frank only a moment to realize the room was rigged to explode.

“What the heck is that?” Raj asked as he joined Frank. His eyes were directed behind the group to the archway. “A barrier of some kind?”

“Precautions should our enemies get their hands on a sphere and attempt to invade our world,” Sava said, sidling up to Frank and Raj. “It’s made of our strongest alloy. It opens and closes by our command. If the sphere were to be dialed and we do not recognize the location, we close the barrier, refusing them entrance.”

Sava walked to the left side of the room where a control panel stood. It came up to her chest. Bright red and blue lights glowed on the screens. Sava pressed her finger to the pad. At once, there was a thick metallic ring in the air.

Frank looked back to see dense metal sheets overlap the gateway entrance. A moment later, Sava turned off the sphere itself and the projection vanished.

“I think I get it,” Elly said excitedly. She placed her Punisher GS2000 across her back on the magnetic holder. Her hands moved as she talked as if they were the ones making the sounds. “This barrier always stays in place where you keep it closed. The sphere projects onto the barrier and you open it when you want to travel somewhere. Likewise, you can keep it closed if the sphere is being opened from the other side and you want to keep those houseguests out.”

“That is correct,” Sava said, motioning to the cables and cords running from the sphere to the control panel where she stood. “We also have explosives connected to the sphere in case we are compromised. The sphere would be buried in the rubble of this whole building along with whoever was trying to invade our world.”

“You guys—you guys can get up now,” Frank said to the Draconian soldiers, who were still kneeling.

“They honor the Arilion code,” Sava said. “You are only the second Arilion they have seen since I was chosen to bear the mantle.”

The other Draconian obeyed Frank, rising to their feet. Their green and yellow reptilian eyes were huge. A few had their mouths open as if they were about to take a bite of some massive sandwich.

“And where are we now?” Colonel Breaker lowered his weapon but kept his right pointer finger close to the trigger.

Frank looked around again, trying to determine their whereabouts. It was a wide-open cubed room whose bright lights set in the ceiling reflected off the dull metal panels that lined the walls. There were no windows to give away where they might be in relation to the rest of Sava’s home world.

“You are inside our main military base,” Sava explained, motioning them to follow her. “We are in a military safe building designed specifically for housing our sphere.”

So far so good, Frank thought to himself. Everything Sava said checks out. There’s no leviathan waiting for us or Chaos army ready to take off our heads. Things are looking up.

A loud siren cut through the calm a moment later. It started low, then quickly crescendoed, wailing like an air raid siren of World War II.

You had to say something Frank chided himself. Technically, you didn’t even say anything. You thought it.

“What’s that siren?” Major Lopez asked as the other Draconian soldiers in the room jumped into action, securing the barrier and the sphere.

“Air raid,” Sava said, turning her walk into a run. “The Chaos army is taking another run at the city. Hurry.”

The cacophony of the sirens grew as Frank and the others ran to keep up with Sava’s strong strides. The group exited the room, entering a fifteen-meters-long corridor that ended with a pair of wide double-doors guarded by another squad of Draconian soldiers.

Someone must have notified the guards ahead of time because they were already opening the thick reinforced sliding doors to allow Frank and the rest of the group access to the outside world.

Sava didn’t slow her run as they exited the building.

Nothing Frank could have done would have prepared him for what he saw outside.


7

The surface of the military base they were on and the city immediately beyond were a post-apocalyptic nightmare. All around, the crumbled remains of buildings were still smoking. For every building still sprouting from the ground, there was another in various stages of decay.

Rubble lined the would-be streetways like broken dreams, the only clearings being the deep scars and craters from the impact of death-dealing bombs. The perpetual smell of ash hung in the air. The sky was choked with the blackness of smoke spirals of smoldering past and incinerated futures.

Sava led them across a field of dead grass to where a hangar had managed to remain erect. There were Draconian pilots everywhere inside the hangar, readying themselves and their crafts for takeoff.

The ships weren’t like any fighter ship Frank had ever seen. Like a Frisbee with the center hollowed out, a cockpit was attached to the center of the circular wings. Twin cannons mounted over the front of the circle. A sea of aligned disks in various shades of green and black, they resembled the scales of the Draconian people. An emblem of a roaring dragon was depicted in red on the left side of each ship.

“Commander Monty.” Sava grabbed the attention of a large Draconian who shouted orders in the middle of the chaos. He wore a dark khaki green military battle dress uniform with black triangles on his sleeves. “What’s our situation?”

The commander turned and did a double take at Frank and the rest of MSC1. Every pilot and soldier in the colossal hangar was doing the same. Apparently, not everyone had received the information that Sava had returned with not only soldiers from a different planet but another Arilion Knight as well.

“Focus,” Sava barked at the commander. “What’s the situation here?”

“Right,” Commander Monty said through a throat that sounded like it was filled with gravel. “Two squadrons of Darts incoming and a Behemoth. We can bet their fighters are only providing cover for the ground troops the Behemoth will unload. Reports have them two minutes out.”

“Let us handle the ground units.” Colonel Breaker removed his helmet so he could meet the gaze of Sava and the Commander. “We’re not pilots, so we’re not going to do you any good in the air.”

Sava looked to the commander and then to Frank. “Agreed. I can assist with the fight in the sky. I’ll have our comm units linked so we can coordinate and share information. I’ll get you a pair of Crawlers. When the Behemoth lands, it’ll be close. The Lord of Chaos has already made a few runs on capturing our sphere. That’s probably what he’s after now.”

Communication was getting harder as the Draconian spacecrafts whined to life. Frank was so involved in the conversation and plans being made, he didn’t realize the rest of the Draconian pilots had formed a half circle around them. Each one of them bent their knee.

Elly shared a confused shrug with Raj and Frank.

Lucky for him, Sava understood exactly what to do. As one, every Draconian bowed their head out of respect. The siren and the sounds of the fighters were the only things that could be heard now.

“If today is the day we die, then let us do it without fear,” Sava said over the surrounding commotion. “If this is where our bodies lie, then let it be as we roar into the faces of our enemies. The Draconian line is made of warriors and legends. Let’s make our ancestors proud this day and soak the field of battle in the blood of our enemies.”

The gathered pilots stood, all nodding and slapping each other on the back. A few stayed to speak with Sava. It looked like she was blessing them before battle.

“Wow,” Raj said under his breath. “I thought the Neeve were intense.”

“Would you bless me, sir?”

Frank turned to see a young Draconian pilot who looked to be still in his teens. It was difficult for Frank to place his exact age through the scales and short horns, but his voice featured the tenor of a boy, not the baritone such as the other Draconian adults.

He was dressed matching the others in a khaki green jumpsuit with the emblem of a roaring dragon sewed onto his sleeve.

“You don’t have to call me ‘sir.’” The words tumbled out of Frank’s mouth on instinct. “I work for a living.”

The Draconian youth looked at Frank, uncertain what to say. “Was—was that the blessing?”

Frank caught Sava out of the corner of his eyes, placing her hand on the foreheads of the Draconian pilots before they flew to battle.

“Oh—I’m not sure if I should be handing out blessings,” Frank said, trying to turn the boy down with a grin. “Maybe Sava would be better at that.”

“But you’re an Arilion Knight as well,” the boy insisted. “We look to you in our hour of need.”

“Okay, then, when you put it like that,” Frank said, understanding it wasn’t the words the blessing contained that meant something to these pilots. It was the mantle worn by the person giving it to them.

Frank removed his right glove and placed it on the boy’s bowed forehead right between his horns. The scales felt cold, smooth, and bumpy under his palm.

Frank blanked on what to say; the harder he tried to think of something meaningful, the more it escaped him. All that was running through his mind at the moment was trying to think of something to say.

“Haters, gonna hate, hate, hate, hate and players gonna play, play, play, play, so shake it off, shake it off.” Frank recited the song lyrics that came to mind. “Amen.”

Frank removed his hand, hoping that would be enough.

“Amen.” The Draconian pilot stood up with a smile of gratitude on his face. He extended a hand. “My name is Rex. Thank you for the blessing. I have never heard that one before.”

“Frank Wolffe,” Frank said, accepting the offered hand. “The blessing comes from a famous—a famous warrior on our planet.”

“I am proud to be blessed with it, Frank,” Rex said.

Shouting from someone took Rex’s attention from Frank for a moment. He smiled again, running to his craft. “Thank you again!”

“Did you just recite Katy Perry to that kid?” Major Lopez cocked her head and raised an eyebrow to Frank.

“Uh, I’m pretty sure that’s Usher,” Frank tried to convince her.

She raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Hey.” Frank wagged a finger at her. “What did we say about judging?”

Frank and the others moved with Sava over to the far end of the hangar bay as the fighters began their takeoff from the ground.

Sava pointed at her mouth, to her head, and at the helmets all the Marines had already removed. Frank slipped the helmet back onto his head with the rest of MSC1. Sava’s voice rang loud and clear inside.

“I sent an order to our techs to link our comms,” Sava explained. “I’m going to the sky with our Dragoons. I’ve ordered two Crawlers to be delivered just outside the warehouse doors. As soon as we have a projected landing area for the enemy Behemoth, I’ll send you the coordinates. If you need backup, let me know.”

“Roger that,” Colonel Breaker agreed with the plan. “Marines with me.”

Adrenaline began to seep into Frank’s system. He grew more acutely aware, all senses becoming sharper. Even after days of little to no sleep, war keeps us vigilant. The steady rhythm of boots pounding their way to position, the air sealed snap of cockpits locking into place, the series of clicks as weapons were checked and snapped into place, the low breath each soldier released to set themselves at the ready; this was all music to Frank’s ears.

The unit moved to follow Colonel Breaker from the roaring hangar to outside where the Crawlers waited. The Crawlers were actually twin giant vehicles that looked like a hybrid between 4x4 jeeps and an armored truck.

A cab in the front of the over two-meter tall vehicle offered cover for both the driver and a passenger. The back of the drab vehicle was open with two fifty-caliber barrels mounted on a swivel and a place for a gunner to strap his torso into for stability. The full nine-meter length of the vehicle was protected by impervious plates.

High-powered jet engines blasted from their right, shaking the ground and causing rubble to rumble as the Dragoons fighters took to the air. The circular fighter had the appearance of disks with guns as they cut through the sky. A purple flash in the smoke-stained sky marked Sava as she took off alongside the Dragoons to meet the enemy.

“Whaaaaaaaaaat?” Elly said, admiring Sava before looking to Frank. “You’re going to be able to fly with jets one day? That’s some wild comic book stuff.”

In all honesty, the thought of racing through the skies excited a part of Frank he hadn’t known lived inside. Something that had always been part of him was beginning to awaken as the days grew and his knowledge of the Arilion followed.

“All right.” Colonel Breaker doled out orders. “Let’s assume we get the coordinates from Sava any minute now. We need to be ready to roll out. Let’s take what little time we have to familiarize ourselves with the vehicles. I’ll drive one with Elly in the front seat and Major Lopez on the guns. Raj, you’re the wheel man for the second vehicle with Frank behind you.”

“Oohrah!” Everyone nodded and moved to obey; everyone except Raj.

“Sir, do you really think I’m the best one behind the wheel?” Raj asked.

“Your driving skills were off the charts if I remember correctly.” Colonel Breaker didn’t slow his stride to his own Crawler. “Take a few deep breaths. Think of happy thoughts.”

“Did he just crack a joke?” Raj looked over to Frank.

“I can neither confirm nor deny,” Frank said, hopping in the back of the Crawler. “So you’re a wheel man, huh?”

“I don’t like to brag.” Raj opened up the side door of the Crawler, taking in the steering wheel, brakes, and switches with wide eyes and a childlike grin. “But I’ve put my fair share of hours into games like Grand Theft Auto.”


8

On the back of the Crawler, Frank found himself on a two-by-three-meter platform. A turret was mounted on the back with a plate of metal armor on either side of the weapon to serve as shields. Twin barrels pointed out, attached to a harness that would brace either of his shoulders in the face of the gun’s recoil.

The barrels were a dirty olive green and looked as though they’d seen more than a few tours of combat. The whole Crawler did, for that matter. The vehicle was pockmarked with rounds and scorched from explosions.

Frank felt the vehicle below him rumble to life.

“I think I’ve got it running,” Raj said from the inside of the cab.

Frank was looking over his designated weapon when the first sounds of combat filled the sky. It was hard to tell the exact time of day with the perpetual haze of smoke in the air, yet with this much light still available, Frank surmised it was possibly midday. High above them to the south, the Draconian pilots in their Dragoons intercepted the Chaos army’s Darts.

White and green lasers peppered one another in the air as ships went down and explosions sounded. They were nothing but small specks to Frank’s eyes, but it looked like the Draconians were outnumbered at least two to one at the start of the battle.

“How’s it looking back there?” Major Lopez asked Frank from her position to his left on the other Crawler. “Seems pretty straightforward, like a pair of fifty cals duct-taped together.”

Frank tore his eyes away from the battle overhead and concentrated on what he was supposed to be doing. The major was right. Frank stepped into the shoulder harness that would support his chest and under either armpit.

The triggers were easily accessible under the barrels of the weapon. There were two triggers, one for each weapon. The entire turret moved with an ease Frank wasn’t expecting. He could swing the weapons left and right without him having to fight against it and even push the back of the gun down to raise the long barrels.

“Yeah, I don’t think we’ll have a problem,” Frank said, looking now to see where the weapons would be reloaded. “How do you think we’re supposed to reload these suckers when we run dry?”

“Beats me.” Major Lopez sounded confused. “Maybe the battery packs at the base. Mine’s glowing a kind of weird greenish vomit color.”

“Behemoth incoming.” Sava’s voice sounded strained, barely audible over the gush of wind coming from around her comm. “To the south descending fast.”

Frank followed her instructions, looking just past the dog fight to see a ship wider than it was long approaching fast and low. Like the head of a hammer, it approached to nail the Draconian forces. It was crimson with a massive sigil of the Lord of Chaos on the bow of the ship, a black burning flame.

“Other ground units are on the way, but you and your team will get there first,” Sava warned.

“We’re on it,” Colonel Breaker answered back. “Raj, it’s go time.”

“Drive it like you stole it,” Raj said in a very unlike Raj way. He almost sounded cool.

Colonel Breaker took the lead, gunning his engine before peeling out. Elly popped her head out of the passenger side window, readying her Punisher GS2000 while Major Lopez crouched low behind her own weapon, knees bent so as not to fall.

Frank’s Crawler jolted to life following the colonel’s. He nearly lost his footing in the back of the vehicle as it jumped forward.

“Son of a wrench monkey, Frank.” Raj’s voice sounded excited over the comms. “Sorry about that; just getting a feel for her.”

Frank stayed low in his stance, bending his knees to absorb the impact of the bumps from the Crawler. Raj stayed close behind the colonel as they headed to where the Behemoth was landing.

“How big is that thing?” Major Lopez asked in awe.

Frank understood everything she wasn’t saying. The Behemoth had earned its name for a reason. It was easily three kilometers long and ten stories tall. The craft had begun its final descent, lowering in a straight line to the ground below.

The place the enemy had chosen as their landing zone was a section of the Draconian military base that had been bombed out in a previous run. There were multiple one-story, austere buildings that may have at one time been barracks. On one side stood a multileveled structure, which had caved in on one side. What was still standing remained a breath away from crumbling in on itself.

The rest of the terrain comprised of trails in disarray and other buildings in various levels of destruction and devastation. Any semblance of streets or organized routes were lost in the debris.

“Let’s create a kill box,” Colonel Breaker said over the comms. “I’ll set up on the west side of the street. Raj, you and Frank take the east side. Stay behind as much cover as you can.”

“Roger that,” Raj said, maneuvering the Crawler around a corner. The nose of his vehicle barely stuck out to give Frank a clear shot of where the Behemoth was preparing to land.

The Behemoth was seconds away from resting on the ground below. The single story discipline-factories underneath the craft crumbled under its weight in a cloud of dust and ruin.

Frank took one last look around before being willing to commit solely to the enemy in front of him. The Crawler was sided up to a corner of a building on the left of the vehicle. They were in a cross intersection with the Behemoth landing in front of them, long roads to their back and left, and the other Crawler a block down on their right.

As far as Frank could tell, there were no safeties on the weapons in his hands. He gripped the handles tight in each hand, ready to hose the off-loading enemy when the time came.

The Behemoth’s engines finally turned off as it touched down on the ground below. The sheer size of the ship was staggering as Frank saw it up close. There could be hundreds, maybe even a thousand troops in the ship. With all the urgency of an AOL dial-up, a section of the ship in the center of the craft began to come down like a drawbridge lowering in a castle.

“As soon as you see them leave the ship, you unleash hell,” Colonel Breaker said over the comms. “Raj, if you can, use your rifle out the side of your window until you have to move. Frank and the major will take out the bulk of the enemy while we pick off the ones that manage to get by the initial onslaught. Pour it on ‘em. Oohrah!”

“Oohrah!” everyone including Frank shouted into the comms.

At this, the adrenaline soaked Frank’s veins in excited jitters as he leaned in, squinting his eyes to see the lucky first of their enemies. The square section of the ship lowering had to be at least five meters wide and maybe thirty meters tall.

As soon as the metal door banged to the ground below, crimson soldiers poured out from inside the Behemoth. There were hundreds of them all running forward, searching for anything to point their own plasma and flame thrower rifles toward.

“Get some!” Major Lopez roared.

Dat-dat-dat-dat-dat! Dat-dat-dat-dat-dat!

The rounds leaving Frank’s weapon looked like green lasers as they tore through armor and enemy soldiers. The weapons vibrated in Frank’s hands, making him press his upper body harder into the harness to keep his aim on target.

The vibration of the guns in his hands felt great. An intoxicating feeling of power enveloped him as he went to work.

“Oohrah!” Raj yelled.

Frank and the major tore into the group from two sides, making it nearly impossible for any of the crimson-clad enemy soldiers to disembark the craft unscathed.

The exceptional few who did make it off the ship and to the paved road in front of them were wounded, barely capable of crawling, much less mounting an offense. For a moment, it seemed the Marines were going to send their enemies home with their tails between their legs.

It was impossible for Frank to count how many Chaos soldiers they had already put down, but if he had to guess, they were already in the three figures. Round after round of buzzing death dealing green light tore through the enemy ranks with some rounds even passing straight through a sternum or skull and striking the unit behind.

War never changes. It’s us or them, Frank reminded himself as he gritted his teeth, pumping round after round into the enemy. They’d kill you if you gave them half a second. It’s us or them!

The weapons were starting to heat in Frank’s hands when the first power armor unit walked forward. It waded through the corpses of its own soldiers without giving their bodies a second thought. Massive red hooves crushed armor and bones.

Frank and the major’s green blaster rounds slammed against the power armor’s personal force field, only to disappear a moment later.

“If there’s any way to capture that tech, we could use it against them,” Elly reminded the group. “Just saying.”

The power armor unit was three meters tall and as wide as a tank. It spread its arms wide, offering as much of a barrier as possible for the Chaos soldiers who gathered behind it for cover.

Already red plasma rounds were beginning to find their way to the Crawlers as the chaos soldiers found a respite from the incoming weapons fire and room to find their own opening for shots.

The sounds of the enemy fire joined the air as Frank gave up with his own weapon. If something was going to take the power armor down, it was going to be him through the channeling of his will.

Here we go, here we go, Frank, Frank coached himself as he reached for the power within.


9

“Frank,” Colonel Breaker shouted through the comms. “Time to dial it up.”

“On it,” Frank shouted back, covering his grey diamond-plated combat armor in another layer of purple shielding. The power channeled from his vambraces fed off his strength of will. He was the weapon for all intents and purposes; the vambraces just helped him channel what already lived inside.

Frank had already taken out a suit of Chaos power armor with explosive rounds back on Atmos. If Elly wanted the power armor unit somewhat intact this time, Frank would have to do it up close and personal.

In his left hand, he formed a square scutum shield to provide coverage for his entire body as he ran forward. It belonged more so in a Greek or Roman museum than on an alien battlefield.

His other hand gripped a sword handle with a laser beam shooting out of the end. Without overthinking what needed to be done next, Frank sprinted forward.

“Is that a lightsab—I mean, I guess we could call it a laser sword?” Elly asked from around the gunfire.

“Frank, you’re going to be sued for major copyright infringement,” Raj added.

Frank didn’t have time to respond; already his shield was being pummeled with rounds from the enemy. Individually, each round striking his shield wouldn’t be an issue. Dozens of rounds hitting the barrier at close proximity made him feel off balance and sent tremors through his arm.

Instead of relying solely on how fast his legs could take him, Frank remembered what Heron had taught him about his strength and speed. His strength of will could also be used to make him stronger and faster.

Frank focused on that now charging forward. His feet barely touched the ground before lifting off again and propelling him forward.

“Let’s give him some cover, Marines,” Colonel Breaker shouted over the comms.

The unit or power armor providing a shield between the Marines and the Chaos army spilling out of the Behemoth turned its attention on Frank. It leveled a cannon, the barrel the diameter of Frank’s head.

BAM!

A rocket streaked toward Frank, catching him dead center. The shield Frank held in front of him protected him from the worst of the damage, but the force sent Frank flying back through the air and crashing into the side of a building.

The building, already weak from previous damage, fell inward on Frank.

Frank’s lungs burned. His heart was pounding faster than it ever had before. All around him, all he could see was black as the heads-up display in his helmet adjusted to night vision. Slabs of the building’s walls pinned him down.

He could move his fingers and toes, but any other movement was useless. Frank was staring up into a slab of the building’s wall that had pinned him to the ground below.

“Frank, can you hear me?” Colonel Breaker shouted over the comms. “Frank, are you all right?”

Anger was starting to build inside Frank as he realized how stupid he had been charging the power armor unit. Rage gathered in his chest as he realized he was trapped like a helpless child.

Get up, you’re better than that, get up! Frank screamed to himself in his head.

Frustration seethed in Frank. This new power didn’t have a place in overtaking the years of strategy and experience he had. He knew better. Though he was brash, he wasn’t entirely hotheaded. Now he was trapped to sit with his mistake.

Radiating force began to gather around Frank’s entire body. The purple energy came off him in waves. The rubble entombing him began to vibrate and shake. With a herculean push, Frank extended the energy gathering on his body away from him in a concussive wave.

The building exploded out, sending fragments in every direction.

“I’m good.” Frank answered the calls from the other Marines over the comms. “I was just getting cocky. Time to stick with what I know.”

A .357 Magnum Taurus Model 608 Revolver appeared in his right hand. For a second, Frank thought about conjuring a twin for his left hand, but that wouldn’t be anything more than showboating once again.

In the space of the few minutes, Frank had been pinned to the ground under the fallen building, the battle had already changed. The power armor unit was advancing on Colonel Breaker’s Crawler, absorbing the incoming fire from Major Lopez on the heavy guns.

Raj was in the process of reversing his Crawler to try and avoid the enemy fire.

When Frank entered the fight again, he was on the enemy’s right flank. The cannon in his hands blared to life, sending echoes into the air that would have intimidated even the most stalwart soldier.

Moreover, Frank made sure the rounds he was firing were explosive.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Everywhere Frank looked, there were enemies, and everywhere he pointed his weapon, a single shot rang out with a kill to follow. The beauty about Frank’s chosen weapon was that it packed a powerful punch without the need to recharge. As long as his will held, he could continue to pump the enemy full of rounds.

A half dozen enemies had fallen in as many seconds. Already the power armor advancing on the Colonel’s Crawler was turning to address the new threat.

Chaos soldiers still pouring out of the Behemoth did the same, sending a spray of fire at Frank.

“Frank, watch out!” Major Lopez screamed.

Frank didn’t worry about shielding himself this time. He trusted that the purple energy coating his armor would do that for him. The only thing he concentrated on now was taking out the Chaos soldiers and destroying the power armor unit.

Plasma rounds from the enemy guns hit Frank, tearing at his energy and will to continue on but did not penetrate his armor. It did not waver his will to not fail again. Frank stalked forward toward the power armor unit, killing as many of the enemy as he could along the way.

The massive red mountain of armor in front of him leveled the cannon on its arm at Frank once more. This time, Frank was ready. He sprinted forward, putting his left side toward the open Behemoth entrance.

The rocket from the power armor unit streaked through the space between them, missing Frank by a few inches. It continued on, racing through the open ship’s doors and detonating somewhere deep inside the Behemoth.

“Oohrah!” Major Lopez shouted.

“Get it, Franky!” Raj bellowed.

Frank remained focused, continuing his sprint toward the force field protected enemy. He exchanged the Magnum in his hands for a Kestrel anti-tank rocket launcher. The act took the space of a heartbeat.

Another rocket from the power armor whizzed past Frank’s head. It detonated on the outside hull of the Behemoth ship in a shower of smoke and torn metallic shards.

Frank skidded to a kneel, lifting the rocket launcher on his shoulder and staring down the sights.

His own purple rocket left the barrel of the tube with a trail of whitish purple smoke trailing behind it. The rocket exploded against the power armor’s force field. A temporary opening showed itself as the red force field surrounding the power armor struggled to remain in place.

Once more, Frank chose the right weapon for the job like a surgeon selecting a specific tool when faced with an issue in front of him. Frank began his run at the power armor again and again switched his weapon. This time, the gauss-powered Punisher GS2000 appeared in his hands.

Frank felt plasma rounds battering at his body and Will on every side. He was tired and he could taste blood. He realized the wound must have come from the blast that had sent him under the building that crumbled on top of him.

Frank held his finger on the Punisher GS2000’s trigger, sending blackish-purple tungsten rods at the power armor’s center mass and helmet. The unit was clearly wounded and whoever was inside having issues controlling the suit. Sparks flew out of the helmet along with a trail of smoke.

Allowing his forward momentum to carry him into a leap, Frank landed on the power armor’s chest, still firing into the helmet. He looked down the sights of his Punisher GS2000 at point blank range, firing like a madman.

The power armor fell backward with Frank riding it down to the ground.

“That’s what we do!” Raj was yelling like he was possessed. “That’s how we do!”

“Oohrah! Major Lopez screamed. “Kill them all!”

Colonel Breaker revved his engine, turning his defensive retreat into a forward push.

Frank turned his attention from the still power armor in front of him toward the enemy that didn’t seem fazed. Frank’s heart fell in his chest and his heavy meat meal grumbled in his bowls as a second power unit appeared from within. The fresh suit of armor started its run on Frank.

This one was bulkier; its horned helmet looked as large as Frank’s body. Twin cleavers were gripped in either hand of the armor as it put its head down and raced toward Frank.


10

“Frank, look out!” Elly shouted.

Her warning wasn’t needed. Frank had already seen the approaching hulk; it was impossible to miss. He had seconds to figure out a game plan. It was already racing across the street and would be on Frank much too soon.

BAM!

Out of nowhere, Raj slammed his Crawler into the right side of the power armor. The impact of such a collision was enough to twist metal and rent steel. The clash sent both vehicle and armor unit careening into a single-story building twenty yards down the street.

The Crawler pinned the power armor unit against a grey stone building wall. The wall crumpled around them without completely caving inward.

Soldiers on both sides of the engagement stood stunned.

“We’ll cover you, Frank.” Colonel Breaker was the first to find his voice. “Get to the doc.”

“Roger that.” Frank was already sprinting to where the power armor and Crawler rested in a macabre embrace of metal.

There was no movement from the front of the vehicle, but the power armor’s red eyes, which showed through the helmet, were beginning to blink on once more.

Frank constructed the laser sword in his hand. He jumped over the Crawler in a single long leap. Both hands held the hilt of the weapon with the blade pointed down. Frank drove all the force he could muster as he landed on the destroyed hood of the Crawler. The laser blade found the top of the bull-headed armor’s helmet. Frank drove the weapon down through the interior of the armor, hilt deep.

Whatever alien was in the armor was dead. The power armor twitched. Its eyes went dull, then expired.

Frank was too concerned about Raj’s wellbeing to see what was happening with the other Crawler and enemy units behind him.

“Raj, Raj, can you hear me?” Frank jumped down to the driver side of the vehicle, dismissing his laser sword. The front of the dashboard, including the steering wheel, had been crushed inward on Raj.

Frank tore off the handle of the vehicle with strength channeled by his Will. Raj was motionless. The front of the vehicle had crushed him into his seat.

“Come on, come on,” Frank said more to himself than anyone listening. Once more, he willed himself to be stronger than he ever could. Frank grabbed the dashboard and the back of the Crawler and pulled the two pieces apart with all of his might.

Slowly, metal began to rend. Frank’s muscles burned; his hands shook as he refused to give in to what his mind said was impossible.

“Rrrrrrr!” Frank growled as he twisted the metal parts back.

Raj sat motionless in his seat as Frank performed the feat. As far as Frank could see, there were no signs that Raj’s helmet had been punctured. Frank’s eyes traveled down Raj’s torso, arms, legs—his eyes stopped on a piece of metal sticking out of Raj’s right leg. No, not a piece of metal; the power armor’s arm holding the sword had managed to penetrate the front of the Crawler. The very tip of the sword had gone through Raj’s armor where his shin met his knee.

A vulnerable part of the diamond-plated armor was where the plates met, giving the wearer’s joints the ability to move. The crimson red sword had found Raj’s right kneecap. A thin line of blood dripped from the armor.

“You’re alright, you’re alright,” Frank kept saying out loud. Time slowed. The chaos and thrill of the battle had diminished, leaving a heavy despair in the atmosphere. Somewhere behind him, he was aware of engines roaring to life and the sound of weapons exchange diminish. But right now, he had to focus on Raj.

Frank gently removed Raj’s helmet. Underneath, thick jet hair was matted to the doctor’s skull. His reddish-brown skin was flushed, eyes closed. Frank removed his own gloves, pressing two fingers to Raj’s neck. There was a pulse.

Far from claiming to be any kind of doctor himself, Frank hoped against hope it was only a concussion that had turned Raj into his comatose state.

More jet engines screamed through the air just overhead. Frank was forced to turn from his wounded friend and look above. The Draconian pilots had returned from their dog fight above and were now spraying the Behemoth with blaster fire.

The Chaos soldiers must have realized the fight was over because the Behemoth fired its own engines and was now retreating back into the atmosphere.

“We’ve got them on the run,” Colonel Breaker said through the comms. “Frank, how’s Raj?”

“I—I don’t know.” Frank hesitated, trying to look for the right words. “He’s breathing and has a minor wound on his right leg… he... he’s unconscious.”

“We’re on our way to you,” Colonel Breaker responded.

Frank waited by the open door of the Crawler. He wanted to remove Raj from the vehicle, but he thought it was better to wait for the others. He’d need a hand when removing the sword that stuck into Raj’s armor like a needle in a pin cushion.

A moment later, Sava touched down next to Frank. She was glowing with the purple energy. She looked tired, though other than that, none the worse for wear.

“You have done well,” Sava said, nodding to Frank. She looked into the Crawler with furrowed brows, a discerning eye, and pursed lips. “What is his status?”

“He’s alive, but we need to get him out,” Frank said, pointing to the power armor’s weapon, which had pierced the front of the Crawler.

Screeching brakes sounded a second later as the rest of Marine Space Corps One arrived on the scene. Colonel Breaker, Major Lopez, and Elly all jumped off the vehicle, rushing to Frank’s side.

“We need to get him out of here and to a medical center,” Elly said, placing her Punisher GS2000 on her back and removing her helmet. “Let’s get him out—”

“There is more here than you realize,” Sava said, leaning into the vehicle to get a better look at the sword tip entering Raj’s leg. “Certain power units coat their blades in poison. I’m afraid this is one such mech.”

“Why the heck would something this big bother with poison?” Major Lopez said angrily. “The sword is nearly as long as a person.”

“The Chaos soldiers revel in watching their victims die slowly when possible,” Sava said, shaking her head. “He’s still breathing, which means he stands a chance. I can take him to our triage center faster than any of you. But you have to trust me.”

“We can take him; he’s one of ours.” Colonel Breaker pushed his way to Raj’s side. “We’ll get him into the other Crawler. Just tell me where—”

“Not only do I know exactly where to take him, but I can fly.” Sava placed a hand on the colonel’s shoulder as if she sensed the anger in him. “Let me help him. I have a chance at saving him.”

The colonel paused, uncertain. Not only was this uncharacteristic for him; it confirmed what Frank had already suspected.

“Sir, Sava is right,” Frank said, putting his emotion aside. “She’s Raj’s best chance.”

Colonel Breaker nodded dumbly and moved aside. Frank was glad the colonel still wore his helmet; he was afraid he’d see too much in that face at the moment.

Sava wasted no time. A purple gauntlet coated her right hand as she gripped the sword entering Raj’s knee and pulled it straight out. A spurt of black blood followed the motion. Frank didn’t need to be a doctor to know that black blood was not a good sign.

Sava pressed her hand to the wound and lifted Raj out of the Crawler. She lifted off the ground, hovering in the air. She looked down at the others.

“I’ll have a tech send a schematic of the base to your helmets and mark the triage center,” Sava said before she took off in a flash of purple light.

Frank and the others looked on helplessly as their friend, their brother, was taken away to meet his fate.


11

“I hate waiting,” Frank said, pacing the floor in the roofless machine shed as Elly worked. “We should be there with him.”

“You heard what Sava said,” Elly reminded Frank. “He’s stabilized and we can see him soon. He’s going to be alright.”

“Yeah, and how do you know that?” Frank said with more venom than he intended. “I’m sorry, none of this is your fault. I just want to be angry right now. He didn’t need to do that. I could have figured out a way to protect myself. Ugh, why did he have to go all GTA on that thing??? Good initiative, bad judgment.”

“We’re Marines, Frank,” Elly said, looking up at her spot over the worktable she was hunched over. “Looking out for each other is what we do. Might as well be part of our DNA.”

Frank mouthed Elly’s words behind her back, rolling his eyes.

“Are you mimicking a deaf girl behind her back?” Elly asked as if she had eyes in the back of her head.

“What?” Frank stopped his pacing. “No.”

“Mmm hmm,” Elly said, clearly not believing him. “Listen, worrying isn’t going to help. Find something to do and focus on doing that. Colonel Breaker’s reporting back to General Fox, Major Lopez is meeting with Sava, and I’m hijacking the force field tech from the power armor we salvaged. Just find something to keep you busy like we’re all doing.”

Frank looked around the warehouse, chewing the inside of his lip. Sava had directed them to a workshop that had seen better decades. It looked like a greenhouse with a retractable roof that was now open. The warmth of the day beat down through the layers of smoke and ash on the wind.

The workshop itself was a massive mess of racks, tables, and workbenches full of tools and scrap items Frank wasn’t sure what to call. Some of the tools were obvious—a hammer, a circular blade—but others evaded even Frank’s wildest imagination.

His eyes were roving over the area when he caught movement to the left. An upturned box the size of a child’s tricycle rustled across the floor. Frank jerked back out of surprise; instinct sent a Colt 1911 into his right hand.

“Listen, I don’t open up much, but I’m going to now.” Elly kept talking with her back toward Frank as she worked. “Maybe it will help you focus on something else right now. I’m insecure about my hearing loss and these hearing devices I have to wear now. I know, I know; it’s hard to believe an independent woman like myself could be insecure about anything, but it’s true.”

“No, really?” Frank breathed, keeping his eyes on the moving box. It was ten meters to his right. “What the heck?”

“We’re all broken people in this life trying to find our way, meeting other broken people as we do.” Elly sighed. “It feels really good to open up to someone. I mean, just the fact that we can have this conversation is liberating. Finding a guy that’s willing to listen these days is like spotting Waldo in one of the impossible books. Those things really piss me off.”

Frank let Elly drone on as he tiptoed to the box. Hopefully, her voice would cover the faint sound his footsteps made on the ground. Frank reached out with his left hand to grab the carton and reveal whatever it was underneath.

Just as his hand made contact with the container, it rustled again. A low-pitched whine reverberated from inside the box.

“Frank, let it out,” Elly said, finally turning from her work. “It’s okay to cr—”

Elly’s voice abruptly stopped as Frank pulled off the box and shoved his weapon at the creature underneath.

“What the—” It was Frank’s turn to allow his words to be lost in the moment.

A black and grey wolf pup with big, honey-brown eyes and wings folded on its back alternated between growling at them and whining. It couldn’t have weighed more than nine kilograms with its furry hindquarters in the air and its front paws flat on the ground. With its tiny teeth, it did its best to look intimidating.

“Oh my gosh,” Elly squealed, throwing her hands up in the air. “A puppy—with weird alien wings but still, a puppy!”

Frank wasn’t sure what to do. Pointing a weapon at the alien puppy seemed wrong, but who knew what the creature would do. Who knew if blades would come out of its wings or fire from its mouth?

“Easy, boy.” Elly put her hands out to calm the tiny beast. “Easy there; no one here is going to hurt you.”

The small creature seemed to raise an eyebrow as it focused on Frank’s Colt, still pointed at it.

“Oh come on, Frank. Really?” Elly asked, shaking her head. “You think this little guy’s a threat? He’s more scared of us than we are of him.”

“I don’t know.” Frank lowered his weapon a fraction of an inch. “I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff since we’ve been planet hopping. What if it has alien rabies or something?”

“It’s okay, it’s okay. Come here, boy,” Elly said to the little fur ball, holding her hands out for the creature to sniff. “Look he’s harmless.”

“If you contract some kind of weird fungus, I can’t be held responsible,” Frank said, letting his weapon disappear. “I tried to stop you.”

“What’s that sound?” Elly asked, sitting by the creature and stroking its soft fur. “Did you hear something?”

“Nope, just the occasional whine or kind of mumble from the winged puppy there,” Frank answered, looking all around the workshop to make sure they were the only ones present.

“I could swear I heard a voice.” Elly shook her head with a confused expression. “Frank, this is going to sound crazy, but I think—I think this little guy’s talking to me.”

“No—just no.” Frank threw his hands up in sign of surrender. “I can handle dragon people and poisoned blades, but winged puppies communicating with us telepathically? This is too far.”

Elly burst out laughing as the tiny wolf creature flopped into her lap.

“No, no, he’s not that bad once you get to know him,” Elly crooned to the creature. “He’s just a blunt instrument, like a hammer.”

“I’m standing right here,” Frank said with a deep sigh. “I can hear everything you’re saying.”

Footsteps on the ground grabbed everyone’s attention as all three pairs of eyes swung to the left where the door to the warehouse had been closed. Sava walked into the room, watching Elly and her new companion.

“I’ve come to tell you that you can see your friend now.” Sava constructed a thin knife in her left hand. “Is the Momo bothering you? I can quickly dispatch it.”

“Momo? No,” Elly said, wrapping her arms around the creature. “He’s fine.”

A tiny growl, directed at Sava, came from deep in the beast’s chest.

“It’s called a Momo?” Frank asked.

“Yes, they are creatures common enough on our planet.” Sava allowed the knife to evaporate from her palm. “During peacetime, they are trained and raised as pets.”

“How about not during peacetime?” Frank asked, the question lingering in the air.

“They can be used as messengers should our network fail or an alternative food supply,” Sava said without blinking an eye.

“Earmuffs,” Elly said, placing her hands on either of the Momo’s soft fluffy ears that pointed up like triangles. “That’s horrible.”

“It’s necessary.” Sava waved both Elly and Frank over to the door. “Raj has stabilized enough to see you. Follow me.”

Frank, Elly, and the Momo trailed behind Sava.

Elly was carrying on a conversation with the creature as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Sava took them on a course through the military base that led them down a wide street with bright lights that fought back the coming night. Crawlers and trucks drove by with wide-eyed Draconians taking in the unlikely group of Sava, the Marines, and the Momo.

“You fought poorly today,” Sava said without looking at Frank. “Your use of Will is primitive at best.”

“Jeez, thanks.” Frank bit back a harsher reply. “How would you know what I fought like? I thought you were pulling a Wonder Woman, zipping around in the air.”

“We have cameras that monitor every inch of the compound,” Sava explained. “As for this wonderful woman you speak of, if she is a merciless warrior, then yes, I was very much like her today.”

“I’ll learn,” Frank said, channeling his anger into something useful. “I’ll get better.”

“For everyone’s sake, I hope so.” Sava gave Frank a piercing stare. “I hope so.”


12

“There he is,” Raj said with a stupid grin on his face. “We did it, Frank. Frank and Raj. Raj and Frank, we were like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid out there.”

“Didn’t they both die at the end of that movie?” Frank took a closer look at Raj, who lay on a stark hospital bed propped up with a mountain of pillows behind him. “Why are your pupils so dilated?”

Frank and Elly had been shown to Raj’s room in the medical center. Elly had decided to stand outside with Momo and Sava. It seemed she didn’t trust the Draconian after her statement of eating her little friend. Once Frank came out, she would go in to see Raj.

“Of course my pupils are dilated.” Raj rolled his eyes. “I’m as high as a kite right now, Frank, and you know what?”

Raj paused, looking at Frank to answer his question.

“I have no idea,” Frank answered.

“It feels great,” Raj said, smiling as he interlaced his hands behind his head and looked round the room. “I mean, look at this wonderful bed and breakfast. They have cable television, a snack bar, and what’s that door lead to? Dare I think a private balcony?”

“That’s a monitor checking your heart rate.” Frank pointed to what Raj had claimed to be a TV. “Your snack bar is a desk full of medical supplies, and I think your private balcony is a bathroom.”

“Let’s agree to disagree,” Raj said, shrugging. “Man, we were great out there. I took out that second power armor unit like a linebacker sacking a quarterback.”

“Yeah, why did you do that?” Frank said, shaking his head, trying to sound grateful. “You could have been seriously—more seriously injured. I would have found a way to defeat it.”

“I saw my brother in need,” Raj said, explaining to Frank like it was the simplest concept to grasp. “I just reacted. You would have done the same for me.”

“Yeah, but I have these crazy vambraces that protect me when I do stuff like that,” Frank said, starting to feel irritated. “Just—you have to be more careful out there man.”

“Frank, are you worried about my wellbeing?” Raj said, sitting up in bed with a silly smile on his face. “Are we becoming best friends right now?”

“No, stop it.” Frank rolled his eyes.

“I think we need a friendship hug,” Raj said, opening his arms wide. “Come on, come on, get in here. You know you want to.”

“No way,” Frank said, shaking his head. “There is no way I’m giving you a hug; maybe a high five.”

“How about a side hug?” Raj insisted.

“We can do a fist pound,” Frank countered.

“A brief embrace, patting each other on the back,” Raj pushed.

“Three pats, that’s it.”

“Done.”

Frank awkwardly walked to the bed and bent in to pat Raj on the back.

Elly opened the door the exact second Raj and Frank began performing their agreed-upon three pats.

“Hey, I’m just going to bring the Momo in here with me. Sava keeps looking at him like he’s tonight’s din—what are you guys doing?” Elly asked as the Momo trotted into the room and began sniffing around.

“Nothing.” Frank pulled away from the hug.

“We’re sharing a moment,” Raj said at the same time. “I’m sharing a moment with my best friend.”

Colonel Breaker’s voice came over the comms the next second. Even without their helmets, the translation tech administered by Elly while on the planet Atmos still allowed them to communicate. “Marines, I just got off the horn with General Fox and have reports that Raj is healing and ready to take visitors. I want you all to meet me in Raj’s quarters in the medical section and we can go over next steps.”

“Roger that,” Frank said, listening to Elly and Major Lopez give the same answer.

“What’s your flying wolf cub’s name?” Raj asked as if seeing the creature hadn’t even fazed him in the slightest. “What is he?”

“He’s a Momo, and I don’t have a name for him yet,” Elly said, reaching down again and scratching the animal behind his ears. “We need to think of something cool.”

“Oh, like Mr. Fluffy McFlufferson?” Raj asked too enthusiastically.

“No, I said something cool.” Elly shook her head. “Oh, also I don’t think I’m hearing random voices and going crazy after all.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Frank said under this breath.

Elly waved aside the snide remark. “I thought I was hearing voices in my head, but I actually think my hearing devices and translator are able to pick up the Momo’s sounds and translate them for me.”

“I know I’m high,” Raj said, pointing to Frank. “But, Elly, what have you been smoking?”

“No, I’m serious,” Elly said, looking back and forth from Frank to Raj for some kind of support. “I don’t know exactly how it all works, but I know I can understand what he’s saying.”

“What who’s saying?” Major Lopez asked as she and Colonel Breaker walked through the door. “What is that thing?”

“Ms. Wong over here thinks she’s the Momo whisperer,” Raj said, twirling a pointed finger around the right side of his head.

“What’s a Momo?” Colonel Breaker asked.

“That is a Momo.” Frank pointed to the tiny winged creature who lifted a leg and peed in the corner of the room.

“Oh no, I’m sorry I knew you said you had to go, but I thought you could hold it longer.” Elly grabbed a towel off a supply cart and placed it on the pool of urine as she talked to the animal. “No, I don’t think they’ll think any less of you; you had to go. It’s a natural thing.”

“All right,” Colonel Breaker said over Elly’s mother-like pampering. “Let’s stay on point here. I spoke with General Fox and he’s taking our findings up the chain of command. We’re to post up here and offer what support we can until we have further orders. One thing’s for certain. Sava wasn’t lying about what’s going on here and everything points to an actual invasion by the Lord of Chaos.”

Colonel Breaker took a large breath before he continued.

“The Den has already had word from Heron and the Neeve. They’ll support whatever way they can. Both Houses on Atmos are united against the Lord of Chaos. They’ll be offering aid and arriving through the gate tomorrow. In the meantime, I’ll be coordinating with the Draconians here to understand their defensive positions and find out how best to deploy while we wait to hear back from General Fox.”

Something inside Frank stirred at the mention of the Neeve. Images of Princess Vega crossed his thoughts as he pictured the woman he had met on Atmos. The way she smiled at him when they jumped on her Thunderbird, Warrior. The jasmine and cedar wood scent of her hair while she sobbed in his arms after learning about her father’s demise and mother’s brokenness. The blood on her sword after she dispatched justice on the man who betrayed her family. She was unlike anyone he had ever come across in his life.

Don’t kid yourself, Frank, Frank reminded himself. She has a kingdom to run. It won’t be her traveling through the gateway. She’ll send some of her men and an envoy, nothing more.

“In the meantime, Raj, you’re on bed rest. Sava said the poison has left your system weak. I’ll give you a day or two before I need you in the field. Elly, keep your dog from pissing on anything else and get those force fields working on our suits. Major Lopez, you’ll run point with the Neeve. I don’t think they’ll butt heads with the Draconians. It’ll be up to you to see that they don’t.” Colonel Breaker turned to Frank. “Frank, you and I are going to pay a visit to the Draconian leader. Sava has already requested time with you to teach you in the ways of the Arilion order.”

“Of course she did,” Frank said, shaking his head. As usual, his stomach was already reminding him when his last meal had been.

“Let’s get to work,” Colonel Breaker said, looking each of them in the eyes. “We’re up against something Earth has never seen: the Lord of Chaos. But he’s never run into Marines until now either. Let’s prepare so we can make sure we properly introduce ourselves when we finally get the chance.”


13

Dinner was a rushed affair of canned food and water. The lumpy meat and green stuff inside Frank’s tin tasted like old meatballs and tuna. He wasn’t going to complain, not when he saw every other Draconian eating the same thing he was.

After the short stop for food, Sava led them to a two-story building with reinforced metal walls and an arched dome. They passed three security checkpoints before they were allowed inside.

“Our Prime is given every security measure the Draconian people have to offer,” Sava said, pulling her calf-length robe around her. The coffee wool wrap contrasted with the brightness of her green scales. “If he were to fall, we’d be lost. He holds us together, gives our people hope in time of despair.”

Frank exchanged glances with the colonel.

The way Sava carried on about the Prime was strange. In the brief time Frank had known her, she didn’t hand out the slightest bit of praise.

The two Marines followed Sava through a building made of marble with pillars raised to the ceiling. Most of the glass had been replaced with see-through shutters. The skeleton staff that did remain in the building saluted Sava and did their best not to gawk at the humans.

After two left turns, Sava led them to a closed door of reclaimed lumber with an iron knob. She knocked twice.

“Come in, come in,” a rather old yet strong voice said from the other side. “Don’t keep our guests waiting.”

Sava opened the door, ushering the men into a room with a thick carpet underfoot, leather-bound furniture and enough books to make Heron happy for the rest of his life. Each wall was lined with volumes upon volumes of dense texts.

To the left stood a wide desk and two brown chairs. In the center of the room was a comfortable-looking sofa and two more high-backed chairs around a wooden table.

A hunched Draconian walked briskly over to the door, extending a scaled hand. He was older, but his age did not dictate the fire in his eyes or the strength of his handshake. He wore a black and white pinstriped suit with a monocle hanging out of his breast pocket.

“Colonel Breaker, Frank Wolffe,” he said, nodding to each of them in turn. “My name is Clav Kirkhoden. I’m the Prime here leading the Draconian people through our darkest hour. I’m so very glad you’ve decided to come to our aid.”

“Sava was more than convincing,” Colonel Breaker responded.

“Please, come in and sit.” Prime Kirkhoden moved to the side and ushered them to the sofa and chairs gathered around the wooden table. “May I offer you a drink? We don’t have much, but I’ve managed to save some Seppukarian whisky that does the job.”

Frank took a seat in one of the armchairs beside the colonel. Clav Kirkhoden sat with Sava on the sofa. Without waiting to hear the answer to his question, he began pouring a dark amber liquor from a glass decanter into four short glasses.

“Thank you,” Frank said as Prime Kirkhoden passed him a glass. One whiff of the potent substance and Frank fought back the urge to cough.

“To new friendships, alliances bound in the Light, and free species joining together.” Clav lifted his glass.

“To victory,” Colonel Breaker agreed.

“And the death of our enemies,” Sava added.

All eyes turned to Frank.

He stopped with the glass halfway to his open mouth. “Dilly, dilly.”

Frank saw Colonel Breaker crack a grin out of his peripheral vision. The two words seemed enough to satisfy the Prime and Arilion Knight sitting across from him.

The whisky was like drinking liquid fire. It burned its way down Frank’s throat. It took everything in him not to gag. Immediately following the alcohol hitting his stomach, a warm relaxed feeling flowed to every finger, every toe of his sore body.

Prime Kirkhoden smacked his lips and set his empty glass down on the table. “I wish we had more time to get to know one another, but the hard truth is that we are pressed for every hour. I understand one of your allies, the Neeve, has agreed to aid us in our fight against the Lord of Chaos.”

“That’s right.” Colonel Breaker swirled the remnants of his whisky in his glass. “They’ll arrive tomorrow morning.”

Prime Kirkhoden cracked a huge smile full of sharp teeth in relief.

“I believe this may mark a turning point in the war,” Prime Kirkhoden said with his gruff voice to everyone in attendance. “You see, we’ve lacked manpower, not the hunger, not the tools, to win this conflict. We are well-equipped with weapons of warfare! But our numbers… They have been whittled down by the constant attack of the Chaos army. Their constant barrages take more of our soldiers. With your and the Neeve’s aid, I think we can not only defend this planet, we can take the fight to the Chaos Lord himself!”

“Do you know where he is?” Frank asked. “I thought he was hiding somewhere past the known universe.”

“You’re correct.” Prime Kirkhoden stood from his seat, nodding, and walked over to one of the many bookcases lining the wall. He reached up to a brass tube that hung off one of the higher shelves. In one smooth motion, he pulled down a map of the galaxy. “Our planet, Brytanna, is found in the Sanctum Galaxy.”

Prime Kirkhoden pointed to a tiny planet on the topmost part of the chart. Beyond the planet was nothing except black on the map. The Draconian Prime pulled a white pen from his jacket inside pocket and formed lines coming from the blackness of space toward Brytanna.

“We’ve kept track of every single attack on our planet,” he explained drawing lines from a central part of the dark universe to the planet of Brytanna. Although the locations where Brytanna was attacked spread out across their planet, the origin points of the attack all came from a shared point. “Of course we don’t have an exact location as to where the Chaos Lord has grown in power, but we have narrowed down the section of space to explore.”

“The enemy’s strength would have to be confirmed in any scenario in which we go hunting for him.” Colonel Breaker swigged the last of his whisky as if it were water and returned his glass to the smooth wood table in front of him. “And you’re sure you have the ships that would be needed to go on such an offensive?”

“I agree: a scouting force would have to be dispatched to find where the Lord of Chaos has set up his base. But I think he’s smart. I think he has remained just out of eyesight for all these years, understanding that when he was ready to make his return, he would already be within striking range.” In an odd way, Prime Clav Kirkhoden seemed to admire the enemy lord’s strategy. He then looked over to Sava. “I’ll let Sava run you through our military stores at the moment.”

“We’ve been preparing for war since I found out I was an Arilion Knight and sensed this darkness coming,” Sava explained to Frank and the Colonel. “We stocked supplies and built our warships twice as fast as normal production. What we didn’t plan for was the ferocity of the first few waves of attacks. We lost more than half of our military in those initial months.”

Frank could see the pain in her face. Though she tried to remain focused on the task at hand, her jutting jaw, clenched fist, and the distant stare in her eye gave away the emotional battle that still waged within. Somehow, she contained herself and continued.

“We are prepared for a deep space assault. We have a titan class warship, transport ships of our own, as well as two wings of Dragoons ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.” Sava looked over at the Prime. “As Prime Kirkhoden has explained, we lack not the resources but rather the manpower to put our plan into motion.”

“With the aid of two planets and their warriors as well as two Arilion Knights, we will succeed and push the darkness back,” Clav said, pounding a fist against the wooden bookshelf he stood beside. “We can do this and win the war together.”

“How come no other races have joined you?” Frank couldn’t help but ask. “I’m sure you’ve reached out to them.”

“Most don’t believe us.” Sava shook her head in thought. “The Lord of Chaos is a myth on all but a few planets. The devastation of the Chaos War was all too real to us and others nearby. Others, like your Earth in the Milky Way, had no idea. Too primitive or self-involved to know the suffering experienced at the hands of the madman. Yet we considered traveling to other planets with envoys if we could only spare the manpower. I can only imagine the Light chose me to be an Arilion Knight to prepare for this time. It was waiting for you too when you arrived on Atmos, Frank. Whether it has chosen others across the universe, I do not know. What I do know is that we were selected for a reason.”

“You’re talking about the Light like it’s alive,” Frank said, trying to understand what Sava was saying.

“Isn’t it?” Sava cocked her head to the side. “It is alive in me. A fire has burned bright inside of me my entire life and now I know why. This is a lesson left for tomorrow when your training begins.”

Why does everybody want to train me? Frank bit his tongue and thought to himself. First the United States, then Heron, and now Sava. It could be interesting, though. Sava actually is a Knight; maybe she can teach me how to fly.

“I see the value in your plan,” Colonel Breaker said, standing up from his seat. “I’ll relay it to my superiors.”

“Thank you,” Clav said, looking at the map were Brytanna stood as the first planet against the darkness of the universe. “If we give the Lord of Chaos a foothold in our galaxy, other planets and possibly other galaxies will fall soon thereafter. The battle for the universe has begun anew.”


14

Frank was shown to his own room with a shower and a surprisingly soft bed. The mechanical motions of undressing and entering the steaming embrace of the water were second nature. His mind was going a hundred miles an hour as he thought of everything from the slim possibility of seeing Princess Vega the next day to learning to fly, but mostly the over/under on seeing Vega once more.

If he was honest with himself, he had thought about her every day since leaving Atmos. Frank turned off the shower and dried his body and hair. He looked at himself through the square bathroom mirror. The man he saw looking back at him he still recognized, but there was no denying a change was taking place.

A few days’ stubble grew on his chin and his eyes were tired; still, an intensity burned there. Frank’s will had always been ironclad, but now that he knew what it truly was, it gave him even more strength.

Frank walked into his small room in his towel and let himself fall onto his bed. He was asleep in less than a minute. Memories of his childhood would not let him rest well.

“Why are you so poor, Franky Woof Woof?”

“I heard his mom is dying.”

“I heard his dad is so poor, he eats trash.”

Frank was ten again, being pinned against a cold, rough brick wall in an alley after school. His thin arms and scrawny legs, swimming in the clothes that were too big for him, even beyond the popular baggy style, were nothing like the mounds of muscle he had packed on in the Marines and thereafter; all the brawn of today did him no good at the age of ten. Frank was trapped in his dream, looking at the scene in front of him without power to change a single thing.

Two boys towered over him and held him to the hard brick wall as a third boy went through his tattered backpack. The tow-headed bully rummaging through Frank’s bag pulled out a worn copy of Legionnaire Frank had checked out from the library.

“No, don’t, leave my stuff alone,” Frank said, struggling against the larger boys’ grasp to no avail.

“No don’t,” the bully mimicked Frank, tearing open the book and ripping out a few pages, then flinging the book to the ground. “You’re so poor, Franky Woof Woof, you can’t even buy your own books. You have to get them from the library.”

The other two boys chuckled; the thick, ruddy one on his left squeezed Frank’s arm tighter in order to make him flinch. Frank didn’t give the bully the satisfaction. Instead, he bit the inside of his cheek so hard he drew blood.

Watching this version of himself without being able to do anything was torture. Frank had relived this moment dozens of times. Somehow, now it was different; now he hated seeing how weak he had been even more.

“Do something; they’re going to beat you up anyway,” Frank said in his dream as he looked at the younger version of himself.

“I don’t know why we bother with this poor piece of waste,” the boy on Frank’s other arm sighed. “Let’s just kick him around and get going. We should try to grab one of the kids that actually has something to steal next time.”

The lead bully dropped Frank’s bag and walked over to him with a clenched right fist. He was only a grade older than Frank, but at this stage of his life, he might as well have been a titan.

“If you kneel and lick my shoes, I’ll make it easier on you,” the bully sneered at Frank, lifting one of his shiny basketball-style high tops with the emblem of a man dunking that was smeared in mud. “Eat some of the mud off the top, poor boy.”

For the first time, Frank was beginning to see something in his memory he never had before. He noticed how the younger version of himself hadn’t cried out when his arm was twisted. A grin touched Frank’s lips as he looked on at his younger self and what he knew the kid was about to do.

The boys on either side of young Frank shoved him to the ground. The little scrawny kid with shoes a size too small for him fell to the poorly paved alley floor.

“That’s it.” The main bully lifted his shoe and pressed it into younger Frank’s face. “Eat it like you eat the garbage every night for dinner your dying mommy makes yo—”

A sharp inhale from the bully that sounded more like a small girl gasp escaped his lips as Frank planted a right fist into the boy’s groin. Smaller Frank jumped on top of the fallen bully, landing wild punches.

“Don’t you ever talk about my family, don’t you ever talk about my mom and dad, you Neanderthal,” younger Frank screamed.

Younger Frank got in a few wild blows before he was dragged off the boy. The once towering bully had now assumed the fetal position on the ground.

Frank watched as his ten-year-old self was kicked and bloodied by the other two larger boys. He was impressed that, at such a young age, he had known what the word Neanderthal had meant. He was glad he had hit the bully in the ball sack even if he did take a pounding for it. Pain would heal, but memories lasted forever.

The other thing he noticed was that spark of defiance, that will to fight against impossible odds that lived inside him now.

Before, as a scrawny kid, it had been an ember barely glowing in the light of bullies and his family’s financial and health situation. In the Marines, it was a fire, pushing his body to do whatever his mind told him needed to get done. If he was going to live to see the end of the Lord of Chaos, this same will would have to be stoked and turned into a raging inferno.

For the first time in his life, he could begin to understand. The pain of a child who held no control over his circumstances, could only try to grow his character and hope one day it would all be fair. That life would continue to be unfair. Also that good could come of it. His determination allowed him to provide for his parents now. It would seem his determination might also help save the universe. At least the Draconians for now.

Frank began to wake up. His view of younger Frank dissipated until he lay staring at the dark ceiling above his bed.

Someone was knocking on his door. The sound wasn’t soft, but neither was it jarring.

“Yes,” Frank asked, suddenly aware he had fallen asleep in his shower towel.

“I’ve left some training clothes for you outside your door.” Sava’s cold voice found its way through the barrier. “I’ll wait for you outside the building. Hurry, time is precious.”

Frank listened for the tall Draconian to walk down the hall before he rubbed his eyes and sat up in bed. The single window that looked out into the military base showed a dark sky.

“Is it just me or am I being put through the meat grinder?” Frank asked himself out loud as he opened the door and brought in the clothes waiting for him. “If I’m not fighting, I’m training or being pulled into awkward conversations about feelings.”

Frank examined the clothes. They were familiar enough: black ankle-height cross-trainers with drawstring mesh shorts and a matching dri fit shirt. Frank quickly dressed, wondering who had chosen the clothes for him. They fit perfectly. He added his vambraces to his outfit. It was second nature to him now to take them wherever he went.

A few minutes later, he was traveling down the long hall of the barracks to the door that led outside. On either side of the hall were dozens of doors leading into more sleeping quarters. Soft snores and mumbles reached Frank through the doors, teasing at his own lack of slumber.

Frank opened the door leading outside as an icy wind took him by surprise. He shivered, looking at Sava, who was still wrapped in her long brown cloak, a deep hood pulled over her head.

“Wait a minute, how come I don’t get a cloak, robe thing?” Frank laced his arms across his chest, trying not to shake. “Something feels wrong, maybe even speciesist about this.”

“You worry about such insignificant thing, Frank. The whole universe lies before us awaiting protection against a pending darkness,” Sava chided him.

“Look, all I’m saying is, it’s frickin’ freezing, Mr. Bigglesworth,” Frank muttered through chattering teeth.

“I do not know this Mr. Bigglesworth. Come, our exercise room is not far.” Sava rolled her eyes and motioned Frank to follow.

“Frank, I have been preparing for the battle with the Chaos Lord for several turns around the sun. You may even say, I have been training since birth. My ancestor founded the Knights Order generations ago, but our people and my family have always honored the way of the Arilion Knights. When the vambraces illuminated and found their way to me, I uncovered all the tomes I could acquire to my possession. I poured through each page, searching for instruction, for wisdom, and for knowledge on how to channel and honor the Will.” She turned to Frank, allowing him to see her face hidden by the hood. “Do you understand?”

“I think I’m starting to. Tell me more about this obsession,” he replied.

“Obsession indeed. I learned through the Magnum Opus of Arilion Knight Oday how Will can be focused through the vambraces to extend further. That it comes from within a Knight. It was said that at the end of his life, he no longer required vambraces to channel Will. It was from his exegesis that I first learned flight. After the first waves of attacks, our Prime knew I would need a space to train future Knights.” As Sava spoke, her mind seemed elsewhere, far from the chilly, ash-strewn walkway they traversed.

“How did you know there would be more? You said you knew about me. Were you stalking my Facebook?”

“You know nothing, Frank Wolffe.” She shook her head. “The Will. It revealed to me in a vision where to find you. The Accounts of the Great Scourge of Mekelmor stated that the Light had ignited the Knights who could harness the power of the Will to triumph over the darkness. So, naturally, as this Chaos blitzkrieg continued, I knew it was only a matter of time until more Knights were called forth.”

“Visions, Great Scourge of Mekelmor, Light and darkness…” Frank mulled over Sava’s words. “This stuff is so crazy. I think I’m only just starting to scratch the surface of what it means or has meant to be an Arilion Knight, but I do know one thing. I know I have no tolerance for bullies - be they cyber, dictators, or freaky ancient shadowy guys. I’m ready to fight. Show me how. Sign me up.”

“Your training starts now. I’ll be honest with you, Frank Wolffe, I’m going to try and break you. Your strength of Will, will be what your enemy seeks to carve from your soul when they realize your power. The Lord of Chaos will manipulate and lie to you if he thinks he cannot physically overcome you.”

“Sounds like a fun guy,” Frank replied. “Can’t wait to meet him.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Sava said, leading Frank to a single-story circular-shaped building. She placed her hand on a security reader by a pair of steel double doors. There was a slight click before the doors swung open. Frank wasn’t prepared for what he saw inside.


15

The entire circle-shaped building was no more than two rooms. A circular hall ran the perimeter of the building. Separating it from the inner portion were glass walls. Everything was stark white.

“Walk with me,” Sava said, placing her hands behind her back as she made her way down the stark hall. “When I was first chosen by the Light five years ago and knew I was an Arilion, I understood this was all happening for a reason. The Prime and I began building not only weapons of war, but we created this training room to prepare me for what was to come.”

Frank listened to what Sava was saying, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the huge circular room to his left. The glass walls let him see inside. As far as he could tell, there was nothing in there. It was an empty room whose perimeter had to span a full city block.

“This training room has forged my will into something that I know will never be broken,” Sava went on to explain. “What I’ve learned, what I’ve accomplished here has changed my life and I know it will do the same for you. We won’t have as much time as I’d like, but any time spent in the Proving Ground will be of value to you.”

“The Proving Ground?” Frank looked at the back of Sava’s head. “Are you trying to not make me want to get in there? What is it anyway?”

“You’ll see,” Sava said, slowing her forward momentum. “Here we are. I’d like to introduce you to Laloid and I believe you know Ms. Wong.”

“Oh hey, how’s it going there?” A Draconian with a goatee and glasses stood up from a desk full of buttons and monitors. As far as Draconians went, he was short, just touching a six foot height. “Oh, wow another Arilion Knight. May I shake your hand? I have to say it is a true honor to be working with you.”

Frank extended his right hand, which was soon enveloped by the Draconian’s palm. He thought Laloid was about to ask him for his autograph next, when he actually did.

“Hey, so I know this may not be professional, but would you mind signing my chest?” Laloid asked, producing a black pen from his back pocket and pulling down his light brown jumpsuit. “Sava wouldn’t do it, but I believe in good luck and I think having an Arilion Knight sign my body will be a metric ton of good luck.”

“There is no such thing as luck.” Sava narrowed her eyes at Laloid. “We need you to get back to work.”

“I don’t mind.” Frank accepted the pen and wrote his name on Laloid’s chest. “There you go. Now you can’t take a shower for the rest of your life or you’ll be out of luck.”

Laloid accepted the pen, but then the corners of his mouth drooped as he considered Frank’s words.

“He’s teasing, Laloid,” Elly stood up from her chair, where the sleeping Momo was curled up in a ball. “They got me up earlier than you. You better kill it in the Proving Grounds.”

“Hey, why are you here?” Frank looked at Elly, confused.

“Colonel Breaker asked if someone from Marine Space Corp One could be present during training.” Elly took off her glasses and rubbed at tired eyes. “Because I’m the resident genius, I got the job.”

“Lucky you,” Frank said, looking down at the monitors, buttons, and dials at the control desk where Elly and Laloid sat. “So what exactly is the Proving Ground?”

“It’s like boot camp on futuristic meth,” Elly said, giving Frank a sorrowful look. “It’s one of those ‘it’s going to hurt you more than it’s going to hurt me’ types of deals.”

“Let’s begin,” Sava said, walking around the technicians to a door set into the wall that would provide access to the giant white room. A series of locks unclasped, followed by a hiss as she opened the door. She looked over to Frank. “After you.”

“What a gentleman,” Frank said, walking into the room expecting anything. His heartbeat was racing as fast as the adrenaline coursing through his veins.

It was even brighter inside the white room. Frank blinked a few times before his eyes got used to the illumination.

“Easy there, Frank.” Elly’s voice came through speakers somewhere overhead as Sava locked the door behind him. “Your heart rate is spiking.”

“Yeah, I noticed that.” Frank looked at Sava as she double checked to make sure the only visible entrance to the room was sealed tight. “I wonder why.”

“Oh man, this is epic, this is history,” Laloid said over the speakers. “I mean, not one but two Arilion Knights training together. This is legendary. I grew up on stories like this.”

“Laloid, we can hear you.” Sava sounded annoyed.

“Oh, right, sorry,” Laloid said.

“Tell me what you think you know about Will and being a member of the Arilion Knights means.” Sava removed her hood, exposing her horns and the long hair that fell between them. “There are no wrong answers, not yet.”

“Just what others have told me.” Frank tried recalling details he’d learned from Heron. “There was a war between the Lord of Chaos and the Light thousands of years ago. The forces of Light forged the vambraces and founded the Arilion Knights. The vambraces are powered by the user’s strength of Will. We can construct whatever we want using them.”

“Better than I expected,” Sava said, looking back to Elly and Laloid at the control booth. “Laloid, play the origin story, please.”

“Right away,” Laloid said, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice and failing.

“Do you guys have coffee or anything like that here?” Frank heard Elly ask before the speaker was turned off again.

A growing whirring of a foreign machine powering up could be heard before the white room went pitch black. The act was followed by millions of lights and faintly glowing clouds blinking into life. Frank understood it was a holographic view of the universe with more planets and stars than he could imagine.

There were galaxies with no more than a single orbiting planet around a star to ones with dozens of planets, all various shapes and sizes. Every color was represented in the map in front of him, from pale blues to bright oranges and reds based on the gases that made up each celestial object. Asteroid belts and fields caught Frank’s eye as well as suns and supernovas.

Frank extended a hand to a bright orange star in front of him. His palm passed right through it.

“This is the universe as we know it,” Sava began to explain. “Even with our superior technology, it is impossible to have a full map of the universe. As far as we can tell, it is never-ending and always expanding.”

The hologram all around Frank transitioned from stars to a group of alien men and women. They stood shoulder to shoulder, all various sizes and shapes. One of the aliens looked like a fish on two feet and another an insect with a pair of legs and four arms.

They all wore different variations of the vambraces on Frank’s own forearms. Some were short; others long to perfectly fit on the aliens’ forearms. Each vambrace was slightly different as well. The alien runes etched on their vambraces varied from wearer to wearer.

They all wore the same uniform: a fitted, sleek armor to cover potentially vulnerable areas of their bodies with additional protection on their shoulders and torsos. The main color of their uniform was black and dark purple outlining, with the torso section matching the color of their vambraces. On the left side of their chest was an emblem that was different for each member. Frank guessed it was the planet they fought from or the military corps they served under on their unique planet.

One thing they all shared in common was the intensity that lived in their eyes. Frank had seen the look before in the faces of Marines when facing down an enemy. It spoke of violence, determination, and victory no matter what the sacrifice.

“During the Chaos War, every planet was called upon to aid,” Sava began. “Thousands answered the call. The forces of Light forged vambraces to represent every planet willing to fight. Only one from each planet was chosen as worthy to don the vambraces and take up the mantle of an Arilion Knight. It was not and is not a power taken lightly or haphazardly. Although there are only two of us, we carry the torch for a clan of very real warriors. It will be up to us to fight in their name.”

The army of Arilion Knights in front of Frank changed again. This time, he was standing in the middle of a frenzied battlefield. Frank actually moved to the side as a Chaos soldier drove a lance into the shield of an Arilion Knight. In every corner, the forces of the Chaos Lord met the combined armies of the Arilion Knights and all the soldiers from their planets. Added to the scene were sounds of war booming all around him.

Somewhere in the back of Frank’s mind, he understood he was still in a safe room. The images were only projected for him to see and the noise of warfare just pumped through the speakers.

Still, it felt quite real to Frank. The floor even shuddered under his feet as a rocket exploded. A group of hairy aliens with clubs were vaporized by the exploding projectile.

“This is what we face,” Sava said just above a whisper.

A shadow was falling over the battlefield. The Chaos army parted, allowing something or someone to pass through their own ranks. The figure was massive, easily as large as a power armor unit. The monster was made up of armor like a man, but Frank understood there was no man underneath. Black wings made of fire and darkness more than flesh, feather, and bone spread out on either side of the beast. A horned helmet revealed a pair of burning red eyes underneath.

Frank couldn’t help but take a step back from the monster bearing down on him. The Lord of Chaos was more than just a giant physical specimen to fear. He carried the sense of doom with him. A voice in Frank’s head was already talking him down from even trying to fight the monster. He felt empty, without hope.

How can anything stand up against this? Frank thought to himself. How can anyone even have a chance at fighting this demon?

The Chaos Lord loomed closer, reaching out with an open hand for Frank.


16

Frank was rooted to his spot. The Marine inside him would not allow him to turn and run. Frank still understood this was a simulation, but the question stood boldly in his mind.

How are you going to beat this thing?

“All right, Laloid,” Sava shouted over the sounds of war still playing out in the holographic scene around them. “That’s enough.”

Frank blinked, waiting for his eyes to adjust back to the bright white of the room’s original state.

“Did you feel it too?” Frank asked, remembering the hopeless feeling that had stolen his will to fight. “It was like—it felt like—”

“It feels like every ounce of good in you has been sucked out of your soul,” Sava said, staring hard at Frank. “The Chaos Lord will use this tactic when we strike. Everyone on our side—Human, Neeve, and Draconian—will feel it. When they do, they will be looking to us for guidance. We must be their light in the dark.”

Frank licked at his dry lips, thinking on Sava’s words.

“When all hope seems lost, we will stand,” Sava said, repeating an ancient oath. “When the universe is on the brink of annihilation, we will pull it back. The Arilion Knights will find a way.”

“I need you not to hold back during training.” Frank snapped out of his daze. “I need you to beat me down over and over again so I can learn. I never want to feel that hopeless again.”

“Let’s go to work.” The left corner of Sava’s mouth turned upward in a grin. “Laloid, load the pressure cooker program.”

“Understood,” Laloid said from over the speaker.

“Why do you have to have all these hopeless names?” Frank stretched his arms on either side of his body and jumped up on his toes to warm up.

“Hey, Frank—Frank, it’s Elly.” Elly’s voice came through the speakers.

“Yeah, Elly, I knew it was you.” Frank looked back to the window where Elly and Laloid sat.

Elly waved. “So I took it upon myself to make you a little training mixtape. You said you work better with music. Enjoy.”

Frank couldn’t help but smile as the boom-boom-clap of “We Will Rock You” by Queen emanated from the speaker system in the room and into his chest.

To Frank’s surprise, Sava didn’t say anything. Holograms popped to life in the circular room. This time, the room stayed lit; an orange sun shone overhead. Frank stood beside every member of Space Marine Corps One as well as a handful of civilians, men, women, and children. Even Sava stood with her arms crossed against her chest with the group.

The group’s backs were to a hard wall that extended to the ceiling. Another stone wall stood across the room in front of them, being pushed forward slowly by a dozen Chaos power units.

“No!” a woman screamed, running to the approaching wall, slamming her shoulder against it and trying to stop its forward movement. “They’re going to crush us! Help me!”

Panic washed over the group as some screamed in hysteria. Colonel Breaker’s hologram and the rest of the unit ran to the wall slowly coming forward, throwing their weight behind it and trying to keep it back.

“Frank, help us!” the holographic version of Raj yelled.

Frank didn’t waste time joining the group as they pushed together. Frank reached deep inside, adding Will to his strength, both hands on the cold stone surface sliding toward them. Frank fought to find his footing.

“Don’t give up,” Frank yelled. “Push!”

Frank’s feet slipped on the hard dirt ground no matter where he placed them. The wall pushing in on them rose to the ceiling. The only way Frank could see the power armor units was through a translucent panel in the stone wall that showed their helmets and glowing red eyes.

No matter how much Will Frank forced into his arms, no matter how hard he battered his shoulder against the wall, he couldn’t stop the momentum of the sliding slab of rock. Panic and fear inked their way into his body with shallow breaths, heart racing and ice in his veins.

“This is how it’s going to be.” Sava lounged against the far wall. “You can handle a war zone, but can you handle a war zone in the face of impossible odds, when everything hinges on you?”

“Raaaaaw,” Frank growled, screaming in anger that he couldn’t stop the wall. He only had five yards to work with before he and all the holograms would be crushed between the two slabs of stone.

Frank constructed every kind of brace he could imagine from steel rods that stuck into the ground as well as those that touched both stone walls. It was useless; the purple constructs all snapped under the pressure of the coming wall.

Steel weights, beams, even a purple power armor unit Frank managed to construct of his own weren’t strong enough to push back the wall.

“Come on, Frank, time is running out,” Sava said from right behind him.

Within moments, they would be crushed between the stonewalls. The Marines beside him never gave up; the civilians were already screaming in panic.

“The answer isn’t over or through,” Sava said as if she were reading Frank’s thoughts. “It’s your Will against the end of the universe. It’s just you against them.”

Frank’s lungs burned, his hairline matted with sweat, the muscles in his arms aching from trying to push back the wall.

“Everything you are, Frank, everything you have in you right here, right now,” Sava encouraged.

“It’s—it’s impossible,” Frank breathed hard. “I’m not giving up, but is this scenario even a battle that can be won?”

The wall was feet away now. The hologram Marines and civilians kept shouting; some in fear, others in determination.

Sava moved from her spot against the back wall, shrugging off her brown cloak and revealing the leather vest and pants underneath. She pressed both her palms against the wall sliding toward them. The purple glow in her vambraces burned bright.

Veins popped on her muscular arms, her feet slid across the ground, and then, as if by magic, found traction. First, the barrier stopped sliding toward them, then it began to move back as Sava channeled her will into strength.

The units of power armor on the other side of the translucent wall threw their shoulders into it. Steam shot from their joints to no avail. Sava walked the wall back just as doggedly as it had been brought forward.

The civilians and Marines in the hologram program cheered for her as she pressed on. A moment later, Laloid shut down the program.

A wave of embarrassment mixed with determination rushed to Frank’s face. Sweat poured down his forehead and back, and with it, a desire to try again and again until he could live up to the Arilion name.

Sava walked back toward Frank without the slightest sign of perspiration on her brow.

“You have everything you need here.” She reached Frank, tapping with a finger to the area over his chest. She then raised her finger to Frank’s temple. “Now know it here. I see inside of you. Don’t think you can; know you can. Anger left free to roam will destroy a warrior. However, it can be a powerful tool if you are able to channel it into something useful. Do you believe everything happens for a reason?”

“Yeah, yes, I do,” Frank said, thinking back on his life. “Maybe I don’t see the entire plan yet, but I’d rather believe I live in a universe with order than with random chance dictating my every move.”

“Good.” Sava nodded with approval, moving to Frank’s side. “Every challenge you’ve faced, every bully you’ve overcome, every life circumstance you’ve pressed on to endure has laid the foundation for this point in your life. Let’s build on that foundation, Frank.”

“Again,” Frank said, nodding along with the low octave riff as “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes played over the speaker. “Laloid, run it again.”

“Can do, boss,” Laloid’s excited voice came over the intercom. “Oh, this is so exciting.”


17

Frank failed again and again and again. Every time the wall pushed him back, pressing the holograms into the wall behind them, his dogged will to succeed only burning brighter.

He lost track of the time, but he knew it was breakfast when Sava paused the simulation, and Laloid, Elly, and the Momo walked in. They brought large jugs of some kind of liquid with them. Elly had a mustache of whatever was in her container all over her upper lip.

“Oh, you gotta try this stuff,” Elly said with a wild grin on her face. She spoke so fast, all her words sounded connected to one another. “It’s like a protein smoothie laced with energy. It’s a prenergy drink. I need to patent that. “

Frank used the front of his shirt to clean the sweat from his face before accepting his drink. It tasted amazing. The cold crushed alien fruit drink puckered his taste buds while the stimulant gave him enough energy to move forward with the training.

The Momo sat beside Elly’s feet, cooing and growling at her.

“Memphis Toby Steven Eric Grey Lykos Colby Magnus thinks you need to get pissed for this to work,” Elly said, looking from the Momo to Frank.

The Momo bared his teeth at Frank as if he were showing him how to be mean.

“What is that whole thing you just said? Is that what you named him?” Frank asked, draining the last of his drink. “You’re going to confuse the poor guy.”

“Yeah, well, I’m still deciding.” Elly shrugged. “But seriously, get angry. Whatever it is that does motivate you, you gotta use it now, man. You’re making the Marines look bad.”

Frank scowled at Elly before realizing what she was doing. “Are you just trying to get me mad?”

“You suck, Frank,” Elly prodded him. “And your perfect hair and muscles and, well, the whole package you have going on, it’s disgusting.”

Frank shook his head before handing his mug back to her and turning back to Sava. “Let’s do it again.”

“Again,” Sava agreed, giving her mug back to Laloid.

Laloid, Elly, and Momo left the Proving Ground area and made their way back to their chairs on the other side of the glass wall.

Frank bobbed his head to the beat of the guitar as the music came on once more.

“I pulled your file and added in some extra holograms this time,” Elly said over the sound of the music. “Get pissed. You’re the worst!”

The simulation started a moment later. The same line of power armor moved a translucent wall forward. The same members of Marine Space Corps One stood beside him and the same civilians, except now Vega, his mother, and father all joined him.

Frank shook his head as the first shouts washed over the gathered crowd.

They’re not here; it’s just a simulation, Frank reminded himself.

Frank’s father held his mother. She clung to him for support. Vega ran with the rest of the Marines to push the wall back.

“You can do it, son.” Frank’s father looked at him with a grim nod. “I know you can do this.”

“We’re with you,” his mother added, smiling at Frank with her energy that remained.

Frank hated Elly for adding his parents to the simulation, but he understood why she had done it.

Once more, the Arilion Knight turned to face down the wall. He clenched his fists, setting his jaw and allowing every emotion he felt channel into force. The vambraces on his arms glowed brighter. Frank walked, then began to run forward to meet the looming wall. Anger at himself for not being able to perform the task raged inside. Instead of fighting back the feeling, he allowed it to build and fuel his actions.

Frank ran, then sprinted to the wall, slamming his body against the barrier so violently it made his teeth chatter. The wall hesitated for a moment, maybe even slid back an inch before coming forward again.

Did he imagine the halt in the forward movement of the wall or had he actually done it?

“Oohrah!” Elly screamed over the speakers, confirming Frank’s thoughts. “Get some, Frank!”

Power like he had never understood pumped through his body. Heat that boiled from somewhere deep within stoked his internal desire to succeed.

“There you are.” Vega’s hologram grinned at him from his right. “Together?”

“Together.” Frank dropped to all fours like a defensive end ready to rush the opposing team’s quarterback. He slammed his right shoulder against the barrier, turning his head to the side. Both hands gripped the wall and he pushed. “Rawww!”

Hesitation in the barrier was obvious this time. Frank dug his feet as hard as he could into the flat floor surface, and for the first time, actually began to push the wall back.

Cheers from the holograms filled the room as they rushed to help.

For all the years he was bullied, for his mother’s failing health, for Vega’s murdered father, for all the things he couldn’t control, against the fear of failure, Frank pushed.

In under a minute, Frank and the rest of the holograms had succeeded in pressing the power armor units back and crushing them against their own back wall.

“Wow, Frank, I’d say that’s really good.” Laloid ended the training simulation. “Pat on the back, yeah?”

“Thanks,” Frank panted, putting his hands on his waist, trying to regain his breath.

“How did it feel?” Sava asked.

“It felt great,” Frank responded, trying to put his emotions into words. “It felt like accepting what was inside me, who I am instead of fighting it.”

“The toughest metal is forged in the hottest flames, Frank Wolffe,” Sava said, taking in the room with her right hand. “And I intend for you to be the absolute strongest. However, physical strength is not the only attribute you’ll need as an Arilion.”

“This is where I learn how to fly, isn’t it?” Frank couldn’t keep the wonder out of his voice.

“No, you idiot, that takes years of practice.” Sava shook her head as if he had just asked the dumbest thing he could have. “We need to make sure your strength and speed are on point. I reviewed the footage from the battle you fought yesterday, and I don’t think speed will be as difficult for you to manage compared to strength. You outran those rockets the power armor fired on you with ease.”

Sava paused to look over at Laloid, who sat on the other side of the glass. “Laloid, load the Despair program.”

“Another great title for a training program,” Frank muttered.

Two holographic figures appeared on the opposite side of the training room. One was a human girl no older than three or four. Her huge brown eyes stared up at a Chaos soldier in crimson armor pointing a plasma rifle at her.

“We don’t have to do it like this.” Frank looked over to Sava with disgust. “I can learn to be fast without having to do it like this.”

“Is that anger?” Sava said with an approving nod. “Good, use it. Laloid, begin.”

Frank was off like a round from a gauss-powered rifle. He didn’t need further prompting as to what he was expected to do next. The two figures on the other side of the training room had to be five meters away. Doubt told him he didn’t have a chance of rescuing her in time.

You’re faster than you know. Will yourself to be faster, Frank screamed inside his head. You got this. Frank. You can do this.

Everything moved in slow motion. The Chaos soldier took aim. The brunette girl looked over at Frank with a scream on her lips. Frank dove for the girl at the same time he heard the rifle blare a single shot.

BAM!

Frank grabbed the girl, twisting midair to put his back to the round the chaos soldier fired.

She felt so small in his arms as he skidded across the ground. Frank looked down to see a hole in her stomach, her little eyes staring at his with fear. Frank felt hot tears invade his eyes, a lump welled in his throat. The child breathed one last time and died in his arms.

Memories of fallen brothers and sisters in the Corps grabbed at his thoughts. Tears fell from Frank’s eyes without sobs or cries. He gently placed the small child on the ground beside him. He closed her eyes; hologram or not, it felt right.

“I hope you understand why this—”

“Laloid, run it again,” Frank said, tears falling down his face as he stared promises of revenge into Sava’s eyes. “Run it again!”

“Do it,” Sava said.

“You want to see what I can do?” Frank felt feral as emotion he had buried for so long raged once more. “This is what I can do.”

Laloid started the program once more. The same girl appeared with the same Chaos soldier on the other side of the room. Frank poured his anger into Will, reaching the Chaos soldier as the villain raised his rifle to take aim at the child.

Frank brought a purple Ka-bar into his right hand, slamming into the Chaos soldier and knocking him over. Frank sawed at the space between the helmet and the rest of the armor.

Holographic blood splattered the air and his own face and hands as he cut through bone and skin. He stood a moment later with the Chaos soldier’s helmet in his hands. The bucket dripped gore and blood.

Frank threw the helmet toward Sava. It rolled to a stop at her feet.

The training program ended. The rock music in the background died.

“There you are, Frank Wolffe.” Sava nodded with approval. “This is who you need to be. Our enemies will have no mercy. Neither can we.”


18

The ash laden sky was already darkening once Frank had finished his training. More strength and speed drills had finished the day with a brief break for lunch.

Frank’s entire body was sore. He walked back to his barracks with Elly and the Momo.

“You did great,” Elly said, uncomfortable in silence. “Laloid made me swear I wouldn’t tell you, but he said you’re learning way faster than Sava did when she first started.”

“I wonder what insane training program she has in store for me tomorrow,” Frank let out a deep sigh. “I—”

A graceful figure was walking toward them from their left. The curves and swaying caught his eye. Someone Frank was surprised and at the same time excited to see.

“I heard there was an Arilion Knight training somewhere here on the grounds.” Vega beamed at Frank. “I was on my way to find him. Do you know where he could be?”

Vega was stunning as usual. Her light purple skin, pointed ears, and simple pearly gown were out of place in this desolate and burning Draconian military base. She looked perfect.

“I don’t know. I heard that guy was kind of a weirdo.” Frank smiled. “Maybe you should keep your distance.”

“I’ll keep that under advisement.” Vega turned to Elly. “Hello, Elly.”

“Hello, and I uh—I just remembered I left something in the oven,” Elly said, eyeing Frank like an older sister. “You two behave yourselves.”

Elly didn’t wait for a response. She took off down the road toward the barracks, the Momo in tow.

“Is it proper Neeve etiquette for an Arilion Knight to give a princess a greeting hug?” Frank asked, closing the distance between the two. “Do I need to ask permission first or get down on a knee or some—”

Vega rolled her eyes, stepping in toward Frank, and grabbed him tightly. The familiar scent of her hair was a mix between vanilla and jasmine. She fit into his arms as if they had only ever been meant for her. It refilled the good in his spirit after that ghastly training exercise with Sava.

“If I had known how sweaty you were,” Vega’s words tickled at his left ear, “I would have thought twice about the hug.”

Frank laughed before letting her go. “How are you here? I knew Heron took word back to you and you agreed to help, but shouldn’t you be back home taking care of House Thunder? I mean, after everything that happened?”

The conversation was more difficult to navigate than Frank had initially anticipated. Vega had just been through a nightmarish few months, losing her father and then having her mother mentally break down. The kingdom was under her care now.

“General Tamar is watching things while I am away,” Vega said, understanding everything in Frank’s question. “My mother’s still not well. She’s under the care of our physicians. With peace between House Leviathan and my own, the threat lies here now. I couldn’t send my warriors to fight a battle I was not willing to fight myself.”

“But if you’re the empress of House Thunder now,” Frank pushed a bit further, “shouldn’t you be with your people?”

“My people are in good hands,” Vega said, arching a perfectly shaped eyebrow. “If I’m not mistaken, you owe me a date.”

“Do I?” Frank teased.

“That’s what you told me when we last parted.” Vega shrugged.

“That doesn’t sound like something I would say.” Frank tapped a finger to his chin. “I’ll tell you what, since you asked so nicely, I’d love to go on a date with you.”

It was Vega’s turn to laugh. “Only you, Frank Wolffe. Okay, well something has to be done with that stench coming off you before we go on this date.”

“Agreed.” Frank pointed down the road to where the single-story barracks sat in the middle of the military compound. “Give me ten minutes.”

“I can do better than that,” Vega answered back, beginning to walk with Frank. “I can go with you.”

“Wow, I’m not that type of guy, Empress Vega.” Frank raised his eyebrows.

“Do you ever stop?”

“I try not to.”

“I’ll go with you and tell you all that’s transpiring while you get ready,” Vega explained. “I fear our time here is going to be cut short.”

Vega had Frank’s full attention already. With her last words, he looked over to her with concern. The two walked back to Frank’s barracks as she explained.

“There’s a plan in formation to take this fight to the Chaos Lord himself and extinguish his flame before he can grasp a foothold in the universe,” Vega said as they reached Frank’s barracks and went to his room. “The Draconians have the ships required for a scouting mission and a siege on the Chaos Lord once we find him. The Neeve will provide ground support and your own Marines, well, they have you.”

Frank and Vega walked into his tiny room. Someone had washed and replaced his military fatigues, folding them nicely and placing them on his bed.

“Frank, come in.” Colonel Breaker’s voice sounded in Frank’s ear courtesy of his translation unit.

Frank pointed to his ear, making sure Vega understood what he was doing. “Yes, Colonel, I’m here.”

“There’ve been developments in our situation here on Brytanna. I’ve heard back from General Fox,” Colonel Breaker said in the same sure tone he normally carried. “We’re going to meet with Empress Vega and Prime Kirkhoden to go over details. Meet outside your barracks in two hours.”

“Roger that,” Frank said, sensing the Colonel wanted to say more. “Is there something else?”

“Just be ready, Frank,” Colonel Breaker said as if he were snapping out of a trance. “Things are about to accelerate quickly.”

“Understood. I’ll be ready to rock and roll, sir,” Frank said, entering the bathroom and starting the shower. The longer the conversation took, the less time he would have with Vega.

“Is that running water?” Colonel Breaker asked. “Are you in the shower?”

“No, no nothing like that. That would be weird,” Frank said, stopping in the process of removing his shirt. “I’ll see you in two hours.”

The channel clicked and went silent.

“Sorry about that. Work, you know. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” Frank cracked the door so he could still talk to Vega while cleaning up. “So I’m not sure if our options for dinner are going to be up to par for an empress, but they have this juice stuff here that’s amazing, and if we get really hungry, Elly found that Momo thing that I’ve heard is delicious.”

“That adorable winged creature with Elly?” Vega asked from the other room. “I’m not going to touch him. He’s cute, reminds me of someone I know. Is everything all right with the colonel?”

“Yep.” Frank wasted no time in the shower lathering himself with a soapy spongy grooming tool used by the Draconians. “He said we’re all meeting tonight to go over the plans, but you already knew that. I’m guessing we’re leaving soon to go hunt down the Lord of Chaos.”

“If by ‘soon,’ you mean tomorrow, then yes,” Vega said, her voice much closer to the door now.

“Are you being a creeper right now?” Frank turned around, looking at the cracked door where Vega stood with his clean clothes.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever been called a creeper,” Vega said, placing Frank’s cleaned clothes inside the bathroom. “Hurry up; you still have soap everywhere, but it smells great. You smell like a newly blossomed flower.”

“Crap, you’re right.” Frank rinsed off the suds, trying to get rid of the smell to no avail. He gave up, turning off the faucet and toweling dry. “Well, I guess better a flower than a sweat stain.”

“You do have a way with words,” Vega responded. “So what shall we do with our first date? A romantic meal in the Draconian food hall followed by a walk around the military base?”

“Something like that.” Frank came out in his pants, still pulling on his shirt. He made sure to flex when Vega looked. “Leave it to me. I have it all planned out.”


19

“Why do you continue looking over your shoulder like we’re about to be party to an illegal activity?” Vega asked like a child who was misbehaving and could get caught at any moment. “Are you about to do something we could get in trouble for?”

“Are you kidding me?” Frank shook his head while he looked from side to side. “You’re an empress and I’m an Arilion. I think we’re untouchable.”

After a quick trip to the Draconian mess hall, Frank and Vega had each taken a meal to go. A brown paper bag was clutched in each of their arms as Frank led the way back to the training room building.

It was dark now, the streetlamps providing the only dim, orange illumination beyond the smoky sky. A unit of Draconian soldiers were traveling behind them just loud enough for Frank and Vega to pick up their conversation.

“Hey, isn’t that one of those new aliens who came to help us out?”

“Yeah, it is, and by the look of that body, I think I’m going to enjoy our new alliance.”

“Hey, Legs, wait up.”

“I hate when all they see in me is my perfect calves and toned butt,” Frank sighed before he turned around. “Why can’t they just love me for my mind?”

Vega laughed as she too turned to see the Draconians approach. They would be easy to make out now. A streetlamp shone directly above them. There were six Draconians, all wearing the same military uniform of drab green trousers and button-up blouse.

They all stopped in their tracks in front of Frank and Vega with open mouths.

“You’re the—the Arilion Knight.” One of them licked his lips with this thin tongue, avoiding eye contact with Frank. He shifted his weight side to side. “I’m so—so sorry.”

The Draconians looked to one another in fear.

“You don’t have to apologize to me.” Frank shrugged. “Despite my vanity, I know you weren’t talking about my perfectly shaped lower half. Unless you were.”

“No, no,” one of the front Draconians said, shaking his horned head furiously. “We were talking about the Neeve.”

Two things struck Frank. One, it was obvious these Draconian soldiers had no idea who Vega was. The second thing was that out of the six Draconians in front of them, all save one seemed afraid. There was a tall thin one in the back who stared at Frank, unblinking.

“You should really learn better manners,” Vega said with a sigh. “If we were on my planet, I’d challenge you all to combat and beat you soundly. For the sake of our new alliance with your race, I’ll overlook the comments directed toward me. I only give warnings once. Next time, I’ll make sure you pay. Do you have anything else to say?”

Five Draconians looked down shamefully, slowly shaking their heads. The last one, the tall one in the back with dark green scales, scoffed. “It’s easy for you to talk like that when you have an Arilion Knight next to you. I don’t see what the whole fuss is about. Without his glowing vambraces, he doesn’t look like much to me.”

There was a shocked inhale from the other Draconians.

“You’re out of line, Miriam.” One of the Draconian soldiers looked from Miriam to Frank. “I’m so sorry for our friend. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

“I know exactly what I’m saying and I mean it.” Miriam pushed to the front of the group, staring down at Frank. “Without the Will, you’d be no match for me.”

“Hold up.” Frank winced at the tall Draconian, who stood a good foot over him. “Are we just going to glaze over the fact that your name is Miriam?”

The Draconians looked to one another, confused.

“That’s a girl’s name.” Frank looked over to Vega with a grin.

“No it’s not,” Miriam said with a snarl.

“Um, yeah, it is.” Frank shook his head with a smile. “You should look into changing that.”

“And for the record, Frank is more of a warrior than you could ever be, even without the power of the vambraces and channeling the Will.” Vega took a step forward, looking up at Miriam. “He holds more power in his pinky than you do in your entire body.”

“Wow, easy there.” Frank placed a hand on Vega’s shoulder. “I just trained all day and I thought we were going to go on our da—”

“If it weren’t for his title, I’d challenge him to a fight right here,” Miriam roared.

“Challenge him, then.” Vega raised her own voice. “He’ll set aside his mantle to kick your rear end. Rank or title is of no meaning at this point.”

“Hey, hey.” Frank reluctantly placed his meal on the ground. Other Draconians were beginning to take notice of the conflict below the streetlamp and make their way over. “This is escalating quickly. Why don’t we just all go our separate ways? We have our date. I’m sure Miriam has some deep-seated issues to work through with his name.”

“Coward,” Miriam growled.

Another huge inhale of wind from the gathered Draconians’ throats. There were enough Draconians present there to form a circle around the group.

“Are you going to let him call you that?” Vega looked at Frank with wide eyes. “He just called you a coward.”

“This is just like high school.” Frank shrugged off Vega’s concern. “I’ve been called a lot worse than ‘coward’ in my life. Believe you me, if you heard some of the other things I’ve been referred to, well that’s a story for another time.”

“Look, look at the Arilion Knight you all practically worship.” Miriam folded his massive arms over his chest. “He’s nothing.”

“If you don’t fight him, I am.” Vega clenched her fists so tight by her sides Frank knew she was telling the truth. “I’m going to kill him.”

“Okay, okay,” Frank finally agreed. “I’ll fight Miriam. Man, I never thought I’d say those words in the same sentence.”

The crowd around the group was a mixture of hushed whispers and cheers.

Vega took Frank by surprise, pressing her lips hard against his own. A lightheaded feeling that started at his lips and spread to his skull took Frank by surprise.

“Teach him a lesson,” Vega said, pulling away. “It’s your title as an Arilion Knight on the line now.”

“No pressure,” Frank said, removing his military jacket. He turned to Miriam, who was swinging his arms and cracking his neck. A sadistic grin was on his face. “So what are the rules here, Miriam? No crotch shots, eye gouging, biting?”

“There are no rules. We fight to the death,” Miriam said, beginning to circle Frank.

“Well, that’s taking it a bit far,” Frank said, also circling his much larger opponent. “Okay, if you win you can kill me, but if I win, you have to change your name to Frank Junior.”

“Stop talking and fight.” Miriam lunged at Frank, the black nails on his green-scaled hands as sharp as knives.

Frank side-stepped, allowing Miriam to crash into the first line of spectators. The Draconians jeered at him as they pushed him back. It seemed most of the crowd was cheering for their Arilion Knight.

“I’m going to kill you!” Miriam regained his footing, pushing away from the crowd.

Frank was used to dealing with larger opponents. He understood the mechanics of fighting. It was Miriam’s speed he was worried about. The Draconian out-matched him for size and strength, but he was also faster than Frank had anticipated.

Although he made it look like he side-stepped Miriam’s lunge easily enough, he was actually anticipating the Draconian would be slower.

Easy. Pick your opening and don’t get caught, Frank coached himself as Miriam came in again.

Miriam swung high with a wild right. Frank ducked down and sent his fist into Miriam’s gut. It felt like striking a cement wall. Frank had not been expecting the Draconian’s scales to be so hard.

In the fraction of the second it took Frank to process this information, Miriam followed up with a left-right combination to Frank’s face.

Pain exploded over Frank’s right eye and left jaw. He stumbled back, shielding himself from any other blow and falling to a knee. His vision blurred as unconsciousness grabbed at him.


20

Somewhere in the background, Frank heard the crowd gasp. Miriam was jeering at him.

You’re better than that, Frank said to himself, angry he had let the fight go downhill this fast. You’re better than that, Frank. Get up!

Frank relied on his Marine training to focus past the pain and look only at what had to be done. His face throbbed; he was on his right knee. A trickle of warm blood fell into his right eye from a shallow cut that had been opened.

“This is the Arilion Knight we will all turn to in our time of need?” Miriam had his back toward Frank, speaking to the other Draconians. “We must look to ourselves, not some alien. We are our only hope.”

There was a gasp and cheer as Frank fought his way to his feet.

Miriam turned with a sneer.

“I can do this all day, Frank Junior,” Frank said, raising his fists in front of him. If his new plan was going to work, he had to give Miriam every indication he was seriously wounded. He needed his much larger opponent to commit everything he had in his next attack. “Come on, we got to solidify that name change for you.”

Miriam pulled back green lips from sharp teeth in a predator growl. He lifted his own meaty green fists, coming in toward Frank.

As hard as it was, Frank stood in the same spot and waited.

Miriam juked from side to side, trying to throw Frank off. It was unnecessary. Frank didn’t plan on moving out of the way.

Miriam threw punches at Frank’s head and body. Frank dodged what he could and used his arms on either side of his face to protect himself from the worst of the blows. The strikes that did land made his whole body shudder.

The first few punches were the worst, but as Frank guessed, the more and more the Draconian threw, the less power they had behind them. A being with so much muscle would have a hard time with stamina and maintaining force behind his blows as time went on.

Frank didn’t throw any punches in return, not yet. He started to move around Miriam now, making the Draconian miss as many punches as he landed. The ones that did land racked Frank with bruises to his torso and face. He absorbed each blow with his arms and hands that protected his body. Each strike came weaker than the last.

Miriam was breathing hard after the initial twenty to thirty strikes.

“Come on,” Frank coaxed him, spitting blood from a cut lip. “I’m just a human, remember? Come on, Miriam, you have more to give. Come on.”

Hate crossed Miriam’s face, starting at his mouth and traveling to his eyes. He tried a lazy kick Frank easily sidestepped, then tried to tackle Frank. Frank telegraphed it a mile away.

Frank kept moving, making Miriam move to follow.

“Coward,” Miriam gasped. “Fight me—”

If there was more the Draconian was about to say, Frank didn’t allow him the opportunity to finish. The Marine chose his moment well and sent a strike to Miriam’s throat. The punch was awkward at best. Since the Draconian was so tall, Frank had to send his fist up over the alien’s collarbone but below his chin.

CRACK!

Miriam stumbled back, grabbing at his throat. Frank didn’t think he had broken anything, not with the Draconian’s thick scales protecting him, but it sure didn’t feel good.

Frank ignored the blood coming off the knuckles on his right hand and pressed forward. It was his turn to put his cards on the table and it had to be enough. Frank couldn’t afford the fight continuing. His body was too fatigued from the training he had already endured that day.

Charging forward, Frank jumped, cocking his bloody fist back and superman-punched Miriam, who was still coughing and gasping for breath. Frank definitely felt the nose passage on Miriam’s face give way under the pressure.

The Draconian toppled to the ground under a shower of bright lime blood. Wasting no time, Frank jumped on him, applying a rear naked choke. With his forearm under Miriam’s throat, Frank squeezed with every ounce of strength he could find.

Although he did not have his vambraces, the principle of where his strength came from still applied. He was still as deadly without the power of Will as with it. Anger, rage at having to fight at all to be put in this position boiled inside.

With everything he had, Frank squeezed. Miriam, still dazed from the strike to his nose, grabbed at Frank’s arms and tried to extract himself, but it was no use. Frank was a pit bull with a bone.

Seconds later, Miriam went limp in his arms.

“Frank, Frank!”

It was Vega’s voice among the shouts of the crowd that brought him back to the moment. Frank released Miriam, pushing the massive Draconian over to the side.

A cheer rose from the throats of those around. Vega came and offered Frank a hand. Frank accepted, looking to his right where Miriam lay unconscious, his chest still rising and falling.

“Kill him,” someone shouted from the crowd.

“It was a fight to the death.”

“He would have killed you.”

“If we kill each other, who’s going to be left to fight the Lord of Chaos?” Frank asked the crowd. “When he wakes up, tell him he should focus on our true enemy instead of allies. And someone remind him of his new name, ya?”

There was a chorus of laughter and shouts as the Draconians present began to chant, “Arilion Knight, Arilion Knight, Arilion Knight.”

Frank waved, leaning down to pick up the bag holding his dinner. Vega joined him as they made their way through the crowd. Frank took the lead once again, directing them to the training facility.

“You really need to take less hits in a fight,” Vega said, her voice one part playful and one part concerned. “We need our Arilion Knight around for a long time to come.”

“I’ll be fine,” Frank said, reaching the closed doors of the training facility and hoping his plan would work. “I’m tougher than I look.”

Frank placed his hand on the wall scanner. It beeped once and the doors opened. Frank said a silent prayer of thanks; either the doors recognized Arilion Knights or Sava had programmed the door to open for him as well. Either way, they were inside.

“Why do you keep looking over your shoulder?” Vega asked, following Frank down the circular hall that ran the perimeter of the building. “And what is this place?”

Lights sensing their presence flickered on as Frank made his way to the control panel he had seen Laloid and Elly use that day.

“No, we’re good,” Frank said, reaching the control panel and searching over the many switches and buttons. “This is the training building and the room in front of us is called the Proving Ground. Ah, here we go.”

Frank flipped a switch that turned on a monitor displaying a variety of training programs. A few names jumped out at him, including Burning Planes, Gut Ripper, and Make My Day. Frank ignored these, wondering who came up with the titles, before finding the program he was searching for.

After activating the program, he moved to the station where Elly had sat and did the same, activating the mixtape she had loaded into the program.

“Frank, we should really do something about that cut above your eye before we go any further,” Vega said, studying his face. “It hasn’t stopped bleeding.”

“Once we’re inside. Come on.” Frank opened the door to the Proving Ground. He took Vega’s hand in his own and led her inside.

The holographic training program displaying the entire universe shone in front of them as they entered. Rock and roll music played overhead.

Frank led Vega to the center of the room, where they sat together. “Perfect, right?”

A smile played on Vega’s face as she nodded to the music. The glow of the many stars and planets made for the perfect ambiance, like dozens of candles shining for them.

“It’s beautiful, like being part of the sky, inside space itself.” Vega tore off a piece of her dress and pressed the cloth to the cut over Frank’s eye. “And your choice of music makes me want to tap my foot. What was it called? Rock and roll?”

“That’s right.” Frank allowed Vega to attend to his wound. “When you come visit me on Earth, I’ll take you to a concert. You’re going to love it.”

“I’m sure I will.” Vega pressed on Frank’s wound harder, applying pressure to stop the bleeding. “Tell me more about you, Frank.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Everything, I want to know everything.”

Minutes felt like seconds as Vega stopped the bleeding on Frank’s wound and the two shared their simple mess hall meal. Frank couldn’t remember being happier. He would hold on to these memories during the dark days to come.


21

“What happened to your face?” Colonel Breaker asked as Frank and Vega entered the designated meeting room in the capitol building.

“What?” Frank feigned confusion. “It’s just me. I just look like this.”

Colonel Breaker did not seem amused.

“Oh right,” Frank said, pointing a finger all around his face. “I cut myself shaving, and then fell down the stairs and ran into a door.”

Vega actually laughed out loud. She slammed her right hand over her mouth to stop any more noise from coming out.

Colonel Breaker gave Frank a long stare before turning to the empress. “It’s good to see you again, Empress Vega.”

“You as well, Colonel.” Vega recovered.

Colonel Breaker and Major Lopez were the only other members of Marine Space Corps One present. They wore their fatigues and jackets. Sava and Prime Kirkhoden were speaking in hushed whispers on the other end of the room, Sava with her long brown cloak and the Prime in a sharp suit.

The narrow room featured no frills, just business with a spiral staircase leading to a higher floor. An extended table and chairs filled the plain chamber, making it feel like a conference room.

“You look like you got into a fight.” Major Lopez pushed the subject. Her hair was pulled back, the scar on the left side of her face fully exposed, no makeup to try and cover her wound.

Frank was saved from any further interrogation by Sava and the Prime.

“I’m so glad you are all here and we have agreed to a course of action,” Prime Kirkhoden began. “With the strength of our alliance, I know we can seek out the Chaos Lord and end his campaign before it begins. With the quick and decisive leadership of your two planets, we are ready to depart in the morning and finish what has been started.”

“We are of one mind,” Vega said, transitioning from the woman who kissed him and cared for his wounds to a strong leader of her people in an instant. “My warriors are ready. We’ve lost much—too much at the hands of the Chaos Lord and his followers already.”

“We understand the threat a dictator like this poses to the universe.” Colonel Breaker agreed with the other two leaders in the room. “We’ve seen it firsthand. We’re ready to help in whatever way we can.”

“It does my heart good to hear you speak these words.” Prime Kirkhoden beckoned for the group to follow. “The hour is late and our time is short. You should all get a good night’s rest. Before you do, I wanted to introduce you to—something.”

Frank didn’t mishear the Prime. The Draconian had most definitely made the effort to say “something” and not “someone.”

The group followed the Prime together up the winding stairs to a floor at least three stories high.

“Does anyone know anything about this?” Major Lopez asked under her breath. She looked over at Frank. “Anyone?”

“Why are you looking at me?” Frank shrugged.

“Because you have a knack for finding things out and getting into trouble while you’re at it,” Major Lopez responded.

“I don’t know anything, I promise,” Frank said as he placed one booted foot after the other on the steel steps. “Scout’s honor.”

The stairs opened up into another wide open room, this one decorated with cushioned chairs and short tables. It made Frank think of a study room or library even.

The Prime motioned them toward a wall of windows that looked out over the military base. Something large loomed on the dark horizon. Over the buildings surrounding them and out even further to those structures that had been destroyed by the Chaos army, something massive approached.

Frank squinted, trying to make out what it could be. The dark night and lack of starlight from the haze of smoke and ash made it impossible to discern details. All he knew was that it moved slowly and it was bigger than an apartment complex.

“It took our engineering team years to build,” Prime Kirkhoden breathed with a sigh of pride. “It’s capable of holding a crew of just over one thousand, with every amenity you can imagine from state-of-the-art mess halls to hangar bays. It can hold two squadrons of twenty-four fighters each as well as a twelve-ship squadron of transport crafts. We have dual ion torpedo mounts along with laser turrets and a rail gun capable of reaching the enemy in the blink of an eye.”

As the Prime continued to rattle off facts about the ship like a proud papa, the craft came closer and closer. A thrum of engines could soon be heard. Before long, it was close enough to make out more distinct details.

The front reminded Frank of pictures he had seen of the Titanic. Midway through the body of the craft it expanded into a cube. Toward the stern of the ship, a command tower rose from the base of the craft. There were thrusters on either side of the ship as well as four more to the rear.

The Draconians painted the entire vessel the same greenish khaki of their uniforms.

The ship was much too large to set down anywhere inside the military base. It came to a halt, hovering in front of them.

It was a massive warship with guns protruding out of the deck at varying intervals. It was hard to tell exactly how long the ship was, but if Frank had to guess, it was at least as large as the training building where he had trained that day; two hundred meters, probably even longer.

“It’s magnificent,” Vega breathed. “What have you named the warship?”

“We actually do not have a name for it yet.” Prime Kirkhoden looked between Vega and Colonel Breaker. “We were going to offer our new allies the opportunity to name the vessel.”

“If I may?” Vega looked over to Colonel Breaker. “I think I have the perfect name.”

“Of course.” Colonel Breaker nodded in her direction.

“I’d like to name the warship after my father, who was murdered through a ploy of the Chaos Lord himself. The Chaos Army was going to use our planet as a staging area and the spheres to bring more of their army through the gateway.” Vega’s eyes were hard, unwavering. “I’d like to name it the Ryker.”

“Ryker is an excellent name,” Sava said from her place next to the prime. “We will make the enemy pay, Empress Vega. We will take everything from them as they have from us.”

Sava used her single good eye to hold Vega’s gaze for a moment.

“The plan is to leave at first light.” Colonel Breaker looked over to Frank. It seemed he was the only one that needed to be told the details of the mission. “The Draconians will send four hundred staff, pilots, and crew for the ship. The Neeve have six hundred foot soldiers. Marine Space Corps One will be taking care of the equipment for the soldiers.”

Colonel Beaker said the words as if Frank was supposed to speculate what was going on.

He had no idea, but instead of saying such, he replied with a simple, “Sir?”

“Elly’s found a way to give us a leg up in the fight.” Colonel Breaker didn’t say more.

A moment of silence passed as each warrior was left to ponder on the future.

“The last time races came together to combat a threat, the last time more than a single Arilion Knight fought side by side was the first Chaos War,” Sava said to no one and everyone. “Together, we’ll end this.”

I hope you’re right, Frank thought to himself as he stared out the window toward the Ryker. I hope you’re right.


22

Sleep came quickly for Frank as usual. Morning came much too quickly.

“Marines, up and at ‘em,” Major Lopez said through the comms. “Meet at the front of the barracks in twenty.”

“Just, just five more minutes, Mom,” Frank said through the comm unit Elly had placed on his throat during their first mission.

“Yeah, I know you’re out of practice with life in the Marines, but the Corps waits for no man,” Major Lopez said, way too alert for someone who had just woken. If Frank had to guess, she had already been up for a good hour. “Let’s go, Oohrah, we have a war to win.”

“Freaking morning people,” Frank muttered to himself as he swung his legs out from under the warm blankets and psyched himself up to start his day.

Getting dressed was easy. Frank made a trip to the bathroom to ensure his short dark hair wasn’t too crazy and use the water-pressured oral care device Draconians had left for him. The water shot hard and the stuff they used for cleaner tasted like a middle school science experiment gone bad.

Frank opened his door to see Raj across the hall. The Marine was closing his own, preparing to leave. He wore his own fatigues and walked with a cane in his right hand.

“Hey, good to see you’re up and at ‘em,” Frank said, eyeing the cane in Raj’s hand. “You trying to look more like a gentleman?”

“Hey, Frank,” Raj said, looking down at the ebony cane with the silver handle he leaned on to move. “I wish. It would be cool if there were a sword in it or something. The poison has left my leg a little weak. I’ll need the cane’s support for a while to get around. How about you?” Raj leaned in to get a better look at the cuts and bruising across Frank’s face. “Did you get into another fight?”

“Naw, I just fell. I’m all thumbs these days. Come on.” Frank waved his friend over. “We better get outside before Major Lopez lays into us.”

“Right,” Raj said, following Frank down the hall.

When they opened the door that led them outside, the morning chill brushed against Frank. Major Lopez, Elly, and the Momo were already outside waiting.

“Good morning,” Raj said with a smile, looking down at the Momo. “Good morning, Magnus.”

“Magnus?” Frank looked over to Elly, who now wore her hair back, exposing her ears, which she was usually self-conscious about.

“Yeah, I finally decided on a name,” Elly said, running a finger over her right ear. “And it’s confirmed. The sound waves emitted from the pitch in which the Momo speaks is detected by the microphone of my hearing device, then the electrical signals are relayed to our translators implanted behind my ear, thus enabling me to not only hear what he’s saying but understand his alien language.”

Frank’s eyes glossed over. “One more time in English.”

“I can talk with the Momo thanks to my hearing aids,” Elly said, leaning down to ruffle the creature’s ears. “Ahhh, I’m glad I found you too, Magnus. No—I’m sure no one here is going to eat you.”

“Colonel Breaker is waiting for us on the Ryker. He wanted to get an early start,” Major Lopez said, throwing a thumb to a vehicle parked beside the barracks Frank recognized. It was another Crawler, just like the ones they had used to fend off the most recent attack. “I’ll drive. I don’t trust Raj not to pull another kamikaze stunt.”

“Too soon, too soon,” Raj said, shaking his head as he limped over to the passenger side seat. “And I’m calling shotgun.”

“Looks like you, me, and Magnus in the back,” Frank said to Elly as they all made for the Crawler.

“I think the little guy wants to fly,” Elly said looking down at Magnus, who padded along next to them.

Magnus whined and chattered.

Elly looked down at the animal as if she was listening to what he was saying. “What? No, I don’t think so.”

Elly sniffed the air, looking to Frank. “Are you wearing perfume?”

“What?” Frank reached the side of the Crawler and leapt inside. “No, it’s the soap in my shower. It makes me smell like this.”

Magnus whined and growled. Elly burst out laughing.

“What’s he saying now?” Frank asked as the tiny alien spread his feathery wings and took to the air.

“He says you’re lying and he bets you love to wear flower-scented perfume.” Elly giggled as she too climbed into the back of the Crawler.

“Yeah, well, tell him I might eat him after all if he keeps that up,” Frank said, staring hard at the little Momo, who soared into the air and headed through the military compound.

Major Lopez gunned the engine to life. The Crawler jerked forward. On their street of the base, things had been rather quiet. As they made their way through the Draconian military base, they realized this was the exception rather than the rule.

The compound teemed with vehicles and Draconians alike running to and from various buildings like one track minded ants building a nest or bees gathering pollen. Open bed trucks piled with wooden crates stenciled with “rations,” “ammo,” or other supplies lined up like dominoes filling the street. The smell of burning fuel made Frank scrunch his nose in the cold morning.

The sun had begun to rise; however, due to the ash in the air, it hung barely visible behind a veil of grey. Looming in front of them, towering higher than any of the buildings, sat the Ryker. Frank could easily see it over any of the structures’ rooftops. It looked like a mountain of steel.

Major Lopez maneuvered around the lines of vehicles to where the Ryker sat on the outskirts of the base, where a dozen or more buildings had been previously leveled by enemy attacks.

“Let’s go,” Major Lopez said, pulling up beside the Ryker. “Colonel Breaker wants us to report to the bridge ASAP.”

Frank jumped out of the Crawler, trying to look at everything at once. As they entered the ship, there was something new to see in every corner. The unit moved up a wide ramp set inside the left side of the ship.

It looked like some kind of storage bay. Everywhere Draconians and now Neeve were preparing for their trip. When either of the two races noticed Frank or even the rest of the Marines, for that matter, heads were bowed and looks of admiration passed their way.

Magnus swooped inside the high-ceilinged room. He came to a stop beside Elly with a flurry of grey wings.

“When did the Neeve arrive?” Raj asked, turning his neck so hard from side to side that he was in danger of giving himself whiplash. “When’s the ship taking off?”

“They got here just a few hours ago through the gateway,” Major Lopez answered over her shoulder. “We’re scheduled to leave within the hour.”

“All this is going to be stored and cleared within the hour?” Elly asked, looking around at the dozens of soldiers still loading the ship. “It’s a warzone down here.”

“They’ll find a way,” Major Lopez said, directing them to the rear of the large storage bay.

A silver elevator took them up to a higher floor, where they were let out once more.

Frank took the opportunity to consider how quickly three races had moved to unite as one. They all understood exactly what was at stake. They had all seen it firsthand. Still, three interplanetary races working this quickly and efficiently together boggled Frank’s mind.

Well, I guess staring in the face of annihilation makes people do funny things. Frank found himself wondering what it would take for the people of Earth to come together. If three species can do it in the matter of days, we should be able to as well. You’re thinking in circles again, Frank.

Frank tore himself out of his deep thought, bringing him back to the present. The group walked down the wide grey halls of the ship. Steel surrounded them with recessed lighting in the ceiling of the ship as well as the lower halves of the walls.

Not that he had any idea of what craftsmanship of an intergalactic spacecraft should look like; however, what Frank did see impressed him. Clean lines spoke of the experts’ work on the ship.

Soon Major Lopez reached a set of large steel double doors leading onto the bridge.

“Hold onto your butts,” Major Lopez said with a wink. “This is the cool part.”


23

“This is so cool,” Raj said, looking around with the others. “This is some Star Trek stuff right here.”

Frank couldn’t argue with the doctor’s assessment. The ship’s bridge looked like a small amphitheater. The half-circle-shaped room had three levels separated by a few steps each. The upper level had three seats on each side for the Draconians piloting the ship.

The second level just below held an empty captain’s chair. Ebony leather made up the body, headrest, and arm support, with jade details accenting the stitching and curvature of the plush seat. Control panels were stationed on each side of the arm rest for the user’s convenience. The third and lowest level had another display of seats and monitors lined up in a row in groups of two or three. Directly in front of this was a massive glass view screen portraying the deck of the ship and beyond.

The amount of screens, buttons, stitches, and levers at each station baffled Frank. Only a trained group of naval officers would be able to pilot a ship like the Ryker. Frank hoped they were ready.

“Oh, hey, guys,” a familiar jovial voice said from Frank’s left.

Frank looked over to see a smiling Laloid, who waved hysterically at them. “Hey, Laloid.”

“Oh, I’m so glad you could all make it.” Laloid beamed with pride, his pressed drab olive uniform hugging his reptilian body like a glove. “We’ll be taking off soon and I just want to say how awesome this will be. Flying into the unknown, to find and fight the Lord of Chaos, everything on the line, the universe in the balance. I mean, wow, just wow, guys.”

“Oh, I think I’m going to be sick,” Raj said as he hung on to each of Laloid’s words. “Why does the universe always have to be in the balance?”

“Sir.” Major Lopez cut off Laloid from saying anything else that might cause Raj a panic attack as Colonel Breaker and Sava walked up from the lower level on the bridge.

Colonel Breaker wore his usual dark combat uniform with Marine Space Corps One’s insignia on the right shoulder. The Spartan helmet with wings extending out from either side insignia was as unrelenting and stoic as the expression on the colonel’s face.

Sava stood beside him. She had abandoned her brown robe and even the leathers she usually donned underneath. Today she wore a uniform just like the other Draconians all around her. Boots, a drab green single-buttoned uniform with triangles indicating her rank on her shoulder, and an emblem over the right portion of her chest. The tan field was the shape of a spear tip and inside was an army green Draconian skull.

“Marines.” Colonel Breaker addressed the group, even looking at Frank with a nod. “We don’t have much time until lift off, so let me get you up to speed. Elly, Major Lopez will assist you as you fit the Neeve army with force field units and weapons. I believe Empress Vega has some of her people willing to assist you as well. We need the job to be done by the time we reach the Lord of Chaos and his planet.”

“Yes, sir.” Elly and Major Lopez both nodded and turned to leave.

“Doc.” Colonel Breaker turned his eyes to Raj. “How’s the leg feeling?”

“It’s a long way from my heart, sir,” Raj said with a grin. “I’ll be fine. Where do you want me?”

“Familiarize yourself with the medical bay.” Colonel Breaker looked over to Sava. “Can you spare someone to show him the way?”

“Of course.” Sava motioned to Laloid. “Laloid, will you please take Lieutenant Agarwal to the medical bay?”

“Oh great, this guy?” Raj said under his breath.

“Oh, you know it,” Laloid said, practically jumping from his seat. He extended a hand to Raj. “I don’t think I’ve met you yet. The name’s Laloid and I’m so glad you are here today.”

Raj looked over at Frank and mouthed the words, “Help me.”

“You’ll be fine,” Frank whispered, shooing him off with one last jab. “Just don’t look him in the eyes.”

Raj gave Frank a bewildered glance, unsure if Frank was teasing or being serious, before following Laloid.

“Mr. Wolffe.” Colonel Breaker looked at Frank, studying his still bruised face. “Sava has requested to continue your training on board the Ryker. I’ve agreed. You two will be our best weapons once this final fight begins. The stronger and better trained you are, the more our chances of victory increase.”

“Yes, sir.” Frank nodded.

“We’ll remain in the bridge until take off,” Sava explained. “After that, I will be handing control of the Ryker over to Colonel Breaker and you and I will continue our training.”

“Come again?” Frank said, glancing between Sava and the colonel. “No offense, sir, but do you know how to fly one of these things?”

“Absolutely no idea,” Colonel Breaker said with a hint in his voice that sounded strangely like excitement. “However, there will be a crew of Draconians here with me on the bridge. I’m beginning to learn now, but I’m sure it will take years before I could ever pilot one of these ships.”

“Colonel Breaker’s experience in warfare will be more important on the bridge than his ability to actually pilot,” Sava said, turning back to the crew sitting at the control stations and running through checklists. “He’ll also have the ability to reach me through comms, since our technology has been linked.”

Frank nodded along with the words. If Colonel Breaker only had to lead and make the tough decisions, he knew the man could do that well. It was the rest of the job he was worried about. To Sava’s point, he had an entire crew with him who had been trained to perform their tasks and run a ship.

“I think it’s about time we address the Ryker,” Sava said, motioning for Colonel Breaker to follow her. She chose a place right in front of the captain’s chair. Turning to a Draconian on the middle level, she asked, “Miriam, will you please send a ship wide broadcast?”

Frank grinned so hard, his face hurt as he leaned over to see who Sava was speaking with. As he suspected, it was the same tall Draconian he had gotten into a fight with the day before.

“Certainly, sir,” Miriam responded, clicking a few buttons on his control panel. “Ready to broadcast no—”

“Excuse me, what name did you respond to?” Frank caught the Draconian’s attention. “I could have sworn you answered to Miriam, but that would be really weird. Isn’t your name—oh it’s escaping me right now, what was it?”

A couple Draconian officers on the bridge stifled laughter. A few others looked at each other, confused.

Miriam looked down at his control panel, half ashamed, half embarrassed. “It’s Frank—Frank Junior.”

“Oh, that’s right, Junior,” Frank said with a satisfied nod.

Sava stared daggers at him.

“Sorry, sorry, my bad.” Frank lifted his arms into the air and stepped back. “I just wanted to be sure.”

“Broadcasting in three,” Miriam resumed his duties, “two, one.”

“Neeve, Humans, and Draconians,” Sava began as she stared into a screen that popped up on the glass window in front of her. The image reflected back on her, showing what everyone else on the craft would see. “We are quickly approaching the maiden voyage of the Ryker. I will be taking command of the ship to begin with. However, as my duties as an Arilion Knight demand my attention, I will be placing the ship in Colonel Breaker’s care. The colonel has decades of experience leading men and women into warfare. Backed by our own trained crew, we will lead you to not only discovering where the Lord of Chaos hides, but to crushing his flame of dominance before it can begin.”

Sava took a moment to pause. In the interim, the bridge erupted in an unexpected wave of applause and shouts in support of her words. Frank joined in, clapping his hands as hard as he could.

“As one, with a single goal in mind and purpose,” Sava continued, forcing the applause to subside to be heard. “We will find this would-be destroyer of worlds and we will be victorious!”


24

“Engines are go,” Laloid reported to Sava, who sat in the captain’s chair on the bridge of the Ryker. “All systems are go.”

Frank stood beside Colonel Breaker on the upper deck of the bridge. The ship’s inertial dampeners would afford them the opportunity to stand while the Ryker ascended into the sky or at least that was the nonsense Laloid had told him.

The Ryker trembled as the thrusters lifted them from the planet of Brytanna. Guesstimating exactly how many tons the warship weighed was pointless. It had to be over two hundred tons, but exact numbers were irrelevant.

“Ever think you’d be an astronaut?” Colonel Breaker asked without taking his eyes away from the main viewing window at the front of the bridge. “Ever think you’d be flying into space?”

“There were times I didn’t think I was going to make it off Atmos when we were fighting leviathans, Chaos soldiers, and power armor suits,” Frank answered as the Ryker picked up speed, transitioning from a purely vertical ascension to one that now took them forward and upward. “I never even dreamed this would be possible.”

The two men stood quiet as the ship rose higher and higher. The smoky barrier surrounding the military compound finally dissipated, blocking their view for only a moment longer before bright sunshine blinded their eyes.

Frank lifted a hand to his face to give his pupils time to adjust. The sun over Brytanna was beautiful, more orange than yellow. The view screen adjusted to avoid blinding the crew. The view was breathtaking. Still the Ryker rose, even now gaining speed as it raced toward space. All around Frank, technicians at chairs monitoring system functions were reporting in to Sava.

“Engines are good,” Laloid said.

“Hyper drive is ready and standing by,” Miriam said from his station.

A tiny tremor ran across the ship’s bridge as they passed away from the sun and headed into the blackness of space. Frank didn’t have words for the moment. He had seen stars far overhead before; even now they were still distant, but somehow it was as if they were within reach.

All around them, the light of the sun died, giving way to the blackness and vastness that was space; thousands of lights twinkled and shone, just waiting to be explored. Faster and faster, the Ryker rocketed forward.

“Laloid,” Sava said from her seat. “Let’s track our route one more time.”

“Yes, sir.” Laloid clicked a few buttons on his control panel, bringing up a map of their current vector on the giant window in front of them. “Up now.”

Frank watched as it showed where the many attacks on Brytanna had originated. They all started at a common location, funneling outward toward the planet. Sava’s path led straight through the funnel and to whatever lay on the other side.

“All the reports, all the intel they’ve been able to gather from traders and mercenaries that have traveled past the known universe, say the Lord of Chaos lies in this direction,” Colonel Breaker told Frank. “Intel varies from a few days of hyper speed travel to a week. The Draconians think that’s due to ship speed.”

Frank nodded along with the colonel’s words.

How crazy does your life have to get before you’re having serious conversations about hyper speed and space travel? Frank thought to himself. Well, at least we won’t have to wait in traffic.

“Thank you,” Sava said, touching the keypad on the right arm rest of her chair. The plotted route from the main screen disappeared once again, showing the immensity of space. “Miriam, prepare for hyper speed on my mark.”

“Preparing for hyper speed, sir,” Miriam said from his station.

Frank gripped the rail in front of him, feeling his heartbeat pick up in speed. He had no idea what hyper speed would feel like if anything at all; it just felt better to hold on to something.

“Here we go again.” Colonel Breaker looked over to Frank. “You ready for this, Arilion Knight?”

“Let’s do it,” Frank said.

“On my mark.” Sava’s voice filled the bridge. “Start the countdown.”

“Entering hyper speed in…” Miriam’s voice paused for a moment. “We’re getting energy spikes on the screen. Something’s exiting hyper speed.”

“What is it? Can you confirm?” Sava asked.

“It’s another ship,” Laloid’s voice was panicked. “I have it on long-range scanners. Miriam is right. It’s coming out of hyper speed now. It’s an enemy warship; my gosh, I’ve never seen anything that large.”

“Bring it on-screen,” Sava said, not missing a beat. “Shields up and notify Hammer and Viper squadrons to stand by.”

A series of “rogers” followed her words as the technicians on the bridge began carrying out her orders.

“Coming—coming on screen now,” Laloid said, fighting back the concern in his voice.

The next moment, the screen on the bridge showed an expansive craft just as large as the Ryker if not wider. Obsidian with sharp jutting edges that caught light, exaggerating their sharpness. Two wings came forward like pincers from a gigantic insect’s maw, and red lights shone on the ship.

“I think I just messed my pants,” Laloid whispered in his seat.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have brought the enemy ship on the main screen,” Frank said, shaking his head as he tried to wrap his mind around the size.

“We’re being hailed,” Miriam called out from his seat. “Shall I open a comm channel?”

“Put it on the main screen,” Sava said, looking behind her for the first time to Frank and the colonel. “I’d bet my life we’re about to enter a fight. Be ready.”

Neither Frank nor the colonel had time to answer before the screen transitioned from the blackness of space to the image of a menacing alien whose face seemed nothing more than a scowling skeleton covered in alloy sinews with small tusks protruding from his cheeks, all made more hateful with dead eyes. He, or it, stood on his own bridge. Nothing was immediately visible on either side of his large head. The top of a red-collared uniform was the only other part of him their view afforded.

“This is Commander Belvil Trask of the Destroyer,” the alien commander said, narrowing his white eyes. His voice sounded like a cross between a cement truck and nails on a chalkboard. “I would normally not waste time opening a link with an ant, however, your ship is intriguing. My scans show it as being unknown. Now I see you are very clearly Draconian filth.”

“I am Captain Sava Sargard and this is a ship from the Republic of Brytanna,” Sava said without any hint of trepidation touching her voice. “I am ordering you to surrender yourself, your crew, and your ship immediately.”

The enemy commander began uttering a sound that had to pass as a laugh for him. To Frank, it sounded like a gravelly wheeze.

“The Lord of Chaos has ordered the death of you and your entire race,” Commander Trask said as he finished his laughter. “You and your kind will be the first species wiped from the universe like the unclean abomination you are. A new order is rising in the universe, a pure order that has been born to rule.”

If Sava took offense at the commander’s words, she showed none. “I’ll take your answer as a refusal to comply.”

“You think because you managed to build a single warship, you have a chance at defeating us?” Commander Trask scoffed. “I will annihilate you.”

“We’ll see about that,” Sava responded, as cool as ever. “We’ll see how the Lord of Chaos’ navy fares in this battle. The Will is with us and so are the Arilion Knights.”

Sava lifted her right forearm, showing the glowing vambrace to the screen and the enemy commander beyond. She held her forearm there, staring directly into the monitor as if she were begging the commander to mock her further.

For the first time, something other than hate showed on Commander Trask’s broad alien face. He seemed uncertain for the briefest second. It was clear he knew exactly what an Arilion Knight was and just as clear he had not expected to encounter one so soon.

Sava took full advantage of the enemy commander’s uncertainty. “The Light has broken the darkness before. We will do so again. If you test us, we will end your life. I promise you this.”

“Arilion Knight or not, I will rend you. I will break you,” Commander Trask sputtered. Saliva flew from his small mouth. The pincers on either side of his jaws coated in saliva. “Death is com—”

“What about two Arilion Knights?” Sava said, rising from her seat. She waved Frank over. “Are you prepared for that?”

The psychological game Sava was playing on the enemy commander was beyond impressive. Not once, but now twice, she had stopped the commander mid-sentence, making him rethink everything he thought he knew.

Man, Sava must make for one brutal ex-girlfriend, Frank thought to himself as he joined the ship’s captain. I feel sorry for whoever that guy is.

“Hey, hi there.” Frank waved at the monitor, making sure the Chaos commander was able to see his own vambraces. “I don’t—I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but you have spit hanging all around your face. Like, all over the place; that can’t be hygienic in this army or the Chaos army. Just FYI, I thought I’d throw that out there.”

Commander Trask was shaking with rage. He opened his mouth to say something.

“Cut the feed,” Sava said, turning away from the monitor. “All crews to battle stations.”


25

The bridge erupted in chatter as the Draconian techs doled out orders to the rest of the crew via their comms. An alarm warning sounded, notifying everyone that battle was imminent.

“Attention, all hands, general quarters. Battle stations ready!”

“Clear the line for 1MC. Captain’s orders only.”

“Lieutenant Rangar, report on 4MC.”

“Redirecting all unnecessary electrical control to cannons and shields.”

The bridge doors slid open. Vega rushed inside. Even in the heat of battle, the Neeve empress blended function with beauty as she wore a simple alabaster uniform of a double-breasted jacket trimmed with gold. The front ended at her trim waist and the back tails extended to the top of her thighs. Gold pencil-tailored pants led to gold boots. She looked to Sava, then Frank. “What can the Neeve do to help? I heard the broadcast and—”

Frank did a double take before he understood what he thought was happening, was actually transpiring on the bridge. Chaos soldiers in their bulky crimson red armor were materializing all around the bridge. At least a dozen of them appeared out of nowhere.

Everyone on the bridge stood stunned for a moment. Colonel Breaker was the first to find his voice and take action.

“Down!” the Colonel warned, throwing himself into Frank as hard as he could.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The plasma rifles the Chaos soldiers carried fired in all directions. The sounds echoed off the small compartment of the bridge. Draconians yelled out in their last moments of death.

Frank landed on his back, the colonel still on top of him. The wind had been knocked out of Frank, making it hard to breathe, much less regain his feet.

Colonel Breaker gritted his teeth, rolling off Frank. The colonel’s right arm was missing from the shoulder down. He held on to the wound with his left hand, already applying pressure to the wound. The superhot plasma had eaten right through his arm.

“Stay down!” Frank knelt next to Colonel Breaker, calling a shield forward from his left vambrace. An oval shelter popped up, protecting them both from another wave of fire. “How is it?”

“I’m not going to be clapping anytime soon,” Colonel Breaker shook with the words as he forced them out through his closed teeth. Speaking with the fierce toughness of a Marine, he moved to a sitting position beside Frank. “Get me a weapon.”

Frank didn’t understand how the colonel was still conscious, given the pain he must be experiencing, but there was no time to focus on the meaty stump where his right arm had once been. All around the two Marines, the bridge was in pandemonium.

The Chaos soldiers had killed half the crew with their surprise attack, but the other half were fighting back. Only Frank and Sava had access to weapons, but that didn’t stop the rest of the crew.

To his left, Vega was holding her own. She straddled a fallen Chaos soldier, ripping his helmet off his head and bringing it down over and over again on the alien skull.

To his right and below him, Sava had called a protective barrier around her while dealing out death to the enemy one after another. She flung deadly curved purple blades that sank into her opponents, one moment bringing death and the next disappearing as if they had never been there to begin with.

Frank pushed forward to where Laloid was grunting as he tried to wrestle away a plasma rifle from a Chaos soldier. His attempts at grunts actually sounded like whimpers, like a small child trying to pull something impossibly large across the room.

“Ugh, Ugh,” Laloid said, holding on to the plasma rifle for dear life.

Frank ran forward. Discarding his shield, he summoned a Desert Eagle in his right hand. He squeezed the trigger as he pressed the barrel to the Chaos soldier’s red helmet.

BAM!

The Chaos soldier staggered back, releasing his hold on the weapon.

Chatter over Frank’s comm was coming in so fast he couldn’t make sense of the words. He was sure he heard Raj, Elly, and Major Lopez, but there was no time to make out their words. He couldn’t stop now, not until the bridge was clear.

Frank grabbed the plasma weapon from Laloid’s shaking hands and threw the weapon to Colonel Breaker, who grabbed it with his good arm and sent a spray of plasma bolts toward two Chaos soldiers running onto the bridge from deeper in the ship.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The colonel caught one in the head and the other with two rounds to the chest. The superheated plasma ate through their armor in seconds.

“Frank,” Miriam shouted from somewhere on the bridge. “Behind you!”

Frank turned in time to see one of the last standing Chaos soldiers bring his rifle to bear on Frank. Frank snapped his arm out, holding the Desert Eagle, and fired two more rounds before his enemy was able to press the trigger. The shots slammed into the alien’s red helmet, tearing through bone and brain matter before exiting the other side.

Just as fast as it started, it was over.

Dead chaos soldiers slumped on all three levels of the ship’s bridge. Along with them were most of the Draconian technicians. Besides Frank and the colonel, the only ones still breathing were Sava, Vega, Miriam, and Laloid.

“Raj, I need you on the bridge ASAP,” Frank yelled into his comm as he ran to the colonel and skidded to a halt beside the man. “Colonel Breaker’s been hit.”

“Reports coming in from all over the ship,” Sava said to everyone at once. “They’ve somehow beamed in across all levels. There’s fighting in the cargo hold, hangar bay, and barracks.”

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Frank heard all of this, but what was important to him now was the man who had saved him. The wound on Colonel Breaker’s arm had been all but cauterized shut by the plasma round. Only a small pool of blood had been allowed to gather below his charred stump.

“You’re going to be all right, you’re going to be all right,” Frank repeated to the colonel. “Stay awake. Raj!”

“I’m en route!” Raj said over the comms, yelling to be heard over the weapons fire on his end of the comms. “Son of a Baptist preacher, Frank. Where are they all coming from?”

“I don’t know,” Frank answered. “Just get here.”

“Go, help them,” Colonel Breaker said with no room in his voice for argument. “I’m not going to die today. Even if I were, there are thing worse than death. You can’t do anything for me. Go help those who you can.”

Frank could see the pain in the colonel’s eyes even as he said the words.

“Oohrah to that, sir.” Frank turned fighting back the voice in his head that said he should stay with the wounded officer.

Vega had taken up a defensive position just inside the bridge. She held a plasma rifle, aiming down the barrel at anyone or anything that might be approaching.

“I need a damage report, I need to know how they’re doing this, and I need all of that now,” Sava growled from her command chair where her fingers raced over her own keyboard. Her one good eye scrolled over information as she continued to dole out orders. “Get me in contact with the officers we still have standing.”

“Aye, sir,” Miriam said as he shoved a dead Chaos soldier from his terminal.

“Laloid, on your feet!” Sava screamed.

The Draconian technician sat on the ground with his knees curled up to his chest. Both his arms wrapped around his knees as he muttered something in his state of shock.

“Hey, Laloid, Laloid,” Frank said, crouching down to eye level with the Draconian. “Snap out of it. Come on, come on.”

Laloid looked at Frank through unseeing eyes as he continued to mutter and rock back and forth. “I’m not a soldier like you. I’m supposed to deal with system malfunctions, shields, and reports.”

“Hey.” Frank slapped the Draconian across the face harder than he had anticipated. “Sorry, sorry, that was a bit rough.”

The strike did its job. Laloid gave Frank his full attention. His rocking stopped.

“What happened is in the past,” Frank said, pulling the larger Draconian to his feet. “This is all behind you now. There’s nothing we can do about this, but there are other soldiers you can help right now. There are soldiers that you can save. Pull it together. We need you, Laloid.”

As Frank spoke, Laloid slowly began to nod as he realized the truth in Frank’s words. The next moment, he brushed past Frank to take his seat once more at his terminal.

“No reports of exterior damage,” Miriam said from his station to the left of the captain’s chair on the middle level. “Patching in officers now.”

“Understood,” Sava said, glancing quickly behind her she gave an approving nod to Frank before looking at Laloid. “Laloid, I need to know how they’re transporting aboard and how to stop it, now.”

“On it,” Laloid said.

Sava returned back to her comm unit, ordering her officers and organizing an offensive move against the chaos soldiers.

Frank took the time to join Vega by the door. The empress’ uniform was spattered with blood. She didn’t look at Frank as he joined her. Instead, her attention was solely on the movement approaching them from down the hall.


26

BOOM!

Vega fired a wild shot down the hall that nearly took off Raj’s already injured leg.

“Easy, easy,” Frank warned the trigger-happy empress. “It’s Raj.”

“I come in peace!” Raj screamed down the hall at the same time. “You almost gave me a peg leg.”

“Oh, sorry.” Vega lowered the barrel of her weapon. “I’ve never shot one of these things before.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing or Raj would have to get a job as a pirate,” Frank said as Raj hobbled his way onto the bridge. In one hand, he held his cane; in the other, a heavy medical bag.

“Where is he?” Raj, in a very unlike Raj way, moved past anxiety at his own safety and focused on the colonel.

“There,” Frank said, pointing to Colonel Breaker, who still sat slumped by a control station.

Raj hobbled over, shaking his head as he began examining the colonel.

“They’re using a cloaked form of teleportation technology to beam on board,” Laloid reported to his commanding officer. “We didn’t even know they were capable of this.”

“Yes, yes.” Sava sounded annoyed. “How do we stop it?”

“Why do I always get the hard questions?” Laloid furrowed his brow as he hunched behind the control panel. “Maybe if I can find the frequency they’re using to teleport, we can send a signal to disrupt it.”

“Do it,” Sava said, rising from her chair and looking over to Frank. “We need to buy Laloid some time. More and more Chaos soldiers are being teleported onto the ship as we speak. They’re congregating in the hangar bay and the weapons hold in the midsection of the ship.”

“The weapons hold?” Frank kicked himself mentally for not checking in with Elly and the major sooner. “I’ll go.”

“Empress, if you would—”

“I’m going with you to the hangar bay.” Vega cut the one-eyed captain off. “That’s where my people are. That’s where I need to be.”

“Very well, the empress and I will go to the hangar bay,” Sava said as she built armor constructs over her body that looked like football pads. “Frank, head to the weapons hold.”

Frank nodded, catching Vega’s eye as she left. There was more he wanted to say; this just wasn’t the place or time.

“I know,” Vega said, throwing all caution to the wind. She grabbed him by the collar and pulled him in for a kiss.

Frank didn’t care what anyone thought while his lips were pressed to hers. He knew the bond between them was real and unbreakable. When she let him go, there was a small smile on her lips and she exhaled slowly.

“We have to stop kissing like this. Be safe,” Vega said as she walked out the door with Sava.

“You, uh, you too,” Frank said, still relishing the rush of dopamine he felt at the touch of her lips.

“Urgh.” Colonel Breaker’s grunt brought Frank back to the moment.

“Easy, you’re going to be alright,” Raj said as he wrapped the wound. “The pain killers should be kicking in now. You’re going to be fine.”

“Fine is a case of circumstance,” Colonel Breaker said. He was gaunt, and a sheet of droplets fell down his forehead. “I’m missing my freaking arm and my Marine’s girlfriend is an alien empress.”

“Girlfriend?” Frank repeated, shaking his head. To be honest, he liked the idea. Nevertheless, he couldn’t say that in front of the other guys. “Whoa, whoa whoa, we haven’t established that.”

“You two look like a couple to me,” Miriam said from his seat.

“No one asked you, Junior,” Frank said.

“You two are definitely in a relationship whether you know it or not,” Laloid chimed in. “If you want my opinion—”

“No, I don’t want your opinion.” Frank stalked from the room, heading for the weapons hold. “I’m going to check in on Elly and the major. You all just stay out of my personal life.”

Frank ran out of the room, as if the more distance he put between himself and the bridge, the further he could press the idea of being in a relationship out of his mind.

“Elly, Major Lopez?” Frank tapped into their shared comm link. “I’m on my way to you. Apparently, there’s a gathering of chaos soldiers near your location.”

“No, crap, Sherlock.” Elly’s voice came over the comms near hysterical. “We’ve been trying to reach you.”

Loud booming sounds came from Elly’s end of the comm. It sounded like a battering ram was being used to knock down a steel gate.

“I just need directions from the bridge.” Frank slowed his run down the empty hall. “I just realized I don’t know where you are.”

“Two floors down and make a right.” Major Lopez joined the conversation. “I barricaded the door, but they’re blasting at it with their plasma rifles. I don’t know how much longer it’s going to last.”

“On my way,” Frank said, running to the elevator. He said a silent prayer they were still operational.

Sounds of weapons fire and explosions echoed throughout the ship. Screams of warriors dying melded with shouts of soldiers in combat over and over again. War was hell. Frank understood that first hand.

You should have gone with her. What if something happens to her? Frank’s mind continued to run wild as he waited for the elevator. She can handle herself, yes, still it wouldn’t hurt for you to be by her side. Secure the weapons hold first, then you can go to her.

The elevator opened in front of Frank, letting out a Chaos soldier right in front of him. The soldier lifted his plasma blaster to send a round into Frank’s chest at point blank range.

“Not today.” Frank grabbed the barrel of the weapon with one hand jerking it to the side as the forearm of his other arm came down on the weapon, ripping it out of the soldier’s hands.

The Chaos soldier let his weapon fall in favor of wrapping his gloved hands around Frank’s throat as he drove him back and slammed him against the wall. Frank’s skull cracked off the back of the barrier behind him.

Instead of panicking, he materialized a Ka-bar in each hand, driving them toward one another through the enemy’s head in front of him. The deep purple blades forged from his vambraces cut through the crimson steel helmet like hot irons through Styrofoam.

The Chaos solder dropped to the ground, releasing Frank.

“You really got to work on this whole Arilion Knight thing.” Frank leapt over the corpse and into the waiting elevator. He clicked the level for the weapons hold.

Frank used the time in the elevator to form armor around him. The midnight purple color of the vambraces wrapped around his body from head to foot. Frank chose something simple, something that he knew. The diamond-plated liquid armor fit on his body like a glove. The helmet with the T-shaped visor covered his face.

In his right hand, Frank brought to life a Punisher GS2000 gauss rifle. These were all gear and weapons he was familiar with. They formed instantly from his vambraces and drained very little of his energy to maintain.

“Frank, hurry. They’ve breached the door!” Elly screamed through the comms as the elevator came to a halt and the doors began to open.

Frank felt the flow of adrenaline touch his body as his frame began to twitch with the promise of a fight. His head bobbed as he gathered the storm of intensity inside of him and channeled it into what had to be done next.

The elevator doors opened all the way to reveal a hall full of armored Chaos soldiers. They looked at Frank at once as if they had been expecting to see anyone other than an Arilion Knight.

“Oh, snap,” Frank said, leveling his weapon at the enemies. “It’s that human Arilion Knight. Oogie boogie.”


27

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Frank stalked forward as he hosed the gathering of Chaos soldiers in front of him. Elly had been right; they had just broken through the doors to the weapons hold, but whatever Elly and the major were doing inside was still prohibiting the enemy from entering.

That meant that at least two dozen crimson red soldiers gathered around the hall like massive targets. They yelled, pointing their own weapons at Frank, but even if they had been prepared and staged a strategic defense, the hall was only wide enough for three of the bulky armor suits to stand shoulder to shoulder.

In their pandemonium to find a firing lane without hitting one another, Frank only had to ever worry about two of the soldiers getting clean shots at him. With his armor on, he didn’t worry about being hit at all. He knew in that moment that his drive to save his friends was stronger than anything the Chaos soldiers could throw at him.

Right now, outnumbered, the fear he could instill in his enemies was as strong a weapon as anything he could construct. Sava understood this same idea when she spoke with the enemy commander.

Frank focused, changing the level of noise his weapon made as it dispersed death down the hall. He added his own voice to the madness as he continued his dogged walk forward.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

“Come on! Come on!” Frank roared, pumping round after round at the soldiers, catching them in their helmets, torsos, even ripping limbs from their bodies. “RAHHH!”

The plasma rounds that did find him felt like being hit by paintballs. They came with a brief sting against his constructed armor, but Frank moved past the pain. There were worse things in this universe than physical pain, one of which was letting his friends down.

“Oohrah!” Elly and Major Lopez screamed over the comms as they added in their own weapons fire from inside the breached weapons room. “Get some!”

The Chaos soldiers now receiving fire from two sides began their retreat. Tripping over their own dead, they shoved and pushed their way back down the hall.

Frank remembered Colonel Breaker slumped on the floor of the bridge, his useless arm beside him. In that moment, Frank couldn’t find it in his heart to allow the enemy to retreat. It was him or them.

“Ahh!” He burned up the anger and hatred for those that dared harm the people he cared for.

“Your mother’s so fat!”

BOOM!

“Your mama’s so ugly.”

BAM!

Frank pushed the attack. By the time he reached the rent doors to the weapons hold, only a handful of Chaos soldier had made it down the corridor. They disappeared around the corner.

“I’m coming in, don’t shoot,” Frank said before entering the weapons hold. The memory of Raj’s near castration at Vega’s hands was still too fresh in his mind to ignore.

“Roger that,” Major Lopez responded.

The weapons hold was more like a combination workshop and storage warehouse. The room was as wide as the bridge and twice as deep. On the far right, rows of equipment and tools filled rows of bakers’ racks. On the left side of the room were a line of tables and benches to work on.

Elly and Major Lopez had formed a defensive barrier from the benches in the middle of the room. They stood behind the barrier with their own rifles. Elly’s Momo peeked out around the left side of the defensive structure, baring his teeth.

“No, Momo, he’s a friend,” Elly calmed the small beast. “Yes, the one that smells like flowers.”

“Am I glad to see you, Wolffe.” Major Lopez checked her weapon before swapping out the magazine. “Raj checked in. The colonel’s stable.”

“Good news.” Frank looked around the room. “Where’s everyone else? I thought the Neeve were helping you mount those force fields Elly created.”

“Yeah, we could use those force fields right now.” Elly shook her head in disgust. “Another hour and I could have had them operational. The only good news is there hasn’t been reports of enemy power armor units teleporting on board the ship, so at least for now, it’s a fair fight.”

“There were Neeve here helping us, but as soon as the Chaos soldiers started teleporting on board, they went to help.” Major Lopez picked up the story.

The Marines paused their conversation to listen into the chatter coming through on their shared comm channel. It was Sava.

“Laloid, tell me you got something,” Sava yelled over the noise of conflict on her end of the comm. “There’s more and more of them teleporting into the hangar bay. They’re trying to destroy our fighter crafts.”

“Yes, I was able to isolate the frequency they are using to teleport onto the ship.” Laloid sounded excited. “I just need time now to create a code to interrupt their frequency and—”

“There is no more time,” Sava yelled back. “Do it now!”

“Right, right,” Laloid answered back.

“I’ve cleared the weapons hold,” Frank said, speaking into the comm line in his helmet. “I’m coming down your way to help.”

“We could use it.” Sava sounded out of breath. “Elly, if you could help them on the bridge, I’m sure they can find a job for you.”

“On my way,” Elly said, lifting her rifle and running for the door. She shouted over her shoulder. Her words came out off-tone, but it didn’t seem to bother her. “You two keep your heads down.”

Magnus ran at her heels, yipping something.

“Yeah, this place is bananas,” Elly addressed the Momo. “We’ll have to get you some armor or something soon.”

“I’m coming with you, Frank.” Major Lopez was strapping on her own armor suit of diamond-plated armor. “Give me two seconds.”

“All right,” Frank said, focusing on the torn doors of the weapons bay. “Let’s see if I can do something about this in case our friends come back.”

“You know, Frank, I’m going to be honest with you. I never really liked you.” Major Lopez grabbed a belt to fit over her dark armor that carried an extra eight magazines for her Punisher GS2000. “I thought you were cocky, self-centered, and your loyalty could be bought.”

“Well, that’s sweet of you to say,” Frank responded, busying himself with channeling his Will to lift the broken weapons hold doors and set them back in place. “Go on.”

“I had a chance to look at your file before we left Brytanna. I mean, really look at your file. I dug deep and I understand now why money means so much to you. I had you wrong. You’re the right man for the job, Frank Wolffe,” Major Lopez said, attaching her helmet to her magnetic belt. “I just couldn’t see that before.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better,” Frank went to an aisle holding thick metal plates and carried four out of the room, “I still don’t really like you.”

The Marines shared a laugh as Major Lopez joined Frank outside the doors.

Frank closed the battered metal doors to the weapons bay. Next, he lifted the thick steel plates, placing them in a square around the perimeter of the door. He constructed a welding torch and went to work securing the doors. Major Lopez helped hold the pieces in place while he worked.

“You look good without makeup,” Frank said, glancing up to the major while he worked. “You’ve held your own no matter what your upbringing was. I’d fight by your side any day of the week, besides Tuesdays.”

“Why not Tuesday?” Major Lopez asked, holding the last steel plate in place while Frank worked.

“Because Tuesday is for tacos.” Frank stood examining his work. “Well, it’s not a permanent fix, but if they come back, it’ll take them a while to get through again. We can send a unit to intercept them if that happens.”

“Roger that.” Major Lopez slammed on her helmet. “Let’s go kill some Chaos.”


28

The hangar bay was a nightmare. Frank and Major Lopez walked into the middle of a war zone. The Chaos soldiers had taken up positions all around the Draconian fighters, making it difficult for the Draconians and Neeve present not to fire on their own ships. Already half of the Draconian Dragoon fighters were either smoking or marred by scorch marks on their hulls.

There were hundreds of the Chaos soldiers in the cargo bay with more being teleported in by the minute. Frank and the major kept low as they ran to a spot where Vega crouched behind a pile of crates.

The acrid smell of burning flesh and the screams of war filled the hangar bay. Frank ran and slid next to Vega. She held a plasma rifle in her hands. In that moment, she wasn’t using it; she was screaming into her comms for Laloid.

“Tell me you got it already,” Vega was yelling. “We can’t let them keep coming like this.”

“And…” Laloid’s voice trailed off for a moment. “There! I got it; the transmission is blocked. They shouldn’t be able to teleport any more soldiers onto our ship.”

Frank peeked his head over their defensive position. As far as he could see, Laloid was right; there were no more enemies being transported to the hangar bay.

“Where’s Sava?” Frank had to yell into Vega’s ear to be heard over the booming rifles. “Is she here?”

“She wanted to get close to avoid causing damage to our own ships.” Vega peeked over, pointing against the far corner. “There.”

Frank followed Vega’s finger to where Sava was in the process of skewering a Chaos soldier through the chest with the end of a purple spear. A force field lit the air around her, but how long she could maintain the force field was yet to be known. Already dozens of rounds were slamming against her constructed barrier. Chaos soldiers were focusing on her, peppering her barrier with rounds of heated plasma.

“We’ve got to help her out,” Major Lopez said, looking at Frank and Vega. “Ideas?”

“Empress.” A Neeve warrior dressed in his own golden armor arrived beside Vega, handing her her own armor and greatsword.

“Thank you,” Vega said, moving to buckle herself in the golden chest plate with the Thunderbird emblem emblazoned on the front. She looked to Frank while she prepared herself. “We’ve tried rushing them over and over again, but their weapons eat through our Neeve armor.”

“Leave it to me,” Frank said as an insane idea cultivated in his mind. “I’ll get you and your men close enough for hand-to-hand combat.”

Vega and Major Lopez exchanged looks.

“Trust me,” Frank said. “There’s no time. Vega, have your men form four columns behind me and get ready to run.”

Vega nodded, already ordering the Neeve who had brought her armor to gather the surrounding men.

“What are you going to do this time, Frank?” Major Lopez peeked around their barrier, lining up a shot on a Chaos soldier. She squeezed her trigger, catching the enemy soldier center mass. “Want to share with the rest of the class?”

“No time, let’s go,” Frank said, looking over to Vega, who gave him a nod.

There were a dozen or more Neeve soldiers wearing their golden armor and helms ready to be led.

Okay, Frank, let’s do this, just like pushing back the wall, just like what you did on Atmos but better this time. You can do it by yourself now, Frank coached himself as he channeled his Will to create something he had never constructed before. You got this.

Deep violet matter erupted from his vambraces, covering his hands and the area in front of him. It expanded, growing larger and larger. Frank pulled more Will from deep within, fighting back the fatigue, refusing to let into even the idea he wasn’t strong enough.

“Frank, is that pong?” Major Lopez asked, confused.

“Just get behind me and let’s go!” Frank rushed out into the open with his construct in place. “I don’t know how long I can keep this up.”

Major Lopez, Vega, and the other Neeve soldiers formed columns behind Frank and his construct as they waded into the fierce fire from the enemy Chaos soldiers.

Frank had managed to construct two barriers that moved parallel to one another, reflecting back the weapons fire that touched their surface. It was the first thing that popped into Frank’s mind as he considered a barrier that could return the rounds back on the enemy.

Behind the moving pong barriers, Frank and the others rushed forward. It was a relatively short distance through the hangar bay as the two Marines and other Neeve rushed forward. It looked like a light show as the super-heated plasma rounds struck Frank’s pong shields and reflected back on them.

Chaos soldiers yelled warnings to their counterparts, but it was too late. Frank and the company behind him were already on top of the Chaos soldiers before they could try and mount their own defense.

Frank crashed into four soldiers with his barrier, sending them flying backward into Draconian fighters that stood in rows on the hangar bay floor. With one quick motion, he allowed his pong barriers to evaporate while bringing his Punisher GS2000 gauss rifle into his hands.

Everywhere he turned, his finger tapped the trigger, sending death in its red laser wake. There were so many targets clumped so close together it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

The Neeve soldiers bellowed their war cries, slicing at the Chaos soldiers with their swords and spears. Kept at bay for so long by the Chaos soldiers’ rifles, and now let loose, they tore through the enemy like a gilded wave slicing through dandelions.

Vega fought beside Frank on his right, Major Lopez on his left. Together they formed the spear tip that sank deep into the enemy lines.

Out of the corner of his eye, Frank witnessed Vega swing her sword sideways and disembowel the Chaos soldier in front of her. Major Lopez to his left sent two tungsten steel rods through the breastplate of a Chaos soldier who had pretended to play dead.

Frank fought his way to the far corner of the hangar where Sava knelt catching her breath. She held on to her spear for support. The force field encircling her dissipated at his approach.

“Fancy meeting you here.” Frank took a defensive stance beside Sava, shielding her while she caught her breath.

Sava’s dark green scales were covered in various colors of blood, spit, and other questionable body fluids. Her chest heaved. She looked up at Frank through her own good eye. “Glad you could make it.”

Frank took a charging Chaos soldier through the head as he tried to blindside Major Lopez. Although Laloid had made it so the enemy couldn’t teleport additional soldiers on board, there were still enough to carry the fight.

“We need to draw them away from our fighters,” Sava said, standing on her feet and creating her force field wall once more. “We can’t afford to lose anymore.”

“Ugh, Frank, I think we have a situation here,” Major Lopez said through her comms as she made her way to Frank’s side. “The remaining enemy soldiers are grouping for something.”

Frank followed her gaze. She was right. There were still about a hundred Chaos soldiers left and they were gathering for one final assault on what?

“Are they really going to charge us?” Frank asked in disbelief. “Do they not realize their weapons can’t penetrate our shields?”

“Not us,” Sava said, stepping in front of Major Lopez and absorbing a new spray of incoming fire. “They’re going to try and open the hangar bay doors and force field. We’ll all be sucked out into space.”

Frank looked behind them to the corner of the hangar bay where a control panel sat in the thick grey wall. Sava had been protecting the corner and controls this entire time.

“They’re going to try one last push,” Major Lopez warned. “Get ready.”

“Um, guys?” Laloid sounded in their comms.

“Not right now, Laloid,” Sava growled as she traded her spear for a short range rifle.

“But you should really hear this.” Laloid sounded panicked.

“For the love of all that’s holy.” Colonel Breaker’s voice sounded haggard. “We have incoming. The Chaos warship has deployed its fighters once they realized we stopped them from transporting soldiers. They’ll be on us within the minute.”

There was no time to process the news. The remaining Chaos soldiers in front of them charged forward like an erupting volcano spewing lava over the ground.

“Stop them!” Sava ordered. “We can’t let them get to the control panel!”


29

The Chaos soldiers charged with a manic frenzy Frank had seen before. It was when a soldier understood there was no way out. The enemy had resigned themselves to an end where surrender was not an option. They were all willing to die to get to the control panel, opening the hangar to the cold vacuum of space.

Vega led her mix of Neeve and Draconian soldiers from the flank charging into the enemy, but it would be up to Frank, Sava, and Major Lopez to take the brunt of the blow.

Frank moved forward to stand next to Sava, giving Major Lopez more cover, although offering the major may have been unnecessary. The charging Chaos horde was less interested in picking careful targets and more interested in covering the ground between them and the control panel.

A few wild shots slammed into Frank, leaving the promise of more bruises and welts, but his Will held.

“We can’t let a single enemy pass,” Sava said, holding down the trigger of her rifle and hammering the enemy with purple rounds. “Not a single one.”

Frank pulled on his knowledge of weaponry, searching for the right tool for the job. In both his time served in the Corps as well as working for B.U.T.T.S., he had handled hundreds of different types of weapons. The key now would be finding one that would eviscerate the enemy without tearing apart the hangar bay.

That might be overkill, Frank thought to himself as a weapon sprang to mind. Ah, what the heck.

Frank brought a M134 minigun with six rotating barrels into his hands. The beast was capable of firing up to six thousand rounds per minute. If he was lucky, he would get a fraction of that time before the enemy was on top of them.

Dat-dat! Dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat!

The minigun spit black flames from its mouth like some ancient dragon resurrected from legend. It sounded more like a saw than a long range weapon as it cut the enemy in half.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Major Lopez added her own weapon to the mix, picking off any soldiers who tried to run and flank them.

Sava understood what was happening and constructed a waist-high wall between them and the approaching soldiers, just tall enough to provide a problem for the advancing army while still allowing Frank to tear them apart.

Twenty yards from their defensive location, it looked like Major Lopez and the Arilion Knights would prove victorious. The chaos soldiers were being turned into bloody pulps. Trying to vault the wall Sava erected along with their own dead was proving too much.

As soon as hope blossomed in the hearts of the defenders, it was ripped away.

A rumbling began under their feet, then the floor buckled. The enemy fighters had arrived and were pounding the Ryker’s shields.

“What’s going on out there?” Sava yelled into her comm. “We’re almost—”

BAM!

The entire hangar bay rocked, throwing everyone into the air. The lights in the bay flickered off and on. Frank was tossed to the left, his head slamming into the hard ground ten feet from his previous position.

“Enemy ships opening fire,” Colonel Breaker said through the comms. “Their warship is also in range for long weapons fire. We’re engaging now.”

The hangar bay controls. Frank reminded himself. You have to get back to the hangar bay controls.

The lights still flickered between their normal on position to a bright green color as the backup generators took over control. Frank’s constructed helmet tried to negotiate the light differential for him, alternating as quickly as the flickering lights around him.

Screams and weapons fire carried through the hangar, the lack of visibility only adding to the madness that came with the battle.

Frank rose to his feet, looking over at the control panel. His stomach clenched in his gut. A group of Chaos soldiers were already at the panel. Major Lopez was the only one there now. Sava was nowhere to be seen.

The major had lost her Punisher GS2000 rifle. In her right hand, she held her Ka-bar, in the left her Reckoner P7. She fought like a woman possessed, sending a spray of rounds at point blank range into the lead enemy soldier, then rolling to the left and plunging her Ka-bar hilt deep in the base of another enemy’s skull, but there were at least eight soldiers still on their feet and they overwhelmed her.

Frank sprinted forward. Too late. One of the last remaining Chaos soldiers slammed his gauntleted fist on the control panel, turning off the force field that separated the hangar from space and opening the bay doors.

Everyone in the room was sucked out toward the pull of space. It happened so fast, Frank wasn’t even able to hold on to anything or create a construct to anchor him in place. One second, he was racing toward the control panel, the next, he was flying through the air toward the lung-exploding, vessel-rupturing, body fluid-boiling pressure of space that awaited.

Screams of Chaos, Neeve, and Draconian soldiers alike flying through the hangar were soon silenced as they were sucked out into the dark landscape of death. Bodies slammed against the steel doors of the hangar in the darkness, breaking with a hideous crushing sound.

Frank lashed out with his right arm, constructing a chain he anchored into the floor of the ship.

The lights finally turned on, allowing Frank to see the state of the hangar. Bodies were airborne in every direction, the mad pull of space now only a matter of feet from where he managed to cling. Not only bodies; as the doors slid open, the circular Draconian fighter ships were beginning to slide out like frisbees.

Vega flashed by Frank so fast, he almost missed her. At the last second, he grabbed her with his left hand. She clamped on to his wrist with both of her own hands.

“I got you!” Frank yelled over the rush of escaping air.

The pull on Frank’s shoulders was beginning to add up. His muscles burned as he tried to figure out a way to close the doors.

A purple glow appeared by the control panel a moment later. Sava was flying, battling past the pull of space. She did it. She reached the controls. The hangar bay doors were beginning to close. The shield would be up a moment later.

Frank looked down, expecting the rush of wind to stop at any moment. Bounding off the windshield of Dragoon, Major Lopez scratched and clawed to grab hold of anything. Her helmet missing, her head careened into the tail fin of the Draconian aircraft and her body went limp as she was sucked out of the launch bay.

All went silent and slowed in the moment Frank saw Major Lucy Lopez’s limp body tumbling away. He was too stunned to utter a word.

A second later, the bay’s energy shield was back up and Frank’s ricocheting body slammed into the floor, galvanizing him from his stupor.


30

“No!” Frank allowed his constructs to dissipate. He jumped to his feet alongside Vega. “Sava, you have to open it! Open the doors. The major got sucked out!”

Even as Frank said the words, deep down, he knew the major was already gone. She didn’t have her helmet to offer any supply of oxygen, and even if she did, Frank understood Sava wouldn’t open the shuttle bay doors while they were being attacked, not until they had their own fighters ready to respond.

Still, he couldn’t keep himself from trying.

“Open the doors; I can get her,” Frank said, trying to push past Sava.

The Draconian Arilion Knight bled from a deep gash on the side of her head. Green blood dripped down her brow. She didn’t move to wipe the sticky substance from her eye. She redirected herself between Frank and the control panel.

“She’s gone,” Sava said with no emotion in her tone. “We have an enemy warship bearing down on us with our own fleet of fighters depleted.”

“Out of my way.” Frank shoved at Sava. His rational mind told him Sava was right. However, the heat of battle still boiled too hot in his veins for logical thought to take place.

Sava stood her ground, shoving Frank right back. She was taller than he was and nearly as muscular, but Frank understood her strength had nothing to do with her physical power.

Frank’s anger reached a tipping point. He held Sava’s stare.

“Frank.” Vega grabbed his left shoulder and spun him around. “You know what she would have wanted. What would she say if she were here?”

Tears pooled in Frank’s eyes. He didn’t give them the satisfaction of falling. He had been through this too many times before not to know exactly what to do. He buried his feelings deep, hiding them away to haunt him at a future date.

“Give me something to do,” Frank told more than asked Sava. “Give me something to do before I go crazy.”

“All remaining pilots report to your ships.” Colonel Breaker’s voice came over the main circuit.

The hangar bay rolled and tossed again, threatening to throw the soldiers once more into the air. Sparks flared and burned as wires were torn out of their socket and circuits fried.

“I know you don’t know the first thing about flying, but you understand how to lead and organize,” Sava said, ignoring Frank for the moment and setting her eyes on Vega. “Can you get any pilots we have left into whatever ships still remain?”

“I can.” Vega gave Frank’s hand another squeeze before rushing off.

“Shields at fifty percent and falling.” Colonel Breaker’s voice came through Frank’s and Sava’s comms this time. “We can hold our own against the fighters or their warship but not both.”

“I have a plan,” Sava spoke into her comm, eyeing Frank. “Laloid, I have a pair of Arilion here that would love to get their hands on an enemy commander. Can you teleport us onto their bridge?”

“What?” Laloid’s voice entered the comms, incredulous. “You want me to beam you to their ship? Just the two of you?”

“Can you do it?” Sava asked.

There was a pause. Frank took the time to consider how wild Sava’s plan was. Just the two of them on a ship full of targets? He liked it.

“I don’t know,” Laloid said warily. “I’d have to scan their ship and make sure they aren’t using the same jamming tech—”

“Already scanned them and, no, they aren’t using the same jamming tech we are. They don’t know we can do the same thing to them as they did to us.” Elly’s voice cut off Laloid. Elly continued with a hard tone unfamiliar to her nature. “Get some for me, Frank, for Major Lopez.”

“We heard what happened over the comms,” Raj said quietly.

“Kill them all and let God sort them out.” Colonel Breaker’s cold voice sent chills down Frank’s spine.

“Oohrah, sir,” Frank said, choosing a weapon the Marine Corps had taught him to use so well it felt like an extension of himself, the M16A4. “For Lopez.”

“Stand by,” Elly said over the comms.

“When we get to their bridge, we won’t know what to expect.” Sava summoned a curved blade in one hand and a Draconian handgun in the other. “Kill whatever moves. I’ll head to the doors of the bridge and make sure they’re shut. You kill the enemy commander.”

“I can do that.” Frank swallowed hard, forcing himself to focus past his loss. His heart rate doubled; every muscle in his body was poised to move at the slightest command.

“Here we go. I don’t know how this is going to make you feel or if there are going to be any side effects. You should be all right,” Elly said in a voice that sounded like even she didn’t believe her own words. “In three…”

“Should be all right?” Sava repeated the words, looking to Frank with concern.

“Two…”

“Welcome to my world,” Frank told the Draconian.

“One…”

Nothing happened.

“Are we supposed to go on, ‘one’ or is there ‘go’ coming anytime soon?” Frank said, straightening up and looking to Sava for answers she didn’t have. “Elly?”

“Oh, sorry, forgot to add a decimal in my calculations,” Elly said over the comms. “Go!”

Frank’s entire body felt tingly, like he had chugged a double serving of espresso mixed with pre-workout BCAAs. One moment, Neeve and Draconian soldiers ran across the hangar climbing into ships and making last minute repairs to the still salvageable Dragoon fighters, the next minute, Frank was on the enemy bridge. Unlike the Ryker’s, the bridge was only one square level. A total of eight crew members sat in their seats with the enemy commander in the center. Their chairs and workstations were black, while bright white light made everything easily recognizable.

Unlike the Chaos soldiers Frank had become so accustomed to battling, these bridge members did not wear either armor or helmets. Frank got to see exactly what their faces looked like up close.

Most of them looked like the same species Commander Trask hailed from: tall, thick humanoid creatures with short mandibles on either side of their faces. But a few were different. There was an alien with four arms with a hardened exoskeleton to his left and a hairy thing with massive black eyes to his right.

As soon as they were transported onto the enemy bridge, Frank pointed his weapon at Commander Trask’s head. He didn’t actually think the situation would end with the enemy surrendering, but he had to try.

“Hey, there,” Frank said to the stunned enemy bridge. “Any chance you want to give up?”

“Kill them!” Commander Trask reached for a sidearm at his hip.

“Didn’t think so,” Frank said, squeezing his trigger.

At the same time, he was struck from his right by the four-armed bug creature. It spat ooze green and slime from its horizontal-shaped mouth.

The blow was just enough to turn Frank’s aim, sending his round into Commander Trask’s right shoulder instead of his chest.

The bridge that had been still just a second before now erupted in a riot of violence.


31

Commander Trask fell. As fiercely as Frank wanted to finish the enemy leader, he had his hands full as the entire bridge reached for the sidearms that hung on each of their belts. The insect alien to Frank’s right kept spewing at him with green rounds of slimy vomit. The substance burned and hissed against Frank’s constructed armor, yet wasn’t strong enough to break through.

PEW! PEW! PEW! PEW!

The enemy weapons actually make a pewing noise, Frank thought to himself as he rolled out of the way, bringing up his own M16A4. Let’s introduce them to how Earth weapons sound.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Frank opened fire on the bridge, sending rounds into two enemy soldiers bringing their weapons to bear on Frank. Out of the corner of his eye, Frank saw Sava gun down a Chaos soldier running for the exit. She slammed her knife into the control panel next to the bridge doors.

With a steel WHOOSH sound, the doors slammed shut. Sava turned and opened fire on the remaining crew members alongside Frank.

Again, Frank was hit from behind by the slimy green vomit the alien insect continued to hurl on him. He was covered with the stuff now from his helmet to his boots.

“That’s so disgusting!” Frank stood up, ramming the end of his rifle into the insect’s mouth and double-tapping the trigger. “Stop puking on me!”

Sava made short work of two more enemies until there was only the furry one with big eyes and the wounded commander on the ground. The hairy alien soldier still holding his weapon dropped it and lifted his hands into the air. “I surrend—”

Pew!

His head exploded into a million pieces of rank blood, skeletal bits, and matted fur. Frank and Sava aimed their weapons at Commander Trask, who lay on the ground. His own weapon still pointed toward where his subordinate just stood.

He lowered his weapon, chuckling to himself as if he had just realized some inside joke.

“Give up,” Sava commanded. “Your ship belongs to us.”

Banging and shouts came from the bridge door as Chaos soldiers tried to rush in to aid their comrades.

“This vessel may belong to you for the time being,” Commander Trask sneered, the pincers on either of his cheeks vibrating with rage. “But you cannot stop the Lord of Chaos. This ship is nothing compared to his true might. I will make good on my promise and kill you all.”

Commander Trask reached for something on his left wrist, some kind of control panel built into his gauntlet.

“Weapon!” Frank shouted, once more squeezing the trigger on his M16A4.

The shots buried themselves deep inside the bridge floor as Commander Trask disappeared, teleporting to safety.

“Son of a teleporting commander,” Frank said at the same time thinking he was spending way too much time with Raj. He looked over to Sava. “What now?”

The banging on the bridge doors was getting louder. Weapons hammered against the closed steel barriers as soldiers outside tried in vain to enter.

“Make sure they can’t get in,” Sava told Frank as she ran to a workstation. “Elly, Laloid, come in.”

“We can hear you,” Laloid said frantically. “Sava, Frank, you have to get off the ship now. We can teleport you back.”

“No, why?” Sava answered. “We’ve cleared the bridge. We can take this ship.”

“The fighters harassing us have broken off and are heading back your way,” Elly told Sava. “I don’t think they plan on allowing their ship to fall into our hands. Let us bring you back.”

Sava looked up to Frank.

“I’m with you,” Frank said, looking at the array of screens and monitors on the enemy ship’s bridge. “But how are we going to fly this thing?”

“You know you’re covered in green goop, right?” Sava asked.

“Yep, thanks for reminding me.”

“Colonel Breaker, what’s the status of the Ryker?” Sava asked over the comms.

“Shields are nearly depleted, but we’re not the ones we should be worrying about right now. You have an army of fighters bearing down on your position,” Colonel Breaker answered. “I suggest getting Laloid or Elly over there via teleportation ASAP.”

“Great idea,” Sava said. “Send Elly; Laloid will be more use to you there since he knows our ship inside and out.”

“Roger that,” Colonel Breaker said. “Laloid, send Elly over.”

“Wait.” Elly sounded panicked. “I don’t think—”

One moment, she was just a voice over the comms, the next, she materialized in front of them. Elly immediately fell to her knees, hyperventilating.

“Ugh, I–I hate that.,” Elly fought to her feet, only to see the corpse of the four-armed alien with his head blown apart, and bent down with her head between her knees, gasping for air.

“I’d hold your hair and construct a bag, but we need you to suck it up right now,” Frank said, running over and pulling Elly to her feet. “Come on, you got this.”

Elly pushed herself away from Frank, not even looking at his green-splattered armor. She let out a slow, low breath getting a lay of the Chaos ship’s bridge. Next, she pushed her glasses further up her nose, adjusted the tuning on her listening device, and chose a station near the center with an exceptionally large monitor, and began working.

A second later, the entire ship rocked.

“Fighters have arrived,” Colonel Breaker said through the comms. “We can’t help you out with the batteries on the Ryker because we’ll risk shooting you. We’re still working on launching the Dragoon squadrons. The good news is that your shields are up from fighting with us.”

The pounding on the bridge door intensified as larger weapons were being used to try and break into the bridge.

“Elly?” Sava asked.

“I’m trying, I’m trying,” Elly said, shaking her head. “It’s not as easy as it seems. Everything is different here. There’s no manuals or how-to guides. It’s not as easy as I make things look.”

The pounding on the door intensified.

“Hey, Elly,” Frank said, joining her at her monitor. “You think you can patch me through to the rest of the ship from my comms? I think I have an idea on how to at least get them to stop hammering on the door.”

“Give me a sec.” Elly worked frantically, trying a few different combinations on the monitor in front of her. Her finger flew across the controls in a blur. “Here, try it now.”

“Hello, Chaos boys and girls,” Frank said. He knew Elly had done it. A brief pause in the hammering on the other side of the door told him as much. “This is a public service announcement from your friendly Arilion Knights. We teleported onto your ship and took over the bridge. We’ll use the teleportation to drop all of you into space in a second if you don’t stop trying to break in, courtesy of your leader, Trask. Who, by the way, has abandoned ship. So... there’s that.”

“Are you really prepared to do that?” Sava asked. “Can we even teleport that many beings at once?”

Frank double checked his comm unit was off. “I don’t know, but they don’t know that I don’t know.”

“And what if they call our bluff?” Sava asked, shooting out a hand to stabilize herself as the ship rocked under the fire of its own fighters. “What then?”

“Then we wait for them to—to—I don’t know, then they break in and we kill them all anyway.” Frank was beginning to feel heat rise to his face as fatigue and anger mixed inside of him. “I’m making this up as I go.”

“Okay, it looks like shields can still buy us a few more minutes of—”

Elly’s next words were lost as the ship rolled again, this time, so violently that Frank lost his footing and stumbled into the wall. Sparks from wires snapping out of place sizzled in overhead compartments.

“All right, maybe a minute,” Elly said, working furiously. “Those fighters are making strafing runs on us unopposed. I need to get the defensive ship turrets up. In the meantime, I can at least let us see what’s going on.”

Frank bit his tongue. He understood Elly was working as fast as she could. Him harping on her wasn’t going to help anything.

Blaster shields rose from the front of the bridge in front of them, revealing three giant windows reflecting the scene in front of and around them out into space. Frank’s jaw dropped as he witnessed the mayhem taking place outside.


32

The Ryker looked like a tiny dot in front of them. Against the expanse of space, even the mighty Draconian ship could look like a penny in a fountain. All around them, the Chaos fighters swarmed like an army of flies on a dying carcass.

The enemy fighters were narrow like a dart. The wings they did have extended from the back of their black ships and came out like triangles. The many points of their jagged fins helped them to remain light and whiz through the space around the ship. Frank estimated there were forty, maybe fifty of the swarming crafts firing on them.

Electric yellow laser rounds peppered their own warship in a constant barrage, lighting up the screen like a Fourth of July fireworks finale. If it had not been for the dire situation Frank found himself in, it might have even been beautiful.

“We may need to start thinking of a plan B,” Sava said, looking to Frank. “We cannot just give this ship back to them. We should set an explosive large enough to annihilate the bridge and then teleport back to the Ryker.”

Frank knew Sava was right. His stomach still twisted and cringed at the idea of handing back a warship that belonged to them at the moment. In the coming campaign with the Chaos Lord himself, having two warships instead of one could make the difference between victory and defeat.

“She can do it.” Frank looked Sava right in the eyes. “Elly will find a way to make it happen.”

“And if she doesn’t?” Sava asked.

“I’m right here, you guys. I can literally hear everything you’re saying,” Elly said, working furiously on the colorful monitor in front of her. It was a miracle at all that she could understand any of it.

“She will.” Frank nodded at Sava. “Trust me.”

“Still here,” Elly said, not taking her eyes off the screen. “The added pressure’s not helping. Wait a minute. Bingo!”

The ship’s defensive turrets came to life, screaming as they pumped rounds of white-hot laser fire back on their own ships. The blackness of space looked like a light show as dozens of duel turrets mounted on the Chaos warship added their voice to the battle.

Explosions rocked the view in silent victories all around them as the Chaos ships were taken by surprise. They had been free to fly as they wanted, making their strafing runs without fear of being fired back on one moment before. Now they began evasive maneuvers as they were targeted by their own warship’s cannons.

“Great job, Elly!” Frank said, standing behind her and placing a hand on her right shoulder. “I never doubted you—well maybe just a tiny bit, but I mostly didn’t doubt you.”

“Uh, thanks, I think, but don’t get too excited yet.” Elly cleared her throat. “So, uh, our shields may be toast. Another round of hits and we’ll be taking more damage than we can endure.”

Frank felt his heart drop in his chest. He knew Sava would make them pull out. They had been so close to seizing the ship only to have it lost now.

“I feel the same emptiness of defeat as you,” Sava said, staring at the front display screen to where the enemy fighters looked to be gathering. “We can’t let that cloud our judgment. We’ll still strike a harsh blow to the Chaos army by destroying this ship.”

The black Chaos fighters were indeed grouping in front of their ship, forming ranks just outside of the range of the defensive turrets. They were preparing for their final attack run.

At that moment, the most unexpected chant came over the comms. It was a voice Frank knew he recognized but couldn’t quite place at that moment.

“Haters, gonna hate, hate, hate and players gonna play, play, play but shake it off, shake it off. Amen,” the voice said over the comm.

“What the french toast!” Elly said, gawking at the screen before them.

Frank went from coming to terms with the sickening dread in the pit of his stomach at having failed to capture the Chaos warship to a giddy high of elation. He realized where he knew the voice from now. It was Rex, the young Draconian pilot he had met when they first arrived on Brytanna.

“Awwwww yeahhhhh!” Frank yelled into the comms, his voice nearly cracking.

The remaining Dragoon fighters along with those pilots still able to fly appeared to the right, flanking the enemy. They still had to be outnumbered at a minimum of three to one. Still, that wasn’t stopping the pilots.

“Hammer squadron and Venom squadron reporting in,” Rex said through a rush of excitement. “Leave them to us!”

If Frank had thought the scene in front of them had been chaotic when just their ship was fighting off the Chaos fighters, he didn’t know what to think now. The world in front of their eyes lit up like a rave show. Flashes of lights and blurred visions of ships pitching in and out and round in a frenzied dance. Enemy fighters partied in a hysteria, some unable to escape the wave of Draconian fighter pilots. Neon green laser blasts from the Draconian fighters slammed into multiple enemy ships, making them explode on impact, adding deep oranges and reds and grey of fire and smoke to the show.

Even with the arrival of their fighters, Frank understood victory was not guaranteed. The Dragoons were outnumbered and therefore outgunned. It would take something more to tip the battle in the favor of Frank and the unlikely alliance of Draconians and Neeve.

“We’re nearly in range to use our forward cannon without fear of striking you or our own ships,” Colonel Breaker said over the comms.

“It’s okay; I have an idea,” Frank shouted back.

“Oh no,” Laloid said in a muffled voice.

“Hey, I heard that,” Frank said running to the wall separating them inside the bridge from the mayhem outside. He looked over at Sava. “You think you have enough in the tank to construct one of those guns that sits in the back of your Crawlers?”

Sava eyed Frank with her one good eye. A slow grin spread over her lips. “I always have more to give.”

The Draconian Arilion joined Frank at the front viewing screen. “We’ll have to augment the guns slightly to shoot farther and more powerfully. DO YOU think you have enough Will left to construct such a weapon?”

“Yut! I’m a Marine,” Frank said, pounding his chest. “I’ll get the job done.”

“Kill! Kill! Kill!” Colonel Breaker, Elly, and Raj joined the ovation.

Sava nodded back.

Frank closed his eyes, allowing his M14A4 and armor to vanish from his body. If he was going to do this, it would take every ounce of his Will he had left.

Here we go, Frank coached himself. It’s the twelfth round. Who has more to give? Who gets back up?

Warmth spread to Frank’s chest. He kept his eyes closed in order to better concentrate on seeing the weapon he had used on the back of the Crawler in his mind. Only this time the barrels of the cannon were larger and deadlier.

“You two are something else,” Elly breathed from behind the Knights. “Good thing I figured out the comms. Here you go.”

“Like a true nature's child, we were born, born to be wild. We can climb so high. I never wanna die...” Mars Bonfire’s lyrical anthem “Born to be Wild” gave Frank the galvanization he needed for another epic feat. The steady clash of the cymbals and drums and the exhilaration of the guitar from Steppenwolf blared over the ship’s speakers. A grin came to Frank’s lips as he wondered what the Chaos soldier still on board made of the sound.

“Born to be wild!” Frank exclaimed as he opened his eyes.

Wonder washed over him as he stood in front of the weapon he had created. Like all his constructs, it glowed in a dark electric purple, almost black. The weapon was placed halfway through the front panel with the barrels of the guns outside of the glass and the chest harness inside.

Frank looked over to Sava, who had created nearly the same model, only larger. She grinned over at Frank with a shrug as she examined his gun’s smaller form.

“Hey, it’s not the size that matters,” Frank said, going back to his own weapon. He pressed his chest against the harness and grabbed the trigger. “Let’s do this.”

Frank sighted down the crosshairs and went to work. Over and over again, he led the Chaos fighters, sending a barrage of weapon fire their way. Sava did the same right next to him, their ultraviolet laser fire slamming into the fighter one second, producing balls of fire space snuffed out the next.

It was more difficult than Frank anticipated, nothing like Star Wars when Han and Luke manned their own turrets and took down the enemy tie fighters. Frank picked his shots, making sure to lead his target while not putting any of the Draconian fighters in jeopardy.

After he got his third kill, Frank looked over to Sava. “Not that I’m keeping count, but that’s three for me and two for you.”

“Are all humans this cocky?” Sava growled, keeping her eye forward.

“What!?!” Frank shouted over the music. “I can’t hear you. I’m too busy racking up more kills than you.”

As quickly as the fight had begun, it ended. Between the combined fire power of the ship’s defensive batteries, the Dragoons, and Frank and Sava, the Chaos fighters didn’t have a chance.

The last remaining Chaos Darts fled into the bleakness of space.

“Let them go,” Colonel Breaker said over the comms. “We did what we needed to do.”

A series of rogers answered him back via the comm line.

“We did more than what we needed to do,” Elly said to Frank and Sava from her seat at the monitor. “I just found their star log. I know exactly where they’ve been.”

Frank exchanged looks with Sava.

“That means we know where the Lord of Chaos has been hiding.” Sava grinned, displaying an array of sharp teeth.


33

Frank stood between Colonel Breaker and Vega on the hangar bay floor. Everyone who was not needed to man the bridges of the Ryker or the captured enemy battleship was in attendance. They stood at attention, all facing a simple podium on a raised platform.

Three species of unlikely allies waited for Sava to speak. The Draconian wore her uniform under her brown cloak. The wound on her head was bandaged to stop the flow of blood. It was hard to believe that it had only been yesterday they were under attack, still harder to believe Major Lopez was gone.

“The sacrifices that were made both in space and on this very ship, in this very hangar are ones whose memory we will carry with us for the rest of our lives,” Sava began. She clenched the podium with both of her hands so hard Frank could see her forearm muscles bulge. “It’s up to us to make sure they didn’t die in vain. Today we make the jump into hyper speed and take this fight to the Lord of Chaos himself. Remember and hold close to your hearts what happened here. Use that anger and rage you feel and fight for the freedom of our universe.”

There was no applause when Sava was done. Rex, the young pilot that led the charge on the enemy Darts, stood next to the raised podium and played an instrument that looked like a trombone and sounded like a bugle. It was a slow, sad song that evoked more emotion in Frank than he’d ever admit.

We’re almost there, Frank said to himself. The end is in sight. Find the Lord of Chaos. Kill the Lord of Chaos.

When the instrument finished playing, those in attendance were a mixed bag of tears and soft conversation. Frank turned to the colonel, who was neither.

“The surviving Chaos soldiers on the enemy ship have been rounded up and are being held prisoner in their own brig,” Colonel Breaker breathed. The odor coming from his breath was a cocktail of hard alcohol and turpentine. “I think they would have fought to the last man if it weren’t for your threat to teleport them into space. Maybe we should’ve done that anyway.”

Frank nodded along with the colonel’s words. The man standing before him was a shell of the CO who entered this fight: his eyes were bloodshot and glossed over with years of repressed pain taking over. His right suit jacket arm hung limp by his side.

“Raj and Elly assure me the Draconians have new tech on a robotic prosthetic.” Colonel Breaker followed Frank’s eyes to his arm. “I’ll be fit with one by the time we reach the next fight.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to stare,” Frank said, thinking back on how the colonel received the injury in the first place. “Thank you for pushing me out of the way. I don’t think I’ve said that yet.”

“You never have to. I’ve seen enough of my Marines die. If there’s any chance I can take their place, I’m going to every time.” Colonel Breaker shook his head, already moving on to the next topic of conversation. “Reports show we lost a hundred and twenty-seven soldiers in the fight and twice as many wounded. When we do hit the Chaos Lord, it’ll be with two-thirds of the fighting force who left Brytanna.”

“But we have another warship now.” Frank weighed the odds in his mind. “I’d still bet on us.”

“Me too,” Colonel Breaker said, eyeing Vega, who stood quietly by waiting for the men to finish. “I don’t want to keep an empress waiting. You did good, Frank.”

Frank relived the moment Major Lopez flew through the hangar bay doors. “Not good enough.”

Colonel Breaker slowly nodded and walked away.

“I’m worried about him,” Vega said, joining Frank. “I don’t just mean the fact he reeks of alcohol. It’s like with every death, he’s losing a part of himself.”

“The colonel won’t let anything, not even himself, stand in the way of solid leadership,” Frank said, trying to convince himself as much as Vega. “If he felt he couldn’t lead, he’d step down.”

“Word is Sava plans on giving command of the Ryker to me and command of the Lucy to Colonel Breaker,” Vega said thinking out loud. “We discussed it this morning.”

“The Lucy?” Frank repeated.

“The colonel’s idea.” Vega motioned for Frank to follow her as they walked from the hangar bay. “It’s fitting, though, don’t you think? When we rain down fire on the Chaos Lord, it’ll be from vessels holding names of the ones we’ve lost along the way.”

Frank remained silent, contemplating Vega’s words.

She led him to an elevator, opening the doors and selecting an upper level. Vega wore her hair up in a braided mound, her white jacket with gold trim and slender pants hugging her body in a way that wasn’t seductive but firm and commanding.

“Where are we going?” Frank finally asked as the elevator started to rise.

“You’ll see.” Vega laced the fingers in her left hand into Frank’s right. “Trust me.”

When the elevator doors dinged open, they were on one of the highest levels of the Ryker. An empty viewing room with an open glass dome showed them the stars burning brightly overhead.

Vega led Frank by the hand to the edge of the room, where a window showed them space beyond and the ship extended below.

“It’s the only viewing room on the ship, but I thought it would be the best place to watch from as we enter hyperspace,” Vega explained.

She stood so close, her body pressed against his own. The smell of her cinnamon-vanilla hair was intoxicating.

“Sava will take control of the Ryker as we make the jump,” Vega explained. “Colonel Breaker, the Lucy. With the coordinates Elly found, we should reach the Chaos Lord in a matter of days.”

Frank loosened his hand from Vega’s, placing an arm around her and drawing her close.

“Can I tell you a secret?” Vega asked as they both looked out the window.

“Of course,” Frank answered. “Especially if it’s embarrassing.”

“No such luck there.” Vega chuckled. “I feel safe with you. In a situation where I’m expected to lead, be strong and decisive, it feels nice to have someone I can be—be like this with. And I like the way you can make me laugh without even trying.”

“I feel the same way,” Frank said, trying to navigate the conversation.

Is this where you’re supposed to ask her if we’re boyfriend and girlfriend? Is that school age stuff? Frank racked his mind, debating the question. Maybe it’s just called being exclusive now without titles? Why are you so bad at this?

“Crews both on the Ryker and our newly appointed warship, the Lucy.” Sava’s voice over the ship’s speakers saved Frank from putting his foot into his mouth. “We are preparing to make the jump into hyperspace. The ship’s inertial dampeners should make the transition smooth. There is no need for concern.”

The elevator doors onto the viewing station chimed as Draconians and Neeve alike joined Frank and Vega. It seemed they weren’t the only ones eager to get a view of the events taking place around them.

Frank nodded to a few familiar faces, releasing Vega from the warmth of his arm. In turn, he lost the warmth from hers. He wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for the Empress of Atmos to be seen under the arms of a Human.

A second later, Frank felt Vega wrap her warm slender fingers into his own once more. The chatter on the viewing deck quieted as the Ryker trembled.

“Preparing to engage hyper speed in, three,” Sava said, pausing for a moment, “two, one.”

One moment, Frank was looking out into the blackness of space dotted with millions of tiny lights, the next, those lights seemed to lengthen and then blur as the ship rocketed forward.

A colorful stream of light twisted and turned all around the ship. It reminded Frank of the many colors that played in the fog when the sphere opened a gateway. Every color of the spectrum was represented, from vivid yellow to deep green as lights rushed by.

There were oohs and awwws on the ship viewing platform as those in attendance marveled at the scene in front of them. Frank felt his own happiness come and leave as his thoughts turned toward where they were headed.

They had already lost so much. Now they were hurtling through space to meet this threat head on. How many more lives would be lost before the Chaos Lord was finally killed? How many lives would be saved?

Frank tightened his grip on Vega’s hand as they raced through space.


34

“It’s actually not that complicated.” Elly tried to explain the controls of the Lucy to Frank and Raj. “Systems have their unique coded algorithms that check things like thrusters, inertial dampeners, and shields. The most taxing part of the new warship was familiarizing myself with the—hey, are you guys even listening?”

“You lost me at complicated,” Frank said with a shrug. “Come on; you know me well enough at this point. What in the history of our relationship makes you think I can follow along with what you’re saying?”

“Fair enough.” Elly pushed the glasses sliding down her nose back up and skewered Raj with a stare that could turn people into stone. “But you, Lieutenant Raj Agarwal, what’s your excuse?”

“Oh, she used my full title,” Raj said, looking to Frank for help. “I’m in trouble.”

Frank let Raj and Elly talk their scientific engineering lingo as he glanced over the bridge of the Lucy. Only days ago, he was fighting and nearly capturing the enemy commander on board. Commander Trask had managed to teleport away just in the nick of time. Since he wasn’t on board with the rest of the Chaos prisoners, they had surmised that he teleported to a Dart and fled before the battle was even over, coward.

Now the ship was manned with a makeshift crew of Marines, Draconians, and Neeve. Colonel Breaker sat in the captain’s chair, stretching and examining the new prototype limb that glistened every time the light caught it.

The robotic limb didn’t look like a machine at all. When Frank heard that Raj was administering the limb, he had expected to see a terminator-like arm on the colonel. It seemed the Draconians were far past that. The metallic appendage on the colonel looked like a regular arm in every way, down to the muscles that moved under the metallic surface when the colonel flexed.

The only thing that separated the arm as robotic at all was the steel color and parallel thin black bands that connected the moving parts.

Aside from the colonel, there were eight other stations, including Elly’s. Four Draconians trained to pilot their own ship and three Neeves who were getting on-the-job training.

Both the Ryker and the Lucy were working with skeleton crews. There were only one or two Draconians actually trained at doing their jobs on the ship for every section. They had spent the last few days instructing the Neeve on how to perform duties around the ship.

“Earth to Frank—oh, I guess that saying doesn’t really make sense anymore,” Elly said, reeling Frank back in. “We’re about to exit hyper speed. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Frank lied. “Just getting lost in my own head.”

“Sounds like a scary place to be,” Raj added.

“You have no idea,” Frank said.

“All right, well, we’re seconds away from exiting hyper speed and seeing where it’s taken us,” Elly said, pushing a few buttons on her control monitor. “Colonel Breaker, we’re at the thirty-second warning.”

“Very good,” Colonel Breaker said, staring out the window in front of him. “I want shields up and weapons ready to fire. We could be walking into anything. Be prepared for evasive maneuvers.”

A series of rogers answered the colonel in return.

“Frank, I don’t know how much you can do from aboard the bridge, but depending on what we find, we might need more fire power.” Colonel Breaker turned to look at Frank.

“Yes, sir.” Frank strode forward to stand next to the colonel. He was only a few yards from the front screen now. If need be, he could run there and construct a weapon within seconds.

“Here we go,” Elly said, starting at five. “Five, four, three, two, and show time.”

The Lucy and Ryker exited hyper speed at the same time. The Draconian-shaped vessel on their right flew beside them, matching them for speed. But the massive ship was not what caught Frank’s eye.

They had been deposited in a section of the unknown universe where the stars all round them seemed duller. Frank was used to the stars surrounding his view being bright and vibrant. These stars carried a darkness with them, barely glowing in the presence of the planet that stared Frank in the face.

Frank was no expert on planetary mass or gravitational shapes, but he knew something was wrong as soon as he saw it.

“Elly?” Colonel Breaker asked. “What are we looking at here?”

“It—it’s a small moon,” Elly said, her fingers tapping on the monitor.

Whispers from the rest of the crew bathed the bridge in mystery.

“Why’s it shaped like an egg?” Frank finally asked.

“Not all moons are perfectly round,” Elly explained.

“Can you get us a little closer?” Colonel Breaker asked a Draconian Frank had not met yet.

“Yes, sir,” the Draconian female answered in a steady voice.

Frank was still trying to wrap his mind around what his eyes told him he was seeing. The small moon was in fact shaped like an oval or an egg. The landscape of the moon was black with glowing red veins like one massive volcano had erupted and bathed the ground in a perpetually hot lava.

“It looks like hell,” one of the Neeve said under his breath.

“I have an incoming transmission from the Ryker,” Elly said.

“Put it on the main screen,” Colonel Breaker answered.

Sava’s familiar face appeared a moment later. Her one good eye was hard, her tone harder. “No enemy force waiting to meet us, not yet.”

“I take your meaning,” Colonel Breaker said. “You think they’re waiting to draw us in closer? Maybe even waiting to ambush us once we land?”

“I don’t know, but we can’t put anything past the Lord of Chaos,” Sava turned and said something to someone off screen. “I’m scanning the moon now to see if there are any life signs and where they might be.”

“Understood,” Colonel Breaker said, deep in thought. “If and when we find these life signs, we should have a serious conversation about bombing them from space before we put boots on the ground.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Sava said, once again turning to talk to someone off screen. “We have affirmative on life scans on the other side of the moon. I’ll send you the course now.”

“Understood.” Colonel Breaker looked up to Frank. “Something doesn’t feel right. He has to know we’re on our way. I’m sure Commander Trask sent back a warning message before he engaged with us. Even if he didn’t, if the Chaos Lord is half as strategic as everyone makes him out to be, he has to be patrolling his own airspace.”

“No argument with you there.” Frank crossed his arms over his chest, racking his mind for answers. “Ambush, or is he that cocky he doesn’t care how close we get?”

Colonel Breaker was silent. He tapped his metallic fingers on the armrest of his chair. The sound reminded Frank of a horse galloping.

“I’ve received the plotted course from the Ryker,” Elly said.

“Let’s go,” Colonel Breaker said.

As one, the two giant warships maneuvered around the egg-shaped moon. The moon itself was in orbit around a much larger planet that looked blue and white from their vantage point in space.

What is he planning? Frank asked himself. There’s no point wondering. You’re trying to get into the head of an ancient being hell bent on dominating the universe. Why even try?

“I’m picking up life scans now as well,” Elly reported from her monitor. “Hundreds, no thousands of them.”

Frank had to keep himself under control as the ships rounded the small moon. The landscape of the moon didn’t change, it remained black and red as if it were angry. The fractured ground looked like molten rock and lava. From various points, the lava gave off the appearance of a spider web as it reached out with hundreds of tiny fissures.

“There; I see something,” Raj piped up from his spot, standing beside Elly. “Do you see it? It’s black right where the red lava stuff stops.”

Frank saw it too. As they got closer and closer to the moon, the angry red lava section ended, and in its place, a giant black pyramid rose to the sky. To be this large from space, the pyramid had to be massive up close.

“Can you zoom in on the pyramid?” Colonel Breaker asked.

“On it,” Elly said in awe as she tapped on her monitor.

A moment later, a larger view of the structure filled the main screen.

Frank craned his neck, trying to figure out what exactly he was seeing. The giant black structure shone as if it were made of some kind of smooth, polished alloy. Crimson carvings ran outside of the building with ancient runes etched into the sides.


35

“He’s in there waiting for us,” Sava growled at the meeting. “I can feel it.”

Frank sat with Sava, Colonel Breaker, and Vega in a meeting room aboard the Ryker. The two ships remained in orbit a safe distance from the strange onyx pyramid while they planned their attack.

“It is strange that there are no enemy warships or fighters in the area,” Vega said, pursing her lips in thought. “We know he has them. He has to be waiting for us to descend. I can’t think of any other reason.”

“So now that we know what he wants us to do,” Frank said, looking around the room for an answer, “what do we do?”

“I say we pound the hell out of that pyramid.” Colonel Breaker brought his metal arm down on the table. A loud crash told the room he had struck the table a little too hard. “We hammer it day and night until there’s nothing left and then we go in. We’ve lost too many lives already.”

“An attempt to make contact with the pyramid and engage in a conversation of surrender should proceed such an act, but other than that, I agree with the colonel,” Vega said from her seat. “I want to go in once we form a strike team.”

“A scout team first,” Frank added. “I agree with everything being said here, but after we try to FaceTime the Lord of Chaos and after he ignores us or refuses to answer and after we bomb the living crap out of him, then we should go in with a small scouting team. To Colonel Breaker’s point, we don’t know what may be waiting for us. Better to risk a few than our entire army.”

“Then we are in agreement,” Sava said, rising from her seat. “I would rather be done with this sooner than later. If it is agreeable to all of you, I want to attempt our transmission now.”

“Let’s do it,” Colonel Breaker said, standing from his seat.

“Laloid, can you teleport the colonel and Frank back to the bridge on the Lucy?” Sava asked through her comms unit.

“Roger that,” Laloid answered back.

Frank caught Sava’s eye and gave her a wink.

She grinned and winked back.

A moment later, Frank felt warm and tingly as pin prickles crossed his skin from head to toe. In the space of a heartbeat, he was back on the Lucy’s bridge. Colonel Breaker assumed his seat in the captain’s chair.

“We are going to attempt a transmission in conjunction with the Ryker,” Colonel Breaker informed the bridge. “Bring it up on the main screen.”

“Roger, that,” Elly said as the front display screen separated into three parts, the largest side on the left black with two boxes on the right. The top was Sava and the bottom an image of Colonel Breaker.

“Here we go,” Sava said, waiting.

Frank felt the pit of his stomach drop in on itself. Who was going to pick up the call on the other line? Did the Chaos Lord really communicate like this?

Nothing.

They waited for what seemed a full minute with no response.

“I have movement from the pyramid below!” Elly said frantically. “Ships, lots of them coming out.”

“Show me on the screen,” Colonel Breaker ordered.

A moment later, the screen went from Sava and Colonel Breaker shouting orders to a view of the pitch pyramid. The structure had opened from its pointed top in four equal parts that slid back.

From the darkness within the pyramid swarmed hundreds of Dart-style fighters. Approaching along with the smaller crafts were three massive warships.

“Battle stations!” Colonel Breaker roared.

Gateway to the Galaxy Universe: The Complete Military Space Opera Series (Books 1 - 9)

End Book Two


Chaos Sieged Book Three of the Gateway to the Galaxy Series


Acknowledgements


If you think this book is awesome at all it’s only because I have a pack of rabid ARC Wolves, a wonderful editor and a talented cover artist. Thank you for your help.

ARC WOLVES

Kelly

Athena

Eagle Eyes

Lois

Editor - Beth

Cover Illustrator - JCaleb










For the wolves who I like to think of as our own Arilion Knight Corps - Jonathan Yanez

Debbie Blevins

Athena Lee Brown

Josh Seitz

Michael DeChirico

David E Smith

Kelly O’Donnell

Ron Gailey

Stu Fletcher

James Tucker

Roy Morgan

Sheila Baker

Taking a beat to acknowledge some good guys who turned out to be some crazy good men. - JR Castle

SSG Freddy Castillo

LCpl Mark Escobar

CPT Gustavo Madrigal

SGT Christopher Ocampo

TSgt Roger Perez

SGT Norman Robert “Buddy” Taylor, III

SSgt Andy Vitale

SGT Albert Yanez


1

The three Chaos warships advancing on them would have been enough to instill fear in their own right. The hundreds of Chaos Dart fighters were enough for anyone to abandon hope and give in to the whispers of fear and defeat. They had come into the enemy’s zone and the Chaos army couldn’t be more prepared.

Even Frank heard a voice in his head that spoke of doubt and hopelessness.

How are you going to stand against these odds? How could anyone? You’re one Marine not a miracle. Frank raged against the thoughts as soon they entered his mind. No, you’ll find a way. You’re an Arilion Marine. If anyone can find a way, it’s you.

“Evasive maneuvers,” Colonel Breaker shouted. “I want everything we can put into the shields done now. Open fire as soon as they’re in range.”

“Understood,” Elly said from her seat behind the colonel, her speedy fingers ready at her command board. “Incoming transmission. It’s Sava.”

“Put her on the small screen,” Colonel Breaker answered.

A moment later, Sava’s familiar reptilian face from her station on the Ryker, which was on its inaugural run, showed on a small square on the lower right of the main view screen. Her one good eye not covered by her patch was hard as stone. Frank had wondered about her eye, but now didn’t seem like the time to ask.

“We have seconds before they’re on us,” Sava said as calm as if she were talking about the designated time anticipated dinner guests would arrive. “I’m going to try something. Empress Vega will have command of the Ryker. Frank, I know you can’t fly yet, but do what you can.”

“Roger that,” Frank said. He wanted to thank her for reminding him of his shortcoming and maybe to get more details on the plan, but the transmission ended.

“Here we go,” Elly said from her seat at the control panel. “Hold on to your butts.”

The Chaos Darts arrived first. The smaller, single-seat fighter jets had long bodies with small extensions near the rear of the ship that looked like triangles more than wings. They were infinitely faster and more maneuverable than the three enemy warships also approaching.

The ebony pyramid on the moon’s surface slid closed after releasing the warships into the sky above. The four equal parts that had opened at the utmost top of the pyramid and slid down along the sides now moved closed again.

The Chaos Darts arrived with a pepper of bright yellow laser fire. The Lucy’s defensive turrets fired back in return. Since the commandeered Chaos vessel utilized the same firepower technology, their laser fire seeking out the incoming ships matched, causing some confusion. The Chaos Darts swarmed the much larger warship like a cloud of wasps on a massive brute that had disturbed their hive.

“Keep those turrets firing. I want those ships floating in pieces,” Colonel Breaker said. “Open a line to the Ryker.”

“Line opened, sir,” Elly reported.

Vega’s lavender face appeared on the lower right square monitor. She wore her white hair back, and her gold and white Neeve uniform jacket hugged her torso.

“I’m not too worried about the smaller fighters,” Colonel Breaker said to the empress. “They’ll be able to beat through our shields eventually, but it’ll take more time than they have alone. However, I’m more concerned about the three Chaos warships bearing down on us. Once they get into firing range, we’ll be in trouble.”

“Agreed,” Vega answered. “The two squadrons of Draconian Dragoons the Ryker carries suffered heavy losses in our last engagement. I have maybe, maybe, one full squadron I can launch between Viper and Hammer squadron survivors. I don’t think it’s prudent to send them out yet, not like this.”

Frank understood the hesitation in her voice, even through Elly’s translation chips. Sending out a single squadron of fighters against these odds, no matter how good they were, was a sure death sentence.

“What if they weren’t alone?” Frank asked as a crazed idea came to mind. “What if I went with them?”

“You’re a lot of things, but you’re not a pilot.” Colonel Breaker looked up at Frank from his captain’s chair.

“I’m not talking about flying a ship,” Frank said with a crazy gleam in his eye.

“Son of a sloth, Frank,” Lt. Corpsman Raj Agarwal said from his spot on the bridge, where he observed and waited for his aerospace medicine skillset to be needed, hoping it wouldn’t. “You heard Sava; you can’t fly. Who knows if she can even fly in space? Wait, can she fly in space? Is that something we even know?”

“I have to try something, sir,” Frank said, looking over to the colonel for permission. “We can’t win in a head-to-head fight; not against three Chaos warships and their Darts. You know the odds. Let me try. Please, let me do what I was chosen to do.”

“Go.” Colonel Breaker clenched his robotic right hand into a tight fist. “Don’t get yourself killed either.”

“Wasn’t planning on it and thank you,” Frank said, running from the bridge. He winked at Elly and Raj as he made his way to one of the ship’s exit points. “Can you clear the hangar bay for me, Lieutenant Wong?”

“Roger that,” Elly said. She spoke to him now via the comms they shared as he traveled to his exit point. “I don’t know how long your armor will last out there.”

“I’ll make a construct covering it,” Frank said with more faith than he had at the moment. “I’ve got this; this is why I’m here. This is what I was born to do.”

He said the last part so quickly he was surprised he had even said it himself. Was that how he really felt?

While Frank made his way down to the hangar bay, he checked his armor suit. Manufactured by Ballistic United Tactical and Tech Systems, or B.U.T.T.S., his current employer, the armor was state of the art. The dark steel plating was equipped with liquid technology underneath, allowing impacts to be less effective by spreading it over a greater distance.

He snapped his helmet, which hung by the side of his belt with a magnetic brace, on his head. Once on, the suit was airtight. The familiar heads-up display danced in front of his eyes. The lack of oxygen in space was going to be a huge problem. His suit recycled air to a point. If there was no air around him to be filtered, he was going to have to come up with something on the spot. They were out of time.

“I heard you were about to do something crazy.” Sava’s hard voice came through Frank’s comm. “I would advise against it.”

“Like you’re not going to try your hand at flying in space right now?” Frank said, running down a flight of stairs that would lead him to the hangar bay on the massive ship. “I saw that look in your eyes—eye—over the monitor. You’re going out with the Dragoons. Well, so am I.”

“And what do you think you’re going to do?”

“Help.”

“You can’t fly,” Sava reminded him again. “You’re going to get yourself killed out there.”

“Yeah, I know, but I can float,” Frank said, finally reaching the launch bay. He’d grown short of breath from running while talking. “Have you ever played a game called Asteroids?”

“Yes,” Sava said to Frank’s surprise. “The game where you take turns striking one another in the face until someone becomes concussed? I am very familiar with that game, but what does that have to do with our current situation?”

“What? No, that sounds like a horrible game. Why is that even called Asteroids?” Frank stopped by the controls to the deployment bay doors and force shield. A tingle ran up his spine as he recalled the last time he was in the hangar. The last time he saw Major Lopez. He looked around to make sure Elly had in fact cleared the deck. He was alone.

“Each player forms his fist into the shape of an asteroid,” Sava explained. “Listen, there’s no time for this now. We can play later if you’d like. Stay on your ship. You’ll be no good to us out there. That’s an order, Frank.”

“What’s that?” Frank asked, doing his best confused impression into his comms. “Sava, you’re—you’re breaking—up. What was the last part? You want me to go and help? Well, okay, if you say so. I’ll be right out.”

“Frank! Don—”

Frank terminated the link.

Well, here we go, Frank thought to himself as his finger hovered over the button to open the hangar bay doors. How hard can it be, right?


2

How hard can it be, was a phrase that had gotten Frank into more than his fair share of trouble. These same words ran through his mind when he ran with the bulls in Spain, taught himself to ride a motorcycle, and simply walked into Mordor. Wait, what?

As he paused for a moment to rethink his current course, Frank wondered why he wasn’t more scared. He was about to walk out into space with nothing more than his diamond-plated armor suit and the ability he now wielded as an Arilion Knight. He should be terrified.

“Ahhh, screw it,” Frank said, slamming his hand down on the button before he could second guess himself any further. “We’ve all got to die someday.”

Warning lights and alarms went off in the bay area, signaling the doors were being opened.

A pair of ominous steel doors standing eight meters high and a meter thick opened in the center of the hangar bay. The machine reeling them back on their tracks hummed as it pulled the metal slabs apart. Frank hit the button again as soon as there was enough room for him to squeeze through the pair of massive garage bay doors.

Frank walked to the opening. Through the translucent red force shield protecting the hangar bay even when the doors were open, he looked into space. Chaos Darts raced by his field of vision as they maneuvered around the much larger Chaos warship.

Drawing from his strength of Will, channeled through the glowing purple vambraces he wore on his forearms, Frank contracted a force field of his own. He had seen Sava do it multiple times before. It was a perfect circle that stretched out three meters all around him. As long as he could hold the construct, he could also hold the air inside of it. At least that was the logic that made sense in his own mind.

For a moment before stepping forward, Frank lost himself in the bigness of space. He recalled the powerlessness and ferocity he felt the last time he was in the bay aboard the Ryker. He remembered the fighting, the dying, the smell of burned meat as the Chaos plasma rifles did their job annihilating Draconian and Neeve alike, and of course he again remembered Major Lopez. He remembered her limp, unconscious body being sucked out into the vacuum of space without being able to do a thing about it. He remembered exactly what her face looked like: beautiful, determined, and scarred from their first encounter with the plasma-wielding Chaos army.

Frank shook his head free of the memory that would haunt him for the rest of his life. He took the burning pain in the pit of his stomach and the tightness in his throat and buried them deep inside in exchange for the Will to bring an end to the Chaos menace. Before Frank could come to his senses telling him he was doing something insane, he passed through the ship’s force field and floated out into space.

His plan worked. Frank could breathe and although he couldn’t quite move like he wanted to, he did have a degree of control. It felt like he was trying to walk through chest-high water. He could manage a few inches at a time if he concentrated, but right now, there was no time to hone this new ability.

Chaos Darts were already beginning to pick up on his presence and flew in to attack. All around Frank, the Dart fighters formed wings. They went on strafing runs as they pummeled the Lucy’s shields.

In front of Frank, the three larger Chaos warships made their approach.

Bright white laser fire screamed past Frank, pulling his attention back to the fighters zooming by. Apparently, he was a target now.

Frank created the easiest thing he could remember at the moment: the same A-shaped ship from the arcade game of his youth, Asteroids, complete with the single heavy blaster at the tip of the triangle.

The energy it took to make the force field construct allowing Frank to breathe taxed him. The triangular weapon around him wore on his resolve. A more sane man would have felt like an idiot as a tiny 8-bit triangle in the middle of expansive space among massive ships. Not Frank. He couldn’t stop now.

“Frank, what are you doing?” Vega asked, trying to keep concern out of her voice and just sound pissed. “You can’t go out there alone.”

“I hope your will is as strong as your need to commit suicide,” Sava growled over the comms. “I’m coming to you.”

Frank heard this and more chatter on the comms. He would have come back with a witty reply, except there was no time. Chaos Darts were zeroing in on his position and beginning their runs on his triangle-shaped ship made of translucent purple energy.

“Here we go!” Frank screamed at them as they approached. “Bring it, Space Invaders!”

Dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat

Frank sent a stream of violet laser-like fire at the oncoming ships. He took two of the Darts down in a shower of sparks and explosions before being slammed by an enemy beam from his left.

The air was knocked out of him as the force collided with his construct. Frank saw black for a moment as he was thrown through the air.

Hold it together, Frank screamed inside of his own head. Hold it together. You can control your movement. Find a way.

Frank managed to right himself and stop the spiral trajectory he had been sent on by the blast. He was sweating to maintain the construct around him. How long he could keep this up, he had no idea.

Something with a purple tail whizzed by on Frank’s left, not just striking an enemy Dart but going right through it. The Chaos ship exploded as Sava came out the other end. She was covered in sizzling purple energy that raced all around her body. It came to an end in a comet’s tail.

“I had things under control,” Frank said with a grin. “Actually, that’s a lie. It’s good to see you.”

“Try not to get yourself killed,” Sava said, racing off to join the squadron of Draconian Dragoon ships exiting the hangar bay of the Ryker on their right.

“Wow, cool man. This so awesome.” Laloid’s voice entered Frank’s comms. “Vega assigned me to spot for you since it doesn’t look like you’re too good at moving out there yet. You’re like a baby Draconian still dripping with sack fluid, who’s taking his first steps.”

“Thanks for the analogy,” Frank said, zeroing in on a Chaos Dart. He led his target and opened fire. A second later, he was rewarded with a short-lived explosion as the vessel erupted in flames, then surrendered its flames to the coldness of space. “Tell me where they’re coming from and I’ll shoot.”

“Yeah, ahhh, this is the best. Humans and Draconians working together to give evil a kick in the pants,” Laloid said with more enthusiasm than Frank was feeling at the moment. “Alright then, you have two boogers on your left and one on your right.”

“I think you mean bogies.” Frank turned his cannon to the left first, dispatching the Darts, and then to the right. His construct was hit again by enemy fire. This time, Frank managed to hold his ground.

“What’s that?”

“You’re saying ‘boogers,’ but I think you mean ‘bogies.’” Frank changed the construct of his single cannon to include a pair of missile launchers on either side of the main weapon. The act was nearly too much. Oxygen was already starting to run dry. Frank could feel his lungs ache for more air, but there was none coming.

“I don’t know, I’m pretty sure Raj called them boogers,” Laloid said, confused.

Frank was over the conversation. It was funny how fast the lack of available oxygen could change one’s priorities. He started to make his way back to the Lucy. Due to the hits from the Chaos Darts he had taken pushing him out into space, the ship was much farther away than he would have liked.

All around Frank, the battle raged. The Draconian Dragoons, outnumbered at least four to one, were fighting a losing battle. Despite their inferior numbers, they were making the enemy pay a heavy price. Their green direct energy rounds contrasted against the enemy’s as they danced through space at dangerous speeds.

Sava moved like death incarnate. She zipped around the battle, plowing into enemy Darts. She didn’t bother firing her own constructed weapons; instead, she used her body as a weapon, traveling right through the enemy ship as she moved from one to the next. A wake of destruction lay in her path in the form of floating debris and dead corpses of her enemies.

Frank saw all of this at a glance as he struggled to get back to the Lucy. It was moving slowly, but still the hangar bay door he had left just barely open was more than a football field to his right.

How do you get yourself into these situations? Frank asked himself. You need to start being more responsible and make better life choices.

Frank dug deep and threw out a blackish-purple line from his right hand. His anchor sank into the rear hull of the Lucy. He did this again and again, working his way back toward the hangar doors as he pulled himself up the lines. All around him, the air was showered with blaster fire.

“I’m redirecting some Dragoons to keep the enemy Darts off you,” Laloid sounded in his ear. “You’ve got it. Keep going; you’ll be fine.”

BOOM!

Frank was struck by a laser round from behind. The blast was so powerful it shattered his asteroid construct as well as his force field. Frank’s head snapped back as he was propelled through the air and toward the hangar bay doors.

The lack of oxygen was taking a toll on his mind. Dark spots were clouding his vision when he slammed into the right hangar bay door, then slid inside.

His momentum sent him sliding across the hangar bay floor on his left side. Pain exploded in his head and back.

“Oops, my bad,” Laloid said. “That one’s on me. I didn’t see that Dart sneak up on you until it was too late.”

Frank lay gasping for breath on the launch bay floor. When he tried to move, a savage pain raced around his back so intense it made him want to laugh or cry.

“Frank, Frank, are you dead, man?” Laloid asked over the comms.

“I think so,” Frank answered, managing to roll over on his back.

“Well, then take a breather, yeah?” Laloid said. “I’ll let you know—”

Something huge struck the Lucy, sending a tremor through the entire ship. Frank was rocked from side to side. Another violent claw of pain ripped across his lower back.

“What was that?” Frank asked, already guessing what the answer would be.

“Well, do you want the bad news or the not-so-great news first?” Laloid asked.

“Surprise me,” Frank answered.

“The three Chaos warships are in weapons range. We’re exchanging fire with them now.” Laloid paused. “And now for the worse news. Two of those warships are targeting the Ryker.”

Terrified shouts from those around Laloid came through the comms.

“Shields are almost down,” Laloid said in a panicked rush of words. “Incoming!”


3

Not only was the other ship full of a crew made up of his allies, but Vega was on the Ryker as well. Frank fought to his knees first, breathing hard. Despite the stabbing pain in his back, he managed to stand.

Nothing’s broken, Frank said to himself. Probably just sprained or pulled. You got to go. Time to go, Marine.

Frank limped his way back to the bridge, trying to raise someone on the comms.

“Laloid, Laloid, come in?” Frank said.

“I’ve—got to go,” Laloid said hurriedly. “They need me over here.”

Frank understood as much as he wanted to know exactly what was going on; Laloid, Vega, and the entire bridge on the Ryker should be worried about survival at the moment, not giving reports.

Fear once again gripped at Frank’s heart, a pang he had only limited experience with in his lifetime. What if the ship was destroyed? What if he never saw Vega again? He thought she knew, though he had never told her how he really felt about her. How did he really feel? The timing seemed inopportune, but that was the way it always seemed to be.

Oh, man. You fooled around and fell this time.

Making his way back to the bridge was a lesson in pain. Frank recognized the aching feeling in his back that spread down to his right leg, then ignored it. He moved on, finding a place in his mind past discomfort.

The bridge on the Lucy was a scene of order amongst mayhem. Colonel Breaker kept a cool head; still, his strained voice revealed how he had been shouting orders, possibly since Frank left.

“Everything, and I mean everything, besides weapons power I need fed into the shield,” Colonel Breaker ordered. “Concentrate all fire on that first Chaos warship that is targeting the Ryker.”

“Sir,” a Neeve operations specialists called from his spot at his control station to the Colonel’s left. “Shouldn’t we be concentrating on the warship that’s firing at us?”

“We can take the damage from a single ship for a bit longer. The Ryker can’t take the fire from two warships another minute,” Colonel Breaker said, eyeing Frank for the first time since he had returned to the bridge. “If you’ve got any more of what you just did, we can use it.”

Frank removed his helmet, smiling past his pain. He knew the colonel didn’t want to hear about his aches or pains. To be honest, he didn’t want to make them any more real by acknowledging their existence.

“I’ll get a turret constructed in the front, like Sava and I did when we first took the ship,” Frank said, limping his way to the front screen separating the bridge from space on the other side.

“The Ryker’s not going to hold much longer,” Elly said from her monitor. “I—holy bananas, what the heck is she doing?”

All eyes swung to the view screen in front of them. Directly in their way was an enemy warship painting them with blinding weapons fire. To their right, two more enemy warships unleashed a doubled barrage on the Ryker. All around this scene were the smaller fighters from both factions zooming back and forth dogfighting in the pandemonium. Everything happened so fast, yet in the moment, slowed like the calm before the storm.

What had caught Elly’s eye was Sava’s purple comet-like form streaking through the air toward one of the two enemy warships that was engaging the Ryker. She was descending from above the Chaos warship, gathering momentum as she rocketed toward her target.

“Frank!” Sava screamed into her comm past the wind roaring around her careening frame. “If I don’t make it, it’s up to you. You defeat the Chaos Lord!”

“No, what are you doing!?!” Frank screamed into his comm channel. “DON’T!”

Panic seized Frank shoulders, pulling upright. A cold sweat dampened his forehead. All sense of pain dissipated as dread took over.

Sava looked like a fallen angel plummeting from the heavens. She had gained so much speed, it was nearly impossible to track her. One second, she was racing toward a warship, and the next, she struck it.

For a split second, nothing happened. Then the colossal black warship collapsed in on itself as explosions crossed its hull. Ripping through the entire ship, the blasts rolled and buckled the Chaos ship. A moment later, a massive explosion tore the ship apart from its claw-like front wings, which extended forward to its bulky ebony rear half. Amongst the wreckage, Sava was nowhere to be seen.

Shouts went up over the comms. Frank didn’t blame them for their moment of relief and excitement. Sava had sacrificed herself for exactly that: so that others could rejoice and live another day.

Frank only felt grief in his heart. Losing Sava struck a chord still too raw within him. How many more would he lose in this war he never wanted to enlist in? He left the military in part due to the carnage and loss he experienced. Working at B.U.T.T.S., he was to sit fairly pretty and peddle the latest in weapons and defensive tech. Yet here he was, following his heart to do the right thing and rise to the occasion; to use the greatest weapon he owned–his fighting spirit.

Yet now he was alone again as the only Arilion Knight. Sadness turned to anger, anger to rage in the span of a single heartbeat.

Rawww!” Frank slammed his hands against the glass separating the bridge from their view of space. He roared as he created a construct of a weapon he had only ever seen a picture of before. It was an electromagnetic rail gun capable of hurling twenty-three-pound projectiles at Mach 7.

Frank had seen a prototype of the weapon while working for his employer, B.U.T.T.S. He remembered the meeting distinctly as he was ushered hurriedly away from the prototype as if he were never meant to see it in the first place.

He had never seen it fired or even tested. The barrel of the purple weapon extended out on the opposite side of the window, the translucent construct nearly taking up the entire viewing area.

All the pain and all the anger boiled over and out of Frank to flow into the construction of the weapon. The Will needed to hold together a weapon of that size was the most Frank had used since his induction into Arilion Knighthood.

Frank pointed the long barrel of the weapon to the right, where the second Chaos warship still fired on the limping Ryker.

Fires had broken out all along the Ryker’s hull. How they were still afloat was a mystery.

VRRROOOM! VRRROOOM! VRRROOOM!

Frank pumped round after round from his giant weapon into the left hull of the Chaos ship. A bright purple bolt started at the thick base of the weapon before traveling down its square barrel. He wasn’t sure whether that was the right sound a rail gun would make in reality, but it was his construct and that was what it sounded like. To be honest, as long as it dealt the damage to vindicate his mentor’s sacrifice, it could have sounded like a beeper going off for all Frank cared.

His rounds hammered into the Chaos ship, ripping holes the size of tanks in the side of the ship. Frank didn’t let up. All the physical pain in his body was numb. He had one job at the moment and that was destruction. Sava had offered herself as a kamikaze for Vega, Colonel Breaker, Elly, Raj, Laloid, and all of them to have a chance at survival. Frank was going to make sure she didn’t die for nothing.

The red lights of the Chaos ship in front of them blinked off and on. Fires broke out on the enemy ship, only to be snuffed out by the coldness of space as soon as they began. A second later, the wing on the right of the Chaos warship that came up like a pincer tore free and began to float apart from the rest of the craft. The entire ship went dark as its engines died. It hung in space like the useless hunk of metal it now was.

Frank wasn’t finished. He turned his weapon now on the third Chaos warship before them. There was so much debris floating in the space between the crafts, it was hard to get a clean shot.

As it turned out, there was no need.

The last warship was in retreat, as were the remaining enemy Darts. Frank had no intention of letting them go. He held his finger down on the trigger, rotating the giant barrel to follow his target. Fatigue crawled all over and through his body, threatening exhaustion past the point of consciousness; still, Frank refused to let the enemy retreat now, only to ambush them another day.

“Keep on them!” Colonel Breaker shouted to his crew on the bridge. “Let’s give Frank some help. Fire all weapons!”

The rounds coming from Frank’s rail gun at Mach 7 speeds traveled too fast for the eye to track. The hail of candent blasts shooting from the Lucy was easy enough to see as it raced toward the enemy ship and splashed against its red force field.

In seconds, the enemy ship’s protection field was done. Within a minute, it was torn to shreds. Much like the other two ships, fires broke out all over, only to be stifled a moment later.

The space immediately in the front of the Lucy looked like a graveyard of black oxide metal fragments, cables, and indiscernible shrapnel. Frank didn’t realize he was still holding down the trigger of his constructed rail gun until Colonel Breaker put his metal hand on Frank’s right shoulder.

“That’s enough. We did it. The three enemy warships are down. The fighters are in retreat,” Colonel Breaker said. “Let go, Frank. Let go.”

Frank’s chest was heaving. He was bathed in a coat of sweat. A deep sense of loss surprised him. He had only known Sava for a few days, but the bond they shared as Arilion Knights had been carved deep; deeper than he realized. He was on his own again.

Frank released his hold on the construct, sinking to his knees. One look out the main window confirmed what the colonel had said. The remaining enemy Darts were in full retreat back to the egg-shaped moon and the pyramid.

“The Ryker is coming on the main screen,” Elly whispered with hesitation, as though not wanting to interrupt the moment.

Vega appeared—shoulders back, chin up—in the midst of panicked voices shouting all around her on the Ryker’s bridge.

“Colonel, I’m requesting Hammer and Viper squadrons return to the hangar bay on your ship. We’ve sustained heavy damage, primary systems are failing. We need to set down immediately.” There was no fear in Vega’s voice, but the tension on her face spoke another story. “I’m also requesting you teleport as many Draconians and Neeve onto the Lucy as possible. The bridge crew and I will remain on board the Ryker. We’ll set him down below.”

“Understood.” Colonel Breaker looked over to Elly. “Give the order to open the hangar bay doors. Begin evacuating the Ryker.”

“Yes, sir,” she confirmed as fingers scrambled across her command screen followed by her voice providing orders over the radio.

“Vega, if the ship’s not going to make it, you need to let us bring you and the bridge over as well.” Frank rose from his knees, digging deep to find the energy to move past Sava’s downfall. “There’s no need for anyone else to...to die.”

“We can set it down.” Vega nodded to Frank with a determined smile. “The Ryker has supplies we’ll need for the campaign once we lay siege to the pyramid. We can’t abandon it if there’s a chance. If we can’t pull it off, I’ll give the order to teleport as well. I have to go.”

“Godspeed,” Colonel Breaker said. “We’ll see you on the ground.”


4

Frank looked out the bridge window to the right of the Lucy to try and gauge the Ryker’s status. The structure of the Ryker reminded Frank of a flying Titanic. The thrusters on either side of the ship were sparking and firing sporadically while the main engines in the back lay dead. Multiple breaks in the hull showed exactly how much damage the ship had taken.

The warship limped along, headed in a descending route to the moon below.

“There’s too many soldiers to be able to bring them all over before their ship enters the lunar atmosphere,” Elly observed after calculating their trajectory. “I can get a few hundred at the very most.”

“Let me go.” Frank grimaced past the pain in his back. “If anyone has a chance of helping them land, it’s me.”

The look Colonel Breaker gave him was worth a thousand words. In the older man’s eyes were understanding, brotherhood, and duty.

“Elly, send Frank over.” Colonel Breaker gave the order. He turned his attention back to Frank. “You get them to the ground safely. That’s an order. We’ll cover you from above, make sure you’re not blindsided by another attack. Get it done, Frank. Oohrah!”

“Oohrah! Sir!” Frank shouted, trying to psych himself up for the next leg in this never-ending struggle for survival.

A moment later, his body tingled and he was on the bridge of the Ryker.

“Oh wow, hey, man,” Laloid said, looking up to Frank with everyone else on the bridge. His eyes were red, tears still pooled in them now. He had been the closest to Sava, having helped her train and prepare. He sniffed. “Good to see you.”

Frank understood the impact such a leader could have. Laloid was an Arilion super-fan since birth–whatever that looked like for Draconians–and volunteered his exceptional tech and computer engineering skills to help Sava construct the training grounds where she learned to master her skills and Will. And where Frank had trained.

“You too.” Frank placed a hand on the Draconian for a moment. “I should have been able to help her. I–”

“You couldn’t,” Laloid started.

“Next time, I won’t let us down.” Frank nodded before making his way down a level to where Vega sat in her captain’s chair.

“You shouldn’t have come,” Vega said through clenched teeth. “We can handle this.”

“I’m just here to help,” Frank said, understanding everything she wasn’t saying. He returned her stare. If they did go down, she didn’t want Frank anywhere near. Likewise, if they were going down, there was only one place Frank wanted to be, and that was by her side. “What can I do?”

“For the moment, hold on.” Vega looked out the front window as the Ryker continued to descend toward the Chaos Lord’s small moon hideout. “We’re saving everything we have in the two thrusters to slow our descent once we enter the moon’s gravity. With the force field gone, we’re going to burn on reentry, but Miriam says the hull will hold.”

“Who’s Miria—oh, you mean Junior?” Frank looked over to the tall Draconian behind a screen to their left. Miriam looked up at hearing his name. Frank still managed a bit of satisfaction, even in this dire moment, at the acknowledgement of the new moniker given after losing a bet with Frank.

“The Draconian steel will hold,” Miriam agreed, nodding with confidence from his seat. “I’m not worried about reentry; I’m worried about the landing.”

“We’ll make it,” Vega said, furrowing her eyebrows. “We’ll make it if for no other reason than the Chaos Lord cannot be allowed to win. Miriam—I mean Junior, with as much control as you have, set us down out of weapon range from the pyramid but not too far away. We’ll need to get there quickly once we make the ground assault.”

Vega’s sure tone was inspiring to Frank. She was still looking ahead, making strategic moves as she navigated their current life-threatening situation. There were so many things Frank wanted to say to this amazing woman, but this was not the time nor place.

Frank looked out the front window as the ship entered the planetoid’s atmosphere. The bleak landscape was depressing at best, nightmarish at worst. They were headed to a hunk of land to the left of the ebony pyramid, where a ravine had been carved into the charred ground. It looked like some giant had taken his pick and dug a trench through the dead soil in the distant past.

The Ryker shuddered and rocked as flames bit at the front of the ship upon its entry into the moon’s atmosphere. Who knew what gases made up the surrounding vacuum; they could ignite into a flaming wreck at any moment. Frank didn’t have a seat on the bridge. He wasn’t about to leave Vega’s side either. He knelt on one knee, placing his left hand on the armrest of her captain’s chair. He constructed a brace around his waist that anchored him to the floor.

“Vega, I need to tell you something,” Frank said, ignoring the flames racing across the front view. The entire craft rocked back and forth. A deep rumbling came from all around them as they raced toward the surface.

“I know,” Vega said, looking down to Frank from her chair. “I know, and I feel the same way. Tell me once we make it to the ground safely.” She nodded with sure, deep eyes.

Frank nodded, directing his focus once more to the moon that rushed to meet them. The ground was coming too quickly for Frank to even imagine they had a chance of stopping the herculean ship before it crashed against the surface.

“Junior? Laloid?” Vega asked as the inertial dampeners were stressed to their breaking point. “How are we looking?”

“We can’t hit the thrusters, not yet,” Laloid said, clawed hands at his control monitor behind them. “We only have one shot at this. Not yet.”

Frank clenched Vega’s armrest tighter as the ship spasmed like a Chaos soldier in his death throes. The moon was only miles below now. The Ryker broke through a thin layer of clouds as it raced to impale itself on the black ground below.

“If we don’t do something soon, we’re only going to be able to haunt the Chaos Lord,” Frank shouted past the roar of their descent.

“And… Now!” Laloid said, engaging the two remaining thrusters on either side of the ship.

Miriam used the stabilizing force to bring the nose of the ship up from a direct descent. The Ryker groaned as it was drawn parallel with the ground.

Frank felt his stomach hit his lungs and then fall back down again like he was on some poorly maintained carnival ride. The Ryker skidded against the dark ground and then lifted once more. Frank experienced that same feeling when his airplane was about to land, that anticipated moment the wheels hit the tarmac.

“Hold on!” Miriam said as he clenched his teeth.

BLAM!

The entire bridge rocked so violently, it was a miracle everyone remained strapped in their seats. An abysmal rending sound came from somewhere deep in the ship as they continued to slide along the dead ground.

All around the ship, the carcasses of old trees and foliage were smashed into the ground or pulverized on impact. The immense size of the Ryker was enough to demolish anything in its path, or so Frank thought.

Out of the front window, a monumental mountain rose from the ebony ground. The side closest to them was a sheer black cliff of hard rock and loose soil.

“Brakes?” Frank asked as they raced toward impact.

“Kill the thrusters!” Miriam shouted to Laloid.

“Done, but we won’t stop in time!” Laloid shouted back.

Frank understood what he needed to do. At the moment, he felt like he had been rolled over by a cement truck, then stuck back together with duct tape to then be run over by a tank. Despite how he felt, he needed to take action.

The Ryker rumbled forward in a dead slide. Frank released his hold on the construct anchoring him to the ground and walked on unsteady feet to the front window.

“Frank!?!” Vega shouted.

“I can do this,” Frank said, trying to keep his balance as he stalked forward to the window. “Everyone, cover your eyes and brace yourselves.”

Frank created another construct from the front of his hands. He shot a solid beam out through the window. Glass shattered all around the bridge. Hot wind laced with the rotten egg scent of sulfur whipped through the front window, slamming against Frank’s face.

Every muscle in his body ached. He thought he had given everything he had when constructing the rail gun. Somehow, he needed to find a way to give more; he had to find a way. He would find a way.

The purple beam of energy shot from his hands rocketed over the distance between the approaching Ryker and the looming mountain in front of them. They had a mile, maybe two at the most, before the Ryker would slam into the mountain, rendering them all dead or close and the ship a useless hunk of smashed rubble.

Come on, just like the training program Sava had you endure over and over, Frank screamed into his own head. He didn’t need the projections of his parents or of Vega calling out to him to hold back the pressing wall; it was real this time and the people needing him to save them were right beside him now. You can do it. If not for yourself, then for them.

The beast awoke inside Frank. The Will to succeed no matter how much effort he had to put behind the task. All doubt had to be removed and faith remained. There was no more if or but, only do and get it done.

Frank bent his knees, putting his head down and his arms extended in front of him with a calm knowing that he would succeed. Slowly, he began to stalk forward. He refused to slip on the smooth bridge floor underneath his feet. With every step he did take forward, he slammed a boot into the ground, making sure he wouldn’t be pushed back.

Step by step, he moved forward. The pressure of the beam in his hands beat into the mountain. Slowly, the forward progress of the sliding Ryker began to lessen.

Memories of the last laugh he had with Major Lopez in the Ryker’s armory, Sava’s rough yet wary admonitions, even Colonel Breaker throwing himself in harm’s way to protect Frank and losing his arm all flashed across Frank’s mind, giving him more fuel to add to his fire. Frank’s arms felt like they were going to snap under the pressure. In seconds, time would tell if he had done enough.


5

“Come on!” Frank poured everything he had into the force pounding the mountain in front of him. A deep roaring growl grew from the deep recess of his being.

A moment later, the Ryker came to a halt. The bow of the ship lightly bumped the front of the mountain, sending a rough tremor though the craft. Frank lowered his hands, looking at the smoking hole the force of his energy burst had carved out from the side of the mountain.

Frank’s mind and the relentlessness of his Will were the only things forcing his body on. He had learned an important rule while in the Marines during specialized training. The body would do whatever the mind pushed it to do. He had undergone multiple hellish drills and conditioning exercises where he was deprived of sleep and food and pushed to keep going. He pulled on all of that now as he stood on his feet and turned around to face the bridge.

The white-haired Neeve and the green-scaled Draconians all shared the same look of utter amazement across their eyes. Laloid’s eyes were beaming and he nodded an amazed approval like a proud papa.

“What?” Frank looked back at them, swaying with fatigue as he walked. “Do I have something on my face?”

“Frank, Vega, come in,” Colonel Breaker’s voice sounded through their comms rather than the ship’s destroyed transmission systems. “Ryker, this is the Lucy, come in.”

“We’re fine.” Vega was the first to find her voice. “Thanks to Frank, we made it.”

“Understood,” Colonel Breaker responded. “There’s no more activity from the pyramid. The Darts retreated back inside. The top of the structure closed. We’re not picking up any lifeforms between you and the pyramid either. It’s about eight klicks due east of your location.”

Frank was so utterly worn out, he had to remind himself to pay attention. He felt drunk with fatigue. He’d never fallen asleep standing up, but if there was ever a time for a first, he imagined that wouldn’t be difficult right now.

“Understood,” Vega said, already moving on what needed to be done next. “I’m going to check for wounded, set up a perimeter, and then assess the damage to the ship.”

“Roger that, we uh—” Colonel Breaker hesitated in a very unlike Colonel Breaker way. “When you’re ready, we should talk about next steps. The Lucy will provide an overmatch position until you’re ready to move. Contact me then. And, Frank, get some rest. We’re going to need everything you’ve got before this is all over.”

Vega exchanged a questionable glance with Frank, indicating she too had picked up on what Colonel Breaker wasn’t saying.

“Understood,” Vega said over the comms.

“Yes, sir,” Frank said through dry lips.

The communications channel clicked closed.

“Where do you need me?” Frank asked, walking over to Vega, stumbling like the town drunk as he did so.

Vega caught him in her surprisingly strong arms. “You need to rest. You’ve done more than your part today.”

“I can—I can do more.” Frank tried to stand on his own. His mind was giving out as utter exhaustion won over. “I can help.”

“You’ve done everything you needed to do,” Vega said.

Frank vaguely remembered Laloid and Miriam helping Vega take him to a room off the bridge and laying him in bed. The sweet scent of Vega’s jasmine and lavender hair mixed with the steely dirt smell of battle were a perfect lullaby for the depleted Knight.

Darkness came quickly.

“Frank Wolffe.” A not unkind male voice woke Frank from his sleep. “Frank Wolffe, wake up.”

Frank opened his eyes to find himself in a three square-meter room with a bed, desk, and dresser. To his left, a door stood cracked, leading into a bathroom area. The voice he had heard was nowhere to be seen, yet it came again.

“Frank Wolffe, Earth Marine and Arilion Knight, I would speak with you,” the deep commanding voice said again.

Frank sat up, feeling a rush of soreness cross his body. He swung his feet off the bed to the chill ground below. Someone had taken off his armor. He was in his charcoal military fatigues.

“Who are you?” Frank asked the empty room.

“You know who I am.” The voice came from everywhere and nowhere at once. “I am the one you so misguidedly seek. Knock, knock, Frank.”

“What?”

Someone tapped twice on the door to his room.

Frank stood from his bed, feeling a rush of dread-laced panic. His vambraces were gone. Where? He had no idea. Trepidation practically emanated from the door as everything inside Frank told him not to go near it.

“You don’t have to fear me,” the voice said once more. “There is another way. Leave this place on your remaining ship. Go and I will spare you and your Earth.”

“And the Neeve and Draconians?” Frank asked.

“They have a debt to pay,” the voice said with a hint of malice. “They have sins to atone for.”

“You mean they helped defeat you in the first Chaos War.” Frank filled in the blanks.

The door to his room rattled like an ominous monster was on the other side, shaking it off its hinges. It subsided a moment later.

“Do not speak of things you do not understand, boy,” the voice spat. “I’ll make this offer once. You are the only Arilion left standing. The Light has forsaken you. When I was banished before, it was at the hands of thousands of Arilion Knights. You cannot defeat me alone, not you, not like this. This isn’t your fight. You never wanted to join; just to take your money and time and move along. You owe them nothing.

“I’ll find a way,” Frank said, clenching his fists so hard by his sides that they shook. “You don’t know me that well if you think I’m going to back down from a fight.”

“I know enough!” the voice shouted. Something slammed against the door again; a rending sound came from the metal as fist-sized indentions popped out on the side of Frank’s door. No, not fist-sized—much larger, the size of sledgehammers. “I know who you love, I know who you care for. Stand against me and I will make you watch as I make them burn. Abandon your hope, Arilion Knight. You are alone.”

Apprehension ate his resolve like a school of piranhas feasting on a carcass.

How can you fight him alone? Frank asked himself. Sava’s gone. A third of your force is depleted. How are you going to defeat the Lord of Chaos on his own planet?

Frank shook his head, shutting out the voice of terror growing inside.

“This story has been told over and over again throughout history.” Frank swallowed hard. He spoke with resolve he was finding by the moment. “How a self-appointed ruler poisons the minds of his followers. How a tyrant rises and tries to snuff out the light of freedom. Well, I’m here now. Try to snuff me out.”

Everything Frank said, he meant. The strength in his voice surprised even him. Whether it was the thought of already having lost so much or the possibility of losing more, he wasn’t sure. All he knew was that no matter the odds, he would fight.

“Then you will die!” the voice raged.

The door separating Frank from the Chaos Lord blew open, breaking off its hinges under some incredible force. The only thing Frank could make out on the other side of the door was darkness. A massive figure as large as the doorway itself stared at him.

Every good memory Frank carried withered and died at that moment. The air was stifled by heat making it difficult to breathe. The sharp, choking sulfur made it even worse. Flaming eyes stared him down from a horned head. Black vapors twisted and rolled over the monster’s muscular body in menacing summoning waves. Ebony wings crested on the Lord of Chaos’s back.

Frank’s heart was pounding out of his chest. He couldn’t move; he was rooted to the spot. The Chaos Lord held his gaze and reached for Frank.

“Ahhh!” Frank bolted upright, waking from his dream.

“Ahhh!” Raj screamed from where he sat in a chair by Frank’s bedside. Raj’s scream was like a high-pitched shriek from a small, frightened child.

Frank breathed hard as he realized it was only a dream that had sent him into such a panic. He was sitting on his bed, dressed in his military fatigues. His armor was gone, but his vambraces sat on a desk in the small room.

It was a dream, Frank told himself, looking to the door in his room to make sure it was still on its hinges. How did it feel so real?

“Frank, are you all right?” Raj went over, producing a pen light from his front chest pocket and inspecting Frank’s pupils. “You’re safe. They took you to your room to recover after the crash landing. They called me in to take a look at you.”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Frank lied, wiping at the sweat on his forehead with his right hand. “Just remind me, no more scary movies before bedtime.”

“Here take this.” Raj handed Frank two red pills and a water bottle.

The red pills that fell in Frank’s palm reminded him of the red eyes he had seen in his nightmare.

“What is this?” Frank asked, tossing back the pills and washing them down with the entire bottle of water.

“The Marine cure for everything: Ibuprofen,” Raj said, taking the opening to inspect Frank. “I didn’t want to get all handsy with you while you slept, but let’s take off that shirt and see how you’re faring.”

Frank complied, maneuvering around muscles that felt like they had been individually beaten with an aluminum baseball bat. His fairly muscular chest and torso were a crisscross of bruises.

“You’ve got a fair amount of swelling and bruising going down your lower back as well,” Raj said, shaking his head and inspecting with his pensive dark brown eyes as he felt Frank’s spine and ribs. “Nothing looks broken, though. I’d love to have more time to study how your anatomy is changing. As an Arilion Knight, it seems you’re more durable somehow.”

“Great. Well, poking and prodding me in a lab will have to wait.” Frank rose to his feet, heading for the shower. “What’s the status out there?”

“Colonel Breaker wants you to report in after a shower and some chow.” Raj stopped himself before he said more. “It’s better if you hear it from him.”


6

“You’re telling me she’s still alive?”

After a hot shower, Frank ate a quick meal on the go that consisted of protein paste substance, perhaps a Draconian-style MRE. Frank was then teleported back to the Lucy, which had remained overhead from where the Ryker landed.

He sat in a conference room with Colonel Breaker and Vega as they decided on their next course of action.

“One of the Dragoon ships from Hammer Squadron found her floating in space,” Colonel Breaker said, moving to answer Frank’s next question before he could ask it himself. “She is alive, but she’s in a coma of sorts. I’m not sure how her—your powers work exactly, but she managed to cocoon herself and protect her body from most of the blast.”

“Raj says she’s stable. He’s been working with the team of Draconian medical specialists,” Vega added. “There’s just no way to tell when she’s going to wake.”

Frank nodded. As much as he wanted to go see Sava, there was nothing he could do for her now. He would make the time once the meeting was over. He needed to keep his head in the game, and right now, that meant planning their strike on the pyramid.

“Since the Darts retreated back into the pyramid, there’s been no sign of activity from the Lord of Chaos,” Colonel Breaker said, narrowing his eyes as he considered what that could mean. “Our fighting force is down to just over six hundred soldiers and a handful of Dragoons. We have enough to make one smart assault on the pyramid, but not much after that if we fail.”

“The colonel and I have decided to try an orbital strike on the pyramid,” Vega said as she sat straight-backed in her chair. “It’s obvious the Chaos Lord wants us to go to him. We’ll bomb him and then send in our infantry units when we reduce his pyramid to ash.”

“It sounds like a great plan, but these things are never that easy.” Frank sighed. “I don’t want to be a downer here. Let’s try it. I’m just saying he has to be expecting that. He’s let us into orbit unchallenged. He knows what we’re going to try. It’s not like we’ve done anything but an all-out assault up till now.”

“Still, we have to try.” Colonel Breaker stood from his seat. “Vega, if you’re in agreement, I’ll have you teleported back to the Ryker. All infantry units including your own Neeve troops are preparing for the assault.”

“When we move against the pyramid, I’ll be leading my force,” Vega said with so much determination Frank opened his mouth, then closed it again. “I don’t expect either of you two to understand or like it, but it is not my people’s way for their leader to simply send them into battle. I am a leader because I lead.”

Vega skewered both men with intense glares, begging them to challenge her.

“Hey, whatever you say.” Frank lifted his hands into the air in a sign of surrender. “I’m not going to try to stop you.”

Vega turned her eyes to Colonel Breaker.

“You’re an ally, not an officer under my command.” Colonel Breaker nodded along with his own words as if he were convincing himself as he spoke. “If that’s the way of your people, then go and be safe. Elly has shown a few of your more technically savvy soldiers how to mount personal force fields on their armor. She deconstructed the tech from a Chaos power armor unit that we captured.”

Frank understood what he meant. They had captured the enemy Chaos warship and renamed it the Lucy. Along with the massive craft, they had captured a portion of the enemy crew as well as all of their armor and weapons. They would come in handy in the coming campaign.

“I appreciate that,” Vega said, moving to leave the room with the others. “I will begin preparation for the assault; however, I will wait to consult with you before we make our move.”

Vega’s eyes caught Frank’s for a moment. “I’m glad you’re on your feet. You saved all of us back there on the Ryker.”

“Ahhh… it was nothing.” Frank winked at her. “I’ll see you soon.”

Vega nodded and walked down the hall to the left while Frank and Colonel Breaker took a right toward the bridge. On the inside, the Chaos ship wasn’t too different from the Draconian Ryker. The halls and rooms were black with plenty of lights built into the ceiling and walls. The halls were wide with doors that slid open from the middle.

Frank and the colonel made their trip in silence, each man left to wonder how the next few minutes would evolve.

“Vega has been teleported back to the Ryker and we are sending all available infantry units there as well,” Elly said from her control station on the bridge.

“Very good.” Colonel Breaker moved to take a seat at the captain’s chair in the middle of the bridge.

Out of the front window, Frank could see they were still in orbit high over the Ryker. To their right and not that far away was the pyramid. Up close, it was the largest building he had ever seen. It dwarfed things like coliseums or even the Empire State Building.

“Sal, get us in range,” Colonel Breaker said to the Draconian female on his right. “Let’s prepare an orbital strike on the pyramid on my command.”

The ship moved slowly toward the black pyramid. Frank moved his eyes from the colossal structure to the Ryker, which rested about five miles away. The Ryker had dug a deep trench through the planet’s dark soil, eventually coming to rest at the foot of the mountain.

“We’re already in range to fire,” Elly said from her seat. “Whenever you are ready, Colonel.”

“Fire!” Colonel Breaker gave the order.

Frank turned his attention back to the pyramid as the ship’s guns opened fire on the building below. Laser rounds fired from the ship’s main guns raced toward the black monolith. The heated yellow rounds came short of the pyramid stopped by a red force field that domed just above the pyramid’s tip and came down, encompassing the structure.

“That’s why he wasn’t worried.” Frank said what he and the colonel were both thinking. “The Chaos Lord knew we couldn’t get to him from above.”

“Let’s test the force field on all sides just in case,” Colonel Breaker said, giving direction. “Pepper the defensive barrier a bit longer.”

Frank and the rest of the bridge watched as the yellow laser fire that could pound through an enemy ship and hull was held at bay by the pyramid’s protective shield.

“Alright,” Colonel Breaker said after another round of fire splashed against the force field, doing nothing to penetrate.

“Looks like you’re going to need a small unit to do some recon on that shield,” Frank said to the colonel. “I’m in.”

“I volunteer as tribute,” Elly said, standing from her seat.

“This isn’t the Hunger Games,” Frank said with a grin.

“She should go with you.” Colonel Breaker agreed with Elly’s request. “You’ll need someone to assess the force field and find a way inside.”

Frank was about to ask Elly why she was so eager to put herself in harm’s way, but there would be plenty of time for that later.

“Yes, sir,” Frank said out loud. “I’ll get a small unit together and we’ll see about cracking this egg.”


7

“Every time I pass out or get knocked unconscious, I keep waking up in different clothes,” Frank said, checking his armor with the others as they prepared to travel to the enemy pyramid on foot. “It’s a weird feeling. I mean, who keeps getting me naked?”

“Is he always like this?” Vega grinned from her spot in the armory, where she donned one of the dark-plated armor suits the rest of the Marines wore over her strong and curvesome form.

“Most of the time, but he grows on you,” Raj said as he checked his Punisher GS2000. “That is, if he’s not trying to take you on another sure-death enterprise.”

“Oh, look who’s talking, Chunky Monkey,” Elly said, suiting up next to Raj.

“One time, that was one time, and you’re labeled for life,” Raj said, shaking his head and running a tan hand through his jet black hair. “I told you, I had a bit too much to drink that night. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Frank shifted his stance from where he stood in the ship’s armory as he placed his vambraces over his forearms. He looked quizzically to Elly with a toothy grin.

“Well, you see one night, one of the very few nights we were allowed outside of The Den back on Earth, the good doctor here got shmammered and I’m not talking in a cute way either. I mean just sloppy and started to—”

Colonel Breaker’s voice sounded in their comms, saving Raj from having to relive memories he clearly wanted to leave in the past. “Both Sava and the ranking Chaos officer from those we captured when taking over the enemy ship have been teleported down to the Ryker.”

“Thank you,” Frank answered.

“Godspeed,” Colonel Breaker said.

“I’m going to go check in on Sava. I’ll meet you in the holding cell to question the prisoner,” Frank said to Vega.

It had been decided that Sava should be on the Draconian ship receiving care since there was equipment there to monitor members of her own species. The prisoner had been teleported down for interrogation. Any piece of information they could get might mean the difference between life and death.

“I’ll meet you there,” Vega said, already heading for the door.

“Hey, hey, what should I do?” Raj asked.

Before Frank could answer, Elly piped in. “You can help me out, Chunky Monkey. I have a project for us to work on.”

“One time and I’m labeled for life,” Raj groaned.

Frank left the two, heading for the medical bay. It was strange, the feelings he held for Sava. Not of romance or even friendship. It was something that went even deeper. The bond they shared as Arilion Knights was something Frank had only experienced with Marines he had been in combat with, those he had fought and bled beside.

She’s in your very own army of two, I guess, Frank thought to himself. She’s the only one who knows exactly what you’re going through. Sure, Heron can give you answers from a book, but she understands first-hand.

Frank was lost in his own mind. By the time he walked to the medical wing, he still had no idea what he was going to say, much less whether Sava would even be able to hear him. She was in a coma after all. He had intentionally avoided this coma business for so long, even with his own mother.

The medical bay reminded him of a scene from a military film. A long, open room with beds pushed up against either wall and enough medical cabinets stocked with supplies to make any hospital envious. The smell of chemical antiseptic solutions tickled Frank’s nose. A few doctors in fatigues marked with medical patches on their drab olive uniforms tended to patients. When they looked up and caught Frank’s eye, they nodded out of respect.

On his part, Frank dipped his head back, hoping he could get to Sava without being drawn into a conversation. Those he saw left him alone for the time being.

Sava was easy to spot. She had her own curtained-off section of the medical bay near the left corner of the room. Frank drew back a white curtain to see her long, scaled body lying on a bed. Numerous monitors tracked everything from her blood pressure to her breathing patterns.

She wore a crisp white gown. The soft, bright material looked out of place on the one-eyed horned warrior. She still wore her vambraces, although there was no purple glow coming from them now.

“I don’t know what to say,” Frank said out loud. “I don’t even know why I’m here besides the fact that it—it just feels right.”

Frank paused, searching for his next words.

“He came to me in a dream.” Frank fought back a shudder at the memory of the winged creature who had barged into his room. “He tried to intimidate me like a schoolyard bully. Don’t worry, I’m not backing down. I’m going to use what you taught me and I’m going to take it to him. I promise you. I’m not going down without a fight, no matter the sacrifice I have to make.”

Frank placed his right hand on Sava’s right vambrace, covering her forearm.

“I still have a million questions about the Arilion Knights, the Light that formed the vambraces, and so much more. I don’t know if you can hear me. If you can send a prayer to the Light that started all of this for me, we’re going to need all the help we can get.” Frank squeezed the cold hard steel Sava’s vambrace was made out of before turning to walk away.


8

“So how are we going to do this?” Frank asked Vega as the two stood outside the metal door that would lead to the prisoner’s cell. “Good cop, bad cop?”

“What is a cop?” Vega lifted a single eyebrow.

She looked like a futuristic female badass in the diamond-plated armor. Her mid-back-length white hair was back in a ponytail and her purple pointed ears stuck up on either side of her head.

The pair stood in a near empty cell block. The Chaos officer teleported to them from the Lucy above was the only prisoner on their ship; the rest had been kept in orbit onboard the Lucy.

“A cop is—” Frank stopped himself. “It doesn’t matter. Basically, the way we do this is that I’m the hard one threatening him with physical violence and drooling at the mouth and you come in offering to protect him from me in exchange for information.”

“Alright, we can try this your way,” Vega said, entering a six-digit code into a keypad by the cell door. “Bad cop, bad cop.”

“No, not—”

It was already too late; the door swung open and Vega stalked inside.

The interior of the cell was smaller than Frank expected. There was no bed or toilet, just a simple square room with a light overhead, barred in case the occupant tried to reach the electric current used to power the light.

The Chaos soldier inside the room was the same species Frank had seen before. The enemy commander who had escaped the Lucy had been the same kind of alien. It was tall and lean with a sloped face and short tusks coming out of either cheek curved in toward its mouth.

The alien was dressed in a bleached jumpsuit with a barcode on his left shoulder as were all Draconian prisoners. He sneered at them as they walked in. “I will tell you nothing.”

Vega slammed her left boot into the alien’s chest, sending him sprawling back into the steel wall on the other side of the cell.

“Tell us what you know now, or I’ll rip the tusks from your cheeks and then you can tell us.” Vega stalked into the cell, pulling the alien to his feet. “Tell me, do you like pain? I will redefine the very meaning for you.”

Frank blinked, trying to rethink his tactic. He had always been the bad cop in these scenarios.

The Chaos P.O.W., whom Vega now had pinned up against the wall, was both wider and taller than her, but that didn’t seem to matter to the Neeve empress. He looked down at her and grabbed at her with his hands, trying to fight back.

Vega pivoted, throwing him to the ground before he had a chance. She sent a kick to his ribs that doubled him over and another to the side of his face.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Frank rushed in, pulling Vega off the alien, who had assumed the fetal position on the cold cell floor. “We need him to be able to talk to us when this is all over.”

“Give me minute with him alone.” Vega allowed herself to be pulled back. “He’ll talk. He’ll scream!” She spoke with the ferocity and vinegar of a woman on the edge.

Vega was doing enough to win an Academy Award at the moment. Now it was up to Frank to do his part. He released his hold on Vega.

“Just let me talk to him. Cool off,” Frank said with a wink.

Vega looked at him, confused.

“Hey, hey, I’m sorry about that. My partner is a bit wound up right now. She’s off her meds at the moment.” Frank knelt beside the alien, helping him to his feet. “What’s your name?”

The alien looked at Frank’s vambraces, recognizing him as an Arilion Knight. His eyes fell. He had to understand he had no hope of defeating them now. His eyes traveled to the open cell door.

“I wouldn’t,” Frank cautioned, reading the alien’s thoughts. “If you know what I am, then you understand I can have you chained to the ground and gagged in a second. What’s your name?”

“Ash,” the alien said, defeated. “My name is Ash.”

“Listen, Ash,” Frank said, taking a seat next to the alien. “I know you don’t like me—heck you might even hate me—but things can go a lot easier for you if you can give us some information about the shield over the pyramid.”

Vega stared at Ash, drool dripping from the left corner of her lip. Her right eye twitched like a maniac.

“My counterpart here is a little rabid...apparently,” Frank said. “Honestly, I don’t want to see you tortured. Just give us something we can use.”

“There is nothing I can give you that you would believe anyway.” Ash shied away from Vega, who began to pace up and down the short cell. As he continued, his sunken holes for eyes never left her. “The force field covers the entire pyramid. The source of the force field’s power lies within the structure in a secure server tower surrounded by an electromagnetic cage. There is no way to get in. Is she—is she going to eat me?”

“What?” Frank looked up to Vega, who was licking her lips as more drool fell from her mouth. He did his best not to laugh or eye her. “Not if you give us what we want. You’re doing great, Ash. Give us something we can use.”

“I have nothing,” Ash said, shaking his head as he kept a wary eye on Vega. “Please, you have to believe me. Don’t leave me alone in here with her.”

“I believe you, buddy, I believe you,” Frank said, searching Ash’s eyes. “And I’ll make sure nothing happens to you if you let me know the patrol patterns around the pyramid and where they get in and out.”

Ash looked up at Frank, panicked. It was enough for Frank to realize his shot in the dark had worked.

The Chaos army would likely have a perimeter security, and if that was the case, there had to be an access point where this patrol entered and exited the pyramid.

“I never—was never put on patrol,” Ash stuttered.

Vega lunged at him.

Frank stood just in time to restrain her. This time, she pulled harder to get at Ash.

“But—but—” Ash held up his three-fingered, sinewy hands. “I do know the access point lies to the rear of the pyramid.”

Vega stalked out of the room.

“You need to make better life choices.” Frank looked down at Ash with a shake of his head. “Maybe listen to some Doctor Phil or read some Paulo Coelho.”

Ash stared back at Frank, lost in bewilderment.

Frank closed the cell door behind him, jogging to catch up with Vega.

“Hey, great work back there. You’re an amazing actress,” Frank said, reaching her side. “You had me fooled for a second.”

“Who was acting?” Vega asked back with a blank expression.

“Oh, very funny—you’re—you’re kidding, right?” Frank pressed. “I mean, you were slobbering back there.”

“Come on, we have the intel we need.” Vega ignored the subject, picking up her pace as she headed back to where they had left Elly and Raj. “We can’t afford to waste any time.”

“Right,” Frank said from behind her. “But seriously, you were acting back there, weren’t you?”


9

Frank and Vega reached the armory again. Elly and Raj had Magnus, Elly’s Momo, on one of the tables, buckling him into a small harness.

The harness fit around the Momo’s wolf cub shape and saddled between his wings. For whatever reason, he still seemed to trust Elly putting him in this contraption. Perhaps he was just happy to have a friend and not be eaten by the Draconian. Using a combination of her hearing aids and the translator units the squad wore behind their ears and at their throats, Elly was able to communicate with the creature to enlist him in this task.

Right now, Magnus was making low, guttural sounds in his throat.

“No, I don’t think there are any female Momos on this moon,” Elly was saying to Magnus. “I have no idea what is on this moon actually.”

“There, got the last strap on,” Raj said, standing back to admire his work.

Magnus was wearing flat black armor plating that covered his head all the way down his back. Apparently, Elly planned on him going with them on their scouting mission.

“Elly, I don’t know if taking him along with us is the smartest thing.” Frank looked at the tin animal with a raised eyebrow. “He’s kind of small to be used in a fight.”

“Oh, I agree with that.” Elly ruffled Magnus’ ears gently. “I’ve attached cameras to him here and here.” Elly pointed to the Momo’s helmet and then again to the underside of his belly, where the straps came together. “We can use him as recon. The camera on his head will show us what’s in front of us when he’s on the ground and the camera under his belly will show us a bird’s eye view while he flies.”

Frank still wasn’t sure how he felt about the idea. Maybe a drone would be better. It was clear Elly had worked hard getting the gear set up. Instead of shutting her down, he decided to roll the dice on the Momo acting as their forward scout. So far, her crazy ideas had worked. Her tech and coding engineering had done her well.

“Alright,” Frank said, grabbing his helmet from the armory and clipping it on to his magnetic belt. “We just have to make sure he doesn’t give a bark or yip at the wrong time.”

Magnus looked at Frank, cocking his head to the side. The animal let out a small whine and woof.

“He says, ‘Roger that.’” Elly grinned.

Frank led the way out of the armory with the rest of his unit. They all wore the same diamond-plated liquid armor. Their dark suits would blend in perfectly with the black terrain. The helmets they wore were made up of the same protective gear from B.U.T.T.S. A T-shaped visor on the front of the helmet gave them access to the heads-up display in their helmets.

Elly and Raj carried their Punisher GS2000s on their backs. The smaller Reckoner P7 attached to their hips. In addition to this, each of them carried a backpack; Elly’s with tech gear and Raj’s with medical supplies.

Frank forewent the physical weapons, knowing he could summon whatever he needed at a moment’s notice. He did, however, carry a backpack with supplies.

Vega was the oddball out. The empress insisted on not only carrying a Punisher GS2000 on her back along with her pack but her great sword as well. She looked like a fantasy assassin from the video games Frank played back home with her dark armor and wide blade.

She would never admit it, but Frank noticed her hesitate as they walked through doorways. She was clearly struggling with the weight, yet it wasn’t like Vega to complain.

“You need a hand with that?” Frank asked as they arrived at the hangar bay doors where they would exit the Ryker. “You’re carrying enough for two people right now.”

“I’ll be fine,” Vega said. “We should get going. The pyramid lies eight kilometers to the east. It’s night out there now. We should be able to arrive by morning without a problem.”

“Roger that,” Elly said, taking out a data pad from her pack and scanning the lines of information scrolling across her screen.

Vega went over to the hangar bay door control panel. She pressed a button, opening a small access door that was set near the larger hangar bay doors. “The Ryker experienced heavy damage; still, we have all primary systems running now besides the engines. The Ryker isn’t ready to fly yet, but we can use it as a base at least.”

Frank stepped outside with the others; Vega in front of him, Elly, Raj, and Magnus bringing up the rear. The scene in front of him was brutally breathtaking. The land was scorched and burned in every direction. The mountain that rose up in front of them eventually gave way to a dark night sky dotted with stars. Looming so massive it almost looked fake was a planet of dark blue and white clouds. Behind them, a tiny moon fought for its place in the night sky.

A cold wind stroked Frank’s short, dark hair. He looked to his right. The eight-kilometer distance to the pyramid made it difficult to see the structure in the night, but he knew it was there. An icy finger raced down his spine as he prepared himself.

“I’ll take point with Vega,” Frank said, lifting his helmet off the magnetic clip on his belt. “Elly and Raj, watch our six.”

The helmet’s heads-up display immediately recognized the level of illumination. It transitioned to a night-vision mode that made the planet in front of Frank reveal its secrets.

“What kind of magic is this?” Vega asked, placing her own helmet on her head. “I can maneuver around the screen with my eyes?”

“Oh, right,” Frank said, motioning to Elly. “Elly, can you give Vega a crash course on the heads-up display?”

“Roger that,” Elly said.

“I do not wish to crash on a course if at all possible,” Vega said, turning her head this way and that. The barrel of her weapon followed her movements.

Frank extended a hand, catching the end of Vega’s Punisher GS2000 and pointing the barrel down to the ground. “It might not be a bad idea to go through a quick weapons tutorial as well.”

“No offense, Empress Vega, but do you know how to use one of our weapons?” Raj said, taking a step back. “You almost castrated me with a plasma rifle not too long ago.”

“You are correct, Lieutenant Agarwal,” Vega said, relaxing her grip on her weapon and lowering it to the ground. “I do not mind confessing my shortcomings. I’ll gladly listen to instruction.”

“Great, let's get going,” Frank said, heading toward the pyramid. “We can get there before the sun rises if we hurry.”

The unit moved out with Frank in the lead. Magnus joined him, sniffing the air as they made their way from the Ryker, deeper into the alien landscape. Thanks to the heads-up display in his helmet, Frank could now see the terrain around him as clear as day.

Their path would take them down a steady incline and into a ravine. Thus far, they were alone; no wildlife, not even birds called on the wind. One thing bothered Frank the most. It was that the Chaos Lord was allowing this. He had made no move against them despite the fact that he had to know what they were doing.

He had anticipated their strike on the pyramid. He would also be aware of their scouting mission against him. He was waiting for them to come to him. The nightmare Frank experienced the night before invaded his mind again: the massive looming figure, the dread he felt in the pit of his stomach.

An hour went by with Elly talking with Vega, answering her questions, and giving careful instruction. In that time, the unit had moved away from the Ryker and down the incline. In front of them now was the ravine. The ravine itself seemed to be nearly two kilometers wide. The easiest thing would be to go through it. The safest might be to skirt the ravine altogether, though that would cost them valuable time.

“You think Magnus is ready for his test run?” Frank said, looking behind him at Elly.

“Oh, you know it,” Elly said, so excited her tone went off by a few decibels. She looked down at the Momo, who walked beside Frank. “Let’s go, buddy. It’s your debut flight.”

The Momo chittered something.

“No, if you see something, don’t kill it. We just want to see what we’re getting into,” Elly said.

Magnus dipped his head and took off at a sprint. His grey wings extended from his back, and a moment later, he was soaring through the air.

Frank and the others continued forward. The ravine was as lifeless as the rest of the moon with one notable difference. There were charred trees rising from the dead soil in various states of destruction. They were all skeletons of their former selves, some still managing to stand upright while all that remained of others were blackened stumps.

Frank’s boots crunched over the soil as Vega joined him.

“Something does not feel right,” Vega said, scanning the ground as they continued forward. “And I do not mean the fact that we have a flying wolf pup overhead.”

“No, I know what you mean,” Frank answered. “My spidey senses are tingling. I feel it too.”

“I knew I should have brought a bag to breathe in,” Raj said over the comms as he brought up the rear. “I feel like we’re being watched.”

“More like being hunted,” Vega answered.

“Guys!” Elly ran to the front between Frank and Vega, staring down at her pad. “You should really see this!”


10

Frank wasn’t sure what he was looking at initially. It was an overhead view from the camera on Magnus’ stomach. It showed the floor of the ravine. The soil was still black with burnt alien trees rising to the sky in sorrowful, twisted shapes.

Movement caught his eye. Something long slid over the ground. It was too far from the camera’s point of view to make out exact details, but it looked to be a giant snake or worm slithering over the rocky terrain below.

“I knew my spidey senses were tingling,” Frank said, coming to a halt. He constructed his own Punisher GS2000 in his hands, staring at the screen. “We should go back. We just entered the ravine. We can go back and go around.”

Elly tapped Frank’s shoulder. She placed a hand on his helmeted chin and lifted it up, directing it the way they had entered the ravine.

“Wha—” The question died on Frank’s lips. He saw exactly what had grabbed Elly’s attention. There were dozens of worm-like creatures coming down from either side of the ravine. Their path back was already blocked.

The alien worms varied in size from short and stocky to long and thin. The longest one was approximately five meters in length. Apparently, disgusting deathworms came in all shapes and sizes. The pale brown skin on their backs extended from their nub-like ends to the hole filled with teeth that must have been their mouths. There were no eyes as far as Frank could see, just teeth and whiskers.

“I don’t want to be the negative one here,” Raj lifted his weapon at the creatures, “but should we run? I feel like we should start running sometime soon or wake up from this nightmare.”

“Vega, you lead,” Frank said without hesitation. “I’ll bring up the rear and take out any of them that get to close. Let’s move!”

The unit didn’t need to be told twice. As one, they began running deeper into the ravine.

Frank ran, doing his best to backpedal as much as possible to keep an eye on the worms. The creatures immediately followed. Some of them skidded along on the surface, while others burrowed just below the soil line, creating a low wave of broken, charred earth, which allowed Frank to still track their movements. If they had gone another meter or two deeper into the ground, they would have been lost altogether.

Frank’s lungs burned as he moved so unnaturally for such a length with the weight of his armor and the pack on his back. Neither one of these things was enough to provide a problem on their own; even together, they were manageable, but adding in backwards running to the mix was enough to wear down any soldier.

“Cardio, why does it always have to come down to cardio?” Elly huffed as she kept pace with the others. “Girl, you’re having too many cheat meals these days.”

After a few minutes of running, Frank realized what their pursuers were doing. The worms were remaining content to stay out of range yet close enough to provide that moment of panic and encourage their prey to run.

Frank had seen the Discovery Channel enough to understand the strategy behind their tactics. They were content to allow the unit to tire themselves out. Only when Frank and the others were exhausted and could run no more would they pounce.

Screw that, Frank thought to himself. I’m not going to play their game.

Frank stopped, turned, and sighted down the summoned Punisher GS2000 that appeared in his hands. This happened all in the space of a quick second. He squeezed the trigger on his constructed weapon, sending a burst of rounds into a worm on his right that looked like Jabba the Hutt and a parasite had a love child.

The rounds struck the creature, sending a spray of white liquidy stuff into the air reminiscent of popping an aggressive pimple. The result was just as satisfying. The worm squealed and writhed on the ground.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Frank sent a few more rounds in the creature just to ensure it was indeed dead. The other worms chasing them all paused for a beat. As soon as the moment came to an end, they rushed Frank en masse. Sliding over and just below the ground, they came at him without regard for their own well-being.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Frank sent another burst into the gaping maw of one of the closest creatures to his left. Each razor-sharp tooth lining its mouth was at least as large as Frank’s pointer finger.

Realizing he would be overrun in a matter of seconds, Frank turned and ran with the rest of the group. He hated the idea of running from a fight, but if that meant keeping his unit out of danger, he would make that call. Besides, he wasn’t retreating; Marines didn’t retreat. He was advancing away from the enemy.

Frank channeled the power of his Will and sprinted forward. Within a few heartbeats, he caught up to the rest of the group. Vega was in the lead, her weapon up and ready. Raj followed close behind and Elly was last running while trying to look down at her smart pad at the same time.

If they could keep their current pace, they would be able to stay ahead of the pack of worms. Frank chanced another look behind them. They had a good forty meters on the worms who didn’t necessarily move quickly but were unwilling to give up the chase.

“Ugh, my lungs, my lungs burn,” Elly said, coming to a stop and holding up the smart pad. She tried to explain something to them between pants. “Wait, there’s—there’s no point in—in running anymore.”

“What are you talking about?” Raj asked, grabbing her arm to try to pull her along. “We have to keep going.”

“No, look,” Elly said, shoving the smart pad in all of their faces.

Frank’s heart dropped.

Elly was right; there was no point in running. The data pad showed an aerial view of the events below. They appeared on the screen as four tiny red dots. Behind as well as in front of them, dozens of squiggly lines raced toward them. They were already surrounded; they just didn’t know it yet.

Before hope could be taken, before fear could even get a foothold, Frank doled out orders.

“We need to put our backs to one of the ravine walls.” Frank pointed to their left, already moving in that direction. “They’ll go down with a few rounds to their mouths or head area. They just have the numbers on us, nothing else. We can take them. We got this, Oohrah?”

“Oohrah,” Elly and Raj said, jogging to the wall of the ravine with Frank.

“Worms, I hate worms.” Vega joined them at their defensive position.

Every member of the unit took off their packs and set them behind them against the ravine wall. Frank placed himself in the center of the half circle with Vega on his right, Raj and Elly on his left.

Without prompt or warning, the worms came. Frank didn’t have time to count the slithering creatures, but he would guess their numbers had grown to nearly a hundred. There were so many of them now, they traveled on top of one another. Their wide-open mouths clicked shut over and over again as they raced toward their next would-be meal.

“Give ‘em hell!” Frank roared as he opened up with his Punisher GS2000.

Vega, Elly, and Raj did the same, sending a spray of the tungsten rods into the mound of flesh streaking toward them. The red tracers in their weapons painted their rounds maroon, making it look like crimson laser fire was being pumped from the barrels. Frank’s weapon looked like dark purple lasers burning into the worms.

Each round striking the worms sent a shower of white liquid onto their pale skin. The air soon smelled like scorched flesh and stale vomit. The air-conditioning unit built inside of their suits cycled in cool air, but it was pulling the air from outside to do so. Frank revisited the urge to maneuver around his helmet’s heads-up display and turn off the air conditioner, but there was no time.

The scream of the dying worms sounded like high-pitched squeals of some kind of small animal in Frank’s ears. The sound was almost pathetic, almost. If the worms had not been racing toward him with open mouths full of razor sharp teeth, he might feel something for them.

When Raj stopped to put a new clip into his weapon, Frank saw the worms surge forward. Elly was holding her own, but Vega couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a rock if she was standing right in front of it.

Her aim was all over the place as she put two rounds into the air or in the ground for every round that found a target. The worms were closing in every time one of them had to stop and reload. They were ten yards from Frank, who had taken the foremost position of their defensive semicircle.

“Ugh!” Vega shouted in frustration as her weapon clicked dry. Instead of trying to reload, she drew the great sword from her back. “I’m going to do this my way. I’m no good with your weapons.”

Frank didn’t have a chance to talk her out of it; the Neeve empress was already stalking forward, swinging her blade across in a low arc, severing a pair of worms in two. More white pimple juice sprayed from their bodies.

“Thank God,” Elly whispered.

“I heard that!” Vega yelled again as she drove the end of her weapon down, pinning a bulky worm to the ground.

One of the worms grabbed on to Vega’s foot another on to her left elbow. Vega used her free foot to smash down on the worm grabbing at her leg. The smaller worm’s head caved in, in a shower of white fluid. She turned her blade sideways and swiped the steel against the worm grabbing at her arm, slicing it in half.

As if their leader had ordered a silent command, the horde of worms suddenly stopped climbing over their own dead and retreated.

Frank looked to the others for an answer. He lowered his Punisher GS2000, inspecting the carnage. A rough semicircle of the dead worms lay feet in front of them. An ocean of their white liquid blood spilled over their boots.

“We did it,” Raj said with a heavy sigh. “I’m going to have nightmares about this for a long time. I think I might need therapy after we’re done, but we did—”

“Shhh…” Elly cut him off. “Do you hear that?”


11

Frank heard the intensity in her voice. Elly had her head cocked to the side, leaning in as if she had heard an important whisper. It was impossible to tell the expression on her face with her helmet on; however, Frank could imagine it was inquisitive, brows knitted together.

Frank along with Raj and Vega quieted.

Nothing.

Frank was so still, he could hear his own heartbeat in his head. Still, nothing. Right when he was about to say something, Elly broke the silence.

“It’s coming from the ravine wall.” Elly pointed to the wall that had protected their rear while battling the worms. “It sounds like tiny teeth or—or burrowing? Maybe I can just pick it up because of my hearing aids, like the way I can understand Magnus?”

“Wait.” Vega walked toward the hard-packed dirt wall of the ravine and placed a hand on it. “I think I hear something as well.”

The soil in front of Vega erupted in a shower of dirt and rock as something slammed into her, throwing her into the air. Vega bashed against a dead tree five meters to their right and didn’t move.

An insect-like monster wove its way out of the ravine wall. It looked like a monstrous centipede with multilevel plating on its back and hundreds of tiny legs. The head had a pair of antennas with onyx bulging eyes and pincers the size of Frank’s forearms.

“Ahhh!” Elly opened fire on the monster with the others as she screamed into her comms. “Why do they all have to look like bugs!?! I hate bugs!”

Frank brought his weapon up just in time to fire off a few rounds that struck the beast on its long plated back. The rounds he scored failed to penetrate the monster’s hide, as did Raj’s and Elly’s.

Before Frank had a chance to adjust his strategy, the monster was on top of him. It rose up on its long body, high enough to place its pincers on the same level as his face, and lunged forward.

Frank grabbed the pincers in his hands. His arms shook as he strained to wrestle the gigantic centipede. The creature twisted back and forth, trying to take Frank off his legs. A mouth full of tiny teeth opened and shut behind the pincers.

“Shoot him!” Frank yelled, calling on his Will to make him stronger. The centipede had to be twenty meters in length. The way it was thrashing back and forth made Frank pour everything he had into keeping his grip on the pincers inches from his face.

The back end of the centipede slammed into Raj, sending him tumbling backward.

Elly ran forward, sticking the barrel of her Punisher GS2000 into the underbelly of the centipede, where Frank held it up and unloaded on the monster.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

She pumped round after round in the beast, spraying her and Frank both in a shower of chunky guts and sticky blood. Elly didn’t stop firing until empty clicks filled the air.

The creature was writhing in Frank’s hands as smoking holes made by Elly’s Punisher poured life out of the monster. The stench was horrible, like barbequed, rancid meat.

Frank threw the centipede to the ground. At the same time, he brought a Reckoner P7 to his right hand and placed three rounds in the inky eye of the monster, just to be on the safe side.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

“Son of a RompHim, I think he’s dead.” Raj appeared next to Frank and Elly a moment later. “Where’s Vega?”

Frank turned from the corpse of the centipede and followed the others as they raced to where Vega lay on the ground. She was moving, trying to take off her helmet at the moment.

“Are you okay?” Frank asked, skidding to a stop beside her.

“All I see is bright light,” Vega said, trying to unbuckle her helmet.

“No, don’t go towards the light,” Elly warned. “Stay away from the light.”

Frank helped Vega remove her helmet and waved Elly back.

“I’m fine,” Vega said, sitting up. Raj knelt beside her to inspect her. “There was a malfunction in the helmet. The heads-up display just went bright white after I landed. What are you two covered in?”

Frank followed Vega’s eyes, looking down at his armor. There was inky goop from the centipede covering both his and Elly’s armor like a second skin.

“Oh, I might throw up.” Raj gagged, taking off his own helmet just in case he actually did.

Motion above caught Frank’s eye. Magnus circled and landed next to Elly with a short bark as he shook his head from side to side.

“Yes, I know what I smell like,” Elly said. “We could have used your help. We’re taking on nightmares over here. Where were you?”

Frank left Elly and Magnus to have their conversation while he helped Vega to her feet. Raj gathered himself through slow breathing out of his mouth and holding his breath for a few seconds, and joined the unit as they headed back over the pile of worms to gather their packs.

“Is it just me or does this stuff remind you of pimple juice?” Frank asked as his boot sank into the corpse of a worm. The act made a wet squishing noise and he smiled with a mischievous sneer.

Raj had made it to the packs. He turned away and vomited his last meal.

“Oh, sorry, Raj,” Frank said, picking up his pack. “We almost made it out of this one without you getting sick.”

“Ugh,” Elly moaned. “I’ll pay you when we get back.”

“What?” Raj said, looking up as he wiped his mouth on his hand. “Are you two taking bets on whether I’m going to throw up or not? I cannot believe this collusion.”

“Nothing personal,” Frank said with a shrug. “Come on; let’s get going. We don’t know what we’re going to encounter.”


12

On the way to the pyramid, Frank and the rest of the unit made great time. Magnus scouted ahead, and although the terrain wasn’t perfect, they kept a steady pace. The nearest sun was just beginning to rise when they spotted the first patrol circling the pyramid perimeter.

The pyramid loomed in front of them, gigantic in both height and width. The sunlight gleaned over a sharp edge, outlining the mountain that rose up with perfect lines and a solid foundation so otherworldly, even in this bleak landscape. If Frank had to guess, it was well over a hundred stories tall. Its base was as large as four football stadiums lined up in a perfect square.

The terrain around the pyramid was made of the same coarse black sand. Sprouting up in sporadic intervals were craggy rock formations, ranging from large enough to hide a jeep to so small they would barely hide Magnus. The dismal territory threatened further peril with tiny, bubbling volcanoes that oozed steaming hot lava interspersed with the rock formations every few yards.

Frank took cover behind a particularly sizable rock configuration. The pyramid was still a good kilometer out from their position, but he didn’t want to chance being seen. The others crouched down low, removing their helmets. They took in water and protein bars from their packs while they could.

“Well, this is the back of the pyramid,” Frank said out loud to himself. “And there’s the patrol.”

Frank sighted in on a pair of Chaos soldiers in their heavy armor. One of them carried a plasma rifle, the other a flamethrower with a hose that connected from the rear of his weapon to two tanks he wore on his back. They had their backs to them, already walking away from the spot where Frank and the others hid.

“I still don’t see where the force field would allow entrance,” Vega said, peeking over the rocks. The patrol must come in and out of the force field somewhere.”

Just as the words left Vega’s lips, the pair of Chaos soldiers stopped beside two tall, thin rock formations that looked almost like pillars. They touched one of the rocks on the right pillar. A red force field appeared between the two pillars, shimmering at first, then revealing an entryway. They spoke to someone Frank couldn’t see, then were allowed in. A second later, the force field vanished again.

“Cool,” Elly said around her protein bar. “Not only do they have a force field, they have a secret cloaked entrance.”

“Yeah, it’s cool, but how are we going to get in?” Raj asked the question they were all thinking. “I mean, it’s not like we can just, ‘speak friend and enter’.”

“What if we could?” Frank wondered out loud.

Everyone turned to Frank with confusion written across their faces.

“I mean, Vega and I will grab the next two that come around and we’ll use their armor to disguise ourselves.” Frank laid out the plan. “Once we get to the doors, we’ll take out whoever is on the other side and you can wear their armor. Magnus is going to have to sit this one out… Elly? Where’s Magnus?”

“What?” Elly said, looking around. “He was just right—”

“Ummm, guys?” Raj said, looking over their rock barrier. “I think we have a problem.”

Frank followed Raj’s eyes to where Magnus had lifted a leg and was peeing on one of the rock pillars that acted as a door to the cloaked force field.

The force field shimmered again as shouting could be heard from within the pillars. Although the pillars were a good fifty meters from the pyramid itself, no enemy soldiers could be seen in the space. It was as if a cloaking device had been added to this section of the force field, camouflaging the soldiers stationed at the entry and exit points.

A pair of Chaos soldiers ran out from between the pillars, taking aim at Magnus. The Momo barked at them and then began to run back to Frank and company in a zigzagging trot.

The two Chaos soldiers gave chase, firing their weapons at the fleeing Momo.

“Don’t discharge your weapons,” Frank warned as he crouched even lower and brought a purple ka-bar to his right hand. “We can’t chance anyone hearing us this close to the pyramid.”

“How are we going to kill them then?” Raj asked, missing the knife in Frank’s hand.

“Leave it to us,” Vega whispered as she removed the great sword from her back. She gripped it in her right hand, the blade parallel to the ground.

“Kill it,” one of the Chaos soldiers said only feet from the hiding spot where Frank and the others crouched.

Magnus flashed by, a blur of grey and white. The next moment, both Chaos soldiers rushed past their hiding spot. Frank took the second one with a ka-bar across the soldier’s throat. He tackled the soldier, driving his blade into the base of the soldier’s neck between his helmet and breastplate just to be sure.

Vega was a step behind. She rose, spinning her sword in a full arc; the act was so perfect, so precise it was art. The Chaos soldier had time to turn and realize what was happening right before his head was removed. His full helmet fell by his feet. Blood spurted from his neck like water from a broken sprinkler as his heart gave out the last bits of life. The rest of his body sank to its knees, then toppled over.

Everyone looked at Raj, who had removed his helmet just in case. He swallowed hard but didn’t expel his protein bar.

“What?” he asked as he realized everyone was looking at him.

“And I’ll be taking that money back,” Elly said to Frank.

“You win some, you lose some,” Frank said, already dragging the dead Chaos soldier behind the rock formation. “Help me get these guys out of their armor.”

The unit quickly worked to remove the two dead Chaos soldiers’ armor. Raj gagged a few more times but didn’t get sick. In the space of a few quick minutes, Frank and Vega were already wiggling into the Chaos soldiers’ armor.

“Hey, now I know how whoever has been changing me feels. Kind of invasive, guys,” Frank commented and shook his head with disapproval.

The aliens inside the armor were the same species Frank had previously encountered. They were humanoid, tall with a muscular build and short tusks that came out from their cheeks.

The armor was large for Frank and two sizes too big for Vega. The fact that they put the armor on over their own suits helped but made walking and flexibility a problem.

“I don’t think we’re going to get their helmets over our own,” Frank said, removing his black helmet in favor of the red Chaos helmet. “This thing smells like a skunk.”

The Chaos helmet was wider and round at the base. Two eye holes looked out with no visible heads-up display. Frank took a careful step in the heavy armor. He would be able to make the trip through the pyramid, but if a fight broke out, there was no way he could maneuver around in the tank-like armor.

Luckily, his vambraces were hidden by the bulky Chaos armor. In favor of taking his own weapon or constructing one of his own, Frank was forced to wield a plasma rifle. It felt cumbersome in his hands, almost comically so.

“I wonder what these aliens are, I mean, who they are and where they came from?” Elly asked, inspecting the dead bodies. “Most of the Chaos soldiers we captured were this same species with a few randoms thrown in.”

“They are called the Abrocky,” Vega said, wiping blood from the helmet of the Chaos soldier she had decapitated. It came off thick and goopy like syrup. “It is unknown for certain their true origin. Some think they are beyond our known universe, some that the Chaos Lord creates them himself. Heron has mentioned that they are descendants from the planet of the Chaos Lord himself. He overtook them and genetically modified the survivors for his own malicious purposes. The first people to always be invaded by a tyrant are his own.” Vega sniffed the helmet before moving to place it upon her head. “The other non-Abrocky aliens answer the call of the Chaos Lord from a variety of different planets in the universe.”

“I can’t even imagine an entire army made of these guys conquering the universe,” Raj said, shaking his head. “It’s amazing it was stopped in the first place.”

“And that is exactly why we have to end the Chaos Lord here and now.” Vega nodded along with Raj’s words, her voice echoing inside the headpiece. “He has not regained his full power. Where it once took an army of Arilion Knights to take him down, Frank can do it on his own.”

“No pressure,” Frank said, shrugging his shoulders inside both sets of armor. “Come on. Let’s go before the detail at the pyramid is missed. Elly, Raj, wait for our signal and then come running. We won’t have a lot of time to—”

“You there, who said you could leave your post at the force gate?” a rough voice asked from behind Frank.


13

Vega was in the process of adjusting her own helmet when the two new Chaos soldiers came into view from their own route around the pyramid. From their vantage point, they could only see Frank and had a partial view of Vega. Raj, Elly, Magnus, and the two dead bodies were hidden behind the rock outcropping.

Frank didn’t say anything. Instead of words, he turned and waved.

Vega joined him, and together, they did their best to casually walk toward the other two Chaos soldiers.

“I asked you a question, grunt,” the same Chaos soldier spoke in his rough, gravel-filled voice. “Why aren’t you at your post? It’ll be lashings for you unless you have some kind of miracle of an answer. You know things are on lock down since the rebels arrived on the moon.”

“Oh, right,” Frank said, trying to buy them more time. If they could close the distance and get in front of the soldiers, they could take them out quietly. “I, uh—everything’s fine there—we thought—we saw something so—so we checked it out, but situation is normalish—normalish, good.”

“Why are you walking so funny?” The Chaos soldier shook his head. “Why does your voice sound like that?”

There was a brief pause as Frank and Vega finally made it to the other pair of Chaos soldiers. The tone of the soldier talking to Frank told him he was seconds away from realizing something was off.

“There’s something wrong,” the other Chaos soldier finally spoke up. He raised his weapon at the same time. “I don’t think—”

Frank had seen enough. He was close enough now to act. He produced a ka-bar in his right hand and shoved it up into the chin of the soldier in front of him. Both men fell down into the dirt ground.

Out of the corner of his eye, Frank saw Vega disarm her target and attempt her own takedown. The dirt flew high into the air as the Neeve empress struggled with an opponent that outweighed her by nearly a hundred pounds. Not only was she at a disadvantage in size against her opponent, but her own armor weighed her down and made her movements sluggish.

Frank twisted the ka-bar free from his target. He struggled to his feet as he fought to get himself up right in the heavy Chaos armor.

Vega fought like a hellcat, trading blows on the dirt ground with her opponent. She was ripping away at his helmet, trying to pry it off. In return, the Chaos soldier reached for a thick blade in a sheath behind his lower back. He pulled the blade free.

Frank channeled the Will inside of him, summoning a throwing knife in his right hand. This was a situation were neither his speed nor strength would help. The clumsy movements in the bulky armor wouldn’t be fixed through physical exploits.

In one liquid motion, Frank lifted the knife and sent it flying end over end.

It caught the Chaos soldier in the left side of his ribs in between a section where two of his armor pieces came together.

“Ugh,” the Chaos soldier groaned. He paused his own assault on Vega, grabbing for his side.

Vega took the opportunity to wrestle away the Chaos soldier’s blade and shoved it deep into his neck. He grabbed at the knife, but Vega wasn’t letting go. She twisted to the left, rolling over at the same time.

Frank arrived a moment later to help, but the Chaos soldier’s body was still.

“Tell me all this killing is for a reason.” Vega’s shoulders rose and fell as she sucked in huge lungsful of air. She gripped the knife so tight in her left hand it shook. “Tell me this is coming to an end soon.”

“We’re doing what needs to be done to save entire planets,” Frank said, standing beside her. “It’s almost over now. Stay the course.”

Vega nodded along with Frank’s words. She cleaned the knife on the black dirt. Frank wished he could see her eyes at that moment. Only months prior, Vega was a princess enjoying the flourishing freedom of her family’s dominion. She had spent her days with Warrior, her griffon, with her father, who was alive then, and learning with Heron. The sudden jar into a ruling position in the midst of a galactic assault would have broken a lesser person. Frank wanted to see the same light she had when he first met her on Oberon. When he had first fallen for the empress.

Raj and Elly ran out from behind cover and helped Frank and Vega carry the dead alien bodies to their hiding spot behind the rocks. As Raj and Elly changed into their Chaos armor, Vega went back and smoothed over the black dirt where signs of conflict were easy to read on the ground.

“We need to get going now,” Frank said as soon as Raj and Elly were ready. “We need to get in, find whatever is controlling the shields, and let Elly do her thing before we’re found out.”

“Roger that.” Raj took a step, then fell over in his cumbersome Chaos armor. “I’m okay, I’m okay.”

“You stay on watch here and out of sight.” Elly scratched the underside of Magnus’ chin.

“You did good leading those first two Chaos soldiers this way,” Frank said to the Momo. “Don’t let it go to your head.”

Magnus grinned. Or so it seemed.

The four newly sworn-in Chaos soldiers left the safety of the rocks and made their way to the entrance to the force field. The pyramid loomed over them like a monolithic giant made out of smooth lines and expert craftsmanship. As far as Frank could tell, the structure was made out of one solid piece of stone.

Crimson runes were etched into the corners of the pyramid as well as the upper fourth section of the gigantic structure.

When they reached the two stone pillars that marked the entrance to the force field, they were surprised to see a black control panel hidden in the recess of a rock. The protective shield was still open from the first set of guards having run out to catch Magnus.

On the other side of the stone pillars were control panels. The force field was a good half kilometer from the pyramid itself. Once on the inside of the camouflaged force field, they could see that a rough walkway led from the pair of stone pillars to a door set into the pyramid that was only just recognizable in the morning light.

“Alright, school’s in session,” Elly said as she began examining the inside control panel on the pillar rocks. “Tell Mama how you close.”

“Can you not talk out loud?” Frank half teased. “It’s kind creepy when you start calling yourself ‘Mama.’”

“Sounds like someone is peanut butter and jealous,” Elly said as she pulled out a small data pad and went to work. “Let’s see here.”

Frank watched the pyramid door while Elly worked. Raj and Vega watched the entrance to the pillars they had just walked into.

A feeling was still growing in Frank, a feeling that told him something was very wrong. All of this was too easy. The Lord of Chaos knew they were there, yet they only had to take out four guards to get in? The Chaos Lord had an army at his command. But what else were they supposed to do, sit and wait?

“And…” Elly said from her spot at the pillars. “Got heem.”

Bvvvvnnnnnnnn...

The force field closed with a faint hum as the space between the pillars shone bright red for a moment, then vanished altogether.

“Way to go, Elly Wong,” Vega said.

“Thanks, and not only that, but I managed to get into their network.” Elly looked down at her small smart pad. “I think I know where their control room is powering the force field.”

“Way to go.” Frank took the lead. “We’ll follow Elly as soon as we get in. Let’s be in and out as fast as possible. The less talking or interaction we have to do with the soldiers inside, the better.”

“Yeah, you shouldn’t do any of the talking once we’re in there,” Vega said to Frank. “You were kind of a stuttering mess when we confronted the second pair of guards.”

“Let’s agree to disagree,” Frank said, approaching the pyramid with the others. “I thought I did pretty well.”

Soon the three Marines and empress were approaching the rear side of the pyramid. The structure slanted away and up in a long, smooth slope. A thin line in the pyramid’s wall told them a door would let them through if they knew how to open it.

Elly moved to stand beside Frank at the front of the group. Her hands traced the outline of the double doors, searching for a place for a control panel to hide.

“It should be here some—”

Elly’s hand stopped as a portion of the wall opened to reveal a screen on the right side of the door about chest height. A DNA scanner revealed itself a moment later.

Elly wiped her gauntlet-covered hand on the collar of her armor where a thin splattering of blood still clung onto the crimson suit. She swabbed the liquid on the scanner.

DING!

Approval sounded a moment later and the doors to the pyramid slid open. A dark hall bid them enter.


14

Frank walked in first, his plasma rifle by his side but ready to be brought to bear at a moment’s notice. A T-intersection awaited their decision as soon as they entered. Wide halls opened to their right, left, and in front of them, leading deeper into the pyramid with unknown tests waiting. They could hear light chatter taking place, the echoing footfalls of heavy boots, but they couldn’t see anyone yet.

“Lead the way,” Frank said to Elly.

“Okay,” She took a deep breath. “Follow me.”

Elly started down the left side of the hall, walking as if she had been in the pyramid a hundred times before and knew exactly where she was. She surprised Frank with her sure, steady strides, despite the cumbersome armor. At first, it seemed like they had finally run into a strain of good luck. The Chaos soldiers they did see were down halls or side rooms that Elly led them around.

Some of the soldiers wore the same crimson armor as their own while others featured a similar diversity in rank and role as their own fleet: officers, techs, and specialists could be identified by their single-breasted, brass-buttoned frocks and slacks with patent black shoes. Their uniform were the same crimson as the armor with black thread and bordering. Ranks and insignias were fixed on their shoulders and chest.

Most of the aliens featured the same flat, humanoid face with tusks protruding on each side of their cheeks. There were also the exceptions. Walking past a side room, Frank caught a glimpse of an officer that looked like a walking fish. Striding down the hall in her uniform, to Frank’s surprise, was a purple-skinned Neeve with her white hair pulled back above the collar of her frock.

None of these soldiers took notice of Frank and the others. As Elly led them deeper and deeper into the pyramid, Frank found himself wondering when their luck would run out.

Be optimistic, in and out, in and out. Frank kept willing the words to be true in his head. You were already attacked by a serious case of oversized lice, invited for dinner by a giant centipede, and you’re surrounded by the enemy in their HQ. Things can’t get too much worse.

Frank was wrong.

“Almost there,” Elly said, looking down at her smart pad one more time as they rounded a corner.

Elly nearly ran into Commander Trask, the same Chaos officer whom Frank had nearly killed on the bridge of the now renamed Lucy. Frank was still steaming over missing his mark when the Chaos leader had managed a narrow escape by teleporting himself off the bridge. They had figured he managed to get to the aircraft’s garage, where he commandeered a fighter craft and made his escape.

The tall alien was in the middle of chewing out a pair of shorter Chaos soldiers when Frank and his unit stopped in their tracks.

“Stop me when this starts sounding familiar to you,” Commander Trask spat at his two underlings. “You are to see that the Blood Guard is prepared for battle. It is only a matter of time before the rebel filth make their move. The Blood Guard must be taken through their rituals and prepared.”

The two officers nodded furiously.

“And you? Who are you?” Commander Trask looked directly at Frank. “Kind of short for a Chaos soldier, aren’t you, runt? What is your business in this section of the base?”

“I—ugh—I—mean—I had to go to the bathr—”

“Ignore this idiot,” Elly cut off Frank. She did a great impression at mimicking the rough way the aliens spoke. “He’s a simpleton, bullheaded, and pissed himself just the other day.”

“Huh, is that so?” Commander Trask looked Frank up and down. “Well, what business are you on in this section?”

“Helping to check the defenses with some new tech.” Elly flashed her smart pad in front of Commander Trask’s eye too fast for him to follow before she hid it under her arm again. “With your permission of course, sir.”

“It takes four of you to check the defenses, does it?” He leaned down, looking at Frank. “Why is this pants-pissing idiot with you if you’re doing technical checks? Seems to me he’d be better fodder for the Blood Guard.”

Every muscle in Frank’s body tensed. If there was going to be a fight, he wanted to be the one to throw the first punch. All the talk about him being a bedwetting idiot was starting to pick at old wounds from his childhood.

“Oh, I’m trying to teach this moron the ropes, but he’s as dumb as a pile of pyramid stone.” Elly threw an elbow into Frank’s ribs. “You’re right; this is his last chance. If he doesn’t show us something soon, I’m sending him straight to fodder town, if you know what I mean.”

A wicked grin spread over Commander Trask’s face. A smile that did not touch his eyes formed across his lips. “Fodder town, huh? Alright then, carry on.”

Frank followed Elly past the commander with Raj and Vega in tow. As soon as they were safely out of earshot, Frank turned to Elly. “You could have lightened up with all that moron-talk.”

“Sticks and stones, Frank,” Raj said. “I’m sure she didn’t mean most of it.”

“Yeah, like ninety percent of it I’m sure was just for show,” Vega chimed in from behind.

“You guys are the best,” Frank growled.

“Here, here we go,” Elly said.

The unit had reached a closed door on the left side of the wall. There was another control panel to grant access to the room set beside the door on the right. Elly immediately went to work with her smart pad.

Frank and the others kept watchful eyes on the hall, making sure they weren’t seen by any passing soldier. Seconds ticked by; each felt like minutes.

The pap-pap-pap of Elly’s fingers on the tablet began to eat away at their patience. Each continued tap meant she wasn’t done. It meant they were going to be in the enemy’s lair that much longer.

“And bingo was his name-o,” Elly said as the door slid open. She put her hand up for a high five. “Yeah, guys, give me some skin—er—armor glove.”

“Why are you raising your hand to strike me?” Vega asked, eyeing Elly’s upturned hand.

“No, I’m not going to hit you,” Elly said in a rush of words. “It’s a high five. It means—oh, never mind; just get in.”

Frank was already inside the room. The temperature dropped; apparently, all server rooms required the cool temperature to prevent their systems from overheating, even alien ones. It was dimly lit and full of rows of machines two meters tall that hummed low in unison. On the far side of the room was a podium with a control panel that glowed a faint red. The keypad featured a three-by-three table of foreign characters.

Elly made her way to the structure.

“Raj.” Frank motioned to the door. “Let us know if anyone is headed our way.”

“Roger,” Raj said, taking up a casual position just inside the door.

Frank joined Elly and Vega down the room where the control panel stood. Both women had removed their helmets. A gleam of sweat ran across each of the women’s brows.

Elly went to work pushing her glasses further up her nose. Her fingers transitioned between her smartpad and the alien controls in front of her as she saved the alien tech to her smart pad.

More pap-pap-pap.

Frank and Vega looked on, seeing but not understanding a single thing Elly was doing.

“I could explain to you what’s going on here, but—uh, no offense—I’m not sure it would make sense to you,” Elly said without even looking up. “I’m not trying to talk down to you or anything like that. I mean, why do you need to know anyway?”

“Using as few words as possible,” Vega said, trying to follow Elly’s movements on the smartpad. “Like you are explaining to a child, tell us.”

“Draw it out in crayon for us,” Frank added. “You know, in case something happens to you…”

“What?” Elly gasped, but her fingers never stopped moving. Her smartpad was black with a dark screen and white text scrolling across. The alien control screen was steel grey with a wide screen displaying a series of different options, much like one that could be found on the enemy ship. “Basically, I need to gain access to their system via my smartpad. First I need to translate the code to mimic it using our keys. Then I’ll learn their algorithms for commands. Once I’m in, I’ll be able to shut on and off their force field remotely. It’s like I’m leaving myself my own garage door remote or when you mess with the Nest thermostat on your parents’–uh, roommate? When we’re ready to make the assault, I’ll be able to shut down the force field and give our assault a chance.”

“Simple enough,” Vega said, nodding along with Elly’s words.

Behind her back, Frank shook his head in confusion, to which Vega rolled her eyes.

“And… I’m in!” Elly shouted with a wide grin. She put her hand up for a high five again. “Yeah, who’s the woman, who’s the woman?”

“She wants you to slap your hand against hers,” Frank explained to Vega. “It’s a human sign of celebration.”

“Oh right,” Vega said, raising her open hand and slamming it against Elly’s open palm so hard the smacking sound echoed in the room.

“Son of a—” Elly’s right hand recoiled into her chest. Her face was an expression of one part shock, one part pain. “Why would you do that? What’s the matter with you? I still need that hand.”

Vega looked from Elly to Frank, confused.

“Maybe just a little lighter next time.” Frank removed his own helmet with a smile. “Elly, are we good to go?”

“Yeah, hold on. I’m just getting feeling back in my hand.” Elly looked down to her smartpad one more time. “We’re good to go. Their force field belongs to me.” She steepled her fingers together, then tapped them for added drama.


15

The trip back through the pyramid was an uneventful effort–for once. Round trip from “borrowing” the Chaos armor to exiting the pyramid had only taken twenty minutes. The alarm would be raised soon for the missing soldiers, but it seemed for the moment they were in the clear.

Frank and the rest of the unit redressed the dead soldiers back in their own armor and did their best at staging a scene to look like the soldiers had gotten into a brawl on their own that had ended in their deaths. One had his hand gripping the plasma blast. Another, who had his hands around the other’s throat, collapsed. The soldier with the knife pulled looked like he had done the most damage. Never mind the fact that rigor mortis made some of the positioning awkward and that they had all in fact died from blade wounds. It was a long shot, but at the very least, it would confuse whoever found the dead soldiers long enough to keep their attention off Elly’s backdoor bug.

The group skirted the ravine of nightmares on their way back to the Ryker. By the time they returned, the sun was already descending again, marking yet another thirty-six-hour period where Frank had not slept. He was going to take a coma after all this Chaos fighting. Or a vacation to Tahiti.

I wonder if Vega would like Tahiti. Frank lost his mind thinking of how astonished folks would be seeing the purple empress in a bikini on the island.

Once back, it was business as usual. Frank sat in a meeting room on the Ryker with Vega across from him and Colonel Breaker at the head of the table to his left.

“You’ve done a great job, both of you.” Colonel Breaker nodded to Vega and Frank in turn. “I wish I could offer you more rest, but you understand the time-sensitive situation we find ourselves in. We have to strike as soon as possible. If there is any chance the enemy can discover the backdoor Elly worked into their system, well, we can’t give them that time.”

“I agree.” Vega asked the question Frank was wondering. “Has there been any improvement in Sava’s condition?”

“Unfortunately not.” Colonel Breaker laced his fingers together in front of him on the desk. The fingers on his robotic right hand moved just as adeptly as the fingers on his left. “I wish we could wait for her. Prime Clave Kirkhoden is aware of the situation as well. He sends his highest regards to you, Frank, and for all of us, strong-speed. I have reports in from the Dragoon fighter units as well as our infantry. Between Hammer and Viper squadrons, we have fourteen ships ready for flight. If we leave only a skeleton crew on the Lucy and the Ryker, we’ll have just over five hundred Neeve and Draconian warriors on the ground. The good news is we have all the tech we could ask for available to us, including a full platoon of power armor suits that were on board the Lucy when we captured her.”

“I wish we had a better idea of how many Chaos soldiers we are going up against,” Frank said out loud. “A structure the size of the pyramid has to house thousands. They’ll have power armor of their own as well as a company called the Blood Guard, and of course, the Lord of Chaos himself.”

“We’ll be all right,” Colonel Breaker said with so much resolve it made Frank sit up straighter. “Before Elly left, she had some of our best and brightest working on fitting the force field tech the power armor units carry onto each Neeve and Draconian warrior’s armor. We’ll have the edge.”

“With the Lucy and the remaining fighters protecting us from above, we will be able to win the day,” Vega said through bloodshot eyes. “This is it. All of it will end soon one way or the other.”

“He knows we’re coming,” Frank said, shaking his head. “All of this has been way too easy. We’re walking into a trap.”

“Maybe. Probably.” Colonel Breaker crossed his arms over his chest. He let out a long, tired sigh. “But what other choice do we have? It’s our duty to run toward the sounds of tyranny, injustice, and despair. And this Chaos Lord is shouting at us. We can only plan as best as we can and adjust when the time comes. We’ll prepare through the night and attack tomorrow, midday.”

“I want to go in first,” Frank said under Vega’s disapproving eye. “I’ll go in and spring whatever trap they have in place. You can see what they’re doing and adjust accordingly.”

“Frank, don’t be silly. You’re our greatest asset.” Vega shook her head furiously. “We can’t risk you at the beginning of the battle.”

“I can handle whatever they throw at me,” Frank reassured her, turning to Colonel Breaker. “I can take whatever they dish out, sir.”

“Frank, Sava had been training for years and she–” Vega started and stopped herself before saying too much.

“When Elly kills their shields, the Lucy will send an orbital strike against the pyramid,” Colonel Breaker said. He looked past Frank’s shoulder as if he could see the battle playing out in front of him. “They’ll counter with all assets they have capable of flight. I agree with both of you. Frank, you should go in first but not alone. We’ll send the power armor platoon with you.”

“Colonel,” Vega said, exasperated. She was obviously not ready to commit to the plan so readily.

“Empress Vega.” Colonel Breaker licked his lips, searching for the words to address an ally and not a soldier under his command. “Allies must learn to trust one another in war times more than ever. Please trust that we know what we’re doing.”

Vega nodded slowly, clearly not happy but unwilling to argue further.

“Thank you,” Colonel Breaker said. “You two get some food and rest. I don’t know when you’ll be able to grab either once the fighting starts.”

Frank and Vega left the colonel sitting in his chair doling out orders via his implanted comm unit. Frank took the lead with Vega beside him. She didn’t say a word; still, Frank could feel holes being bored into the side of his head from her stare.

“You’re pissed.” Frank stated the obvious.

“You’re perceptive,” Vega replied.

“I have to be, it’s my job.”

“You can lead without being reckless.”

“Reckless is the only way I know how to lead,” Frank said with a grin Vega did not return.

The two entered the mess hall on the Ryker where boxed meals stood ready with large, green containers of drinking water. There were long tables set up with stools that slid out underneath. A handful of Neeve and Draconian soldiers sat scattered around the room. Everyone looked tired, but at the sight of the empress and the Arilion Knight entering, they nodded and smiled.

Frank grabbed a square box of rations. The container was just under half a meter squared. He had no idea what was inside, but it was heavy. He handed the first box and a water to Vega. She took it, still staring at him hard with piercing amethyst eyes.

Frank grabbed a box and water ration for himself, trying in vain not to make eye contact with her.

“Do you want to eat here or find somewhere a little more romantic?” Frank wiggled his eyebrows, trying to pry a grin from Vega’s stone stare. It didn’t work.

“Follow me, Wolffe,” Vega said.

Frank was taken aback. She had never called him by his last name like this before.

You really pissed her off this time, Frank thought to himself. Great, the day before you make your assault on the Chaos Lord and you’re having relationship problems. Is this why I never did relationships?

Vega led Frank through the Ryker in silence. The soldiers they did come across all had quick nods and eyes full of respect for the two. The Knight did his best to smile and nod back. He thought it best if everyone thought he and Vega were on good terms and had their minds focused on the fight with the Chaos army, not each other. Though Frank wished Vega would say something, it seemed she wasn’t ready to talk quite yet.

Eventually, she led them to her private quarters. Her room was twice as large as any other Frank had seen on the ship. There was actually enough space to walk around her bed with a large five-drawer dresser to his right and the commode further down. Next to her bed was a nightstand, and above it a window that showed a holographic picture Frank recognized. It was Vega’s home planet, Atmos. Every detail was how Frank remembered; even the mighty palace of House Thunder lay in the distance. Thunderbirds flew in the light of the setting sun.

“It’s beautiful,” Frank said.

“It’s home, and the only one I’ve got.” Vega placed her food and water on her dresser. She opened one of the drawers and pulled out a pale cloth. “Just like you’re the only one I’ve got.”

The words took Frank by surprise, although maybe he should have expected them. Since his insistence in leading the charge the following day, an angry sadness had fallen over Vega.

She came to him, unfolding the cloth in her hand to reveal a necklace. A gold chain held a thick black talon.

“It was my father’s,” Vega said, looking on the object with love in her eyes. “When he was taken from us, he left it in his will to me. Legend has it that it belonged to the very first Thunderbird ever tamed. I don’t know if that’s true, but it was special to him. The few times he did have to ride to war to quell a rebellion or put down a wandering band of enemies, he knew I would worry. He told me the talon would protect him, that he would come back to me no matter what.”

Vega looked so deep into his eyes, Frank wanted to turn away. There was so much there. So much hurt, anger, fear, and hope.

“You come back to me,” Vega said, pressing the talon into his hands. “Do you understand, Frank Wolffe? You come back to me.”

Frank dropped his own rations, clutching Vega in his arms and holding her close. He could feel her hot breath near his face. The smell of her dirty hair was strong yet somehow not unpleasant. All the callousness and barriers they had put up over days of battle, all the pretense for public morale, and all the questions holding them back melted away in her room, in his arms.

“I’m coming back,” Frank said to her. “You mean more to me than anyone I’ve ever met. You’re different in a way I can’t explain and I’m not just saying that because you’re an alien empress—okay, maybe a little bit because you’re an alien empress.”

There it was. Vega finally cracked a smile despite the tears in her eyes she had held at bay.

“We’ve only been on one date,” Vega said, gently pressing the talon of the Thunderbird into Frank’s palm. “I’d like to go on many more with you, Frank Wolffe.”

“We will,” Frank promised. “You mean more to me than you know. I adore your smile. I have so many more jokes, so many more smiles to see.”

“I think I have an idea, because I feel the same way.” Vega leaned in with her eyes closed and mouth slightly parted.

Frank pressed his lips against hers, relishing the moment of pure bliss.

I’ll come back to you, Frank repeated in his head. I swear, I’ll come back.


16

Frank spent the night with Vega, laughing and finding out more about one another as they ate. For the time they shared before they fell asleep, it was as if they had erected a barrier against the circumstances surrounding them. There would be plenty of killing and dying to come, but for that evening, they stayed the hand of fate for one more night and lived within their own force field of sorts.

After dinner, they took turns showering and gave in to exhaustion. Sleep came for them as soon as their heads hit the pillow. If Frank did dream, he didn’t remember what it had been about. For this, he found himself grateful. Wakefulness came much too soon as it did most days. Raj sounded in Frank’s ear through his comms.

“Up and at ‘em, Frank,” Raj said. “Hey, how come you’re not answering your door? I’ve been knocking for like two minutes.”

Frank stood up from the chair he had spent the night in and walked over to where Vega slept in her bed. She was beautiful like a secret treasure only he knew about. To everyone else, she was the stalwart Neeve empress; to Frank, she was Vega. He brushed a fair strand of hair away from her lips.

“I’m on my way,” Frank answered, leaving the room and closing the door quietly behind him.

“On the way?” Raj asked, confused. “You didn’t spend the night in your room? Or did you get up super early for—Oh, oh my. Son of a Lancelot...”

Frank didn’t bother spelling it out for Raj; eventually, the doctor would get there on his own. It wasn’t like anything had happened anyway. Vega was different; she was worth waiting for. How much had he changed? Frank found these foreign ideas and thoughts he would have scoffed at a few weeks before running like sugar-high Minions through his mind.

“Well, uh, there’re some clean clothes by your door and breakfast is going to have to be eaten on the go if you want to see our new toys,” Raj said as if he were going to leave the goods and walk away.

“Hold your horses.” Frank turned his brisk walk into a light jog. “I’m on my way.”

Frank ran down the corridor and turned a left corner. He saw Raj outside his door with a pile of clean clothes at his feet and a ration box in his hands.

“Thanks for this,” Frank said, leaning down to grab the clothes on the ground. “Give me two seconds.”

Frank entered his quarters, already throwing off the clothes he had slept in and changing them for his clean military fatigues. The night’s sleep was better than he had ever remembered getting. The clothes smelled clean and fresh. His stomach growled at him, but that soon would be remedied. If they weren’t going to embark in a battle to end all battles that day, it would have been a great morning.

“So, uh, do you want to share with the rest of the class where you were last night?” Raj whispered on the other side of the door. “Maybe give me a hint?”

“Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not like that,” Frank whispered back, opening the door as he laced his black Danner boots.

“Oh, really?” Raj whispered. “How do you know what I’m thinking?”

“Why are we whispering?” Frank whispered back, not answering Raj’s question.

“I don’t know.” Raj shrugged, handing Frank his meal ration along with the familiar Draconian drink Frank had come to love while he was involved in Sava’s training program. “Here, eat up. Got to keep you healthy.”

Frank chugged the fruit drink that tasted like manna from heaven. The kick of energy it gave him sent goosebumps down his arm while making his heartbeat raise in tempo.

“Come on, follow me to the hangar bay,” Raj said. “I can’t wait to show you this. You’re going to lose your hipster mind.”

“I don’t think you’re using that word right,” Frank said, opening his ration box to see a kind of breakfast sandwich. If he squinted at it just right, he could pretend it was an egg, sausage, and cheese sandwich from his favorite fast food joint. It didn’t taste like it.

“What, ‘hipster?’” Raj asked, turning to Frank as they made their way down the hall. “It’s a kind of person, right? Like a subculture, like a millennial?”

“Yeah, but I’m not—” Frank stopped shaking his head as he chewed around his sandwich. “I don’t have time to explain this to you right now, but let’s just say that word doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

“Huh,” Raj said to himself. “I’ll have to look it up.”

The breakfast sandwich tasted like sawdust in Frank’s mouth, but his mind told his head it was what he needed to keep going. Food at this point was only a source of fuel. If he made it out of the end of the day alive, he promised himself a double cheeseburger with curly fries and a cherry Pepsi once he got back home. He so loved cherry Pepsi.

The men walked into the massive hangar bay of the Ryker that opened up in front of them like an empty warehouse. The area usually reserved for the fighters was bare. What was left of the Hammer and Viper squadrons were aboard the Lucy, orbiting from above.

There were a handful of transport ships that had not been used yet. Their forest-green hulls were scarred by the battle that had taken place in the hangar bay when the Chaos soldiers teleported onto their ship.

Had that really only just been a few days ago? Time was flying by so fast it seemed as though the event had taken place last week. It was as though it was yesterday Frank was fighting a leviathan on Atmos. He missed those times, when things were so much simpler and hungry leviathans were the worst of his problems.

“So, check these babies out,” Raj said, leading Frank over to the right corner of the hangar bay where three rows of power armor suits stood. “Cool, right?”

Despite his nearly ten years to earn his Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery degree, and his countless hours to serve in the Aerospace Medicine field, upon seeing the suits in the hanger, Raj seemed to be as happy as a six-year-old at a monster truck rally.

There were ten armor units in each row. Instead of the bull horns on their helmets, the domes were smooth. The crimson red of the Chaos armor no longer marked the metal armor. The suits were now painted an emerald green. All but two of them bore the Draconian symbol of the Draconian skull inside of a brown spear head.

The two power armor units that did not bear this symbol held the emblem of the Marine Space Corps 1: an ancient helmet with wings sprouting out on either side.

“They wanted their own colors on the power suits,” Raj said in awe as the men looked up at the three-meter mechanical beasts. “We could have done a lot more, but with our limited time, this had to be enough. The Draconians will pilot twenty-eight of them. They’re more accustomed to using the tech than the Neeve. Colonel Breaker and I will be in the other two.”

Frank looked over at Raj with wide eyes. “You and the colonel know how to use these things?”

“We had a few hours training last night and this morning,” Colonel Breaker said as he joined the men in the hangar bay. “We’ll have to learn as we go, but it’s not too different from operating a Crawler, or so Raj tells me.”

Colonel Breaker’s strong physique became more pronounced in his sleek black shirt with hunter green combat pants, which finished with his freshly polished Danner laced boots. His metal arm draped behind his back and laced with his left hand as he stared up at the power armor with respect.

“So, two questions, sir,” Frank asked. “How come I don’t get one and, with all due respect, shouldn’t you be running the show from the Lucy?”

“You have everything you need in those vambraces.” Colonel Breaker eyed Frank’s glowing forearms. “And I need to be on the ground to coordinate. Elly will be with us over the comms and in command of the Lucy.”

Frank nodded along with the Colonel’s words, once more admiring the metal strength of the power armored suits. They would be outnumbered and walking into a trap, but these would help even the odds.

“The Neeve infantry will be our real game changer.” Colonel Breaker motioned to the opposite side of the hangar bay, where a dozen or so lean and strong purple-skinned warriors maneuvered around the chest pieces of their golden armor. They were too far away to see exactly what they were doing, yet Frank knew they were mounting force field generators on their own armor. Previously, the Neeve had been at a disadvantage. Their lack of projectile weaponry had handicapped them when fighting the Chaos army on their home planet of Atmos. Now, with each warrior having his own personal force field, they would have the opportunity to get up close and personal when the fighting started.

“They look like Tony Stark’s Hulkbuster armor, right?” Raj asked, still admiring the power armor units.

“What?” Frank asked. “Oh, right, yeah.”

“Let’s suit up and get ready,” Colonel Breaker said. “This is all about to come to a head.”


17

The armory was a controlled mayhem of soldiers rotating in and out as they prepared for battle. The Draconians wore their drab olive uniforms with helmets that covered the tops of their heads and pieces of armor that covered their chests, forearms, and shins. The Neeve, on the other hand, donned their bright golden armor plating that covered them from head to toe.

The weapons they each chose were as different as their armor. The Draconians were equipped with a variety of blasters, grenades, and knives. The Neeve carried war axes, maces, massive shields, spears, and the occasional bow.

While Frank prepared himself in his own dark diamond-plated armor, he caught sight of the Neeve Berserker unit. He had run into them while he trained on Atmos. Memories of how fiercely they fought in the first battle with the Chaos army came to mind.

“Hey, guys.” Frank waved to them when he caught their leader’s eye, a mountain of a warrior with long, white dreadlocks. “Long time no see.”

“Arilion,” the leader of the Berserkers said, taking a knee in the middle of the hectic armory. The men under his command did the same. “It will be an honor to bleed and die by your side.”

“Or we can live,” Frank said, walking over and lifting the warrior up by the shoulders. “Let’s try living through this one; Maybe a little bit of bleeding will be all okay.”

“We would follow you into the depths of hell itself.” The warrior regained his feet, dwarfing Frank. “I swear my warriors will not surrender this day until we attain victory or see the faces of our fathers.”

Frank looked into the solemn eyes of the leader and the four other Berserkers with him. They were scarred, battle-hardened veterans and Frank believed every word they said.

“I know you will,” Frank said, placing a hand on the Neeve’s massive shoulder. “I don’t think I know your name.”

“I am Argon Tamer.” Argon bowed his head once again.

The armory room had quieted. Neeve and Draconian alike looked to Frank. They wanted to catch every word, every move he made. Everyone understood what they were walking into. Most realized it would be the power of Frank as an Arilion Knight that could be the deciding factor whether they were the slayer or the slain at the end of the day.

“Well, Argon,” Frank said, looking at all the warriors around him. “And everyone else whose name I don’t yet know. We’re brothers and sisters today. We’ll survive not because we’re strong alone but because we’re watching out for one another. We’re going to beat the Chaos Lord today and we’re going to do it together.”

Intense looks mixed with heads nodding and grunts of approval rippled across the room. The ranks in the overcrowded armory parted for Vega. Frank hadn’t seen when she arrived, but she had been there long enough to don her own golden armor. She held the winged helm in the crook of her right elbow. The sigil of House Thunder emblazoned on the center of her chest, a Thunderbird with wings extended and a pair of lightning bolts crossed behind it.

“We’re with you, Arilion Knight,” Vega said loudly enough for everyone to hear. “For all those we’ve lost along the way, for a brighter tomorrow, and for the Light.”

There was a pause as every mind pictured loved ones they’d lost. For Frank, it was Major Lopez as she flew by him out of the hangar bay doors out into space. He would never forget her face; that was something he realized as soon as he saw it. Her expression had been determined, accepting of her fate as she fought the Chaos attackers at the control panel. Frank hoped that when his time came, he greeted death with the same kind of grit.

“Let’s keep moving.” Colonel Breaker broke the spell that had fallen over the room. “Report to your squad leaders in twenty minutes.”

The armory burst into action once more as soldiers donned their armor and grabbed their weapons, whether they be blade or blaster.

Frank placed his vambraces over his forearms and clipped his helmet to the magnetic holder on his belt. Raj and Colonel Breaker were making last minute additions to their own weaponry. The power armor they would be wearing left little room for additional fire power. They would have to remain content with their Reckoner P7 electromagnetic rail guns and their good old fashioned ka-bars.

“There is a holo display in the hangar bay,” Vega said, shrugging her shoulders as she redistributed the weight of the great sword resting on her back. The blade was so massive, the handle peeked over her right shoulder while the tip of the blade reached her left boot. “We should go over the plan of attack once more before we begin.”

“Lead the way,” Colonel Breaker said, motioning with an open hand for Vega to exit the armory. “We’re with you.”

Vega nodded and moved out the door with Frank, Colonel Breaker, and Raj in her wake.

“This is Overwatch reporting in to Marine Space Corps 1,” Elly’s voice came through Frank’s comms. “Come in, Marine Space Corps 1.”

“Go ahead,” Colonel Breaker responded. “Add Empress Vega to the channel as well.”

“Roger that,” Elly said as she made the adjustment on her end of the channel and added Vega to the line. “Good morning, Vega—errr—are we allowed to say ‘good morning’ if we’re about to go to war?”

“It’s going to be a good morning for us, not for them,” Vega said in a hard tone Frank was getting used to when she was preparing to lead. “Good morning, Elly Wong.”

“Reporting in as requested from the Lucy,” Elly said over the comms unit. “There’s still nothing to report on the pyramid: no troop movements on the screen or scanners. We’re standing by for further orders. Oh, and I left Magnus to provide a visual reconnaissance on the ground. He’s going to do more good to you there than he would on the Lucy. Also he wanted to stay.”

“Roger that,” Colonel Breaker responded, glancing over the report on Magnus. “We’re still set to march within the hour.”

“Roger, sir,” Elly said with hesitation. “Be careful all of you, especially you, Frank.”

“Why does everybody keep telling me that?” Frank asked.

“Because we know you,” Raj answered.

The group reached the hangar bay that teemed with both Draconian soldiers entering the power armor units as well as the golden-clad Neeve infantry, who tested out their personal force field apparatuses.

Vega led them to a portion of the hangar bay on their right. Past the power armor was a waist-high table set into the wall. It reminded Frank of a square chess table.

Vega waved her hand over the table, bringing a green holo projector to life. She maneuvered around the options as she explained what she was doing to the rest of the unit.

“Laloid told me about the holo display and gave me the rundown on controls. It was created for this very purpose, to give an accurate display of the terrain on a planet or in space itself,” Vega said, bringing a holographic miniature map on the table that mirrored their current position.

A tiny Ryker lay on the ground in front of a mountain. To their right stood the bug-infested ravine and the pyramid beyond. The proportions appeared to be to scale.

“We should most definitely avoid the ravine,” Raj said, pointing to the piece of terrain where they had nearly been eaten the previous day. “Son of a nightmare, I think I’m going to be dreaming about bursting pimple juice for the next few years.”

“We have to anticipate the Chaos Lord will move to either spring a trap at the very least or counter our approach,” Vega explained as a tiny power armor platoon appeared on the map with a miniature purple dot representing Frank. “If you are insistent that Frank should go first with the power armor, then I suggest we skirt around the right side of the ravine.”

As Vega spoke, the miniature unit left the Ryker and approached the pyramid from the right side of the ravine. Two more squad units appeared on the map just outside the Ryker. Both were of equal size.

“I’ll lead the main infantry force behind you while my Berserker unit takes the other half around the opposite side of the ravine. I’ll equip Argon with a comm unit to stay in constant contact,” Vega explained. “Along with this, we’ll have the Lucy reporting troop movements to us. If you Marines insist on going in first, then I’m not going to be far behind.”

Frank understood what Vega was doing, even if she wouldn’t admit it out loud. He found yet another thing he respected about her. Instead of trying to argue the fact that Frank and the power armor platoon shouldn’t be going in first, she was offering a plan that would allow her not to be far behind.

“It’s a solid strategy.” Colonel Breaker pointed to the Berserker unit on the left side of the ravine. “We’ll make sure we’re not out-flanked with the Berserkers and ensure that your unit is close behind our armor platoon when the Chaos Lord makes his move. We’ll be ready no matter what he has planned. We’ll adjust and adapt to survive.”

Everyone by the holo display looked to one another in agreement. Frank found Vega’s purple irises. “Has there been any word on Sava?”

“Still the same,” Vega said, shaking her head ever so slightly. “It’s like she fell into a deep sleep. As if somehow her power as an Arilion Knight protected her by putting her into a physical and mental cocoon when she destroyed that warship.”

It’s up to you, Frank, Frank told himself in his head. It’s you. It’s always been you. What you have burning inside of you will be enough. It has to be enough.


18

Standing in front of the dark green power armor platoon felt like walking among giants. Frank looked up at the three ranks of ten machines. Colonel Breaker and Raj were in the middle of the first row.

He would be lying if he said he wasn’t nervous. Pent-up energy demanded an outlet. Frank’s hands shook, and he tried not to pace or stretch his arms, but he had to let out the energy somehow. More than anything, he wanted to be the example, the Arilion Knight everyone needed him to be at the moment.

The sun was already up and approaching its midday zenith. If they pushed hard, they could make it to the pyramid by noon, maybe longer since they had to go around the ravine. In all honesty, Frank just wanted be doing something. He wanted to complete his mission. If fighting and killing had to be done, then let it be done and over.

Directly behind the power armor platoon stood Vega with half of her Neeve warriors. Immediately to her left, Argon and his massive Berserkers waited at the head of the other half of the Neeve army. Most of the infantry was made of Neeve with the random Draconian sprinkled in. All but a few of the reptilian creatures were manning the Lucy or in the power armor. Their familiarity with alien tech compared to the Neeve made them better suited for manning the mechanical weapons.

This was totally fine with the Neeve warriors, who wanted nothing more than to plunge their bladed weapons into the Chaos soldiers up close and personal. It was clear Frank wasn’t the only one feeling the tension in the air. Neeve warriors moved from foot to foot, some even hopping up and down, mentally preparing for the bloodshed that lay ahead.

“I’ll address the troops now,” Colonel Breaker said over the comms. “They’ll need words from you once this begins.”

“Understood,” Frank said, moving to the side while Colonel Breaker’s power unit stalked forward and turned to address the army.

The power armor hissed open. The helmet unhinged at the chin, opening up to reveal Colonel Breaker’s face. Likewise the entire chest piece unlocked at the waist and was moved upward by a pair of hinges on either shoulder. Colonel Breaker jumped to the ground as the army quieted to hear his words.

“Some of you know me, all of you know of me,” Colonel Breaker shouted, moving up and down the lines. “What you don’t know is that, first and foremost, I’m a Marine. That means I don’t run away from a fight. That means I run toward it. That means when a dictator kills and slaughters his way to rule, soldiers like me rise up. Today, you might not all be Marines, but that same fighting spirit lives in you.”

Colonel Breaker paused to let his words sink in. It was clear what he said was resonating with both the Neeve and Draconian soldiers. Shouts of approval filled the silence.

“What we do today shapes the future.” Colonel Breaker pounded his chest with the fist on his metal arm. “We give everything we have inside of us today and it will be enough. I promise you it will be enough. In the Marines, we have a saying: everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. It means that everyone wants freedom, but few are willing to make the sacrifice needed. The funny thing about freedom is that it is not free at all. It’s ransomed from tyrants, paid for in the blood of soldiers like you and me. Well, I’m here to tell you today that I’m ready to bleed for my freedom. Are you?”

ARROOH!

The shouts echoed the colonel’s words as he finished his speech. He pounded his chest once more and roared with them before climbing back into his power armor unit.

“Geeze, good luck following that,” Elly’s voice sounded in Frank’s ear. “He didn’t make it easy on you.”

“Thanks for that,” Frank said, still feeling the goosebumps from Colonel Breaker’s speech race across his skin and pound in his chest.

Colonel Breaker’s power armor unit closed. Frank led the way at a light jog with Colonel Breaker at his side. The day progressed much slower than Frank would have wanted. They made their way to the pyramid by way of going around the right side of the ravine. The silence was uncanny. Chatter was kept to a minimum. Reports from Elly of all clear and good to go were the only thing breaking up the monotony of the day.

Frank and the power unit platoons trudged over the black dirt and made their way through the bleak landscape of dead trees that seemed to wither in pain and random corpses of mutilated shrubbery. Everyone kept their eye out for any kind of albino alien worms or killer mutated centipede. As far as Frank could tell, the coast was clear.

Maybe the bugs are leaving you alone because they know something worse is coming your way? Frank couldn’t help the thoughts of doubt invading his mind. Maybe they’re burrowing deeper into the ground because they sense the Lord of Chaos coming.

His Arilion powers were still so new to him, Frank couldn’t tell exactly what it was, but he felt a growing presence, a feeling that went past fear. An outside force was trying to intimidate him, as if a phantom menace was trying to suck the very hope and will to fight out of him before the battle even began.

It wasn’t until the top of the ebony pyramid pierced the sky that Elly’s voice broke through the comms hysterically.

“Heads up,” Elly said over the comms in a rush of words. The normal cheer to her voice was gone, in its place something hollow and cold. “We have major activity at the pyramid. I’m seeing hundreds of units marching out in ranks. They’re—they’re erecting barriers and defensive positions in front of the pyramid. It looks like you’re going to be storming Normandy if they keep this up. I’m seeing something that looks like sand bags, heavy machine gun turrets, barbed chains, the works. Orders?”

Frank and the forward unit were close enough now to hear the distant shouts and machinery used to erect the defensive structure.

“So this is his plan all along,” Frank thought out loud. “He wants us to come to him. He wants us to charge right into his main force.”

“Give me the word and I can kill their force field or start a strafing run on the soldiers outside the pyramid,” Elly offered.

“Wait,” Colonel Breaker said over the comms. “As soon as you make a move, he’ll order the rest of his ships to intercept you. I’d bet my right arm on that. We’ll start the battle in the air when we make our move on the ground.”

“Roger, that,” Elly answered.

Frank felt cold inside. Along with the pent-up energy that the steady flow of adrenaline gave him came something new. He thought he was imagining it at first, but Elly confirmed his worst fears.

“I’m seeing, I’m seeing something else on the scanner, but it doesn’t make any sense,” Elly said uncomfortably. “I don’t understand this.”

“Hold yourself together,” Colonel Breaker coached. “What is it?”

“There’s something big, something the scanners are reading moving toward you, but my visual display is only reading it as black smoke,” Elly said, confused.

“It’s him,” Frank said, unsure how he could be so resolved of his answer but knowing all the same he was right. “It’s the Chaos Lord.”

“Frank Wolffe!” The bellow came a moment later.

Frank stopped. He couldn’t see the Chaos Lord yet, but the voice was close. He’d arrive soon.

“Frank Wolffe!” The challenge came again. The voice was deep, unyielding, and sinister in a way foreign to Frank. The command came more so from within his own head than hearing with his ears.

The power armor platoon that accompanied Frank stopped behind him. A small rise in the terrain offered the perfect barrier that obscured their vision. A moment later, the Chaos Lord himself crested the hill. He was nearly three meters tall with inky black armor that covered him from head to toe. A pair of burning eyes showed through a helmet. Jagged horns and wings added to his menacing appearance. The two most disconcerting things about him were the piercing eyes that burned eternally in his helmet and the vaporous blackness that covered any part of his body not protected by armor. It was as if, under his armor, he was made of smoke and fire instead of flesh.

Frank swallowed hard, standing his ground. He could practically feel the fear eating away at his will to go on.

“Frank Wolffe, the Human Arilion Knight of Atmos, no less.” The Chaos Lord looked down at Frank. “We have only met in your dreams. You refused my offer then. I will not make it again. All you and yours can wish for now is a merciful death and I will not give you that. I will torture you like I tortured the once inhabitants of this world. I will turn you into the worms that infest this planet now like I did to them because worms you are.”

“Stand down and surrender yourself,” Frank said with as much ferocity as he could muster. “This all ends today.”

“For you, it ends today.” The Chaos Lord laughed. “You all are nothing but a speck on the radar of time. I have been alive for millennia and I will not be defeated by you or anyone else. What makes you think that if an entire army of Arilion Knights could not defeat me before, that you stand a chance?”

Frank was starting to feel angry at being spoken to like some kind of second-degree school kid. This tyrant had gone on bullying long enough. Sava’s words echoed in his mind, that anger could be used for good if he harnessed that energy and turned it into something productive.

“Rumor has it that you’re only a shadow of what you once were,” Frank said, squaring his shoulder and staring into the crimson eyes of the Chaos Lord. “You were defeated at the top of your power before. Now in your weakened state, I’m more than enough to do it again.”

“I will choke you on those words,” the Chaos Lord said as his smoky image evaporated in front of Frank altogether. In a second, he was gone, only his lingering words on the wind. “I will kill you this day.”


19

“Well done.” Colonel Breaker walked up to stand beside Frank. “Let’s move forward with caution and get eyes on target.”

Frank licked at his dry lips and nodded.

The platoon crested the hill the apparition of the Chaos Lord had used a moment previously. Still far ahead of them but now within eyesight was the pyramid. Frank placed his helmet on his head, activating the heads-up display and zooming in to get a closer look at exactly what was going on.

Elly had been right. Hundreds of scarlet-clad Chaos infantry and power armor units moved around the perimeter of the pyramid, placing barricades and stationary weaponry. The rock outcroppings around the pyramid made for perfect natural barriers as well.

“We can’t just give them the time to prepare; we have to go now,” Frank said, shaking his head. “We let them dig in, it’s going to be harder to take this position.”

“Agreed,” Colonel Breaker said, opening the channel to include Elly and Vega. “Overwatch, we’re go. Take down the force field around the pyramid and give us some cover going in. Be ready for the enemy to send whatever airborne assets they have left at you. Vega, we’ll go in first and provide as much cover as we can. You’re right on our heels. Have your Berserkers move into a flanking position. It’s time to go to work.”

“Oohrah to that, sir,” Elly said.

“We’re with you,” Vega answered.

“One more time, Marine?” Colonel Breaker’s helmeted head looked down at Frank. “I think it’s time the unit heard from their Arilion Knight.”

“Oohrah!” Frank shouted, preparing himself mentally for the insanity that was about to take place across the battlefield. Frank looked back at the thirty power armor units that would be leading the charge. “I’m going to make this short because we have a date with destiny! Pain heals, and victory doesn’t come without sacrifice. If it’s our time to go, then it’s our time to go! But I swear to you I’m not going until I kill every last one of them and the Chaos Lord himself! Because this is my life, this is our universe, and he’s just another cranky tyrant, and ain’t nobody got time for that!!!”

The roars and clanking sounds of steel against steel as the power armor platoon slammed their fists against their chests thundered through the air.

A moment later, Elly, with the Lucy, appeared overhead, sending an opening volley of white-hot laser fire on the entrenched enemy troops.

PEW! PEW! BAM! BAM! BAM!

The ground shook as the eardrum-bursting rounds whizzed by and struck the ground in front of the pyramid. There was a slight shudder in the air of red gleam as the pyramid force field went down. The top of the pyramid opened up once more. Four separate parts slid down off the top of the structure, letting out a swarm of enemy Darts. The smaller fighter crafts raced to intercept the Lucy just like the colonel had predicted.

Smoke filled the air in front of Frank. Overhead, yellow blaster fire streaked from the Lucy toward the Darts and vice versa. All of this happened in a matter of seconds. Frank’s mind was still trying to keep up with the events surrounding him as he charged forward. He was going to make sure he took the brunt of whatever the defenses had to offer before he let anyone else.

A burning sensation like ants covered his body as Frank called on the power that set him apart as an Arilion Knight. He sped forward, far outpacing the power armor platoon.

“Slow down, slow down, Frank,” Colonel Breaker’s voice sounded in the comms. “We can’t keep up with you.”

Frank ignored the order, pouring even more of his energy into his run. His feet flew over the dark, dead dirt of the planet as a rogue thought entered his mind. Had the Chaos Lord actually turned the inhabitants of his small moon into those worms? And his team had killed them in an effort to save themselves? What kind of monster did something like that?

Righteous anger lent Frank even more determination to his task.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Frank found himself within weapon’s range of the enemy a split second later. Explosion erupted from the ground around him. So much incoming fire struck him and the ground around him, it felt like he was walking into a hail storm if hail storms flew parallel to the ground.

A purple shield already coated Frank’s body, but that didn’t seem like enough. There were hundreds of weapons pointed at him, getting more and more accurate as the smoke on the battlefield began to clear.

“Frank, Frank, just give us a minute. We’re almost there,” Raj yelled over the comms. “Don’t be a hero.”

“I can take it!” Frank yelled back. “I can take it!”

Frank immediately regretted those words as an explosion went off near his left foot. He was forced to a knee as the concussive blast took away his footing.

A massive circular shield appeared in Frank’s left hand as he regained his stance and hunched behind it. Although the shield was translucent, as all his constructs were, he couldn’t see anything past the barrier. There was so much incoming fire against his shield, it looked like a solid wall of an emblazoned steel wall. The enemy fire felt manageable, like rain on an umbrella. The explosive rounds that struck his shield were the problem. Each explosive round was a sledgehammer to whatever it hit, whether it be his shield or a boot that stuck out just too far.

Let’s go, Frank, let’s go, Frank yelled inside of his own head. It’s not going to get any easier; it’s only going to get harder. You got more to give. Show them you have more to give.

Frank heard Colonel Breaker and the power armor platoon before he saw them. War cries ripped through the comms and even the air itself despite the cacophony of weapons fire.

Apparently, Frank’s willingness to act as the punching bag had inspired those in the platoon. Weapons fire now streaked across the battlefield as the fight intensified. Everywhere Frank looked, there was an explosion detonating.

The enemy fire had now transitioned from only Frank to the other thirty targets across the battlefield. The incoming fire Frank felt was nominal at best. He abandoned his shield for a weapon of his own. The Punisher GS2000 snapped to life in his hands. He took cover behind a thick rock ledge to his right. He scanned the battleground around him.

Friendly power armored units flanked him on either side. The small arm flamethrowers the enemy used were still out of range, leaving the Chaos foot soldiers using their plasma rifles. The rifle rounds were easily absorbed by the personal force fields each power armor unit wore. What was proving a problem for Colonel Breaker and the others were the enemy power armor units and the large turrets the Chaos army used.

BOOM!

A green power armor unit with the Draconian emblem on it went down in a ball of flames. Its personal force field had taken too much damage and was out for the count.

“We’re coming!” Vega said over the comms. “I didn’t travel this far to sit on the side and watch.”

“Use the rock outcropping and our armor for cover,” Colonel Breaker yelled.

Frank understood exactly what he had to do. All around him, it was a game of hide and seek. His armor units popped out from behind cover to send a hail of blaster fire at the enemy while the Chaos army did the same. In a stalemate like this with the enemy, given the numbers, they couldn’t win.

The front line of the Chaos army was still a half klick away. Frank had to do something before Vega and the rest of her unit with weaker personal shields arrived. They’d be cut down if they tried to charge the distance.

Breathing heavy, Frank started nodding his head, pumping himself up to do the dumbest—one of the dumbest things he’d ever tried.

Should have added some tunes on a playlist, Frank thought to himself as he opened his jaw and rolled his neck on his shoulders. Here goes nothing.

Frank bounced from the protection the rocks gave him. A purple sheen of armor still coated his own diamond-plated armor as he ran forward, choosing his marks down the scope of his Punisher GS2000.

Pouring everything he had into his run, Frank chose his targets carefully. The enemy power armor units would have to wait for the time being, but Frank could do something against the turrets spraying his allies with white hot rounds.

The Chaos turrets were made up of four long barrels with a seat right behind it for the operator. The entire weapon swiveled on a platform giving the gunner access to the battleground. Frank saw three such weapons within his firing range. There was one directly in front of him and one on either side. All that stood between him and the first turret were a handful of Chaos soldiers with plasma rounds.

In one hand, he began constructing the projectile weapon to take out the turret; with the other, he managed an oversized expandable chrome baton. He swung with everything he had and felt the crunch of their kneecaps give way to the blows. They were down in agony before they knew what hit them.

Frank concentrated his will and selected plasma rounds of his own to be dispersed from his weapon. With any luck, a few well-placed rounds each, and the turrets would be impossible to use with holes bored through the barrels.

Frank closed out the insanity all around him and squeezed the trigger as he zeroed in on the first turret. His run made his accuracy pay, but the turret was large enough to provide a target the size of an SUV.

Violet rounds ate through the turret, melting steel. The Chaos soldier jumped out of the control chair, giving Frank a perfect shot. A second later, his target was on the ground with the dissipating ka-bar knife where his face used to be.

Seconds later, the other turrets were steaming and smoking from Frank’s heated rounds eating through their barrels. Before Frank could mount another plan of attack, he had reached the Chaos army’s front lines. He jumped into a long foxhole with a dozen or more Chaos soldiers hunkering inside for cover.

“Should I even try to get you guys to give up or are we past that at this point?” Frank asked.

A dozen plasma barrels swung in his direction.


20

Frank threw himself into the soldiers’ ranks, unwilling to give them clear shots. He traded in his Punisher GS2000 for a M1014 semi-automatic shotgun.

Bada tat bada tat! BOOM!

Frank went to work clearing the foxhole and the twelve Chaos soldiers trying to kill him. The shotgun at close range was deadly. He put down the enemy as they tried to find their own lines of fire one by one. In as many seconds, the twelve Chaos soldiers in the trench had been dispatched.

“Frank, we’re here,” Vega said over the blasts. “Where are you?”

“Clearing their front lines,” Frank said, peeking out of his foxhole to get his bearings. Past the enemy lines, he saw a wide square tunnel open in the pyramid, ranks of power armor marching out joining the enemy lines.

“We’re giving as good as we’re getting out here,” Colonel Breaker said over the comms. “Taking out those turrets has gone a long way. Now I need you to do something about their power armor before we make our move.”

“Roger, that, sir,” Frank said, already racking his brain to find a way to disperse so many of the enemy units at once. “Suggestions on how to go about that?”

“I read you had an— incident while you were at boot camp.” Colonel Breaker paused for a moment. A series of shots rang out through his comm line before he came on again. “Your file said you were—inventive—with some C4. Time to get inventive again, Frank.”

“Yes, sir.” Frank cracked a smile under his helmet as he understood exactly what the colonel was talking about. “I’m picking up what you’re putting down.”

Frank was far from a demolitions expert, but he had his fair share of time with the plastic explosive known as C4. He had burned it, molded it into clay animals, and used it for extracurricular activities during his time at boot camp.

“I think I have a way to even the odds a bit more,” Frank said, ducking back under cover as a hail of blaster fire tried to take his head off.

“Roger that,” Colonel Breaker said, already forming his plan. “Vega, as soon as Frank makes his move, have your unit fall in line and get behind the armor for cover. This is going to happen fast. Frank?”

“Yes, Colonel,” Frank answered.

“Blow something up.”

Frank’s plan was two-fold: distract the enemy power armor and take down, or at the very least, weaken their shields to give his own armor unit the upper hand. Frank jumped out of the foxhole, constructing a square case of C4 as large as a mini fridge. He made sure to shield his bomb from the random fire all around the field of battle.

He raced toward the convoy of power armor units still piling out of the pyramid, when a better idea hit him. Why settle for main corps of enemy armor filing out of the pyramid? Why not choke their exit point at the same time?

As fast as Frank ran through the enemy lines and to the tunnel, his journey still took too long. Enemy spotters yelled at his approach, turning their weapons on the purple streak that sped toward the pyramid.

Frank was running so fast, everything was happening in slow motion. He saw the three-meter-tall metal giants start to turn in his direction. There were more than a full platoon of the power armor units. Just the ones that had already exited the tunnel had to number in the three digits. The one advantage Frank had on them now was speed.

The bulky armor giants were built for durability and would never be called fast. Frank was among them a moment later, weaving through their numbers as he carried his C4 mini fridge to the opening of the pyramid.

Those armor units willing to take the chance of firing into their own ranks trained their weapons on Frank and opened fire. To say it was a mess would be an understatement. Half the armor units tried to get out of the way of friendly fire, half tried to gun down Frank, and a portion were still too confused to decide what to do. These were soldiers preparing to run to the front line, not confront a crazy Arilion Knight hellbent on dragging his mini fridge to their front door. Frank could see now why Commander Trask spoke so lowly of this grunt force.

As the first few blasts whizzed by Frank’s head, he reached the entrance to the pyramid. There was no time to set a fuse or even think about how he was going to detonate his constructed mound of C4.

Blaster rounds hammered into his right shoulder and left calf. He placed his precious cargo at the feet of a pair of confused armor units just inside the pyramid tunnel. There were hundreds more of them inside waiting to file out.

“Housewarming present from me to you,” Frank said, already turning to go and race the way he came. If his luck would hold out for a few more seconds, he could run out of range of the blast and turn to fire an explosive round into the C4 himself.

Frank was reminded there was either no such thing as luck or it hated him and avoided him at all costs. Still, much too close to the C4, a rogue enemy round meant for him struck the mini fridge bomb.

KAABOOOOOOM!

Frank didn’t remember being lifted from the blast. He didn’t remember being flung into the air. He didn’t even remember the landing. All he remembered was running one second and then lying on his stomach somewhere back on the enemy front lines the next.

He gasped for air as his lungs protested the lack of the precious substance. A ringing in his ears hinted at what just happened as he tried to force oxygen back into his lungs. His mind was trying to form ideas, but it was like he was putting thoughts together in slow motion, underwater in the flashing darkness.

Frank forced himself up into a sitting position. He had landed smack dab in the middle of the Chaos army’s front lines. For once, he wasn’t the main target of enemy fire. Colonel Breaker led the charge as the power armor units slammed into the enemy barricades. Each suit of armor had been equipped with a long range weapon as well as a sword or blade of some kind.

He sat with his head ringing when a blast like a weak punch smacked him in the back of his head. Since he still maintained his protective ultraviolet shield, the round was more of a nuisance than a detriment. He turned with his gauss rifle in hand to find himself face-to-face with a small grunt of a Chaos soldier who shrugged. Without a second thought, Frank fired point blank.

If Frank were able to hear, he could imagine there would be sounds of rending metal ringing through the air. Power armor units from both sides clashed across the Chaos army’s hastily constructed lines.

Right behind the power armor units, Vega sprinted at the head of her infantry unit. She was running directly for Frank. Maybe she was even talking to him, but the ringing in his ears hadn’t stopped.

Vega was in front of Frank a moment later. White enemy fire pinged off her personal force field, showing where the small red orb of protection offered her cover. Vega swung her great sword high over her head, bringing it down on Frank.

Why is Vega trying to kill me? Frank had time to push the idea through his muddled mind. Am I that bad of a kisser?


21

Vega’s blade came down not on Frank, but just behind him, splitting the helmet and skull of another Chaos soldier who had been sneaking up on Frank. The Chaos soldier shook once, dropping a thick blade into the black dirt before he slumped to the ground.

Vega turned off her force field, dropping her sword. She shook Frank violently. He couldn’t see her lips moving past her golden helmet. The only thing he could see were her eyes, worry etched clear as day in each one.

“Are you hurt?” Vega yelled at him. He could tell she was screaming because of the pitch of her voice, but her words still sounded distant, like she was calling to him from the end of a long hall. “Frank, can you hear me?”

“Yeah, barely.” Frank let Vega help pull him to his feet as her Neeve infantry rushed all around them, forming a protective barrier around their empress. “What—what happened?”

“You did something careless and almost got yourself killed.” It was clear by the tone in her voice Vega was not amused. “You were thrown like a stone from a catapult.”

Frank turned, still dazed, to see what had become of his explosive mini fridge efforts. Smoke still rose from the collapsed tunnel that had provided entrance to the pyramid minutes before. The C4 had done its job once again. A massive crater now gave way to a fully caved in outlet. Broken and bent power armor scattered all around the scene like confetti at a bad New Year’s Eve party.

“Are you hurt?” Vega repeated her question.

“I mean, I don’t feel good, but I’ll live,” Frank said. Vega’s voice was still muffled. The noise of war that should have been deafening all around them sounded like someone had put a quilt on the whole thing.

Frank created the protective purple barrier around himself once more before he took off his helmet. He touched a finger to his right ear. It came back with blood.

“Frank, report in,” Colonel Breaker said somewhere deep in the madness of the battle.

“I have him,” Vega responded. “He’s having a hard time hearing but otherwise doesn’t seem to be injured.”

“Good to hear,” Colonel Breaker said. As if it were one thought, he continued. “Elly, report.”

“The Lucy is holding strong. I don’t think they have any more warships or they would have used them by now. They’re just harassing us with their smaller craft. There’s a lot of the little buggers, but their fire power isn’t strong enough to break through our shields,” Elly said. “I think they’re out here more as a deterrent than anything else.”

“Roger that,” Colonel Breaker said with a grunt. “Stay in orbit and take out as many of them as you can. As long as we own the sky, we’ll be able to make whatever moves we need to on the ground.”

“Yes, sir,” Elly answered.

Frank put his helmet back on his head examining the ever-changing battlefield once more. Colonel Breaker’s power armor unit was taking on the enemy’s armor in a heavyweight duel. They looked to be evenly matched for the moment.

The Neeve, however, having finally been allowed to enter the battle, were overwhelming the superior numbers of the Chaos infantry. The personal force fields they all wore not only gave them much needed protection against the Chaos army’s plasma blasters, it allowed them to get within striking range. The Neeve army were brutal close quarter combat warriors and they unleashed all their skills on the enemy now.

“Oh my gosh,” Raj said through his comms as his power armor walked up to Frank. “Did you see what that Neeve warrior just did to that Chaos soldier? This just isn’t fair, but, hey, I’m not going to complain. They’re on our side, right?”

Frank was about to respond, when Magnus, Elly’s Momo, swooped in beside Frank, barking something furious.

Magnus was in a frenzy. He was clearly trying to relate something to Frank with his manic yelps. He still wore the armor Elly had made him, his two cameras intact; one mounted on his forehead, the other to the bottom of his stomach for an aerial view when he flew.

“Listen, Magnus, I have a headache right now. Your barking isn’t helping. I can’t understand what you’re saying like Elly can,” Frank said, looking down at the Momo.

The Momo rolled his eyes, shaking his head and continuing on. The urgency in his tone was clear.

“Hey, Elly, can you listen to this?” Frank asked, leaning in low to pick up on some of what Magnus was barking.

“Wow, he’s teaching me a ton of new curse words,” Elly answered. “He says there’s something—no, not something—an entire group coming from around the opposite side of the pyramid. Hold up, I’m bringing it up on my main screen now. Holy Toledo.”

“What is it?” Frank asked, already summoning the strength to meet this new threat. He placed his helmet back on his head in preparation. “What’s coming?”

“It’s Commander Trask leading a—a cavalry unit of some kind,” Elly said, asking her next question out loud. “I wonder if that’s—if that’s the Blood Guard. They’re riding, some kind of monsters.”

“Elly, I need you to get it together and give us an accurate report right now.” Colonel Breaker’s no nonsense voice filled the comms. “I need enemy strength, position, and time of arrival.”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” Elly said.

“I don’t need you to be sorry, I need you to be better,” Colonel Breaker answered.

“There looks like a platoon of enemies riding four-legged alien animals. They’re approaching from your northwest, from around the opposite side of the pyramid. I estimate their time to you under two minutes.” Elly rattled off the facts post haste.

“Colonel Breaker.” Argon’s gruff voice entered the comms for the first time. “I would request you let my Berserkers and the rest of the Neeve reinforcements meet the attack. We will not fail you in turning this foe.”

“Granted, move to intercept,” Colonel Breaker answered. “Frank, Raj, go with them to offer support. Vega’s unit is more than a match for these Chaos soldiers and our armor already has the upper hand on the enemy at the moment.”

“Thank you,” Argon practically roared into the comms. “We will crush their bones and drink from their skulls before the sun sets this day.”

“I’m just going to go with a simple, ‘roger,’” Raj said.

“Oohrah!” Frank answered. He looked over at Vega. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Take your time.” Vega swung her heavy sword to rest on her right shoulder. “We’ll finish off the Chaos soldiers here.”

Frank nodded, moving away to where Argon and his reserve unit were already marching forward to meet the new enemy threat. They had been on the left side of the ravine and now moved up close to where the fighting was taking place.

Raj maneuvered his power armor beside Frank as the two raced across the front lines of battle. Everywhere they looked, the Neeve infantry was the deciding factor. Even when power armor units clashed in battle, the Neeve infantry soldiers were hacking away at the enemy despite their smaller size.

Frank and Raj skidded to a stop as they met Argon and his advancing unit. The hulking Berserker Neeve was practically a power armor suit in his own right. His golden armor shone in the midday sun. He held his massive circular shield in his right hand and a lengthy spear in his left. His Berserkers flanked him on either side and the second half of the Neeve army closed ranks behind him.

“The Arilion Knight is with us!” Argon bellowed into the air as Frank and Raj approached. “We cannot lose!”

A massive war cry rose from the throats of the men as Frank fell in line at the front of the unit. Raj did the same as soldiers stepped aside to make room for his power armor suit.

“We should find some cover and dig in,” Frank said to Argon, who stood beside him. “They’re a mounted Cavalry unit, so we should be able to pick off a fair amount before they reach us.”

“It would not be our way,” Argon said in a low, respectful voice. “We meet our enemies head on.”

“They’re a mounted unit,” Raj reiterated. “They’re going to plow right through us. Well, I mean maybe not me, since I’m in a walking tank, but Calvary versus infantry isn’t exactly a fair fight. I’ve read my history books.”

“Let them come and we will rewrite your history books, Lieutenant Agarwal,” Argon said with such faith Frank almost believed he could do it.

“Argon,” Frank tried again. “We think this is the Blood Guard, they’re the—”

“Uh, Frank.” Raj tapped him on the shoulder with one giant finger.

“In a minute,” Frank answered, shrugging off the finger. He turned back to Argon. “Think of your men’s lives if—”

“Frank, you’re going to want to see this.” Raj nudged him on the shoulder again.

“What’s up with all the touching?” Frank turned, annoyed to see the same thing that had caused Raj’s interruption.

Raj pointed with his other colossal hand to something in front of them. “What are those? And since when did this planet have dinosaurs?”


22

Frank understood that the creatures galloping toward them were not actually dinosaurs but rather some extrinsic monsters resembling prehistoric beings. However, Raj’s choice of description was spot on.

The creatures’ sable scales covered a broad body with four sturdy legs that propelled them toward Frank and the men by his side. They zeroed in with wide heads and three horns pointing forward, threatening a good impaling with each heavy gallop forward followed by strong tails, sharp teeth gnashing at the bits in their mouths as they came.

Atop the beasts were the Blood Guard. The vermillion of their armor was just as threatening, though slightly lighter in shade than the hue worn by either the infantry or the power armor units. One of the lead riders held up a long lance with a crimson banner carrying the Chaos Lord’s sigil of a smoked flame on a crimson field. From what Frank could see, each rider was equipped with a plasma blaster and lance.

“This day keeps on getting better and better,” Frank mumbled, constructing a Punisher GS2000 in his hands and taking aim. “Raj, the more we kill now, the less we have to kill once they reach us.”

“I’m with you,” Raj said. In his right hand, he held a massive blaster that looked like a handheld AK-47. In his left hand, he carried a war mace with thick spikes protruding from its head.

“Glory in death!” Argon roared as he set his shield in front of him and pointed his spear over the top of the protective barrier. “We hold as one!”

All around Frank, the Neeve soldiers shouted and took up the same stance.

This is bananas, Frank thought to himself as the first rounds of the enemy soldiers’ weapons reached them. How do I get myself into these situations?

TAK-KA! TAK-KA! TAK-KA!

The familiar sounds of gas escaping the barrel, bullets going hypersonic, and metal action parts hitting each other clanged through the air. Raj’s weapon discharged, taking out an approaching beast and rider.

Frank followed a moment later, shattering a rider’s helmet as his target sank, dead in his saddle.

They were charging too fast for Frank and Raj to take out more than a few of their targets; still, before they slammed into the Neeve frontlines, Frank had downed three and Raj another two.

The force with which the Blood Guard struck the Neeve frontlines was beyond brutal. Frank steeled himself as the charging cavalry unit lowered their lances. One rider in particular targeted Frank. He aimed his red lance at Frank’s chest with one hand as he arrived. With the other hand, he sprayed a hose of plasma fire.

The alien mount bored down on Frank, lowering his three horns in hopes of also gutting him like a shish-kabob on a three-pronged skewer.

The ground shook under Frank’s feet. His heart rate increased as yet another ridiculous idea came to him.

Might as well give it a shot, Frank thought to himself. You already blew yourself up today with a C4-sized mini fridge and you’re still standing.

Instead of rolling to the side or trying to avoid the incoming attack, Frank held his ground. He gripped on to the force of Will that lived deep inside him and created a pair of constructs for his feet. The heavy anchors held his boots to the ground and drilled down deep for extra insurance that he would not move.

Glowing purple, energy wrapped around Frank’s body from his legs to his arms. Although it was impossible to see the enemy soldier’s face about to strike him due to his red-horned helm, Frank could imagine the surprise he wore. It was insane for anyone, even an Arilion Knight, to stand his ground against a charging beast of such size.

All around him, the Blood Guard were crashing against the Neeve soldiers. To his right, Raj was wrestling with one of the monsters. Right now, all Frank could focus on was channeling his strength.

The creature looked even bigger up close. It was roughly the size of a rhinoceros and just as thick. The lance directed at Frank’s chest shattered against the protective shielding coating Frank’s body. The beast hammered into Frank next, horns first.

Frank grabbed on to the two larger horns on the top of the alien triceratops’ head and lifted. The momentum created by the beast’s charge carried it forward as it somersaulted over Frank’s head.

The muscles in his entire body strained and bulged as Frank catapulted the animal over his head. The fiend weighed nearly a ton. Even for Frank, who was still discovering his strength as an Arilion Knight, this was an impressive feat.

The beast sailed over his head, rider included, and came crashing down in a heap of thick legs and red armor.

Frank allowed the anchors holding his feet in place to dissipate. Both rider and steed were already gathering themselves from the dirt for another attack. Dismounted from the alien monster, the Blood Guard rider had lost his helmet. Frank got a look at Commander Trask’s familiar face.

“Well, look who it is,” Frank shouted over the screams of battle. “I was hoping I’d get to see you again.”

“Kill him!” Commander Trask roared to the three-horned beast by his side.

Without hesitation, the creature lowered its head and ran at Frank.

Frank had a second to do a brief inventory in his mind, to choose the right weapon for the job. He understood he had to act fast. The monster would be on top of him sooner than he would have liked.

Instead of a weapon, Frank changed the ground right in front of him to a substance he remembered preparing for as a child. Apparently, quicksand wasn’t that large of an issue as he had anticipated it would be during his adult life. He recalled having jumped from couch to chair in his house to avoid the deathly sand during his youth. Another thing he had prepared for but had yet to encounter: lava. Young Frank had been an expert at not touching the engulfing lava floor while hopping from chair to chair or staying the tightrope line on the sidewalk in front of their apartment.

Faced now with a dinosaur-type creature reminded him of the ones he had read about as a child. So, as much as Frank could kill the animal—which had been trained to maim and maul if it came to it—if he didn’t have to, he wouldn’t.

The alien dinosaur, beast, creature thing fell into the ultraviolet quicksand that rippled over the black ground. It sank fast, lifting its head and bellowing its anger. The beast’s large, panicked eyes looked around at its master.

“Move, you idiotic whelp!” Commander Trask urged the beast. “You useless beast, we should have culled you from the herd. Do what you were born to do and kill him!”

The creature strained forward, now only feet from Frank, but the more it struggled, the quicker it sank. Now only the top of its back and its head, which it lifted up, remained visible.

Frank removed the quicksand from the ground, trapping the creature in the solid black sand of the moon.

“You worthless meat sack, so be it!” Commander Trask raged. “I will kill you myself. You will burn before the sun sets on this day.”

Commander Trask stalked forward, brandishing his broken lance. The weapon had shattered on Frank’s protective shielding, but the lower half remained intact, coming to a sharp end about a meter from the handle from where the steel had snapped.

“If I burn, then you burn with me,” Frank said, proud of himself that he had thought of something so cool to say. He created a Reckoner P7 in his right hand.

“So typical of you, piece of filth, to bring a gun to a knife fight,” Commander Trask taunted as he closed the distance. “Can’t kill me with only a blade in your hand, I see.”

“I know what you’re trying to do and I’m not going to fall for it.”

“Oh, really? Do tell me you, Arilion cull, what am I doing?”

“First, you need to wash your mouth out with soap; so many dirty words coming from you is going to cause an infection and you’re hurting my tender feelings over here,” Frank said, allowing his weapon to dissipate from his hands. “Second, I know you want me to throw away my advantage of fighting you with a projectile weapon. Well, you’re in luck. I’m going to, I’m going to tear you apart with my bare hands.”

Commander Trask grinned.

Frank and the enemy commander rushed one another. Frank ducked below the lance swinging for his head. Continuing his forward momentum, he crashed into the larger Chaos enemy.

The two opponents rolled on the pitch black ground. Something like a Mack truck hit him; Frank wasn’t sure what was happening. One second he was locked in combat with Commander Trask rolling across the black sand, and the next he was struggling for breath as one of the alien beasts pinned him to the ground. Another Blood Guard was on top of the animal, trying to find an open shot down the barrel of his plasma rifle.

Frank’s arms were stuck to his sides under the massive head of the alien beast. Its horns pinned him to the ground just outside either shoulder. The animal’s third and lower horn just missed impaling Frank’s huevos rancheros.

“No.” Commander Trask appeared in Frank’s vision. He tore the plasma rifle out of the Blood Guard’s hands. “He’s mine!”


23

“What about that whole thing about a fair fight?” Frank struggled to get out from under the massive beast’s hold. “I have a new word for you: hypocrite.”

“Be that as it may, I’m not the one looking down the end of a rifle.” Commander Trask smiled as he pulled the trigger.

BOOM!

Frank felt the blow strike his head. Covered by not only his Arilion shield but his own diamond-plated helmet as well, the blow at even this close a distance felt like someone punching him in the face; not pleasant but it wouldn’t kill him either.

A thin line of smoke rose from Frank’s helmet as the heated plasma rolled off him and into the blackened soil.

“Why won’t you die!” Commander Trask asked as he held his finger down on the trigger.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Frank could feel his helmet shatter under the pressure of the blasts. Commander Trask was walking forward, putting the barrel into Frank’s face at a point blank range. The noise was so loud, Frank could feel a fresh wave of blood ooze down his ears. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth as his helmet cracked, but his protective purple barrier fueled by his Will held.

Enough, you’ve taken enough. Your whole life, you’ve taken enough, Frank screamed in his own mind. This isn’t it. You’re just getting started.

“Rawww!” Frank screamed as he twisted first to the right and then to the left. The harsh movements made the alien beast who had him pinned let up ever so slightly. The room was enough for Frank to free his arms and grab on to the creature’s two longer horns. With a violent jerk, he channeled his Will and cracked the alien creature’s neck.

SNAP!

The whole animal fell over, crushing its rider. Frank was on his feet a moment later, ripping the weapon free of Commander Trask’s hands and grabbing the alien by his throat.

“I shot—I shot you a dozen times at point blank range,” Commander Trask gurgled, clawing at Frank’s grip around his throat. “How—how are you alive?”

Frank didn’t offer a reply. He simply pressed the end of the plasma rifle into the Commander’s gut and returned the favor.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Frank dropped the lifeless body on the ground, spitting blood that gushed from a split lip. He didn’t even want to think of what his face looked like. He tossed the smoking plasma rifle on the ground and removed his twisted helmet. Despite the beating it had taken, the armor had held up well. He’d have to tell his boss, the Chairman, at B.U.T.T.S. about that when he returned.

In every direction Frank looked, the Chaos army was being routed. The Blood Guard had taken out half of the Neeve infantry, but led by the Berserkers, the Blood Guard were still no match for the expert fighting style of the Neeve army.

The ground was littered with Neeve, Blood Guard soldiers, and their alien steeds. A forest green power armor unit marked with the helmet and wings of Marine Space Corps One ran up to Frank. Despite the fighting still going on around them, the unit hissed open. Raj jumped out, his face full of concern.

“Son of a boxer, Frank,” Raj said, reaching for a small black pouch that hung on his hip. “You look like you’ve been through fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali.”

“What? You don’t think I’m pretty anymore?” Frank cracked a smile and then winced at the action. “I’ll be all right.”

“I’m sure you will but not bleeding like that.” Raj produced a bottle of sterilizer, gauze, and bandages from his bag. “What happened?”

“Oh, you know,” Frank said, allowing Raj to go to work. “Classic story of bullies in the schoolyard, just on a galactic level. Get me patched up quick, Doc. I need to get back in this fight.”

“Chaos army is on the run,” Colonel Breaker said over the comms. “I think their Blood Guard was their last hope. When they saw that foiled, their fighting spirit went with it. Empress Vega, Argon report in.”

“I agree.” Vega’s voice came over the comms as strong as ever. “They are routed and in retreat. Should we follow?”

“Hold off on pursuing,” Colonel Breaker said. “Argon? Argon, are you there?”

“I saw him go down under the horns of one of the Blood Guard’s beasts,” Raj said, his voice heavy. “He didn’t make it.”

“Understood,” Colonel Breaker said after a brief pause. Frank realized he had to move on, that he more than most would feel the loss of another soldier. Still, there was no option but to continue what they had started. “Elly, report?”

Frank looked up into the sky at the ships still swarming around the Lucy. Green and white blaster fire were traded back and forth between the smaller ships. The Lucy didn’t look the worse for wear.

“We’re good to go,” Elly said, troubled. “It’s like they know they can’t take down our shields, so they’re just harassing us, not letting us get close. They’re waiting for something.”

The ground trembled at that moment. A sense of heaviness attacked Frank’s Will to continue.

“Not something, someone.” Frank looked over to Raj. “Get back inside your power armor. He’s coming.”

“Who—Oh,” Raj said, placing one last bandage on the right side of Frank’s forehead before hurrying to obey.

“They’re regrouping on the west side of the pyramid where we snuck in before,” Vega said. “He’s coming. The Chaos Lord is calling to them.”

“All units are to regroup on my position, in front of the west side of the pyramid,” Colonel Breaker said. “This is it. Let’s take out their leader and the army will fall.”

Frank moved with the rest of the Neeve infantry to coordinate a final attack with the forces still standing. The Blood Guard had extracted a heavy toll on their numbers, but Vega’s unit had fared better.

A quick look around told Frank for the first time that day they had the numbers on the Chaos army. A few hundred Neeve and a dozen power armor suits made the little grouping of Chaos soldiers in front of the pyramid look pathetic in comparison.

Despite their numbers, the Chaos soldiers roared with anticipation. Somewhere deep inside the pyramid, there was a booming noise like some ancient titan woken from his slumber.

“All available power armor units on me,” Colonel Breaker said. “Empress Vega, if you would form your soldiers in ranks. This is it.”

Frank knew his place. He tried to find Vega as he made his way to the front of the army, but with so many bodies in the mix, it was impossible to make her out. If he saw her still standing, he knew he’d feel all the better. Instead, he had to trust her word and that favor would be on her side.

The echoing booming continued as the Chaos soldiers made a lane in their own ranks for their leader to arrive. When he did exit, he looked exactly like he had in Frank’s dream and the apparition that had spoken to him earlier.

Two and a half meters towering over everyone save the remaining power units, black armor with inky smoke underneath, he wore his massive wings on his back like a king wears his robe; his crown a horned helmet, and in his right hand, he carried a club made of black steel. On the end of his weapon was a skull with red eyes.

“Chaos is the true state of the universe.” The Chaos Lord moved through his ranks. His voice carried over his soldiers, and to Frank’s mind, like waves over the ocean. “When the Light stole the rightful state of the universe from me, He did so with an army of Arilion Knights. I tell you today, I will crush our foes in front of you and prove once and for all that Chaos, not Light, was always meant to dominate both space and time.”


24

A cheer erupted from the Chaos soldiers as they witnessed their lord make his way from the pyramid to the front of their lines.

Frank held his Will firm against the onslaught of fear and trepidation that wafted from the Chaos Lord. All around him, Neeve and Draconians were mumbling to each other, casting their eyes downward in favor of looking at the ground instead of meeting the sight of the Lord of Chaos in his horrendous glory. Even Raj in his power armor took a step back.

Frank couldn’t blame any of them. Every fiber in his body was telling him to run and hide. This was the real deal. This mad titan in front of him wasn’t an apparition of nightmares; this was the Chaos Lord himself.

Colonel Breaker and Vega both moved to stand beside Frank.

“We’re with you,” Colonel Breaker said, training his weapons on the Chaos Lord.

“We can do this,” Vega said, raising her great sword in both hands.

Frank grabbed on to his Will, clenching his fists on either side of his body. He steadied his heartbeat. The Chaos army was fifty yards away, though still close enough to continue to hear the Chaos Lord taunt his enemies.

“I will crush our enemies with you,” the Chaos Lord continued on and on. “This poor excuse for an alliance is nothing. I am a god.”

Frank realized what the Chaos Lord was doing. He was buying more time to intimidate Frank and his forces. The longer he was allowed to drone on, the more time Frank and the others would have to second guess themselves.

“You ready for this?” Colonel Breaker asked, looking to Frank in his power armor. “Marine, are you ready to be the leader they need you to be?”

“Oohrah to that, sir,” Frank said. His entire body was sore. He was beyond tired and blood still fell from multiple cuts across his face, but this was his time. He was fairly certain there was no calling a timeout and picking up where they left off tomorrow. Right about now, he was wishing they had a leviathan on their side to sway the odds, but it didn’t seem like that would be happening anytime soon. It was up to him and him alone.

Frank wasn’t sure he had another epic speech in him. He would have to make it short. The Chaos Lord had finished his pep talk and was now walking toward them in no apparent hurry. His army flanked him on either side.

“Embrace your fears. Look your terror in the face and yell in one voice: We will not be beaten!” Frank said, yelling to the Neeve and Draconian soldiers behind him. “What we do today will matter for an eternity to come! Oohrah, warriors! Oohrah!”

“Oohrah!” Colonel Breaker and Raj shouted with Frank.

“Oohrah!” Empress Vega and the Neeve yelled, wrestling themselves from their fears.

“Oohrah!” the Draconians roared.

Frank began his charge forward. He was never much of a fan for walking to meet enemies. He set his path straight for the Chaos Lord, allowing the purple energy to ripple around his body and construct another layer of armor over the physical suit he wore. A violet translucent helmet wrapped around his face.

Enemy fire began slamming into the power armor units led by Colonel Breaker. Their personal force fields absorbed most of the smaller fire; it was the rounds from the few enemy power units that remained upright that did the most damage.

Weapons fire volleyed on all sides. The space around them looked like a meteor shower through a mirror with white blaster fire flashing through the air from both sides.

Frank was still a dozen meters away from the looming Chaos Lord. He wasn’t sure how he was going to defeat him or whether his weapons would have the same effect as fighting a regular Chaos soldier at all. All he knew was that he would find a way.

WHAAM!

A rocket from a power armor unit exploded right into Frank’s left side. He was propelled from his path to land in a hard patch of ground twenty meters from where he started. For the hundredth time since he had donned the mantle of Arilion Knight, Frank picked himself up.

I need to look into better health insurance, Frank thought as he went to a knee, trying to catch his breath. Maybe an HSA or a PPO. Not that any insurance company would cover me if they knew what I did for a living. Wait, am I even getting hazard pay for this?

The last thing Frank wanted to do was push himself to his feet and attack the Chaos Lord, but sometimes life isn’t about what you want or not want to do; sometimes you just do what has to be done. That was exactly what Frank did.

Sharp pain lanced down his left side, telling Frank there was something definitely wrong. There was no time to examine the wound further. If he could walk, he was going to.

The two enemy factions had reached one another and the fallout was brutal. Even though the army made up mostly of Neeve now outnumbered the Chaos soldiers, the Chaos Lord himself more than made up for the loss in numbers. Frank saw the brutality in slow motion as he gathered his bruised and not quite yet broken self. The Chaos master swung his skull-tipped mace back and forth as he waded into the power armor and Neeve ranks. Every time his mace landed in a wide swing, it sent two to four soldiers flying backward, despite their force fields.

The rounds that did strike the Chaos Lord had no effect on him. The blasts actually seemed to disappear into his armor. The Chaos Lord howled at those who dared to approach. With a backhanded swing, Raj’s power armor unit was flung into the air like a discarded toy. The Chas Lord swung his mace down on Colonel Breaker’s unit.

The Colonel caught the weapon by the shaft, just below the top of the skull-shaped mace. For a moment, the two stood staring at one another. For the briefest of moments, an unmovable object met an unstoppable force. Then the Chaos Lord won out.

Ripping his mace free, the Chaos Lord swung his weapon like a baseball bat, striking Colonel Breaker’s power armor square in the chest. The metal dented before flinging the heavy power armor unit through the air.

“No!” Frank heard himself bellow, more than he intended to let out as he tried in vain to get to the head of the pack. The way the armor around Colonel Breaker had been rented inward made him feel sick. “Colonel Breaker, Colonel Breaker, come in.”

There was no response.

“I’ll—I’ll get him,” Raj said.

Frank looked to where the doctor’s power armor had landed. It was smoking and sparking from a handful of locations. Raj opened the hatch and stumbled out.

As much as Frank wanted to lend a hand to both of the Marines, he understood that duty was ordering him to keep moving forward toward the thing every fiber of his being wanted to avoid. Even as he made his way back toward the fight, he could see the Chaos Lord swinging his war mace back and forth like a farmer harvesting wheat with a scythe.

Neeve soldiers and the few remaining power armor units fell before the Chaos Lord like dominoes. The rest of the Chaos army was feeling emblazoned by their leader’s actions. They made a surge to break through the Neeve lines. Vega held them back.

“Hold!” she yelled through her helmet as she cleaved a Chaos soldier’s head in two. “Hold the line!”

Frank was running forward now, all thoughts of his own safety and wellbeing the furthest thing from his mind. He saw what was about to happen. The Chaos Lord came for Vega and the Neeve empress held her ground.

Even pouring his Will into his speed, Frank would arrive a second too late.

The Chaos Lord swung his hammer low. Vega jumped over the blow, dancing around the thick instrument of death. Again the Lord of Chaos swung his ebony war mace. This time, Vega ducked low, driving her great sword forward like a spear. She plunged her sword into the Chaos Lord’s chest. It stuck in his armor, unable to penetrate the blackened steel.

“You think you will be the one to silence the roar of Chaos!?!” the Chaos Lord yelled, grabbing Vega’s sword by the blade with his free hand and ripping it from his chest. “I was alive before your species drew breath.”

The Chaos Lord squeezed the blade of Vega’s great sword in his left hand so tight it bent the metal.

“Your men need you,” Frank said, reaching Vega’s side. It was the only thing he could think of saying that might make her back down from the Lord of Chaos. “You can’t do anything here; I can. You CAN help your men and save some lives. I got this. This is what I’m meant to do.”

Vega’s golden helmet made her eyes the only thing on her face visible. In those eyes, Frank saw the conflict. She grabbed his hand a moment later and gave him a hard squeeze. “Kill him, Frank.”


25

Frank had enough time to release her hand before the Chaos Lord bellowed a war cry and charged forward. Frank understood the power the Chaos Lord wielded. He had seen multiple soldiers as well as power armor suits go sailing through the air. Instead of trying to meet the enemy head on, Frank formed a shield in his hands and used it not to stop the incoming blows but allow them to glance off his barrier.

Over and over again, the Chaos Lord swung at Frank, and over and over again, Frank allowed the blows to glance off his purple shield.

Tire him out, Frank said to himself as the two battled across the war zone. Let him use all of his energy and then you strike.

There was one fatal flaw in Frank’s plan: the Chaos Lord did not tire. Over and over, the blows came. If anything, the skull war mace got closer and closer to hitting Frank each time. It only took one misstep for Frank to let the war mace hit his body or even strike his shield head-on.

Each glance that came with the war mace sent a shudder through Frank’s arms until they felt like Jell-O. The Chaos Lord laughed out loud a moment later.

“You still think this is something you can win, Arilion Knight?”

“I know I can.” Frank braced himself as he turned yet another blow. “You could always just give up right now and we can save ourselves some time.”

“Why the Light chose you, I have no idea.” The Chaos Lord shook his horned helmeted head. “Your tactic is useless. I do not tire. I will not stop.”

“Neither will I,” Frank said.

The Chaos Lord reared back for another swing but instead hammered his mace into the ground, sending a thick crack toward Frank and causing the entire ground to rumble and roll.

It was the last thing Frank was expecting. He faltered for only a moment. The Chaos Lord jumped at the opportunity. He vaulted into the air, showing speed Frank had no idea he possessed. With his war mace overhead in a two-handed swing, he brought it down on Frank.

There was no time to roll out of the way. There was barely time for Frank to lift his shield and protect his head.

BLAAAM!

A concussive wave washed over the battlefield. Soldiers on both sides having seen the combatants engage in their fight gave them a wide berth. Watching the Arilion Knight and Chaos Lord go head-to-head drew almost more attention than the fighting itself. Still, the shocking blast was enough to rock them from their feet and send them rolling on the black dirt ground.

Frank’s shield construct held, only just barely.

Well, you’re not going to rope-a-dope this guy, Frank regained his footing as the Chaos Lord charged yet again. The best defense is a good offense.

Frank didn’t bother with trying to construct any kind of mechanical weapon this time. Instead, he aimed both his fists forward and let the purple energy glowing across his vambraces shoot forward. It struck the Chaos Lord in the center of his chest, detonating on contact.

BOOM!

The blast was enough to stop the Chaos Lord for a moment. He lifted an arm to shield his face. His armor smoked, but as far as Frank could see, it was neither damaged nor torn loose in any place.

“You still refuse to see the simple truth that the most natural state for the universe to reside is a state of Chaos,” the Chaos Lord said, walking toward Frank. “It belongs to me. I am only reverting it back to its truest form.”

Frank growled as he held his hands close to one another, forming a purple ball of energy. He had seen it done a thousand times before playing his favorite arcade game, Street Fighter, while growing up. He’d gather as much of the raw energy as he could hold before releasing it on the approaching enemy.

“My rightful place in the universe was taken from me by the Light who calls himself my father,” the Chaos Lord said, still walking forward. He was now within ten meters of Frank as he continued his sermon. “And where is this Light you fight for now? It has abandoned you and you are too stupid to see you are only a pawn in His game.”

Frank’s hands were shaking. A purple orb the size of a basketball had gathered in his palms, ready to be released. This was it. This was his last best shot. Already he could feel his body begin to shut down on him. His legs were shaking, and sweat rolled off his bruised face in tiny rivers.

“Eat this!” Frank shouted as he pressed his arms forward and sent the massive force of energy against the Chaos Lord. Even after the explosive force was hurled forward, he poured more energy, keeping a steady stream of humming purple light toward his enemy.

The Chaos Lord once more did nothing else but shield his face when the weapon exploded on him. A cloud of dirt and smoke hid him for a moment. The next instant, Frank’s heart knotted in his chest. Still, the Chaos Lord came. Parts of his armor this time were actually pitted and cracked, though still not broken.

The beam of purple energy continued to strike the Chaos Lord in his chest. If it bothered him at all, he didn’t show it. Still, he came.

Frank sank to his knees, pouring everything he had left into the force exiting his fists. It wasn’t enough. The Chaos Lord stopped in front of Frank. His nearly three-meter frame towered over him, blotting out the sun. Red eyes blazed deep within his horned helmet.

As if he were taking a small child by the hands, he placed both his black gauntleted palms over Frank’s hands, shutting off the purple energy that flowed from them.

Frank’s palms felt like they were being pulverized. He gripped as tight as he could, but there was just nothing more to give. He was lifted to his feet and then into the air to dangle in front of the Chaos Lord.

“You will be made an example of,” the Chaos Lord said, staring deep into Frank’s eyes. “I will beat you within an inch of your life and then I will parade you around. I will turn you into an abomination as I did the inhabitants of this moon and then, when you are begging me to kill you, I will make you take your own life.”

“As long as you brush your teeth at some point,” Frank said, trying to work out a plan that would be worth trying. “Because your breath’s going to kill me before anything else. When was the last time you flossed?”

“Fool!” The Chaos Lord flung Frank to the ground, following up the action with a kick to his ribs.

Frank saw spots for a moment as he was lifted off the ground again. Instinct took over. All the training the Marines had given him was enough to push him on. He couldn’t see much around the blood on his face, but he threw punches at the Chaos Lord even as he was pummeled in return.

Raj is going to be pissed you ripped off all his fancy bandaging, Frank thought to himself as he received a blow to his stomach and then his jaw. At least I went down swinging.

With hardly enough breath left in his chest, he grabbed at his jaw to ensure it wasn’t broken. So far, so good. With no time to linger on the wound, he attempted to fight fire with fire.

Frank landed a blow of his own across the Chaos Lord’s throat. The angle was difficult since he had to aim up, but he managed to find the spot where the black breastplate met the underside of the helmet.

Nothing. It was like the Chaos Lord was toying with him now.

His left eye was swollen shut to the extent he didn’t see the knockout blow coming. Frank wobbled on his feet for a moment, unsure what happened before he fell into darkness.


26

“Oh, crap, I’m really dead this time, aren’t I?” Frank asked as he stared up into a bright white ceiling. The clean scent of nothing and yet everything warm and fresh and good filled his nose and head. “And I forgot to take those books back to the library. The fees are going to be outrageous.”

Frank took a deep breath, wondering how the others, how the universe would fare without him. Comedy was his way of trying to bury the deep sense of failure that ate at his insides. It didn’t work. Frank had been chosen to do a job and he had failed everyone.

“Do you want to be dead?”

Frank bolted upright, trying to figure out who had spoken. There weren’t too many options, as there was only one other person in the stark white room with him. An unfamiliar man with greying hair and a muscular build under his button-up shirt and jeans looked over at Frank with deep eyes filled with strength and warmth. The stranger smiled the kind of smile one reserved for seeing an old friend.

“Am I dead? Who are you?” Frank asked, looking around to examine the room further. It wasn’t a room at all, or at least if it was, he couldn’t see where it started or stopped. There were no walls or ceilings, just white, the light giving the scene illumination came from everywhere and nowhere at once. “Where am I? What happened to me?”

“Oh, Frank, always so many questions.” The gentle man walked to where Frank still sat on the ground and offered his hand. “You’re unconscious right now in the real world. Kraymar has beaten you pretty badly.”

“Kraymar?” Frank asked, accepting the man’s firm grip. “What’s Kraymar?”

“Oh, come on,” the man chuckled. “You didn’t actually think his name was the ‘Lord of Chaos,’ did you? He feeds off fear and hate. The name Kraymar doesn’t exactly inspire that, but the title of the Lord of Chaos, on the other hand, has plenty of people shaking in their boots.”

“Who are you?” Frank asked again, trying to make up his mind whether he was dead or having some kind of hallucination.

“You know who I am, Frank.” The man waved him over to a door that had not been there a second before. He opened the doorway to a balcony set over a field of rolling hills. A vineyard attended with faithful perfection covered the landscape as far as the eye could see. An orange sun hung high overhead, casting its warmth on every creation below.

“Why did you choose me?” Frank asked, following the stranger outside. “I wasn’t the right man for the job.”

“You are the perfect man for the job, even if you don’t realize it yet.”

Frank felt frustration build in his chest. He was getting nowhere fast, and if this was some kind of hemorrhage in his brain, he had nothing to worry about anyway. The worst was already done.

The man in front of him walked over to the wooden railing on the balcony and leaned forward, breathing in the fresh air. He acted as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Listen, all this cryptic talk and non-answers is getting us nowhere,” Frank said, moving to stand next to the man. “I’m either dead or unconscious and this is all a dream.”

“I’ll ask you again,” the man said, turning to Frank. “Do you want to be dead?”

There was something in his dark brown eyes that caught Frank; wisdom beyond comprehension. Frank thought on the question. Images of Vega, his Marines, and the others still fighting on the small moon flashed through his mind. Pictures of his father and mother ill at home came next.

“I’m not afraid of death, but no, I’m not ready yet,” Frank answered.

“Still don’t understand why you were chosen?”

“The Chaos Lo—Kraymar, he’s too strong.” Frank shook his head. “In the first Chaos War, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of Arilion Knights to fight him. There’s just—right now, there’s just me. I’m alone.”

“He’s weaker than he wants you to know,” the man said, scratching at the stubble on his jaw. “He can’t even take on an actual solid shape; that’s why he wears his armor to keep the little he has managed to recover over the years intact. You are enough, Frank Wolffe. And you are not alone. You’ve never been alone.”

“It sure feels like that down there as I’m getting beat to jelly,” Frank sighed.

“I bet it can feel like that at times.” The man tapped Frank on the spot of his chest over his heart. “With this, Frank, you can move mountains. Everything you need is inside of you. I promise, you are not alone. I’ll ask you one more time, do you want to die?”

“No,” Frank said as a feeling of resolve filled his heart. “No, I have work to do.”

“Yes, you do. I’m rooting for you.” The man smiled again before a shadow fell over his face. For the first time, something like sadness crossed his pearly white smile. “When you see her again, she’ll be confused with hate, but she is not out of reach, of saving. There is hope for her. Remember that.”

“Who?” Frank squinted his brows. “Again with the vague speech. Who are we talking about?”

Frank gasped, breathing hard. He was back on the moon, staring up into the open sky. Every inch of his body either ached or felt numb. In time, Frank was positive the numb parts of his body would begin to ache. Breathing was harder than it should have been. His right eye was so swollen. He was sure he looked like Sloth from The Goonies.

With a groan, Frank managed to prop himself on an elbow to get a look at his surroundings. If he had to guess, he had been out for only a few seconds, possibly less.

Kraymar stood in front of him, adjusting his armor. Their fight had taken them away from the main battle almost to where the ravine began.

“I was hoping you hadn’t died so easily,” Kraymar said to Frank in a tone oozing with hate. “I want you to see the death of your comrades. But first tell me, how does it feel to be alone? How does it taste in your mouth to be abandoned by the Light?”

“Who said he was alone?”

Goosebumps raced across the parts of Frank he could still feel. He knew that voice. It wasn’t the man he had seen in his dream either; it was Sava.

Both Frank and Kraymar looked up to see the Arilion Knight floating in the sky above them. Energy blazed in her clenched fists and wrapped around her body. Even her eyes were alight with the purple flames of her Will.

“You took your time.” Frank struggled to a sitting position, finding the Will inside him burning like an ember. He pointed to his face. “My moneymaker is all messed up now.”

“I’ll kill you both then,” Kraymar shouted at Sava. “I will see both of you turned into—”

Sava bolted from her position in the sky like an arrow let loose from a bow. She slammed into the Chaos Lord in the space of a heartbeat. The ground shook under Frank as the Arilion Knight collided with the Chaos Lord at a speed that left a crater in the ground.

Watching Sava and Kraymar fight was like watching two opponents battle one another on fast forward. They were so quick, sometimes Sava was no more than a blur of purple. The Draconian knight constructed a double-bladed spear, which she twirled with deadly accuracy. Kraymar used his own war mace and the two parried and traded blows at a dizzying speed.

During the time Frank fought Kraymar, and even now, he could hear chatter on the comms. Raj’s voice finally woke him out of his daze.

“Frank, do you copy?” Raj paused for a moment and then repeated himself. “Frank, this is Raj. Do you copy?”

“I’m—I’m here.” Frank rolled onto his hands and knees, looking for the strength to make it back on his feet again. Memories of Colonel Breaker’s power armor unit being demolished crossed his memory. “Colonel Breaker, how’s the colonel?”

“I’ll live,” Colonel Breaker grunted over the comms. “Vega, Elly, report.”

“We’ve got them routed,” Vega answered. “There are a few pockets still holding out, but we will finish them soon.”

“Same here,” Elly said over the comms. “We’re cleaning up the last of the Chaos Darts. They’re not as willing to sacrifice themselves to keep us busy. We should be available to provide air support soon.”

“Frank?” Colonel Breaker asked.

“Oh, I’m peachy,” Frank lied, finally getting into a position with one knee on the ground as he witnessed the fight in front of him turn in Kraymar’s favor. “We’re too close to Kraymar for Elly to help with an orbital strike.”

“What’s a Kraymar?” Raj asked.

“I’ll explain later,” Frank said.

Sava was a demon on the field. Multiple times, she struck Kraymar, sending sparks into the air as her constructed blade scraped against his armor; still, she couldn’t pierce it.

Vega had taken a few blows of her own and now bled through her nose and a shallow cut on her right shoulder.

“I can send reinforcements to you,” Colonel Breaker said to Frank.

“They aren’t going to do any good,” Frank said, rising to his feet. “This is something the Arilion Knights have to beat. I could use some tunes right about now, Elly, and maybe an Oohrah or two.”


27

“I can do that,” Elly said as music flowed through Frank’s comm unit.

The familiar backward harmonica and bluesy guitar riffs that accompanied the boom-boom tap of the drums for Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks grew into a steady blare into his comms, but not loud enough to keep him from hearing Raj and Colonel Breaker.

“Oohrah! Get some, Frank!” Raj yelled.

“If anyone had to be picked to be an Arilion Knight, it makes sense it was a Marine,” Colonel Breaker said. “Oohrah, Frank, give him hell!”

An intensity so animalistic, so raw grew in Frank. He fed it more and more, strengthening it with resolve. The ember of Will was flaming inside of him, turning into a roaring fire. Anytime he lifted weights at the gym or set his mind to do something, Frank focused his will. This was similar, only on overdrive now.

Frank rose to his feet, the music giving his actions life.

Kraymar was pushing Sava further and further toward the ravine with the bug-like atrocities that had once been inhabitants of the small, oblong moon. Something the man in Frank’s dream said sparked in Frank’s mind.

He said Kraymar was weaker than he let on, that his armor was giving him form, Frank thought to himself as he constructed a ka-bar in his right hand. He can’t fight if he doesn’t have form.

How he was walking was a miracle, how he started to run was something Frank couldn’t explain. Past the pain and fatigue, he knew Sava needed him. Somehow he reached deep and discovered he had more to give.

Ultraviolet and black sparks erupted in the air as Sava and Kraymar traded blows. Sava was doing less offensive work now as Kraymar pressed down on her. She was bleeding almost as badly as Frank.

Kraymar had his back to Frank as he brought his war mace down on Sava’s double-bladed staff over and over again. If Sava saw Frank approach, she didn’t give away his position. Instead, she pressed her attack harder.

As Frank ran forward, a stupid idea came to mind. For all the many reasons he knew he should silence that voice in his head telling him to give it a shot, he knew it would work.

Frank sent a chain with a purple clamp on the end, grabbing on to Kraymar’s left wrist. The other end wrapped around his own left arm. Frank jerked back on the chain as hard as he could, sending Kraymar off balance.

“Kraymar, yeah, cat’s out of the bag. I know your birth name isn’t the Chaos Lord,” Frank said, gripping the chain and ka-bar in his hands. “What kind of a name is Kraymar anyway?”

“Why won’t you die!?” Kraymar jerked the chain, sending Frank struggling to keep his footing. “How do you know—”

Sava wasn’t in the mood to stand around and give Kraymar the time to talk and gather his thoughts.

“Rawww!” Sava lunged forward, stabbing her double-bladed spear deep into the back of Kraymar’s left kneecap.

“You will not defeat me!” Kraymar shouted.

What ensued was a brutal game Frank would remember as “who wants it more.” For the first time, he saw the signs of weariness descend on Kraymar; the Chaos Lord’s movements weren’t as fast. His reflexes slowed just a half second.

“Together,” Sava shouted to Frank.

“Together,” Frank said. “His armor, tear off his armor.”

Elly decided to keep the party going by picking up the pace with a Whole Lotta Love. The irony was not lost on Frank. The fast-paced beat helped keep time with the tit-for-tat sparring taking place.

Frank and Sava worked as a team, diving and slashing with their blades as Kraymar moved to intercept them. The inky black wings made of more shadow than physical form extended out on either side of him as the defamer moved to strike them with his appendages.

Early on, Frank realized chaining himself to the Chaos Lord was a bad idea, but that ship had sailed. Instead of trying to fight the idea, he embraced his situation. Frank pressed in closer, meeting a slash from a black wing that made his entire left arm go numb.

With the ka-bar he still held in his hand, Frank lunged forward, slamming it hard into the spot where the Chaos Lord’s left vambrace connected to his gauntlets. Frank wiggled the knife’s blade deeper and deeper.

“Ahhh!” Kraymar shouted, trying to shake Frank off, even beating him with an outstretched wing.

Frank was a pitbull with a bone. If all he had to do was hold on and pry off the gauntlet, then that was what he was going to do it and pour everything he had into the task.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sava ducking a blow and slamming her purple spear into the area between the Chaos Lord’s breastplate and his right shoulder. She drove it so deep, the foot-long end was lost in the blackness under the armor.

Kraymar grabbed her around the throat. Sava only drove her spear deeper, tearing at her weapon with all her might to open a hole in his armor.

Frank kept one hand on his ka-bar in Kraymar’s left gauntlet; with the other, he constructed a new chain that wrapped around the Chaos Lord’s opposite hand, which choked Sava.

The three were locked in a brutal game of who was going to blink first. Frank’s muscles shook with fatigue. His right hand still holding onto his ka-bar, his left on the chain, he pulled his arms together with every ounce of strength he had left.

“Raaarrrrr.” A roar escaped his lips as he uttered his rage at the Lord of Chaos.

Sava channeled a beam of purple light that exploded from her weapon and tore through the opposite end of the Chaos Lord. The light shot out of his back, lost into the day’s light that was just beginning to set.

“Ahhh!” the Chaos Lord screamed. His hold on Sava fell away as he stumbled back.

Frank capitalized on his one weapon burrowing into the Chaos Lord and tore away the gauntlet covering his hand. The piece of armor clattered to the ground, exposing a swirling mass of nothing.

Sava fell on all fours, gasping for breath.

Frank hunched over, trying to keep himself upright.

The Chaos Lord staggered back, screaming in rage. His left hand was gone from the wrist down. Black smoke escaped from the front and back of his armor where Sava had done her damage.

“No! No! Not by you! Not again!” Kraymar howled in rage. He lifted his head as if he were talking to someone else altogether. “I hate you. I hate you!”

Frank limped his way to Sava. He still couldn’t feel anything in his left arm from his shoulder down. With his right hand, he helped her to her feet.

“This whole Arilion Knight thing should come with a warning label,” Frank said to her. “I mean a real long and in depth one.”

“We can talk about that once we finish here,” Sava croaked as she massaged her throat. “We are almost done.”

Frank caught motion behind Kraymar, who still roared to the sky talking with someone or something the rest could not see. Hundreds, no thousands of white worms, long centipedes, and other insect beings Frank had not seen before gathered in the ravine below.

“I have a plan,” Frank said, looking over at Sava and furrowing his eyebrows. “Stop staring at me like that. It’s a good one this time.”


28

“If I die, then you will die with me!” Kraymar roared at Sava and Frank. Black spittle flew from his mouth. His red eyes were wild with rage.

This time when Frank and Sava attacked, they only had one goal in mind: to push Kraymar back. The wounded Lord of Chaos fought like he had everything to lose. He struck out with both wings and his right, remaining arm. Frank tackled him, driving him back while Sava constructed a club and swung at his helmet.

Kraymar slammed a closed fist on Frank’s back, taking him to his knees.

Sava struck their enemy in his helmet with so much force it broke her construct and sent the Lord of Chaos reeling back. His feet touched the edge of the ravine. His arms flailed to keep balance as his wings spread out on either side of him in preparation to take flight.

Frank sent a purple energy blast from both his hands into one of the flailing black wings of the Chaos Lord. The purple energy blast tore a hole the size of a watermelon right through the unarmored wing. Their massive enemy tottered one more time, unable to right himself, and fell backward.

Sava and Frank hobbled to the edge of the ravine. Below them, the Chaos Lord was getting to his feet yet again. He chuckled out loud, still unaware of the army of insects behind him.

“You fools, your Will may not be broken until your miserable deaths, but I will never stop.” Kraymar looked up at them as he regained his feet. “I am eternal.”

“Well, then have fun living out your eternal life in the stomachs of those you tormented, because I don’t speak worm, but they look pissed,” Frank said, pointing a finger behind Kraymar.

The Lord of Chaos turned as the first worms grabbed on to his boots with their gnashing rows of teeth and reared up to wrap their slime-covered, pus-oozing bodies around his torso. The insects were crawling over one another in their anticipation of reaching the one who was responsible for their current state.

“What, no, you filth, cannot—get off me!” Kraymar screamed. “You will not defe—”

He was silenced by a thick worm that wrapped around his head. Despite his best efforts, he was reduced to one hand, and for as many of the insects he pulled away or tore apart, two more replaced their numbers.

A moment later, the Lord of Chaos had disappeared under the wriggling mound of flesh.

His black gauntlet reached out of the mass to grasp at the open air in a final feat of desperation. It was enveloped a moment later. As much as the idea of compassion welled in Frank’s chest, he just couldn’t have pity on Kraymar. He was being finished now by monsters of his own creation. The people of the moon he had turned into these insects would have the last laugh.

“It kinda looks like spaghetti down there, right?” Frank asked Sava, not looking up to her from his kneeling position. “I mean, it’s gross, but I can’t look away.”

“Is there a word for whatever it is that is wrong with you?” Sava asked, looking over to Frank.

“The jury is still out on that one,” Frank sighed. Even breathing hurt. “Are all the bad guys we have to fight as Arilion Knights going to be this tough?”

“Who knows?” Sava shook her head. “If this was the threat the Light activated the vambraces for, then our time as Arilion Knights may be over.”

Frank found himself looking down at the glowing purple vambraces on his forearms. If he was done as an Arilion, they didn’t show it. They still glowed as strong as ever.

A rogue thought surprised him. He realized he would miss being an Arilion Knight if this indeed was the end of his enlistment. He couldn’t help but share this thought with Sava.

“If this is the end for us—I mean, if we’ve served the Light’s purpose and we’re done being Arilion, then—well, that would suck. I’m just getting the hang of all of this,” Frank said.

“I would miss it as well,” Sava said, moving to Frank and helping him up.

“Ugh.” Frank winced. “Everything hurts. Even my hair hurts.”

“We’ll have plenty of time to recover soon,” Sava said, holding Frank up and draping his good arm over her broad shoulders. “Let’s get you back to the main group.”

Frank and Sava leaned on one another as they made their way back to the rest of the unit as if they were participating in some kind of sad three-legged race.

“When you woke from your coma,” Frank asked her as they walked, “what was it like? I mean, did you see anything?”

Sava was quiet for a long minute. Frank was sure she had heard his question. For some reason, the Draconian was having a hard time putting her thoughts into words. It was a first for Frank to see his Arilion mentor struggle to grasp the right words.

“I saw the Light,” Sava said quietly, seeming to struggle to remember a vague dream. “At least who I think was the Light or some embodiment of it.”

“What did he say to you?” Frank asked.

“How do you know it was a he?”

“Because I saw him too.”

Sava quieted again. “He told me I wasn’t alone. He told me it was time for me to wake up. He told me that we—you and I—are not alone.”

Sava stopped perhaps to say more, then thought twice of it and closed her mouth again.

“What else?” Frank pushed.

“The rest of what he said is for my ears only,” Sava stated so definitely Frank understood there was no point continuing the subject.

The words of what the Light had told him also came back to him. The cryptic words of meeting someone again, a woman not being lost echoed in his mind.


29

“You look like death warmed over,” Elly said to Frank as Raj used a heated machine that looked like a glue gun on a cut on his scalp. “I mean, Kraymarerar or whatever his name was did a number on you.”

“His name was Kraymar.” Frank winced as his skin felt like it was melting under the heat of the tool Raj was using. “Raj, are you fixing me or making it worse up there?”

“It’s a cool new toy I picked up from the Draconians,” Raj said as he continued to work. “It’ll close your wound, leaving only a faint scar if you hold still and stop being such a baby about it.”

“Do you need me to hold him down for you?” Vega walked into the medical bay aboard the Ryker. “He can be rather stubborn at times.”

After Kraymar had been killed by the combined efforts of Frank, Sava, and the worm inhabitants of the moon, the rest of the Chaos army had either surrendered or ran in retreat to hide in the pyramid or the terrain of the moon.

Colonel Breaker had ordered what remained of their force to stand down, secure the prisoners, and take care of their wounded. It was night by the time Elly transported them back to the Ryker. She had come down from the Lucy, leaving Laloid in charge of the alien spacecraft.

“I’m fine. I can take a little pain; it makes me feel alive.” Frank winked at Vega.

Vega still wore her golden armor, spattered with dirt and blood from the fight. Gore hung off her left boot in a dirty clump. She held her dented helm in the crook of her right arm.

The medical bay was filling by the moment with the wounded. All around them, those still able aided their brothers regardless of their species. Male and female, green scales or purple skin took care of one another.

“You’re not going to be talking about a little pain being good when I set that dislocated arm of yours,” Raj said, removing his tool from Frank and examining his left arm. “This is going to get worse before it gets better.”

“Maybe—maybe we should just leave it like that,” Frank said, wincing as Raj placed his hands on Frank’s useless arm. “I mean, it’s not so bad.”

“Here we go, three.” Raj started the countdown, gripping a firmer hold on Frank’s shoulder. “Two.”

“Maybe we should talk about this first,” Frank only half teased. “Maybe—”

There was a sick wrenching noise as Raj pulled on Frank’s arm.

“Son of a bee’s knees!” Frank groaned, grabbing on to his shoulder with his right hand. “What’s wrong with you? What happened to one? You never counted to one. It’s three, two, one then go.”

“Hey, I’m the doctor here,” Raj said, picking his skin gun up again and moving to a cut on Frank’s lip. “Let me see that laceration on your lip.”

“I’m good, Doc,” Frank said through gritted teeth as he hopped off the examining table. “There are other soldiers here who need you more than I do.”

“Is that a—is that an eyeball?” Elly asked, looking at Vega, ready to vomit. She pointed with an outstretched finger to an eyeball hanging from Vega’s left shoulder. It was wedged in a crack in her armor.

“So it is,” Vega said, plucking the item from her armor and looking around for a trash can. She spotted one across the room and left to drop it into the trash receptacle.

Frank exchanged looks with Raj and Elly and shrugged. The act made him wince. “It’s been a long day for all of us.”

“Right. I’m sure you all have important strategy sessions and next steps to plan,” Raj said over his shoulder as he went to a wounded Draconian soldier on the next table. “I need to get to work.”

“Frank, Vega, Elly, come in,” Colonel Breaker said through the comms unit behind their ears. “I need you all on the bridge as soon as you are able.”

“Roger that,” Frank said, forcing himself to move one foot in front of the other. He should have known getting back to the ship didn’t mark an end to his responsibilities.

The trio made their way back to the Ryker’s bridge together. Colonel Breaker and Sava waited for them. They had foregone the stint in the medical bay despite the wounds they both received in the fight.

Sava moved with a limp and had dried blood on the left side of her face. Colonel Breaker had removed his helmet and his loosened shirt showed where he had wrapped his own broken ribs.

“You all did one hell of a job out there today,” he said as they entered the bridge. “I mean that. I’ve worked with the very best and I think they’d be hard pressed to provide a better result than what we accomplished on the battlefield this day.”

“Thank you,” Vega said, moving to lean against the left wall of the bridge. “Any loss we could have received would be too many, but they gave their lives for a purpose we have seen fulfilled. The Chaos Lord is no more.”

“He is no more,” Sava said, looking down on her own glowing vambraces. “However, it seems the Light still has need for us. We have neutralized this threat, but others, it appears, still remain.”

“With two-thirds of our force KIA or wounded, we need to return back to Britannia and the gateway.” Colonel Breaker rubbed at his bloodshot eyes. “We’ll take the Lucy. Once we’re back there, we can open channels back to our home worlds, and discuss a new course of action and next steps.”

Everyone nodded in agreement.

“Let’s use the time we have on the return trip to rest and lick our wounds,” Colonel Breaker said, looking at Frank. “Unless I’m wrong, we’ll be needed again soon.”

Later that night, after the triage wounds had been treated and most had bathed and changed, the ship held a moment’s celebration and reverence for all who fought and gave their life for the victory. Amidst the Draconians who stood with a fist over their chest staring into the starry sky, Frank saw Laloid and Miriam, who wiped a single tear from his eye. Vega, in her golden and ivory robe, led the Neeve at full attention with their arms straight at their sides and heads held high. The four remaining members of Marine Space Corps One saluted for Major Lucy Lopez.

In the dark sky, a twenty-one gun salute of exploding showers of laser fire punctuated the ceremony.


30

Frank took the colonel’s advice on the trip back to Britannia. He slept as much as he could and ate a month’s worth of rations. The time he had with Vega was more precious to him than any amount of money he could imagine. The two spent as much time as they could with one another when Vega wasn’t fulfilling her duties as the empress and Frank wasn’t studying with Sava.

Something was bothering the Draconian Arilion Knight. It was the morning that they were supposed to arrive back at Britannia that she finally told him what it was.

The two were practicing creating constructs less common in a training room aboard the previously-owned Chaos warship. The room was a ten-square-meter space with training equipment stations along the perimeter of the room and a coal colored exercise mat in the middle.

“You’re quicker with your constructs now,” Sava said as Frank brought a sword to his right hand and a crossbow to his other. “The more you practice with weapons you are unfamiliar with, the better and stronger you will become.”

“Yeah, I just have to learn how to fly now and then we’ll be cooking with gasoline.” Frank grinned.

Sava cocked her horned head to the side and blinked her single eye.

“Gasoline,” Frank said to her, as if by repeating the word, it would somehow make her understand its meaning. “It’s a liquid that fuels vehicles of—never mind. But are we going to address the elephant in the room anytime soon? I’ve waited for you to tell me on your own, but we’re reaching your home planet in the next few hours and you still haven’t said anything.”

“What would you like to know?” Sava said, constructing a Punisher GS2000 into her hands with a satisfied grin.

“Come on,” Frank prodded. “I don’t know if it’s because of the bond we share as Arilion or it’s just that obvious to me; either way, it’s clear that when you were in a coma, the Light said something to you.”

Sava moved to open her mouth.

Before she got a word out, Frank lifted his hands in sign of surrender. “If you don’t want to tell me exactly what it is, I’m okay with that. However, if it’s something that’s going to affect both of us, I’d like to know what we’re about to step in.”

Sava allowed the rifle she was practicing with to evaporate from her grip. She crossed her muscular arms over her chest in deep thought. She stared at Frank with an eye full of contemplation before she began.

“You are right. What the Light told me is for me alone, but if I seem worried, it is because I am. The universe is a large place, always expanding. Then there is what lies beyond our known universe. If our vambraces still glow, then we are still needed to combat other growing evil that no one else can.” Sava stopped to pace around the room. “You and I are not enough to police the universe, Frank, as ferocious as we may be. We will need to find more. Other vambraces will have activated around the universe on planets, calling on others who are worthy to carry the mantle of Arilion Knights.”

Frank stopped what he was doing, his own constructs starting to vanish as he realized what Sava was getting at.

“You want to start our own intergalactic army?” Frank asked, trying to wrap his mind around what that would even look like. “Our own corps?”

“When the Chaos Wars began, the Arilion Knights formed their own force,” Sava explained. “They conducted themselves much like you Marines. They had their own headquarters, their own rank structure, their own training guidelines and rules.”

“And you want to do the same thing?”

“It’s not so much what I want anymore as what needs to be done,” Sava corrected. “When we arrive on Britannia and you return to Earth, I fear we must not linger long. There is work to be done. A new order of Arilion Knights must rise to combat any and all threats that exist in the universe. It is left to you and me to find these Arilion Knights spread amongst the stars and train them.”

Frank thought on Sava’s words for a few moments. The task of finding, training, and housing an intergalactic fighting force was daunting to say the least. Anyone in their right mind would have second thoughts. Frank understood he should be worried, but a sick little part of him was excited to take on the challenge. Plus, if left without guidance from other Arilion Knights, the new members would be lost, alone, and possibly a target for other adversaries of the Light.

“You are uncharacteristically silent, Frank Wolffe,” Sava said, studying him with her one good eye. “Feline rip off your mouth muscle?”

“It’s ‘cat got your tongue.’” Frank smiled as he corrected his mentor. “Where did you hear that anyway?”

“I heard Elly say it to her Momo,” Sava answered. “What are you thinking?”

“I think that I need to visit my parents,” Frank said, remembering his father and his sick mother he had gone without seeing for far too many years. “Then I think it’s time we build an army.”

Sava grinned a sharp, toothy smile of approval. “It is good to hear you say those words. Now you said you wanted to learn how to fly?”


31

Out of respect, the sphere room on Britannia had been given to Frank and Vega to bid their farewells. The archway swirled with multicolor fog, providing an entrance back to Vega’s home world of Atmos. Her Neeve warriors had already gone through and were waiting for her on the other side.

As soon as she left, Frank and the rest of Marine Space Corps One would travel back to Earth, but for now, in these last few minutes together, they were alone. Frank was trying to get at something, but he was having a difficult time doing so.

Why is it so hard to talk about your feelings? I feel like it’s physically difficult to say what I feel, Frank thought to himself as he cleared his throat. It’s like I’m walking through emotion mud.

“You look like you want to say something to me, Frank Wolffe,” Vega said with a playful smile on her full lips. “What is it?”

She wore a dress of white trimmed with gold thread, the sigil of her house, House Thunder, expertly crafted into a necklace that hung just below her collarbone. A scratch on her left shoulder and a bruise under her right eye were the only remnants of the battle on her body; her armor had kept her well protected during the battle with the Chaos army.

“You’re not going to make this easy for me, are you?” Frank breathed a deep sigh.

“Why would I do that?” Vega grinned. “It’s far too amusing to see you like this. You didn’t look this scared, even when you were facing down a towering Chaos Lord made of black smoke and hate.”

“Fair point,” Frank said, taking Vega’s hands in his own. “I just want to say that when I get back to Earth, I’m not going to be seeing anyone else. And that I plan on coming to see you as soon as I can.”

You blurted those words out way too fast, Frank thought to himself. Are your hands sweating? What, are you in high school?

“I don’t plan to date anyone besides my boyfriend,” Vega said, squeezing Frank’s hands in her own. “We’ll figure this out. We’ll find a way for an empress and a knight to have a relationship worlds apart.”

Frank drew in Vega, kissing her first on the lips, then placing a final soft caress on her forehead.

“I can’t wait to see what the future has for both of us,” Frank said as he held Vega close, taking in the scent of her hair, the shape of her body against his, and the warmth shared between them once more.

Gateway to the Galaxy Universe: The Complete Military Space Opera Series (Books 1 - 9)

End Book Three


Epilogue

Traypock Galaxy, Planet Nova Prime, District Six.

Why the shining purple vambraces had chosen someone as old as he was, Yur’l had no idea. Why they had activated now, what exactly he was supposed to do, or if he was alone were questions that plagued his aged mind since they had appeared to him the day before.

Of course he had heard the legends of the Arilion Knights. They were the military corps of intergalactic heroes that patrolled the galaxy. After defeating the evil seeking to consume the universe in what was now referred to as the Chaos War, they were looked on as heroes, made up from every planet.

This was all something that happened so long ago, even the history books on Nova Prime were phasing the stories out of their required reading. Yur’l had been sitting in his overstuffed recliner staring at the picture of his wife and daughter that hung on his main quarter’s room mantel, their spirit and beauty evident in their matching sparkling eyes as they embraced in a shared laugh. They had been his everything in life, and as much as it pained him to think about them, he refused to let the memories of his girls fade into oblivion.

One second he was twirling the pencil in his hands as he worked on his crossword puzzle looking for a slang word to describe the Gleason’s taloned feet six characters across while he sat in the same cozy, thick chair, since the doctor had told him keeping his brain occupied would be good for his health in his advanced years, the next he was being accosted. The purple vambraces burst through his apartment window. The alien symbols that crisscrossed the pieces of leather-laced armor were foreign to him, although they did tickle at the back of his mind, begging some recognition in the deep recesses of his memory.

Great, Yur’l thought to himself. I not only groan every time I get off the couch now, but I’m going senile. Are there really glowing vambraces on my arms or am I imagining all of this?

There was no getting-to-know-you phase; they just slipped onto his forearms. Yur’l worried about what the appearances of the vambraces could mean for a full day. He read every article or book he could find on the Arilion Knights in his personal library, but they all chronicled the Order. There was no how-to guide on actually becoming one. There was no Arilion helpline to contact either.

After a day of worrying about it and not getting any answers Yur’l decided to contact the local authorities. Maybe they would have a suggestion, or at least an idea on what he was supposed to do. The Gleason pressed his white-feathered head against the receiver. He looked past his orange beak and marveled at the vambraces once more.

They fit perfectly on his forearms as if they had always meant to be there.

“District Six, field office, how may I direct your call?” a female voice squawked on the other end of the line.

“Oh, yes, hello.” Yur’l took a moment to gather himself. “How are you doing today?”

“I’m fine, sir. Is there something I can help you with?” The voice on the other end didn’t sound appreciative of Yur’l’s polite opening to the conversation. She removed the receiver from her mouth to yell at someone nearby. “Oh, for crying out loud, get him in the cell before he pees all over the place, K’arl.”

“One of those days, huh?” Yur’l asked, finding it rather nice to have someone to talk with. “You know, when you start getting up there in age, your bladder isn’t what it used to be.”

“Sir,” the female voice asked again, drawing out every word, “we are very busy over here at the office, and if you don’t have an emergency or at least a question, I’m going to have to let you go.”

“No, no.” Yur’l ruffled the white feathers covering his body and clicked his beak together. “I do. You see, err—I’ve come into possession of a—of some glowing vambraces, and I’m not sure what to do.”

“Mmm hmmm,” the woman said, unfazed in the least. “Sir, I’m going to ask you politely, and with all due respect, have you been prescribed medication, and if so, are you taking the recommended dose of said medication?”

“Oh, you think I’m loony?” Yur’l said, taken aback for the slightest moment before he chirped laughter. “I guess I can’t blame you. I’d think the same thing if someone called and told me what I’m telling you. The truth is, I think I might be an Arilion Knight or most likely there’s been some kind of mix-up.”

“A what now, sir?” The woman sounded in disbelief. He was sure she was about to hang up at any second. “A what kind of knight?”

“What’s your name?”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“I think we’ve gotten off on the wrong talon. What’s your name?”

“I’m Officer Athin.”

“Thank you,” Yur’l said, gathering himself to start over. “Officer Athin, my name is Yur’l Ol and I’d like to come in and show you what I’ve found. Or rather, what has found me. I just need some guidance, and if they are what I think they are, I believe I should turn them over to the authorities.”

“Mmm hmmm,” Officer Athin said, hopefully thinking over the proposition. “Okay, sir. You come on in and we’ll see what you’d like to turn over to the field office.”

“Oh, thank you,” Yur’l said, trying to get a chuckle out of Officer Athin before he hung up. “I’ll bring a mop and a bucket of hot soapy water to wash down your floors too.”

“Mmm hmmm,” Officer Athin said. “You do that, sir.”

The line went dead. Although Yur’l didn’t get exactly what he wanted out of the conversation, it felt good to talk to someone on the other end of the phone that wasn’t one of his many doctors. It seemed as the years piled on, so too did his list of physicians and never-ending rotation of making and going to appointments. There was his general physician, then the one who helped with a growth on his right talon, then the feather specialist, and of course where would he be without the cardiologist.

“Well, there we have it,” Yur’l said out loud to himself as he looked down at his purple glowing vambraces. “If you are what I think you are, then the authorities should be the ones wielding your power, not an old geezer like me. If you’re a figment of my imagination, then they’ll set me right at the field office as well.”

Yur’l went to the small closet in his not-much-larger single-room apartment. After the death of his wife and daughter, there had been no need for a large home. Yur’l was a simple being, a creature of habit, and he didn’t mind that.

He went to the closet right off his dining and living area and pulled out an old leather case. The cracked leather reminded him of himself; too many wrinkles from a life he did his best to endure. He remembered vividly when his wife had handed him the briefcase at his promotion celebration. It was also the night she had told him she was pregnant with their sweet Karl’yn.

Memories such as these were a double-bladed knife that pierced his heart on a daily basis. They were painful beyond any level of physical pain he had ever endured, but what was the other option? To forget his girls altogether? That wasn’t an option at all, not to Yur’l.

Yur’l knelt on the floor with a pop of his left hip. Carefully, he removed the vambraces from his feathered forearms, a few greyed feathers falling in the process, and placed them inside the briefcase. The entire act seemed wrong. His Irys would have told him he was crazy for doubting fate. “You can never outrun fate or time,” she’d say. Somewhere deep down, he knew the vambraces were intended for him. Why, was still an unanswered question, but the way they called to him was undeniable.

“You’re being silly,” Yur’l said, talking to himself out loud again, something that had become a daily habit. He closed the sable briefcase on the vambraces, clicking the bronze clasps shut. “You’re doing the right thing here. Better get going before the sun goes down.”

It was already late in the day when Yur’l left his little apartment and started the trip to the field office. It would take him just over an hour to reach the field office walking, but he didn’t mind. It wasn’t exactly as if his calendar was filled with important dinner parties or invitations to go out with friends these days. Or even with casual events, for that matter.

On the agenda that night was a cold dinner and maybe another crossword puzzle. The start of a new sci-fi western called Darklanding if he was feeling especially frisky.

Yur’l left his apartment with a long, tan coat and the briefcase. If he held a steady pace, he would make it to the field office before sundown. More than likely, he would just call a cab to take him back home or maybe he would walk. Who knows, maybe a night stroll would do him some good.

Yur’l left his apartment building block and made his way through the streets of District Six. There was little foot traffic on the sidewalks and even less shuttle traffic. Since his city was one of the major locations on his planet where technology had grown by leaps and bounds, the citizens of District Six had been early adopters.

Means of transportation now were mostly through teleportation devices. Large cargo that needed to be hauled from point A to point B was mostly done so through the air by large vehicles controlled by machines. Anyone who was walking these days was either too poor to afford a teleportation device, wanted to exercise, or for the very few, like Yur’l, who actually just wanted to walk.

The city was as safe as any other; bright street lamps took over for the twin suns in the sky as they fell past the horizon. Shop signs helped to illuminate the darkness as well. Yur’l had never seen or been part of a physical confrontation in his city. That was why he was more than surprised when he heard a muffled scream for help.

He could have passed it off as a trick of his ears, the sound of the robotically flown ships overhead, or the electrical flickering of the street lamps, but he knew what he heard. It sounded like the beginning of a woman’s scream before a hand was clamped over her mouth.

Yur’l gripped his briefcase closer. A glance up and down the street told him he was alone for the moment. No pedestrians were present, just the light hum of vehicles traveling overhead. The field office was still a good forty-minute walk from where he stood. If anything was afoot, it would be up to him to resolve the situation.

“Let go of me!”

The shout was unmistakable this time. Yur’l stood at the beginning of a street corner. A tall brick building on his right was interspersed with a wide alley before the next building rose to the darkening sky above. The woman’s voice came from this backstreet.

Yur’l calmed his nerves. The woman’s voice reminded him of Karl’yn’s. He knew it couldn’t be her; his daughter was long dead. Anyone who has lost someone close to them can understand that at any given time, a stranger’s face, a passing laugh, or comment can remind you of your deceased loved one. The mind will assure this cannot be the case, but the heart will always skip a beat and still beg a glance of reassurance.

Yur’l’s taloned feet crossed the building on his right. He peered down the dark alleyway. Near the rear, past the garbage receptacles, he could see a group of young Gleason men cornering a young female. Her dark feathers were shining bright, and her fitted exercise clothing told Yur’l why she would be out in the first place.

The group of four Gleason cornering her wore a mix of old tattered clothing. One of them was missing patches of feathers from his face and head, another’s beak had been broken in a few different places and never set right.

“Hello there, friends,” Yur’l said, clearing his throat and making his presence known. “Is there something going on here I might be able to help with?”

All four of the male Gleason’s necks jerked to look over at Yur’l along with the female. She was the first to find her voice.

“Yes, they won’t leave me alone. And won’t let me leave the alley,” she pleaded with Yur’l. “I told them I don’t have any money.”

“Who are you?” One of the poorly dressed males walked over to Yur’l, shaking his tail feathers. “You some kind of field employee or something?”

“Who, me?” Yur’l looked down at his tan trench coat and briefcase. He did look the part. It suddenly came to him that a lie in this particular instance might not be the worst thing he could offer. “Yes, that’s right. I’m a district employee. Now what’s going on here? I need you to stop harassing that young lady and move along.”

The woman tried squeezing by her group of assailants, but they weren’t convinced yet.

“Aren’t you kind of old to be a district officer?” the Gleason with the broken beak chirped.

“Yeah, where’s your badge?” the lead Gleason asked.

“Well, ummm…” That was all the bluffing Yur’l had in him. If he was honest with himself, he was surprised he had gotten this far on the initial lie. He looked at the young woman. “Run!”

Courage Yur’l had never possessed before sprang to life in his chest. He did the most heroic and stupidest thing he could think of. He lunged forward, putting his own body between the four male Gleasons and their prey.

The victim sprang forward as if she had been waiting for him to do something like this the entire time and hightailed it out of the alley. Yur’l, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky. The only thing he had going for him was the element of surprise. As feather hands reached for the female Gleason, Yur’l batted them away with his arms and the briefcase he still held in his right hand.

With practically no effort, Yur’l was knocked to the hard ground. His head bounced off the gravel, breaking his thin skin and sending a gush of blood down the right side of his face, staining his dappled feathers. He saw the back of the young female Gleason as she disappeared out of the alley’s mouth.

At least she got away, Yur’l told himself as he was hauled to his feet. Karl’yn would have been close to her same age if she were still alive.

“Get him to his feet,” the leader and balding Gleason told the others. “He’s going to pay for making us lose our score.”

Two of the other Gleason roughly grabbed Yur’l and hauled him to a standing position. Each one held an arm fast, their grip more than enough to pin back the elderly birdlike being. The Gleason with the broken beak picked up his brown briefcase and began opening the locks.

“No.” Yur’l was surprised by the strength in his voice. “That’s not for you.”

“Shut up, you old windbag.” The Gleason in front of him struck him across his short beak and then again in his stomach.

Yur’l sagged like a bag of bricks, sucking in wind. He was sure he had heard something crack in his ribs.

“Ummm, you birds might want to take a look at this,” the broken-beaked Gleason said to the others.

Through the pain and blood in his eyes, Yur’l could see the faces of his four attackers bathed in the purple light of the vambraces. Their eyes were wide in wonder as they looked to one another and then back to the vambraces.

Yur’l wasn’t sure where the fight came from; maybe it had always lived inside of him, maybe it was something that had developed over the years at the loss of his wife and daughter. Whatever it was woke inside of him now and pushed him back to his feet.

“Those aren’t yours,” Yur’l said, extending his feathered arms forward. The vambraces lifted from the case, maneuvering around the Gleason, and came to rest on his forearms.

“Are you all seeing this or am I high off those mulch crystals?” the lead Gleason asked his accomplices.

“I’m seeing it too,” the broken-beaked Gleason said. “Whatever they are, I bet they’re valuable. Get him!”

Yur’l wasn’t really sure what he was expecting. That the vambraces would automatically protect him, that he would be impervious to the oncoming blows? He wasn’t.

He tried to shield himself with the vambraces as well as he could, but after a pitiful few strikes to his head and body, he was bleeding more and on his knees again. Yur’l spat out a mouthful of blood. Breathing came hard and the soreness his body had already sustained was incapacitating.

“Just kill him and get this over with,” one of the other Gleasons said.

“You’re right.” The broken-beaked Gleason produced a shank from somewhere deep in the rear of his pants. “Time to die, old timer.”

Yur’l knew he had to have a concussion. Through the sweat and blood matted in the feathers around his eyes, he looked past the group of four Gleason down the mouth of the alley. A sort of large female reptile stood there. She glowed in purple light with vambraces of her own, and only one eye looked back at him. A metal patch covering the other eye reflected the ultraviolet light

The shank descended on Yur’l in slow motion. The thing was, it never reached his throat. Someone stopped it. An alien with short dark hair wearing jet black armor and leather vambraces of his own intervened. The stranger stopped the killing blow with his right hand clamping down on the Gleason’s.

The Gleason shrieked in pain as an audible popping sound accompanied the breaking of his hand in the newcomer’s grip.

“He’s with us,” the stranger said.


Jonathan Yanez Author Note

Well, we did it. I’m talking about you reading all three novels and myself along with JR Castle writing them. I’m sitting here at my kitchen table trying to think of the right words to write to you. I just finished my final pass of book three and the feeling is one part exhaustion the other peace. I guess that would be the right word.

I’m a raging force of “give me something to do” and when I’m working on a book, I drive myself to finish by channeling my will and getting the job done. You like what I did there? I’ve been working seven days a week along with training at the gym four times a week and taking care of my little Arilion Knight fulltime and I am ready for a break.

Hold up. Actually, I am going to go back and write an epilogue piece for this book to give you a little teaser of what is in store next for Frank and the gang. After that, then I’ll take a breather, maybe watch some shows I’ve been putting on the back burner like the Shannara Chronicles season two or Jessica Jones season two, or sleep, yeah, sleep would be nice.

Knowing me, I’ll be bored of TV or video games after a day or two off from writing and get back into it. Next on my writing hit list is a free short story to give away. I want to do a free short in the Gateway to the Galaxy series showing what the first Chaos War looked like or maybe other Arilion Knights and how they trained.

One of my good author friends has expressed interest in writing in this new universe. She brings a huge following with her. She’s an amazing person and writer and I hope everything goes well and we can get her books out soon.

I have another book I want to write in this universe with the Arilion Knight from Earth. If you remember, Frank is the Arilion Knight chosen on Atmos. Wouldn’t it be cool to see who is protecting our world? I think so too.

Those projects will keep me busy for a few months, but then I have to dive into the second trilogy in our main series. What would books four through six look like in Gateway to the Galaxy? Maybe a rival Knight faction would emerge? Maybe a different color vambrace could be forged? You didn’t hear that from me. Shhhhh…

Life outside of writing right now is redoing our yards and preparing for my daughter’s two year birthday. Jo (Josephine) is going to have an old school circus themed birthday. Not freaky clowns, but old, old school like when the circus first started with the strong man and the guy with the red coat and top hat.

I installed sprinklers in the backyard and we’re going to put in new grass. When we first moved into our home just over two years ago, we wanted to work on the inside before doing the backyard and front lawn. I suffer from the disease of not wanting to pay someone else for something I can do myself. Yeahhhh, about that. Putting in sprinklers was a beast. Chopping down, digging up the tree in our backyard was a test of my own will. I did both, but I think I’m going to bite the bullet and pay for someone to lay the sod in the backyard and mulch my front yard. I’d rather spend that time with my family and working on our next book.

If you’ve been reading my author notes, you know I always end with the same invitation to connect. Without readers and friends like you, I’m a writer trying to support his family. With my pack, I’m able to do just that. I have two options for you to stay in the loop.

1) I have a private group on Facebook I created for all of us to hang out. There are over a hundred likeminded readers who enjoy everything you do. We’re there just sharing cool new books, movies and the occasional meme. Join The Pack here https://www.facebook.com/groups/1944447962437071/

2) I know some readers don’t like using Facebook and/or would rather just receive an email with info when new books are out. I totally get that. If you’d like to be part of The Pack via our newsletter, you can go to www.jonathan-yanez.com and join the ranks.

Well, I’m off to tuck Jo in and pass out as soon as my head hits the pillow. I’m grateful for you wolves out there. It’s because of you supporting my writing that I can do what I love for a living.

See you on the other side,

Jonathan

Gateway to the Galaxy Universe: The Complete Military Space Opera Series (Books 1 - 9)

Gateway to the Galaxy Universe: The Complete Military Space Opera Series (Books 1 - 9)

Gateway to the Galaxy Universe: The Complete Military Space Opera Series (Books 1 - 9)


JR Castle Author Note

There’s no such thing as a one-man army. It takes a village to raise a child (finding this out the not-so-easy way). And apparently, it takes a team to break some Amazon records.

With the diligent work of my co-author, support of family, artwork from one talented artist, fastidious editors, and the enthusiastic help of some fantastic Reading Wolves, Gateway to the Galaxy’s first series has had books in the top of the charts for these first few weeks. Not going to lie, I’m impressed.

Want to know something even crazier? I was on Amazon’s top 100 Kindle Sci Fi authors. Me. With my first series. Because of YOU. Fantastic, guys! You made my year epic and it’s only March. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

So what’s next, you may ask. Well, my crazy co-author wants to hit the grind again. I tried to explain that I can’t remember the last time I showered or slept. He insisted I smelled fine and handed me another cup of coffee. After some negotiation, we agreed to draft the next three books in Frank Wolffe’s story to have them released soon. All is right in the world.

Well, if we’re being honest, all is NOT right in the world. I won’t wax poetic on the state of the United States, of world politics, of the great divide in the Human Development Index, human trafficking, or the environment. But, what I will say is that I’m thankful for the brief moments we can escape to faraway lands and galaxies. Whether it be Middle Earth, Oberon galaxy, Jumanji, Coral or even streets of pure gold, we can take a moment to be somewhere else–or be someone else–before jumping back to reality and maybe do one thing to make the world around us just a little better.

Frank had to grapple with a similar personal conundrum. Would he dismiss the possibilities that lay beyond the life he knew and had created, would he say, “Not my monkeys, not my circus” and leave the edge of the galaxy to the hands of the Lord of Chaos, would he fall ninety-nine times and stay down? Or, would he rise up on that 100th round and say, “Send me–I’ll be the difference maker”? Fortunately for Frank, this battle was a classic light-versus-dark story. It won’t always be that clear cut. Life isn’t clear cut.

We hope to put him through the wringer in this next series arc. I’m looking forward to the suffering, perseverance, character, and, ultimately, the hope to come. I know you are too.

We’ve shared so much. If you’d like to stay in touch, I’d be honored. Connect with me via email here.

Goodbye my loooove,

jr castle

Gateway to the Galaxy Universe: The Complete Military Space Opera Series (Books 1 - 9)

Gateway to the Galaxy Universe: The Complete Military Space Opera Series (Books 1 - 9)


The Academy Book One of the New Arilion Knights Series


Acknowledgments


If you think this book is awesome at all it’s only because I have a pack of rabid ARC Wolves, a wonderful editor and a talented cover artist. Thank you for your help.

ARC WOLVES

Kelly

Athena

Eagle Eyes

Lois

Editor - Kimberly Grenfell

Cover Illustrator - Christian Bentulan











For everyone who has gotten knocked down and refused to stay there. This one is for you.

- Jonathan Yanez


Prologue

“We have to go now.”

“She knows that. For pity’s sake, give her a moment.”

Tistan Duel ignored the arguing voices of her two companions. All that was in her blurred vision was the sight of her newborn daughter. Compared to the small miracle she cuddled in her arms, the rest of the world fell away into a quiet oblivion.

Her daughter was asleep and perfectly content, her tiny chest rising and falling in a peaceful rhythm. How a blanket so small could contain something so pure was lost on Tistan. How a being so helpless and fragile had the power to brighten her day or fill her heart with hope for the future was a mystery.

A war was being waged deep inside Tistan. On one side, what she knew she must do. On the opposite side, motherly instinct begging her to abandon all reason.

If not for a simple truth, her decision would remain deadlocked. But the truth was glaring her in the face: her daughter would have no place amongst her mother’s people. She would be looked on as a half-breed. What kind of life would she have? It was only Tistan’s inability to say goodbye that made her still embrace the bundle in her arms.

“I’ll always be watching over you,” Tistan whispered. She nuzzled the baby’s tiny nose with her own. “I love you with everything I am, my star.”

The warrior spirit living in Tistan was humbled and then broken in that moment. What dozens of enemies and battles failed to achieve was accomplished by the most unsuspecting of infants. Hot tears fell down Tistan’s cheeks and onto chubby feet below.

Further words were unnecessary. If they were, Tistan didn’t have them. Tistan understood it was time. She pulled the soft, pink blanket over the exposed feet of her daughter.

A hollow feeling, as if her insides were being carved out, consumed Tistan. She placed her daughter in the crib. Leaning over the railing, she kissed the baby on the brow one last time.

Tistan’s lips left the soft forehead of her daughter. The baby released a contented sigh from her tiny lungs, followed by the tiniest fart that ever existed.

No one had to tell Tistan; she would never be able to love another being like this again. Perhaps she would be capable of love one day, but not like this. Never like this.

“The sleeping potion we gave her mate will wear off soon,” Drown’s harsh voice came once again. “Our window of opportunity is closing.”

“Tistan.” Slain placed a gentle hand onto her shoulder. “We must be going soon. Take comfort that you are doing the best thing for your daughter. She’ll grow up in a world she understands, with a father who loves her.”

Tistan turned from the crib, abandoning not only her newborn daughter, but also the very best part of her. “Let’s go.”

Without another word, the spies exited the home and disappeared into the night.


1

Fifteen Years Later

I need to talk to you. I’ll meet you tonight, where you gaze at the stars.

That was it. Emma stared at her phone, half confused there wasn’t more to the message, half in shock anyone had texted her at all. Mrs. Debbie Drawls, the English teacher, carried on, oblivious to any snoozing student or side conversations taking place in the classroom.

Emma swallowed hard. She could list on one hand the number of names in her phone and one of them was her own. What was more concerning was the number the text message had been sent from. A “0” was the only clue to the identity of her mystery person.

How did this person know where she looked up at the stars? Not even her father knew how many times she stole to the top of their roof, wrapped in a blanket to enjoy the wonder that came with the night sky.

Sweat dampened Emma’s palms as she texted the number back. The phone was inconspicuously placed in her lap below her desk, barely visible if she tilted her head down at just the right angle.

Sorry, I think you have the wrong number.

There. That should be the end of that, right? Emma took a deep breath, surprised by how a single text could pull her into such a state of panic. Emma licked dry lips. She took a deep breath, readjusting her attention on Mrs. Drawls. She moved to place her phone back into her pocket. Before she could, it vibrated again.

I know this is confusing, Emma. Trust me, I’m a friend.

A gasp escaped her lips, bringing all eyes in the room zeroing in on her. Emma felt heat rise to her face. What she wouldn’t give to sink into her seat, or better yet, become invisible altogether. So far this year, she had managed just that. But not now.

“What was that Miss… Miss…” Mrs. Drawls hesitated while she searched her databanks for Emma’s last name.

How much of an outcast did you have to be for your own teacher not to remember your name?

“J-Jackson.” Emma cleared her throat. “It … it’s Emma Jackson.”

“Of course.” Mrs. Drawls shrugged off the topic as if she’d remembered her name all along. “Miss Jackson, did you have something you wanted to share with the rest of us?”

“No … no, ma’am.” Emma wished for the hundredth time any kind of public speaking required of her wasn’t accompanied by shaky words. “I-I’m sorry.”

Snickering rolled through the class just above a whisper.

“You’re a good student.” Mrs. Drawls turned back to her famous rant that followed the final exam of the year. “Don’t ruin it on the last day of class.”

Out of her peripheral vision, Emma caught sight of Amber and Christina, the two girls who sat next to her who were now sharing a quiet laugh. The latest form of cyber bullying to wash over Triton High School was seeing who could snap a picture and create a cruel meme the fastest.

Amber was openly showing her latest meme—a picture of Emma taken only seconds ago while she spoke with Mrs. Drawls. The image was of her side profile, her uncharacteristically pointed ears peeking through long, blonde hair. The caption read, “Um … um, my ears are s-sorry, too.”

Emma took a deep, internal sigh. What was better: to be bullied at school, or not to have anyone take notice of you at all? For the longest time, Emma had prayed for the latter. Now that she had achieved anonymity, she wasn’t so sure. There were only two days left of freshman year and Emma hadn’t made a single friend. None who would last. At least there was always the janitor, Alan, who had a smile for everyone, or the obligatory lab partner who spoke only when spoken to.

The school bell rang, drowning out Mrs. Drawls. Students who seemed almost catatonic while school was in session now moved like lightning to pack up their books and head for the door.

“Remember,” Mrs. Drawls said closing her own book, “even though you are done with my final, you still have one more day left of class. Study diligently and apply yourselves.”

Emma gathered her belongings and moved into the current of swarming students mobbing the school halls. Everyone was in a hurry to meet up with friends. Dozens of conversations erupted all around Emma, most on who planned to do what for the coming summer vacation.

As always, Emma walked by herself, catching bits and pieces of passing chatter.

“Did you hear Julie Anne’s parents have a timeshare on the river…”

“Donna and Shirley are coming, too. I wonder if their boyfriends will make it…”

Emma had a clear view of the front doors. She was a half-head taller than most girls her age, yet another reason she had been singled out at the beginning of the school year to be the brunt of jokes.

Before she knew it, Emma was outside. Hot California sun beamed down on her. Her sneakers carried her down the sidewalk to her home, undisturbed. She still couldn’t tell whether she enjoyed living three blocks from her high school or not. The short trip made for extra sleep in the morning but allowed for little excuse if she was ever tardy.

Her mind wandered back to the cryptic text messages she received while in class. If it was a mistake, how had the person known her name? Could that also be a coincidence, that they’d guessed her name? What were the odds of that?

For a brief moment, Emma thought about sending another text, but her father’s voice interrupted her train of thought.

“There she is. How was school today, Killer? Did you crack a few skulls?”

“Oh, yeah, Dad, that’s exactly what I did.”

“That’s my girl.” Mr. Jackson straddled a ladder near the front door, a power drill in one hand, a small camera in the other.

“Trying to catch your mystery man?” Emma stopped by the ladder, placing both hands on a chest high rung to steady her father’s slight sway. “You know, it could be a woman. You should just invite her in. When’s the last time you went out on a date?”

The whirl of the drill brought a pause to the conversation.

“There.” Mr. Jackson looked down at his daughter with a mischievous grin. “How do you know I haven’t been sneaking off on dates? I’ll have you know, Miss Starling thinks I’m quite a catch.”

“Our ninety-year-old neighbor, Miss Starling?” Emma returned her father’s playful grin. “I think that’s just her cataracts talking, Dad.”

“I know.” Mr. Jackson climbed down the ladder and took a step back to admire his work. “If only she were fifty years younger.”

“Ewww, that’s so gross.” Emma shook her head, her previous grin twisting into a grimace. “Too far.”

Mr. Jackson shrugged. “Well, my dating life aside, if there’s anyone creeping around here at night, we’ll catch them now. I installed a light on the other corner. It’ll go off if it detects motion.”

“Cameras, motion-detecting lights … what’s next, a home security system?”

“Don’t tempt me.” Mr. Jackson had that look on his face again, the one not exactly worried but intrigued.

“You thought you saw a shadow a few times.” Emma walked to the front door. “But that was all. It was probably nothing.”

“Maybe.” Mr. Jackson crossed his arms. “But you said you felt it, too. Like someone’s been watching us.”

Emma’s hand paused midway to the door, a snarky remark already on her lips, though the truth in what her father said had silenced her.


2

“Have you given any more thought on how you want to spend your summer?” The question Mr. Jackson asked was the beginning of an ongoing debate between father and daughter, one that still had no peaceful conclusion. “There’s plenty of hip camps, or you could always get a totally cool part-time job.”

“You’re butchering the dialect of my youth.” Emma looked up from her desk where she sat, studying for her finals. “I don’t know yet.”

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” Mr. Jackson said, walking into his daughter’s room and flopped, face-up, on her bed. “But you need to get out more. I can’t believe I’m saying this, maybe get into some trouble.”

“Wait, what?” Emma turned in her seat to give him her full attention. The image of her bearded, muscular father lying on her pink down comforter brought a smile to her lips. “You want me to get arrested?”

“Hey.” Her father sat bolt upright as if Emma’s words had sent a current of electricity through him. “I didn’t say get into trouble with the law. I’m just saying get out, make some friends, come home an hour later than curfew. Heck, who are we kidding, Em? At least stay out until curfew.”

“Oh boy, here we go.” Emma turned back to studying. “We’re about to embark on the whole ‘making friends is good for you’ talk, aren’t we?”

In a small, circular mirror she kept on her dresser, Emma could see her father get up from her bed and walk toward her. He placed his hands on her shoulders and kissed the back of her head.

“I love you, kid, but if you don’t bring a friend or two home soon, I’m going to start having to make some for you.” Mr. Jackson caught her eye in the mirror with a sly smile. “And who knows how that will go? I might even get arrested for trying to befriend high school freshmen. Just tell me you’ll give some serious thought to a camp or a job this summer. It’ll be good for you, Em, trust me.”

“I’ll give it a shot.” Emma placed her right hand on top of her father’s. “Oh, and Dad, can you promise me one thing?”

It was clear the request had caught her father off guard. The silly grin disappeared from his lips and his eyes met his daughter’s, full of concern. “What is it, Em?”

“Can you let me do the cooking for tomorrow night’s dinner? My colon could really use a break from your famous Shepherd’s Surprise.”

“I would if ‘doing the cooking’ meant something other than calling for a pizza.” Mr. Jackson gave his daughter another kiss before walking to the door. “You’re lucky you’re cute, kid. You’d starve without me.”

“If I call for pizza, I am technically making dinner.”

“Debatable. Don’t stay up too late studying. You’re going to ace the tests anyway.” Mr. Jackson left the room.

“How do you know that?”

“Because you’re Emma Jackson,” her father said, his voice carrying down the hall behind him.


3

It was late before Emma closed her final book. Tired eyes focused on the impossible time glaring back at her from her phone: 11:15. Emma stood and stretched on tiptoes, extending her arms high overhead, and let out a deep sigh only hours of studying can bring.

Despite her body’s call for slumber, Emma walked toward her window. It was a clear, warm southern California night, one of those rare nights where the stars were bright despite the suburban city lights. Emma grabbed a light blanket from the foot of her bed for comfort rather than warmth.

She unlatched her second-story window, which provided her a bird’s-eye view over her neighborhood and into the secret lives of her neighbors. Emma’s mind wandered to memories of the neighbor across the street, Mr. Calhoon, a widower who sat with a bottle of whiskey and his wife’s picture almost every night.

Or there was Mrs. Buchterdon, a large woman who lived next to Mr. Calhoon and insisted on wearing the smallest workout outfits she could find while doing aerobics with the blinds open.

Emma felt a shudder race across her body that had nothing to do with the weather.

“Some things you just can’t unsee,” Emma said out loud as she stepped out onto the roof tiles.

Many people would be frightened to journey onto a roof after the sun went down. Footing was tricky; visibility, worse. Emma would be one of these people if she had not followed this exact routine for the last five years.

She was quiet so as to not wake her father, although Emma had a sneaking suspicion that he knew all along. It would be just like him to allow her time to herself and act surprised if and when she ever decided to tell him.

Emma could find her favorite spot on the roof if she were blindfolded. The dark grey shingles protecting the roof from the elements were a welcome sight. Emma reached her favorite spot, a perch just above her own window, where this section of the roof met the brick chimney.

The firmness of the chimney was a comfortable reminder she was safe despite her precarious position. Emma sat down, the blanket loosely over her shoulders. She let out a deep sigh as she stared out into the night sky.

From her childhood, Emma had had a fascination with stars and planets. As she grew older, the solar system on her bedroom ceiling and the pop-up books of the cosmos in her bookshelf were left behind, but the intrigue of the unknown was as strong as ever. Emma felt the social anxiety of school and the stress of exams melt as her eyes played over the many constellations she knew by heart. Even her father’s insistence she find friends, or something to do with her summer, paled in comparison to her view. Emma loved her father and knew he was only trying to help; still, her introverted disposition registered these topics of conversation as tension.

Emma was so wrapped up in the stars above, she failed to notice the figure next to her until it was too late.

“Don’t panic, or you’re going to fall off the roof,” spoke a woman’s voice strangely familiar to Emma, from somewhere to her left.

Despite the warning, Emma felt her body jolt. Fear raced down her spine as her heartbeat intensified. The fight-or-flight conundrum was realized and satisfied at once with an answer of flight.

Streetlights and illumination from the moon and stars provided just enough light to see a tall figure wrapped in shadows.

Emma rose on shaky legs, her back pressed so hard into the brick chimney, she thought she could feel sharp edges digging through her blanket and clothes and into her skin.

At once, the memories of the cryptic texts she received earlier that day flooded back. She should have taken them more seriously. How could she have forgotten them altogether?

“Who … who are you?” Emma managed to say over the sound of her own racing heart. “You were the one texting me today.”

“I did send you those messages.” The woman took a small, nonthreatening step forward. “As for who I am, showing you would be better, but you have to do your best not to scream. If not for your sake, then for your father’s.”

Emma got a better look at her visitor. The woman wasn’t wrapped in shadows; rather, it was a long, hooded cloak. The material was like nothing she had ever seen. It remained still, only adjusting when the woman moved forward. Its color was impossible to tell, but it seemed to change and blend in with the colors around it.

Something the woman had said bothered Emma, to the point she felt anger rise in her chest. “What do you mean, ‘for my father’s sake’?”

“Only that it would be difficult to explain my presence to him. I mean him no harm.”

“Well, who are you?” Emma repeated, her mind already racing to find an escape route. Would it be best to try to make it back into her room? A fall from her roof if she had to jump wouldn’t kill her, would it? “What do you want?”

The woman in front of her reached up and removed her hood.

Emma’s mouth dropped open despite herself. Her legs felt weak. Before she knew what was happening, she was sliding back down the chimney wall.

The woman in front of her wasn’t human at all. Light orange skin covered sharp human-like features. Pointed ears even more severe than Emma’s poked up through a mess of dark orange hair.

“My name is Tistan Duel. I am your mother. I’ve come to take you home.”


4

“You are … I am…” Emma put a hand to her stomach where a deep gurgle erupted. “What did my dad put in that shepherd’s pie?”

“Excuse me?” Tistan took another step forward.

“Nothing.” Emma swallowed hard before regaining her footing. The woman was taller than she’d first thought; six, maybe six-and-a-half feet tall. Dark eyes stared back at her with intrigue.

“I understand this must be a shock for you.” Tistan took a deep sigh, searching for words. “I will explain things to you later. Right now, we must return to—”

“I’m not going anywhere with you.” Emma’s voice came out higher-pitched than she would have liked. “Are you even human? Why would I believe that you’re my mother? I’m still asleep, aren’t I? This is some kind of mental breakdown or nightmare. Maybe my dad was right. Maybe I need to get out more.”

“I am not human. I am a Halyna from the planet Renia. Sixteen years ago, I was sent here along with two other infiltrators to assess Earth. I fell in love with your father. We were married despite my understanding it was forbidden. When the mission was over and I was called back, I made a decision to return, a decision I have regretted every single day since then.”

“Well, you just have an answer for everything, don’t you?” Emma felt the return of the anger she had experienced when she thought her father was being threatened. “My mother was human. She left just after I was born, without so much as a letter.”

Tistan Duel touched her own pointed ears, then pointed to Emma’s. “Yes, I did. And you are every part my daughter, from your features, to the warrior spirit that burns inside you now.”

Emma’s mind was doing cartwheels. This couldn’t be possible, but what other options did she have? Could she—would she—open her mind to the unthinkable truth that this orange-skinned woman could be her mother?

“I’ve played this scenario through in my mind a million times or more.” Tistan shook her head. “None of them work out with your forgiving or believing me right away. Do believe this: that I have come to check on you and your father whenever I can, that I do care for you, Emma, and that I’m here now to protect you.”

“Protect me? Protect me from what?”

“An enemy known as the Shay has taken an interest in Earth. When they come, your planet will fall. Your military is not equipped to handle the invasion. I’ve secured safe transportation to my planet for you.

“Well, that’s just way too much for me to process right now.” Emma shook her head against the oncoming migraine, but the action only made the pain intensify. “Wait, what about my dad? You’re not taking him, too?”

“I can only take one of you at a time.” So far in the conversation, Tistan was nothing short of commanding and blunt. She faltered now, looking down as if suddenly there was something interesting on the roof tiles. “I’m still securing an exit strategy for him.”

“No way.” Emma crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m not leaving my father or—I can’t believe I’m even saying this—my planet.”

Tistan Duel narrowed her eyes at Emma. She crossed her own arms in a similar fashion. “I’m the Captain of intelligence for the Alliance forces, Emma Jackson, a multi-planet coalition formed to combat the Shay. I am not used to my orders being denied or even second-guessed.”

“Well, that sucks for you.” Emma met Tistan’s stare head-on although she couldn’t stop her voice from trembling. “E-Earth’s not part of this alliance, and I’m not one of your minions. I’m not going with you, even if you are my mother.”

The two women stood staring at one another. Emma could tell Tistan was capable of overpowering her if she desired. Even though the cloak covered most of her body, it did not soften the hard lines of a muscular build. It did nothing to mask the intensity in her eyes.

“You are impossibly stubborn, Emma Jackson.” Tistan shook her head. “Forcing you to come with me will do neither one of us any good.”

Emma was revisiting the thought of throwing herself off the roof and hoping for the best, when another idea crossed her mind.

“I get Earth isn’t in this alliance of yours, but why don’t you come and defend us from the Shay?”

“Planets and their inhabitants must be able to defend themselves.” Tistan dismissed the question as if it were one she had already thought of and had to answer herself. “It must be humans who defend their own home.”

“I … I can do it,” Emma spoke, without actually thinking about the repercussions her words would bring.

“That would be unlikely, although I do admire your spirit. The Arilion Knights are the only ones powerful enough to combat the Shay empire in a direct confrontation. Word of their return to the universe has only just reached our ears.”

“I can learn,” Emma said a little too loudly.

Both women halted the conversation to listen for any sound from within the home signaling they had been heard. In the interim, Emma could hear the steady gallop of her own heartbeat. What was she doing? Volunteering to fight for Earth, when she couldn’t even make a single friend all year? Her body was made for unicorn frappuccinos and video games, not training to defend an entire planet.

The silence lengthened until Tistan spoke again.

“You are stubborn like your father.” Tistan held Emma’s eye until it passed from ordinary to uncomfortable. “However, there may be a way.”

Emma’s brain felt like a beehive of activity. There were so many emotions coming and going, and coming again, she couldn’t hold on to more than two or three at a time. Foremost among these were fear, anger, and confusion. At the moment, fear and anger were taking a backseat to confusion.

“If … if I believe this crazy story you’re weaving … I can’t even believe I’m saying this … that you’re an alien and my mother, I should be pretty pissed at you.” For the first time that night, Emma was allowing herself to believe Tistan Duel’s explanation of things. “Growing up without a mom has been hard. I’ve played this scenario out in my mind a thousand times, and none of them allowed for you being orange, but most of them end with me yelling at you, a few where I even say a curse word or two to show you I mean business.”

“I’m not here asking for forgiveness.” Tistan reclaimed her stoic, commanding voice once more. “But if you are willing to fight for your planet, I have a way this can be done. When the Shay attack, they will send a minor reconnaissance team. This team will be small enough for one well-trained warrior to turn. If the Shay deem Earth too costly to overtake, they will move on to another planet.”

Emma swallowed hard. This wasn’t the first time her mouth had landed her in a corner. Already she was having second thoughts. What was she thinking? That she alone could stop an alien invasion?

“There is a place called The Academy where those seeking to defend their planets and the universe from threats such as the Shay learn to hone their skills. Now that the Arilion Order has returned perhaps a few Arilion will even be chosen from the Academy’s ranks.” Tistan tilted her head skyward as if she could see past the visible stars into a much larger universe. “If you begin your training immediately, you should know enough in time to turn the invasion.”

“Okay w-well maybe I spoke too soon, there,” Emma said, trying to keep the stutter out of her voice. “I’m no warrior, I … I don’t even like talking to strangers. Even ordering fast food gives me anxiety.”

“You seemed fine up until now.” Tistan returned her gaze to her daughter. “Perhaps you are only remembering to be frightened and insecure because it is what you imagine you should feel.”

“Nope, nope, I’m pretty sure I’m actually feeling it.” Emma racked her brain for the many reasons she couldn’t go. Despite her efforts, she was surprised to find the possibility of traveling into space exciting. “I mean, I have my last day of finals tomorrow. My dad wants me to get a job or go to a summer camp. My schedule is actually pretty full, now that I think of it.”

“Your finals end tomorrow. I will come collect you here the day after tomorrow. Eight a.m. by your time. Your father wants you to join a camp for the summer? That is the perfect cover for your training.”

“You’re talking like you didn’t hear what I just said.” Emma shook her head furiously as adrenaline coursed through her veins. Emma felt sick to her stomach. “I can’t go. Even if I did, I’m not a fighter.”

“Of course you are, Emma.” Tistan slipped one slender hand from her cloak, revealing what looked like a thick, metal watch on her wrist. “You don’t know how great you are, because you’ve never been required to be. As my daughter, you hail from the most brutal warrior line on Renia. I’ll send you information tomorrow to a space camp your father will approve. The day after tomorrow, don’t be late.”

“No … no that’s not the end of the conversation. I—”

Tistan swiped the pointer finger of her right hand over the watch on her left wrist. There was a brief moment where a soft light twinkled around her, and then she was gone.

Emma stood on the roof by herself, stunned by the course of the night, hating herself for what she had already decided had to be done.


5

“Space camp, huh?” Emma’s father poured himself a generous amount of coffee into a travel mug. “That’s wonderful, Em. This is what I’m talking about. Get out there, have some fun. Where is it?”

Emma sat at the kitchen table, shoveling her sugar-laced cereal into her mouth like an engineer feeding coal into a train’s furnace while the conductor screamed for more speed.

“Oh, it’s not too far. I’ll send you all the information today so you can look it over. I’m running late for school.” Emma said a silent prayer that her years of being a good daughter would pay off now. She hated lying to her father, but wasn’t willing to put him in harm’s way. “If you think it’s okay that I go, I’ll have to leave tomorrow morning.”

“Tomorrow?” Mr. Jackson’s eyes lit up in surprise, and for the first time, suspicion lined his words. “Why do you have to leave tomorrow, Em? This is kind of sudden, isn’t it?”

“I know.” Emma took a steady breath, reciting the answer she so carefully planned. “I just discovered the program last night. Trust me, I was surprised myself that it existed. It’ll give me a chance to study the stars and galaxies. You know how much I love that stuff.”

Mr. Jackson shrugged on his own backpack. Despite being a history teacher at the local community college, he still preferred the backpack over a briefcase.

Emma knew he was taking the time to think on his daughter’s words. Mr. Jackson turned and held Emma’s gaze.

More than anything, Emma hated having to stare into his eyes, knowing she had told a lie. It wasn’t a total lie, though. Tistan did appear last night, and she was surprised to find out what the alien had to say. She was going to study stars.

Mr. Jackson finally broke the silence. “Send me the info. If everything checks out, I don’t have a problem with you going. You’re a good kid, Em, better than I was. I want you to have a great summer.”

The words were like knives slicing through her soul. Emma broke her father’s gaze by getting up and taking her bowl to the sink. Her breakfast felt like a lump of guilt in her stomach.

“Thanks, Dad.” Emma turned on the sink to rinse off her bowl and spoon. “It means a lot.”

“You got it, Killer.” Mr. Jackson opened the front door. “Want a lift to school?”

“It’s three blocks.”

“I’m just trying to be polite.”


6

Emma’s final day of exams passed in a hazy fog. Gone was all of the anxiety of knowing answers or finishing within the allotted time. Emma’s brain was fixated on other things now, like a mother she never knew and an alien force coming to assess Earth’s defenses.

During the few minutes Emma had between her math exam and her science test, she received a text message from the now not-so-mysterious, yet still far from normal number “0.”

A façade for a summer youth camp focusing on the universe has been created. You can direct your father to the attached link without hesitation.

That was it. No “Hey, it’s your alien mom who scared you on the roof last night,” or “Sorry about abandoning you at birth, but here you go.”

The part of Emma that wasn’t grappling with the hundreds of questions that still needed answers was debating whether or not to text Tistan back. Instead, she copied the link and sent it to her father. Hopefully, he would approve, and then Emma’s problems could really begin.

The rest of the day dragged by. Emma was more than prepared for her exams, but the nagging question of any of this really mattering kept prodding at her. If she failed and aliens came to the Earth and destroyed it, then what would it matter if she got an A or an F in science?

Finally, her day ended, and like any other, Emma found herself walking home alone. Over and over again, the events of the previous night played in her mind. How Tistan had seemed so matter-of-fact and not motherly at all. How she had told Emma she heralded from an ancient line of warriors, and about this Academy.

If the Academy was anything like high school, Emma guessed she could learn quickly. The social and physical aspect of the equation was anyone’s guess. Could she adapt more gracefully into an alien school than her own suburban high school?

“You look like your mind’s a million light years away.” Miss Starling, their ninety-year-old neighbor, was outside talking to her father. “Must be all that late night talk with the orange woman that’s got you in a fuss.”

Emma opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

“Orange woman?” Mr. Jackson looked from Miss Starling to Emma. “Is that some kind of inside joke you two have?”

Emma’s jaw worked up and down, but still no words escaped. The best she could do was a shrug and an awkward laugh.

“Oh, you know the youth of today, Richard.” Miss Starling ran a hand that resembled more a claw with acrylic red nails down Mr. Jackson’s shirt. “Into all kinds of strange things. But enough about that. When are you going to come over and take a look at my stove, like you’ve been promising?”

Panic evaporated, then was replaced by nausea as Emma got a handle on what Miss Starling was implying. Since the conversation changed, Emma got a look at the low top the woman was wearing.

“Well, you know I’ve been so busy with work, I—”

“Hey, Dad, can you come inside? I really need to talk to you about that camp I mentioned this morning.”

“Oh right, the camp.” Mr. Jackson waved apologetically to Miss Starling. “Got to get going, but it was great seeing you. Maybe I can check on that stove another time.”

“Well, don’t take too long, honey.” Miss Starling waved with her red nailed claw. “This stove isn’t going to stay warm forever.”

Emma entered the house, followed by her father. He closed the door and locked it, as if he half-expected Miss Starling to walk through behind them.

“I owe you one.” Mr. Jackson smiled. “That was perfect timing.”

“It was either save you or disown you as my father.” Emma turned a mock frown of disapproval at her dad. “Or did you want to be saved at all?”

“Hey, I’m not interested in working on any stove made in the 1920’s.”

“Yuck. Okay, enough of this.” Emma couldn’t help laughing as she shook her head. “Did you get a chance to look at the summer camp?”

“Sure did. Even gave them a call and checked all their references.”

“Oh. Really, you did all that, huh? What, ah—what did they say when you called them?”

“Only that you were being way too modest.” Mr. Jackson headed to the fridge, looking for a snack. “You didn’t tell me you were requested by the camp. What was it? They choose a few students every year and invite them to participate?”

“Uh … yeah.” Emma fidgeted with the tip of her right ear. It was a nervous habit she had picked up over the years. Always self-conscious about her appearance, she did her best to hide her ears behind a curtain of blonde hair. “Crazy, right? So everything checks out?”

Emma continued to play with the tip of her ear, only because her father had his back turned at the moment. He knew just as well as she did she performed the action when she was stressed or telling a lie.

“Yeah, you’re free to go. I feel safe knowing you’ll be able to check in every day and the camp is accredited for its program.” Mr. Jackson emerged from the fridge too late to see Emma’s hand fall to her side. “It’s only a few hours away. I’ll be there in no time at all if you need me.”

“Great, thanks, Dad.” Emma wrapped her arms around her father, heaving a huge sigh of relief. “I’ll be fine.”

“I’m sure you will, Em. One last thing.”

Emma stiffened under the weight of her father’s words. She hoped it would be a question she could answer.

“I couldn’t quite place the accent of the staff employee I talked to. Mr. Slain, was it?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.” Emma removed herself from the hug. She shrugged her way to the stairwell. “I’d better get packing, though. You know how teenage girls can be.”

And she left her father behind with a bewildered expression on his face.


7

That night, Emma’s dreams were invaded by what her subconscious imagined as the Shay. Dark figures full of teeth and nails chased her in an inky-black sky. Pinpricks of light were the only things giving off any glow. Stars too distant to do any real help illuminated her impossible run through space.

At every turn, Emma was met with long arms reaching for her. A voice like a hundred people whispering hounded her as she ran. It was a voice she had never heard, yet one she knew as well as her father’s.

“Do not interfere with our plans for Earth,” the haunting whispers said in unison. “Flee Halyna, half-blood, and your demise will be swift and painless. Stand in our way, and suffer an eternity of torment.”

To Emma’s surprise, anger at the audacity of the voice brought her run to a jog, then to a standstill. Yes, fear was very much present as she stood in space, confronting the coming Shay, but fear was outweighed by a courage she had only ever imagined.

A single, inky figure, more reptile than human, was barely visible in the darkness of space. It was taller than her, with yellow eyes. Large wings splayed out to either side of its menacing shoulders.

Again, Emma was impressed by the idea that she should be more frightened than she was. Whether it was terror rooting her to the spot, or some kind of courage, she stood her ground.

“Well, well, you truly must be Tistan Duel’s daughter to be so foolish.” The large reptile walked around her, examining her as one would a car for sale. “So much like your mother, even down to the pointy ears. I wonder what she’ll do when your plan fails and you die at the hands of the Shay?”

“I … I won’t die.” Emma’s hands clenched. “And neither will Tistan.”

“Still unwilling to call her your mother?” the shadow teased, still walking in a slow circle around her. “Not much of a mother at all, I suppose. More of a stranger who brought you into this world and then abandoned you.”

“What … what is it that you want?” Emma grimaced. Even in her dream, she was having a hard time not stuttering. This was a dream, wasn’t it?

“As I said, all I want is for you to stay on the sidelines during the coming invasion. You and your father will be spared the fate that Earth is destined to.”

“That’s, not going t-to happen.” Emma’s mouth was dry. Trying to get out words was not only difficult, but it was also downright painful. “I’ll s-stop you.”

A roar of laughter tumbled out of the Shay’s mouth. Emma cringed at the horrible sound, then forced herself to stand tall. She understood how bullies operated. They poked and prodded until they found vulnerability. As soon as they detected a chink in your armor, there was no stopping them.

The laughing finally faded into the vast openness of space. Without warning, the Shay lunged at her, grabbing her arms and pinning them to her sides.

“I will consume you, then. Your father first, as you watch, and then piece by piece we’ll take your body until what remains will be tossed aside like an empty husk.”

Despite herself, Emma let out a scream, half in terror, half in frustration. The creature’s grip was too strong for her to break free.

“We are coming, half-blood.” The Shay lowered its head to her own until she could feel hot breath against her cheek. “And we will destroy your planet.”

At once, Emma woke. Her father was sitting beside her bed, shaking her.

“Emma. Emma!” Mr. Jackson’s face was lined with worry. “Wake up. It’s okay. It’s me.”

Emma panted as if she had just run a mile. Her shoulders shuddered at the memory of the nightmare. The dream had felt so real, even though at no point had she ever actually believed it was going on.

“I’m … I’m okay, Dad.” Emma took a long, deep breath to compose herself. “It was just a bad dream.”

“You’re telling me.” Mr. Jackson let go of his daughter’s shoulders and stroked her wet hair. “You were sweating and everything. Must have been one heck of a dream. Too many late night zombie movies?”

“Yeah, something like that.” Emma reached over to her nightstand and lifted her phone. It was twenty minutes to the agreed upon time when Tistan Duel would be coming to collect Emma. “Aren’t you late for work?”

“I was headed into your room to say goodbye, when you started screaming.” Mr. Jackson pulled his daughter in for a hug. “Are you sure you’re okay? You still feel up to going to camp?”

Her father’s embrace, much like her rooftop view, was one of the few places Emma felt at peace. She hugged him back, her arms feeling so small in the space of his wide chest and torso. She needed to remember this moment. Drawing on her father would be important if she was going to go through and succeed at the Academy.

“I’m fine. I’m still going.” Emma finally released her grip and looked into her father’s green eyes. “You need to get going, too.”

“I know.” Mr. Jackson leaned in to kiss his daughter on the forehead one final time before turning to leave. “I love you, Em. Check in every day, and if you need anything, you know all you have to do is ask.”

“I love you, too, Dad.” Emma waited to hear her father’s footsteps going down the stairs, then the door open and close behind him, before she whispered, “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”


8

In the minutes that remained before Tistan’s arrival, Emma jumped into the shower then dragged her suitcase and backpack downstairs. She wasn’t sure what to bring to an interplanetary school teaching students to become cosmic warriors, but she guessed she would need clean underwear and a toothbrush. These thoughts led to shirts, pants, sweaters, shoes, boots, and so on.

Emma heaved her belongings down the stairs. A nagging feeling itched at the back of her mind, telling her she’d forgotten something though refusing to admit what it was.

A figure moved to her left. Emma gasped. She released her suitcases, allowing them to fall to the floor with a heavy thud.

Tistan Duel stood in her father’s study. It was Emma’s first look at the woman not masked by shadow or wearing a cloak. She was tall, with hard edges of muscle running across her arms. She wore her orange hair back in a ponytail. Long ears slanted up and behind her head.

“What are you doing here?” Emma placed a hand on her chest. She could feel and hear the unhealthy tempo of her heart. “You gave me a heart attack.”

“Unlikely.” Tistan held something in her hands. It was her father’s prized possession: an ancient Greek helmet. “You’re in fair physical health. That, coupled with the fact you house my DNA, and heart attacks are pretty much out of the question for you.”

“Okay, from now on, you have to start knocking.” Emma stalked forward, took the helmet from Tistan’s hands, and placed it back on her father’s desk. “No more showing up on my roof or in my house. Did you know our neighbor saw you last night?”

“The old whore?” Tistan didn’t seem off-put at all by either Emma’s comment or the fact Emma took the helmet from her hands. “Yes, but instead of killing her, I thought her word would be considered that of a senile senior citizen. Should I have killed her?”

“No, no.” Emma shook both of her hands out in front of her as if warding off the thought. “All I’m saying is, you have to stop appearing like this.”

Tistan ignored the request. Instead, she busied herself with reaching for a worn leather bag resting at her feet. Her clothing was simple, something Emma expected to see in a renaissance fair more than from an evolved alien species. Tistan wore what looked like heavy boots, leather pants, a steel-and-leather vest with the symbol of a red bird, and gloves that showed her fingers.

When Tistan found what she wanted from her satchel, she extended them to Emma in an open palm—two pills and two small needles.

“No thanks, I don’t do drugs.” Emma couldn’t help smiling, pleased by her own wit. Apparently, the joke was lost on the stoic Tistan. “What are these for?”

“One of the pills will turn your skin pigmentation orange like our people the Halyna. The other pill will interpret your own language into the common tongue of whatever species you are communicating with. And the needles are for two small microcomputers to be injected behind your ears. They will allow you to understand other species when being spoken to.”

“Nobody said anything about needles.” Emma stared hard at the tiny syringes, debating her options. “I hate needles.”

“You’re willing to be taken to an alien space academy, sign up to fight an alien invasion, and do all of this on two days’ notice, but you won’t allow yourself to be injected with a small needle?” Tistan’s left eyebrow rose in mock disbelief. “This should be the least of your worries.”

Before she could second-guess herself, Emma reached for the two pills, palmed them, then threw them into her mouth. She swallowed hard. The two pills slid down her throat without hesitation.

“Hurry up, let’s get this over with.” Emma motioned to Tistan. She lowered her head and brushed her hair to the side. “Talk to me to get my mind off what you’re doing.”

“The pill you took to change your skin tone is very similar to the one I ingested when I came to Earth. It changed my skin to the color of your own.”

Why was it so hard for Emma to think of Tistan as her mother? If she thought of the woman as just an alien, it was easier for her to accept. A mental block kept pushing away the idea that Tistan could actually be her biological parent. Whenever she did think of the idea, anger boiled deep within.

“Ouch!” Emma jumped forward, rubbing a spot right behind her right ear. “No countdown? No, one, two, three? Not even an ‘are you ready’?”

“Three.” Tistan advanced so quickly on her daughter with the second syringe clenched in her right hand, Emma didn’t have time to process the movement.

By the time Emma realized what Tistan was doing, the alien warrior was already behind her. For the second time that day, the familiar sting of a needle pierced Emma’s skin.

Emma clenched her jaw against the brief pain. Whether Tistan thought she was being clever or comical was irrelevant to Emma.

As fast as Tistan had moved to inject the microscopic hearing device, she was done. In a blur of motion, the tall warrior was back beside her satchel, placing the two empty needles carefully inside.

“How long until all of this starts working?” Emma was still angry at being used as a pincushion, but at least it was over now. “How will I know if it’s working?”

“The effects will be immediate. Can you understand what I’m saying to you now?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Well, I’m speaking in my native tongue, so if you can understand me, and I you, then the transition is complete.” Tistan stood from her bag. “Between your ears and the pill, you’ll pass for a Halyna. A bit short, but that can’t be helped without extensive surgery.”

Emma took a moment to register the words before she looked down at her skin. What she saw shocked and amazed her. A light orange hue identical to Tistan’s now covered her arms and hands.

“You’ll need to study books on the history of the planet Renia. If you’re going to pass as one of us, then we need you to—”

Somewhere in the back of Emma’s mind, she knew Tistan was still talking, but the idea of seeing her face completely orange seemed a higher priority at the moment. Emma ran for the bathroom. Tistan’s voice came to a halt behind her.

Emma threw open the downstairs bathroom door and flipped on the lights with wonder. What she saw in the mirror made her mouth drop. True to her word, the pill Tistan had given her had changed her appearance completely. Not only was her skin the color of an orange jolly rancher, but her hair and eyes were also different now, as well. Her hair was a deep shade of orange, like the peel of an orange. Her eyes were closer to the color of her skin, maybe even a bit lighter.

Emma lifted her left hand and ran carrot colored fingers through her dark orange hair. At the moment, her ears weren’t noticeable at all. Was this how she could have been born?

“As I was saying.” Tistan joined Emma in the bathroom. “You’ll need to spend your time at the Academy reading up and learning about Renia. In the meantime, try not to talk about the planet you’re supposed to be from. I think it goes without saying that if you were to be found out as a human, both you and I would be executed.”

Emma stopped brushing her hair and batting her eyes in the mirror. Suddenly, the full weight of what she was doing pressed down on her. Since Tistan visited two nights before, it seemed Emma had been caught up in a rush of events. Now, time slowed as Emma looked into the mirror at the very stoic face of Tistan Duel.

“I understand.” Emma cleared her throat. “I’ll be sure to hide the fact that I’m studying the world of Renia, as well. What about contacting my father?”

“What about it?”

“I mean I’ll be in space somewhere. He’s going to expect a call, or at least a text every day. How’s the reception on Mars?”

“Mars is a desolate wasteland. These are the kinds of remarks you should stay away from at the Academy.” Tistan looked down at her left wrist. “We’ve mastered teleportation, travel faster than the speed of light and intergalactic coalitions. We can manage reception to your father. Now we must be going. Slain is expecting us. He’s waiting to debrief you.”

“Slain?” Emma turned to Tistan with a raised eyebrow. “I thought no one else was supposed to know?”

Tistan pressed buttons on a brace she wore on her left wrist as she spoke. “Besides you and I, there are two others who already know about you. Slain and Drown were the other two spies who were sent here with me sixteen years ago. They know what I’m doing and why. It’s our luck that both of them now work at the Academy—Slain as the dean, and Drown as the combat instructor.”

Emma massaged her temples, trying to keep track of everything. “So, don’t tell anyone I’m human, outside of us four. I need to study the planet I’m supposed to be from. I’m at the Academy to learn how to protect Earth from the invading Shay. What else am I missing? Do I get a pet wookie or something during all of this?”

“No, I don’t know what that is.”

“Are you kidding me? How are you from space and you’ve never seen Star Wars?”

“Try not to vomit.” Tistan ignored Emma’s outburst. Instead, she placed a firm hand on Emma’s right shoulder. “Everyone’s first time is rough.”

“Wait, what?” Emma felt panic seize her stomach and work its way up to her chest. “I still need to grab my—”

“I’ll come back for your belongings so as not to make your father suspicious,” Tistan interrupted. “You won’t be able to use any of your things where we are going anyway.”

The next moment a light glimmer enveloped Emma. Her head tingled, then felt weightless. Her dinner from the previous night demanded to be returned.


9

Emma fell to her hands and knees, dry heaving. Spit flew past her lips. She was forced to fight the urge to throw up, or surrender to the urge and be done with it. The choice was decided for her as pepperoni and jalapeño pizza painted the floor in bright reds. Why did it have to be jalapeños?

A hand gathered her hair behind her, while another rubbed her back.

Emma heaved again. So far, space wasn’t as glamorous as she had dreamed. So far, her view of the great unknown consisted of white marble-like flooring and her own puke.

Emma’s eyes watered. She spat out the last remaining flecks of jalapeño, doing her best to keep her coughing to a minimum. Her throat and mouth still burned, but the worst of it was over.

The entire time, Tistan had kept her hair gathered up and out of the way. At the same time, she had rubbed Emma’s back in wide soothing motions. Maybe Tistan wasn’t as horrible as Emma had first thought. Maybe she had done what she had to do to save Emma and her father.

Finally, Emma felt well enough to stand up. Confusion, and then the familiar sense of anger, filled her. Emma looked into the eyes of Tistan Duel, who stood lounging against a heavy desk. Her arms crossed, eyes full of something worse than disdain, disapproval.

“I warned you, teleports can be rough the first time around.” Tistan shrugged.

“Take it easy on her, Tistan,” spoke an unfamiliar male voice directly beside Emma. “I recall a similar occurrence happening to the mighty Tistan Duel her first time out of Renia. What was it you kept spitting out? Dryslex Eggs?”

Tistan grimaced. “I still can’t eat them to this day.”

Emma turned to thank the man she had at first thought was her mother. His hand fell away from her back as she looked him over. He was a Halyna. A good six inches taller than a human male, with dark orange, almost black, hair, long and swept up behind pointed ears. His face was strong but kind. The type of person you wanted as a friend, but would fear as an enemy.

“Don’t mind the floor, Emma Jackson.” The Halyna extended a hand from beneath the folds of the long cloak he wore. “I am Dean Slain Extile. Slain, when we are alone; and for the sake of our ruse, Dean Extile when we are in public.”

Emma shook the Halyna’s hand, finding herself drawn to and already liking Slain. She chided herself for ever thinking Tistan had the slightest inclination to help her once she’d teleported.

“It’s nice to meet you.” Emma released her host’s hand. “I’m s-so sorry about your floor. I can clean it up if you have a mop or a towel.”

Slain lifted his hands. An easy smile played across his lips. “I already said don’t worry about it. If a little bile is the worst thing that has come out of this venture so far, then let us consider ourselves lucky.”

Emma nodded along with Slain’s words. For the first time, she took in the room where Tistan had teleported them. The chamber was massive, with ceilings so tall, they didn’t end, the top simply vanished. Bookshelves lined the walls, with a dark brown desk in the center and relics displayed throughout the room.

Statues of species of animals Emma couldn’t even dream of sat on mantles or rested on tables. One in particular caught her eye. It was a bust of what looked like a sabertoothed tiger. At least, that’s as close as she could get to putting a finger on what it reminded her of.

“Oh, you’re a fan of the predators, I see.” Slain pointed to the bust that had caught Emma’s attention. “You’re in luck. Instructor Textul has been breeding them for our bestiary class. You’ll be in time to see them born.”

Tistan coughed from her position perched on the table.

“Right, but we have more pressing things to discuss. Some of us are not as patient as others.” Slain shot a disproving look at Tistan. Before she could respond, he had moved on. “Tistan’s explained everything to me. You’ll be able to use my office as a safe place to call your father while you’re at the Academy. The new recruits are just arriving now, so you’ll be able to slip right in.”

Slain paused, taking the time to look Emma up and down.

“What?” Emma said, still tasting the aftereffects of her teleportation adventure. “Do I have something in my teeth?”

“No, no, not at all. It’s only you’re a bit short for a first-year Halyna, but no sense bothering what can’t be changed without extensive surgery.”

“I have to be going.” Tistan began making her way to a large set of double doors. “You’re in good hands with Slain and Drown. My duties to the Alliance forces brings me to the Academy from time to time. I’ll be able to check in on you, but only able to speak with you in secret. It’s not normal for an officer of my standing to converse with a recruit, much less a first year.”

Emma clenched her teeth. It was taking all of her willpower not to make a smart retort to the woman who’d abandoned her sixteen years ago. Then her willpower dissipated and she just couldn’t help herself.

“That’s fine. Go ahead and go. I can take care of myself. I’ve had a lot of practice at it over the years.”

Tistan hesitated, her long strides pausing for the briefest of moments. She half-turned as if she were going to say something, then thought better of it and continued toward the doors. In the next moment, she was gone, leaving Emma and Slain alone with the stench of vomit.


10

“You should really be easier on her.” Slain motioned for Emma to follow him to a seating area in his office. A comfortable-looking couch sat next to a long, glass table and two fluffy chairs. “She loves you very much.”

“Well, maybe someone should tell her that,” Emma mumbled. She followed the Academy’s Dean, choosing one of the two chairs, sank into the material as if she were seated on a bed of clouds.

“Tistan Duel is a warrior. It’s not in her nature to be motherly or nurturing. How she shows affection may not be what you expect, but know she is trying.” Slain seated himself on the couch. He spoke to Emma as he would a friend, not preaching nor judging, just talking. “I’m not here to convince you one way or the other.”

Emma nodded, biting her lower lip. She was pushing down emotions just as she had her entire life. Whenever the subject of her mother or lack thereof came up through the years, this is how she dealt with it the best: repressed in silence.

“There’s still a lot to cover. I understand how overwhelmed you must feel, having all of this thrown at you at once. I’ll try to be as quick as I can before I let you settle in. Some of this may have already been explained by Tistan.”

Emma locked eyes with Slain. She ignored everything else and gave him her full attention.

“You’ll need the required curriculum for all first-year recruits. I’ve already had the texts send to your holo band. You’ll be bunking with two other first years, as is customary. I’ve also provided a new wardrobe for you.” Slain looked at Emma close, shaking his head. “You’re about as inconspicuous as a black hole right now.”

“What?” Emma looked down at her converse, blue jeans, and black top. “I thought this was pretty neutral, all things considering.”

Slain’s face lit up with a smile. “You use comedy as a means to cope. Not the worst thing in life, but be sure it’s not the only means you employ when dealing with serious situations.”

“Noted.”

“Good. Here at the Academy, we are proud to train species from all three planets in the Alliance. I’ll give you a brief glimpse at them now so you can mask your surprise when you meet them.”

Slain waved his hands over the glass table, where a display panel appeared. The language was foreign to Emma, although the symbols reminded her of Egyptian hieroglyphics she had seen in movies.

With a few flicks of his wrists, Slain maneuvered through the display.

“Here we go. Let’s start with what you know. The Halyna from the planet Renia.” Slain moved his hand again in a lifting motion. A hologram of a Halyna male popped up through the glass table. Alongside the rotating figure was a small orb that looked like a planet covered in green landscape. “My home world, as well as your mother’s. We are the founding species of the Alliance. We understand there is strength in numbers and peace to be had across the galaxy.”

“Your planet looks beautiful.” Emma’s eyes never left the tiny circulating globe of green land and light blue sea. The landmasses were nothing like Earth; the southern- and northernmost points on the globe were completely covered by water. Most of the land was located at the center of the planet.

“Thank you.” Slain’s smile, the way his own eyes never left the planet, spoke of a deep love for his home world. He motioned through the display again. This time, a large, bulky human-like figure emerged from the table. Muscle covered most of the figure’s body. Strong features and long, dark hair gave it an intimidating disposition. Even at its miniature size, Emma could tell it was far larger than the Halyna.

“The Ree are from the planet Brimly. As you’ve probably guessed, they are not only taller than the Halyna, but stronger, as well. They were the second planet invited to join the Alliance.”

Emma looked from the giant-like figure to a planet covered in red crust. It took her only a moment to realize what was so off about what she was seeing.

“They don’t have any water?” Emma looked at Slain, then back at the small orb that represented the home of the Ree. “How do they survive?”

“A fair question.” Slain pointed at the planet of Brimly, his finger piercing the hologram. “Their water source is located underground. A wonder unlike anything I had seen before. Giant lakes and vast oceans hidden beneath the surface.”

“Cool,” Emma breathed.

“Finally, we have the Bracka from the planet Brewit. Physically, they are the smallest members of the Alliance, but don’t let their stature deceive you. They are among the most feared warriors in the galaxy.”

Slain was right. If it weren’t for the beards and the braided hair, the Bracka in front of her could have passed for a stout child. It was hard to guess how tall they might have been in real life, but the hologram showed a figure far shorter than Emma. Their planet was the closest to resembling Earth, with landmasses on both the northern- and southernmost points.

“But enough with all of this.” Slain motioned to his desk as he headed for the door. “Your clothes are in the upper left hand drawer of my desk. Replace it with the clothing you have on now. I’ll wait outside. Join me when you are done.”

Emma was still enchanted by the hologram display. Her mind was still soaking in all of the knowledge, questions stacking one on top of the other. By the time she understood what Slain had said, he was already gone, waiting for her on the other side of the door.

“What have you gotten yourself into this time?” Emma asked herself. She stood, heading to Slain’s desk. Alone for the first time since her arrival at the Academy, Emma took a moment to admire Slain’s office. The many shelves of books grabbed her attention. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of volumes lined his office bookshelves, making her wonder how much knowledge of the universe lay secretly waiting for her behind the thick book covers.

Emma finally made her way to the large desk. As instructed, she pulled open the designated drawer and reached inside. Cool cloth met her fingertips. Emma pulled out a cream sleeveless top, long pants of the same color, and a pair of simple brown boots. Emma had no idea what was going on with the latest fashion trends, but neither did she have a burning desire to be dressed like a monk.

A look to her left, then one to her right, confirmed what she already knew: she was alone. The only eyes in the room were those belonging to aliens in pictures or unmoving in the sockets of busts. Emma slipped off her own clothes with a reluctance she was only just able to overcome.

The new clothes fit her perfectly, the soft, sturdy material light and easy to move in. Her boots were taller than she had at first thought, their laces ending just below her knees. As told, the newest addition to the Alliance folded and placed her sneakers, socks, jeans, and shirt inside the drawer. They looked so out of place in the present environment, Emma almost laughed.

The thought of Slain waiting for her brought her back to the present moment. With the last anchor to life on Earth safely tucked away in the desk drawer, Emma crossed the office, stepped over her puddle of vomit, and opened the door.


11

“Your classes will start tomorrow. You’ll be taking all the normal first-year courses: Beast Prevention, Combat Training, Elixirs to Live By and Entry to Arilion.” Slain interrupted his own train of thought with a slight chuckle. “Oh yes, I’m sorry. Please take a moment.”

Since leaving Slain’s office, Emma’s eyes were presented with amazing and impossible sights one right after the other. As soon as she stepped through the doors, the impact of being in an alien environment hit Emma, full force.

The doors to Slain’s office were actually covered by a waterfall on the opposite side. As soon as she opened it to let herself out, the fall of rushing water parted to provide her a dry exit.

The same strange effect of there being no ceiling still boggled Emma’s mind. Light was overhead, but like the sky itself, it was just there, never ending. The floor rippled slightly with every footfall, like sand, although it appeared as solid as any ground. To her right stood statues of Halyna, Ree, and Bracka, imposing and strong. Giant entrances offered corridors and halls deeper into the Academy.

All of this paled in comparison, though, to what Emma was witnessing to her left. The entire left side of the walkway wall wasn’t a wall at all; instead, glass from rippling floor to unknown ceiling had opened, showing Emma her first look into space. A black background showcased thousands of lights and colors. In varying brightness and shades, planets, stars and moons Emma had never seen greeted her now.

Emma could hear Slain talking, but she was too dumbstruck to process what he was saying. When he repeated himself, she heard him again, but her mind was still struggling to fully comprehend her new surroundings.

“The Academy is a space station orbiting the planet of Stardox.” Slain joined Emma, and together they walked toward the glass, staring into the vastness of space. “Stardox was chosen because it’s uninhabited. We can run training operations without fear of harming the planet’s inhabitants. Also, it’s located between Renia, Brewit, and Brimly. A fair place to create a lasting bond between our species.”

“I can’t … I don’t have words for how beautiful it is.” Emma took another step closer to the glass, placing her right hand against the cool surface. “I always knew there were an infinite number of stars and planets, but to see them like this is … is…”

“Breathtaking.” Slain finished her thought. “Wonderful and dreadful at the same time. So many species to recruit, others to protect; some, who will not see reason, to fight.”

For the first time since she had met him, Emma sensed a deep sadness in Slain. As soon as she detected the modification in his voice, he seemed to notice his own change and altered the course of the conversation.

“Well, Emma Jackson … saying your name out loud reminds me that your new identity also comes with a change of name. I’ve chosen something easy for you to remember, something that will fall in line with the dialect of the Halyna. You’ll be known as Em Duel.”

The use of Tistan’s last name was enough to finally break the spell space held over Emma’s attention. She turned to Slain with a frown. “Won’t that be kind of obvious?”

“Duel is a popular family name on our planet,” Slain explained as they continued to walk down the hall. “No one will think twice.”

Emma wasn’t a fan of the idea, but it seemed petty to argue over it now.

“There are multiple levels to the Academy, all of which are open to the recruits, so feel free to wander and explore.” Then Slain stopped with a heavy sigh.

Emma followed his gaze to a large figure hurrying toward them. Even at this distance, whoever it was seemed gigantic. An outfit much like her own flapped in the wake of the approaching alien. It was a Ree; its size made no mystery of that.

“Ahhh, good.” Slain’s tone did nothing to make his words believable. “You’ll get to meet one of your instructors now.”

With every footfall of the coming Ree, waves rippled in the floor until the Ree finally stood in front of them. She was a good foot taller than Emma and had to outweigh her by over two hundred pounds. She had wild brown hair and a pair of thick goggles that made her eyes look twice their normal size.

“Oh, I see you’ve already begun welcoming the first-year recruits,” said the giant in front of them. She gave a slight nod to Emma. “I’m Talisha Tescot, your Elixirs to Live By instructor.”

Emma began to lift her hand, then caught Slain’s large eyes and slight head shake. Emma immediately abandoned the action and mimicked Talisha’s head movement instead. Panic grabbed Emma. What was the appropriate way to address an instructor? Why didn’t she bother to ask Slain before she was face to face with one?

“This is one of the new recruits from Renia.” Slain stood to the side and motioned to Emma. “Her name is Em Duel. I was just showing her to her barracks.”

“Of course,” Talisha said with a smile, displaying thick, square teeth the size of playing cards. “It’s very nice to meet you, Em Duel. Welcome to the Academy.”

“Th-thank you,” Emma managed.

As luck would have it, Talisha Tescot was not looking to have a formal conversation with a first-year recruit. The giant turned to Slain with concern etched deep in her goggle-magnified eyes.

“Might I have a word with you in private, Dean Extile?” Talisha mumbled the next few words, but Emma was able to pick out the words “accident” and “panic.”

Whatever news the Ree instructor relayed to Slain had an instant effect on the Dean.

“Em, if you follow this corridor down and take the third entrance on your right, you’ll be able to find someone to take you down to your barracks. I’m sorry I cannot personally guide you, but it seems a very serious matter has arisen, and I must see to it right away.”

“Of course.” Emma looked to Talisha with a respectful nod. “It was very nice meeting you.”

“Likewise, Em Duel.” Talisha forced a hurried yet genuine smile. “I look forward to having you in class.”

Then the dean and the instructor were gone in a rustle of cloaks, Talisha slowing her strides to match the dean’s.

Emma watched them go down the hall until the corridor eventually curved and they were lost to sight. Her imagination had a field day on what Talisha had whispered to Slain. One thing was certain, with the words “accident” and “panic” in the sentence, it was not pleasant news.

So far, Emma’s first day at the Academy had not disappointed, and things were about to get a lot more interesting.


12

Emma followed Slain’s directions down the corridor. She turned into the third entrance and slammed into someone going the opposite way. Her left shoulder absorbed most of the impact, striking the other Halyna in the chest.

“Wow, easy there. Combat drills haven’t even started yet.” The young male smiled. He was taller than Emma, with deep orange skin and piercing eyes that made Emma want to both stare and look away.

“I-I’m sorry.” Emma rubbed her shoulder, wondering if she could still blush with orange skin. “I’m trying to find my way down to the barracks for the first-year recruits.”

“Don’t apologize. I’m lost, too.” He put out his right hand. “My name’s Daylon.”

“I’m Emmmmmm.” Emma remembered at the last second not to use her real name.

“Well, Emmmmmm…” Instead of grabbing her offered hand, Daylon clasped the portion of her wrist just below her palm, making her do the same to his. His grip was firm. “Let’s find someone to take us to our barracks. I’ve heard horror stories of what they do to first-year recruits who are late to check in.”

“Perhaps I can provide some assistance,” chimed in a mechanical voice from somewhere behind Daylon.

Daylon turned, allowing Emma a view of a robotic figure walking toward them in short strides. It was the size of a human with white metal arms, legs, and torso. Its head reminded Emma of a cyclops; a single red light shown through the otherwise seamless steel plating.

For what seemed like the dozenth time that day, Emma was at a loss for words. In her new reality, where she was a member of an intergalactic space academy, the existence of a walking, talking android shouldn’t have seemed that out of the ordinary.

“Uh, hi.” Daylon either didn’t pick up on Emma’s surprise at seeing the machine, or he was as awed as she was. “We’re looking for directions to the first-year recruit barracks. I think it’s down below somewhere.”

“You are correct, Daylon Allbright.” The machine turned to Emma with a tilt of its metallic head. “It will be my pleasure to escort you and Em Duel to your quarters. Please, follow me.”

Without waiting for a response, the android started down the hall. Emma exchanged a look with Daylon, who shrugged in return.

“After you.” Daylon motioned to Emma.

Emma and Daylon didn’t have to follow the android far. Within the space of a few yards, the trio stood in front of a cylinder-shaped hollow in the hall wall, brightly lit and large enough to accompany five or six people.

“Please, step inside, recruits.” The android motioned them forward. “Using the display on the inside wall, you’ll be able to teleport yourself to whatever level of the Academy you’d like. The barracks for first-year recruits is located on level two.”

“Thanks.” Daylon stepped inside the hollow, already maneuvering around the keypad, searching for their level. He looked up, a question on his lips when Emma didn’t follow. “Are you all right, Em? You look … sick.”

When the android mentioned the word “teleport,” the taste of pepperoni and jalapeños flooded her mouth. Not only did Emma have no desire to relive that experience, but now there was also an attractive-looking Halyna to impress.

If it was strange to think of someone with orange skin, eyes, and hair as attractive, the thought was lost on Emma. She would consider that later, but not in front of those piercing orange irises.

“I’m fine,” Emma lied. “I think I’ll take the stairs, though. You know, want to see as much of the Academy as I can.”

“The sweat on your brow and the way you’re rambling indicate you are lying, Em Duel.” The android shifted its head to the side as if trying to understand why she would be so against teleportation. “Are you afraid of something?”

‘”Okay, well, that’s enough out of you.” Emma waved away the android. “Thank you for showing us the teleportation thing, but—”

“Oh, come on. It’ll be fine.” Daylon reached out, grabbed Emma by the wrist, and gently pulled her in. Before Emma could stage a protest, Daylon pushed a holographic button.

The same feeling of sickness overwhelmed Emma. One second, she was nervous and afraid in front of the android and Daylon; the next instant, she was stumbling out of the teleporter, dry heaving, too sick to feel much of anything else.

Emma fell to her hands and knees. Luckily, she had expelled everything from her stomach the first time. Only dry hacks and spit erupted from her stomach now.

To her credit, Emma recovered much faster than the first time around. Apparently, her body was getting used to being transported from point A to point B.

“Hey, that wasn’t so…” Emma stood up to find herself in a crowded hall. Eyes from members of all three species in the Alliance looked her up and down. Snickers and smiles already rippled through the crowd. “…bad,” she said. “No, now this is horrible.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Daylon reached her side and placed a hand onto her shoulder. His eyes spoke of his sincerity. “I didn’t know you’d react like that. I thought you were just being shy.”

“Well, I was feeling kind of shy. But I also throw up when I teleport, so there’s that.” Emma watched as those passing in the hall went along their way, most laughing, others giving her looks of apathy while they shook their heads in amusement. “Well, I’d better go now.”

“Of course.” Daylon pointed to the left side of the hall. “Girls on the left, boys on the right. Don’t worry, there’s so much going on, I’m sure everyone will have forgotten about the whole incident soon.”