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Luminore

Maelin flew spectacularly through the air, landing in the water. Allen laughed. She glared at him.

“That’s not funny.” She growled as she struggled free of the clinging mud. He had tripped her. She knew it. Just like she knew he was the one who kept hiding her stuffed giraffe. Sleeping with a stuffed animal did not make her a baby.

Allen laughed again. “Ah, don’t be a pansy. I was just joking.”

Maelin gulped down her tears as she stomped toward drier ground. Allen kept laughing, following her as if he meant to do it again. Maelin shoved him. He landed in the lake muck with a splat. Maelin ran toward the woods. She did not want to see anybody. Not Tanner, or Summer, and especially not Allen.

Only after she had to stop running in order to catch her breath did she realize that she was out-of-bounds. Nuts. Her parents would ground her for eternity and beyond. That would be the icing on the already crumbly mess of summer.

She kicked a pine cone. It bounced off a tree and flew back toward her. She ducked and followed the pine cone’s trajectory, her adrenalin slowing.

“Stupid Allen. It’s your fault that I’m out of bounds.” She kicked the pine cone again. “Stupid camp. I wish we’d never come.” She followed the pine cone and kicked it a third time. It flew through a tunnel of trees, missing all of them, and landing beyond her sight.

Impressed, she chased after it. The trees opened onto a small clearing, overgrown with bushes, a trailing vine climbing the remnants of a rotting fence. The fence cozied up to an ancient pile of junk, a gorilla’s face haughtily laughing at her. Maelin hesitantly stepped closer. The gorilla didn’t move.

She took another step and released her held breath. It was a painted life-sized sculpture. She ran a finger over his face. There was no dust, though it felt as if she were the first visitor in ages. There should be dust. The climbing vine had wrapped around most of his body. Maelin tugged at the greenery. It held fast to its prize.

She flipped open her pocket knife and carefully cut the vine away from the gorilla. The plant reluctantly released its prize. The gorilla was whole, the paint slightly faded without any chips or damage. A pole pierced the gorilla through the middle of his back, pinning him to a plank of painted wood beneath his feet and a moving metal arm above his head. The tarnished metal glinted as she moved, the pole shivering slightly.

Curious, Maelin took a step back, tugging at the vine as she walked.

Unbelievably, the rest of the plant slid off of their treasure as if every grasping tendril had been cut, revealing an ancient carousel with six animals poised as if they were ready to run or fly. The gorilla seemed, if anything, haughtier in his observation of the young girl. Maelin walked past him, running her hands over the ostrich, polar bear, badger, bullfrog, and dragon. It was the oddest group of animals she had ever seen on a carousel.

She backed away from the carousel. The integrity seemed intact. The fence stopped her backward progression with a shower of wood dust.  

Beyond the carousel she could see the remains of other fair attractions. She ventured near a crumbling booth. One figure remained semi-upright at the back of the wooden structure, waiting for a ball or pellet gun to knock it over. The wood crumbled where she touched it, the paint worn away by years of moisture and abuse.

The carousel creaked. Maelin jumped, but no one was there. She brushed the dust from her hands and returned to the whole carousel.

Had someone abandoned the carousel more recently than the rest of the fair attractions? Was that how it looked so good compared to the rest of the fair cemetery?

She carefully stepped onto the platform. The wood groaned, but held. For a moment, she smelled popcorn and cotton candy. She took a second whiff, but it had passed. A light flickered in the corner of her vision. She turned, but the bulbs decorating the inner pole of the carousel were mostly broken. She touched them, her fingers coming away clean, again. Odd.

She walked the circumference of the carousel platform and stopped in front of the gorilla. He hadn’t shifted, or moved. That would be impossible, but his expression seemed content somehow. She ran her fingers across his back. Each hair felt as if it had been individually carved and intricately painted. Several strands switched color midway through, as real hair often did.

Maelin peeked around the small clearing. She was the only person there, not even the birds dared peep as she climbed onto the gorilla. Eyes closed, the fair grew around her.

Music and laughter twined through the air. Children ran around adults, sticky and giggly. Women wore elegant dresses, their hair coiffed, and makeup perfect. Men tugged at suit jackets, offering their arms to the women around them as they waited in lines for the rides and booths. A breeze lifted Maelin’s hair, almost as if the carousel were slowly shivering to life.

She opened her eyes to bones and mud. “Thanks for the ride.” She patted the gorilla on the shoulder. “It was nice.”  

Maelin walked a little deeper into the dead fairgrounds. Mud sucked at her shoes and her clothes crinkled, reminding her of her unfortunate lake-bath.

“Dagnammit!” She exclaimed as she looked up and realized the sky had turned pink. She did not want to be grounded for the rest of this miserable trip. Maelin raced back to camp, the knife slipping from her pocket to land in a patch of overgrown grass on the outer edge of the clearing.

 

###

 

Maelin sat on the log near the fire. Summer passed her a bag of marshmallows and a stick. “You missed dinner,” Summer whispered. “Where were you?”

Maelin popped three marshmallows onto the pokey end of the stick. “Nowhere.” She lied.

“Huh,” Summer grunted while she stabbed her marshmallow into the fire. “Allen apparently went swimming today.” Summer turned the marshmallow, burning the underside as thoroughly as the top. “By himself.” She turned the stick a third time, then grinned as the marshmallow caught fire. “In his clothes.”

Maelin ignored Summer, holding her own marshmallows just close enough to the flame to grow warm. She preferred them crisp and brown, not crisp and black.

“Tanner said you had gone to the lake with Allen, and that he was going to meet up with both of you there,” Summer did not give up. “But when Tanner got there, you’d already gone and Allen was covered in muck.” Summer plucked the crusted black shell from her marshmallow, ate it with a flourish, and stuck the remaining gooey center back into the flame until it bubbled and crusted.

“He didn’t bother you, did he?”

“Nah,” Maelin finally responded. “He was just being a spaz.”

Bracken cracked as Tanner walked up behind them, dust and branches clinging to his clothes, the bottom half of his pants caked in mud. “Where’d you go?” He demanded as he sat on Maelin’s left, stealing one of her perfectly brown marshmallows. She whomped him on the head with the handle of her roasting stick. “Ouch!” he ducked away from her. “What was that for?”

“Buzz off.” Maelin snapped. Tanner looked hurt as he scooted to the opposite end of the log. “I don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

Maelin felt as if she might cry again. It was bad enough that Allen thought he was being funny, her friends did not need to know what happened by the lake today. She popped her last marshmallow off the stick and thunked it against the log hard enough that it snapped in half before she marched away from the fire.

Tanner followed her. She barely acknowledged his presence with a growl and a glare. “You don’t have to tell me anything, but I thought you might want this back.” He stuck his hand in front of Maelin, a small knife in his palm.

Maelin snatched her knife from Tanner and shoved it into her pocket. “Where’d you get it?” She asked as she reversed direction walked toward the lake. The nearly-full moon lit the path well enough that she didn’t even miss the flashlight she usually carried around after dark. Tanner followed.

“What were you doing out of bounds?” He asked instead of answering.

Did Tanner want to get punched?

“None of your business.” Maelin growled.

Tanner whistled a cheery tune and pointed to the stars. “Look, it’s Orion.”

Tanner chatted as if Maelin hadn’t been snapping at him since he arrived at the fire. She felt a pinch of guilt. She stopped walking, the pocket knife thumping to a halt against her leg.

With a gasp, she turned to her friend. “What were you doing out of bounds!?”

Tanner gaped. “It took you that long to figure it out?”

Maelin straightened defensively, taking a deep breath to better her argument.

Tanner held up a hand. “I was looking for you! When Allen said you ran off in a huff, I knew that you wouldn’t pay attention to where you were going. You barely pay attention when a clearly paved road points you in a specific direction.” He was right. She was skilled at getting lost.

“I was not in a huff.” Maelin said, though her tone lost its bite.

“I know better than to believe everything Allen spews.” Tanner agreed. “But I had to find you before we lost you to the forest sprites.”

Maelin giggled. They had made up the sprites when they were six, the very first year their families had started traveling together. Every state they visited had a different sprite. West Virginia had forest sprites, vindictive little beings that bit like mosquitos, but left welts the size of Texas. Allen insisted that they were too old for sprites. Maelin and Tanner believed in them anyway.

“I found the knife about a mile from camp.” He smirked. “Must have been a forest sprite that led me to it. I never would have found it otherwise.” Maelin shifted uncomfortably.

“I found something else.” He hinted.

“Yeah?” Maelin asked.

“A dragon.” He whispered dramatically. Maelin jumped.

“Woah, it wasn’t a real dragon.” He put a hand on her arm as if she might take flight. Maelin wasn’t so sure that the possibility had passed. “It was a carousel. Strangest carousel I’ve ever seen.”

“With a gorilla?” Maelin asked.

“Yeah. And a badger…” Tanner started to say.

“Ostrich, polar bear, and bullfrog.” They finished together, listing the animals in order. “You saw it too!” They both pointed. “I didn’t make it up!” It was a real possibility since they both spoke with forest sprites every day.

Without conferring, they both ran into the woods. Tanner took the lead, guiding them back to the clearing without error.

Maelin immediately climbed onto the gorilla. Tanner leapt aboard the dragon, whistling shrilly.

“And now we soar!” He cheered and whooped as his imagination carried him over the land.

“Children.” Maelin grumbled in a tone she imagined the gorilla would use. “Always thinking they need to be showy.” She tightened her grip on the pole and squeezed her knees together. “We’ll show them!” In her imagination the gorilla dove into the trees, climbing and leaping with the agility of a much smaller monkey. She looked into the sky.

“Look out Tanner! There’s a flying sprite coming for you!” It was an orange sprite from New Mexico.

“He’ll never catch me.” Tanner ducked and hissed as if the dragon had released a throat full of flame. “But the gutter sprite might get you!”

“Drat. It must have stowed away from our trip through New York.” Maelin swerved and thumped the gutter sprite with her knife.

“Maelin! Tanner! Get down from there!” Summer broke the illusion with her mad stomping through the battle grounds. Maelin slid off the gorilla and leapt to the ground, her heart pounding three-thousand miles an hour. Tanner landed beside her. “That cannot be safe.” Summer nudged them away from the carousel before circling it.

“Why’d you follow us?” Tanner demanded.

“So you wouldn’t get into trouble.” Summer mumbled, her focus elsewhere. She stared at the ostrich as if she hadn’t seen anything so elegant in her life.

“You want to ride her, don’t you?” Maelin asked.

“No.” Summer glared at her friends. “I came to take you back to camp before our parents notice we are gone.”

“You just wanted to snoop.” Maelin nudged her friend closer to the ostrich. It was easy to stop Summer from tattling, just capture her imagination. “Sit on her.”

“No.” Summer shook her head, quite emphatically, but the sparkle in her eyes gave away her fascination.

“You can feel the feathers.” Tanner edged toward Summer, trapping her in front of the large bird.

“Ostriches are fast, you know.” Maelin said. “And fierce.”

Summer looked at Tanner, then Maelin. She laughed. “Alright, alright.” She hesitantly stepped onto the carousel platform. It creaked. She stopped.

“It hasn’t broken yet.” Maelin encouraged.

“Not helping.” Summer cautiously placed both of her hands on the large bird. Her eyes widened with wonder. “She’s incredible.”

Maelin laughed and climbed back onto the gorilla while Tanner mounted the dragon.

“Do you think we could get this up and running?” Summer asked after they had played for a while.

“No idea.” Tanner hopped off the dragon and walked around the carousel, looking under the platform. “There doesn’t seem to be any sort of plug.” He stopped. “Wait. There might have been one here, once.”

Summer passed him a flashlight. He shone it on the dark hole.

Maelin stuck her tongue out at him. “You won’t see anything in the dark. We’ll have to come back in the morning.”

“No…” Summer interjected.

“It was your idea to get it working.” Tanner reminded her. She shut her yap.

“Fine. I’ll come back with you tomorrow.” Summer pulled Tanner up by the back of his shirt. “Now let’s get back to camp before they realize we are gone.”

 

###

 

“Where were you last night?” Marley plopped onto the fireside log next to Summer. He tipped half his eggs onto her plate. She gobbled them down without answering his question. “Fine. Don’t tell me. I’ll just ask Tanner. He was up early this morning, rummaging through the van. I swear I saw several wires and tools sticking out of his pockets.” He slowly chewed a bite of toast. “I’m sure dad won’t mind, when I tell him…”

“Fine.” Summer slapped her hand over his mouth. “Shut up and I’ll show you later.”

“Oooh, show. Must be something good.” He spoke through her hand and raised his bread as if he meant to eat it through her palm. She removed her hand with a disgusted grunt and wandered off. He ate the rest of his breakfast with glee, snuck from camp before he could be roped into washing dishes, and found Summer on the path to the lake. Tanner and Maelin argued with her, falling silent when he approached.

“I bullied her into it.” Marley copped up to his behavior. “Had to see where you went off to.”

“Fine. But no one else knows.” Maelin insisted.

“I won’t tell.” Marley said. “Summer’s the weak link.”

Maelin glared at Summer.

“Aah, don’t put too much blame on her. I’ve had lots of practice pushing my little cousin’s buttons.”

“You are only three days older than me.” Summer protested.

“Still older. Now where is this mystery you were going to show me?”

Marley followed his friends down the path. They turned off of it when the lake became visible and walked through the forest until everyone was hot and sweaty. Anticipation caught his breath as his friends stopped walking. “Remember, this is top secret.” Maelin was so cute when she got all irate and commanding on them. He ruffled her hair. She swatted his hand and he ducked before she could deck him.

“I know. I know.” He pushed her through the last layer of trees and stopped as soon as he entered the clearing, his jaw falling to the ground.

“A carousel? You found a whole freaking carousel?” He bounced up to the carousel, stopping in front of the bullfrog. “Who puts a frog on a carousel?” He ran both hands over the carved animal, the skin smooth and warm beneath his touch.

“The same person who puts an ostrich on a carousel.” Summer jumped onto the platform and patted the Ostrich on the head. Maelin was already climbing onto the gorilla while Tanner straddled the dragon.

Marley walked around the frog three times. He felt as if it might leap off the platform the moment a proper breeze came up. He stopped behind the frog, ready to slide onto its back when he heard a crunch of branches. Everyone froze, silent and wary.

Katherine stepped into the clearing, her eyes snapping between the children and the broken ride. “You are going to be in so much trouble.”

Marley bounded off the platform and tucked an arm around her shoulders. “But you aren’t going to be the one to tell on us, now are you?”

Katherine plucked his arm off of her shoulders with a shake of her head. “You are out of bounds.”

“It’s a carousel.” Marley argued. “This is the best thing we’ve found since our parents decided that a week on dry land would be worth the cost of a crappy motel three weeks ago when it wouldn’t stop raining.”

“That motel had bugs.” Katherine said.

“See. The carousel is much better.” Marley tugged her toward the carousel. “Which one would you like to ride on?”

“It doesn’t work.” Katherine took two steps, then stopped.

“So?” Marley shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time our adventures were solely imaginary.”

Katherine looked from one eager face to another. “Alright. As long as we are careful.” She climbed onto the carousel, slowly circling the inner platform before settling on the badger with a decisive huff.

Marley grinned and returned to the carousel.

“Ouch!” A familiar voice yelped.

“Allen?” Marley looked under the carousel platform. Allen lay flat beneath it, barely fitting. If had been any less stick-like he never would have been able to wiggle under there.

“You stepped on my fingers, you big dolt.” Allen wriggled out of his hiding place.

“What are you doing here?” Maelin asked darkly.

“I followed Summer last night. Came out early this morning. Then you lot showed up and ruined a perfectly good adventure.” Allen pushed past Marley and plopped onto the large white polar bear.

“I found it first!” Maelin said.

“Yeah, but you wouldn’t have found it without me.” Allen argued.

“Guys, cut it out!” Summer interrupted. “There’s enough animals for all of us.”

Allen and Maelin cut a tense peace by ignoring each other entirely. It was enough for Marley. He climbed onto the frog with a grin.

Summer hummed a short tune. Tanner whooshed. Katherine whipped her head around, staring at the center column of the carousel. “Did you see that?” She asked.

“See what?” Summer said, her tune receding with the light breeze that had picked up only a moment before.

“The lights.” Katherine said.

“It’s broken.” Tanner also looked at the lights. “We already looked.”

Marley saw a glint of light behind on the edges of his own vision, a low tune carried on the now stronger breeze. He glanced at his friends. They each held the pole in front of themselves with both hands.

“Mmm, popcorn.” Allen broke his silence with a rumble of his belly. Marley could smell it too, buttery and warm.

The tune grew louder. “Summer?” he asked.

“Not singing.” She sounded less certain of herself than she had when they first arrived.

“Me neither.” Katherine was the second-best singer in their group.

“And nobody sings the piano.” Maelin added.

Marley closed his eyes, lights flashing across his lids. He opened his eyes, broken lights dancing in the sunlight. The flashing stopped as the platform shivered. He clung to the pole in front of him. “Guys?” He asked. Nobody said anything.

The world shivered and bent. The music rose loud and clear as if it played through car speakers. The bulbs sparkled with light and the carousel creaked to life. “Guys?” Marley asked again.

The frog rattled upward as Katherine’s Badger went down. Over and over the animals moved, the carousel spun in tune to the music.

“I think I’m going to be sick.” Tanner groaned.

“Don’t puke!” Maelin sounded a little freaked.

“I think we should get off.” Summer tried to slide off of the Ostrich. The carousel sped up and she clutched the pole instead, pale and shaken.

Marley closed his eyes and clung to the giant frog. The frog was a comforting solid mass beneath his butt as the rest of the carousel shivered and creaked. Somebody screamed, but the wind immediately whisked away the sound.

Just as Marley feared he would be thrown from his seat, the carousel thumped, then slowed. Marley opened one eye. The carousel slid to a smooth stop. He was too rubbery to slide from the frog’s back, but he managed to coax the fingers of one hand open when the creature beneath him moved. “Interloper!” The frog yelled.

“What?” Marley gasped as he fell from the frog’s back.

“Intruder! Stupid hairless monkey. You come from the same land as the sorcerers apprentices— come to Luminore catch us with your evil magic. I won’t fall for it.” The frog stood on his hind legs, his front legs held out as if he were preparing to hit Marley.

A very large, very angry gorilla approached the frog from behind. “They don’t smell of the sorcerers magic.” His voice rumbled through the clearing, pausing the chaos, if only for a moment. “Let us hear their tale.”

Phish and Sparks, Ep1

Episode 1: Preacher at Xanadu

The living eddies within the sweating glass of red rebyl mimicked the dust storms engulfing the Martian port city of Lachish. Guido Sparks pressed the glass to the scar transecting his cheek for a long breath. Finally he downed the bottom third of the whisky in a single gulp.

“Another round?” Phish, his Venusian companion, snatched the glass from Sparks’ hand before he could slam it down.

The grit beneath Sparks’ collar, combined with his growing unease from being in one place too long said yes. The jangle of his diminishing credits said no. He nodded. The two of them would simply have to ensure the next lead panned out, unlike the last several.

Phish had already risen and started toward the bar in his typical Venusian gate—a long-strided movement chewing up distances deceptively and without hitch. The shorter of the two men, Phish could outstrip Sparks in a footrace—something Sparks never incorporated into plan A, or any plan.

Sparks surveyed the unusual crush of patrons seeking shelter from the red clouds of dust that blew in the day before. A clash of languages battered his ears. Taken alone he could understand each. At the moment he had no interest in doing so. The Bloody Bucket remained a safe haven for space rangers, smugglers and the like. Even the rankest of outlaws, if intent on continued survival, honored the varied patronage’s shared need for discreet anonymity.

Sparks also respected the unwritten rule, despite the fact such anonymity remained possible for himself in scarcely a corner of the galaxy. Lazily, he noted the entrance of a lone woman amidst of maelstrom of red dust. Stirring up no shortage of curious half-glances, the woman made directly for his corner of the establishment.

Phish returned balancing three glasses of rebyl.

Sparks’s pale-grey gaze flicked from the woman, dressed in spacer’s leather similar to his own, to his partner’s crooked grin. “Expecting company?”

“Employ.” Phish whisked into his seat and distributed the glasses of rebyl while shoving out an empty chair with his foot.

Without dropping the Venusian’s gaze, Sparks watched the woman weave through the crowded bar. He could tell already her clothes were props. Not that she didn’t wear them well, or that the grip of the leather hadn’t been accustomed to the curves it concealed. But something about her posture and movement didn’t match the outfit.

Not waiting for their undisclosed guest, Sparks tipped back his glass. Surely the woman’s lack of wariness, something developed as a natural byproduct of lurking within the galaxy’s shiftiest shadows, hadn’t escaped Phish’s seasoned eye. If anywhere in the galaxy there was a man as worthy Sparks’s respect as the man sitting across from him now, Sparks had yet to meet him.

The woman must have impressed his companion via some other means, but Phish wasn’t letting on. At last Sparks disengaged his cloud-grey eyes from his partner’s turbid black ones in order to address the woman.

She stood before them wordlessly, returning Sparks’s stare without waver—something few accomplished. In a sudden movement that brought Sparks’s hand instinctively to the well-worn grip of the heat gun strapped to his hip, the woman whisked off her visor-less helmet.

An incredible amount of untamed, fire-orange hair spilled out from the helmet’s cramped confines. The radiant tussle lit her face and sparked an instant contrast with her emerald eyes. Sparks’s tense surprise registered in the woman’s awareness, proving she’d achieved the response she’d aimed for. The slightest of grins curled the corner of her lips as she turned toward Phish and nodded while filling the empty seat.

“Guy, meet Persephone,” Phish did the introductions. “Persephone, as I’m sure you’ve deduced, this is Guido Sparks.”

###

After Sparks had confirmed Persephone’s ledger, it had taken all of forty-five minutes to load the necessary supplies and clear the Tempest for launch. Even before that, both men knew they would take the job. As confident as the woman had been confronting nefarious outlaws, she’d been equally as terrified discussing the job—a bounty. And on a preacher no less.

Boring, conceited, sure. But a preacher capable of talking folk to death? Sparks’ curiosity had been indelibly impressed.

Of course not everything was on the up and up. The woman had strived too laboriously to weave a lavish false backstory. Most people who found themselves in need of the likes of Guido Sparks had long relinquished propriety.

As the Tempest cleared the thin Martian atmosphere, Sparks jettisoned the exhausted burn tanks and turned to discuss the matter openly with Phish. “What do you think?”

Phish removed his headset and reclined his seat. “She’s money.”

Sparks nodded. He understood what the cunning Venusian meant in both senses of the word. “Makes sense. She sure thinks highly enough of herself.”

“Only Black Pharol thinks higher.”

“What does that make the preacher? A runaway slave?”

Phish shook his head before riveting Sparks with his hungry black eyes, betraying his cherubic golden locks and pale skin with a deeper savagery. “You saw the terror when she spoke of him. I’ve no idea whether the preacher be slave or free, but I’ll bet the next case of rebyl he’s not a man like you or I.”

“Hardly seems like a fair bet,” Sparks locked course for Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and deployed the sails. “I suppose I’ll take it. In that case, how many do you think she’s sent before us?”

“Does it matter?”

“It’s just that, well you saw how she talked more about herself than the job.”

“As if it were her first time.”

“And she seemed to be more interested in hiding her own identity than describing the preacher’s.”

“As long as the money’s real,” Phish shrugged as he stood. “I’m going to get some rest.” With two long strides he exited the bridge and slipped into the tiny living quarters. “Wake me if you spot Patrol. It’s been over a week since I’ve gotten my blood up. I could use a good drill.”

“You and me both.” Sparks stretched and watched the nearer stars rush past. After a mesmerizing few minutes he lowered the blast shields and drifted off to sleep fully expecting to dream of a sun-haired woman and the terrifyingly sweet-tongued preacher who’d incurred her rancor.

###

Sparks awoke to an orchestra of tiny plinks and larger thunks against the hull as the Tempest plowed a path through unexpected debris.

Instantly blinking away the fog of sleep, Sparks slammed his hand into the controls and retracted the sails.

“Where are we?” Phish flowed into his copilot chair. He switched on the display to answer his own question.

“Right where we’re supposed to be, as far as I know.” Perturbed, Sparks fired thrusters in reverse. The tempo of metallic music playing against the blast shield slowed, then stopped.

“The Tempest agrees. Supposedly we’re one click outside of Titan’s orbit.”

Sparks retracted the blast-shield for a visual and scratched his head. The blue-green haze of Titan filled nearly half their view. “And we’re on course?”

Phish nodded.

“Why hasn’t the shipping channel been cleared?”

“Maybe they’re all at church,” Phish grinned.

“Including Patrol?”

Phish shrugged.

“This guy I gotta hear. Just as soon as he collects an offering to repair my sails.” Unamused, Sparks gripped the joystick and fired all thrusters into full descent toward Titan’s heavy atmosphere.

###

The bumpy ride intensified as they transitioned through blue swirling gases into green ones and finally a faded yellow, like that of the exhausted fields of wheat Sparks remembered from his childhood on Earth. He leveled their descent and corrected course according to Phish’s instructions until they punched through the dense clouds.

Visibility improved marginally as they emerged into a dry blizzard typical for Titan this time of year, or at least Sparks assumed. “What season is it here?”

“Summer, for another thirty-two days.”

“And the temperature?”

“Negative two degrees, or 28 of your precious Fahrenheit.”

The ground appeared suddenly. “Please, spare me the lecture on Earthmen hubris.” Sparks yanked the controls, assuming a course parallel to and no more than a hundred meters above the rugged, snow-covered terrain spanning much of the moon’s surface.

Phish yawned and stretched.

“How far to Xanadu?” Sparks queried.

Phish jumped forward, pressing his forehead against the windshield. “Did you see that?”

Without questioning, Sparks banked hard to port in order to come around for another look at whatever the keen-eyed Venusian had seen.

“By Black Pharol, nothing good has happened here.”

Sparks caught his breath at the sight. He banked into a low circle around the consumed ruins of what he assumed had been a mining outpost. “What does the map say?”

“New Rutan, a decade old settlement along the main vein of guarganite, home to 1,734 souls.”

“Not anymore.” Sparks righted the Tempest and followed the spiny ridge of mountains southwest toward the mining center of Xanadu. “Could have been an explosion from the mines.”

“I didn’t see a crater,” Phish frowned. “I did see bodies, dead but intact.”

“Raiders? Disease? Natural disaster?”

“Preacher.”

Sparks scratched the back of his neck. “Curious.”

The two partners completed the last minutes of their trip in silence, passing over another ruined settlement along the way. Finally, they arrived at Xanadu, a fortress of a town hunkered into the side of the mountain and overlooking the equatorial plains of Titan.

Near the equator, and only near the equator, Titan sheltered a small indigenous population. Tribal folk from a forgotten origin and forgotten time, they sustained themselves by raising herds of Gaugan along the narrow band of Titan tundra. Humans only dealt with them to improve their Gaugan breeding stock.

Here at Xanadu, the two commodities Titan had to offer merged: Gaugan, the cold-planet beast of burden and Guarganite, a volatile mineral used in space combat and interplanetary missiles due to its explosive properties when in liquid form. Concern over military use of the stuff typically rendered criminal access to Titan tricky, to say the least.

Patrol regulations should have dictated the Tempest be intercepted in orbit. While Xanadu appeared intact, no welcoming party had extended a hand of greeting, friendly or not. Sparks opened the com to all frequencies. He eyed Phish before clearing his throat, “Edsel class merchant ship, the Tempest, requesting entry.”

No response was forthcoming.

“Hello? Smugglers and outlaws with a warrant here.”

Sniggering, Phish bit his lip.

Sparks continued, “We’d like permission to kill one of your citizens and return him for cash payment.”

Static popped over the connection, “Could you repeat that?”

With raised brow, Sparks stroked the stubble on his chin.

Phish shrugged.

“Edsel class merchant ship, the Tempest, requesting entry,” Sparks repeated himself.

Static filled the connection for a full three seconds before, “Oh, yes. Sure thing, right after I send you back to the void from whence you came, you barbarous devils!”

Sparks’ eyes widened as a Patrol gunner ship plummeted out of orbit and streaked straight for them, a plume of entry smoke trailing in its wake.

“Black Pharol squats!” Phish swore.

Sparks jammed the stick forward and dove for the surface with little hope of outracing a gunner at full decent. The Tempest was fast, but—

“Weapons’ lock!”

Sparks jerked his eyes toward the Patrol vessel. It was falling at suicide speed. “There’s no way.” With the Tempest still descending toward the tundra at full thrusters, Sparks slammed his hand down to deploy the blast shield.

“What are you—” before Phish could finish, the Tempest sheered suddenly to starboard and down. Sparks stiffened as he wrestled to regain control of the stick. A moment later a deafening roar washed past the ship and the hull began to glow red-hot.

“Horizon?” Sparks forced the word through clenched teeth.

Phish snapped into action. “Fifty meters, ten degrees.”

Sparks continued his tug-of-war with the controls. “Little help.”

“Right,” Phish reached across. With his hands on top of Sparks’, he joined in the fight. “Nine degrees. Eight. Impact imma—”

The Tempest struck down hard, but didn’t tumble. Slowing rapidly, she listed slightly to port before coming to a complete stop, apparently in one piece.

“Damage?” Sparks cautiously reached for the button to retract the blast shield.

“As Pharol lives,” Phish scrolled through the readout. He breathed deeply and turned to Sparks. “She’ll take off when we need her.”

Sparks raised the shield with little effect. Instead of the sky or even the surface of the Titanian tundra, the two stared into a wall of ice and alluvial deposits. “Altitude?” Sparks questioned.

“Three meters beneath the surface,” Phish grinned.

###

The partners stood in the aft of the tiny ship, waiting for the heat of the Tempest’s hull to melt enough snow and ice for the hatch to open.

Phish stashed a knife in his boot. “How did you know the Patrol vessel had armed itself with gaurganite missiles?”

“I didn’t. Not for sure anyway. Something about their suicidal approach.”

“I’m surprised they even got a missile armed before it went off, as hot as their entry was. What do you think they were going on about with that barbarous devils bit?”

“Sounded like preacher talk to me.”

Phish cinched his gloves tight around his wrists and checked the hatch, finding it clear enough. “My thoughts exactly.”

###

The two men scrambled out the entry path the Tempest had left in the tundra and took their first look around from ground level. A small herd of guagan sniffed around the scene curiously.

“Wait here, I got an idea.” Phish disappeared back down the short tunnel.

A half hour later, and with a lot of coaxing, the rangers managed to mimic ranchers and herdsman effectively enough to hitch a half dozen of the beasts to the Tempest and tow her to the surface.

As the last of the guagan lumbered away, Sparks turned his attention to the fortress city of Xanadu. “What do you think?”

Phish shrugged. “Things have gone pretty smooth so far. Getting in shouldn’t be too bad.”

“Actually, I was wondering what the chances were of getting a bath. Otherwise I’m gonna smell like guagan leavings until the calendar switches.”

“The beasts were indeed a bit more pungent up close than I had imagined.”

Sparks rubbed filth from his gloves using relatively clean snow. “Still, it was a good plan. Now to find us a bath and a preacher.”

“Clean inside and out? Guy, what’s happened to you?”

Sparks set off at a fast clip for the walls of Xanadu, a few kilometers distant. “Don’t you worry, friend. Nothing a little rebyl won’t cure after this is all over.”

“About that, still think I’m gonna be buying?” Phish caught up and clapped Sparks on the shoulder.

“I hope not.”

###

After twenty minutes of hiking, the two mercenaries stared up at the towering gates built into the abrupt start of the mountain. Sparks had worked up a sweat and wasn’t fond to let it freeze between his parka and skin.

“How does one go about knocking at a place like this?” Phish stepped within reach of the looming metal doors.

Sparks eased his heat gun from the holster and stood ready beside his partner. “Try your fist first.”

Shrugging, Phish pounded three times. The cold metal creaked inward, revealing the doors hadn’t be locked or even latched. Knife in hand, the Venusian stepped aside and offered Sparks the lead.

As the Earthman stepped passed the threshold, a timid voice arrested him.

“Where would my masters wish to go?”

Sparks spun in the direction of the thickly-accented English, keeping his firearm lowered. “Who’s asking?”

A short, ruddy man, lessor in years than Sparks, advanced from the shadows. “Your servant does not deserve name, only task.”

Phish leaned close, “He’s a native.”

Sparks nodded. “Are you the doorman?

The queer man with ruddy oversized limbs and small torso bowed low. “At your service, my masters.”

“First off, stop calling me that,” Sparks demanded.

“As you wish, my—” the man stopped short, leaving an awkward silence.

Phish filled it. “By Pharol what has happened here?”

The native lowered his gaze further. “Much has happened in Xanadu for many—”

Holstering his heat gun, Sparks put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Wrong answer.”

Trembling beneath Sparks’s touch, the native quickly changed tactic. “The preacher comes. He brings truth with him. He speaks it to us, like in Charlton and—”

“New Rutan?” Phish finished for him.

The native nodded.

“What kind of truth tears down a city from the inside out?”

“I—” the man shook his head. “I am only servant.”

“Never mind.” Sparks cocked his head in the direction of a shuffling sound above them. He didn’t like how vulnerable they were at the base of a long set of stairs leading further up into the city. “Just take us to this preacher fellow.”

The native shrank back, spasming with tremors. “Would my masters not rather—”

“Preacher, now.” Sparks drew his heat gun.

“As you wish.” The man scurried ahead of Sparks and Phish. But rather than up the stairs, he hurried into a darkened tunnel at their base.

“What, no bath first?” Phish breathed in Sparks’s ear as he fetched a light from his pack.

Sparks ignited his own chemical stick while loping to catch up with the oddly long-limbed native. “I changed my mind. This place stinks worse than the gaugan leavings.”

###

The temperature inside the tunnel rose several degrees. Sparks had just unzipped the front of his parka when the native man stopped in front of a dimly lit lift carved into the rock. The man ran his fingers over a number pad until a bright red light shone from the ceiling.

Through the dispersing, eery glow Sparks glimpsed a moving shadow several meters further along the passage. He gestured to the native. “What else is down here?”

“Tunnel is direct connection to mines.” The man shook his head. “Few workers remain after preacher speak truth to us.” The red light turned green and the elevator door opened. Phish followed the native onboard.

Sparks stood a moment longer in the tunnel. He swore he heard human speech, but in a tongue he hadn’t heard in years. He understood a few echoing words despite not recalling the language from which they came—something about a mom and dad. Slowly, he backed onto the lift.

As the doors closed in front of him, a snatch of a children’s song rang in his head: “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.” It was a Gaelic tune sung to children in the mining town near the farm where he’d been raised.

Pale faces smeared black haunted him until the lift jolted to a stop. The lights flickered once, then expired. Instinctively, Sparks’s fingers found themselves wrapped around the grip of his heat gun. “Doorman?”

“Nothing to worry yourselves, my—” he caught himself. “Is only electricity outage. Every lift is equipped with manual crank.”

A panel cracked open somewhere in the dark. Sparks placed his back against the doors and relaxed his grip on the heat gun.

The native man grunted. Slowly, the lift began again to rise. Rhythmically, the man grunted and cranked, and the lift rose.

After a few minutes, the extent of the distance they had yet to go along with the elevator car’s similarities to a coffin settled over Sparks. “Step aside.”

“But—” the native attempted to object.

“We’ll rotate the duty until we reach the top.” Sparks found the crank handle. Figuring the rotation, he started raising the lift and double the pace. A few minutes later, he recognized why the native had chosen the slower one.

As his muscles began to quiver, Phish stepped in. “My turn.”

The three men kept the rotation for nearly twenty minutes. When the car clicked against it’s moorings at the top of the run, Sparks had never been more grateful to exit a lift. But after the native pried the doors open and Sparks’s eyes adjusted to the light, the thrill abated. Drawing his heat gun, he swept the ruddy man aside and darted for the nearest cover.

Phish leapt to his partner’s side, cracking the skull of an attacker with a vicious elbow. Sparks sent another reeling with a steely-fist. Then, just as quickly as the attack had begun, it abated.

The two who’d been bloodied, tumbled into a drift of powdery snow at the feet of a half-dozen others. “Good show, you dim-wit.” A third man laughed as he bent over to assist one of the fallen. The moment he stabilized the man he delivered a hardy headbut, and both men fell down to the great amusement of the others.

“What the—?” Sparks helped the toppled native to his feet.

“It is true for these to act as such.” The man swept dry snow from his tattered cloak. “Now, unless you have changed your minds—”

“Not a chance. Take us to your precious preacher.”

Phish joined the two, a snarl on his lips. “And things were just about to get fun.”

Sparks scoffed as the three men resumed a quick pace along a cobbled street, “Nothing’s fun about killing a pack of brainwashed idiots.”

Phish wiped the glistening sweat from his face, a disturbing lust still lingering within the dark night of his eyes. “Says you.”

Sparks shivered, both from the cold wind and the reminder of the animal instinct just beneath the pale skin of every Venusian. Quickly, he shifted his focus to their surroundings.

The towering tops of stone buildings disappeared and reappeared as howling skiffs of snow coursed through the deep-cut arteries of the mountain city. Sparks knew the visible portion of Xanadu represented only a small fraction of the total, the portion inside the belly of the mountain certainly the greater.

That so much of his surroundings remained hidden made him uncomfortable. And though the ground beneath his boots felt solid enough, he knew it to be anything but.

For several minutes, they progressed smoothly through the city, seeing little signs of life, but many of decay. Shops had been abandoned, homes barricaded. Sparks gave up counting after they passed three dozen lifeless bodies, the cold preserving them from decay.

They passed a fire in an alley where several natives warmed themselves. A woman ran past them screaming about pursuers. Sparks raised his heat gun, scanning the dark doorways and windows in the direction from which she’d come. Nothing emerged.

It was then he noticed a grinning face amidst a heap of rags several feet in front of him. He lowered his weapon. The hairless face grinned wider, revealing a few isolated teeth, the last cogs on rusty and forgotten gears.

The man, at least Sparks believed it to be a man, smacked his lips and appeared to laugh silently. He raised a disembodied hand from the shifting pile of rags and beckoned Sparks closer.

Out of curiosity, Sparks did so. The closer he got, the more the beggar’s eyes roved over his body, growing wider all the time. From a few feet away, Sparks recognized the pile of rags contained various pilfered items: a cookstove, chemical sticks, full liquor bottles, an empty holster.

At this, Sparks jerked upright.

Again, the beggar shook with silent laughter. Then he nodded, and with a point of his chin directed Sparks’s attention to a darkened alley opening behind his pile.

As if he’d been watching the interaction, the doorman spoke, “Here is home of preacher.”

Phish stepped forward, “What, this guy?”

The doorman shook his head, “At end of alley.”

“No fancy temple?”

The doorman lowered his gaze straight down. “Is only humble messenger of truth.”

“Well, we’ll see about that.” Sparks strode toward the alley opening.

The doorman whimpered and fell to his knees.

Sparks turned toward the native and then his partner.

Phish nodded.

Sparks lifted the doorman to his feet and forced the man to look him in the eyes. “You’ve fulfilled your duties. Now go home, back to your family if you’ve got one.”

“But—”

“Go!” Sparks released the man, and he shot away from them aether in a jet wash. With a nod of his head, Sparks signaled Phish. The partners entered the alley shoulder to shoulder, one side of the two-headed mercenary armed with a heat gun, the other a crystal-sharpened, Venusian blade.

###

“So,” a withered voice rose from a darkened corner of the ground-level flat, “you come from across the system to wrestle with the truth?”

The door had been wide open. Sparks moved to his right on silent boots. Phish disappeared into the darkness at his left.

“There is no need for stealth. The truth is always free for the taking.” The voice paused for a long, raspy breath. “As a matter of fact, it seeks out those willing to accept it. To embrace it.”

“Like all the cold, lifeless bodies I stepped over to get here?” Sparks scanned the dark with his steel-grey eyes for any signs of movement. “Is that what happens to folk when they accept your version of the truth?”

“Oh, the truth is not mine. It belongs individually to those who grasp it. To each his own, Mr. Sparks.”

The earthman shivered at the sound of his name spilling from the preacher’s lips.

“Are you surprised I know your name? And that of your Venusian friend? Would not the truth be aware of such trivial details?” The preacher’s voice rose in timbre and steadiness, as if the man himself were aging in reverse. “Phish and Guido, no two men past or present have matched your lust for adventure or your thirst for violence.”

Sparks misstepped, his boot crunching something brittle beneath it. At the same time, his mind began to swim. He used his off-hand to steady his heat gun. He should just fire, slash the darkness wide open and burn the man until he pulverized the stone wall behind him. But he didn’t know where to aim, and he couldn’t fire without aim.

The voice grew more intense and angry. It vibrated inside Sparks’s head. “Haughty, arrogant, you consider every other form of life beneath your own.”

An aurora burst to life before Sparks’s eyes. Shaking his head, he couldn’t shake the swimming light that burned images of his own violent acts into his sight. He lowered his gun and pressed the heal of his palm to his sockets.

The preacher continued, “Oh, you have strength of will! An iron strength that crushes all else! Death in your wake!” The preacher’s voice rose to a tumultuous fever pitch as he began to sing. “Respecter of none, sower of chaos, you shall reap what you have sown. From boy to killer you have grown! Liquor your drink and violence your food, on nothing else you shall brood.”

Sparks jerked. “Shut up! Shut your cursed face!” His arm spasmed and a dazzling flame burst from the end of the barrel in his hand. Ripped open, the dark dispersed as Sparks flailed to the ground, lashing a beam of energy wildly across the room.

“Watch it, earthling!” Phish snapped as he danced clear of the errant ray.

Sparks only released the trigger when the cold blade of Phish’s knife pinned his wrist to an overturned chair. In the bubble of silence that followed, Sparks heard the preacher laughing quietly. Lost to his pain and confusion, Sparks freed his hand by removing the knife.

As he did so, the voice continued, once again withered and weak, “I have spoken all that truth has to say. Go. If in a day’s time you still desire to kill me, I will offer my life willingly.”

At the mention of killing, Sparks leapt at a thought as if a distant memory. He had come here to kill someone, but who? Killing. It was the only thing that felt right. He should do so now.

“Go!” The voice commanded.

Sparks jumped to his feet. Unthinking, he backed toward the door.

“Come back tomorrow,” the voice paused as its owner heaved a deep sigh.

Sparks wasn’t sure why, but the words seemed full of sorrow and pain.

“If you can.” The voice finished with these final foreboding words.

To Sparks they didn’t seem sufficient. He grasped at a question that seemed to be fleeing his mind  more quickly than he could ask it. He needed to know more. He needed some answer to a question he forgot.

“Out of the way, earthling, before you bleed on me.”

Sparks had reached the door, but before he could back through it, an angry Venusian barreled him over. Tumbling into a drift of snow in the alley, Sparks rebounded quickly. Leaping forward, he swept the Venusian’s legs and shoved him headlong.

A moment later the two men clambered into the street while exchanging blows.

“Out of my way! I’m thirsty!” Getting the better of him, the Venusian clapped a two-fisted hammer against Sparks’s jaw.

Sprawling to the street, Sparks struck the cobblestones and rolled to a hard stop. The punishment severed the final tether his mind had been grasping, and whatever it was he’d been attempting to realize sank into the cold stone beneath his cheek.

###

Sparks awoke to something tugging gently at his side. Reflex guided his hand to the grip of his heat gun where he fought off a frail, bony hand already in the process of removing the pistol from its holster. His other hand shot out just as quickly to grip the throat of the intruder.

Sitting up and blinking snow out of his eyes, he finally focused on the toothless grimace of a beggar. The man choked and sputtered. Sparks squeezed. “You’re not even worth the charge it would take to fry you.

The man attempted to shake his head, his eyes bulging. He slapped his ears repeatedly with open palms and again tried to shake his head.

Sparks squeezed. He didn’t know where he was, or who this man was before him. But he knew the taste and touch of killing intimately. The act of it warmed his insides.

The man slapped his own ears until they bled, his eyes now rolled into his head.

One last twitch and it would be done. Then it struck him. As bright red drops of blood stained the drift of white snow gathered where Sparks had lain on the cold cobbles, it struck him. The beggar was deaf.

Sparks released his grip, dropping the pitiful creature facedown in the street. Why should it matter? Who cared if the man was deaf. He had tried to steal another man’s pistol. For that, it was Sparks’s right to kill him, deaf or otherwise.

But for some reason it mattered.

Cold and sore all over, Sparks let it go. His stomach rumbled. His throat ached. He needed something to sooth it. He needed a drink. Wobbly, he rose to his feet and kicked the beggar out of the way.

A natural instinct for finding taverns and a vague recollection of his surroundings led him in short time to a doorway lit by flame and buzzing with laughter. Scattered chords of a familiar ditty played on a strange tonal percussion instrument greeted Sparks as he ambled across the threshold.

“About time you show up, slowpoke.” A gold-haired cherub of a Venusian called to him from the back corner. “I was beginning to think that beggar slit your throat.”

Sparks grinned, “Fat chance.” He turned aside to the bar. “What is there to drink in this shinta hole.”

“Why don’t you start with your own blood, you foul-mouthed devil!” A lumbering minor rose from his stool and slashed at Sparks with a roughly fashioned shiv.

Sparks casually drew his heat gun and burned a hole through the man’s chest. As the man slumped to the ground, Sparks slammed his pistol on the bar. “I said get me a drink!”

“Better make that two.”

Sparks spun to face the devious black-eyes of the Venusian.

For a split second, the confidence buoying the two terrible windows into a dark time before history deflated. “I seem to recall something about you owing me one.”

Sparks nodded. “You know, I think you’re right.” He pounded the bar again. “Two drinks!”

A ruddy-skinned, long-limbed bartender shook as he attempted to pour the drinks.

Sparks snatched the bottle and shoved the man against the shelves behind the bar. As the bartender struggled to catch bottles of turbid liquor before they shattered against the stone floor, the bar song rose in volume and intensity. An alien voice took up the tune.

Sparks seized, his muscles jerking, his consciousness dancing like a needle across the grooved surface an ancient vinyl record—the kind his grandmother kept on her high shelf. Something familiar resided in those grooves, but his mind couldn’t settle into them.

The musician sang the chorus with lilting tremolo as if from dual throats, “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.”

In hostile resistance, Sparks’s mind skipped completely, returning control of his body to a baser instinct. He licked his cracked lips. Half swaggering and half dizzy, he sidled to the table where the Venusian sat. “The service around here stinks.”

“I think it’s you that stinks, my friend.”

Sparks slammed the bottle on the table and lunged with a slow haymaker.

The Venusian caught it while pulling a knife from his boot.

Sparks jabbed his heat gun into the Venusian’s ribs at the same time he felt the knife against his own. Both men looked down and laughed.

“This calls for a drink!”

Sparks attempted to cork the bottle after pouring two glasses of nose-curdling, blue liquid. He stopped short at a sharp pain.

“What happened to your wrist?” The Venusian pointed with his glass before knocking back a third of it and grimacing.

Sparks held up his hand, a curious look on his face. In the background, the harpsichord-like music plinked and plucked at a tune Sparks felt he could hum to if he were so inclined. Gritting his teeth, he dug his thumb into the wound. His hand twitched, but all the fingers still worked.

A memory flashed through his mind alongside the pain. The injury was recent. Why couldn’t he remember it? He battered the door of his mind in attempt to break it down, but failed. The earliest thing he could recall was the beggar. He hummed a bar or two of music. “Did you know that beggar is deaf?”

“Deaf? Why in the name of Pharol should I care about that?”

Sparks used his good hand to tip back his drink. The odor was like wet dog, and the taste diesel. But the burn. The burn took his breath away. Blinking through the fumes, he finally managed to gulp air into his lungs.

The Venusian laughed before taking a swig himself. When both men recovered, he continued, “How can a moon with so much snow be so dry?”

They clinked glasses and Sparks licked his lips in anticipation of that blessed burn.

###

Everything began to blur together. Hours passed, possibly days. Sparks couldn’t be sure. At first he thought it a nasty side effect of the booze, then something else. Possibly the Venusian had poisoned him. He couldn’t remember how many times they had fought, or why.

A strong heat brushed against his face. Laughter filled his ears. Suddenly he rolled onto his side and puked. The bile stripped the inside of his throat, leaving behind nothing but pain. Through the pain, he recognized the sound in his ears as fire rather than laughter. The burn in his throat became a combination of bile and smoke.

He rolled onto his stomach and pushed against the floor, heat radiating from the cobbled stones. His muscles trembled at the effort. What was wrong with him?

Finally, he reached his knees. He coughed in the thickening smoke and froze as a familiar tune tickled his ears. Chords of music rose over the cracks and pops of the fire, then an alien voice, “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.” A clot of fear lodged in his chest. His parents. He had to save them, but where were they?

On unsteady feet he plodded and stumbled through a maze of overturned tables searching for family to pull from the flames. With each uncertain step, the farmhouse and hay barn of his youth transformed into a tavern of stone and rough-hewn wooden beams.

With each rasping breath, his murderous lust evolved into duty, loyalty. But to what? And to who? The music grew off-tune, skipping notes and plucking dead strings. Sparks took up the tune himself. Mouthing breathless words, he continued the song. While his muscles deteriorated with each effort, his mind strengthened.

Xanadu. The bar, the city where he found himself. He remembered.

He caught a flicker of movement through the corner of his eye. Behind a wall of smoke, at the back of the bar, someone else struggled to survive. Hacking, choking, stumbling, Sparks wrenched a table off of a gold-haired Venusian. “Phish,” his throat constricted around the word.

His friend was burned, but angry—the anger a good indicator of life.

“Help me up, earthman.”

Sparks tugged with every dying ember of his strength and the two rose together. The music had stopped altogether and Sparks had lost the tune, but he remembered where he was and why he’d come—to kill a preacher for money.

The purpose lent him new resolve. As the mammoth timbers girding the tavern ceiling snapped and gave way to the hunger of the flames, Sparks and his Venusian partner rolled gratefully into the welcoming cold of a snow drift.

###

A cold trickle worked its way down the back of Sparks’s throat. His swallow reflex jolted him awake as the constriction of his burning throat shot pain up and down his spine. With difficulty he raised his head. A dazzling aurora swam in the sky above him. He watched the colors morph and dance in amazement. A trickle of melted snow ran down his nose and pooled at his lips.

As he licked the water, a thirst reared within him. How long had it been since he had drank anything but booze?

A quick movement caught his eye just before a cold puff of snow struck his head. He blinked away the dry flakes and focused on a man, a Titanian native with long ruddy arms and legs.

The native dusted snow from his hands and cocked his head.

“Do I know you?” Sparks whispered the words as loud as he could.

“Where would my masters wish for me to take them today?”

The accented English combined with the subservient tone sparked a memory in a dormant section of Sparks’s brain. “The doorman?”

“At my masters’ service.”

A rustling at Sparks’s elbow diverted his attention. “Phish, about time you wake up.” Sparks tugged his partner into a sitting position and helped dust off the snow that had drifted around them.

“Guy?” The Venusian’s voice cracked. He grimaced and attempted to swallow. Finally he whispered, “Where are we?”

Sparks smiled broadly enough to make his lips bleed. “Xanadu.” He turned toward the doorman and continued, “I think we came here on a bounty.”

“I remember. Something about a preacher.” Phish gripped Sparks’s hand, and they helped each other up on wobbly legs.

Sparks nodded. “A preacher we’re supposed to kill.”

The doorman drew cautiously near, “Would my masters like me to take them to preacher?”

Breathing shallow, Sparks rested his hands on his knees in an effort to stop the world from spinning. “First, stop calling me that. Second, yes, take us to this preacher. But could we get something to drink first?”

The doorman stepped back glancing nervously between the two men and the smoldering remains of the tavern.

Sparks understood his concern and shook his head. “Not booze. Water.”

The doorman smiled, his lips rising in the middle as well as both corners. His voice warmed and grew an added dimension, “As you wish.”

###

Slowly, the small party worked its way along cobblestone streets—one block, then two, and finally a third. The only visible bodies remaining in Xanadu not belonging to the three of them were dead ones. Sparks didn’t miss the fact that not one of the dead were natives. They stopped in front of large and luxuriously-one-storied building. The wooden shutters were shattered and listing, but the rest of the structure remained intact.

The doorman led them inside the abandoned structure and seated them near a window.

Sparks caught the doorman’s shoulder. “How long—” He fumbled over how to formulate his question, unsure of exactly what he was asking. “How long ago did we first meet?”

Without lifting his gaze, the native responded, “Five days have passed since first I serve my—” he caught himself, “since first we meet.” The man scurried off before Sparks could detain him further.

“Five days?” Phish grilled Sparks with black eyes and furrowed brows. “What have we been doing for five days? I barely remember arriving.”

Sparks met the Venusian’s intensity and raised it. “What are we?”

Phish cocked his head and raised a brow.

“I mean, what dictates who we are?”

“A man’s no better than his actions, why?”

Sparks nodded. “So we’re drunks and hooligans.”

Phish narrowed his eyes, a flare of anger sparking beneath their polished black surface. “We’re mercenaries and smugglers.” He straightened. “At least I think we are.”

The doorman returned with two metal mugs filled with water and two hard loaves of bread that clanked nearly as loud as the mugs when he placed them on the table. “I shall show you to preacher at your leisure.” He bowed and withdrew.

The two partners ate their meager meal in silence, finishing it as quickly as their parched throats allowed. Fifteen minutes later they followed the doorman’s lead as the three of them pushed through a newly invigorated northern wind carrying with it blinding skiffs of snow.

###

“You’re late,” a shriveled voice spoke from the shadows.

A dizzying sense of deja vu struck Sparks between the eyes. “Time flies.”

“For some,” the preacher wheezed, “but truth is eternal.”

Sparks closed his eyes, stabilizing himself with Phish’s shoulder. Slowly but surely his memory of their previous encounter with the preacher returned. “You,” he released Phish, “you on the other hand, are not.” He gripped an unlit chemical stick in one hand and his heat gun in the other.

“Despite your tardiness, I will honor our agreement. You’ve no need to fear.”

“Fear?” Phish interrupted. “As if we were afraid of an old man hiding in the shadows?”

“Oh you are afraid, my Venusian warrior. Do not mistake the willingness to die as lack of fear. Your fear stems from lack of necessity.” The man wheezed in an effort to catch his breath, his audience unable to override him. “But as I have said, you fear needlessly, for Guido Sparks has need of you, as have I.”

Sparks blinked a drop of sweat from an eyelash and grew suddenly aware that he’d raised his heat gun. He gripped it so tight, his hand shook. His chest heaved and his brow ran with sweat despite the cold. “Who are you?”

“Does it matter? You have come to kill me, and I have surrendered myself into your hand.”

Phish nudged Sparks.

Sparks shook his head.

Impatiently, Phish tugged the chemical stick from Sparks’s left hand and activated it. The pale, blue-green glow burst to life, pushing back the shadows and revealing a hunched figure no more than ten paces in front of them. The Venusian sheathed his knife and drew his own heat gun. “Burn him, or I will.”

“Not yet,” Sparks barked through gritted teeth. He fought against his own urge to squeeze the trigger, to vent the building urge to sever the preacher’s connection to this world, to fulfill his word with the taking of a life. With quivering lips, he continued, “You speak of the truth as if you’re incapable of telling a lie.”

“Telling the truth and speaking it are two different things.”

Sparks shook his head, his hand cramping around the grip of his gun. “No. A man is more than what he does.”

“So Guido Sparks wants to be more than a killer? A killer for pay perhaps?”

“Guy, what are you doing? We can’t wait any longer.” Phish squeezed the trigger.

Sparks sensed the moment coming. Colliding into his partner’s shoulder, he forced the Venusian’s energy beam high. The stone ceiling crackled and burst into a spray of shattered rock as Sparks attempted to wrest the gun from Phish’s grip. “Who are you?!” Sparks continued to grill the preacher even as the ray from Phish’s heat gun slashed across the far wall. “I need to know!”

The preacher’s voice rose again in timbre and richness. He bellowed above the crackling thunder of the superheated rock exploding from the ceiling and walls. “One day you will find what you seek, Guido Sparks. I am not truth, but merely an unholy messenger, brought about through unrighteous means and unleashed as a weapon. Now, I beg of you, end me!”

Surrendering both to his own impulses and the strength of his Venusian companion, Sparks and Phish directed the beam of sizzling energy together. Four hands gripping the gun, and in singularity of action, the hunched figure of the preacher toppled and fell beneath the ray of unquenchable thirst.

Sparks blinked through the smoke of sizzling rock and burning clothes. Absent was the stink of scalded flesh. Clambering to his feet, he witnessed the collapse and consumption of the preacher’s cloak, but the old man’s body had gone. If ever he had possessed one, nothing now remained. No stink, no ash, nothing.

Phish rose and holstered his weapon. “What was that about?”

Sparks shook his head. “I wanted an explanation for the past five days.”

Phish raised a brow. “Explanation for what? The dust storms on Mars? For why we had such a long row of bad luck? And why in Pharol’s name would this guy know about any of that?”

Sparks stood dazed. “You don’t remember?”

Phish rolled his black eyes. “Fine, I owe you a case of rebyl. As soon as we find a tavern, I’ll pay up.” He wiped the sweat from his brow. “First why don’t we follow up on that bath you mentioned?”

 

###

 

On their way out of Xanadu, Sparks did his best to explain what he could remember of the five day gap between the first time they confronted the preacher and the last. Part of him had hoped to run into the doorman, but the only living soul they encountered had been the deaf beggar.

Sparks had grilled him with narrow eyes and the beggar had merely shrugged and given him a toothless grin, as if to say “it was worth a try.”

Sparks couldn’t help but wonder why the natives seemed unaffected and if they had been what prevented Xanadu from descending down the same path of complete destruction that the other settlements had. Was their truth that different from his and Phish’s and the rest of the off-world miners’? Perhaps the recent century of oppression had been their salvation. Perhaps his experience simply couldn’t understand theirs.

After they did what they could to repair the Tempest’s solar sails and succeeded in punching through Titan’s thick atmosphere to establish orbit, Phish turned to Sparks with a question revealing what had been occupying his more practically keen mind, “Before we killed him, the preacher mentioned being unleashed as a weapon. If that’s the case, who do you think unleashed him and why?”

Before Sparks could respond, the Tempest’s com bleeped with an incoming message. Sparks hesitated, his finger hovering over the button. “Time to collect payment?”

Phish shrugged, “You’re gonna have to buy me a case of rebyl somehow.”

Sparks opened the connection and cleared his voice.

“About time you boys poked your head up through the clouds.” It was the cocky-smooth voice of Persephone. “I’ve been looking for your signal for some time. I hope everything went smoothly?”

“Your preacher’s dead, if that’s what you’re asking.” Sparks ran a hand across his face, realizing his stubble had nearly grown into a beard.

“Oh I never doubted that.”

“Trouble?” Phish laughed. “Oh no trouble, just transfer the ledger and we’ll be fine.”

Sparks detected the slightest of hesitations on the other end. He hated wrapping up deals of this magnitude via such impersonal means. People made dumb decisions from the anonymity and perceived security of great distances.

“Will do,” she finally continued. “Just give me a minute, and you’ll see it appear.” She sighed audibly. “I’m sorry we couldn’t share another drink together, Sparks.” She cut the connection.

Sparks exchanged uncomfortable glances with Phish and his skin began to crawl. “Did something about that sound—”

Phish nodded before he could finish.

Without even checking their ledger, Sparks fired full thrusters to break orbit. Sitting still had once again become intolerable.

A slim three seconds later, the coordinates where they would have been, had they not altered trajectory, collapsed and then expanded exponentially as a interplanetary ordinate tipped with gaurginite detonated less than a click off their port side. The ripple flipped the Tempest before Sparks could respond.

Held fast by his harness, he mashed his palm into the controls in effort to deploy the single-use, emergency sail. Succeeding, the Tempest tumbled even more violently to face the source of the explosion, as the sail worked like a pillowcase in a hurricane.

Bucking against his restraints and struggling to hold his chin off his chest, Sparks managed to ride the surge without blacking out. The moment they dropped from the wash, he fired full thrusters and manually steered for a course somewhere far away from Titan. “Coordinates.”

“For where?” Phish rubbed his bleary eyes in an attempt to focus.

“Surprise me!”

Phish punched in their destination and without wasting a heart beat, Sparks deployed what was left of their solar sails. Without looking back, he opened up the Tempest’s full capabilities, and to anyone who might still be looking for them, they became a blur streaking across the swirling backdrop of Saturn.

 

END of Episode One

Adventures of Cosmo and Chancho, Ep1

Episode One: Things That Go Boom

A line of dark-skinned Africans zig-zagged out of sight behind mountains of bituminous coal. Coaling a behemoth the size of the Royal Edward was a monumental and dirty task. Cosmo gathered a bird’s eye view of the process from his favorite spot on the afterdeck of the five-level passenger steamer.

Shielding his face with his hand, Cosmo peered upward at the sun through the slits between his fingers. The temperature and humidity created an oppressive heat as bad as anything he had grown up with in the jungles of Northeast India.

Watching the coal porters dump precious coal into the ship’s hopper a basketful at a time renewed Cosmo’s gratitude for his current job—bodyguard to the less-than noble Sir Rendel Wrightwick. Technically, Cosmo’s title was porter and baggage boy, a position more typical for a low caste, tribal boy. However, one of Wrightwick’s colleagues had jokingly referred to him as an esquire.

After sneaking a peek at his boss’s English/Hindi dictionary, Cosmo learned an esquire had once been the title for a knight in training. He liked it. Cosmo Zimik, Esquire.

“Cosmo? Is that you?”

Without acknowledging the voice, Cosmo attempted to identify it. By the accent Cosmo could tell the voice belonged to a white man, American. That could mean only one thing—a missionary. Cosmo faced him.

“I wouldn’t of believed it, but Laura insisted it was you.”

Cosmo recognized the man, but couldn’t recall the name. “Pastor…”

“Pettigrew.”

Cosmo nodded. The Baptist missionary and his wife had been working throughout the Naga Hills for several years. Cosmo had met them during his father’s ordination. What were the chances someone connected with his home village would end up on the Royal Edward? The last thing Cosmo needed was for his father to learn he had left the boarding school in Calcutta.

Pettigrew frowned. “What are you doing out here in the middle of the Arabian Sea?”

Cosmo turned the tables with a question of his own. “Are you and your wife heading home on sabbatical?”

“A bit of a fundraising junket, I’m afraid. We hope to travel back to India soon.” Pettigrew raised his brimmed hat long enough to run his fingers through his hair. “It’s only been a week, and I miss your Naga Hills already. But enough about me and Laura.”

Cosmo dodged the matter. “I miss home, too. You must be looking forward to seeing your home in the States.”

“Well yes, I suppose Virginia will always be home. But for heaven’s sake, you must tell me how you’ve ended up—”

“You there! Bag boy.”

Cosmo blinked slowly and faced Wrightwick’s personal assistant, Barnard. He was an overly scrupulous and annoying man stuffed in stuffy clothes. But at that moment, his appearance served as a welcome interruption.

“Stop your lolly-gagging, you goldbricker. The boss has a meeting in Aden in fifteen minutes. You’ve got fifteen seconds to meet him on the dock, or start swimming back to India.” Barnard glared through his circular spectacles at Pettigrew.

Apparently, Cosmo didn’t need to introduce the two men.

Pettigrew sputtered before finding his tongue. “You’re working for Sir Wrightwick?”

Cosmo had no idea how an American Baptist missionary knew a disreputable business man like Wrightwick, but the unfortunate coincidences were adding up. Instead of answering the question, Cosmo leapt on top of the railing.

Pettigrew gasped. “What would your father think?”

Nearly three feet over Cosmo’s head, a guy wire tethered the Royal Edward to a concrete anchor amidst the coal piles. Cosmo glanced down at Barnard. “Can I borrow a kerchief?”

Barnard scoffed. “A kerchief? Boy, you’d better be worried more about your hide than a runny nose.” Despite his grumbling, Barnard fetched the cloth from his pocket. Reaching up, he slapped it into Cosmo’s outstretched hand. “Now you’ve got ten seconds, so I suggest you get down and stop—”

Cosmo doubled the cloth in his hand, bent his knees and jumped. With an inch to spare, he clutched the cable, which turned out to be as big around as a rupee coin. The kerchief smoked in Cosmo’s hand as he zipped down the steep angle—perhaps too steep.

Imagining the flesh of his hand smoking next, Cosmo scanned for a safe place to land. Heat seared his palm. Swinging toward a less trafficked stretch of boardwalk, Cosmo released his grip and plummeted the last several yards to the dock. Despite tucking his feet on contact, his knees struck his chest harder than he would have liked.

After tumbling into a shocked laborer, Cosmo stood with a stupid grin on his face. “Nine seconds to spare.” He spoke to no one in particular.

Pettigrew called a parting shot after him. “It would kill your father to find out how you’re using your skills!”

Cosmo ground his teeth and pushed through the snaking line of coal porters. Hundreds of miles from India, and his father’s watchful eye still pursued him. Cosmo would simply have to travel further. He didn’t expect his father or any of his people to understand why he’d taken a job protecting a representative of Colonial Britain.

Then again, as an American and a missionary, of course Pettigrew had been referring to Cosmo’s neglect of his spiritual gifting. Of all the stupid things his father could have handed down to his youngest son… Cosmo shook it off. Somehow, he would have to avoid Pettigrew for the remainder of their time aboard the Royal Edward.

Covered in coal dust and several seconds late, Cosmo located his boss. Lateness and untidiness were two things Wrightwick typically did not tolerate in his associates or employees. For some reason, Cosmo’s contempt for his boss exempted him from severe punishment.

Currently, Sir Wrightwick looked undecided between rage and amusement. He tucked his gold pocket watch into his waistcoat. “The landing could have been better.” He sucked the toothpick in his teeth before flicking it off the dock and into the water below.

Cosmo slapped coal dust off of his baggy dhoti pants. “I’ll work on it. No problem.”

###

The settlement of Aden existed for one purpose, the coaling of ships. Decades earlier, a Sultanate of Yemen had surrendered the volcanic spit to the British East India Company and a battalion of Royal Marines. Built inside an extinct volcano, the town was perfectly sheltered against storms and pirates alike. Unfortunately, the walls of dark, igneous rock protected the town from any and all breeze as well.

On full alert, Cosmo rode shotgun next to the coach’s driver. After a series of switchbacks, the horse-drawn carriage arrived at the locals’ version of a house of spirits. Cosmo had no use for alcohol or any adult who imbibed it. His people, the Naga, didn’t touch the stuff.

While Wrightwick didn’t drink excessively, his business appointments convened in such places. Cosmo jumped down and opened the door of the carriage for his boss.

Wrightwick flushed from the carriage like a flock of birds from the jungle canopy. Always in a hurry without looking hurried, that was Wrightwick’s manner. As a result, the man came across as angry and intimidating. He knew what he wanted, and he expected others to keep up.

Usually Cosmo’s young age forced him to work twice as hard to overcome initial impressions. But Wrightwick had seemed pleased by Cosmo’s youth. He had recognized Cosmo’s abilities immediately and hired him after a fifteen minute interview during which Cosmo revealed no personal information.

Handing Cosmo his satchel, Wrightwick flung open the saloon doors. He paused only long enough for his eyes to adjust to the dim lighting.

Cosmo flowed past Wrightwick without brushing the man’s elbow. He sized up every individual inside the drinking house in a matter of seconds. By the time Wrightwick proceeded to a table in the far corner, Cosmo had eliminated all but two of the patrons as potential threats.

Cosmo followed his boss while keeping one eye glued on the backs of the two burly fellows seated at the bar. Cosmo didn’t like the fact their turbans and flowing robes could conceal swords or even rifles.

“Sir Wrightwick, I presume.” A portly gentlemen rose from the corner table.

Wrightwick sat without shaking the man’s hand. “I’ve no time for such unscheduled diversions. You have information for me, Mr. Crampton?”

Crampton attempted to brush his hair from his face. Excessive sweating had pasted it to his forehead. The man was nervous, slovenly and alone—a stark contrast to the clean and collected Wrightwick. Obviously, Crampton lacked the confidence to pose any serious threat.

Cosmo turned his back to the meeting. Tensing, he realized the two men at the bar had gone. He swept the establishment with his eyes. How could such men disappear so quickly and so quietly? At the very least, Cosmo should have heard them upsetting a chair or a table.

“Right you are.” Crampton worked up the nerve to speak. “Terribly sorry for the interruption.”

“Then get to it, man.” Wrightwick snapped.

Cosmo observed the remaining patrons for clues to the mystery mens’ disappearance. None of them stared toward the exit or acted as if anything strange had occurred. Cosmo knew he had turned his head for only a second.

“Right, right.” Crampton stammered. “A scurrilous lot filtered through here the better of two days ago asking after the Royal Edward in a roundabout manner, if you know what I mean.”

“Similar to your current manner?” Wrightwick asked through clenched teeth.

“I see. Indeed, you’re right.” Crampton gulped. “Straight to the point then. There’s no doubt in my mind they were pirates, sir. Mercenaries hired with the specific charge of finding your ship.”

Cosmo didn’t like the mention of pirates, especially after losing the two men at the bar. He reasoned the men could have been waiting for Wrightwick’s arrival before setting some devious plot into action.

“Mercenaries and pirates. Hmmm.” Wrightwick scratched his chin. “I apologize for my brash behavior, Mr. Crampton. You were right for initiating this aside. You’ve provided useful information indeed. It’s possible the Ottoman Empire has caught wind of our movements in the area.”

While maintaining vigilance, Cosmo focused on the conversation. He’d undertaken a crash course on Middle Eastern current events after learning of the Royal Edward’s destination. An English newspaper had revealed the Ottomans were currently engaged in a localized war with neighboring countries. Cosmo surmised on his own that Wrightwick’s interest in the area pivoted on the warfare.

“Think closely, Mr. Crampton.” Wrightwick leaned forward. “Did these dastards pronounce the name of the Royal Edward specifically?”

Crampton shook his head. “Nay, sir. But they inquired after large steamers en route to the Suez Canal. You know, asking whether one had been by. Only three boats this week fit that description.”

“Indeed, the coincidence is suspicious. I agree.”

Both men fell silent. A wooden chair scraped the floorboards as a patron rose to pay his bill. Cosmo wondered again of the mystery men, then dismissed them as paranoia. Coincidence. Probably nothing. The alien environment had set Cosmo on edge.

Crampton cleared his voice. “Should I inform her Majesty of any changes in the plan?”

“No no.” Wrightwick stood. This time he extended his hand.

Crampton shook it.

“Everything will proceed as planned. I’ll double the watch, that’s all. Nothing will prevent the Edward from landing intact with its cargo. Certainly no band of clumsy pirates.” Wrightwick glanced at his pocket watch and gestured for Cosmo to take the lead.

With his boss’s satchel still in hand, Cosmo moved swiftly toward the exit. If Wrightwick was deferring to Cosmo’s lead, it meant he was concerned enough for his safety to throw convention out the window. Not that anyone in the saloon would care that a British gentleman had deferred to his bag boy. But Cosmo knew Wrightwick cared.

That meant Cosmo should care. Throwing open the saloon doors, Cosmo leapt aside and held one open for his boss. He blinked rapidly in the harsh midday sun. Two blurs in the shapes of men flashed to his left.

Cosmo shielded the sun with his free hand. His bleary eyes focused on an empty street. No men, no nothing. He whistled for the carriage parked across the way. The driver started as if he’d been asleep beneath the brim of his hat. Straightening, he shook the reins and stirred the horses to life.

Cosmo opened the door of the carriage. After Wrightwick boarded, Cosmo resumed shotgun. He scanned both sides of the street for the mysterious men or anything suspicious. A couple of women shrouded in black burkas emerged from a bakery and immediately scurried from the presence of the strangers.

Cosmo rubbed his eyes—maybe he wasn’t getting enough sleep. Determined to execute his duty with honor, he’d get less sleep in the coming days due to Wrightwick’s heightened security needs.

Before abandoning boarding school, Cosmo had been exposed to Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the imperative to “know your enemy.” Thus, Cosmo’s motivations in protecting the corrupt and dishonorable Sir Wrightwick might have been less than pure. But there was no reason Cosmo couldn’t study his enemy while maintaining his honor and his contract.

Besides, if pirates were targeting the Royal Edward, everyone onboard would be in equal danger. Including Cosmo.

###

Cosmo inhaled the mixture of salt air and coal smoke from his favorite spot on the afterdeck. The clock in his head told him it was nearly midnight—almost halfway through his vigil. Seventy-two hours after striking out from Aden, the Royal Edward had reached the Mediterranean Sea intact and without event.

Wrightwick’s meeting in Aden with a fellow named Crampton had revealed a pirate plot to seize the Royal Edward before she could dock in Salonika, Greece. Crampton had brought up the possibility of informing her Majesty of changes to the plan. But Wrightwick had insisted nothing would prevent the Edward from landing intact with its cargo. Cosmo still had no idea what that cargo was.

During the three days’ journey, Cosmo had overheard Wrightwick talking softly in his quarters. At first, Cosmo assumed Wrightwick was talking to himself. Later, he heard Barnard referring to something called a ‘wireless.’ Cosmo deduced the technology to be some sort of telephone without wires. Never during the countless conversations did Wrightwick mention the nature of the Royal Edward’s cargo.

It bothered Cosmo. Out of curiosity, he stole a glance at the Royal Edward’s passenger roster: 435 civilian passengers, 58 crew. Yet the Edward’s full capacity was listed at 1,114 souls. Cosmo was good at mathematics. No manner of number twisting could take 435 plus 58 and come up with anything close to 1,114.

More than half the boat was officially empty. That meant wasted space and wasted fuel, which meant wasted money. Wrightwick didn’t waste money.

Cosmo rubbed his bare arms. Despite it being July, the Mediterranean breeze chilled him. Worse, the boundless night worried him. It didn’t take an expert in piracy to know the open ocean provided less cover during the day than at night. If a much smaller pirate crew on a much smaller boat intended to seize control of the Royal Edward, they would use the cover of night.

Cosmo intended to make sure no such thing happened.

He stretched his eyes across the vast darkness of the choppy sea. The fractured reflection of the moon spread out in every direction. To the south and east, Cosmo imagined the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt and Ottoman controlled Palestine—the lands of the Bible.

During his father’s youth, American missionaries had penetrated his homeland. Great numbers of Naga converted to Baptist Christianity. Cosmo’s parents believed. Cosmo wasn’t so sure.

The thought of his homeland filled him with loneliness until he shook off the distraction. He had a job to do. A strange job at that. Here he was in a body of water surrounded by Africa, the Middle East and Europe, on a boat supposedly half empty and yet precious enough to attract mercenary pirates.

Cosmo knew Wrightwick was hiding something below decks—something valuable enough to risk the lives of 493 people.

The resonance of the night air suddenly shifted. Cosmo closed his eyes and swiveled his neck. He listened to the sounds of the water as if he were a bat. For the last several hours, the slap of water against the Royal Edward’s hull had fled outward and dissipated.

Now the sound rebounded off of an invisible object to port. Something was out there. Cosmo opened his eyes and stood on tiptoe. The night acted like a black curtain. He couldn’t see the water at the base of the ship, except for the moon’s reflection.

The moon’s reflection, of course. He searched the surface of the water for evidence of something large enough to block the moon’s reflection. After several seconds of frantic searching, he found it—a dark spot large enough to be a ship.

It wasn’t much to go on, but he’d rather wake the crew for nothing than fight pirates by himself. Slipping off his sandals, he sprinted barefoot for the emergency box outside the back door of the cabin. Seconds later, he threw himself against the glass window and shattered it with his elbow.

Reaching inside, he removed the flare gun with one hand and snatched two flares with the other. He loaded the gun on the run, aimed it high over the bridge, and fired. The pilot would have to see it.

Back on the afterdeck, he cracked open the flare gun and ejected the shell of the spent flare. He loaded the second flare, burning himself in the process. Ignoring the pain, he scanned the surface of the water for the shadow he’d seen before. Nothing.

He chided himself for assuming a pirate vessel wouldn’t change trajectory. He shifted his gaze to directly behind the boat. There, in the wake, a growing darkness.

He aimed the flare gun again. This time, he fired directly at the approaching shadow. Instantly, the flare revealed a low profile, iron-clad steamer in the Royal Edward’s wake. And it was catching them up.

A metal ping struck the hull of the Edward below Cosmo. A split second later, the pop of gunfire reached his ears. Dancing backward, Cosmo sounded the alarm. “Pirates! Directly aftward! Pirates!” He turned at the sound of approaching footsteps and collided with the ship’s Captain.

“What’s all this then?”

Before Cosmo could explain, another bullet ricocheted off the cabin wall.

“For the love of Saint Nicholas!” The captain held the rest of his men back. “Pirates! Sound the alarm! Dole out the munitions! If they aim to board the Royal Edward, we’ll make them pay with their own blood!”

Cosmo had already pushed past the others on his way toward Sir Wrightwick’s personal cabin. While he’d assist in defending the boat by any means necessary, Wrightwick was his personal responsibility.

###

The Royal Edward shuttered as Cosmo pounded on the door of Wrightwick’s cabin.

Wrightwick greeted Chancho with a snarl on his lips. “Report.”

“Pirates.” Cosmo exhaled the world between deep breaths.

“So they’ve found us have they?” Wrightwick disappeared inside his cabin. Seconds later he joined Cosmo in the passageway with his sword-cane in hand. “Do you require a weapon?”

Cosmo found it odd the question had never come up before. He shook his head. “I’ll use my surroundings.”

Wrightwick nodded approvingly. “The pirates will have been instructed to kill on sight.”

“And my instructions?” Cosmo asked.

“The same.”

With Wrightwick right behind him, Cosmo darted along the narrow passageway. He slid down the stairs railings without touching the steps and landed on the main deck. He knew the best way to keep his employer safe would be on deck. There, he could defend the ship and Wrightwick at the same time.

The lifeboats would be a last resort. Considering he couldn’t swim, Cosmo hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

The sounds of gunfire and men giving orders filled the deck. Cosmo peered up and down the length of the starboard gangway. All he saw were the ship’s crew darting in and out of doorways.

The moment Wrightwick hit the main deck, he pushed past Cosmo and barked orders to everyone within earshot. “Report. What’s our status?”

Barnard, a short-barrel shotgun in hand, slid up beside Wrightwick and Cosmo. “The afterdeck is on fire.”

“Jiminey F. Cripes.” Wrightwick slapped the cabin wall.

“Some sort of incendiary.” Barnard wiped soot from his brow. “The pirates are using the flames and smoke to mask their boarding.”

“What are we doing to stop them?” Wrightwick demanded.

“We’re positioning the retardant pump and firing blind.”

Wrightwick ground his teeth. “Release the cargo.”

“Sir?” Barnard hesitated.

“Do it now, man! The last thing we need is to lose everything in a fiery inferno! Most of the crates will float!”

“Yes sir.” Barnard leveled his shotgun and charged around the corner.

Wrightwick shouted after him. “For the love of God, don’t open them!”

Cosmo peered through the thick dark of night toward the stern of the ship. The blackness had grown thicker with smoke. Occasionally a flicker of fire pierced the veil. “Do I get to know now what exactly our cargo is?”

“Not what. Who.”

The captain’s voice boomed over a loudspeaker, preventing Wrightwick from explaining further. “This is your captain. All civilians, please stay in your cabins. We’ve encountered a small band of hostile forces. I repeat, remain in your cabins.”

The Royal Edward shuddered beneath their feet. Wrightwick braced himself against the railing.

Cosmo clutched his employer’s sleeve to prevent him from tumbling overboard.

“We need to launch a lifeboat.”

Cosmo frowned. “We’re not going to fight?”

Wrightwick scanned for the nearest boat. “No one is attempting to board this ship.” He shook his head. “They’re trying to sink it.”

“But don’t pirates usually want—”

“Shut up and find me a dingy!” Wrightwick snapped.

“This way.” Cosmo had studied the entire layout of the ship in detail. He reached the lifeboat in seconds and tore off the canvas tarp covering it. “Climb in while I pull the release.”

“We’ll need rope.”

“There’s a fifty foot coil inside.”

“Good.” Wrightwick leapt into the boat.

Cosmo unlocked the pulley system holding the boat in place. A woman’s scream pierced the raucous. “Should we wait for others? There won’t be enough boats—”

“We’re not giving up the Edward, we’re protecting the bloody thing. Now cast off.”

Obediently, Cosmo jumped onboard the boat. Protecting his hands with his shirt, he let the coarse hemp rope slide through his grip until the boat slapped against the water.

The surface of the Mediterranean was even choppier than Cosmo had imagined. Waves broke over the side of the wooden dingy and pounded it against the hull of the Royal Edward. The water chilled him to the bone.

“Hold on until we reach the pirate vessel!” Wrightwick yelled over the churning water and the chugging of the Edward’s steam engines. “I’ll rope the bloody thing. Then I’m afraid the rest will be up to you!”

Cosmo finally deduced that Wrightwick planned to board the pirate vessel. At the speed the Edward was gliding past them, their window of opportunity would come and go in a few seconds. If they missed, they’d be stranded at sea.

“Did you get a count of their crew?” Wrightwick created a loose knot in the end of the rope and coiled the rest in the bottom of the dingy.

“At least six.” Cosmo replayed the image of the iron clad he’d seen in the red light of the flare. “But there could be more.”

Wrightwick tossed Cosmo an oar as the Edward slid past on their right. “Paddle! We need to get close if this is going to work!”

The noise increased as they neared the iron-clad. Cosmo plunged the wooden oar into the water and steered the dingy toward the pirate vessel. But it was gliding past them too quickly.

“Ram the bloody thing!” Wrightwick stood with the lasso in his hand. “Bloody maritime rodeo.” Widening his stance, he struggled to maintain balance against the tossing sea.

Cosmo gritted his teeth and lifted the oar out of the water for another stroke. The pirate vessel rose less than a dozen feet above the water. It wouldn’t be hard to climb, if only they could catch her up. Still twenty feet away, the stern of the pirate ship had drawn even with the dingy.

“Now or never.” Wrightwick heaved the rope toward the shadow of a hooded vent pipe protruding from the afterdeck. “Grab the other end!”

Cosmo stashed the oar and clutched the end of the rope as it jerked taut.

“Bedbugs and Ballyhoo!” Wrightwick wrapped his arms around Cosmo’s waist before the momentum of the iron-clad could yank him overboard. In a series of violent readjustments, the lifeboat jerked in line with the ironclads’ wake.

Cosmo reeled them closer, hand over hand.

Meanwhile, Wrightwick tied off the rope. “We don’t have much time. If the fire on the Edward spreads to the coal hopper—”

He didn’t have to finish. Cosmo knew exactly what would happen if the coal hopper went up in flames. “I’ll help you up the rope in front of me!”

“Forget it, boy. It’ll take too much time. I can take care of myself.” Wrightwick put a hand on Cosmo’s shoulder. “Just tell me honestly, do you think you can do this?”

“I will.” Cosmo believed it one hundred percent. Reaching forward for another foot of rope, he pulled them as close as he could without capsizing the dingy.

“Good. I’ll follow if I can. Remember, you’re not killing pirates. You’re saving everyone onboard the Edward.”

Cosmo looped off the slack in the rope and peered at Wrightwick’s face, barely visible in the darkness. “I’ll do both and be back to get you in less than five minutes.” Without waiting for a response, he scurried up the rope as quick as a monkey and threw his legs over the railing.

###

Cosmo found the low-slung afterdeck of the ironclad unguarded. He scrambled up a slimy metal slope to the main deck using a careful mixture of speed and stealth.

On the foredeck, pirates were silhouetted against the flames of the Royal Edward. To avoid the many invisible guy wires running from the main coal stack to the forward and aft masts, Cosmo stuck to the starboard gangway. The surface of the floating hunk of metal felt greasy beneath his bare feet. Its steady vibration made his eyes dance.

Cosmo froze when a metal hatch burst open a few feet away. A single man leapt out and rushed toward the bow, leaving the hatch open.

Cosmo’s next move became obvious. In a single movement, he plunged below deck. Gripping the sides of a metal ladder with his feet and hands, he slid into the stifling hot belly of the ironclad. As Cosmo shuffled along a narrow corridor illuminated by red bulbs, two voices echoed in the distance. Increasing his pace, Cosmo reached an open doorway as a pirate emerged.

“What—”

Cosmo jammed the palm of his hand into the man’s jaw and shoved him back into the cabin with his shoulder. Before the second man could respond, Cosmo struck him upside the head with a backward roundhouse. The force of the kick bounced the pirate off an iron bulkhead.

Swearing through broken teeth, the first man threw a sloppy punch.

Cosmo countered with a knife punch to the man’s throat and monkey knuckles to his solar plexus.

Both pirates dropped without another sound.

Cosmo assessed his surroundings. Everything around him was outmoded except two pieces of modern equipment. One had a handset resting in a cradle covered with dials. Cosmo knew it instantly to be what Barnard had called a ‘wireless.’

The second piece of modern equipment revealed its purpose by spitting out a constant stream of narrow paper printed with a language Cosmo couldn’t read. Combined, the machines told Cosmo the pirates were not working alone. Not only had someone given them orders, but that someone required direct communication.

Cosmo checked the corridor. He hesitated. If this was a coordinated attack, with whom were the pirates working? And how closely?

An explosion thundered in the distance. The Edward. Cosmo checked the rest of the cabins below deck in a matter of seconds without finding anyone or anything of interest.

Above deck, Cosmo encountered a pirate immediately. During the man’s momentary hesitation, Cosmo climbed his massive frame like a tree. From behind, Cosmo wrapped both arms around the man’s neck and forced his chin against his chest until he blacked out. As the pirate crumpled, Cosmo flipped his limp body over the railing and into the sea.

“We’ve been boarded!”

Cosmo’s shoulders sagged as yet another pirate ruined his element of surprise. Stealth now worthless, speed was all that mattered. If Cosmo could catch the man or reach the foredeck first…

Cosmo burst into an adrenaline-fueled sprint. Swinging around a guy wire, he planted both feet and leapt over the main deck railing. He struck the forty-five degree slope of the armor with his backside and slid to the lower foredeck on the heels of the fleeing pirate.

As Cosmo bounded after him, a plume of blinding flame filled the night sky. Another explosion, larger than those before it, rocked the Royal Edward. The shockwave threw Cosmo to his hands and knees. “No.”

He couldn’t accept the possibility of failure. Yet, the dying faces of the Edward’s passengers crowded his mind’s eye. His grim imagination focused on the face of Pettigrew, the missionary.

Cosmo opened his eyes. His head swam. His ears rang. Beside him, the pirate he’d been pursuing was shaking off his own stupor. Cosmo knew he had to recover quickly. If he could seize control of the ironclad, he could rescue the survivors of the Edward. It wasn’t too late.

“You’re too late, boy.” Strong hands gripped Cosmo’s ankles and yanked his knees out from under him. Before he could counter, two more men grabbed his arms and bound them behind his back. The leader punched Cosmo in the back of the head, causing his chin to bounce off the surface of the ironclad. “You managed to mess up two of my crew, but I’m putting an end to that now. Whoever you are.”

Cosmo couldn’t see straight, but he could talk. “Three men.”

“What was that?” The leader gripped Cosmo’s short hair and wrenched his head back.

Cosmo struggled to swallow. “I threw one of them overboard.”

“Did you?” The man drove a fist into Cosmo’s kidney. “There’s something I want you to see before I slit your throat.”

“What’s that?”

“I want you to see the sinking of the ship you died to protect.”

The two men holding Cosmo yanked him to his feet.

Cosmo focused his eyes on the Royal Edward. It was still afloat.

“As you can see, she hasn’t sunk yet.” They proceeded to the foremost railing. The leader slipped to the side of Cosmo and pointed port side of the burning Edward. “But she soon will.”

Cosmo couldn’t see what the pirate was pointing at, but he heard bloodlust in the man’s voice. Something terrible was about to happen. He struggled against his captors. They pinned his legs against the railing and nearly wrenched his arms from their sockets.

“Can’t see it? The foam rising? The swirls of diesel floating on the water’s surface, sparkling just so in the light of the flames?” The pirate captain lowered his voice, as if he were in a temple dedicated to the worship of violence. “Just watch. You’ll see what happens next.”

Before the words had left the Captain’s mouth, Cosmo saw a sleek metal rod protrude from the surface of the frothing sea—only thirty yards away. Then a larger and flatter surface parted the water in a surge of foam. A submarine.

###

Cosmo’s mind raced. He didn’t understand.

As if answering his thoughts, the pirate captain continued. “We only had to make it look like a pirate attack. You know, incase of survivors. We’re the only ones who’ll know the truth.”

Cosmo lunged at the captain with his head, but the pirate pulled away. He laughed. “I like you, kid. Whoever you are.” He returned his gaze to the water. “Now pay attention, here comes the best part. Probably no more than a few hundred men have witnessed what you’re about to, and survived to tell the tale.”

Cosmo didn’t want to watch, but his curiosity was too great, the situation too terrible. In a rush of bubbles, a torpedo burst from the nose of the submarine and sped toward the Edward. Only feet below the surface of the choppy water, the rise and wake of the self-propelled bomb was clearly visible in the firelight.

As the torpedo struck the hull of the Royal Edward, a series of events unfolded too quickly for Cosmo to react. The men securing Cosmo dropped flat against the deck of the ironclad, temporarily forgetting their captive. A spray of water struck Cosmo. A blast of heat evaporated the moisture and threw Cosmo backward.

The roar of the explosion caught up with Cosmo as he slammed into the main coal stack. He groped the side of his body, checking for broken or protruding bones. The iron clad bucked and rose on the waves caused by the exploding torpedo.

Convinced he would survive his injuries, Cosmo staggered to his feet using handholds welded into the coal stack. The first thing he saw was the pirate captain buckled at the waist. Cosmo steeled his will and pushed his pain down deep. This could be his last chance.

“That was even better than I had hoped!” The captain straightened, his fists clenched at his side. “Have you ever experienced such a thing?”

Cosmo froze. The captain had gotten as close as possible to the explosion on purpose. He was mad, and his madness made him unpredictable. Plus, with the submarine to worry about, Cosmo couldn’t simply seize control of the ironclad.

He could no longer hope to save the Edward or its passengers. Drowning in doubt, Cosmo wondered if he could save himself. Where would he go?

He scanned the main deck of the ironclad and located an emergency box, like the one onboard the Edward. This one was metal, rather than glass. He couldn’t be sure of its contents. But if it contained a flare gun and flares…

He sized-up the nearest exhaust pipe leading to and from the engine room below deck. It’s head-high opening was large enough for Cosmo to force a flare gun into it. He stopped himself short of action. This was the stupidest plan he’d ever concocted. Worse than the time he’d tried to sell vipers as pets.

Maybe he should jump overboard and hope for the best. A dozen large wooden crates, the mysterious cargo from the Edward, were floating nearby. He stepped closer to the starboard gangway and its railing.

“Hold on there, kid.” The pirate captain held his hands up palms outward. “No need to bellyflop into the big blue. I was only kidding earlier about that whole slit-your-throat thing.”

Cosmo shifted his eyes from the railing to the emergency box to the captain.

The captain’s back was to the burning and sinking wreckage of the Royal Edward, his face enshrouded in darkness. “Hey, I tell you what.” The captain held his ground a dozen yards away. “Seeing how you’ve played a part in me being short staffed, the least you can do is fill a vacancy here on the Rochambeau. I already seen you can fight.”

A third possibility blossomed. If the captain could be trusted, joining the pirates might be Cosmo’s best chance of setting foot on solid ground. Whatever the decision, Cosmo had to decide quickly.

END of Episode 1

 

Lessons in Blade and Barrier

LESSONS IN BLADE AND BARRIER

by Siobhan Gallagher

The blade surged forward, more lightning than steel. The very air went dense with static. Izo tumbled more than dodged, leaped quickly to his feet, but found his balance off. There on the ground was his right forearm, clawed fingers clenching his katana.

“No,” he gasped, throat suddenly dry. This couldn’t be real, just couldn’t. He didn’t feel anything missing. Eyes squeezed shut, he used his left hand to probe where his right forearm should be. His hand came away wet. He put two clawtips to his mouth, tasted iron and salt.

Only then did he cry out.

“That was sloppy of you,” Master Takumi said, wiping his bladed forelimb on his hakama. He resumed his praying posture as if nothing had occurred; no expression on his mantis-face.

Izo clutched his stump. With the realization came a throbbing so intense it made him dizzy, took all his effort to keep standing. In the forest background something snickered.

“You should sit down,” Master Takumi said.

“Why?!” he yelled through clenched teeth.

Master Takumi tilted his head. “Why sit down?”

“No! My arm!”

Master Takumi took a moment to acknowledge the missing limb. “It’ll grow back.”

“Painfully,” Izo muttered.

“Better pain than death.” Master Takumi moved in slow, deliberate steps. The large sleeves of his kimono hid his deadly forelimbs. In less than a blink, he snatched up the fallen forearm, pried the katana from its grip and handed it to Izo, hilt first. “Now you can practice with your left arm.”

Izo wiped his hand on his chest before grudgingly accepting the sword. The snickering grew louder, more irritating, as if humiliation wasn’t enough.

“Your master has been too soft on you,” Master Takumi said. “No student of mine would stumble like that.”

Izo weighed the katana in his left hand, found his balance wanting. More than anything he wanted to cleave that mantis-face in two. His master had insisted he visit Master Takumi, that his swordsman training wouldn’t be complete without a mantis’ teachings. Ha! Now what good was he? It would be weeks before his arm grew back, and all he had was practice with his left arm. He hoped his master choked on his sake tonight.

And that damnable snickering… Why wouldn’t it stop?

“Shut up!” he yelled.

Silence, then– Blinding white. He stood petrified with fear, forgetting his lost arm as heat passed over him. Oh gods, don’t let it be an ill omen! He’d had enough bad luck for today.

The light died. Vision returned slowly through tears and black spots. A ball of white fire hovered over Master Takumi’s shoulder. Izo pointed with his katana, but found no words; his jaw worked around a tongue gone dry.

“It’s just an onibi,” Master Takumi said. “It likes to have its fun.”

Within the onibi’s sphere, shadowy faces flickered–a mournful expression, a look of terror. Izo took a step back, careful not to stare directly at the onibi. Rumor had it an onibi could suck a soul clean from a body that got too close, and in no way was he going to confirm this.

“Little lizardling doesn’t seem to like me,” the onibi said between chuckles.

Little?! The nerve of this ball of noxious spirits! If he had both his arms…

“That’s enough,” Master Takumi said. “If you will, please go to Izo’s village and inform Master Kenta that his pupil will be staying with me for the night.”

“What? I didn’t agree–” He winced at the stabbing pain, had to sheath his sword and clutch at the stump.

“Your wound needs to be cleaned and dressed. I won’t send you back bleeding all over.” This brought another wave of snickering. Master Takumi shooed the onibi. “Go on.”

“Very well, I’ll return shortly. You promised me tea, after all.”

“Only if you heat the water.”

The onibi winked out, leaving behind a burning afterimage.

As they walked to Master Takumi’s hut, avoiding rocks, fallen branches, or anything else that might trip him, Izo said: “You keep strange company.”

“All company is strange,” Master Takumi said, “yours included.”

*****

Izo nearly spilled his tea when he heard the news from the onibi.

“What do you mean it’s gone?” he hissed.

“Vanished. Gone. Nothing.” The onibi hovered over the tea pot, extended flame tendrils to lift the lid. “Oooh, lovely smelling green tea.”

“With jasmine.” Master Takumi sat across from Izo, tea cup held by fingers protruding from the joint above his bladed limb.

Izo slammed his cup down, sloshing hot liquid all over his hand. “Ah! Dammit!” He shook his hand. Bad luck indeed. An akuma must’ve  visited him in his sleep last night.

The onibi rolled around, laughing.

Izo threw his cup at the obnoxious fireball–missed, cup smashed on the back wall. “Shut up! I’m tired of you. You are either lying or the worse prankster ever.”

Master Takumi gently set his cup down, breathed a sigh. “I understand your concern, Izo. We’ll investigate in the morning.”

“In the morning?! That might be too late! We have to go–” A sharp pain erupted from his left shoulder. The world spun, blackened, came back into focus with an awful throb, as if his back was being massaged with hot coals.

Master Takumi stood over him in his prayer position. “You need to calm down. We’ll go in the morning. Right now, rest.”

Rest, ha. How could he rest with all this pain? Or with the thought that his village might be gone?

The onibi seemed to have a solution to this: it blew itself up to half his size, and within its flame was the silhouette of a female–he wasn’t certain what kind, but pleasing to the eye. The silhouette danced, rhythmic steps, curves swaying, arms spread, ready to embrace.

There was a girl with pretty ebony eyes and scales of teal back in his village, and he imagined being wrapped snug in her arms. It made the pain a bit more bearable as he daydreamed into sleep.

*****

As Master Takumi said, they set off in the morning. What Master Takumi didn’t say was that the onibi would be tagging along.

“Why is that coming?” Izo asked, pointing a claw at the soul-sucking fireball.

“Why not?” the onibi said, circling both him and Master Takumi. “I’m just as curious. After all, it’s not every day that a village disappears.”

“I see no harm in this,” Master Takumi said, and resumed their walk along the trail.

Izo gritted his teeth, but said nothing. He already hurt enough, didn’t want to start an argument that would end with him on his back.

The walk took the better part of the morning, but it already felt like afternoon with the sun bearing down. His grass hat didn’t provide enough shade to keep him cool. By late morning they’d made it to the hill that guarded his village. It was far too steep for him to climb with his one-armed balance, so they took the long way around.

“On any other day I would make you climb that hill,” Master Takumi said.

“Why does it have to be another day? Today is as good as any other,” the onibi chimed in, and Izo swore he saw a smirk in its flames.

“Don’t you have someone else to bother?” he growled at the onibi.

“You’re just grouchy.”

Maybe now would be a good time to practice with his left hand–the onibi was certainly within sword’s reach. How unfortunate that out of habit, he was wearing his katana on his left.

“Does it seem quiet?” Master Takumi said.

It did. Even on a day of prayer there were wheels grinding, trickling water, squawking chickens and grunting pigs. But now it was only the breeze and the rustling of grass. Izo charged ahead. It couldn’t be true, the onibi had to be lying.

Beyond the hill the ground was completely blank, as the village had been erased from existence. Izo ran; feet stomping, eyes watering, pain searing his side. As with his arm,  he had to reach out, to feel that his village  really wasn’t there.

He collapsed where once had been a barn, shuddering, gasping. Gone! All of it. Friends, family, even Master Kenta. What was he supposed to do? What–

A strong grip lifted him by his good arm, forced his mouth open to pour water down his throat. He gagged, coughed, sputtered most of it out. When he could stand straight again, Master Takumi was in his prayer posture.

“You were overheated.” Master Takumi indicated the empty water gourd at his feet.

Izo shook his head, gaze downcast. Couldn’t bear the sight of this barren land. Oh gods, why? The weight in his chest was too much, the pain too great. He sank to the ground, trying not to cry before Master Takumi. All he could do was hang his head between his drawn-up legs.

Master Takumi grabbed his left foot and jerked it up.

“Hey!” He struggled, flailing his arm to keep from falling over.

Master Takumi scraped some jelly residue from the sole of his foot, put it to his mandibles. “Slug magic,” he murmured, then released Izo’s foot.

“Slugs? Really?”

Master Takumi nodded. “They always leave a trail.”

“But why my village? We’ve never harmed them!”

“They’re the lowliest of life forms. They have no reason save spite.” Master Takumi straightened up, looked about. “We must go back for my salts.”

“But my village!”

“The slugs likely have it, them and their wicked sorcery. Only thing to overcome such taint is salt. I know.”

Izo sat there, speechless. Things were happening so fast. Just yesterday he had two arms! Now his village might be in the slimy hands of slugs, and Master Kenta hadn’t taught him how to fight mollusks. What good was he?

“Stop moping. Come.” Master Takumi reached out.

As much as he resented the words, they were true: sulking wouldn’t help. Still, he wanted this to be a dream, to wake up and find all his limbs intact and a village to go home to.

As he took the outstretched limb the onibi whizzed past, nearly knocking him over. Everything seemed intent on putting him down today. Grumbling, he stood with Master Takumi’s help.

The onibi bobbed frantically, intent expressions within its flame. “Something’s changed.”

“What do you mean?” Master Takumi asked.

The onibi didn’t answer, and in its silence, Izo became aware how still the air was, how the sun wasn’t as hot, that the day felt more late afternoon than late morning. What was going on?

“Come,” Master Takumi said with more urgency, tugging on Izo’s good arm.

Izo nodded, joined Master Takumi as they rounded the hill and–smack! He staggered back, felt like he’d been punched in the face and chest. Master Takumi recovered first, extended his forelimbs till some invisible barrier stopped him, then drew himself up, bladed forelimbs ready to attack. Slash-slash. Where he’d struck the barrier , shimmering slash marks soon faded.

“We’re trapped!” Izo cried.

“Shush. I’m thinking.” Master Takumi went into his prayer posture.

The onibi rammed full force into the barrier, and splattered into a hundred flaming fragments. The scattered flames crawled back together, squirmed into a ball. “That,” it muttered, “was a terrible idea.”

“So what are we to do?” Izo asked.

“Start digging,” the onibi grumbled.

“I wasn’t asking you.” He glared up at the stupid fireball. “Why don’t you try burning us a hole?”

“Quiet, you two,” Master Takumi said. He tapped along the barrier, seeking a gap. It was as good an idea as any and Izo joined in. His claws brushed against solid nothingness, sent a static shrill up his arm. What odd magic, and for what purpose? Why trap them?

And for that matter, why take his village?

He stopped to watch the onibi bounce along the barrier. This had all started with the onibi’s message–or was it bait? Then it had followed them for the weakest of reasons–or was it making sure they fell into the trap? Maybe it was waiting till he and Master Takumi were too tired and weak to fend off a soul-sucking fireball.

He side-stepped over to Master Takumi and whispered, “I think the onibi has tricked us.”

“Why would you say that?” Master Takumi didn’t turn his way, or even pause in his tapping.

“How can we trust the onibi? It eats souls.”

“And you think the onibi is working with the slugs.”

“Yes.”

“Possible, but…”

“What?”

Master Takumi touched his stump, making him wince. “Bandages are wet.”

“I don’t care.” He pulled away. “Could you at least take me seriously?”

“Your seriousness would divide us when we need to work together. Your master has failed to teach you this point.”

“At least Master Kenta never cut my arm off,” Izo said through gritted teeth, his remaining hand balled into a fist.

“If we ever get out of here and find your village, perhaps I’ll discuss teaching techniques with Master Kenta. Till then, let’s not fight each other.”

“I’m not fighting,” Izo hissed. “I just want to know. Tell me why the onibi can be trusted!”

“The onibi doesn’t require the help of slugs to suck our souls. It can do that whenever it wants.”

“Then why us? Why my village?”

“Not us. Me.”

“What?”

“I suspect this was a trap for me. They knew you had come to me for training, so they kidnapped your village to draw me out.”

“So this is your fault?!”

“Calm–”

Izo rammed his fist into the barrier, instead of into Master Takumi. Searing agony seized his arm. He lost all awareness of his body, just him and his arm floating in a fiery abyss. Senses returned slowly, his screaming became a hoarse croak. The barrier had gelled around his fist and it was crawling quickly up his arm.

Master Takumi was poised to chop his arm off.

“No!” Izo pulled and yanked, but his arm was trapped.

He didn’t see it happen–maybe he blinked–but now Master Takumi’s forelimbs were caught in the gunk. Worse, Master Takumi was pushing into it. Izo struggled back as Master Takumi was drawn in, then through. Master Takumi popped from the barrier in his own isolated bubble, posed in prayer. Master Takumi was brave, Izo would give the mantis that much.

A dark form emerged from the nearby forest, moving with all the slowness of a dead mule. Of course it was a slug, the slimy bastard. Master Takumi’s bubble rolled to face the slug, and the slug’s black maw flapped open and closed as it laughed.

When the slug threw back its cloak, Izo saw that it wore a medallion around its fat no-neck. No, not a medallion. A globe with a miniature village–his village!

He pushed with his right side against the barrier, as if his very rage could break through, but all he did was twist his stuck arm. His bloody bandages smeared the barrier, stump bleeding anew. A dizziness fell over him.

“What are you doing making a mess when Master Takumi is in trouble?” the onibi said from above.

“Shut up!” He leaned his forehead against the barrier, now oddly cool, trying to keep from passing out. The barrier was sizzling where his blood had touched it. He felt the faintest breeze… was his blood weakening the barrier? He pressed his stump against it–a wave of heat, sound of a thousand hornets buzzing in his ear–he pressed and bled and bled some more. The barrier spit and popped like water on hot coals. A breeze! He could feel it on the other side.

The onibi flicked a tendril out to capture a drop of blood, withdrew both tendril and blood into itself. “Salty.”

“How about helping?” Izo grumbled, wiggling his trapped arm.

“Oh, all right.”

The onibi lapped up blood directly from his stump–Izo cringed, expecting it to burn, but it tickled like goose feathers. Then the onibi spat the blood all over the gunk around his arm, and within moments the gunk sizzled off, and he was free!

Izo shook melting gunk from his left arm, and switched his sheathed sword to his right side.

“Better hurry, before the slug notices us,” the onibi said.

Izo looked up to see the slug’s tentacle eyes staring at them from over Master Takumi’s bubble. Crap! He clumsily drew his sword and winced as he touched the blade to his stump. A cry bubbled at the back of his throat; he choked it down, blinked back tears. His red-stained sword slashed the barrier, two, three, four times, hard and harder.

The slashes shimmered, sizzled, fell away. Fresh air blew in. Sword raised, he charged.

The slug muttered something unintelligible and threw up its arms. Izo tripped, sword went flying, his chin smacked the dusty ground . Couldn’t pull his legs apart. The gunk was around his ankles!

Quick!–he needed to hack it off. But his sword was out of reach. The slug oozed closer.

Fireball and sword flashed before him. The slug screeched and split right down the middle.

*****

Exhaustion weighed Izo like a heavy blanket. He had to be jarred awake by Master Takumi, who helped him up.

“Well done,” Master Takumi said, and Izo’s heart lifted. “Sloppy, but resourceful.”

The onibi delivered him his sword and Izo asked, “Why didn’t you suck the slug’s soul?”

“Slug souls? Eck! No thanks.”

Then he remembered. “Did you see the slug wearing a globe around its neck?”

Master Takumi nodded and produced the globe from his sleeve. “Not sure how they shrunk your village. Their sorcery seems to be getting stronger.”

“Let me see that,” the onibi said, tendrils extended.

Izo was about to object–handing an entire village-worth of souls to that thing?!–but the onibi had saved him; and besides, it probably couldn’t get at the souls inside.

The onibi examined the globe and said, “Ah, I know of a yōkai who knows a yōkai who could reverse this. Free of charge if I call in a favor.”

“That would be appreciated,” Master Takumi said, bowing. And after a stern look from the mantis, Izo also bowed.

“Only if you make more tea.”

“There’ll always be a pot reserved for you.” Master Takumi then turned to Izo. “I could also reserve a spot to train you, Izo. You would make an excellent slug slayer.”

Slug Slayer… The title had a catchy ring to it, though he wasn’t sure if he’d even survive Master Takumi’s training.

“I’m honored, Master Takumi. But, uh, let me think on it after my arm grows back.”

“Very well. Let’s head back before anymore damnable slugs appear.”

The onibi raced on ahead while Master Takumi half-carried Izo. Slug Slayer, he thought dreamily. The girl with the teal scales would probably find that attractive, the sort of thing a lizard could carve a legacy out of. Yes, he looked forward to that, along with his right arm.

END

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Lost DMB Files, Ep1: Reefer Ranger

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Greetings From the Editor: A Note About the Ranger

History has been unkind to John Tilly McCutchen III. Remembered as J.T. Flat Top, The Branding Iron, Johnny McDeath and other more colorful nicknames, the infamous Texas Ranger turned chief of Texicas Homeland Security undoubtedly played a central role in the early expansion and stabilization of the infant nation.

What is less certain is the nature of his influence. While common mythology has held McCutchen was a brutal strongman, dishing out unmetered violence efficiently and punitively to any and all opponents of the early Texicas, the Lost DMB Files paint a more complex portrait. At times he’s portrayed as righteous, loyal, and even sympathetic. Some would go so far to claim him a subversive and opponent to the early expansionism of Texicas despite his prominent position.

Throughout his pulp fiction career, David Mark Brown’s published works uniformly referred to McCutchen as McCormick. Not until my recent discovery of a field journal kept by Brown was McCormick’s identity matched with the historical McCutchen. This critical find has accelerated the authentication of Brown’s stories as historical accounts in disguise.

Reefer Ranger, an early lost file (#9), is believed to be Brown’s first depiction of McCutchen. Set in Matamoros, Tamaulipas during early 1914, the historic background of the gory tale depicts, among other things, a Germany more heavily involved in North America than currently believed by most. But Brown’s vivid use of detail demands the possibility be considered.

On an obscure note, I should also mention Brown’s use of ‘reefer’ appears to be the earliest on record, casting even further doubt upon its etymology, but favoring the idea of Mexican Spanish origins. It must be remarked that Brown’s depiction (and in fact highlighting) of McCutchen smoking marihuana strikes a bold contrast with everything else known about the man.

In my humble opinion I should think this an appropriate instance to apply the old saying, truth is stranger than fiction. Since marihuana was not yet well known in much of North America and the American era of “Reefer Madness” remained a dozen years away, it seems strange indeed that Brown should focus on such a detail lest it serve some historical significance. What that significance may be, we are left to merely speculate. (Oh, the professorial sport!)

For any student of history or seeker of truth, I recommend beginning your journey into the complicated mind of John Tilly McCutchen III with Reefer Ranger. Whatever you decide about the “goodness” or “badness” of this immoveable human force, let me introduce you to a central figure in the lost file universe. Reader, meet J.T. McCutchen.

Earnestly,

Professor Jim “Buck” Buckner

Reefer Ranger

Dark fell quickly and without contest during late winter in Matamoros. Striding across an alley ripe with urine and decay, Ranger J.T. McCutchen leaned against an adobe wall. Once situated, he stilled his breathing and listened for the echoing voices of the three men he’d tracked to this unmarked cantina. Soon he heard a familiar chorus buoyed into the night air by shots of cloudy mescal.

“La cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar porque no tiene, porque le falta marihuana pa’ fumar.”

It was a revolutionary verse, one he had heard before. Unclear about the reference to marihuana, he knew the song to be sung often by Poncho Villa supporters. The following verse could indicate something important about the men he sought.

“Cuando uno quiere a una y esta una no lo quiere, es lo mismo como si un calvo en calle encuentra un peine.”

It was nonsense, a farce. Something about unrequited love being as ridiculous as a bald man with a comb. No matter, he hadn’t suspected these men were Villistas anyhow, nor the rivaling Huertistas. The actions of Villa and Huerta only mattered to him when they spilled across the border, which after three years of revolution was happening more often.

These were most likely simple bandits, cattle rustlers, but he hadn’t followed them across the border for a good night kiss. He sniffed the air, the end of his nose curling. As his eyes adjusted to the scant light, he spotted a crate of rotting cabbages across the way. Covering his nose with the crook of his elbow, he breathed deeply.

It seemed unlikely he’d take the men into custody without bloodshed. For a second he regretted not jumping them before they reached town.

Realizing the singing had stopped, he instinctively reached for one of his Colt .45 Flat Tops. The crunch of a boot on gravel sparked the silence. He spun to confront it, but for the first time during his ten years of service with the Texas Rangers, he was too slow. The business end of a shovel struck his brow, his skull compacting with the force of the blow. Popping lights blinded him. Spasming, he dropped his .45.

Strange, but he thought first about the condition of his hat, rather than his head. He listed and would have fallen, but another attacker shoved him hard against the adobe wall. He smacked the back of his head against the mud brick, bracing himself and wondering where his hat had gone. His vision rolled left and right as if he pitched on a boat.

“Un rinche solitario. Usted debe haber permanecido el hogar, el diablo tejano.”

McCutchen steeled himself against the coming onslaught. Bloodshed was a certainty now, most likely his own. “Wherever I’m standing is my home, you dirty Mexican bastard.”

With that a fist shot out of the shadows, connecting with his jaw. Briefly he thanked God for the support of the adobe wall. Stay on your feet, he thought. Reaching beneath his duster with his left, he drew his second Colt Flat Top. Now or never. Before he could focus and aim, the shovel swept back into view. As the shovel smashed into his hand, he forced off a round early. Then he forgot about God altogether.

“¡Dammit, el tiro híbrido yo!”

A din of angry voices rattled in his head like bees in a tin can before a fury of blows broke against him. Desperately he tried to whistle, to call, anything, but his jaw had swollen shut. He covered his face the best he could. Finally someone pulled him from the wall and threw him to the ground, where a boot to his temple ended the nightmare.


Two gun shots brought a sudden end to the violence.

“La prisa, el Villistas está viniendo. ¡De nuevo a la hacienda! ¡Viva Huerta!”

Men scurried down the darkened alley echoing the refrain, “¡Viva Huerta!” But the man who gave the orders paused at McCutchen’s body, limp and lifeless. He holstered his gun before stooping to pick up a single Colt .45, the second smothered by the Ranger’s body.

¡Rápidamente!” He followed the others, leaving a stillness behind.

Filthy water trickled down the center of the alley mixing with McCutchen’s blood. A black cat pounced from a stack of crates, chasing cockroaches past where he lay face down in the dirt. An hour later a slumped, old lady exited the cantina carrying a table cloth full of rags slung over her shoulder like a sack. So diminutive was her stature, the bundle settled behind her knees. When she turned, there in her path lay the rinche.

Ay, dios mio,” the lady whispered as she bent to check for a pulse. Her wrinkled face, round eyes peering from deep furrowed caves, was dark and ruddy like blood and chocolate. She straightened. Muttering to herself, her sack still over her shoulder, she scuttled away.

Thirty minutes later she returned with two goats dragging a litter. Grunting, she rolled his upper body into the makeshift basket of rope and clicked her tongue. The goats obediently tugged the limp body of the Ranger, cowboy hat now resting on his chest, to her house on the edge of town. Without slowing, they pushed through the heavy fabric hanging over her doorway.

Glancing over her shoulder, the old woman followed them in. Amidst the stillness a chill settled into the trough of night beneath winking stars. Moments later the goats reemerged to scavenge for scraps of garbage.

Slits of greasy light poured into the street from around the curtain door. Inside, the bent lady wrung a rag into a basin of water. Humming to herself, she dabbed crusted dirt and blood from the Ranger’s face. Unconscious, he rested upright in the basket of the litter. In the flickering light of an oil lamp the woman crossed herself in the Catholic manner while growing more rhythmic in her tune.

She lifted McCutchen’s eyelids. His eyes had rolled back into his head. She bent close to his face to block the wavering light. His eyes and the corner of his mouth twitched. She pulled down on his chin to open his airway and listened intently as his breath came in raspy, labored draws punctuated with irregular shudders. Finally she massaged his face and neck before feeling again for his pulse.

Instead of beating slow as it should, it increased in tempo, his muscles tensing. Nimbly she jumped onto the bed and rummaged on a high shelf tucked under the thatched roof. On finding a small bowl of crushed leaves, she returned to McCutchen’s side. Transferring flame from the lamp to the leaves, she breathed it briefly to life before allowing the fire to turn to smoke.

She placed the Ranger’s hat on his forehead and draped a wet rag over its brim to cover his entire face and chest. She sat close to him, holding the bowl, allowing the smoke to rise alongside his neck up into the tent she had created. The Ranger snorted and coughed. As she kept the smoke rising steadily with her breath, his quaking muscles relaxed.

Ah, marihuana sagrada.” Sacred marijuana.


McCutchen groaned. He felt he’d awoken in the back of a dark, pulsing cave. He wrestled with his senses until he heard a soft chittering, like quail hiding in brush. The sounds were incoherent.

He focused on smells, quickly wishing he hadn’t—manure and smoke the only two odors he could distinguish. What the hell? He tried to open his eyes. At first they refused, as if sewn together. Gradually a thick crust cracked and broke.

For several blinks, he saw nothing but a flickering blur. Finally the scales fell away, and he recognized his surroundings as the inside of a chink house. Plaster had fallen in several areas, revealing the wooden structure packed with gravel and mud. It wasn’t a jacal or adobe, common housing for poor Tejanos and Mexicans. It was the traditional housing for Indians.

The realization seized him with panic. He jerked, reaching for his Colts, but they were gone. Pieces of memory returned in random order. He remembered hearing the chorus to La Cucaracha, discovering the trail of two horse thieves at the edge of a thicket, and finally the dark shape of a shovel cracking him in the skull. He remembered the scrape but had no way of knowing a full 24 hours had passed.

The chittering sounds returned. Lurching, he realized his arms were tangled, or tied down. He swore, his eye and mouth twitching. His headache throbbed with his increasing pulse.

Usted no debe maldecir tanto, cursing no good por tu health.”

He flinched as an old woman, bearing no signs of fear or menace on her ancient face, pushed through a curtain that served as a front door. He flashed his eyes around the room. Nothing jumped out at him. Nothing seemed to indicate any sort of danger. His arms had only been laced through the ropes of a rudimentary litter, which, upon closer inspection appeared to be the source of the manure smell infusing him.

“Pardon my French,” he said as he freed himself and sat up.

Français?” The woman looked puzzled.

“No, no. Never you mind. English will be fine. Now if you don’t mind me asking, where the hell am I? And what happened?”

En mi casa. Los bandidos le dejaron para los muertos, pero dios sonrió en usted. ¿Entienda?” The old woman paused to let him catch up.

“Bandits. Yeah, I understand.” He slowly looked himself over. Everything appeared to be intact. He was cut, bruised and bloodied, but not so bad off, considering. His left hand had swollen stiff, most of his face an ill-fitting mask. Two thoughts occurred to him. “My hat? My guns?” She nodded her head, but stood there silently. He tried again, “Mi pistolas? Ah, sombrero?

Si.” She pointed with her lips to his right side.

He looked down. His hat, his grandfather’s Stetson, rested beside him. Crushed in the front and dirty, it was no worse off than him. He popped his neck, reached down and took the hat to straighten it. A cockroach scurried from beneath the brim.

Mi pistolas?

The woman smiled and nodded in the affirmative.

Before he could try again he caught a whiff of something strange coming from his hat. “What’s that smell?”

“Marihuana.”

He narrowed his eyes at the old woman and waited for her to continue.


Marihuana para sus asimientos y su asma. Le ayudó a curar. Marihuana, good medicine.”

McCutchen bolted upright, pain shooting along his spine. “You pumped me full of loco weed? To make me better?”

Si.”

“You crazy old hag! What the hell did you do that for?” He could hear his grandfather’s words echoing in his brain, lecturing him about the limitations of men who depend on stimulants and alcohol for courage.

He’d taken a vow when he first became a Ranger that nothing stronger than a good glass of wine would violate the sanctity of his body—temperance seeming more reasonable than prohibition considering his Scotch-Irish, Presbyterian upbringing. His father may have been a spineless, religious nut, but he made a dang good wine.

As he tore into the woman again, the muscles in his face jerked and twitched worse than before. “Not now.” He pressed his fingers to his face, breathing deep. Nervous tics had affected him since youth and were intensified by stress. While studying the latest criminal justice methods in Austin he’d developed successful means to discipline and control his body. He lost them among his alien surroundings.

He tried to stand. “Look, woman. I need my damn guns, and I’ll get out of your hair.”

The woman clucked softly and shook her head, positioning herself to support him. Struggling to fend the old woman off and stand without her help, McCutchen flopped backward into the litter. Suddenly she shushed him with a slashing gesture across her throat. He didn’t argue. He heard it too.

Stilling himself, he struggled to slow his heart rate and control the spasms in his face and throat. Swallowing came hard while a humming rose in his ears. Relax, dammit. But it was no use. The old woman reached under the mattress to pull out a slick Winchester rifle, lever action. She eased a bullet into the chamber.

“What the—”

She held a single finger to her lips.

He heard it again, the sound of boots scuffling in the dirt outside the chink house. He gestured for the woman’s attention, mouthing the same question from before, “pistolas?” But she stared intently at the heavy curtain hanging in her doorway, as a shallow bleat from a goat ended in gurgling.

Santa María, Madre de Dios.” She kissed an amulet hanging from her neck and steadied the rifle. It would’ve been comedic, if his life hadn’t depended on this shriveled old woman leveling a rifle longer than she was tall.

Still trying to regulate his breathing, McCutchen scanned the room for his pistols. He heard more movement outside. The edge of the curtain bulged inward. This is crazy, he thought. I’m being hunted by bandits in Mexico with only a raisin and some goats to protect me. The only thing he could find within reach to fight with was a kettle. Cast iron, it would have to do. The curtain moved again.

A goat poked his head through the opening and bleated, blood dripping from its muzzle. A roar and flash ripped the stillness in two as the old woman pulled the trigger on the .30-30, working the lever action to reload.


¡Diablo en infierno!

The shack danced with the impact of hot lead. McCutchen slammed onto the earthen floor, abandoning the idea of the kettle. Plaster ripped off the walls and shattered in clouds of rock and dust in the air above him. “Son of a bitch!”

The old woman still stood in the middle of the room. “¡Dios en cielo, trae su fuego para quemar Huerta y a sus diablos!” She shoved the barrel of the rifle into a hole in the wall and worked the lever, burning the night air with gunpowder and lead.

McCutchen dragged himself through an increasing pile of rubble, searching for his Colts while his throat continued to tighten. His right eye twitched so rapidly he could barely use it. Smoke filled the upper half of the room, the thatched roof on fire. In another few minutes the fight would be over one way or the other.

The woman stomped next to his right hand, and he looked up. “¡Pistola!” She pulled one of his Colt .45’s out from under her skirts, handing it to him.

“I’ll be a son of a—” He spun the cylinder. It was fully loaded. Outside, the gunfire lulled as the bandits waited for the flames to do their work. With nimble fingers the old woman reloaded the Winchester. She pulled a tin out from under rubble on her bed and threw it to McCutchen.

“You take. Good medicine.”

He ignored her. Twitching, he leveled his Colt toward the door where the torn curtain dangled in the opening. But it was little use. He couldn’t steady his aim. His face and neck yanked to the left. He’d be able to kill a man at ten feet, maybe. At least it was night. But the fire would make it easy for the bandits to see him and the old woman when they stepped from the burning house.

The woman bent down and took the tin. She shoved it into McCutchen’s chest. “Okay, Okay.” He tucked the tin into an inner pocket of his duster.

Without waiting longer, she surged through the curtain and into the night air before McCutchen could respond. Gunfire blazed from all around. McCutchen lurched toward the opening, chapped he was following an old woman’s lead. But a bullet struck the door post.

As shards of wood and rock knocked him off balance, he hit the jam hard. Quaking, the remains of the burning roof collapsed inward.

In a shower of sparks, a roof support struck him on the shoulder and drove him to the ground. The smoldering support pinned his left hand, cooking the flesh. Smoke burned his lungs. Rolling onto his back, he heaved the beam off. Above, he saw night sky where the roof had been.

Unbelievably, gunshots continued as the old woman called down fire from heaven while the Winchester delivered it. He pulled himself into the chill night air on his belly, bear-crawling away from the illumination of the flames. A hot slug struck him in the thigh like a hornet. He gritted his teeth and rolled onto his back.

A flash, followed quickly by a pop, originated from the brush beyond the clearing the goats had grazed. Dirt kicked up next to the Ranger’s boot. He steadied his aim toward the source of the flash and let his Colt roar. After tearing off three quick shots, he continued toward the shadow of a cement trough.

He threw his back against the cold cement, gasping for breath. His head spun. Lights danced and popped in his vision as the night suddenly fell quiet. The gunfire ceased, but he couldn’t stop the spasms. Finally, overwhelmed by pain and unable to breath, he passed out.


McCutchen awoke to several sensations at once. Scattered drops of rain chilled his exposed skin and hissed among the burning embers of rubble. Numbness alternated with electricity throughout his extremities. An orange sun brushed the belly of the clouds on the horizon. Finally, a snuffling beside his head jerked him totally awake.

A goat, one of the twins belonging to the old woman, nuzzled at the crusted blood in his hair. Snorting along his shoulder, the animal tugged his duster open and sniffed the tin in his pocket.

“Alright, that’s enough. Shoo.” Lying flat on his back, McCutchen tried to wave the animal off, but even the slightest movement was difficult. He found his hat lying next to his head, brim down and relatively dry. Well that’s a stroke of luck. He propped himself up and discovered his Colt digging into his back. “Hello pretty.”

He checked the cylinder. Three bullets. No sooner than the blood returned to its normal circuits, his nervous tics began. He could breathe, but his right eye flickered as his neck jerked his whole head to the left worse than as a child. A crackling sensation returned in his shoulder and hand, like his frame had been shoved into skin three sizes too small.

He’d forgotten about the burn. Picking at the charred edges of his duster, he glimpsed the white puss forming in and around the wound. His left hand had swollen and cracked, first degree burns covering the back of it. The flesh trapped under his ring blistered and continued to cook. He tried to spin it, but it stuck fast, his meaty hand much too swollen. He shook his head. Elizabeth, why can’t I let you go?

Finally he remembered the gun shot to his thigh. Cringing, he checked behind the torn flap of bloodied denim. “Hot damn, I’ll live yet.” It had merely scratched him, taking nothing more than a bite of flesh. Coming full circle, he remembered what had brought him to Mexico in the first place. Grinding his teeth, the poison of the night’s events flowed through his veins, strengthening him with hatred.

The goat lapped water from the trough, and the need of drink gave McCutchen immediate purpose. “Mind if I join you?” Sweeping flotsam aside, he cupped his hands. After several scoops he steeled himself against the pain and rose to his full 6’3” height. He had some killing to attend to, but first.

He scanned the senseless carnage around him. A warm slice of sun burned the gap between cloud and horizon, blinding him as he peered toward the remains of the old woman’s house. He shaded his eyes and moved closer. Remnants of a pool of blood and drag marks in the dirt indicated where the old croon’s first shot had struck home, most likely a kill.

He refused to think about the woman herself. There could’ve been only one outcome for her, and thinking about it made his eye spasm.

He skirted the edge of the rubble into the clearing between the woman’s house and the wilderness beyond. The first grisly sight he encountered was the companion goat, throat slit from ear to ear, his side half charred. Pattering rain drops dappled the thick dust, disguising the blood trails. But he found one that started in the center of the clearing and worked its way toward the brush.


He didn’t want to finish analyzing the scene, but he had no choice. He owed her that much and more. Drawing his Colt, he left the blood trail and swung wide to search the edge of the brush. He recognized the prickly pear he’d loosed three rounds into the night before. At least one of the slugs had not been wasted. Blood spatter covered several pads. The trail led south toward a cluster of large mesquites, probably where the horses had been tied up. He would check that later.

Moving more quickly, he steeled himself for the inevitable.

“Good God.” In an opening surrounded by acacia shrubs McCutchen found the remains of the old woman’s body. She hadn’t just been killed. She had been desecrated. He swallowed and took a deep breath before bending over the grisly scene. The woman had been shot several times. By the looks of it, more than a few of them before she fell, and some after. In anger, one of the bandits had carved her with a knife.

He coughed, finding it harder to breathe. About to stand, he noticed something clenched in the woman’s hand. Prying back her fingers revealed the amulet she had kissed the night before. Too much unfinished business, he thought, as he rubbed the amulet between his thumb and finger. It looked Aztec. He recognized the grotesque face of the sun god at the center.

On wobbly legs he stood while slipping the amulet inside his duster next to the tin. He reached the smoldering chink house and the blood stained dirt at its entrance before his curiosity got the better of him. After confirming all tracks led toward the stand of mesquites, he opened the rusty tin.

“Crazy old bitty.” The tin contained a dozen tightly rolled marihuana cigarettes. He clenched the busted and swollen fingers of his left hand, listening to the voices of his grandfather and the old woman in competition. But his grandfather, a Ranger to the end, had gone to rest a long time ago. This woman’s body was barely cold, and she had died, in part, because of him. “Good medicine.” It was the least he could do for a woman whose name he would never know.

He pulled out a single cigarette. Stooping over the burning coals of a roof beam, he puffed it to life and took a slow drag. He coughed at first, hacking up a loogie, then settled into the familiar routine of inspecting the scene. By the time he reached the mesquites where the horses had been tied, his breathing came easier.

There had been five of them. One dead, one wounded. Out of the three remaining, one was heavy while the other two where slight. They rode away toward the south. The woman had mentioned Huerta. If these were Huertistas operating this far north they needed protection against the roving Villistas, the infamous peon cavalry of Pancho Villa. Only one place for twenty miles could provide that sort of protection. First he had to fetch his horse.

The remaining goat followed him half way to the cantina before turning around. He felt affection for the little loner, but a half-chewed up gringo rinche wandering Matamoros by himself was conspicuous enough without a goat trailing him. On the other hand, there was no point in being furtive now. No longer quietly tracking prey, his next move would be offensive. Soon enough his enemies would know exactly where he was.

By the time he reached the northern edge of town, his gate had quickened and his tic had completely gone. “I’ll be damned.” He patted the tin in his duster.

After reaching the riverbank of the Rio Grande, he pursed his lips and pierced the morning air with a sharp two-toned whistle. He bent the pitch upward and added a trill at the end. Repeating it twice, he crouched behind a yucca. It didn’t pay to be a visible target anywhere along the river these days, on either bank. In less than a minute he heard a familiar whinny as his horse, Chester the IV, trotted up from the river bottom.

Sleek and happy, Chester snorted. Not in the least perturbed it had been thirty-six hours since McCutchen left him by the river, he mulled green grass around the bit in his mouth.

“No, no. I’m fine. You?” McCutchen gritted his teeth as he swung himself into the saddle. In no hurry, and not particularly desirous of agitating his wounds further, he led Chester at a comfortable walk around the western edge of town. Having been spotted heading north toward the river, he carefully remained out of view. He wanted watching eyes to assume he had returned to Texas soil. Good riddance. But he wasn’t going home yet. He had work to do.

The two-story stone hacienda jutted from the horizon, visible from miles away. Dismounting on the backside of a knob, he indicated for Chester to stay close. With his Colt reloaded, he carried jerky, dried apricots and a canteen to the top of the rise. After making himself comfortable, he watched the comings and goings while devising his night raid.

The property for miles around belonged to Hacienda Nuevo Santander. As well, the hacienda operated over seventy acres of farmland and a mill. It wasn’t cotton, but McCutchen couldn’t tell from his perch what the mill processed. A cluster of low adobe houses crouched at the near corner of the fields. That would be the first place he’d be spotted, if he wasn’t careful.

On a slight rise to the east perched the hacienda proper. The lessor brick buildings surrounding the original stone mansion included a store, cantina, blacksmith, kitchen and whatever else the hacendado deemed necessary to live according to proper standards.

A damn waste. Extravagance leading to laziness and weakness, as far as McCutchen was concerned. Many of the Mexicans felt the same way, disassembling or crushing most of the haciendas at the beginning of the revolution.

The fact this one still prospered fit with the notion that Huerta had taken a liking to it personally. But that was none of his business. His concern was that vaqueros from this hacienda had rustled cattle from Texas ranches, including the Corona, and had recently tried to kill him, twice.

Stealing cattle and threatening the life of a Ranger were both killing offenses. That meant the law stated he could kill them twice, and he intended to. Justice was coming, but it would have to wait until nightfall. Only one thing troubled him. He’d never gotten a good look at the men, neither at the cantina nor at the old woman’s.

Gambling, an affliction of the pathetic, was beneath him. All the same, McCutchen reckoned it a safe bet the bastard that carved the woman had the Winchester. That was something. And with any luck, he’d reclaim his lost Colt too. His .45 would no doubt be gripped by the man who organized the ambush at the cantina. He’d put down whichever hijo de puta he found with his pistola, and be doing the world some good.

His plan more or less in place, he turned to his relaxation regimen to pass the time. Maybe later he’d take a nap before heading down for reconnaissance at dusk. He grunted as he crossed his legs and placed his feet on his thighs, careful to avoid the gunshot wound. Opening his palms upward, he cleared his mind.


McCutchen observed several sentinels setting up watch around the periphery of the hacienda, including one dang near the knob where he’d spent the heat of the day. When darkness fell, he slipped easily through the first line of defense.

Guessing they would switch the watch around midnight, and anxious to get the job done sooner rather than later, he moved quickly. He couldn’t have hoped for a better situation. Some of the hacendado’s men started a large bonfire to fend off the damp chill blowing inland from the Gulf of Mexico. McCutchen knew their line of sight would be diminished by the flames. The peons remained the only wildcard.

He and Chester steered clear of the fire and the buildings, choosing the spot safest from stray eyes. For several minutes McCutchen sat quietly in the saddle, observing the scene. Six to eight men sat on benches around the edge of the fire whooping and hollering while peons milled nervously across from them.

McCutchen shook his head. For amusement the vaqueros had chosen to humiliate peons by making them dance. The breeze shifted, carrying their voices toward him.

“This is some good stuff, yes?”

“Why don’t you have some?”

“Oh that’s right, I forgot.”

“You’re too busy dancing.” The vaqueros cackled with laughter, firing off rounds in the air and at the peons’ feet. The raucous startled the horses tied up opposite McCutchen’s position. Dumb bastards. Villa could ride in with an army, and they’d never hear it. Finally they quieted down as the leader picked up where he’d left off.

“Besides, you’re too poor and ugly to smoke the General’s personal marihuana.” A vaquero choked and blew smoke, the others laughing at him.

Finally the pieces started to fit. The crop McCutchen had seen during the day was cañamo, marihuana. Even if Huerta smoked incessantly, the only reason to grow this much this far north was for trade along the border to obtain information, weapons and favors.

Whatever benefit McCutchen experienced from the plant, these men were obviously too boorish and undisciplined to enjoy. It spurred an evil inside them. Intoxicated and cruel, the jackals turned violent on the huddle of peons. A burst of gunfire scattered the workers toward the adobes. The image of the eviscerated old woman flashed in his mind. Marihuana had been responsible.

McCutchen thought a couple vaqueros had broken out in a scuffle until realizing the one who seemed to be el Jefe had snuggled up with a peon woman. She tried to defend herself, and he turned rough. Slapping her, she fell back, almost tumbling into the fire. A cry came from one of the adobes. So the were watching. If he could take out the first few vaqueros maybe the peons would help, or at least not get in the way.

El Jefe stood and spat on the girl while she squirmed on the ground. Then McCutchen noticed it. On the bench beside the man rested a rifle, the old woman’s Winchester. As el Jefe approached the girl, he chose to draw a knife, rather than a gun. He threatened her with it lewdly.

That left no more than six men against the six bullets in his Colt. He lashed Chester with the reins. The two of them, horse and rider, drew within yards of the fire before the vaqueros realized a terrible apparition bore down on them.

Gazing dumbly into the darkness they first spotted Chester’s flaring nostrils, then McCutchen, as he swung his right leg backwards over Chester’s rump. He spun around completely to make a running dismount. The Ranger needed every bullet to count.


With his momentum carrying him toward the vaqueros, McCutchen focused on the first among them to respond and squeezed the trigger. The cylinder rolled, the hammer fell, gunpowder ignited and a singular hole appeared in the man’s forehead. Again, McCutchen squeezed the trigger. Fire lit the end of his barrel. A second man fell with a sudden hole to the forehead.

Chester continued at full bore. Leaping over the fire, he clipped a burning branch and showered sparks on the retreating men. McCutchen slowed to a steady walk, mechanically working both hands as if he held the second .45 in his left. In reality the right had to work twice as fast. He pulled the trigger a third time, and a fourth.  Two more men fell, skulls vented to the night. But it wasn’t enough.

A bullet whizzed past McCutchen’s head. The immediate crack, like axe on wood, meant it’d been all too close. He whistled for Chester and bolted toward the adobe buildings, putting the bonfire between him and the remaining vaqueros, including the son of a bitch with the knife.

Only two more rounds came close. Reaching for horn and stirrup, McCutchen snagged Chester at full gallop. But as he shifted his weight into the saddle, Chester slumped and dove headfirst into the ground. The sudden change of momentum flung McCutchen sprawling over the horse’s head.

He hit hard with no time for pain. Dirt pelted him in the face as a bullet missed low. To make things worse, he heard el Jefe ordering someone to go for help.

McCutchen scurried back to the fallen horse who rasped up a mixture of blood and foam with every labored breath. “Dammit. I’m sorry, boy.” He took shelter behind the horse and felt the animal’s warm body jerk with fresh bullet wounds. Now he was in for it. No horse, no element of surprise and only two more bullets.

Angry at himself for stupidly losing precious seconds, he reloaded his Colt with rounds from his belt. He tried to think. If one vaquero rode for help only two remained. If he could get them and find a horse…

A slug tore through the meat of his calf, interrupting his thoughts. His body hummed with pain. Every nerve fought to override his ability to reason. But he had to think. Something was wrong. He wasn’t in their line of fire. Like a shotgun blast, it came to him.

The glint of fire light on steel flickered in an adobe window. He rolled to his left as another flare revealed a rifle barrel spewing hot lead. The bullet struck Chester mercifully in the head. With no cover and no choice McCutchen pumped his good leg, hobbling toward a narrow opening between adobe homes.

Only a couple of stray shots pursued him, the vaqueros possibly reloading. He braced himself against the cold adobe and tried to think clearly, but he was losing the battle. The peons had turned against him. Stupid Mexicans were all alike—willing to shoot the guy helping them just because he’s a gringo. Or did they know he was a rinche? How could they know? But who the hell else would charge in here alone?

His line of thought wasn’t helping. Furious, he couldn’t stop. All the piss poor treatment he’d taken from Mexicans over the years. Even the children hissed, “Rinche, pinche, cara de chinche,” calling him a mean Ranger with the face of a bug.

He was only doing his job. And a damn fine job at that, protecting worthless, ungrateful trash. And now Chester. The best damn horse he had ridden, shot down by some snot-nosed peasant. Not even a hardened bandito, but a peon who couldn’t recognize help when he saw it—a peon growing marihuana and spreading it into his Texas! An encroaching darkness absorbed him.

The gravel crunched behind him. Faster than God, he spun and pulled the trigger.


¡Maria! ¡No, Maria!” A woman’s wailing echoed off the adobe walls.

He inched closer to the body he’d just shot, now slumped on the ground. He kicked the head out of the shadows. It listed into a sliver of moonlight in the narrow alley. McCutchen made out the shape of a woman’s face, a woman’s hair. He knelt down. It was the girl el Jeffe had threatened with his knife, no more than 13 years old. Her dress torn, a dark stain spread across her chest.

“Jesus.” McCutchen stood woozily. He’d never shot a woman. Never in all his years of bringing justice to these God-forsaken borderlands. And only a girl at that. Sobs came from a nearby adobe.

“Shut up! Shut the hell up, you hear me? Comprende English?” McCutchen limped around the back of the adobe into the open night air. “I ain’t no bug. I ain’t no badman. I’m the God-damned law! You hear me?” He fired into an open window. “You caused this, not me!”

Something behind him caused him to turn. The hair on the back of his neck bristled. Something big moved in the dark a hundred yards off, or a lot of somethings. A single shot echoed from the direction of the sentry on the knoll. He flinched, but it hadn’t been aimed at him.

Suddenly the night air boiled with angry voices. “¡Viva la revolucion! ¡Viva Villa!

“Son of a bitch.” Of all the nights for Villa to attack the Huerta stronghold, it had to be tonight. Of all the dumb luck. McCutchen limped as fast as he could toward the last adobe in the row of buildings, a large square structure standing thirty yards apart from the others. In the daylight it appeared to be the best built, and in this case, the most likely to stop bullets. It also had no windows, only huge double doors.

War whoops shattered the quiet like church bells on a Sunday morning. Momentarily he thought about bolting, simply running into the brush and letting the Mexicans kill each other. But he couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t scurry into the desert like a bug. Sons a bitches, he still had a job to do.

He shot the lock off the heavy wooden doors and swung them open enough to see inside. A stack of kerosene lanterns sat next to a bucket of lighters. Good enough. He shut the heavy doors behind him, drowning in the pitch blackness. Shouts from outside grew louder. Groping in the dark, he found a four by four beam meant to barricade the doors from the inside, and dropped it into place just as bodies slammed against its callous surface.

He turned toward the lanterns, found one and lit it. “What in the name of all things holy?” He held the lantern high until it revealed an armored vehicle and crate upon crate of weapons. Several of the crates open, he didn’t even recognize some of what he saw. They were guns, he just hadn’t seen their sort before.


A large pile of rifles lay spilled at his feet. Behind and to the right, several boxes originally reading “Vasićka” had been scratched out and relabeled, “granada.” He pulled off one of the lids.

“Bombs.” The box was filled with handheld bombs. He’d heard of these, explosives with a fuse or that detonated on contact. He stepped away slowly. The auto loomed to his left. Beyond that, a stack of machine guns, like the ones the cavalry carried, but newer. German. Overwhelmingly, the crates where imprinted with German. He’d seen enough of the language in the hill country around Austin to recognize it without a doubt.

The pounding on the doors grew louder before coming to a stop. Gunshots splintered the wood. The heavy doors would take a battering, but they wouldn’t last forever. He jumped onto the runner of the truck.

A large machine gun had been mounted to its bed with coils of ammunition ready-fed through the device. He’d never driven an auto or fired a machine gun, but he’d driven a tractor since he was twelve and seen the military work the contraptions several times. “This is crazy.”

Snatching two granadas, he scurried back to the truck. To his relief it started. He put out the lantern and stood behind the wheel, waiting for the doors to give way. Within seconds, the beam splintered and fell to the ground. As the two giant doors swung outward, the low rumble of the gasoline engine greeted the confused mob.

McCutchen chucked one granada and then the other as hard as he could. Both exploded simultaneously, knocking him back into the driver’s seat and deafening him. He jammed the truck into gear and shoved his foot down on the pedal. Spitting gravel against the back wall of the adobe, he shot out a short distance before slamming on the brakes as soon as he cleared the doors. Groans and swears filled the immediate darkness while shooting and yelling filled the further distances like coyotes calling to each other.

With his good leg he leapt into the back of the truck to wield the machine gun. Here goes. He depressed the trigger slightly. The recoil shook him to the bone. Holding on, he clinched his jaw to keep the teeth from rattling out of his head.

Anything that moved, he lit it up, until finally nothing moved. He released the trigger, giving the gun a chance to cool and taking the opportunity to untangle several more feet of ammunition. From his vantage he saw directly across the fields to the old hacienda.

Foolishly, every lamp in every room had been lit, or perhaps the lights were electric. The Huertistas had pulled back, retreating across the field toward the stone walls of the hacienda. The Villistas, on the other hand, had responded to the machine gun fire, thinking it was intended for them.

A cluster of horses pulled away from the main regiment, riding around the field toward McCutchen’s position. “Come and get me, boys.” As the lead horses got within fifty yards, he opened it up. The pealing thunder of the gun erased all sounds of life. His eyes, rattling in their sockets, saw nothing but death.

Then a click and a whirring buzzed around his head as the barrel spun but the ammunition jammed. Amazed it had lasted this long, he jumped down and took one last granada from behind the seat. As several Villistas regrouped and bore down on him with guns blazing, he chucked the bomb into the yawning darkness of the munitions shed and worked his good leg as fast as he could toward the fields.


This time the explosion rippled like a chain of firecrackers, until eventually fumes from the kerosene combusted into a fireball that lit up the night like high noon. The concussion, followed by a wave of heat, launched him headlong into the furrows of marihuana.

Santa Maria.” The lead rider, tossed by the explosion, landed yards away from McCutchen. Shock registered on the dazed revolutionary’s face as he realized a chewed up gringo leveled a pistol directly at him.

Without another thought the Ranger dispatched him. “Mary can’t help you. The time for prayer is over. Judgment has come.”

McCutchen picked up a burning splinter of the wooden doors and limped around the edge of the field, lighting the last stalk of each row on fire as he went. He arrived at the bonfire, pleased to see the Winchester waiting for him. Holstering his Colt, he clutched the rifle in his hands.

“No gods. No prayers. Only justice.” He reached inside his duster and clutched the old woman’s amulet. He’d intended to throw it into the fire, but thought against it.

He continued his uneven progress through the blazing field of cañamo, a single, sinister silhouette cutout against the flames he left behind him. Halfway across the field the alarm sounded for retreat. The remaining Villistas gathered in clumps along the road and lashed their horses toward the west and south.

McCutchen reached the great stone gates as the surviving Huertistas scattered, gathering whatever horses they could. Right inside the gate, barking orders, stood the man the Ranger had hoped to find. While the man waited impatiently for his horse to be brought to him, McCutchen limped steadily forward.

His clouded thoughts could think only one thing. Justice demanded to be paid in blood. The marihuana-fueled lawlessness of Mexico would not reach Texas while he still drew breath, and he was breathing now.

At thirty paces, the bandit turned to face him. A charred rinche recently back from the grave several times over was the last thing he expected, and the sight clearly unnerved him. McCutchen wanted to be sure before he shot the man down, so he let him draw first.

Steel flashed and gunpowder flared, but the bullet went wide. More importantly, as McCutchen drew his .45 he knew with a certainty he’d been fired on with his own gun. From twenty-five paces he pulled the trigger, putting one bullet in the Mexican bandit’s eye.

He took his stolen Colt from the dead man’s grip, using it to shoot the man who finally delivered the ringleader’s horse. The horse snorted but didn’t bolt. McCutchen recognized a mutual spark burning in the beast’s eyes.

“Whoa there,” he calmed the animal. “You’ve got a new boss now.” Hoisting himself up with the horn until he could swing his injured leg over the horse’s rump, he stroked the animal’s neck. “Chester V, that’s what I’ll call you. Now hyaw!” He lashed the animal with the reins and galloped out the front gate, heading toward home.

As he mounted the little knoll, he stopped to look back at the carnage outstretched below him. “La Cucaracha indeed. Everybody knows it’s the roach that lives in the end.” He spat and turned to go, now at a walk. The next day reports would reach Brownsville of a great battle at Nuevo Santander. Many dead and many wounded. But nobody would ever know a rinche had started it, or that a rinche had finished it.

END

Read More Schism 8 Episodes

Extinction Force, Ep1: Contamination

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The Tyranny bucked as its aft sloughed from the gate. Otto Jaeger breathed deeply while patting himself down, starting with his head. Spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch. Everything remained in its proper place after another successful jump.

Sheer probability would catch up with him eventually. Someone could only be disintegrated and reassembled so many times before coming together out of order. Most of his men thought his pre and post jump litany a joke, but he’d seen scramble first hand. Messy stuff.

“Better acquire a visual, Commander, just in case.” Kade jostled Jaeger as he pushed past.

“Find a seat and strap in, XMO Christiansen.” Jaeger growled. “Half a nut would be enough to command this motley crew.”

Brista “Brick” Jenkins stood between the two and corralled Jaeger toward the bridge. “For Yuan’s sake, someone toss his grumpy highness the com so he can talk to his daughter before we pop the eye.”

“Mind your place, Brick.”

“Give it up, Otto, and admit you’re worried about her.” Ariza tossed a portable to Brick. She jammed it into Jaeger’s hand. “Ping the poor girl. She’s worried about you, even if you’re too pig headed to worry about her.” Brick leaned close. “We gonna be a month before extraction. She’ll be a roughhide on another squad by then. Show her you care, you prickly old frendol.”

Jaeger raised the com but hesitated to ping XLO Dalia Jaeger, his daughter and youngest child.

“If you don’t, I will.” Brick threatened.

Jaeger entered the coordinates on the handheld and pinged.

A response came seconds later. “EEF Ravager requesting authenticate.”

“It’s Commander Jaeger, I wanna talk to XLO Dalia—” he caught himself before he used the name she’d run off to escape, “Raven.”

“Your identification, Command—”

“Wilkes, you twit, I swear I’ll plug your pie hole with your protocol if you don’t—”

“ID authenticated. Roger that, Tyranny.” The connection fell quiet. Moments later Jaeger heard his daughter’s voice, rigid with formality.

“Commander?”

“Dalia.” A shadow of tension lifted from Jaeger’s shoulders. “We’re about to pop the eye on the Primal Instinct job.”

“Congratulations, sir.”

Jaeger gritted his teeth and checked to ensure the rest of his squad couldn’t overhear. “Baby girl, it’s me.”

Silence greeted him from the other end.

“Dalia?”

“Daddy?”

Jaeger allowed the familial title to nourish his heart. “I’m proud of you. I want you to know that. I still wish you could have spread your wings under my command, but I understand why you requested the transfer.”

“You’re not still angry?”

“A little, but mostly at myself. I can’t stay mad at you.”

“You always were a softy when it came to your baby girl.”

Jaeger changed the subject. “How’s the new squad treating you?”

“Fine. It’s different. Not bad, just different. I’m still figuring out the rules.”

“You’ll do fine.”

“I know.”

Jaeger laughed. “And your partner? The one with the deuce on his record?”

“You mean XMO Cruz?”

Jaeger could see his daughter’s expression despite the distance between them. “Don’t roll your eyes at me, missy.”

“Same old Commander, same old father. You know as well as anyone that reprimands are handed down for bogus reasons as often as legit.”

“He’s a pretty boy. I don’t trust pretty boys. Especially when they’re cheeks to cheeks with my—”

“Dad!” Dalia cut him off. “You like Tagg just fine.”

Jaeger hemmed and hawed. “Tagg’s an egghead who happens to look like a pretty boy.”

“Oh, so you admit looks can be deceiving?”

“Fine, you win. Just keep your guard, for now.”

“Don’t worry about me. Like father like daughter. Besides, we’re still two days out from babysitting some S&Es on a frickin’ explore and bore. I’m starting to realize how spoiled I got on your squad.”

“Hey, never forget the first rule.”

“I know, surprises kill.”

“And what causes surprises?”

“Unchecked expectations.”

“Exactly. No mission is ever as it seems. So keep your guard.”

“Speaking of keeping your guard, you’re the one heading into the cauldron. Primal Instinct for Yuan’s sake.”

“Just some big lizards.” Jaeger scanned the troop hold for any signs of the Client Representative. He knew they had to be nearing the Dyson Sphere’s fisheye portal. “I don’t have long before the eye severs the connection. I want you to know, I love you.”

“I know you do, daddy. I love you too.”

“Promise me you won’t get too many accommodations over the next month.”

Dalia was laughing when the connection turned to static.

“Baby girl?” Jaeger waited three seconds and sighed. It had been four years since he’d gone more than a week without seeing his youngest child.

Brick called out from the neck of the bridge. “We’ve popped the eye, ladies and gentlemen. Get ‘dem girdles on ‘cause we about to flush.”

Jaeger lowered the handheld and swore. “Where the shyet is that CR? Now the weasel’s got no choice but to spill the rest of the intel on this headache of a job.”


“The CR’s on the bridge. Our boyo looks a bit green around the gils.” Kade smirked.

“He’s gonna be black and blue around the eyes if he isn’t forthcoming with my intel, that smarmy little—” Jaeger’s rant faded to a mumble as he palmed open the door leading to the bridge. “Mr. Sigel!”

Sigel turned with a start. “Commander Jaeger, no need for—”

“Can the niceties. We’re inside the HC. You owe me full intel on this mission. Without it, none of my men are getting off this ship. But you might.”

Sigel swallowed. “I’m sure there’s no need for—”

“That wasn’t a threat. When I threaten you, you’ll know it. Now make with the intel.”

A large winged lizard flashed in front of the Tyranny’s viewfinder, jostling the ship in its wash. Sigel clutched a panic bar. “What was that?”

Forrester answered from the pilot’s chair. “Nothing to worry about. Just a welcoming party. They’re keeping safe distance.”

“Safe distance? Something just hit the ship!”

Jaeger shook Sigel by the shoulders. “I’m about to hit you if you don’t focus, Mr. Sigel.”

The Client Representative blinked several times before recognition settled in his eyes. He glanced toward the pilot. “Not here.”

“By Yuan’s light, what could possibly be so precious?” Jaeger allowed Sigel to slip past him into the neck of the ship. He closed the blast door to the bridge. “This is the last time I’m going to ask nicely. The mission.”

Satisfied no one could overhear, Sigel started in a low voice. “There’s a second Hibernaculated Culture, a secret HC concealed entirely inside Primal Instinct.” Sigel raised a brow suggestively as if this amount of information would impress the commander.

Jaeger leaned closer.

Sigel cringed and pressed into the hull.

“The mission, Mr. Sigel.”

Sigel sputtered. “A breach. There’s been a breach between the two HCs.”

“Contamination?”

“Unknown.” Sigel loosened his collar. “You must understand, Commander, the smaller HC is extremely remote. Completely isolated. Even the designer biomimetic dark matter is collected only twice a year. It has been four months since last contact, and at that time all indicators were nominal.”

“The imperatives?” Jaeger asked.

Sigel activated a holo-cube and offered it to the commander. “We have the coordinates of the containment breach.” Locate the breach. Assess, contain and cleanse possible contamination of the internal HC. Repair the breach.”

Jaeger’s lip twitched. “Is that it?”

“The integrity of the internal HC is paramount.”

The Tyranny bucked then banked hard to starboard. Jaeger braced himself and prevented Sigel from tumbling to the floor. “You mind telling me what I can expect to find inside this mysterious HC?”

Sigel panicked. “Shouldn’t someone be doing something!?”

“Just what sort of something do you suggest?” Jaeger smiled.

“I don’t know, like shoot those damn things down before they kill us!”

“I thought the mission was to preserve your precious HC.”

“Shoot ‘em, shoot ‘em all!”

Jaeger lifted Sigel by the collar and crammed him into a crash seat.

Forrester barked over the intercom as the turbulence increased. “One thousand meters from the surface. Less than two minutes until flush. You might have noticed, but we’re drawing some attention. Happy hunting, ladies and gents.”

“You heard the man!” Brick called out over the rattle and hum. “Strap in, cheeks to cheeks! Safeties locked until touchdown. After that, triggers green at your discretion!”

Jaeger leaned over until he was face to face with Sigel. “You’ve got exactly sixty seconds to tell me what’s inside the internal HC, or I’m strapping you into the spare exo and you can tell me on the surface.”

Sigel squirmed. “I can’t say! I don’t have clearance.”

“Either tell me or show me, Mr. Sigel.”

“It’s a cloud city. There are ancestral humans, a small population—seclusive, contained. They might not even be aware of the breach. You have to keep it that way, for Yuan’s sake. Each life is priceless.”

“Since when has an ancestral human been worth a pirate’s credit?” Jaeger clutched the CR’s collar and threatened him with a fist. “If you guys are hiding something that gets one of my men killed, I’ll burn down your entire pharmaceutical empire. That’s a threat.”

“Please, I’ve told you everything.”

Jaeger turned to go in disgust.

“Commander!”

Jaeger stopped.

“If you come across anything or anyone that doesn’t belong, kill it.”

“And what the hell is that supposed to—” The ship lurched violently as something slammed into it from above. Jaeger hovered in free fall until a second strike ripped away a section of the starboard hull. Jaeger clutched for a panic bar with one hand while clutching for Sigel with the other. The force of the ship’s spin tore the crash seat lose, and in the blink of an eye the screaming Sigel was sucked into the blue sky and gone.

Alarms blared. Jaeger clutched the bar with both hands. He tried to walk himself along the hull, but the centripetal force was too great. The Tyranny was in a flat spin.

“Commander!” A meaty hand clamped around Jaeger’s wrist and pulled him clear of the hull breach. It was Brick.

“The others!?” Jaeger yelled in her ear.

“They’re strapped in, but we’ve got a loose Exo—the Babiks in Gamma 2.”

“We need to flush now!”

Brick nodded. “Forrester’s not responding.”

Jaeger swore. The bridge door was closed. By the way the ship was spiraling out of control, they had to assume Forrester was gone.

“I can reach the manual lever.”

Jaeger wanted to object, but he knew Brick was the only one with a chance of success. “Do it, but set a ten second delay. I’ll see to the Babiks.”

“That gives you twenty. Ready?” Brick widened her stance.

Jaeger gripped her arm with his free hand and nodded.

“This is gonna hurt!” Brick roared as she threw Jaeger toward the troop hold in an arc against the centripetal spin.

The pull of the spin instantly dragged him down. Twisting his body just in time, he slammed into the untethered exoskeleton hands and feet first.

Maddy jolted at his sudden appearance. “Commander! Krystof’s unresponsive and my hatch is stuck!”

“Stay put! We flush in twenty!”

“But the tether!”

“We’re gonna piggyback. But you gotta get me to Alpha 1!”

She clenched her jaw.

“This is all you, Maddy!”

She jabbed her hands into the controls and ignited Gamma 2’s interactive matrix. Her eyes rolled into her head as the pure BDM entered her system. The right arm of the exo shot outward. Punching finger holes in the hull, she climbed the ladder hand over hand while Jaeger held on for the ride.

Within seconds, the Gamma 2 reached the tether that secured Alpha 1. “Tighten up!” Maddy gave a moment’s notice.

Jaeger tightened his core muscles as Gamma 2 gripped him around the waist and thrust him toward his own cockpit. As he popped the hatch, alarms blared throughout Tyranny’s troop hold. “Ten seconds!”

“We have to get Brick!”

“After the flush! Don’t worry, I’ll find her.” Jaeger heaved himself into the cockpit, slammed the hatch shut and ignited his matrix. As his awareness expanded beyond simple sight, Jaeger saw his first blurry snatches of the surface of Primal Instinct alternating with blue sky. The flat spin had begun to tilt sideways. “Grab ahold! We’re going in three! Two! One!”

The bottom of the ship fell open, releasing an array of jetsam that had broken loose from the impact. A second later the tether arms projected downward and released the exoskeletons in a staggered pattern—1.4 seconds apart. Jaeger’s was the first—with the Gamma 2 riding piggyback.


As soon as they cleared the tether, Jaeger spun the torso so his cockpit faced aft. He fired thrusters at full in effort to climb over the other exos and reach Brick before they hit the ground. He hailed Maddy on her personal channel. “Give me all your thrust. Match my trajectory.”

“Wilco. Thrust engaged at full.”

The jolt was immediate. Combined thrust slowed their decent to ten meters per second. The other exos dropped out of site on their way to the crash site—one that fortunately looked like a meadow. After twelve seconds, the last exo cleared the drop ship safely.

Jaeger magnified the view and scanned the belly of the Tyranny as it spun further away. Brick, where are you? Even the combined thrust couldn’t match the ship’s velocity. He hailed her. “You’ve gotta jump, Brick. Time’s up.”

“Glad to hear you made it alright, Otto. But I got a different plan.”

“For Yuan’s sake, you won’t survive in there. Jump, I’ll catch you.” But it was too late. Jaeger’s proximity alarm blared as the ground rose up to meet him. He shifted his focus. “Maddy, disengage in three, two, one.” He felt her exo push off from his the same moment he realized the meadow was actually a swamp. “Prepare for impact. I’m rolling right.”

“Roger. I’ll take left.”

The blue sky disappeared, swallowed by blurs of green and brown. The stench of decaying organic matter greeted him. Feet first, his exo crashed into the bog. He tucked in attempt to roll, but his legs stuck tight and slammed the rest of his exo into the mud face-first.

Other than sucking sounds, everything fell eerily quiet, and dark. He spun the torso. To his relief, he discovered he hadn’t embedded completely. “Report.”

One by one, the rest of his squad responded—all six twin-manned exoskeletons had reached the surface more or less intact.

“Krystof’s still not responding,” Maddy reported. “Any sign of Brick?”

The ground shook with a nearby explosion—the Tyranny. Jaeger pushed the thought out of his mind. “Anyone have a free line of sight? I’ve got nothing but sky.”

“Yes sir.” It was Tagg, XMO of exo call sign Echo 2. “Bao and I landed on a tuft of semi-solid ground. But, uh, you might want to stay buried in the mud. At least, I suggest no sudden movements.”

“Out with it.”

“We’ve got incoming, Commander, from every direction.”

Jules chimed in. “Unless I miss my guess, their Deinonychus. Nasty buggers, about the size of a person.”

“They’ve got wings.”

“Flightless, but I suppose it helps them tread lightly.”

“Numbers?” Jaeger asked.

“Seventy-three, give or take.” Tagg responded without hesitation. “Probably more waiting beyond the tree line to see what happens.”

“Threat assessment?”

“I suppose they could bite through hydraulics if they could get their beak in the joints.”

Jules added, “I wager the boney ridge on their head could spider a viewfinder.”

“Triggers free.” Jaeger gave the order. “Just remember, what you’re carrying is what you’ve got for the next month. Tagg, you cover Maddy. Kade?”

“Aye?”

“You and Zip good for lead on this one?”

“Give the word.”

“I’m giving it. Gamma 1, take the lead. First line of business is the crash site.”

“But Krystof,” Maddy interrupted.

“Tyrrany’s wreckage should provide enough cover to dismount. We’ll tend to Krystof there.”

Silence.

“Maddy?”

“Commander.”

“Your brother’s a survivor. You know that better than anyone.”

Bolshoe spasibo.”

“Now move out, and keep your eyes open for Brick.” Working double duty in Brick’s absence, Jaeger armed the flame thrower and baked the mud beneath him, intensifying the stench in the process. After a few seconds, he dug his feet into the crust and climbed out of the impact crater.

His squad had already engaged the Deinonychus raptors. Tagg laid down sporadic fire for the exos mired in the mud while Zip and Kade stretched their legs with close quarters combat. Jaeger rolled his eyes. There had to be better ways to discourage a man-sized dinosaur from trying to eat you, but he supposed the alternatives weren’t half as fun.

“It’s time to stop acting the maggot, boyos, and start sucking diesel!” Kade cackled over the open channel.

Jaeger tuned out the chatter and joined Shasta and Ariza, the rest of his Alpha fireteam, on the left flank. He fired thrusters on a limited basis to keep himself from bogging down. An occasional flame kept the dozens of Deinonychus at bay as the squad worked their way toward the edge of the swamp.

One curious Deinonychus didn’t mind his distance, and Jaeger lit it up. Flames consumed the reddish-orange plumage and sent the raptor crashing into three others. Moments later, a domino effect spread the fire to two dozen feather-covered lizards.

“Crikey! That showed ‘em a thing or two,” Kade chimed. “Ground’s solid over here, gang. Crash site’s two clicks beyond the trees. I’m reading lots of action over there.”

“More Deinonychus?” Jaeger fired thrusters hard enough to clear the edge of the swamp and land next to Echo 2 and Gamma 1. He helped Jules and Sable’s exo out of the edge of the muck.

“Something’s cheesed ‘em off good. Looks like a bloody feeding frenzy.”

“Brick.”

“If you’re right, boss, we better bolt.”

Jaeger had already taken off at a sprint. “Keep up if you can. Call out if you’re in trouble. Otherwise mouths shut and eyes open.” He slammed his exo’s fist into the jaw of an angry Deinonychus and burst into the dense stand of trees. Thrusters in skate mode and forearm blades fully extended, he slashed Alpha 1’s arms back and forth to clear a path through the vines and branches. At five meters a second, he scorched a hole through the jungle and burst into the clearing beyond in under a minute.

Still in skate mode, he broadsided a large, stampeding dinosaur and wedged a blade between two scales in order to hitch a ride. Behind him, Gamma 1 emerged from the tree line, followed quickly by the others. Shasta piloted Alpha 2 gracefully onto the back of a passing Stegosaurus while the others chose to remain on foot.

“Brick, do you read?” Jaeger hailed.

“You know me, keeping them home fires burning.” Brick responded over a thunderous hail of ballistics.

Jaeger should have known better than to worry. “Report.”

“Whenever I drop one, a dozen others stop to pick its bones as if they starving.”

“Roger. Can you hold the crash site?”

“Affirmative.”

“We’re bringing in casualties. Mark my position. Pinging now.” Jaeger pinpointed his location via radar.

“Copy that. Redirecting fire. You’re clear for approach, Otto.”

“Roger. Coming in hot.” Jaeger engaged a forearm chainsaw and plunged it into the meat of the dinosaur he’d been riding. The animal screeched as it plunged headfirst into the young, rocky soil. Jaeger rolled before regaining full skate-stride. As Brick had predicted, several stampeding dinosaurs pulled up to devour the wounded one.

Jaeger switched to the common channel. “Triggers free, men. Give these things something to eat other than us.”

Within seconds over a hundred dinosaurs had been killed or occupied with a kill. For the first time, Jaeger secured a visual of Brick and understood how she’d touched down safely—by detaching the cannon pod moments before impact. Having parachuted safely to the ground within thirty meters from the crash site, she was currently using the 75mm cannon to generate a ring of carnage.

“‘Bout time you lolygaggers got here. I need a snack pie break.”

“No breaks yet.” Jaeger vaulted over the snapping jaws of a feasting dinosaur and landed within the protected zone Brick had laid down. “Krystof’s unresponsive.”

“Hell’s gist. Get that boy over here. I got med supplies in the pod.”

“Maddy?”

“ETA right now, boss.” Gamma 2 smashed its way through the pile by slicing off the head and neck of a large raptor and swinging it like a club. The rest of the squad fanned out to assume Brick’s defense of the perimeter.

“Bollocks, these things are bloodthirsty.” Jules and Sable plowed a dead dinosaur out of the protected zone while punching two others that were attempting to eat it.

“Keep ‘em busy. I’ll play goalkeeper while Brick and Maddy tend to Krystof.” Jaeger switched to his flame thrower.

Maddy parked Gamma 2 next to the cannon pod and blew both hatches.”

“Maddy’s in the breeze.” Brick relayed. “I’m joining her.”

“Got you covered.” Jaeger flanked the cannon pod to ensure nothing bigger than a butterfly got close to his exposed crewmen. He glanced their way long enough to see Brick hoist a bloodied Krystof from his cockpit as Maddy supported her brother’s head and neck. Jaeger swore. If Krystof had been bleeding that much the whole time, and this early into the mission…

He focused on the perimeter and toasted a raptor that leapt onto the growing pile of carcasses. Several more followed that one, each oblivious to the fate of the last. Something had shifted their instincts. “This should be enough dead meat for weeks. Why do they keep coming over?”

Tag responded. “Call me crazy, but they’re acting like they’re trying to get away.”

“They doing a shite job of it,” Kade replied.

“Not from us, from something worse.”

The ground shook beneath Jaeger’s feet. “Anyone been watching the long range?”

“Uh, boss, we got trouble.”


Jaeger climbed the pile of dead meat to gain a visual. What he saw was a dinosaur three times the size of anything they’d encountered so far. And the beast wasn’t slowing down for any of the roadkill they’d left behind.

“Brick, we’ve got a problem, ETA thirty seconds.”

“Fat wallop, I got problems of my own.” Brick fired back.

“Jules?”

“Client’s gonna be pissed if we kill something like that. We’ve already set ‘em back a pretty penny.”

Kade interrupted. “Fetch that! I’m wondering if killing that bloody monster’s even possible.”

“Can we outrun it?” Jaeger asked.

“Not if it pursues.”

Jaeger checked the distance of the Gigantisaur and corrected his earlier estimation. “Fifteen seconds! Brick, we gotta go!”

She grunted as she held Krystof over her head so Maddy could load him in Gamma 2. “I’ve stopped external bleeding and administered a slo-mo, but it ain’t gonna do much on Immunity Faction. Best option’s to fall back outta the fire and let his core take over.”

“Fine, get in.”

“Hold on, I gotta get more supplies from the pod.”

Jaeger swore. “Brick’s still in the breeze. Bao, Shasta, Zip, form a wedge and head for the genitals. The rest focus ballistics on the face. Stay out from under it.”

“Boss, your six!”

Without turning to look, Jaeger activated his forearm blades, took a knee and plunged an arm backward. His gears ground as the hibernaculated steel blade buried wrist deep in the jaw of the beast that had intended to bite off his head. With a violent lashing, the dinosaur swung its neck and slammed Alpha 1 into the ground. “Focus on the big one!”

The beast jerked Jaeger off the ground. Before it could slam him down again, he spun in midair and scissored his arm blades together. Crunching through bone and sinew, the blades severed the neck and Alpha 1 promptly tumbled back to earth.

Chatter crowded the common channel.

“Watch the teeth!”

“I’m out. I’ve lost visual!”

“Ballistics are bouncing off!”

“Get your sorry asses out a the way!” Brick bellowed. “Get down!”

Jaeger rolled onto his side in time to glimpse Brick braced against the cannon pod with a slag humper draped over her shoulder. It was a weapon intended only for air to air combat.

“Slag humper!” he yelled while flipping onto his stomach.

“Fire in the hole!” Brick screamed.

A moment later, the wash tossed Alpha 1 head over heels. A bath of carnage rained down the moment Jaeger came to rest. After that, nothing but a ringing in his ears. “Report.”

“Bollocks, Echo team’s good.”

“Alpha 2 is in one piece, mostly.”

“Crikey, Zip and I are still here. Maddy?”

Silence.

“Maddy?” Jaeger pushed his exo onto its feet. He spotted the Gamma 2 on top of the Tyranny wreckage and under a giant slab of dinosaur meat. “Shasta, get her down from there. The rest of you secure the perimeter.”

“I’m here. I’m good.” Maddy finally responded. “My exo’s damaged. I think the hydro for one of the legs is cut.” She pushed the carcass off and struggled to maneuver her exo clear of the Tyranny wreckage. “Should Krystof and I dismount?”

Jaeger swore. “Stay put. We’ll drag you out of here if we have to.” He scanned the debris field for signs of Brick. All he saw were oversized chunks of grizzle, meat and bone. And blood. Lots of blood. “Brick?”

“Little help.” Her hand waved from underneath the overturned cannon pod.

Jaeger hurried to her side. “This is a first.”

“What’s that?”

Me lifting something heavy off of you.” He carefully flipped over the pod.

Brick slowly stood. “You calling me fat?”

“I have no response to that.”

“Well then, blow the hatch, ‘cause I’m climbing in.”

“Wilco.” Jaeger blew the hatch and Brick bounded into her cockpit.

“The natives are regrouping, hungry as ever.” Echo 2 had stabilized the Gamma 2—three good legs between the two machines.

“Where to, boss?” Kade asked.

Jaeger remembered the holo-cube Siegel had handed him. He found it still secured in his vest and plugged it into the dash of his exo. “Uploading coordinates now.”

Kade paused momentarily as he processed the 3D imagery.“Stop the lights! This whole manky operation has been about a bloody secret HC?”

“That’s right, so pull up your socks and take us there.”

“You heard the man. Get up outta this fire!” Brick roared.

“Wilco, boss.” Gamma 1 blasted a path through the ring as the other exos followed in a spear formation. “I don’t mean no offense, Commander,” came Kade, “but if this holo’s the only intel we got, how do you know—”

“The frying pan from the fire?” Jaeger interrupted. “We don’t, and yes, the whole thing’s gone arseways. But we can’t stay here, so hoe the row—lips shut and cheeks tight.”

“Roger that.”

The channel went dark as the squad bolted in a straight line for what looked like three lifetime’s worth of jungle primeval. With any luck, Primal Instinct would afford them a tiny window to catch their breath. If not…either way, Jaeger supposed the heat had just begun.


Jaeger hailed Brick over the internal com. “You had me going for a minute.”

“Even surprised myself.” Brick chuckled. “Hell, I’m just glad I packed my snack pies in advance.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission.”

“Can’t say it’s sitting friendly so far.”

“How’s Maddy dealing? You know, with Krystof.”

“That girl done blanched worse than her brother. But I reckon she’ll push the fear down deep, like always. No telling what those two went through together before EEF found ‘em on that toxic popsicle planet.”

Jaeger shook his head. “I’m more worried about what we’re going to go through on this adrenaline-steeped hellhole.”

“You and I both know it’s the people pulling the strings that are dangerous.”

“That’s a lesson Siegel should’ve seen coming.”

“Poor expendable fool. He ain’t had a clue.”

Jaeger scanned his peripherals for incoming dinosaurs. All but a few curious sorts had abandoned the caravan of exos in preference for the dead meat they left in their wake. The jungle lay another click ahead. The density of the growth would protect them from any predator bigger than their exos. But in Jaeger’s experience, jungle flora usually sheltered threats of its own.

He thought about the last thing Brick had said. “That’s what troubles me. Siegel was a low-level pawn, too expendable for a mission this important.”

“You saying his fate wasn’t no accident?”

“Dangerous secrets tend not to leave survivors, Brick. I’m saying I wouldn’t put it past the benevolent people of Crystalline Magic Co. to eliminate a few loose ends to preserve their bottom line.”

“If that’s true, life just ain’t worth what it used to be.”

Jaeger sighed. “For now we’re in the driver’s seat. They need us, and we’re about to know more than they do. We’ll carry out the mission, like always. In the process we gotta make sure we find the right leverage to guarantee extraction when the time comes.”

“You ever get tired of thinking three steps ahead?”

“All the time.”

“When are we gonna give up this fool game?”

Jaeger gazed overhead. Through the clear blue sky, he saw a glint of the Dyson sphere that caged them together with countless prehistoric specimens that had been brought back to life for the singular purpose of generating a drug-fueled profit. “After the next mission.” He steeled his will toward the mission at hand. “Always after the next mission.”


At the edge of the grassland, the jungle greeted them with menace. Its clutching tendrils, choking branches and thick trunks seemed to enslave the land it claimed and terrify the rest—even threatening the sky.

Jaeger craned his neck upward and gawked at the sheer scope of it. If the jungle hadn’t of dwarfed them, their exos never would have fit through the dense foliage. As it was, they’d have to battle the underbrush and whatever they encountered living on the jungle floor.

Kade broke the silence. “Looks like the meat eaters have broken chase.”

“This looks like as good of a breather as we’re gonna get,” Jaeger said. “Full diagnostics. Dismount in fireteams, starting with Gamma.” He knew the Baliks needed immediate attention. “Breathe the air and taste the soil. Bao, I want you and Tagg to scout the best way forward.”

“Roger that.” The squad echoed in chorus.

“Oh, and make sure all injured check in with Brick. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you what happened to Kade last time he overlooked a scratch.”

“Oy, I thought I’d never shite all those buggers out.”

The internal com activated. Jaeger could hear the rustling of a wrapper as Brick shoved one of her repellant snack cakes in her mouth. He’d never understood what she found appealing about their combination of spongy, processed ingredients.

“You gonna be alright without me?” She spoke with a full mouth.

“No, but we can’t let our feelings for each other get in the way.”

Brick snorted and choked for several seconds before managing to swallow the snack cake. “Dang it all, I think some of the filling went up my nose.”

“I saw my advantage and took it.” Jaeger laughed.

“You win this time, Otto. But we gonna be on this rock for a long time. You better watch your back.”

“I thought that was your job.”

“Of all the dirty tactics…messing with a girl’s snack break. Just for that, I hope you get a parasite.” Brick blew her hatch and bailed, leaving Jaeger alone with his thoughts.

He recalled the last thing he’d said to Dalia. No mission is ever as it seems. So far this mission seemed like a salt-za-da-gin bresz-nyet. If they had only uncovered the half of it, they were going to be in for a deep burial at the end of long ride.


Bao and Tagg took point in Echo 2 as the squad carved a tedious path through the jungle. At least Tagg had managed to patch the hydraulics on Gamma 2 enough for the machine to hobble forward without assistance. After an hour of trekking, the density of the massive tree trunks forced the squad to halt while Bao used his chainsaws to remove a trunk one meter in diameter and create a gap wide enough for the exos to fit.

Jaeger maneuvered Alpha 1 next to the only husband and wife pilot duo on his squad and sat. Jules Barnes and Morgan Sable piloted Echo 1, and they were a complicated couple. Not only had they married inter-factionally, but rarer still, Sable was Chaos—a Hibernarii faction that disavowed any and all attempts to manipulate or harness the forces of nature. According to Chaos, nature itself was the highest form of intelligence in the universe, and any attempts to control it would ultimately prove futile.

At moments like this, Jaeger keenly felt the futility. He needed perspective. And more often than not, he found that perspective in the tandem of Jules and Sable. Jules had become the black sheep of a noble Fortitude family even before his rebellious act of marrying a Chaos woman with skin as black as his own wool. Together they provided the squad with an intuitive thoughtfulness.

Jaeger hailed Echo 1 privately. “A penny for your thoughts.”

“That might prove a high price in today’s market, my friend.” Jules sighed.

“So you feel it too?”

“Aye. I get the distinct feeling that independent thought was not the quality our clients were after when hiring us for this job.”

“Then they hired the wrong squad,” Jaeger asserted.

Sable interrupted. “Either that or our nuisance has surpassed our usefulness within the Exploration and Extinction Force.”

“You think someone within the EEF has it in for us?” Jaeger rolled the thought around in his head.

“Wouldn’t you?” Jules laughed. “Just look at us. The Babiks are targeted outcasts who have recently worked off their debt. Bao would have been discharged multiple times for insubordination if you hadn’t of protected him. As Equality faction, Ariza has made command nervous from day one. Shasta’s a borderline BDM heretic. Kade and Zip are loose cannons at best.”

“And yourselves?”

“Well, that goes without saying—a Chaos and Fortitude in union. I suppose my beliefs have offended more than a few.”

“Command would have to be drunk to think they could get away with outright eliminating us.”

“When has command ever been sober?”

“Good point.” Jaeger acquiesced. “Sable, your take on Primal Instinct?”

“Atrocity. Gross atrocity. Nothing good will happen here. Nature has been poisoned to the level of self-destruction.”

“That good, huh?”

“Nothing on this planet should be trusted. Death is its only release.”

Jaeger exhaled. “I was afraid you would say that. Have either one of you seen any animal life larger than your fist since we entered this forest?”

“Nothing dares to enter by design,” Sable replied.

Out of breath, Bao hailed the squad. “I have cut through the trunk, but it is held in place by neighbors. I recommend shoving the base out of the way, but the canopy could destabilize in the process.”

Jaeger stood. “Give it a try. Everyone else, standby to assist. We move as soon as we can fit through. I don’t like sitting still.”

“On three, two, one.” Bao fired Echo 2’s thrusters while shouldering the massive tree. Gradually, he shoved the trunk aside while the other exos skirted it. Alpha 1 passed through last and supported the weight of the wedged-in trunk while Echo 2 cleared the gap. They let go together and the trunk fell into place, as if it had never been cut.

“Mark these coordinates, incase this proves to be the only way out,” Jaeger ordered.

“Roger.”

“We’ve got movement, two o’clock.” Sable alerted the squad.

“I saw it too,” Tagg confirmed. “Something ropey, less than a dozen meters away.”

“Spread out. Sable and Jules take the lead,” Jaeger ordered. “Stay within reach of each other, but no bunching up. The forest’s roomier on this side. Maybe we can reach the breach without further delays.”

They squad progressed another hundred meters in radio silence until Ariza spoke up. “I’m reading increased levels of nitrous oxide and sulfur in the air. Still breathable, but—”

“Did you see that?”

“We’ve got movement to the southeast.”

“And the north.”

“It’s everywhere!”

“Does anyone have a positive ID?” Jaeger attempted to steady their nerves, but he felt it too.

“It’s the trees themselves. They’re getting closer!” Zip swung a forearm chainsaw and severed an encroaching vine. The act of aggression sparked the jungle into writhing life. Green tendrils and wooded vines encircled the squad.

A large vine slashed across the front of Alpha 1 and spun it off balance. “Fire!” Jaeger ordered.

Brick had already ignited the flame thrower on Alpha 1’s shoulder and unleashed a river of burning fuel.

The trees screamed in response. A dozen green tendrils attacked the exo, confining its movement. Jaeger spun his arm blades, dipped and dodged in attempt to sever them all. But they were too many.

A thick vine entwined Alpha 1 around the neck and slammed it into a tree. Jaeger severed it with a quick swipe, but not before three more had lashed the exo to the trunk. An impact alarm blared. “They’re squeezing us!”

“Ground yourself! I’m gonna give ‘em a spark!”

Jaeger yanked his hands out of the control docks and detached his mind from the interactive matrix. “Clear.”

Brick crossed the fusion drive in order to electrically charge the exterior of the exo. The machine jolted as its gears locked tight. Smoke and fire blocked out what little light pierced the dense jungle canopy. “That’s all she can take. Clear to reintegrate.”

“I’m in.” Jaeger resumed control of Alpha 1’s locomotion. “That did the trick. We’re free, but I can’t see the others.”

“Switching to night vision.”

Jaeger and Brick leapt into action, combining blades with fire to fight back the angry vines and untangle the other members of the squad. “Has anyone seen Echo 2?” Jaeger had lost sight of Tagg and Bao.

“Coming down, Commander. Watch your nine.” Tagg replied.

Jaeger stepped aside as Echo 2 landed gracefully next to him. “What was that about?” The commander asked.

“The canopy is the source of the vine,” Tagg replied. “We climbed all the way to the top.”

Bao said, “It’s parasitic. No way to sever at its base.”

Another wave of tendrils attempted to overtake the squad, but now that they had clumped together they burned the vines back on all sides.

“Stop!” Sable commanded without explanation.

The squad responded immediately by shutting down their flamethrowers.

The vines moved to surround them, but remained outside of the small clearing.

“Shut down all systems,” Sable continued. “Completely black.”

“Are you bloody crazy?” Kade protested.

“Commander, there’s no time to explain.”

Jaeger knew better than to question Sable. She never intruded unless she sensed something strongly. “Do it. Everyone, disengage.” Jaeger detached from the interactive matrix and left the exo completely powered down. If Sable was wrong, the machines would be torn limb from limb by the vines before they could power up again. Without power, they couldn’t even communicate via radio.

Everything fell eerily quiet. Jaeger spoke over his shoulder loud enough for Brick to hear him. “You seeing anything?”

“A couple dem vines creeping around the perimeter, but so far nothing’s encroached on this side.”

“Nothing over here either.”

“You reckon it was our aggression that set ‘em off?”

“Possibly, but if that’s the case, how are we going to—” a wrapping on Jaeger’s viewfinder startled him. Through the blackness, he identified the whites of Sable’s eyes—her large brown irises attentive on him.

“It is safe to dismount.”

Jules waved for Jaeger and Brick to join them on the ground. “What she means is we’re on foot from here on out.”

Jaeger and Brick blew their hatches and dismounted. Jaeger covered his nose and mouth.

Brick gasped. “Lordy, that’s a gaudy stench.”

“I recommend you don’t rub your eyes.” Jules pulled Jaeger’s hand away from his face. “The oxide and sulfur that Ariza detected just before the attack has intensified since. The plants seem to emit a sort of toxin. Look at the exterior of your exo.”

Jaeger turned around. “Yuan’s Light.”

“Indeed.”

Deep etchings had burned into the hibernaculated platinum exterior of Alpha 1’s breastplate. “It’s a miracle we didn’t lose hydraulics.”

“Yes, well, god must favor you. We lost our right arm midway through the conflict. That’s how I noticed the toxin.” Jules motioned toward the other exos, their pilots still oblivious that anyone had dismounted. “We better get the others before someone decides to do something rash. I’ll start with Kade and Zip.”

Jaeger smiled despite the desperate nature of their circumstances. He wrapped on Shasta’s viewfinder and indicated for her and Ariza to dismount Alpha 2. The thought of venturing across the surface of Primal Instinct without the protection of their exos should have made Jaeger cry. But Jules’ dry British wit always comforted him when things were their darkest. At the moment, he couldn’t imagine things getting much darker. That thought wiped the smile off his face.


After giving the orders to attach breathers and night vision masks and to pack everything useful they could carry, Jaeger strapped on his own breather and stood watch from the center of the small clearing. The preparations took less than a minute.

Brick crept to Jaeger’s side and proffered his favorite sidearm, a Stieg 270 sonic thumper.

Jaeger gladly strapped the weapon to his thigh.

Jules and Sable joined them, followed quickly by the rest of the squad. Krystof groaned as Maddy and Kade attempted to distribute his weight evenly between them.

Brick tutted. “Hand the boy over before you tear him in half.”

Maddy wanted to resist, but she knew it would be fruitless. Brick never allowed such duties to fall on anyone else in the squad. As a member of the Might Faction, her body had been bred and built for ten times the strength as a normal Hibernari. She hefted Krystof gently over her shoulder and carried him as if he were no heavier than a modstock rifle.

Jaeger led the way while picking up the conversation with Jules and Sable from earlier. “You still haven’t explained how we’re safe out here.” He nodded at a vine less than a meter distant. It seemed to raise its tendrils in response to his comment. Jaeger held his breath, but none of the vines advanced.

“They are a defense, like everything else in this jungle, meant to protect the inner HC.” Sable answered through her breather.

“Then why aren’t they attacking us now?”

“Without the bulk and might of the exos, we are no longer a threat.”

“Speak for yourself, honey.” Brick chuckled.

Tagg butted in from behind. “How on earth did you figure that out?”

“The vines did not appear until after we breached the tree wall. It made sense anything small enough to fit through the trees would be safe from the vines.”

“But I haven’t seen any animal life save a few creepy crawlies.”

Brick made a face. “I hate bugs.”

Jaeger nodded. “If the vines aren’t dangerous to small creatures, how come this place isn’t crawling with them. There’s food. There’s water. Plenty of shelter. It doesn’t make sense.”

“She said the vines weren’t a threat. She didn’t say nothing was a threat.” Jules explained. “Speaking of bugs. Has anyone seen anything dead or decaying since we cut our way past the tree?”

“Negative.”

Jules glanced from side to side. “Exactly. Keeping the forest floor clean of decay is the insect’s duty, and this is the cleanest forest I’ve ever seen.”

“Hell’s gist, I wish you hadn’t said that.” Brick flipped down her night vision mask.

Jaeger decided it wise to do the same.

“One click to the coordinates.” Kade called up to the others. “We should be there within the hour. Not that we have any idea whether being there is gonna be any better than being here.”

“Being there is about completing this mission,” Jaeger responded, “and that’s all you need to—”

Jules held up his fist, stopping the squad dead in their tracks, sidearms drawn.

Jaeger couldn’t see anything. He strained his ears for any sign of life outside his line of sight. The breather deadened his sense of smell, but Jaeger thought he detected something sickly sweet.

Jules gestured the squad forward in fireteams, one left, one right, one center. Jules, Sable, Bao and Tagg—Echo team—formed the tip of the wedge, shuttling forward as a seamless unit. Jules held up his fist. Without a sound, the squad froze. Slowly Jules removed a flare stick from his pack, crushed it to ignite the chemicals, and tossed it twenty meters ahead. Before the flare hit the ground, the forest floor swarmed with movement.


“I’m out! I’m out!” Shasta screamed while scrounging in her pack for another fuel cell.

Jaeger covered her with his sonic thumper, fragmenting the over-sized roaches as fast as the weapon could recharge. “They’ve gotta be coming from somewhere. There’s too many of them. We need a clear path!”

The darkness all around them blazed sporadically with muzzle fire from the members of the squad using ballistics. Each fighter called out in turn.

“No good!”

“They’re everywhere.”

“We’re surrounded.” They screamed over the incessant hissing of the roaches and the concussive bursts of ammo.

“Their blood burns!”

“Zip’s down!” Kade yelled. “Boss, we’re getting eaten alive in here!”

A meter-long flying roach blind-sided Jaeger, knocking him to the ground and spraying the side of his face with a burning toxin. He rolled and fired, splattering the bug with focused sound waves.

Resisting the urge to wipe his face with his hand, Jaeger buried it in the dirt instead. After a quick swipe back and forth, he jumped to his feet. Their best hope at this point was the inner HC. Anything had to be better than this.

“Converge on the coordinates. Stay in fireteams. Keep moving!” He tugged Brick’s arm. She grunted and followed. “Put down fire to cover our retreat!” Jaeger commanded, but no fire followed. “Shasta? Shasta, report!”

Brick stumbled over the discarded flamethrower. “Otto.” She kicked the flamethrower to Jaeger.

He holstered his thumper and created a curtain of flames. The massive bugs cooked and popped. “Where’s Shasta?”

“We gotta go, Otto. If we get stretched out—”

“Over here!” Ariza called. “I’ve got her, let’s go!”

“Go! Go!” Jaeger kept the nozzle open, trailing continuous flame with one hand while firing his sonic with the other. Both Brick and Ariza were weighed down with wounded. Between the three of them, they had four arms, and it took all four to beat back the encroaching waves of roaches.

They covered the rough ground as fast as they could. Eventually Jaeger ran out of flame. At this rate, half a click seemed an endless span. Jaeger’s heart thumped in his chest. Blood surged in his ears. His breather clogged and his breath came in ragged gulps.

The forest closed in around him. Finally the canopy began to spin. He couldn’t go on, and if he needed to catch his breath, so did the others. Dropping the flamethrower, he gripped his sonic thumper in both hands. What did he have to lose? He widened the field, spun the weapon up to full, and waited for the hissing to overtake him. When it did, he fired.


The closeness of the jungle absorbed and defrayed the worst of the reverb, but the kick was ample enough to wash Jaeger backwards several meters. His body plowed a path through the bracken and brush until he slammed into a massive trunk and rolled over onto a cool, metallic surface.

He rested his face against the smooth metal for several seconds before his mind made the connection between metal and manmade. He shook off his daze and sat up. The hissing had temporarily subsided, but so had the sounds of his squad. He brushed aside the leaves to reveal what appeared to be a secure tunnel entrance. But how? And who? Primal Instinct was supposed to be lower life forms only. No mission is ever as it seems.

He fumbled in his pack for a handheld and hailed the others. “Echo, Gamma, this is Jaeger. I’ve found a manmade hatch. Converge on my location. Pinging now.” He dropped the radio and scanned the area for his lost thumper. “Now I just need to find a way to get this thing open.”

“Stand aside you crazy fool.” Brick laid Krystof down gently and positioned her feet on either side of the hatch. Rather than sit around and look stupid, Jaeger continued the search for his thumper, eventually finding it.

He turned in time to see Brick give up her efforts to open the hatch. That was when he spotted the release mechanism behind her right foot. “Those snack cakes have made you weak. Give me a try.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll just waste our—”

Jaeger kicked the lever with his boot and tugged the hatch open.

Brick grunted in disgust.

Jaeger threw the hatch back and aimed his sonic thumper downward into the pitch black. “See anything?”

“Just a second.” Brick crushed a flare and dropped it down. It bounced off a metal stair rung once before landing on the bottom, some ten meters below.

“Nothing’s moving down there.”

“That’s better than up here.”

“Commander.” Ariza huffed as he emerged out of the jungle with an unconscious Shasta over his shoulder. “I got your message.” He stopped when he saw the opened hatch. “What in Yuan’s name?”

Ballistics echoed in the distance.

“Sounds like Kade and Zip.”

“Let’s hope Echo team is with them.”

Jaeger nodded. “I’ll head down to check it out. When I give the all clear, bring the injured.” Jaeger took the first few steps carefully before placing his boots on the outside of the rails and sliding the rest of the way. He dismounted next to the flare, crouched, and leveled his sonic thumper.

The steady, blue chemical light revealed no movement—just an empty, hand-carved tunnel. “Bring ‘em down!” He activated a second flare. Using it as a torch, he shuffled along the tunnel, searching the walls for signs of bugs or cracks.

The rapid pop of ballistics intensified until the rest of the squad reached the hatch in a state of distress. After a moment of shouting, Ariza slid down the stairs too quickly with Shasta over his shoulder. He crumpled onto the tunnel floor and rolled out of the way moments before Brick and Krystof landed.

Jaeger holstered his thumper and helped Brick lay Krystof next to Shasta. The chaos overhead ended with the hatch slamming shut. Without warning, a roach dropped down the shaft and landed on Brick’s back.

Whipping out his thumper, Jaeger whacked the bug off.

“Not in the tunnel!” She yelled.

Aware of the close quarters, Jaeger used his pistol as a hammer. He cracked the armored shell with the first blow, but the hissing beast scrambled to get away until Jaeger brought the butt of the pistol down a second time. The meter-long monster bled a viscous ooze.

As the rest of the squad dropped into the already cramped quarters, they forced Jaeger’s hand into the pool of stinging blood. He pulled it away and clutched his wrist.

“Sorry, Command—”

“Forget it,” Jaeger growled. “We’ve got worse injuries to deal with. Did everybody make it?”

“Echo’s all here.”

“Gamma accounted for.”

“Frozen gods! What happened to Shasta?” Krystof sat up, his sudden resurrection catching the squad off guard.

Maddy knelt beside her brother and hugged his neck. “Brother, good to hear your voice.”

Krystof shook his head and pointed at Shasta.

Jaeger picked up the nearest flare and illuminated Shasta’s face. “Yuan’s Shadow.” It was gone. He stooped to check her pulse. “She’s dead.”


Too many questions rattled inside Jaeger’s head. He defaulted to protecting his remaining men. Ariza insisted on remaining by Shasta to guide her BDM into it’s next assimilation. Jaeger didn’t believe in the ritual himself, but Shasta had. It seemed she’d converted Ariza. Jaeger would never begrudge anyone anything that brought them comfort during or after this hellish life.

Bao and Kade came through the ordeal relatively unscathed, so Jaeger sent them to scout the extent of the underground complex. He knew better than to assume they were secure, but the temporary calm allowed them to tend their wounds and mourn their loss. At least Krystof seemed to be on the mend.

“Alright, Otto, you’re next.”

“I’m fine. Tend to the—”

“You’re last, so shut up and let me have a look,” Brick demanded.

Obediently, Jaeger held out his arms and turned a circle. He was Integrity Faction. He and Brick both knew it would take more than acid blood to chew through his nearly impervious skin. As long as he watched what he put inside his body, he fared well. Nothing was going to get in else ways.

None the less, Brick shined an electric torch on his face. “Hold still.” She swabbed him with a sterile.

The stinging caused Jaeger’s eye to water. “What was that for?”

“Still had some of that bug blood burning a hole in ya.” She showed him the sterile. The black ooze smoked for another few seconds until fully neutralized. “Now your face is healing.”

Jaeger touched the damaged spot on his cheek where the ooze had burned to the bone. He lowered his voice. “Is this what got Shasta?”

“Best I can tell.” Brick shook her head. “Zip nearly lost some fingers. I put his hand in a bath. Looks like it’s gonna regenerate, more or less.”

“If we just would have cleaned her off quicker.”

Brick took Jaeger aside. “You need to get your mind right. Start thinking about your next three moves. We’re stuck down here until we figure a way out. Back up them steps ain’t an option anyone’s gonna embrace.”

Jaeger nodded. “It all starts with this hole.”

“You mean the hole that ain’t supposed to exist?”

“Exactly. If we figure out the who and what-for of this tunnel, that might be the leverage we need. At this point, I’m sure of one thing.” Jaeger nodded.

“Other than the steadfast and mountainous beauty of your partner?”

“Yes, other than that.”

“Well, don’t let me get in the way of your moment.”

“Our ticket out of here is learning the one thing no one wants us to learn.”

“Boss, do you read?” Kade hailed him on the handheld.

“This is Jaeger. Go ahead.”

“We’ve found something you need to see.”

“What is it?” Jaeger raised a brow.

“I’ll let you decide.”

“Roger that. Brick and I are on our way. Over and out.” Jaeger stuffed the radio in his pack, drank a slug of water and handed the canteen to Brick. “Let’s hope this is a significant clue.”


After a lengthy jaunt through the never tarrying tunnel, Jaeger and Brick encountered Kade standing sentry in front of a metal door. He checked them over with his torch as they approached.

“Just us.”

“Sorry, boss. This place is giving me the sour willies.”

“Can’t blame you for that.” Jaeger pointed with his chin. “What’ve you got?”

“A Catholic crazy house, that’s what.” The heavy door creaked as Kade pushed it open and led the others inside. “Make your own interpretations. Careful, Bao’s in here somewhere, checking for breaches topside.”

Brick and Kade pointed both torches into an underground base of operations that looked as if it had recently endured a skirmish. “Any signs of life?” Jaeger asked.

“Um,” Kade stalled, “yes?”

“Was that an affirmative?”

“Why don’t we start with the dead guy.” Navigating carefully through the overturned mess, Kade led them across the room by the light of his torch. “Looks like he bled out.” He stood aside while shining his torch on a mildly deteriorated corpse.

Brick squatted for a closer view. “Don’t stink hardly at all, I suppose due to the dry, cool conditions down here.”

“And he ain’t been eaten,” Kade said.

Jaeger nodded. “No bugs.”

“These lacerations look almost like claw marks.”

“Could he have gotten torn up topside before making his way to safety?” Jaeger asked.

“Anything’s possible.” Brick scanned the dented metal storage locker behind the body with her torch. “But then what slammed the poor fella into this locker?”

“Concussion grenade?”

Brick stood up. “Why we poking around in the dark? Ain’t there lights in here?”

“What, like a light switch?” Kade asked.

“Power, you nitwit. You know, electricity from a generator or solar panels.”

“Hey, I only look. Touching stuff is above my pay grade.”

“I’m gonna touch you if you don’t find the power,” Brick threatened.

“Roger. One light switch coming up.” Kade scampered away. “There’s a conduit over here. Shouldn’t be hard to track it to the source.” His torch worked its way quickly along the wall. “Here we are.” He stopped next to a panel with two big levers. One had been flipped off. “Still think I should—”

“Flip the lever already,” Jaeger commanded.

Kade shoved it upward and stood aside. A nearby shattered console showered them with sparks as lights flickered on across the entire room.

Brick mused, “Looks like a research station.”

“Manned by a single individual?” Jaeger looked to Kade.

“Not quite.” Kade led them toward another tunnel entrance, this one without a metal door. “The other, uh, less substantial sign of life is over here.”

Jaeger focused on the dark opening until Kade pointed down. Finally Jaeger spotted the object of curiosity—a severed, extremely hairy leg, bisected just above the knee.

“What the hell is that?” Brick knelt for a closer look. “This thing been cut clean off.”

“I think that much is obvious,” Kade said.

“Not that, you smart ass. I mean the cut’s almost surgical, like it was made with an energy beam a some sort.”

“Maybe while trying to escape into the inner HC.” Jaeger removed the holo-cube from his pack.

“What you thinking?”

He activated the cube and pointed at the blinking green light visible inside the three dimensional holographic schematic. “That’s us.”

“I’ll be jiggered.”

“Yep, we’re right on top of the breach.” Jaeger pointed down the tunnel. “Which means this leads to the inner HC.” He stepped forward, but Brick yanked him back.

“Hold on.”

“What? This is it. Sooner or later, we’re gonna have to find out what Crystalline Magic Co. is hiding in there.”

She shook her head. “The leg. Why you think it’s laying right there, cut clean the way it is?”

Jaeger didn’t make the connection.

“Come on, Otto, think. Where you seen that kind a cut before?”

It clicked. “Energized barriers.”

Brick nodded while stooping to pick up a loose rock. She tossed it down the tunnel. Less than a meter away, it shattered. Tiny, rainbow-colored ripples temporarily revealed the location of the barrier.

Jaeger scratched his forehead. “Huh, look at that. I wonder if this means we fixed the breach?”

“It means you’re a dunderhead who’d be toast right now if not for me.” Brick shook her head. “Hold on a minute. I think I seen something else I recognize.” She scooted over to a nearby console and dusted it off. Yup, right here. She flipped open a guard and clicked a red button. A nearly imperceptible hum cut off. “Toss something else down the hole.”

Jaeger reached for Kade who promptly jumped back. “Ha ha, ya wanker.”

Jaeger shrugged before tossing a dirt clod down the tunnel. “Nothing.”

Brick entered the tunnel a short way and ran her hand over the transition where the wall turned from smooth metal to rough rock. “There’s a diverter built into the circumference of the tunnel. Turn it on, and you fool the barrier into thinking it’s intact when it ain’t.”

“Enough of the yammering. Kade, you stay here. Report to the others and wait for Bao,” Jaeger ordered. “Brick and I are gonna scout the inner HC. I’ll report in fifteen minutes. If you haven’t heard anything in twenty, close the barrier and assume the worst.”

“Delightful.” Brick shook her head. “We better not find any more a dem roaches.”


The rock tunnel continued straight for twenty meters before bending ninety degrees and continuing another twenty meters. At the end, Jaeger found a metal ladder like the one they’d descended a half hour earlier. “Here we go.” He started up the ladder. “Whaddaya think we’ll find up there?”

“For our client’s sake, it better be something worth Shasta’s life.”

“Not possible.” Jaeger reached the top and slid back a bolt to release the hatch.

“You don’t believe in what we’re doing anymore, do you?”

“I haven’t for nearly a hundred years.”

“Then why we still doing it?” Brick tutted.

Jaeger wiped the sweat from his brow. “Who’s gonna take care of these guys if it ain’t us?”

“So you and I is guardian angels, is that it?”

Jaeger laughed. “Only you would think of calling me an angel.”

Brick shrugged. “I read some a them angels were nasty buggers. Killed a whole lot a people.”

“That sounds about right.” Jaeger gripped the hatch handle. “You ready?”

Brick nodded.

“On three, two, one.” Jaeger pushed the hatch open without a sound and nimbly leapt topside.

Brick followed with a little less grace but equal stealth.

Jaeger stood and turned three hundred and sixty degrees. A dense fog bank muffled all sound and limited vision to a few meters. The temperature was moderate. Light filtered from overhead.

Jaeger took a cautious step forward. Something crunched beneath his boot. When he lowered his gaze, he realized the ground had been strewn with bones. Bleached white, moderate sized—human.

The size of Brick’s eyes confirmed his speculation. But how could a small HC cycle through so many people? More importantly, what was killing them? No mission is ever as it seems. Jaeger drew his sonic thumper.

Something whistled toward them from overhead. Brick shoved Jaeger out of the way a split second before a human body slammed into the ground between them. “Hell’s gist.” She craned her neck upward. “Where do you think they’re coming from?”

Jaeger knelt over the body. “You ready for things to get even stranger?”

“Not even remotely.”

“Then you better not look down.”

Of course Brick looked. “Tell me that ain’t the same fella we just found in the bunker.”

“Oh, it most certainly is.”

END of Episode One

Read More Schism 8 Episodes

March 2015 ebook cover

Terror at the Cave of Murders

By Hagar Scharoun

Hambolt the Fearless had voyaged long and far. In the days previous, he’d trudged through necrotic filth in the Swamps of Horror, battled bloodthirsty Pus Goblins amongst the Hillocks of Dread, and braved the extremely low barometric pressure at the crest of Spider-Death Mountain, which towered imperiously over the Plains of Dismay.

Finally, after solving the Thunder Sphinx’s two hundred and seventy-seven perplexing riddles underneath the Bridge of Agony, Hambolt had reached his destination. Now, he stared bravely into the dank mouth of the Cave of Murders from the back of his gallant steed, Warm Donut.

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