This is the second story in my Irregulars universe. The first story, which introduces the universe, is Irregular Investigation,

Chapter 1

Sanction missions are one of the easier jobs for a freelancer. Liberation’s propaganda can say all it wants about how the government provides safety and security for all of the world’s citizens, but it takes time to rebuild from the destruction of a decade-long war with alien forces. More than the eight years since we kicked those aliens off of the planet. Outside of the cities and the refugee camps, people are pretty much on their own. So, when a gang of bandits crops up that the locals can’t handle on their own, and Liberation’s security forces can’t or won’t help, the locals hire a freelancer or two to come and clean out the bad guys. Most of the time, the pay isn’t high enough to drag me out to the middle of nowhere. When the leader of the gang is a demi the price goes up significantly. Then it becomes worth my time.

This bandit gang demanded tribute from four small farming towns in what was still called Kansas – even if Liberation said it was part of the Missouri Province of the North American Sector. Not that the Relief Forces stationed in St. Louis would venture this far out of their barracks to, you know, actually provide safety and security to the people like the propaganda claimed. Especially when those people refused Liberation’s generous offer to move them to the new cities so their land can be added to the government collectives. I felt a little guilty taking the towns’ money, but I was running low on cash myself. Times are tough everywhere these days. At least, I could make them a little better for a few hundred people by killing a dozen or so bandits.

The gang set themselves up in an old Walmart. It was one of those huge ones where you used to be able to buy everything from groceries, to furniture, to the latest movies. As I drove to the bandit lair, I noticed something odd. The store gleamed in the night for dozens of kilometers all around like a beacon. Liberation kept a tight control on its monopolies – particularly utilities like electricity. Bandits having access to the grid? I filed that away to look into afterwards.

That much light made the approach more difficult. Not impossible, just more difficult. I parked the borrowed truck about a klick west of the Walmart. I lowered the nightvision goggles as I walked through the tall grass. Maestro bitched about the goggles. My combat AI hated when I didn’t use the wonderful suite of sensors the Americans installed when they turned me into the six-billion-dollar man during the alien war. The sensors were a lot better than the goggles, but using them would require me to either shed my skin sheath, (which is expensive to replace) or overlay the sensor feed onto my biological eyes (which gives me a headache just this side of a migraine). I quit trying to explain little things like finances or pain to Maestro years ago. Concepts outside of combat, Maestro has a hard time grasping.

I crouched at the edge of the brilliantly lit parking lot. Two goons were standing next to a pickup about fifty meters away. The problem with standing under bright lights is that anything beyond the lights is damn near invisible. Not good when you’re supposed to be standing guard. I flipped up my nightvision goggles and brought up my HK MP-37. The submachine gun was probably the most expensive weapon in my collection. I’d been reluctant to bring the gun on this job, but it was too damn effective to be a safe queen. I squeezed the trigger and felt the soft push of the stock into my shoulder. The suppressor kept the noise to a barely audible clack-clack. Goon One dropped as two 10mm bullets eviscerated his head. Goon Two was dead before he realized what happened to his friend. I paused for a moment to see if anyone inside noticed their sentries’ demise. There was nothing.

Delph, can you access the building’s control systems? I asked the other AI in my head. Delph – proper name Delphi (as in Oracle of) – was my infiltration and electronic goddess. If there was an open port in that building, she could play merry hell with their systems.

Nothing that could help us, Delph said, a bit disgusted. That building is from before the war. It doesn’t have a modern building management or security system. I felt her quiver in my mind, as if shaking off something vile. Well, that certainly made this job more difficult. I sprinted along the side of the parking lot before dashing to the front of the Walmart. Still no reaction from inside. I crept up to the nearest entrance to do a quick breach. The doors slid open. What the fuck? No one kept door sensors on since the war began. The aliens floated their assassin drones through an open door like that. I stood perplexed as two heads popped around shelving units maybe five meters inside the store. A moment – maybe a quarter of a second – passed as I was silhouetted in the door. The two goons came out into the aisle. One was tall with long blonde hair that hadn’t seen a washing in a long time. The other was short and stocky with a blue mohawk that dominated his head. Both were wearing familiar ill-fitting gray t-shirts and jeans, which meant they had been in one of Liberation’s refugee camps not too long ago. The two goons pointed pistols at me. They probably didn’t get those in the refugee camp. The constables don’t like it when the refugees can shoot back.

"FREELANCER!" Mohawk screamed in a high-pitched voice before opening fire. He was definitely of the pray-and-spray school of gunfighting. Bullets shattered the glass and spanged off of the metal frame as I dropped to the ground. Maestro helpfully asked if I wanted him to take over. I returned fire instead of answering the AI. Clack-clack. Mohawk went down in a heap. Dirty Blonde turned and sprinted down the aisle. I focused the glowing red crosshairs on his back. Clack-clack. Dirty Blonde fell and tumbled. I waited for a second to see if the bandit moved. Satisfied he was dead, I scampered up to my feet.

Scanning for additional threats, I walked over to Dirty Blonde’s body. I picked up the bandit’s pistol. US Ordinance Falcon 10mm. One of a dozen generic designs American gun factories were pumping out in the hundreds of thousands during the alien war under the US Ordinance name. The "bird of prey" pistols were decent if you came across an alien out of its armor, but they were mainly to be used against human scum – collaborators or criminals. These days, it seemed like everyone and their mother had at least one. Hell, I had maybe fifteen or so of the pistols in my safe at home. I dropped the magazine, locked the slide back, and placed the pistol on a shelf before creeping deeper into the store.

The bastards ambushed me in the health and beauty section. Well, they tried to ambush me. It might have worked if I was just another demi freelancer. Maestro detected the tiny sparkles in the electromagnetic spectrum as the gang’s demi leader dropped his veil. I ducked behind a shelving unit as the ten or so bandits opened fire with their cheap submachine guns. Collectively known as stens after the WWII Brit subgun, they were decent close-quarters weapons, but they were a bitch to control on full-auto. So instead of bullets, I was sprayed with congealed hair care products.

"Goddamnit! Do you fuckers know how hard this HK is to clean?" I screamed at the bandits. Not that I expected them to hear me. Using unsuppressed guns inside a building tends to deafen everyone, or at least those without hearing protection. I heard heavy footsteps. I snuck around the side and caught two bandits checking to see if they managed to kill me. Clack-clack. Clack-clack. They went down without a noise. I crept past the two bodies and found the mass of the bandits milling around. Hell, it didn’t look like most of them bothered to reload their guns.

"There he is!" Leader shouted. I flipped the selector switch down and let out a long stream of fire. The HK, unlike the bandits’ stens, was perfectly controllable on full auto. I killed three of them. Four others went down screaming in pain. Leader and his two loyal henchmen disappeared behind a veil. Fucking cloakers. Now, I needed to hunt the bastards down. I changed magazines in the HK. As I walked after the leader and his henchmen, I finished off the wounded bandits. Those fuckers wouldn’t be causing the locals any more problems.

Brian’s calling again, Delph informed me as I stalked through the sporting goods department.

I’m a little busy at the moment, I said, scanning the mostly emptied aisles for any sign of the last three bandits. Fucking cloakers.

Maestro can handle the search, Delph said. You’ve been avoiding talking to Brian for the past couple of months.

Even if that were true – which it isn’t – I’m in the middle of a job, I said. I could feel Delph’s frown. It’s hard to lie to AIs who live inside your head all of the time. Okay, maybe I was avoiding my best friend. I had good reasons. I’d call him when I was done here.

No, you won’t, Delph said, indignantly. I hated when she answered my unspoken remarks. I pushed aside my sudden irritation. Delph was just trying to help, like a good friend.

I can’t talk to Brian right now. I’m not about to hand this job off to Maestro. He’ll shed the skin sheath, and I can’t afford to replace it again this month, I said. Delph must have accepted my reasoning because she didn’t push the matter further. I found the door to the employee area of the store. I was pretty sure the circuit breakers were back there. I needed to negate the cloaker’s powers. Dousing the lights sounded like a good way to do that. I gently pushed open the door – and was nearly gutted by a shotgun blast. The buckshot tore the door out of my hand. I pointed the HK around the door and sprayed. Considering I was just trying to open up some space, the scream of pain was welcome.

I stormed through the doors scanning for targets. A blood trail on the floor stopped about ten meters from the door – right in the middle of the open storage area. Like the wounded bandit vanished into thin air. I hosed where the blood ended with the rest of my magazine. The veil dropped as the demi gang leader screamed in pain. The leader fled deeper into the bowels of the Walmart. One henchman was dead on the concrete floor. Well, at least I didn’t waste all of those bullets. I didn’t see the other henchman, so I ducked behind some shelves as I replaced the HK’s magazine. The empty magazine went into a pouch at my side. Those things were as expensive as some of my guns.

"Kevin, where the hell are you?" Brian asked over the comm. I blinked at the unexpected voice. I was going to kill Delph.

"I’m kind of busy at the moment. Can I call you back?" I asked, sensing movement.

"Delph answered the comm, didn’t she? Sorry, but this can’t wait. Have you made contact with the Irregulars or not?" He sounded impatient, and honestly, he had every reason to be. Brian asked me to talk to my contact in the Irregulars a few months ago. He was worried about some of the things he’d seen the Liberation government doing while doing his position as the leader of the North American Praetorians. Brian thought the loose confederation of militias could be a check against the more dangerous factions inside the Liberation government.

"Not exactly," I answered, stepping out from behind the shelves. Henchman Two misjudged where I was and emptied his sten into a box of ceramic bowls.

"Was that gunfire? Where are you? What are you doing?" Brian asked as I placed the HK’s sights on Henchman Two and pressed the trigger. The submachine gun stuttered. Henchman Two went down. That just left the leader.

"Yes. Kansas. Sanction job," I answered. "I’ll call you in a couple of hours."

"Fine. Delph you heard him. There better be a darn good reason I don’t hear from you in two hours," Brian said. Damn. Now I was committed. I put that aside for the moment. I’d deal with Brian in a couple of hours. The more pertinent issue was where would I be hiding if I was a sociopathic killer with demi powers? Or more to the point, a petty sociopathic killer with demi powers? Who’s being hunted by a freelancer? Maestro reminded me that if I would just shed my skin sheath and use the full abilities of my cybernetics, then finding the demi would be much easier.

Easier, but I’d lose money on this job, I replied. There was clicking behind me. The hammer being pulled back on a pistol. He couldn’t be that stupid, could he? I dropped and spun just as the pistol boomed above my head. Yes, he could be that fucking stupid. I couldn’t see the demi, but I didn’t need to. The whisps of gun smoke were all I needed to place his general location. Two short bursts and his veil dropped.

"Really? You had to get close enough for me to hear you cocking your gun? How the hell have you managed to survive this long?" I asked. He clutched at his wounds and glared up at me. I placed the holographic sight between the demi’s eyes. A quick squeeze and the body slumped to the floor.

Chapter 2

It was more than a couple of hours before I called Brian back. After collecting my pay from the farmers, I reported my actions to the St. Louis branch of Liberation’s Relief Force Constabulary. I didn’t want the farmers to be caught up in murder trials for a bunch of scum. Considering the St. Louis RFC’s normal lackadaisical attitude to their duties, I was surprised by their sudden hustle. Two full squads dropped out of hovering attack craft. I had some nasty suspicions about why the RFC was suddenly concerned by my actions. And I was right. The constables were extremely annoyed when they found out I handed over the bandits’ weapons to the locals instead of collecting them so the RFC could properly dispose of them. They got even more pissed when I refused to hand over most of my pay to cover their "administrative costs" for coming out to collect the bodies of the bandits. A little bit of graft was one thing, but what they were asking was outright robbery. There was a bit of a vociferous discussion over these points. Colorful language was used on both sides. It ended when the constables arrested me after I called the sergeant in charge a cocksucker, he tried to punch me, and I knocked him to the ground. I finally managed to call Brian four hours later to bail me out. He told me to be patient for a few more hours.

There are few things more satisfying than watching petty bureaucrats and thuggish constables scramble frantically when the Commander of Praetorian Forces for the North American Sector comes storming into their office in full regalia. It’s even more satisfying when he’s being followed by a squad of auditors from the Inspector General’s Office. And knowing Brian, they were the conscientious kind of auditors. Within fifteen minutes of Brian’s arrival, I was outside the St. Louis Government House with all of my gear in a large duffel bag and my full payment on a card. I checked twice to make sure there weren’t any hidden "fees" tacked on. Brian stepped out of the building with a thunderous look on his face. From what I gathered, the auditors were having a field day, which did not make Brian happy. We made an interesting comparison of contrasts. He was everything a superhero should be – tall, handsome, with a demeanor of confidence and trustworthiness that any politician would envy. I, on the other hand, tend to blend into the background when I’m in my skin sheath. Average height, average build, average brown hair and eyes, average expression.

"This was not what I wanted you to call me about, but thank you," Brian said in that almost-perfectly masculine voice. Honestly, I’m not jealous of Brian. Or at least, not most of the time.

"Thank you for springing me from jail," I said, "And for making sure none of my stuff went missing. You want to get something to eat and talk?" Brian smiled the smile that graced thousands of Liberation posters.

We ended up in a diner on the outskirts of St. Louis. Brian has this knack of knowing the good local eats. Most of downtown St. Louis was rebuilt from the war against the aliens, but this neighborhood still bore the scars of intense combat. Shells of buildings and mounds of rubble outnumbered the intact or rebuilt homes and businesses. Still, the streets were mostly swept clean. The few toughs on the corners looked more like local militia than criminals. Just another small town pulling together to survive in a broken world. For the first half-hour after we stepped into the restaurant, Brian talked with the locals, signed autographs, took pictures, and generally acted in his professional persona. To be fair, it wasn’t far off from his personal side, just a bit more gregarious than he normally was in private. Finally, the owner sat us in a small alcove that offered us a bit of privacy. Brian protested when the owner told us to order whatever we wanted at no charge, but I wasn’t in any position to turn down a free meal. Thankfully, Brian relented and ordered just enough not to insult the owner.

"You know what’s always bugged me? Where does the food go? Can your cybernetic body actually process it?" Brian asked as soon as we were alone. Brian was the only person who knew everything about me. Well, mostly everything about me. More than anyone else alive, at any rate.

"Yes, it can," I answered. "All the years we’ve known each other, and now you ask me about my eating?" Brian looked uncomfortable, so I didn’t push. "Eating helps maintain the biologics. The skin, the eyes, the hair – they all need stuff from food to keep healthy. Whatever is left over can be chemically processed to provide a little bit of power. Not a lot, but enough for some daily activities." Thankfully, Brian didn’t ask about waste. Having broken the ice, Brian felt comfortable enough to get to the heart of the matter.

"Why haven’t you contacted the Irregulars yet?" he asked.

"I have exactly one contact within the Irregulars that I could charitably call reliable," I said.

“I thought you knew everyone we fought with during the final battle.”

"The others we fought with on Devastation are dead. Before you ask, the ones I worked with during my time with them all made it clear they want nothing to do with me. Except for one."

"You always make the best impressions on people," Brian said as our food arrived.

"It’s a gift. Now, my one good contact hasn’t been real talkative of late because she’s been busy cleaning up that mess with the second gens," I said. About six months ago, I was pulled into investigating the disappearance of a bunch of second generation demis. It ended with me facing off with Liberation’s Covert Action Director and her alien partner. I won the battle. Anne got her revenge by blacklisting me from government freelancing contracts. Which is why I was ended up taking a sanction job in Kansas for farmers who could barely scrape up enough to pay half my normal fee.

"This contact we’re talking about, she’s your ex-girlfriend right?" Brian asked. I just nodded, not trusting my voice at the moment. Kate was more than an ex-girlfriend. She was my first, well, everything. There were still a lot of unresolved feelings there. Well, at least on my end. Anytime I talked to Kate, she was coolly professional. I was willing to admit it was partly due to the small fact that she thought I was dead for several years only to find out I was fighting with the Praetorians. During the climactic battle of the war. With very few survivors. It was a bit of a messy reunion.

"I see," Brian said. He saw something on my face, because he gave me a compassionate look. "Look, I wouldn’t push this except there’s something odd going on, and Team Blue is being kept out of it." If life was like the old comics, Team Blue would be the Avengers, or maybe the Justice League. They were the best and most powerful Praetorians in the North American Sector. Since life is not like the comics, Team Blue was also involved in enforcing Liberation’s laws – including those against non-registered demis.

"What’s going on?" I asked, keeping my voice just barely audible.

"I don’t know, but I’ve got a bad feeling about it," Brian said. "Even Anne’s being kept out of it." I frowned at that. Anne Bennington was the Director of Covert Actions for the North American Sector. She was the one who blacklisted me. Even before the mess with the second gens, we had a bit of what could charitably called "history." Despite that, I respected Anne’s competence. What could be so secret that the government was keeping their spies and assassins out of it?

"If it’s so secret, how do you know about it?" I asked.

"That’s not how it works," Brian answered. "Once you get to a high enough position in the government, they don’t bother denying an operation or project or whatever is going on. They just tell you that you don’t have a need to know about it. Whatever it is, it’s being run out of the North American Sector Administrator’s office."

"Do you think they’re working with the aliens again?" I asked. That would certainly cause an uproar if the general public found out that Liberation was working with one of the alien factions that wreaked so much destruction on Earth.

"That’s just it, I don’t know," Brian said. "Usually there’s rumors. This thing? Not a whisper."

"Okay. I’ll give my contact another call after dinner," I said and dug into the food. I was not looking forward to that call.

Chapter 3

A week later I was back in New York going through a few possible jobs. Maintaining all the systems the Americans bestowed on me without their backing is expensive. Worse, for the last six months, my job opportunities were limited. I officially revealed I was still alive to Liberation in order to rescue some kids, but now I had to live with the consequences. Such as almost no government contracts, which were the bread and butter for a demi freelancer. My comm buzzed. I answered hoping that one of my normal contacts had a job for me.

"Hello Kevin." After weeks of nothing, hearing Kate’s alto voice startled me.

"Kate, I, uh, I’ve been trying to get a hold of you," I said, and immediately berated myself for sounding like an idiot.

"I know," Kate said, with an annoyed coolness.

"I need to speak with you," I said.

"You are."

"In person. Not over a comm," I replied. Her annoyance was stoking my own, which oddly made it easier to deal with her. I didn’t stumble over my feelings for her when I was annoyed. Kate was quiet for a long time.

"Over in Queens, there’s a bar called Cork," Kate said. "Day after tomorrow, at eight." The connection broke abruptly.

Well, that went well, Delph said, sarcasm dripping from her voice.

What is that supposed to mean? I asked. Delph didn’t answer. I prodded her, but my AI just refused to elaborate. Sometimes, I did not understand her programming.

Two days later I walked into Cork. It was an Irish-themed bar, complete with orange-white-green flags, pictures of Irish scenes, and waitresses in brilliant green dresses. A wall of sound hit me as I walked through the door. The punk music was loud enough on its own, but the crowd was doing its best to drown the music out with their revelry. Most of the customers were salvagers – men and women who searched through the wreckage from the alien war to find anything that could be sold. It was one of those nasty jobs that provided a steady, if on the low side, income with the chance of a lucky strike.

I pushed my way through the crowd looking for Kate. Maestro was screaming bloody murder about the tight confines. He was sure someone in the crowd was going to try to kill us. Maestro is great in combat, but sometimes he gets a little paranoid. I was so busy ignoring him that I didn’t notice Kate until she grabbed me by the arm and yanked me into an alcove. The sound level dropped to barely tolerable. Even in dirty salvager coveralls and grit on her face, Kate was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. Her long brown hair was tied back and half-hidden under a cap. Her heart-shaped face wore an annoyed expression, but there was something twinkling in her brown eyes. There were hints of the girl that I fell in love with so long ago.

"Why is it you always stare when we meet?" Kate asked sharply. Delph giggled in the back of my mind as I grappled for an answer. Damn it, I hadn’t realized I was staring. Again.

"Sorry, I’m not trying to be creepy. I wasn’t trying to make you uncomfortable," I answered, and hoped fervently that I didn’t sound like an idiot. It was always the same – my mind went stupid anytime Kate was near. The only time that didn’t happen was in combat.

"This better be good. I don’t like using this identity too much," Kate said.

"I need to speak to the Chairman," I said.

"No." Before I could stop her, Kate started to walk out of the alcove. Instinctively, I grabbed her arm. It was a reflex from a long ago time when I didn’t want Kate to leave. Back then, it would result in some passionate kissing. Now, it resulted in a punch to the head. Kate is strong. I’d forgotten exactly how strong. Her punch rocked me off my feet as damage alarms blared inside my head. She stormed off as I just sat there.

Get up and go after her, Delph said in our shared mind space. Maestro agreed with that, but mostly so he could continue the fight.

Hell, no, I said. She just made it clear that she doesn’t want to help us and isn’t particularly happy with me. I’ll find another way to talk to the Chairman. Delph let out an exasperated sigh.

Are you always this stupid? Delph asked.

Yes, since you asked, or at least usually, I answered, anger rising. The alarms stopped ringing in my head as the nannites finished up repairing the damage. I slipped through the crowd. Seeing the mostly deserted street sent an unexpected pang through my chest. There was a part of me that was hoping that Kate was just waiting for me outside the bar. It was a childish part, and I damn well should have known better. Thankfully, Delph and Maestro stayed quiet for the entire trip back to our current safe house.

Staten Island came through the alien war mostly unscathed compared to the rest of New York City – at least when it came to combat damage. Probably because the Purgatory virus created by the alien bioweapons damn near depopulated the island. These days, Staten Island was home to squatters just trying to eke out a living in the ruins of the once great city. Liberation didn’t care if people were taking over the dead’s houses, as long as they didn’t cause problems for Liberation’s chosen living in the Green Zone over on Manhattan.

My neighborhood was mostly populated by other freelancers. This was a good thing because it meant the roving bands of criminals didn’t bother our homes and everyone kept to themselves. While I wasn’t exactly hiding from Liberation the way I was six months ago, I was doing my best not to draw any more of their attention than absolutely necessary. I didn’t feel the normal relaxation returning home. I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell Brian I screwed up my only chance with the Irregulars. I hated to let Brian down considering how many times he’d helped me out. I collapsed into a chair and stewed.

A knock on the door snapped me out of contemplating my numerous screw-ups. It couldn’t have been someone hostile, or Delph wouldn’t have let them get that close to the house. Maybe one of the neighbors, but they all had my comm code. They would have called first. Freelancers are notoriously polite, if for no other reason than to keep from getting shot in some stupid misunderstanding. Hell, in my current mood, I probably shouldn’t interact with anyone. I ignored the door.

Kev, you need to answer the door, Delph said.

Why? I asked.

Go answer the door, Delph ordered. There was an urgency in her voice.

Fine. I picked up my pistol, walked across the house, and opened the door. Kate stood on my porch, her arms crossed tight beneath her breasts.

"Um, hi," I said, "What are you doing here?"

"Let me inside," Kate said. I stepped aside and she pushed past me. I set my pistol down on the foyer table before following Kate into the living room. She was looking around at my sparse collection of secondhand furniture.

"Are you really in there Kevin?" Kate asked, "Is it really you, or are you just some software pretending to be Kevin? Because I can’t tell, and it’s tearing me apart right now."

"Of course I’m Kevin," I answered, "Body’s different, but the brain’s still in here." I tapped my head.

"I want to believe that so bad," Kate said, "There are times you act like the real Kevin. My Kevin. Then you act so–" She flapped her hands in frustration.

"So what?" I asked.

"So cold. So robotic," Kate said, "It’s like a switch gets flipped in your head or your programming changes." She spun and shoved me into a wall. "Tell me the fucking truth. I need to know if my Kevin is really dead or not." I couldn’t say anything for a moment. There was so much pain in those brown eyes.

"You were wearing pink bunny slippers the first time I saw you," I said. "You were so pretty, that I couldn’t say a complete sentence around you for almost a month. I still have that problem sometimes."

"There. You say things like that and I think that you really are Kevin," Kate said. "Then other times you’re like a machine." I didn’t understand what she was talking about. Delph whispered something into our mind and comprehension dawned.

"Do you know how I survived being a spy in the Praetorians? I forced myself to compartmentalize everything. Anything that could get me killed or expose me, I shoved into boxes into my mind. In my entire time on Team Blue, only two people ever saw anything other than what I wanted them to see. The problem is, I haven’t been able to shake the habit. Even now after the war, I still compartmentalize."

"So you’re just showing me what you want?" Kate asked, suspiciously.

"Kate, before you called me six months ago, the last time I saw you was on the Destroyer. When you found out who I was during that fight, you punched me through a bulkhead and called me a fucking traitor. As far as I knew, you hated me for all those years. Even when you got back in contact with me to help find the twins, you acted like you hated me most of the time. So, I compartmentalized. I let you see the side I thought you needed to see. My business side. My professional face. I didn’t think you wanted to see the me that still cared about you. I don’t know what else to tell you. I just–" Kate stopped me from talking by the simple expedient of kissing me. It was soft, warm, and sweet. It was just like I remembered her kisses – and something completely different. She quit shoving me into the wall and pulled me closer. Her kissing changed. It was harder, almost searching. Then, she just stopped.

"I’m sorry," Kate said, "I shouldn’t have done that."

"Yes, you should have," I said, and the Delph sent a mental kick to shut up.

"No," Kate said, before walking to the door. She paused and looked back at me. "Two days. Meet me at the Nashville Transit Station. I’ll take you to the Chairman." Then Kate raised her veil and vanished as she walked out the door.

Should I go after her? I asked Delph.

No, but we better be in Nashville in two days.

Chapter 4

Nashville looks nothing like it did before the aliens invaded, but that’s what happens to a city after three major battles in less than seven years. The First Battle of Nashville was one of the first battles between the Demnisen and the Americans. The Demnisen sent their shock brigade up against a mixed force of American regulars and National Guard. It was a crushing defeat for the Americans who were slaughtered to the last person. The Demnisen weren’t big on prisoners. A couple of years later, the first large coalition of Irregular cells tried to push the Demnisen out of the city. The Second Battle of Nashville ended with everything west of the Cumberland in human hands and both sides suffering pretty horrific casualties. I should know. I died in that fight. The final battle for Nashville was a lightning attack by Liberation’s North American Sector Forces on the few remaining alien holdouts in the city.The Demnisen were wiped out in less than a week. The attack was so furious and overpowering that the last vestiges of Old Nashville were reduced to rubble. New Nashville was slowly rising from the ashes of the once great city.

The transit center was in the center of Nashville, right in the middle of Liberation Square. Across the street was the government tower and the hospital tower. Completing the square was the civic tower housing the University of Nashville and the Nashville History Museum. Liberation Square was overshadowed by the half-dozen five-hundred-meter tall community towers standing just beyond the square. A dozen more were in various stages of construction. Yup, the new Nashville was going to be another example of Liberation’s commitment to the "community living" model. People living and working in self-contained towers with little need to venture beyond their walls. All comfortable, safe, and controlled. Those towers made me nauseous.

"I’m glad I’m not the only one who looks at those monstrosities like that," Kate said quietly as she stood next to me. "We better get moving. We’ve got a long walk." I waited until we were a couple of blocks away from Liberation Square before speaking.

"Where are we going, Kate?" I asked.

"You wanted to talk with the Chairman," Kate answered, her voice just above a whisper.

"Okay," I said suspiciously. The Irregulars used a cell-style organization. It was necessary when fighting the aliens and their interrogation techniques. That structure became imperative for survival under Liberation. The government doesn’t like having a bunch of experienced guerrillas running around without proper supervision – especially guerrillas with demi powers. Irregulars who aren’t recruited into something government-approved tend to die resisting arrest for some infraction. Considering that as far as most of the Irregulars were concerned, I was one of the great Liberation war heroes, I expected to be screened by several levels of Irregular authority before I met with the Chairman. Yet, without even an interview, I was off to meet the head of the Irregulars. A car pulled up next to us. Kate motioned, and I climbed into the back. Kate slid next to me. The man in the front seat turned around and pointed a handgun at me. Maestro screamed to let him take control, but I managed to force him back down. Maestro relented a little too easily, which slightly worried me.

"So, you’re the Metal Ghost," the passenger said. His voice was gravelly and distorted. Based on the long scar that ran down his face and part of his throat, he’d probably been on the end of some emergency healing during the war. His dark eyes flicked over me with practiced study.

"Yes," I said.

"The Chairman agreed to meet you, because Polly vouched for you being good people," the man said, giving Kate a suspicious look. "My people are not happy with a former member of Team Blue being let into the Chairman’s presence. You do anything we don’t like, and we will put you down. Understood?" Before I could answer, Kate put her hand over mine and squeezed. Hard. I gritted my teeth and nodded an acknowledgment to the man. As the car sped off, I leaned next to Kate.

"Polly? You hated that name," I said in a whisper.

"I still do," Kate said, a growl in her low tone, "But when the Chairman uses it, you grin and bear it." I sat back, keeping the frown off my face. Kate fumed when our cell leader christened her with the code name "Poltergeist". The first time one of our cell used the diminutive "Polly" in combat, Kate decapitated an Omnisen Imperial Legionnaire with a single punch. After that, most of us in the cell only called Kate "Poltergeist" when we had to. It really isn’t wise to antagonize a teenage girl who can throw a tank at you. Still, our cell leader insisted on using either name all the time. It was one of many reasons I despised our old cell leader. We drove in silence. Well, as much silence as I could get with two AIs in my head. Maestro kept feeding me combat suggestions to take out the two in the front seat while Delph constantly reassured me that things were fine with Kate. I tuned them out as best I could. After about an hour, the car pulled into the ruins of a gated community. The demi standing guard just waved us through. The houses were lavish when they were built around the turn of the century, but they were little more than shells now. Some of the large lawns were turned into gardens and animal pens. There was something amusing about how this neighborhood once dedicated to keeping out the less wealthy was now dedicated to keeping out the more wealthy. We arrived at a smaller house on a cul-de-sac deep in the neighborhood.

That house is lit up. I could see it on our passives since we passed the gate, Delph said as we stepped out of the car. From the electronic signature, they must have salvaged some Omnisen sensor suites.

Are you telling me this because it’s a problem, you’re just amused, or professionally insulted? I asked. With Delph, it could be any of the three.

Mostly as an FYI. I already have one of my children on the inside in case we need to shut everything down. Whoever is running that has no concept of how to do intrusion defense, Delph said, with the slightest condescension in her tone. Delph’s children were autonomous lesser versions of herself. They weren’t full AIs like Delph, more like advanced targeted infiltration hack bots. The American cyberneticists originally called them Delph’s pets, but she preferred to call them her children. I don’t argue with Delph on her personal preferences.

Anything unusual? I asked.

Whoever they have running the system is an idiot, Delph said. If Liberation has any electronic sensors even remotely pointed this way, this house will look like it’s shining a spotlight screaming someone has alien tech running.

The Irregular Signal, I joked as we walked up to the door. Delph groaned as she saw my memories of the old Batman cartoons. Just beyond the door was a wide foyer. A staircase to the left led up to the second floor. A hallway led further into the house. A large man who radiated "strongman demi" stood in front of the hall. Our two escorts showed us into a comfortably furnished room off the foyer. I guess you could call it a parlor. Kate sat down in an overstuffed chair with a possessiveness air that warned away everyone else. She’d been to this house often. Kate was much higher in the Irregular hierarchy than I originally thought. Maestro flashed warnings in our shared mind, but I ignored him. He was getting more and more antsy as the Chairman’s protective detail took up guard positions at the room’s doorways. He was pissed I wasn’t paying attention to his concerns, but Maestro always screamed when unfamiliar demis were within the blast radius of a frag grenade. Now if Delph was also telling me that something was wrong, then I’d be more concerned. Footsteps came down the stairs. The two guards at the foyer stepped aside to reveal a wizened Asian woman. She was short, just under five feet, and dressed in budget clothing of pastel colors. Her oval face had been pretty once, but age and scars made her visage a mockery of what it once was. My eyes widened as I met her cool gaze. I knew she was still alive, but I never expected her to be the Chairman.

"So Polly, you bring a traitor into our midst," Angela Lee said. Her biting tone dredged up old memories of when this woman led Kate and me during the alien war. I despised her then, and it was somehow comforting that my loathing hadn’t changed over time. Lee, better known among Irregulars as Songbird, was the iron dictator of my cell from the time I was recruited into the Irregulars until I "died" during the Second Battle of Nashville. Lee was the low point of those three years.

"Nice to see you’re still the raging bitch, sunshine," I replied. Kate stiffened as my sarcastic tone hung in the uncomfortable silence. Lee fixed me with a hard glare that reduced me to quibbling terror when I was a kid. Now, it seemed almost quaint compared to the impressive glares of the Praetorian Primus and General Zhukov. If the strongest demi in Liberation or the commanding officer of all Liberation forces couldn’t make me flinch, then the Songbird damn well wasn’t going to.

"You are being overly flippant for someone looking for favors," Lee said, in a tone slightly warmer than frozen helium. I was about to say something, but I caught Kate’s tiny head shake out of the corner of my eye.

"I didn’t ask for this meeting to petition the Irregulars for favors. I came to warn you, so that you can prepare," I said, in the most neutral tone I could manage.

"Why would we trust anything you told us?" Lee asked. She hadn’t lost her touch with the condescending tone.

"You trusted me to help find your kids," I said, and saw Kate wince.

"We didn’t trust you," Lee said, turning accusing eyes on Kate, who shrank deeper into her chair. It was infuriating to see such a strong woman acting like a guilty child. "I would have never gone to a former Praetorian. Even if he helped our people get off the Devastation." That’s when I realized something. Kate never told Lee who I really was. As far as Songbird knew, I was just the Metal Ghost. I barely managed to keep the shocked expression off of my face.

"And yet, I still found the kids. I figure that should give me a little credit with the Irregulars," I said. Lee glared at me as she grudgingly nodded.

"Why do you think you’re standing in this room right now?" Lee asked. I ignored the biting tone. Brian was counting on me.

"Here’s what you probably don’t know about that little incident. The Omnisen were working with Liberation on that project." There were sharp intakes of breath from around the room. The alien war was not like what the sci-fi writers prophesied. Instead of a unified race coming to take our planet, Earth became the latest battleground on the Omnisen-Demnisen War. In some ways, it was comforting to know that even an advanced race were still having many of the same problems that the various nations of Earth were grappling with before they tried to wipe us out. The Omnisen were the nicer of the two races, although that was damning by faint praise.

"Why would Liberation work with those aliens?" Lee asked, hissing the last word.

"Why do you think?" I asked, "The Omnisen offered full access to their technology and help rebuilding. Stuff that would get the world back on its feet in less than a generation. If you were in Liberation, wouldn’t that be tempting?" Lee sat back in her chair and gazed thoughtfully at me.

"Why would the Omnisen offer all of that to the government?" Lee asked, her eyes narrowing.

Boss, we’ve got a problem! Delph shouted. The good thing about our shared mind is that I instantly know what my AI’s know. A new signal sprang up from inside the house – on a bandwidth used by the Irregulars for detonation commands. The bad thing about the shared mind is that my AI’s know the moment my control over our shared body isn’t solid. Maestro seized control. Intense pain flashed through me as my skin sheath dissolved. Nannites swarmed from their reservoirs to form my armor. Maestro ignored the pain as he focused on the threat. My cyber-body’s enhanced senses were unmasked. They picked out the faint traces of Composition 13. Now freed from limitations of my biologics, the sensors pinpointed the source. Oh, holy fuck. There was at least two kilos of the explosive was in the wall directly behind Lee. Two kilos was the amount to do a breach on the meter-thick armor on an alien cruiser. Maestro analyzed the expected blast pattern and threw up a course of action into my HUD. I agreed. Maestro sprinted. All of this happened in less than a second. The Americans did good work. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have survived. The guards reacted, but they didn’t have advanced combat AIs driving. They also were very wrong about what I was doing.

The two guards behind Lee rushed to stand in front of her, while the two at the foyer moved towards me. Kate stood up with a shocked expression on her face. I leaped across the room towards her. The foyer guards, expecting me to lunge at Lee, almost collided with each other grabbing into the now-empty space. I grabbed Kate and flung her through the large window before jumping out behind her. I ignored her stream of cursing as I grabbed her and sprinted across the street. As soon as we were behind another house, I forced her to the ground. I looked back and saw the two foyer guards rounding a corner an instant before the house exploded. Comp13 was designed to blow through alien armor composites. The wood and brick houses all around us were reduced to little more than splinters as the blast wave flashed over us. My hearing and vision shut off to protect the sensors front the blast. Alarms blared through my head as the pressure wave hammered into me followed by the pinging of shrapnel off of my armor. Nannites flooded over my body to repair the damage.

"Get off me, goddamnit," Kate yelled and shoved me off of her with all of her strength. I flew back a few meters before landing on the debris-strewn lawn. She stood up, her eyes blazing. "What are you? What did you do Kevin?" Before I could answer, Maestro dropped us to the ground. An energy blast sizzled through the air. I spun around. Much to my surprise, the two guards who followed me out were still alive and on their feet. The blast shredded their clothes, revealing the ballistic armor suits underneath. Well, that explained how they survived. I recognized one as the driver that brought Kate and me to the house. His hands were glowing red, which made him the beamer. Driver’s partner was in a fighting stance. I was willing to bet he was a strong-man. Standard close and far pairing. I knew how to handle them. Nannites flowed down my arms to form an energy pistol and a monomolecular sword.

"Stop!" Kate ordered. "All of you stop!" The two Irregulars ignored her and attacked. Driver unleashed a pair of energy blasts from his hands. I scoffed as I easily dodged them, but then Partner was in front of me. My head rang as his fist slammed across my face. Damn it all to hell. Partner wasn’t a strong-man. He was a cannonball – a speedster combined with enhanced strength and toughness. More blows rained across my body. Maestro grabbed control and counterattacked. Maestro used the flat of the sword to block a few blows. That broke Partner’s rhythm and opened up enough space for Maestro to bring up the energy pistol. Before he could blast Partner, I was yanked off of my feet and tossed across the lawn. Kate dropped her veil as she stood over me. She glared at the two Irregulars.

"What the hell, Polly?" Driver asked, "Why are you protecting him?"

"Because he couldn’t have set that bomb," Kate said. "He didn’t know who he was meeting today."

"He’s Liberation!" Driver protested.

"I’m not Liberation.”

“You’re a fucking freelancer. Of course you work for Liberation.

“It’s just kinda hard not to work for the government these days," I said. "Especially, if you’re a freelancer."

"Shut the hell up, Kevin," Kate said over her shoulder. "You’re not helping."

"If he didn’t kill the Chairman, then who did?" Partner said from the ground. Delph threw data up onto my display. Well, that would ruin our day even more.

"Now may not be the time to figure that out," I said. "Praetorians inbound."

"How the hell do you know that?" Driver demanded. Kate waved the question away.

"No time. Head for the safe house. Kevin, try and keep up," Kate ordered. Driver and Partner were up and running through the overgrown lawns. Kate sprinted after them. I let Maestro follow them so I could focus on our pursuers.

Delph, can you cover our tracks? I asked as we bounded over a fence.

Not quietly, she answered. Network here is patchy. I’d have to brute force it. Maestro really didn’t like that idea because of the power it would require. He wanted to finish the fight with the two Irregulars.

Just get ready to cause some havoc if those bastards catch up to us, I said. I felt her nodding in our shared mind. The four of us dashed across two cul-de-sacs. The Irregulars made a beeline to a dilapidated house. Driver shoved the front door open and motioned us inside. As soon as Driver pulled the door closed behind him, I felt the unique buzzing of a demi-hider. Delph it was a crude device, but judged it adequate for the time being.

"That was damn fast for the Praetorians," Driver said, glaring at me. "There was no way they should have responded so fast unless someone told them." Driver and Partner were eyeballing me hard enough that I needed to force Maestro down.

"Really? Because your ECM was dialed up to disco ball," I shot back. "It was like a fucking spotlight to anyone with even basic sensors. A fucking covert action team could have sneaked in and set that fucking bomb."

"So, you’re saying Liberation just took out the Chairman?" Partner asked. "Right when we bring a former Team Blue operative to meet the Chairman?"

"I hope it was Liberation," Kate said, "Because if it wasn’t a Praetorian decapitation strike, someone inside the Irregulars placed that bomb. Someone we trust." Driver and Partner fell silent.

"If the Praetorians are here, we need to be gone. Bill, you and Walt break out the emergency kit," Kate ordered. The two Irregulars nodded before walking upstairs. Kate turned to me. "Are you going to be naked when you shift back?"

"Um, about that," I started, not sure how to explain.

"What? It’s not like I haven’t seen you naked," Kate said, the barest hint of humor in her voice. I wished she hadn’t said that. It brought back memories that made it hard to concentrate. Almost as if she could read my mind, Kate slapped me.

"Ow!" she said, shaking her hand, "Exactly what are you made of?"

"All the best alloys the Americans could forge from alien and Terran metals. And nannites," I answered.

"Fine. You’re tough. Change back so we can leave," Kate said, still massaging her hand.

"I can’t.” Kate glared at me.

"What do you mean, you can’t?" Kate asked, her voice dangerous.

"Once I shed my skin, I need some specialized equipment to replace it," I answered.

"I saw you shift back on the Devastation," Kate said.

"Yeah, I kinda lost that ability,” I said. “It’s a long story.”

"It can never be simple," Kate said. "The equipment is in New York, isn’t it?"

"Um, yeah," I said. Delph flashed a map across my vision. "Well, there might be one in Atlanta. I lost contact with that one, and haven’t gone back to check after the end of the war."

"You stay here. I need to think," Kate said, walking out of the room.

Kevin, there’s something odd going on at the Chairman’s house, Delph said, *The initial Praetorians just reported that they’re returning to Government House after being relieved by representatives of one-seven-nine."

One-seven-nine? What the hell does that mean? I asked.

A ninja team? Delph suggested, using the slang for operatives of Liberation’s Covert Action Directorate.

Ninjas are always designated as Four Charlie-November, I said.

That new group Brian told us about back in St. Louis? Delph asked.

Possibly, I said. If anyone could a Praetorian team to back off, it would be some super-secret task force. What the fuck are they doing in Nashville? I thought they were up in New York.

It’s got to be related to the explosion, Delph said.We stopped our internal conversation as Kate walked back into the room with Driver and Partner. The men didn’t look happy.

"We’re going to Atlanta."

Chapter 5

"What do you mean we’re going to Atlanta?" Partner asked after Kate informed the others of her decision.

"Polly, that city is locked down," Driver said. Kate’s eyes narrowed.

"First, Bill, my name is Kate, not Polly. Second, we’re going to Atlanta because the closest Irregular cell is in the Peachtown refugee camp outside the city," Kate said. "The Council needs to know the Chairman was assassinated." Both of the men were taken aback by her icy command tone.

"So, we bringing him?" Partner asked, pointedly not looking at me.

"Yes," Kate answered.

"Why?" Driver asked.

"Because there are things you don’t know," Kate answered. "Because he has critical information. Most importantly, because I damn well told you so." She shot a warning look at me. "Now go get the charity truck. We’re closing this house down." Driver and Partner exchanged annoyed looks, but they went to work. One of the things that kept the Irregulars alive during the alien war was superb planning – especially contingency planning. So, of course, an Irregular safehouse was going to have all of the essentials, including transportation. One of the vehicles stored at the safe house was a small panel truck embossed with the logo of the New Catholic Charities. Perfect for carrying a two-and-a-half meter tall armored cyborg. I helped load plastic bins of relief packets into the back of the truck. Relief packets, better known as Rotten Puke, were pre-packaged meals Liberation used in the immediate aftermath of the alien war. The best that can be said about Rotten Puke is that it will keep you alive. The question was whether a life subsiding on Rotten Puke was worth living. According to some of the older folks, before the war getting from Nashville to Atlanta took four hours to drive. These days, a fast trip takes about eight hours. Staying under Liberation’s view, it would take us about twelve hours. Since I couldn’t do anything during the drive, I tried to get some sleep. We’d gone maybe a dozen klicks before the blackness consumed me.


I woke up from the nightmare still feeling the terror. Which was only heightened when I tried to move and couldn’t. What the fuck? Panic started surging. I checked my sensors. They were all operating. I was still in the back of the truck. No one was shooting at me. My body wasn’t damaged in any way. The panic lessened. I felt Delphi caressing my mind.

Sorry Kevin, but you weren’t handling that dream very well. We shut down your body to keep you from tearing open the truck, Delph said. I felt Maestro unlock my body.

It’s been a while, I answered. Maestro helpfully informed me it was exactly two hundred and fifteen days since the last time I dreamed about my death. Damn. I’d hoped that dream was finally gone. I was wrong. Again.

Maybe it came back because I saw Songbird again, I mused. I got the distinct impression in my mind Delph wasn’t convinced. Maestro didn’t care what I dreamed as long as it didn’t impair my combat effectiveness.

Maybe because you’re involved with the Irregulars again? Delph suggested. I mentally shrugged my shoulders. I really didn’t want to examine it. I just wanted to forget the dream and get on with the mission. Delph, sensing my mood, let the matter drop.

We’re outside Atlanta, Delph reported. I’ve hidden the van from Liberation’s security. We should be able to get to the camp without issue.

Is there anyway to check to see if our base is operational? I asked.

We’re too far away for normal communications, and I’m being as covert as possible shielding us right now.

Okay, I said. Anything you can tell me about the city? Delph was quiet for several long moments.

That’s odd, Delph said. The demi sensors in the city are turned off.

What? That doesn’t make sense, I said.

No, it doesn’t. I’m checking the systems log. They’ve been down for awhile. At least the last four months. That’s not maintenance.

Irregulars interference?

Not unless they’re bribing, blackmailing, or coercing all of Liberation’s techs. Inside the camp, I’d understand, but out in the city? Oh, hello. Delph went quiet. I could feel her intense concentration on something. I waited patiently, not wanting to jog her virtual elbow. Long seconds passed, then it turned into minutes. I could feel her ebb and flow in my systems as she tackled whatever just grabbed her attention.

There’s a black block on the log that’s classified to a level I haven’t seen before. Plus, the code securing the black block is brand new. I left a couple of children behind to examine and possibly crack it, but not sure if they’ll be done in time. Definitely related to why the demi sensors are turned off.

We’re missing something important here, I said. Maybe we’ll find something out at the camp.

Maybe, Delph said, sounding unconvinced. We should be there in about thirty minutes. Assuming no delays. I was surprised I’d slept that long. My cyber body doesn’t need rest. Maintenance, yes, but not rest. My mind, on the other hand, is still mostly the original biologics. The Americans were very clear I needed at least a few hours of sleep a day. I could stretch that out, but it wasn’t recommended. The Americans didn’t come out and say it, but I got the distinct impression the sleep recommendation was something they learned from previous experiments. I followed the minimum sleep recommendations because longer periods brought the bad dreams. War gives you plenty of fodder for bad dreams. Dying is just one of them.

I knew when we were close to the camp by the smell. Liberation designed the refugee camps to meet the minimum requirements for housing and sanitation, but not comfort. By pre-war standards, the camp was slightly below a trailer park – assuming trailer parks covered ten square kilometers. Like the rations Liberation handed out, the camps were supposed to meet basic needs, and not much more. Liberation wanted people to move out of the camps and into the new cities it was building. The problem was living in the cities required people to get jobs and earn a living. Let’s just say there were plenty of people who were happy with shacks and bad food if they were relatively safe and not required to do much. The Peachtown Refugee Camp was the largest in the Southeast Sector. Some twenty thousand people were crammed into a camp originally planned for five thousand. I’m sure there are some humanitarians in Liberation’s Relief Force Refugee Affairs Office. They just didn’t work at Peachtown. The RFRAO staff at Peachtown wasn’t exactly the scum of that service, but that was only because being true scum required effort. On the other hand, the lackadaisical attitude of the staff allowed for the Irregulars to infiltrate Peachtown and turn it into one of their major hubs. It was an open secret that the Irregulars were the real source of authority in Peachtown. We pulled up to a resident hut. The concrete and metal box’s only aesthetic improvement – if you could call it that – was a coat of bright pink paint. Two, thin guys were standing outside with the lazy confidence of demis. A third man walked out of the building. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I’d seen him before. Sometime during my days with the Irregulars was my best guess. We worked with a lot of different cells in those days.

"Tom, it’s good to see you again," Kate said, walking over to the new guy. He gave her a familiar hug that brought out all sorts of jealous feelings in me. He was tall, maybe 190 centimeters, with a lean, strong build, and dark hair and eyes. Delph considered him handsome, but I didn’t see it.

"Kate, what the hell is going on?" Tom asked. "The net’s going insane."

"The Chairman is dead. Assassinated," Kate answered, leading Tom to the back of the truck. "And there’s more." Kate flipped open the roller door.

"The Metal Ghost!" Tom yelled, before changing into a creature of black stone and red flame.

"Oh, hi, Volcano," I said. That’s where I recognized him. Team Blue fought alongside his cell during the Battle of St. Louis. That wasn’t one of our more stellar team-ups. "Didn’t expect to see you here."

"I’d hoped the rumors of your survival were just that – rumors," Volcano rumbled. Maestro gleefully threw up a combat action plan from the last time we faced off with Volcano. Like I said, that team-up didn’t go spectacularly.

"Boys, can we please calm down?" Kate asked, stepping between the two of us. For a moment, it looked like things were going to settle down. Then, all hell broke loose.

"They fucking killed the Chairman!" Driver shouted, "Polly and the Ghost!" There are reasons I generally let Maestro handle combat. For example, my first instinct was to form a plasma cannon and reduce Driver to cinders. Except Driver, although a demi and fairly tough, was not the biggest threat at the moment. The now three-meter tall glowing demi about to throw molten rock into the back of the panel truck was a much bigger threat. Maestro was already executing his combat plan before I came to my senses. Nannites poured out of their reservoirs and formed a pair of heavy monomolecular blades. Maestro slashed at the side of the truck and jumped out as a ball of magma landed right were we’d been an instant before. Small droplets of molten rock splashed on our legs. Even that little bit was excruciating. Alarms blazed across the HUD. We rolled and sprang back up with particle pistols instead of the swords. Volcano roared as he prepared another ball.

Don’t kill him, I ordered. Maestro grumbled, but adjusted his aim. There was a stream of stuttering hisses as Maestro unleashed bursts of supercharged particles at Volcano. It looked like a shower of sparkles as the blasts bit deep into the black rock of the Irregular’s torso. Gouts of flame erupted from cracks in Volcano’s hide. That was marginally more successful than I expected. Maestro was about to fire again when a strong hand nearly spun me around.

"We need to go!" Kate ordered. Driver was lying on the ground, bleeding from the mouth.

She’s right. We’ve got company coming. A lot of company, Delph said. Head down the street. I’ll see about blacking us out. Knowing better than to argue, I sprinted in the indicated direction. Maestro threw up a path around the various obstacles, but let me know he was unhappy we didn’t finish off Volcano. I told Maestro to shut the fuck up and do his damn job. I hurdled a wheelbarrow and dodged a small pack of feral chihuahuas. Those damn things were all over Peachtown.

A Relief Forces Constabulary truck screeched to a halt about twenty meters in front of us. A half-dozen RFCs piled out in riot gear. Well, outside of Peachtown, the armor and assault rifles would be considered riot gear. Inside the refugee camp, it was the daily uniform for the RFCs. After all, if the Peachtown Irregulars called the RFC, shit had hit the fan. Nannites formed a pair of batons as I sprinted towards the RFCs. As soon as they formed a firing line, I leapt into the air. Even after almost twenty years of dealing demis, cops still have a hard time dealing with threats from above. Only one managed to get off a burst of fire while I was in the air, and it went wide. I reminded Maestro not to kill them and let him loose. Maestro landed in the center of the firing line, clubbing down the two closest RFCs before they could react. Both went down in unconscious heaps. Maestro spun to the left and knocked the nearest constable’s rifle out of his hands. One of the batons melted away as Maestro grabbed the now-disarmed constable by the front of his battle rattle and threw the man into the next one. Both constables went down in a mess of limbs and gear. Maestro spun back. The last two were bringing up their carbines. I took control before Maestro could attack. I let the other baton melt back into nannites as I raised my hands – which caused a reflexive relaxation by the RFCs. I don’t know why that works as often as it does.They should know better. Or they should have at least checked behind them. Kate grabbed both RFCs and slammed them into the side of the armored truck.

"What the hell, Kevin?" Kate asked, a little out of breath.

"I got us a car," I answered. "You drive." As if on cue, the armored truck’s power plant whined to life. The pathetic security systems on a Liberation light armored truck didn’t even make Delph break a sweat. Kate grunted in frustration as she climbed into the cab. Just as I stepped into the troop compartment, two more RFC trucks sped into view. These were the heavy armored trucks, complete with machine gun turrets.

"Time to go!" I yelled, banging on the side of the truck. I was nearly thrown off of my feet as the truck lurched forward in a burst of speed. Puffs of dust erupted in the ground behind us. Bullets pinged off the armor like deadly hail. Kate immediately jinked the truck around the narrow road to throw off the RFCs’ aim, which also tossed me around the troop compartment.

"Would you do something about that?" Kate asked. Even over the truck’s intercom, I heard her anger. Kate angry was never a good thing. Maestro reminded me plasma bolts would do wonders to our pursuers’ power plants. I reminded him that we might want to save those for busting through the gates. Especially since our power reserves were limited. I looked around the compartment and grinned as my eyes settled on a big gray box.

Delph, pop open the locker. A small door in the back of the troop compartment unlatched. I rummaged through the weapons locker. Carbine, carbine, shotgun, sniper rifle – ah, that’s what I was looking for. I hefted the blocky weapon and pulled two red-banded magazines from the metal box below it. I sent a few nannites into the weapon to break its safeties. Couldn’t let a little thing like being an unauthorized user get in my way. I stumbled back to the hatch as Kate swerved around a parked car.

"Kevin, do something!" Kate yelled. "We’re about to hit the main road."

"Hold us straight for a few seconds," I shouted back, loading the first magazine. I felt the ka-chunk as the weapon’s heavy bolt cycled. Kate stopped veering all over the road and drove up the center. The gunners on the two RFC trucks didn’t waste the opportunity. Bullets poured into the hatch and bounced around in the troop compartment. Damn, I knew this was going to hurt. I let Maestro take control. He stepped into the hatch. Alarms blared as the two gunners poured fire into us. Maestro dampened down the pain and brought up the boxy weapon. A tenth of the second to aim, and Maestro unleashed the entire magazine at the two trucks. High-pitched screams filled the air as a half-dozen tiny rockets lanced out. Four depleted uranium penetrators punched through the first truck. It skewed into a building as it lost all computer control. The last two rockets ripped through the second truck’s cab. The truck slammed to a stop, so they must have killed the driver. Maestro already loaded the second magazine before I took back control.

"Where are we going?" Kate asked as she bolted onto Main Street, and narrowly missed sideswiping a bus. I consulted the map.

"Take the next left and floor it," I answered. "That’ll take us to the River Gate."

"And beyond that is a straight shot into Atlanta," Kate said. "Makes sense. Do you have a plan for getting us through the gate?"

"That depends. How attached to this truck are you?" I asked.

"As long as we can get something else," Kate answered. "I am not running all the way to Atlanta."

"Delph says there’s a command car we can swipe," I answered.

"Who the hell is Delph?" Kate asked. "Never mind. Hang on!" I braced as Kate went up on two wheels taking the left at a hundred KPH. As Kate swore at the refugees getting in the way, I brought up the images of River Gate from the camp’s security system. The gate wasn’t much more than a sliding chain-link fence with a pair of concrete guard stations on either side. It was a traffic control post to keep out smugglers and insurrectionists as well as keep the more adventurous refugees from sneaking out. It was not designed to deal with an armored truck hurtling at the gate at a couple hundred KPH. Since the RF wasn’t going to be needing them, I went back to the weapons locker. One of the smarter things the Americans did was put mount points on my chassis for things like armor. The Relief Force’s heavy battle rattle conveniently fit the mount points – and I can carry a lot more ammo than any constable.

"Kevin, we have a problem!" Kate said as I was stuffing another rocket mag into a hip pouch. Before I could ask, Delph popped up a view from the security cameras. In front of the River Gate was a Dragoon APC with its turret pointed down the street at us. Oh, the constables brought out their big toys.

"You might as well come back here," I told Kate. "Don’t worry Delph’s reprogrammed the auto-nav."

"Who’s Delph?" Kate asked as she slipped into the troop compartment. I tossed her a loaded vest.

"Can I answer that after we break through the gate?" I asked. The answer must have been yes, because Kate put on the vest and grabbed a carbine and a sniper rifle from the locker. I slung the rocket launcher and picked up a light machine gun.

"Hang on to me," I said.

"I can handle the jump," Kate said.

"I know you can, but if I do it, you won’t have to take time to recover," I said. Kate grabbed me by my gear straps and half-lifted herself off the floor. Delph fed Maestro data from the truck as he calculated trajectories. This is why I’m glad the Americans gave me two AI’s to do this crazy stuff instead of me having to figure all of it out on the fly. Maestro dashed out of the back of the truck and sprang into the air. As soon as we hit the ground, he hopped back in the air. He used a series of smaller jumps to stop us and get us turned back around to the River Gate. Kate slid off my back.

"I think if we go up that alley we can hit the street over and come in on the flank," Kate said. Maestro agreed with the plan, and Delph didn’t see any issues.

"Let’s do it," I agreed. As we dashed into the alley, there was the hissing crackles of massive energy discharges. That was a surprise. I didn’t think Liberation would arm the RFCs inside Peachtown with particle guns. Those were for taking down aliens and major demis. Our stolen armored truck exploded under the heavy fire. We sped up, sprinting out of the alley, and down the street towards River Gate. RFC doctrine would move the APC up to cover the constables as they investigated the wreck. That gave us a small window to come in behind them. We turned the corner and saw the Dragoon APC and squad of heavily armed RFCs. Maestro unslung the rocket launcher. Yes, my cybernetic body is capable of firing a rocket launcher off-hand. The Americans did good work. Maestro swept the rocket launcher across the RFCs and the River Gate, ripple-firing the entire magazine. Three of the penetrators lanced through constables before punching into the Dragoon. Two more slammed into the nearest guard post and turned the concrete structure into rubble with a spectacular explosion. The last rocket streaked across and punched through the heavy steel door of the other guard post. There was a muffled explosion from inside the concrete building. At that point, the RFCs decided they were done fighting a pair of demis and concentrated on protecting their injured. They also tried calling in the Praetorians and the Peachtown Irregulars, but Delph had a comm blackout around the River Gate. Kate and I used the rubble of the guard post to jump over the chain link fence. The command car was just beyond. As I yanked off the cloth roof, Kate climbed into the driver’s seat. I was barely in when she hit the accelerator.

Chapter 6

"Goddamit all to fucking hell!" Kate screamed at the command car. She kicked the vehicle hard enough to put it on its side. I may have mentioned before that Kate is strong.

"I don’t think that fixed the problem," I said. Kate whirled on me with blazing eyes.

"We are still ten kilometers outside of Atlanta and being pursued by Liberation," Kate said in a barely controlled tone. "And this is your fault."

"Yeah, because I could tell that the car was damaged while we were busy getting out of Peachtown. After all, there were so many options," I shot back just as annoyed. Kate cocked her head and studied me for a long moment.

"What?" I asked.

"You never used to do that," Kate said. Her tone was softer. She turned and walked down the road.

"I never used to do what?" I asked trotting up next to her.

"You never argued with me," Kate said. "Not directly. You always tried to persuade me."

"When you’re the weakest person in the group, you learn not to piss off the strong," I said. I slung the rocket launcher before picking up the machine gun.

"I never thought you were weak," Kate said, defensively.

"You were probably the only one who didn’t," I said. "Even Cowboy treated me like I was a fragile piece of equipment." Kate grabbed her weapons and started walking. We didn’t speak as we marched down the road. My mind went back to our arrival in Peachtown. So many damn questions. Why did Driver accuse us of Songbird’s murder? I could understand me being a suspect, but why Kate? Why had the RFC’s shown up so fast? They usually left the policing to the Irregulars in that part of the camp. There was one question, though, that was really bothering me. After twenty minutes of it running through my brain, I needed an answer.

"Volcano? Really?" I asked Kate. She shot a poisonous look at me. "I didn’t think he was your type."

"Tom helped me put your death behind me," Kate answered. "He was the first man after you who treated me like a woman instead of a weapon. I needed that." She shot me an evil look. "Besides, it wasn’t like you were celibate afterwords."

"What? You don’t mean Anne? That was just part of the mission," I said. Anne Bennington was the intel specialist in Team Blue back during the alien war. These days, she ran the North American Sector’s Covert Action Directorate, more colloquially called ninjas. We had history, and she’s tried to kill me more than once. Kate stopped walking and just looked at me.

"Well, that’s something," she said.


"Even after all this time, and even in that armored shell, I can still tell when you’re lying," Kate said with a sad expression on her face. "Even if you’re lying to yourself."

"What are you talking about?" I asked. "Lying to myself about what?" Kate studied me for a long moment.

"C’mon, it’s a long walk to Atlanta," Kate said. I followed her confused,


Kate and I hid behind a shack as the patrol rolled by. These troopers weren’t Relief Force Constables. They weren’t even Relief Force. Atlanta – or more to the point, the Atlanta Exclusion Zone – was one of the few places in the North American sector under the direct control of the Liberation Army. The Army didn’t bother arresting people in the AEZ. They just opened fire. Unless they were dealing with demis. Then, they’d try to pin us down long enough to call in the Praetorian Red Team. We waited until the rumble of the Rhino Infantry Fighting Vehicles was a few blocks away.

"Where are we going?" Kate asked.

"That way," I pointed, following the carat in my HUD. "Another five klicks or so."

"How do you know it’s still there?" Kate asked.

"I don’t," I answered. "When we get closer, I should be able to ping it to see if it’s still active. Need to be careful about that. Delph thinks the Army might be able to pick up the ping."

"Are you going to tell me who the hell Delph is?" Kate asked, slightly exasperated. "And how you’re talking to her?"

"Delph is-" I started before Kate slammed me into the ground. Intense heat melted the ground where I’d just been standing. Kate rolled off of me and into a fighting stance. I jumped to my feet just before a super-sized gorilla hammered me back down. Threat icons blared to life as Maestro highlighted four demis appearing. One of them had to be a cloaker to pull off a surprise attack in the middle of an open field. I rolled as the gorilla brought down another bowling ball sized fist. Yup, the two other demis were wearing familiar black uniforms.

"Fucking ninjas," I growled as Maestro grabbed control. He dodged around the gorilla’s next strike as he aimed the machine gun at the cooker who started off this little shindig. Kate was facing off against the third ninja. Maestro fired a burst at the cooker. With a contemptuous smile, the dark-haired demi melted the bullets in air. That was some high-level skill. Someone just earned the title of "most dangerous ninja."

Maestro got in close with the gorilla. He let the machine gun drop on its sling and blocked the ninja’s next blow with a forearm. Alarms blared from the impact. That gorilla was very strong, and according to the sensor data, very dense. Like depleted uranium dense. Ever get that feeling something wasn’t going to be as easy as you thought? Maestro was flipping through new courses of action as he fended off the gorilla’s attacks. More alarms screamed as the cooker hit my ankle with a concentrated heat beam. The joint was partially melted. Nannites poured out of the reservoirs to repair the damage. Maestro stumbled a bit on the frozen ankle. The gorilla took full advantage and hammered my facial glacis plate. The HUD blinked, and I was blurry with pain. Okay, that was it. I told Maestro to take the gloves off. A new brilliant course of action appeared in the HUD. I swear I heard him giggle.

Maestro redirected nannites to the arms. Maestro held still as the weapon formed around our forearm. The gorilla must have decided his teammate’s blast immobilized us because he pressed his attack. The gorilla rose up with arms outstretched above him to bring down a finishing blow. Never give a combat AI that much of an opening, even if you think he’s helpless. Especially when he’s just formed a plasma launcher. Maestro snapped the weapon up and unleashed a powerful blast. For an instant, the ebony skin of the gorilla blazed a brilliant white. Then, the super-heated beam incinerated the gorilla’s torso. The demi didn’t even have time to scream before what was left of his body collapsed to the ground. That problem dealt with, Maestro focused on the cooker. We needed to finish this fast. That single plasma blast completely drained a quarter of my available power.

Maestro didn’t even pause. He leapt to the side, unslinging the rocket launcher. The cooker was just starting to react. From the shock and rage on his face, the cooker was determined to show us how using powerful heat beams was done. Of course, that meant gathering up his power, which cost him time. Time is often more precious than raw power in a fight. Maestro dropped the magazine on the rocket launcher and slapped in a new one. The banded red and green of the first rocket registered on me just before Maestro yanked the charging handle and swung the boxy weapon at the cooker one-handed.

"Kate! Terrabyte!" I screamed. Kate immediately turned and ran as fast as she could. The ninja she was fighting looked confused at the sudden retreat, until he looked back at the cooker and me. It was just dawning on the ninja when Maestro fired. The cooker blasted the rocket and prematurely set off the thermobaric warhead. It wasn’t the normal, just-this-side-of-a-nuke explosion, but it was enough to pulp the cooker. The third ninja was tossed by the blast as a fourth, ninja suddenly appeared and slumped lifelessly to the ground. Oh good, we got the damned cloaker too.

"Are you insane?" Kate screamed at me as she trotted back up to the carnage. The threats were now over, so Maestro ceded control. Which was a good thing, because Kate looked mad enough to worry Maestro. "That little stunt is going to bring everything Liberation has in Atlanta down on us. Are you going to say anything?"

It wasn’t that I was ignoring Kate. She was right. An explosion like that would bring the nearest patrols, and probably a call for Praetorian and air support. Something just caught my eye. I clomped over to the cloaker. His armor looked the least damaged. As I got closer, I noticed it was slightly different from than normal ninja armor. It was slicker, more streamlined, and looked a hell of a lot more expensive. Not something the normal ninja wore. It took me a little longer than to find its computer. I yanked the thin black box out as Kate was motioning towards the sounds of approaching armored vehicles. I stuffed it into a pouch on my armor as Kate yanked me to my feet.

"Let’s go! Unless you want me to leave you here to fight off the Army," Kate snarled. I left the rocket launcher, but picked up the machine gun as we ran deeper into the exclusion zone. Delph kept a watch for demi detectors and comm traffic. Maestro sulked about leaving behind the rocket launcher’s firepower. We were dodging through streets and buildings until we hit the ruin line. Bare earth stretched for kilometers with only a few wide highways to break up the scene. We were now in the heart of the exclusion zone. Atlanta was supposed to be the first of Liberation’s "new cities" in the North American sector. Dozens of modern high rises to provide safe, secure, and modestly luxurious habitation for hundreds of thousands. The first residents were supposed to be the inhabitants of Peachtown. The Relief Forces razed the ruins of Old Atlanta with great ceremony. Then, all construction stopped with no explanation. That was enough to start people talking. The rumors only intensified when Liberation declared the exclusionary zone and handed control to the Army with shoot-on-sight rules of engagement. Most of the rumors surrounded some sort of super weapon from the aliens. I had my own suspicions. Delph pinged me our ride was arriving.

"Now the fun begins," I said to Kate as the vehicle lumbered up. Her response was a rude gesture.

Chapter 7

"Jump now!" I ordered. Kate and I hopped down to the ground and trotted a few steps into the ditch along the side of the road.

"I wish I could say that was the first time I’ve ridden in the back of a garbage truck," Kate said. "It never gets any better." We waited as the unmanned service vehicle continued to rumble along the road. Delph’s child would keep the truck busy for the night in random patterns until one of the service techs figured out something odd was going on. By that time, we should be out of sight.

"That way," I said, pointing at a large plot of cleared ground. We crept across the road. The carat in my display changed to a box as we approached. The dirt was pushed back to reveal a steel door set into a concrete foundation. Delph talked with the telltales set into the door. Yep, someone fucked with them. It was too much to hope Liberation hadn’t discovered the stairwell yet. She also found and disabled Liberation’s telltales with an almost contemptuous ease.

"What is that?" Kate whispered.

"A door," I answered.

"I can see it’s a door, smartass," Kate said, "What’s behind the door?" Instead of answering, I pulled it open. Concrete stairs with metal pipe railing descended into the darkness. I motioned for Kate to go down first and then closed the door behind us. Low white lights came to life along the stairs as soon as the door was shut. From the lack of dust and mold, Liberation was down here frequently. I was pretty sure I knew what they were searching for.

"Kevin, what the hell is this place?" Kate whispered as we walked down.

"One of the places I was born," I answered. She gasped as part of the stairs opened up into a secret passage. The telltales said Liberation never set foot in this part. Got to love the Americans’ paranoia. The passage went down some fifty meters before it opened up into a large room. Lights blazed to life as we walked in. I felt Delph sprint into the new network. Monitors blinked on, and I saw Delph’s elfin blue avatar looking out.

"It feels so good to stretch out again," Delph’s soprano voice rang out. "I think everything is fine, but let me run diagnostics."

"Kate, meet Delph," I said, motioning to the monitors, "She’s one of my AI helpers." Kate stared wide-eyed as Delph’s avatar waved.

"That’s who you’ve been talking about?" Kate asked, "I thought-, actually I don’t know what I thought." She smiled at the monitors. "It’s nice to meet you Delph."

"Same," Delph said, "Kevin, every thing’s good, and we’ve got full reservoirs here. I’m raising the cradle." Part of the floor slid open and the cradle rose up. Unlike my one in New York which looked like a metal dentist chair, this one was looked like a coroner table with a large metal ring around it.

"I forgot this one was the first gen cradle," I said. I turned to Kate. "Sorry, this is going to take longer than I thought. I think there’s some staff quarters back there."

"What is going to take longer than you thought? What are we doing here?" Kate asked.

"I need to look human again, as well as fix some damage and replenish my reserves. That’s going to take about twelve hours."

"Maybe longer," Delph said, "It’s going to take an hour to prime the system. This cradle won’t let us jump start it with your on-board battery." I mentally slapped myself upside the head. Now, I remembered why I hated using the Atlanta station.

"Kevin, why don’t you give me the ninja’s computer so I can have a couple of my children start cracking it. Then, why don’t you show Kate around?" After slipping the drive into the isolation slot, I motioned for Kate to follow me deeper into the Atlanta station.

"You saw the cradle and the main system," I said, starting to play tour guide.

"Kevin, is this where they brought you?" Kate asked.

"It’s where I woke up," I answered. I opened the first door and walked in. The conference room looked much like I remembered. "I don’t know exactly where they put me back together." There was an odd sadness in Kate’s eyes.

"Do you mind if you just show me where I can lie down for a while?" Kate asked, "It’s been a long day."

"Uh, yeah, sure," I said. It took me a moment to remember, but I showed Kate the small quarters. I offered to help clean it up a bit, but Kate declined. She didn’t slam the door in my face, but it certainly felt like it as I walked back to the cradle.

"You’re back early," Delph said as I walked into the control room.

"Kate was tired," I said. I sat down at the main computer. "I’m assuming the ninja’s black box is being stubborn."

"You think those weren’t ninjas," Delph said. "They were part of that secret task force Brian told you about."

"My instincts are telling me that this new task force and Songbird’s assassination are connected," I said. "I also have a suspicion that those ninjas weren’t sent to take us out."

"A snatch job?" Delph asked. "What would this task force want with you?"

"Whatever the Americans were working on besides me, I guess," I said. "It would explain what they were doing down here." Delph didn’t look convinced.

"The cradle’s ready," Delph said.

"I thought it wouldn’t be ready for a while," I said.

"I may have fibbed a little," Delph said, looking slightly abashed. "I hoped it would give you more time with Kate."

"Yeah, thanks for that," I said. Delph was trying to help. There was no point in getting angry with her. I laid down on the hard, cold table and closed my eyes. The table warmed as the cradle sped up. In less than a minute, I lost consciousness. The nice thing about the cradle is that I don’t dream. It’s lights out and then regaining consciousness four hours later. Unless I’m stuck with the first generation cradle. When I opened my eyes, Maestro informed me fourteen hours and seventeen minutes elapsed. He was very unhappy we were down that long. So was I, but I wasn’t about to tell Maestro. He complains too much as is without my encouragement.

"Kevin’s awake," Delph said over the station’s speakers as I sat up. Kate was sitting at the main console. Delph’s avatar, a pretty, blue elf woman, peered out from one monitor. Documents crowded the other two. Kate turned around as I hopped off the cradle. Her eyes immediately went to the floor as her cheeks brightened.

"Kevin, put on some clothes," Delph scolded. I lost my shame about nudity a long time ago. It’s hard to be uptight when you’re being poked and prodded by scientists of both genders. I pulled on some sweats as Kate walked across the room. She stroked my face, and then recoiled as if her hand ran across a nail. Kate spun and strode back to the main console. In the monitor, Delph wore a sad expression. My AI looked at me and shook her head slightly. Okay, not the time to ask.

"We need to get to DC, fast," Kate said. "The Irregulars High Council is meeting to elect a new Chairman."

"That’s fast," I said.

"We need to move faster with Liberation cracking down on us," Kate said, "But we need to get there because Delph found out Songbird is still alive."

"What the fuck? How is that even possible?" I asked.

"The mission is on that ninja’s computer," Delph said. "You were mostly correct. Songbird and that new task force are connected. She’s working with them. The task force helped her stage the assassination."

"So, Lee was working with a secretive Liberation task force? For what reason?" I asked. That’s when all hell broke loose.

THOOM! It took me a precious second to realize I was on the floor and we were under attack. The explosion blew a two-meter hole in the ceiling right over the cradle. The heavy reinforced concrete crushed the metal table. I didn’t even have time to swear before a half-dozen small canisters dropped into the control room.

"FLASH OUT!" I yelled. Kate crouched behind her chair. Instead of exploding into the expected brilliant balls of light and noise, the canisters hissed. My chemical alarms lit up. Fucking gas. They were using fucking gas on us. I felt my general filters click on, but my mind was already starting to feel woozy. Whatever that gas was, it was some potent stuff. Ten black, armored forms jumped into the control room. Maestro tried to seize control, but I stopped him. The invaders were carrying stunners instead of carbines. This was a snatch operation. That would change the moment I shed my skin sheath. I just needed to stay on my feet long enough for those bastards to get close. If only the floor would stop wiggling. There was a crash behind me.

*Kevin, Kate’s unconscious," Delph reported. I’m not getting anything on these people from the sensors. I tried to answer, but I couldn’t clear my head enough. My mind was jolted awake as medical nannites flooded my brain and scrubbed the toxin. One of the armored troopers was standing in front of me.

"I’m impressed," a deep basso voice said over the armor’s speaker. "Most folks are on the floor in a few seconds." The trooper slung his stunner and leaned in. "I should have expected nothing less from you. The Metal Ghost."

Delph, slag the base! I ordered. These fuckers knew who I was. They knew what they were after. I damn sure wasn’t about to let them have it.

Done, Delph said. I felt her return just as that bastard hit me with the stunner. Liberation stunners were based on the Omnisen design. The Americans built my systems to resist the blast, but it still fucking hurt. A lot. Part of me just wanted to slump to the ground and let the unconsciousness take me, but I still needed a couple of things. I grabbed the demi’s stunner and wrenched it out of his hand. Surprised, he didn’t even see the punch coming.

Or he just didn’t care. Pain shot up my arm from the impact. I’ve hit walls that were softer. Hell, I’d hit softer space cruiser armor. The demi casually backhanded me into the control system. Sometimes, getting what I want is painful. I came up off the panel and was hit by a half dozen stunner blasts. Yup, that was enough. I slid to the concrete floor. I ordered Delph to put us in possum mode. Until I said otherwise, I would appear unconscious to anyone without a brain scanner.

"Secure them. Make sure you use the heavy binders," a man’s voice said. The voice was deep. The accent was Eastern European, but cultured. Gloved hands wrenched my arms behind me. Cool metal clamped onto my forearms. Maestro screamed bloody murder about us being in such a vulnerable position. He could scream all he wanted. I had a hunch about what was going on. Kate and I were dragged out and thrown into the back of a truck. The demi had to throw me because his companions were regular humans. That was an interesting fact. The Irregulars’ cells were usually mixed between demis and normals, but Liberation was the exact opposite. Demi units were ruthlessly segregated from normal humans. They would occasionally work with normal humans for a specific mission. This team moved too well to be an adhoc thing, which meant this new task force was doing something unusual.

"Very good, Lieutenant," a familiar voice said in French.

"Merci, General Sevale," the demi answered. Well, fuck me sideways. The government made that fucking monster a general? And gave him a top-secret task force? If I wasn’t in possum mode, I’d be fighting Maestro for control. Or maybe not. Taking out the Mongoose would be worth it.

Delph, record everything this group says, I said.

Started doing that the moment I heard that bastard’s name, Delph answered. You think Brian knows Sevale is involved?

Don’t know, and I’m not sure if I want to know, I answered. If Brian knew about the Mongoose, it would mean Brian was getting a lot more sneaky. Brian’s sneakiness should be limited to tactical things like raids and birthday parties, not internal government politics.

"General, the base’s computers and equipment are destroyed," another voice said.

"Merde!"Sevale swore. "You’re sure he could not have known about your team?"

"I don’t see how," the demi leading the capture team answered. "We caught him and his girlfriend by surprise. The entry must have set off some failsafe we didn’t know about." The Mongoose swore some more in French.

"Well, we have the Metal Ghost. That will have to do. We do not have the time to explore. We need to be in Washington. Make sure he stays in our custody. There will be no fuck ups like what happened to the Directorate last spring." A chorus of assents and the doors slammed shut. The fucking Mongoose. After he’d fallen off the radar, I hoped he fucking died. The former leader of Team Red was a savage beast. There was nothing he wouldn’t do – as he’d demonstrated during the alien war. He was also very good at finding people like him. Which is why many Irregular cells had "kill-on-sight" orders for any member of Team Red during the alien war – and more than a few Praetorians who would be willing to look the other way. At least in the North American sector.

It looks like you were right, Delph said.

Cold comfort, I answered.

Chapter 8

Washington was one of thirty cities destroyed by orbital bombardment during the course of the war. Right after the Americans tried to nuke the aliens’ landing site, the Demnisen dropped a multi-ton metal ball at orbital velocity right on the Pentagon. The only difference between what the Demnisen dropped and a nuclear bomb was the lack of radiation. The city was pretty much knocked flat, and there was a new lake where the Pentagon once stood. The devastation was so bad everything inside the beltway was depopulated in less than a month. These days, Washington was a scavenger city with hundreds of people picking over the bones of the city looking for valuables to sell. The transient population and no regular Relief Force presence made Washington perfect for a meeting of the Irregular High Council.

The task force truck pulled inside a building, went down a bit, and then stopped. The back doors opened, and two people climbed inside. They picked up Kate’s still unconscious form and carried her out of the truck. I waited for a long moment before I "woke up". I was flooded with new information from my active sensors. We were in an underground garage on the outskirts of Washington. Eight bad guys were standing outside the truck. Maestro calculated an eighty percent chance that only one or two were demis.

Delph, you know what you need to do, I said.

I’m still not sure this is going to work. I’m leaving Dani to help you, Delph said. I felt her leave.

Ready to work, Mr. Kevin, Dani said. She was one of Delph’s more advanced children. She was also one of the few of Delph’s children with her own personality.

You know what you need to do? I asked.

Hells yes! Dani exclaimed. Dani was nothing if not eager. First thing was to get out of the restraints. Damn it. I’d just got this fucking skin sheath. Pain flashed as the nannites dissolved the skin sheath. With the organics out of the way, the nannites formed my armor and enhanced my chassis. The restraints were designed to mute demi abilities. They didn’t survive the abuse of combined American and alien tech. They clanged to the floor of the truck. To the guards’ credit, they quickly surrounded the truck. They also tried to call for backup.

Comms locked down, Mr. Kevin, Dani reported. It was amazing the amount of data Delph could pick up from just passives. Especially when the bad guys used their comms almost nonstop from Atlanta. It was child’s play for Dani to take what her mother learned to shut down the bad guys’ network. Maestro threw up his most ruthless course of action. Not feeling particularly merciful, I agreed. Maestro must not have expected me to agree because there was a fragment of a second pause before he initiated.

The particle pulse pistols formed in my hands. Lacking a flash-bang, Dani "disco-balled" the guards. White noise blared into the guards’ ears at full volume. Even experienced operatives take a second to recover. Maestro needed less than that. He opened fire. The nice thing about energy weapons is they don’t deflect when they punch through things like sheet metal or glass or Liberation body armor. Six bad guys went down as streams of hyper-charged particles ripped through their chest cavities.

There were two demis among the guards. One was a strong-man, because he punched the truck clear across the garage. I rattled around the inside as the vehicle slammed into the concrete wall. A monomolecular blade formed in my right hand. Three quick slashes and the back of the truck fell off. Two beams of purple energy punched me in the chest. Alarms blared as nannites scrambled to repair the damage. Well that was another part of the puzzle. I recognized the demi standing across from me with glowing hands.

"Hello Driver," I said. He fired again, but I sprang out of the truck at Driver. The move caught Driver off-guard. I move very fast for someone so big. The blade flashed out. One of Driver’s hands sailed across the garage. Driver closed, placing his hand on my face glacis and firing off another blast. That one fucking rung my bell. Pain and alarms swarmed my mind. I was stunned. Maestro, not so much. Maestro hosed Driver with particle pulses. Two blasts struck Driver in the chest before he popped open an energy shield. Particle blasts sizzled across its transparent surface.

Down! Dani screamed. Maestro dropped to the floor as Partner’s fist sailed through the space we just vacated. I felt the whistling from the punch. Maestro lashed out with the blade, but Partner leapt over the slash. He was much faster than our first tussle back in Nashville. Maestro came up off the ground and spun away from another punch. Nannites formed into another blade as Maestro closed with Partner. Normally, closing with a cannonball would be foolish, but I had a blaster behind me. I doubted Driver would chance accidentally blasting Partner.

Maestro danced around a couple more punches before slashing low and high. Partner ducked the high blade and punched the low one down into the floor. The monomolecular blade dug a deep furrow in the concrete. Thinking the blade was stuck, Partner leaned in and punched. It hurt. Almost as bad as Driver’s blast to the face. The pain was definitely worth it though. Partner’s pleased expression turned to surprise as Maestro plunged the punch dagger into the demi’s side. With jackhammer speed, Maestro reduced Partner’s side to a bloody pulp. The demi was confused as he died. That happens when you misjudge how fast nannites can reform a sword to a punch dagger. Oh well. Maestro tossed Partner’s body at Driver. Driver dodged to the side, but he dropped his shield. Two blades lanced through his torso. Driver looked down at them in bewilderment before dropping to the ground.

I walked over and grabbed the blades. Instead of pulling them out, I just let the nannites melt back into my body. I walked back to the other dead guards. I picked up a carbine and a full mag carrier. That fight took more of my metal and energy reserves than I liked. The carbine probably wouldn’t do diddly against the Mongoose’s demis, but it would take down his regular troops just fine. I slipped out of the garage. A hallway led to an elevator and a stairwell.

You need to go downstairs, Mr. Kevin, Dani said, The important comm signals are coming from down there. I raised the carbine and crept down the stairs. One floor down, the stairwell ended in a metal door. A very modern lock was installed next to the door. Dani leapt into the device. I waited for a moment for her to open the door. Then another moment passed. I was getting nervous.

Oh wow, Dani said as I felt her presence rush back into our shared mind.

The door isn’t open, I thought, probably more angry than I should have been. I felt Dani recoil just a bit.

Patience Mr. Kevin, Dani said. A small window appeared in my HUD. It was a feed from the room on the other side of the door. Inside was the Mongoose and ten of his black-clad troopers. One was the demi from the attack on the base back in Atlanta. The Mongoose stood in the center of his team. He was a tall, handsome man with dark hair and eyes. His muscular form was draped with black tacticals – if tacticals were made by one of the Paris fashion houses. In the center of the room, Kate was sitting on a chair. Her arms were outstretched and chained to the ground. Songbird was walking around Kate, looking at her as if inspecting a delivery. Fuck. I hate it when I’m right about these kinds of things.

"How the hell did you survive?" Kate demanded. She was furious, but Songbird was unfazed.

"Polly, you have a choice, and I want you to think carefully about it," Songbird said.

"Fuck you," Kate growled. The chains groaned as Kate pulled against them.

"Polly, I’ve always thought of you as a daughter," Songbird said. "I don’t want to see you die. I’ve seen too many of our friends die."

"You fucking traitor!" Kate screamed. "I’m not going to let you kill the Council."

"We’re not going to kill the Council. Only the few who need to be removed," Songbird said, as if Kate was simply a recalcitrant child.

"Let’s move this along," the Mongoose said, "My teams will be in place in minutes. They need to move quickly to kill Brandon, Smith, and Welker." I knew those names. They were the strongest voices among the Irregulars against cooperating with Liberation.

"Very well, it’s not like anyone is coming to rescue her," Songbird said. Sometimes people just hand you openings on a silver platter. I was lucky Dani had the same sense of drama that I do. The light on the lock turned green, and I kicked the door off its hinges. Maestro’s courses of actions were visible on the HUD. Dani sent out a disco-ball blast as I brought the carbine up. Two bursts took down the closest troopers. I sprinted across the room, spraying gunfire. Kate looked shocked as I sprinted right by her. As I hit the far wall, three more bad guys were down – dead or injured enough to take them out of the fight. The demi dodged the gunfire before closing. We ended up at the far wall.

"Nice trick with the comms," he said, as I slapped a fresh magazine into the carbine. The demi pointed at the gun. "You’ll need more than that if you’re going to survive a fight with me."

"I’m not the one who’s going to fight you," I said. There was a moment of confusion before the chair smacked the demi in the head. Kate screamed as she charged the demi, swinging the cut chains like nunchucks. Monomolecular blades were so useful. I left Kate to extract her vengeance on the dazed demi. I had other threats to neutralize.

The Mongoose’s troopers recovered from the disco-ball and spread out in pairs. Much as I hated to admit it, the Mongoose knew how to put together a crack unit. I sprinted to the closest pair as bullets rained down. Alarms blared as my armor took a pummeling. A burst cut down one trooper, but his partner dodged to the floor as I twisted to fire a second burst. The fucker continued to fire as he fell. More alarms as nannites flooded over the damage. A long burst finished the trooper off. The room rocked with sound. It took me a moment to realize I was on the ground. Who the fuck used a concussion grenade inside a room? I figured out what happened when Songbird loomed over me. Damn. She was a lot better using her sonic blast since the last time I fought with her.

"I thought you said this one was contained," Songbird said to the Mongoose.

"I was wrong," he replied. "Claude, can you finish your fight with the girl?" As if to answer the Mongoose, Claude’s body sailed across the room. The Mongoose let out a Gallic sigh, and turned to face off with Kate. She barreled at the Mongoose, screaming in rage. He slid out of the way in the blink of an eye. Kate wasn’t prepared for the Mongoose’s speed, and she stumbled when her punch missed. It was all the opening that the Mongoose needed. He darted in behind Kate and clamped his hands down on the back of her neck and her shoulder. Kate froze for a brief moment, and then went limp as the Mongoose drew off her demi powers. Songbird looked worried about the woman she considered a daughter. She never saw the stunner blast. As the old woman fell to the ground, the nannites reformed from the stunner to a particle pulse pistol. I leveled the weapon at the Mongoose’s head and fired. The burst of particles just burnt off part of his hair. Just enough to get his attention.

"Let her go," I said. "Call off your teams." The Mongoose released Kate. As soon as my pulse pistol lowered, he materialized next to me. He grabbed my face glacis with both hands. He wasn’t as strong as Kate, but strong enough to dent the armor. There was a warmth as the Mongoose activated his draining power. His smug expression evaporated. I know I said that I hated when I was right, but there were times when I was very glad I was right. Such as the small fact the Mongoose needed a direct organic connection to drain someone’s demi power. As he stood there unable to comprehend why his power wasn’t working on me, I aimed my pistol and shot him in the knee. The Mongoose screamed in agony and dropped to the floor.

"Call off your teams," I said, standing over the Mongoose.

"What are you going to do if I don’t?" He asked, "Kill me? Torture me?"

"Nope," I said, "I’m going to forward the contents of your personal system to Anne Bennington over at the Covert Action Directorate. Particularly Section 21 Bravo." The Mongoose’s face morphed from pain to shock to rage to cold understanding. The Mongoose clicked on his comm.

"All teams, Code Delta. I say again, Code Delta," the Mongoose said. I waited for a second as Delph confirmed that was the stand down command.

"Thank you," I said. I felt Delph flood back inside of me. I paused as she let me know the status of all of the task force. "You can call in your rescue team. They’re just outside, anyway. Let them know that if they don’t attack me or Kate, I won’t kill them all."

"You are far more dangerous than I remember, Metal Ghost," the Mongoose said. His tone made it clear that I just rose to the top of his enemies list.

"Don’t start none, won’t be none," I replied.

"We both know mutual avoidance is impossible," the Mongoose said. "Especially if you have accessed my personal system." He called the rescue team. A dozen armored troopers stormed into the room. Stretchers were unfolded. The Mongoose, Claude, and the dead were efficiently loaded onto the stretchers, and hauled out of the room.

"Why didn’t you kill him?" Kate said, weakly. She stood up on shaky legs.

"Because he’s the devil I know," I answered. "Better to have him running the task force than some new guy."

"What is the task force?" Kate asked.

"Covert team tasked to bring all demis under control of Liberation," I said. "Which is the first part of the Governing Council’s plan for demis."

"Which is?" Kate asked.

"Enslavement or liquidation."

"They can’t. Not even Liberation would do that," Kate protested.

"Yes, they would," I said.

"And the Liberation Governing Council just laid out their plan for the Mongoose?" Kate asked.

"Oh hell no," I answered. "They fed the Mongoose only what they thought he needed to know and filled in the gaps with bullshit. The problem with doing that with the Mongoose is that he’s very good at weaseling out the truth. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s blackmailing someone very close to the Governing Council. It would be something he’d do." I looked back at the still unconscious Songbird.

"Her, I don’t care if you kill," I said. Kate gave the still body a long hard stare.

"I have a better idea for her," Kate said.

Chapter 9

A week later, I was sitting at a diner in the Green Zone on Manhattan. I was doing some calculations on a tablet. If I managed to get a couple of halfway decent jobs, I might be able to afford the cost of replenishing my materials reservoirs. Assuming I didn’t have to destroy the current skin sheath. Repair, but not destroy. I looked up as the door jingled. Kate slid into my booth.

"So, how does it feel to be the puppetmaster of the Irregulars’ Council?" I asked.

"Some days I can’t believe I was stupid enough to pull that off," Kate said.

"I think you should have just told everyone what happened," I said.

"I know you hate her, but most of the cell leaders trust Songbird," Kate said, "They only know her as the Chairman who held the Irregulars together after the end of the alien war. We need her as a figurehead for a little while longer if we don’t want the Irregulars to fracture."

"Then what?" I asked, "You and the couple of leaders you recruited will quietly dispose of her?"

"The agreement was that after three months, Songbird would relinquish the Chair to Kazakh because of ‘health reasons.’ Her two co-conspirators will quietly retire shortly after with replacements picked by us. It isn’t the best plan, but it will keep the Irregulars together. Especially if we’re going to stop Liberation’s plans." I looked out the window.

"I swear, one of that man’s power is impeccable timing," I said. Kate followed my gaze and froze.

"What’s he doing here?" Kate asked, a squeak of fear in her voice.

"I asked him to meet us," I answered. Kate’s eyes blazed for a moment, but then she visibly composed herself. The door jingled and Brian walked in. He snatched a chair from a nearby table, spun it around and sat down at the end of the booth. He nodded at me, but gave Kate his most brilliant smile.

"So, you’re Kevin’s contact," Brian said. "Damn, now I see why he was so cagey about you."

"Yeah, well, now she’s your contact," I said, "Kate this is Brian. Brian, Kate."

"Wait, what?" Kate asked.

"You two are going to stop Liberation’s plans for the demis," I said.

"What are you going to do?" Kate demanded.

"Stopping a tyrannical government’s evil plans doesn’t pay the bills," I answered. "Plus, I’m tired of not knowing how to act around you, Kate. I can’t figure out if I’m coming or going anytime you’re around. I’ve decided to stay out of this, and let the two most capable people I know save the world." Kate looked shocked as I stood up, dropped a couple of scrip on the table, and walked out.

I made my way through the Green Zone to the small storefront that was now the entrance to my base. It beat always sneaking down manholes. I walked through the store ruins to a a stairwell in the back. A few minutes later, I walked into my base. I needed to calm down, so I opened up my gun safe and started on maintenance. My MP-37 was mostly disassembled when Brian turned up a few hours later.

"You’re a dick," he said, spinning around a chair and sitting down at my work table. "You didn’t have to do that to her."

"Finally, someone else with some common sense," Delph said from the monitors. I shot an evil look at her.

"It needed to be done," I said, "Kate needs to hate me. She needs to think that I’m done with her."

"That makes no sense," Brian said.

"The Mongoose," I said. "He’s not done with me. Kate’s got enough on her plate without him using her to get to me."

"I think you’re wrong, but I can see where you’re coming from," Brian said. "So what are you going to do about him?"

"I’m not sure," I said. "The information Delph collected from his personal system will be obsolete pretty soon. The Mongoose knows how to survive. I hope you were able to do something with all of that data I gave you."

"Yep. I gave it to Anne," Brian said with a smile.

"You what?" I asked, stunned.

"Anne’s smart. She knows how to use the information," Brian said, "Besides, I was able to trade the Mongoose’s information to remove the blacklist she put on you. You’re now able to do freelance jobs for Liberation again."

"Thanks," I said, "I need the money." Especially since most of the things I needed would cost a hefty black market premium.

"What’s the real plan?" Brian asked. Damn, he was always too good at reading me.

"The Irregulars aren’t going to be enough," I said. "Whatever you recruit from inside Liberation won’t be enough. If we’re going to stop the Governing Council, we’re going to need more firepower. We’re going to need freelancers."