CategoryMonday Fiction

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike – Part One – Chapter Two

Skull Island, Southern Pacific – 1000 Local – 14 July 2009 – Countdown: 2 years, 5 months, 2 weeks

“Here they come,” purred Sissy in a low voice. Jack Winchester grimaced and braced against the ridge of his firing hole as the mass of rotting undead staggered out of the tree line with outstretched arms. The zombies gave a collective moan as they sensed prey nearby. There was a fair group of them. Not bad for a first engagement for this mismatched team.

“Yeah, I’m counting about sixty of them,” Jack murmured into the throat mike. He tightened his grip on the M4 Masterkey carbine. Jack disliked the American M4 carbine, and the additional weight of the 12-gauge shotgun mounted under the barrel did nothing to improve his attitude. Mateo was probably right that the weapon was excellent for the close range fighting the team was expecting. Adrenaline pumped through Jack. He felt the familiar itch to attack. All Jack wanted to do was just throw down the ungainly carbine, draw his beloved Browning Hi-Powers, and blaze away at the oncoming horde of undead. Jack pushed down his instincts and tried to focus on doing his job. The team trusted him, even if he knew that they shouldn’t. Maybe he should have taken his meds before tromping out into the jungles of Skull Island. That was stupid. They just slowed him down.

“Roger Jack, I see them,” Mateo said. The shorter American sounded more comfortable in the leader role than he had at the beginning of the training. There was still a slight uncertainty. “Everyone knows their jobs. Hold your fire until Collin lets loose.”

“Hurry up, mate,” Jack whispered as he watched the zombies cross the burnt clearing at an agonizingly slow creep. The throaty, wet moans of the undead made Jack’s hands twitch. Jack took a deep breath and forced his hands still. The last thing he needed to do was accidentally drop the magazine out of his weapon – or worse, open fire early. Jack cursed the contract he didn’t read, and the insurance company that dragged him from Perth back to this wretched island.

The sudden thud of the explosion snapped Jack back to the fight. The five claymore mines were daisy-chained, sending thirty-five hundred steel balls slashing through the zombie horde. The front of the horde collapsed as their decomposing bodies were shredded. A few stopped moving as the hurtling steel balls punched through their skulls and destroyed the critical brains. As the smoke cleared, Jack saw most of the zombies were crawling along the ground. There were about twenty that somehow managed to stay upright through the carnage.

“Walking ones first!” Mateo shouted over the radio, “Jack and Quentin watch the crawlers. Any get too close, take them out!” The distinctive bark of M4’s erupted from the team’s positions, only to be drowned out by the throaty crack of Sissy’s L96 rifle. Jack brought his M4 up and placed the holographic reticule of the EOTech on the walking zombie closest to his position. A light squeeze on the trigger, and the zombie’s head exploded into a grey mess. Jack pivoted and found a crawler that managed to get close. Another burst stopped it cold.

Jack’s body wanted to move. He felt the tension building in his spine as his body screamed to move, to close with the zombies and fight the battle in bad breath range. Standing still was just going to get him killed. Two zombies angled towards Jack. He stood up and fired twice with the Masterkey twelve-gauge shotgun. The tension released as Jack was finally moving.

“Jack, stay in position. Service your targets,” Mateo said, the barest hint of reprimand in his voice. It was enough to enrage Jack.

“Let me work,” snapped Jack as he fired at another zombie. One of the crawlers stood up. Jack twisted to bring around the M4. Jack squeezed the trigger. CLICK. Without hesitating, Jack ejected the magazine and slapped in a fresh magazine. He pulled the charging handle and felt the weapon lock up. Jack knew he should be falling back and telling Mateo he had a weapon failure. Jack no longer cared about what he should be doing. He let the weapon fall on its sling as his reached down and drew his pistols. The Hi-Powers were natural extensions of Jack’s arms as he stepped out from his position and double-tapped the zombie with his right pistol. He flicked his eyes at the sound of shuffling. His left armed snaked out and double-tapped another zombie slouching towards him. Jack heard Mateo yelling over the radio, but he ignored it. He was in his element as he slid through the killing ground. Two more double-taps and two more zombies stopped moving with an unearthly finality. It was so easy. Why couldn’t the others understand how easy this was? No complicated ambushes, no high explosive traps. Just get in and blaze away until there were no more.

The zombie stood up from a small copse of burnt shrubbery. It was suddenly within arm reach. Jack just smiled as his racing mind realized he wasn’t going to get his pistol up fast enough. The zombie lurched forward with its outstretched hands. Its head exploded as an M4 cracked from behind Jack.

“You bloody piker,” yelled Collin, all traces of sophistication gone from his tone. “What in the hell do ye think ye’re doin’?” The dark commando expertly dispatched two crawlers. Before Jack could answer, Quentin stormed to the pair while firing his shotgun at the zombies. Collin’s face scrunched in anger. “No you blasted fool, fall back!”

“Relax Collin,” Quentin said, “I’m just here to fetch our boy.” Before Jack could object, Quentin snatched the drag handle on the of his vest and lifted the Aussie clear off the ground. Jack squirmed as Quentin dragged him back to the others. Collin covered the two with his M4 and some help from Sissy. The three team members were joined by The Steve as they crossed behind the team’s position. The Steve reached into his medical bag and pulled out a small black case. Quentin disarmed Jack and held him still as The Steve prepped a syringe. The Steve looked down at Jack with a sympathetic expression.

“Dude, you seriously screwed up,” The Steve said.

“No! Don’t you see? It’s the only way,” Jack screamed as The Steve plunged the syringe into Jack’s arm. Jack struggled, but Quentin held him easily. It took a few moments for the drug to spread its comfortable numbness across his body. Mateo loomed over Jack. The drugs made the normally average height Latino seem like a giant.

“That’s it. We’re done,” Mateo called out. He tapped the radio strapped to his back, “Tampa, this is Team One. Full eradication west of orange smoke. Extract at LZ Two.” Jack could see Mateo tossing a pair of smoke grenades as Sissy slid down the tree. She fired at the still approaching zombies as she scampered over to the group.

“Oh, Jackie boy, what did you do?” Sissy said as she joined the group.

The world went dark before Jack could answer.

[Zombie Strike Part One Chapter Three]

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike – Part One – Chapter One

Skull Island, Southern Pacific – 0700 Local – 1 July 2009 – Countdown: 2 years, 6 months

Mateo Cortez looked down at the distinctive building growing larger as the helicopter descended. The fear and excitement inside him flared back after a year’s slumber. The imposing gray headquarters building with the white skull visage were just as he remembered. Mateo looked down at the jagged scar that ran up his right arm. It was a souvenir from the last time he was on this small Pacific island.

Oh well, Mateo thought, No one ever said hunting zombies was safe.

The helicopter gently touched down. The door slid open. Mateo pulled down the brim of his ball cap and stepped down from the helicopter. Two dark-suited men who looked like they just stepped off the Presidential Detail ushered Mateo off the landing pad. They didn’t say anything beyond simple one-word monotone commands as they led Mateo into the headquarters building. The last time Mateo was in this building, he had a spacious suite on the eighth floor. That was right before he competed in Zombie Strike! contest.

Forget all the posers who thought they were so tough doing the so-called “X-Games.” Running from bunker to bunker while fighting and evading hordes of zombies was the ultimate extreme sport. Not everyone who competed survived. Mateo not only managed to survive, but he was on of the few who managed to make it to the last bunker and collect the million dollar prize. He hoped the IRS and his ex-wife were enjoying the money. Heaven knew Mateo never had the chance.

The elevator plunged down so fast Mateo needed to grip the brass bar to keep from falling over. He wanted to ask what was going on, but he knew that was futile. The Secret Service wannabes who escorted him from his home in Florida hadn’t said anything beyond a half-dozen words. Mateo looked at himself in the elevator’s mirrored walls. The rigors of travel gave his normal light olive skin a wan appearance. His dark eyes were blood shot with his round face covered with a few whiskers. Good God, could he never grow proper facial hair? Mateo’s black hair was a little longer than his normal crew cut. The blue t-shirt and jeans were wrinkled and stained with over twenty hours of travel. Only his boots maintained their black shine. Mateo stopped his musings over his looks as he noticed the elevator was slowing. The elevator opened into a bare concrete hallway that ended at a red metal door. Mateo followed the two suits as they walked off the elevator and opened the door for him. Mateo took a step inside and froze as he saw who was sitting around a large mahogany conference table. There was something to be said for treading carefully amongst a pantheon of legends. Worse, they were all staring at him like they’d been waiting on him. Mateo slouched down into the empty chair next to the door.

“Relax bro,” said the hulking man to Mateo’s right. Quentin McLintock looked every inch the football linebacker he’d been at West Virginia University. Quentin had been an excellent linebacker – for a college player. He was in that horrible spot of being barely not good enough to make the pros. He flitted about the Canadian and European football teams before someone (Quentin never said who) convinced him to compete in Zombie Strike! Quentin was an instant fan favorite. There was just something unforgettable about watching a wall of a man use a twenty-pound sledgehammer to take out three zombies in one swing. Quentin smiled down at Mateo.

“We all just got here,” Quentin said, much to Mateo’s relief.

“Thankfully, with Mr. Cortez’s arrival, we can begin,” a bespectacled man said at the head of the table. His accent and clothes were unmistakably British, as was that impatient glower as the man looked at the people around the table. “In front of all of you are the standard non-disclosure agreements. If you’d be so kind as to glance them over and sign, we can proceed.”

“Perhaps you’d be so kind as to explain why we’re here?” purred Melissa “Sissy” O’Connell. Sissy O’Connell was sitting across from Quentin. Mateo was trying hard not to meet her beautiful brown eyes. Sissy was the pinup girl for Zombie Strike! fan boys everywhere. The blonde was gorgeous, charming, and absolutely scary with a sniper rifle. Mateo was feeling guilty for having that one picture of her on his computer back home. He hoped his discomfort wasn’t showing on his face.

“The better question is why you decided to kidnap us and drag us back to this – place,” Jack Winchester boomed, twisting the last word with pure hatred. Winchester was the only person to compete and survive in Zombie Strike! twice, once on the indivdual course and once as part of an all-star team. The brown-haired and bearded Aussie had been a gregarious and boisterous fan favorite. During the individual competition, Jack gained a following for his quick, witty banter and his matching pearl-handled silver Browning Hi-Powers. That man was killed slowly during the team competition as he saw his team get taken down one by one. After the team disaster, the ZS blogs reported Winchester retreated back to Australia. It was said Jack verbally attacked anyone who even brought up Zombie Strike.

“You were not kidnapped Mr. Winchester,” bristled Spectacles, “You were asked to fulfill the contract you signed.” The suits who approached Mateo used the same words. Mateo got into the car less because of the threat of legal action and more because of the money they were offering.

“Listen mates, we all signed the contracts when we won our prizes,” said the man to the right of Spectacles. Then, the man looked straight at Jack, “Apparently, all of us didn’t bloody read them too close.” The cockneyed London accent still seemed strange coming from the man whose skin looked just this side of slate. Collin DuBois was tall and lanky with a shaved head and a face which could be charitably called “strong.” He was also former SAS before leaving the family military tradition and entering the more lucrative consulting and contracting world. Mateo remembered the practiced ease DuBois slid through the jungles of Skull Island, only fighting the zombies when he couldn’t evade them. Throughout the competition, Collin demonstrated the expert infiltration techniques of the true operative.

“Yes, quite,” Spectacles said, not sure if to be annoyed or relieved by Collin’s comment. “All of you are under contract to MacKenzie & Winston for additional services. Now, your unique services are required.” He pointed to the NDA’s and the other packets sitting in front of each individual.

“Required for what?” Mateo asked. The lure of a quarter million dollars plus additional bonus got Mateo in the car and onto the helicopter. With that much, Mateo could finally pay off all of his debts and get a fresh start. Now, he was staring to wonder if he’d collect it.

“Dude, what have we all got in common?” asked the final person in the room, “All of us won the million dollar prize on ZS. The Steve understands. The Steve is waiting for the details.” Mateo arched an eyebrow in surprise. Sweet Mother of God, it wasn’t a stunt for the cameras – he really did act that way. Steven “The Steve” Mountain was a former Army Special Forces medic, and he’d been a superb one by what Mateo saw when “The Steve’s” team competed. “The Steve” was of average height, build, and looks. It was his constant talking about himself in the third person that made “The Steve” stand out to the audience.

“You need experienced zombie fighters,” Mateo said. It wasn’t a question. “So instead of recruiting an existing team, why did you bring us all in?”

“According to our analysis, each of you possess unique and complimentary abilities and skills, Mr. Cortez,” Spectacles continued, “Our analysts give this combination of individuals an extremely high chance of succeeding.” The man almost preened.

“Exactly what are we supposed to be succeeding at?” Winchester asked, the furious fire still burning in his eyes. The others locked their eyes on Spectacles as he cleared his throat. The Brit didn’t want to tell the group before they signed the NDA’s, but he was also not willing to stand against the collected group of proven fighters. He had some survival instinct.

“We’ve discovered a breakout of zombies on a small island some hundred and fifty kilometers from the Hawaiian islands,” Spectacles said, clearly uncomfortable. “The firm requests the six of you travel to this island and eliminate this infestation before it can threaten inhabited islands.” The six zombie hunters looked at each other as they digested what Spectacles was asking.

“How the bloody devil did a bunch of zombies get a thousand miles from here?” asked DuBois, his voice heated.

“Wish we knew,” answered a familiar voice from behind the group. Mateo spun his chair and smiled as Kenn Blanchard walked into the room. The host of Zombie Strike! was just shy of six feet, but the black fatigues made him look taller. The normal broad smile was replaced with a serious face. “Look y’all, this is why Zombie Strike! was created. Not just to create another reality TV show, but to find folks like you. Ones that could handle themselves when it got hip deep and smelly with undead.”

“I thought you had a team already,” Quentin mused.

“Tampa Team?” Kenn asked, “They’re good for quick strikes and such around the island, but this thing is going to be longer and nastier. That’s why we got the best of our winners.”

“I don’t like it,” Winchester stated, “And I don’t like a bunch of limey insurance people–“

“Watch who you call limey, mate,” warned Dubois with a serious tone, “To enlighten you, insurance firms are the ones most aware of what’s going on in the world, because they’re the ones who have to pay out. Not the bloody governments. Most of the firms have better intelligence sections as well.”

“Collin’s right,” Kenn said, “I’ve seen the information from M&W. I give you my word I wouldn’t have dragged all y’all here if it wasn’t important.” A general murmur of agreement rose from the group. Even Winchester wasn’t willing to dispute Kenn’s word.

“The Steve wants to know what the plan is,” Mountain said, pointing at himself with his left thumb in his familiar fashion.

“We’re going to need to start working together as a team,” Mateo said, remembering Jack’s team debacle. Much like the people around the table, Jack’s team was made up of previous winners. They’d been killed because none of them were working together. Mateo looked at each of the others with a grim look.

“That means we practice,” Mateo said, “Basic weapons drills first. Then get out there and actually work together.” The others looked at Mateo and collectively agreed.

“All right then,” Kenn said, “We’ve got rooms set up for y’all. We need to get working first thing in the morning.” The new team stood up from the table and walked to the waiting dark-suited escorts. Mateo hung back as the others traded greetings with Kenn before following their escorts. As “The Steve” left, Kenn looked over at Mateo with an appraising eye.

“What’s the matter, my brother?” Kenn asked.

“I can understand why everyone else is here. They were the superstars on ZS. Why am I here?” Mateo asked.

“That’s simple,” Kenn said with his familiar wide smile, “You get to be the leader of all of these folks.”

Zombie Strike Part 1 Chapter 2

Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising – Director’s Cut

I was never really happy with how I originally ended Badmoon Rising. Plus, I wanted to update the story a bit so Ranger wasn’t quite the mall-ninja. So, I decided to do Director’s Cut.

So go ahead and reread the whole story.

Monday Fiction – Irregulars 2 – Irregular Assassination

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

Irregular Assassination

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 refuses to help, the locals hire a freelancer or two to come and clean out the bad guys. When the leader of the gang is a demi the price goes up significantly.

This particular gang was demanding 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. Especially when those people refused Liberation’s generous offer to move them to the cities so their land can be added to the government collective. 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. The store gleamed in the night for dozens of kilometers all around like a beacon. That was odd. 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 overgrown grass. Maestro bitched about me using 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. If it’s outside of combat, Maestro has a hard time grasping concepts.

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 arsenal. 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.

Delph, can you get inside? 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 would 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.

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. The aliens would float 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 ill-fitting gray t-shirts and jeans. These two had been in one of Liberation’s refugee camps, and not too long ago. The two goons pointed pistols at me. They probably didn’t get those in the refugee camp.

“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 Maestro reacted. 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 on the glowing red crosshairs. 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 moved over to Dirty Blonde’s body. I picked up the bandit’s pistol. US Ordinance Falcon. 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. Either those that collaborated with the aliens or more run of the mill 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 sten guns. The cheap submachine guns, collectively known as stens after the WWII Brit subgun, 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 the HK is to clean properly?” 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 least those with natural hearing. 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 controllable on full auto. Three fell down dead. Four others went down, but they were still alive and screaming. The leader and his two loyal henchmen disappeared behind a veil. Fucking cloakers. Now, I had 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 frowning. It’s hard to lie to the AIs who live inside your head all of the time. Maybe I was avoiding my best friend, but there were good reasons. I’d call him when I was done here.

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

I can’t right now. I’m not about to hand this 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 that the circuit breakers were back there. I needed to negate the cloaker’s powers. Dousing the lights sounded like a good idea at the moment. I gently pushed open the door – and was nearly gutted by a shotgun blast. The mass of buckshot tore the door out of my hand. I pointed the HK around the door and sprayed. I was just trying to open up some space, so the scream of pain was welcome.

I stormed through the doors scanning for targets. There was a blood trail on the floor. It stopped about ten meters from the door. In the middle of the open storage area. 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?” 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 government doing from his position as the leader of the North American Praetorians. Brian though that the loose confederation of militias could be a check against 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?” 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 and Kansas,” I answered. “I’ll call you in a couple of hours. I’m sort of working now.”

“Fine. Delph you heard him. Make sure he calls,” Brian said before disconnecting. Damn. Now I was committed to calling Brian. I put that aside for the moment. I’d deal with it in a couple of hours. The more pertinent question 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. That’s when I heard the clicking of a hammer being pulled back behind me. 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. He clutched at his wounds. I placed the holographic sight between the leader’s eyes. He started to cry, but I ignored his tears. 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 needed to report my actions to Liberation’s Relief Force constables. I didn’t want the farmers to be caught up in murder trials for a bunch of scum. Considering the St. Louis RF’s normal lackadaisical attitude to their duties, I was surprised by their sudden hustle. I quickly found out why. The constables were extremely annoyed when they found out I handed over the bandits’ weapons to the locals instead of collecting them for proper disposal. Then, the constables got even more pissed when I refused to hand over 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. They arrested me when I called the sergeant in charge a cocksucker. I finally called 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 two auditors from the Inspector General’s Office. 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. 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.

“Yes, I 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 to my batteries. 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?”

“I have exactly one good contact within the Irregulars,” I said. “The others we fought with on Devastation are either dead or think I’m a traitor to the cause.”

“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.

“This is your old girlfriend we’re talking about, right?” Brian asked. I just nodded, not trusting my voice at the moment. Kate was more than an old girlfriend. She was my first, well, everything. There were still a lot of unresolved feelings there. Well, at least on my end. These days anytime I talk to Kate she’s coolly professional. I was willing to admit that it was probably because 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 is it?” 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. We also have a bit of what could charitably called “history.” 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 that an operation or project or whatever is going on, just whether or not you have a need to know about it. Whatever it is, it’s being run out of the Sector Administrator’s office.”

“Aliens?” I asked, thinking back to the event that caused Brian to ask my help in getting in contact with the Irregulars. The Covert Action Directorate had been working with an Omnisen scientist to develop a process to scrub out a demi’s powers without all the new immunity from Purgatory. That ended with me killing the alien and wrecking their machine. As I said, the CAD and I have history.

“That’s just it, I don’t know,” Brian said. “Not a whisper of what’s happening.”

“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 decided not to answer. I tried prodding her, but my AI just refused to elaborate.

Two days later I walked into Cork. It was an Irish-themed bar, complete with orange-white-green flags, pictures of Irish places, 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, the men and women who searched through the wreckage from the alien war to find anything that could be sold or used. 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 a 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 know. 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 in Kate’s features.

“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. Instictively, 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 making out. Now, it resulted in being punched in 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 populated by 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 that 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 that 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. 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 of 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 Force on the few remaining alien holdouts in the city.The Demnisen were wiped out. The last vestiges of Old Nashville was reduced to rubble. New Nashville was slowly rising from the ashes of the once great city.

The transit center was in the center of New Nashville, right in the middle of Liberation Square. Across the street was the government tower and the hospital tower. Completing the square was the university tower housing the University of Nashville and the Nashville History Museum. Liberation Square was dwarfed by the half-dozen five hundred meter tall community towers. A dozen more were in various stages of construction. Yup, 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 asking.

“Where are we going, Kate?” I asked.

“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 wasn’t necessary when fighting the aliens, but it became imperative for survival living under Liberation. The government doesn’t like having a bunch of experienced guerrillas running around without proper supervision – especially demi guerrillas. Those who aren’t recruited into something government-approved tend to die resisting arrest for some infraction. Considering my Liberation affiliation during the war, I expected to be screened by several levels of Irregular authority before I met with the Chairman.

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, and Polly vouched for you being good people,” the man said. “My people are not happy with a former member of Team Blue being let into the Chairman’s presence. You do anything suspicious, 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 acknowledgement 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 used “Poltergeist” – and sparingly at that. 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 every time.

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 worn down from years of neglect and pillaging. 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 almost since we got passed the gate, Delph said as we stepped out of the car. 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 condenscesion 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.

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.

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 was 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 who requested this meeting,” 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.

“What could you warn us about? And 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.

“And yet, I still found the kids,” I said. Lee glared at me as she grudgingly nodded. “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 are offering 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 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, armored hull of 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 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.

C13 was designed to blow through alien armor composites. The two-story wood and brick house we were behind was engulfed by a fireball that reduced it to fragments in less than a second. 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 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, and much to my surprise, the two guards that followed us out were still alive and on their feet. The blast shredded their clothes, revealing their ballistic armor suits underneath. 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 thrown to the ground. 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 works with Liberation!” Driver protested.

“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.

“No time. All of you move! 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 that 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 delapidated 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 wasn’t impressed by the device’s crudity, but judged it adequate.

“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.

“Then maybe you shouldn’t have had your ECM dialed up to disco ball,” I shot back. “It was like a fucking spotlight to anyone with even basic sensors.”

“Did Liberation just take out the Chairman?” Partner asked.

“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.

“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,” I said. 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.

“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.

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 relieve a Praetorian team, it would be some super-secret task force. Kate walked back into the room with Driver and Partner.

“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. Second, we’re going to Atlanta because the closest Irregular cell is in the MLK refugee camp outside the city,” Kate said. “We need to let the Council know that 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 I said so,” Kate answered. “Because there’s things you don’t know.” 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 and after 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 it can be said about Rotten Puke is that 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 for maybe a dozen klicks before the blackness consumed me.


I woke up from the nightmare still feeling 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.Then, 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 that it was exactly two hundred and fifteen days since the last time I dreamt about my death. I’d hoped that dream was finally gone. I was wrong. Again. Maybe it came back because I saw Songbird again. I got the distinct impression in my mind that Delph wasn’t convinced. Maestro didn’t care what I dreamt 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 in 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.

Well, 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 bloc is brand new. I’ve never seen its like. 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 that I’d slept that long. Technically, my cyber body doesn’t need rest. Maintenance, yes, but not rest. My mind is still mostly organic, and the Americans were very clear that 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 bad thing.

I knew when we were close to the camp by the smell. Liberation designed the refugee camps to meet the basics for housing and sanitation, but not comfort. By pre-war standards, the camp was slightly below a trailer park – assuming that 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. 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 south east. 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 Office. They just didn’t work at Peachtown. The RFRO staff at Peachtown wasn’t exactly the scum of that service, but that was only because being true scum requires effort. Still, the lackadaisical attitude allowed for the Irregulars to infiltrate Peachtown and turn it into one of their major hubs. 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 find you in Peachtown.”

“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 that 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 two 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 as exited. 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. The pistols let out 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 a lot of company coming, Delph said. Head down the street and 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. To be fair, the armor and assault rifles would be considered riot gear outside of Peachtown. Inside the refugee camp, it was the daily uniform for the RFCs. Nannites formed a pair of batons, and 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 a burst of fire while I was in the air, and it went wide. I told 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. Except 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. Then, bullets pinged on 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 could hear her anger. Kate angry was never a good thing. Maestro reminded me that 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 let loose a few nannites into the weapon to break open 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 of the weapon’s heavy bolt cycling. 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. I knew this was going to hurt, and 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 and 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, which 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 I 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 standard LBE 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 were 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 squad automatic weapon.

“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. The 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 RFCs before punching into the Dragoon. Two more slammed into the nearest guard post and turned the concrete structure into rubble in 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 this point, the RFCs decided that 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 threw up 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 we’re 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.” Kate cocked her head and studied me for a long moment.

“What?” I asked.

“You never used to do that,” Kate said. 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 SAW.

“I never thought you were weak,” Kate said, defensively.

“You were probably the only one in our cell who didn’t,” I said. “Even Cowboy treated me like I was fragile.” Kate grabbed her weapons, and we 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 had Driver accused us of Songbird’s murder? Did he really think that, or was he working for someone who wanted to frame Kate and me? 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.

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

“You don’t mean Anne? That was just part of the mission,” I said. Anne Bennington was the intel specialist in Team Blue. These days, she ran Liberation’s Covert Action Directorate, more colloquially called then 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. They 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 with trying to arrest 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 unleash 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 I could see where wearing familiar black uniforms.

“Fucking ninjas,” I growled as Maestro grabbed control. He dodged around the gorilla’s next strike as he aimed the SAW 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 there. Someone just became “most dangerous ninja.”

Maestro got in close with the gorilla. He let the SAW drop on its sling and blocked the 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. I told Maestro to take the gloves off. A new brilliant course of action appeared in the HUD. I swear I almost heard him giggle.

Maestro redirected nannites to the arms. Maestro held still as the weapon formed around our forearm. The gorilla decided we were immobile and pressed his attack. He 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.

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 his body collapsed to the ground. That problem dealt with, Maestro focused on the cooker. We needed to finish this fast. The single plasma blast completely drained one of my batteries. That was a quarter of my available power.

Maestro didn’t even pause. He leaped 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. That 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 what was happening 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 from the thermobaric. It was slightly different from than normal ninja armor. Slicker, more streamlined, and it looked a hell of a lot more expensive. A lot more expensive than what would be used for a regular ninja. It took me a little longer than normal 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 SAW 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 that would 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 from the government. 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 that our ride was arriving.

“Now the fun begins,” I said to Kate. 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. 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. It was too much to hope that Liberation hadn’t discovered the stairwell yet.

“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. All the telltales said Liberation never set foot in this part. 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, everything’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 that looks 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 a 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 onboard 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 that 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, and he was very unhappy that 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.

“The Irregulars need to move faster with Liberation cracking down on us,” Kate said, “But we need to get there because Delph found out that 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 the 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 brilliant balls of light an 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 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 capture 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. *And I’m not getting anything on these people on 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. 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 deep man’s voice said. 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 almost always mixed between demis and normals. Sometimes only one or the other was sent on a specific mission, but you always came back to a mixed cell. Liberation was the exact opposite. Demi units were ruthlessly segregated, and would occasionally mix with normal humans for a specific mission. This team moved too well to be an adhoc thing.

“Very good, Lieutenant,” a familiar voice said, in French.

Merci, mon 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 that 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 he 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 has been 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 as soon as possible. Make sure that he stays in our custody. And 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 that 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 there were Irregular cells that 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 when it happened. 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 that the aliens 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 that 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 had stood. The devastation was so bad that everything inside the beltway was depopulated in less than a month. These days, Washington is 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 council.

The task force truck pulled inside a building, went down a bit, and then stopped. The back doors opened, and I heard two people climb 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 the more advanced of Delph’s children. She was 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 not 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 were wrenched off and 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, 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 that because there was a fragment of a second pause before Maestro initiated.

The particle pulse pistols formed in my hands. Lacking a flash-bang, Dani “disco-balled” the guards. For a second, the guards’ comms blared into the ears at full volume. Maestro opened fire. The nice thing about energy weapons is that 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 hypercharged particles ripped through their chest cavities.

There were two demis. 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. The other demi was standing there with his hands glowing. He didn’t hesitate and 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.

“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 something so big. The blade flashed and 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 me to the floor as Partner’s fist sailed through the space I 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 in our first tumble back in Nashville. Maestro came up off the ground and spun away from another punch. The particle pistol reformed 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. Guess he misjudged how fast the nannites can reform objects. 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 mag carrier. That fight took more metal and power 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, Delph 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 considered 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.”

“Only a few will 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’m lucky that Dani has 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 task force 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.

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 fighting 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. A long burst finished him 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. 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 she 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 that 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. He 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 mine, 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 that 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. The color drained out of her face when I told her what Delph found. “They can’t. Not even Liberation would do that.”

“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 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 saw me and 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 that 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 hand over the Chair to Michael O’Donnell because of health reasons. Her two co-conspirators would 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 be trying 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, and 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,” I said.

“What are you going to do?” Kate demanded.

“Stopping a tyrannical government’s evil plans doesn’t pay the bills,” I answered. “And I’m getting 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 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 that 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 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.”

Monday Fiction – The Irregulars 1 – Irregular Investigation

DEREK NOTES – Hey, look I wrote something! Actually, I wrote this about six months ago, but the place I submitted it to decided not to use it. So, now you’ll just have to read it here.

If you like it, then let me know! I wouldn’t mind continuing in this world.

I hate New York. The city is dirty and drab. The people are rude and condescending to anyone who isn’t smart enough to live within the five boroughs. Even the bright, sunny day and warm spring weather weren’t enough to make the city feel more inviting. My biggest complaint is probably the Freedom Tower. Okay, something was needed to replace the destroyed Twin Towers. So, instead of constructing another graceful skyscraper to grace the skyline, New Yorkers were content with parking that ugly alien wreck of a battlecruiser on the old World Trade site. I’ll grant that it was the biggest trophy of the war against the aliens, and maybe almost three-quarters of the world’s population die in the past ten years drained some of humanity’s creative energy. My despising of the Freedom Tower could also be influenced by the small fact that the last time I was on that alien warship, I was desperately fighting what became the final battle that pushed the last vestiges of the alien forces off of our world and out of our orbitals. At the time, I was just trying to survive and keep as many of my friends alive.

I picked up my pace. I wanted to get this meeting over and done with. I didn’t know why Kate suddenly called me out of the blue after seven years. The message only said that she needed my help. Most likely, that meant it wasn’t going to be a paying job. At least the meeting was going to be at McKillop’s. I didn’t know how Kate managed to swing a reservation in my favorite restaurant in New York. At least if I wasn’t going to get paid, then I was going to have a good lunch. I was so wrapped up in my thoughts, I didn’t even seen the uniformed man step out from his alcove.

“Stop,” the Relief Force constable said, holding up his hand. The constable’s accent was French, which made him one of the EU contingent. Well, that at least lessened the chance the constable was going to shake me down.

“What can I do for you, constable?” I asked in my most solicitous voice. The constable just thrust out his hand in silent demand. I carefully reached inside my jacket, pulled out the synth-leather folio, and gently placed it into the constable’s waiting hand. The constable shuffled through the various identification cards.

“You are Kevin Mitchell,” the constable said. “Caucasian. Brown hair. Hazel eyes. One hundred and seventy-seven centimeters. Eighty-five kilos.”

Oui, Monsieur,” I replied. Sometimes the constables went a little easier if you used their native language. At least, that worked more often with the Europeans. The South Americans and Asians acted as if any sign of submission was license to shake you down for all your scrip. Then, the constable’s eyes narrowed.

“You’re a freelancer,” he said, flatly.

“Yes, I’m on my way to meet a client,” I answered. Most RF constables disliked freelancers. The common sentiment among the constables was that freelancers earned more scrip doing jobs that the Relief Force should be doing in the first place. Then, there was also the small matter that freelancers were authorized to carry weapons. In the eyes of the constabulary, Americans couldn’t be trusted with weapons.

“You’re also a demi,” the constable said. Demis. Short for demi-gods. I’m not sure where the name came from, but it sort of stuck for those of us with powers. I wished some other name would’ve caught. Even infected. Demis made it sound like we were bragging.

“Only a minor one,” I said. “As you can see from my registration card, I’m just a bit tougher than the normal human. I couldn’t even lift that car over there.” The constable glanced down at the forged demi registration card. For a long moment, I was convinced he was going to call for a Praetorian, the government’s own demis. That would not be good. I’d served with too many of them during the war, and they knew I wasn’t a minor demi. They also thought I was dead. Fortunately, the constable closed my folio and thrust it back at me. I graciously accepted my identification cards back.

“People like you have caused trouble for the Relief Forces recently,” the constable said, “We will be immensely displeased if you do anything to draw our notice.” He curtly motioned for me to continue on my way. Overall, it was relatively uneventful encounter with the RF Constabulary – which was the most infuriating part of the whole thing. At least the constable put my cards back in order.

I thought you were jamming all of those demi detectors, I thought to Delph.

You also told me to make sure that the RFC didn’t know I was in their system, a soprano female voice answered in my head. I can’t disable every hand-held detector if I’m keeping a low profile. And that guy turned his on just before we walked into range.

Sorry Delph, I apologized to the AI. I know you’re the best.

That’s alright, I understand, Delph said, I’d be nervous too if I was meeting my first love.

I thought I told you to keep out of those memories.

You were dreaming of her all last night, Delph said. My cheeks burned as flashes of the dreams floated up into my memory. Kate and I had been barely teenagers and fighting for our lives against the aliens. Hormones and adrenaline kindled a very fiery first love for both of us.

Fine, let’s just drop it. Okay, Delphi was only an AI, but she was a very perceptive AI. Something to do with her being specialized in infiltration and data analysis. I did not want her trying to help me with my unresolved issues with Kate. Well, not again.

Kate Thomas and I met when we were both recruited into the Irregulars. As the world’s governments fell under the aliens’ onslaught, bands of people and demis rose up to defend their homes and lands. A loose confederation of these militias and what could charitably called hero teams formed. The Economist gave us our name before it ceased publishing with an article titled “These Irregular Heroes.” The confederation strengthened under the Chairman in the face of the rising Liberation government and its corps of Praetorians. Sometimes the groups fought the aliens alongside each other, but Liberation didn’t like demis not under their control. That led to some spectacular throw downs between the Praetorians and the Irregulars – including the one that killed me. Well, mostly killed me. Needless to say, Kate felt more than a little betrayed when I showed up years later in the big final battle with the aliens. She made that perfectly clear while we were fighting for our lives on the battlecruiser that became Freedom Tower.

She hadn’t contacted me once since that day. Until now.

“Thank you for meeting me,” Kate said after we were seated. I made what could have charitably called a grunt of agreement. Kate was just shy of thirty, with long chocolate brown hair that matched her eyes. She still had that “girl-next-door” beauty that first attracted my attentions. That beauty was now accentuated by a new confidence she exuded with every movement. It also didn’t help that the blue dress she was wearing did everything right for her very feminine curves. I was trying very hard to focus on business and not stare.

“You’re staring,” Kate said, never lifting her eyes from the menu. I quickly flicked my eyes down at the menu.

“Uh, yeah, sorry about that,” I said, feeling my face heat, “You look good. I’m not used to seeing you all dressed up like that.” She gave me one of her half-smiles that told me she appreciated my klutzy compliment.

“Well, this place has a dress code that doesn’t include costumes or combat gear,” she said. “You don’t look too bad, either. Not so sure about the new name. I liked Todd.”

“So did I, but you know how Liberation looks at demis coming back from the dead,” I said. Kate’s eyes flashed with anger. Of course she knew. Most of the Irregulars were living under assumed identities since the end of the war. Fortunately for me, a waiter appeared and took our orders. I used that time to regroup. I needed to focus on business.

“So, what do you need my help with?” I asked.

“I need your help finding a pair of second gens that dropped out of our network,” Kate said. Second gens were the children of demis. Some of them were coming into their powers as they hit puberty. The results were proving unpredictable. Some second gens had no powers. Some developed similar powers to one or both of their parents. Then, there was the tiny minority that seemed to have concentrated their parents’ power levels into something much stronger than any first generation demi. Having two second gens missing was potentially very dangerous.

“I’m not a detective,” I protested. “I can get you in touch with a couple of people that I would recommend.” I started to pull up contact info when Kate reached out and put her hand on my comm.

“Kevin, it’s the twins,” Kate said, and my protests died. My mind flashed to two, small, blonde girls dressed in black looking down at the graves of their parents. Parents who’d been friends in my first life. Parents who saved my life on more than one occasion. A promise made over two graves that I would do whatever I could for those two little girls. If Kate thought I could help her, then she was going to get everything I could bring.

“What happened?” I asked.

“They ran away from their foster parents two weeks ago to come to New York,” Kate said. “Then they just fell off the face of the earth.”

Two weeks?” I asked, barely keeping my voice under control. “And you’re just coming to me now?” Kate’s face went stormy.

“Goddamit Kevin, it’s not like we stood around with our thumbs up our asses when the twins ran off,” Kate said, stressing my current name. “As soon as we found out the girls were gone, the Chairman sent Pablo to find them. Two nights ago, Pablo sent a data file to the Chairman saying he had a lead. The next morning he was ambushed by the Praetorians and murdered. That was the day before yesterday.”

“Pablo’s dead?” I asked. My mind reeled. The stubby Mexican always seemed invincible. It was hard to think anything could kill him, much less a Praetorian patrol.

“The bastards aren’t even pretending to try and capture us anymore,” Kate said. “The Chairman didn’t even want me coming into the city to meet with you.”

“As much as I hate to say this, he might have been right,” I said. The thought of Kate being killed was unbearable.

“The twins are too important,” Kate said. We both fell silent as our food was delivered.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said after picking at my food for a few moments. “Where can I get a copy of the information Pablo sent you?” Kate slid over a slip of rice paper. I scanned the slip and tossed it into my water. The slip quickly dissolved. We ate in silence.

The world didn’t realize it was under attack at first. The aliens – the Omnisen and the Demnisen – were fighting a bitter intergalactic war. Our solar system just happened to have a semi-critical jump point for both sides. Rather than waste resources terraforming Mars or one of Jupiter’s moons, both sides decided the most expedient thing to do was just exterminate Earth’s sentient race and use the planet as a staging area. And in one of the biggest cosmic jokes, both the Omnisen and Demnisen released their plagues on the same day. A quarter of the world’s population died from the pure strains. That would have been bad enough, but then, the two plagues combined into a brand new disease. That would end up killing half the remaining population.

The scientists came up with a alpha-numeric designation, but the name that stuck was Purgatory. There was no immunity. Every human caught the disease. A lucky few suffered a very bad cold. Most of us started with the cold for a week, before going down with fever, non-stop coughing, and the pox – painful blisters that leaked a horrible smelling pus. A little over a quarter of those who came down with Purgatory mercifully died after a few days. Those of us who didn’t die were stricken with symptoms for the better part of a month.

Those of us that survived Purgatory were changed. Purgatory made us immune to infection. Any infection. Purgatory removed the threat of plague and disease from the human condition. Except that wasn’t the only change for a small sliver of us. Purgatory mutated us even further. We manifested powers beyond the understanding of the universe. In another time and place, we would be called superheroes and super villains. In our world, some scientist joked that we were more like the mythical demi-gods. The internet helpfully shortened it to “demis,” and the name stuck.

Many demis joined with the remaining governmental forces to fight the aliens. The world governments didn’t last long. Between dealing with the dead and the sick, the governments couldn’t react when the aliens started their actual attacks. One by one, the great lights of the world blinked out. The Irregulars filled the void where we could. The aliens were surprised by human tenacity, but it wasn’t enough to stop either side’s relentless push to conquer the world.

Liberation stopped the aliens. First in Europe, and then spreading out, the forces of Liberation organized the world’s resources and pushed the Omnisen and the Demnisen back. In addition to the most powerful army ever fielded by humanity, Liberation unleashed their own corps of demis. They were the Praetorians, led by the Praetorian Primus. In the beginning, the Praetorians tried to enlist the Irregulars into their corps. Some cells did. Others like mine, would fight side-by-side with the Praetorians against the aliens, but we wouldn’t join Liberation. We didn’t just fight the aliens. We protected people from the emerging world government’s abuses and from the demis who decided to turn to crime.

My own history during the war is complicated. As I said, I started out with the Irregulars. My powers didn’t lend me to being one of the big bruisers of our cell, but I was critical to some of our more sneaky ops. It was during one of those sneaky ops that I mostly died. I don’t blame my friends for leaving me. From what I saw later, they had good reason to believe I was dead. Fortunately (I think), I was just what the remnants of the American government needed. The Americans were fighting against the aliens and to remain sovereign against the Liberation Government. The Scorpion Project was supposed to be allow the Americans to fight on both fronts. My brain was fitted into a nifty new cyborg body made up of scavenged alien tech and the most cutting-edge stuff in the American inventory. I was also given a couple of AIs, a new identity, and a mission to infiltrate the Praetorians. Yeah, that was an interesting time in my life. Even managed the whole saving-the-world bit once or twice.

All of it came crashing down in the last battle with the Demnisen when both the Praetorians and the Irregulars found out who I really was and my real mission. Fortunately for my life after the war, it was only the small elite teams on both sides that found out the truth – and they both owed me at that point. Blackmail is such an ugly word, until you need it to save yourself from being turned into orbital debris. To say my relations with both sides is a bit strained is a bit of understatement worthy of a Brit. If there were any Brits left.

A light rain was coming down as we stepped out of the restaurant. I checked the road for constables before turning back to ask Kate if she wanted to split a cab. She was gone. Pain and relief warred inside of me as I stood there in the rain looking at the empty street. After a few moments, I trudged my way back to my apartment. It was one of the safehouses I kept in New York. Even after the city was depopulated to less than one percent of its pre-war population, New York was still the center of the demi world. That’s what happens when the largest Praetorian contingent and most of the big-time freelancer firms are headquartered in a city. I just wish they’d chosen someplace other than a shattered city filled with annoying people.

Delph kept the Relief Forces’ demi-detectors from pinging on me as walked the ten blocks to the apartment. The complex was one of the newer towers built after the end of the war. It catered to corporations who needed discreet places for meetings and liaisons, or people they just wanted to stash away from the prying eye of the Liberation Government. So, of course the management never noticed when my contractors installed all of the little safeguards to keep the Praetorians from noticing me. Just as long the exorbitant lease was paid promptly and in full.

Finally! I get to stretch out! Delph said as she flooded the apartment’s private network. Lights illuminated the great room and attached kitchen. Part of me wanted to just walk down the hall to apartment’s single bedroom and crash for several hours, but time was critical. I grabbed a bottle of tea out of the fridge and walked over to the glass-topped desk in the great room’s corner. A lithe, elfin woman appeared in the desk’s holo-projector. By elfin, Delph included the long, pointed ears. She thought it was cute, and I had to agree.

“So, should I start accessing Pablo’s data?” Delph asked. Holographic screens appeared above the desk.

“You’ve already broken his encryption, haven’t you?” I asked. Delph gave me a flat look. Of course she had. Delph was named for the Oracle of Delphi. She was, hands down, the best infiltration AI the American government could devise. Like the rest of me, Delph was a product of merging recovered alien technology with the best of human tech.

“There’s a lot of data here, Kevin,” Delph said. “I found some on the twins, but there’s a bunch more on other disappearances of second gen demis.” Pictures of children and teens flooded the holographic screens.

“Pablo, what the hell did you stumble into?” I murmured as I waved through the pictures on the screens. “He had information on all of these kids?”

“Full packets on some of them,” Delph answered. “The others he only had the constabulary’s or local police reports of the disappearances. They’re from all over the North American sector. There’s something I think you should see first.” Delph pushed up a video in a new screen.

“Is that Grand Central?” I asked, recognizing the rebuilt concourse. Liberation spent a lot of time and money rebuilding and improving the rail network. They preferred their citizens using rail than driving their own vehicles. It kept the roadways open for important people and projects. Grand Central was the main hub for passenger trains in the northeast. The fifteen-foot tall statue of the Praetorian Primus dominated the glass and tile concourse.

“Yes,” Delph answered. “Although, I’m not sure how Pablo managed to acquire this.” As the video played, Delph highlighted the twins. They’d grown up. The last time I’d seen them, they were two squealing girls in pigtails. They’d grown up into beautiful blonde teenagers. They looked like two cheerleaders going out on the town. They looked so much like their mother it hurt. The twins stood in front of the Primus statue for a few minutes before a blonde man in an expensive blue suit walked up to them. From their reaction, they’d been waiting for this man to show up. The twins looked nervous and excited. They talked for about a minute before the man ushered them back down the hall. Delph froze the video as the man turned around and I could see his face.

“What the hell is he doing there?” I asked.

“I’m not sure that is him, but he should know his double is walking around New York snatching second gens,” Delph said. I picked up my phone. The phone rang twice before a pleasant female voice answered. I cut off her scripted greeting.

“Tell Rene I’ll be in his office in twenty minutes.”

Rene Descartes, President and CEO of Descartes Solutions, pretended to be happy to see me as I stormed into his office. I pretended to be grateful that he was willing to clear some time off of his busy schedule to speak with me. It was the nature of our relationship. He ran the largest freelancing firm in the North American sector. Sometimes he needed my unique skill-set, and sometimes I needed his lucrative paychecks. More than I liked, I worked for him because I needed his paychecks.

“Based on the terse tone of your demand to see me, I very much doubt you came to take my offer of full time employment,” Rene said. I placed a still of his double and the twins at Grand Central.

“Please tell me that’s not you,” I said. Rene studied the picture for a few moments. His warm facade disappeared. He let out a fast string of curses in French.

“No, that’s not me,” Rene answered, “I assume you have an interest in the pretties?” I bit down my anger at the slang. Pretties were young women willing to trade their virtue for assistance from more established men.

“You could say that,” I said. “Who’s the guy in the picture?”

“Am I returning the favor I owe you?” Rene asked.

“Oh hell no. I’m hanging on to that for a while longer,” I said. He wrote down a number on a piece of paper and slid it across his desk. I glanced down at the amount. “That’s highway robbery.”

“Are you good for it?” Rene asked.

“Yeah,” I answered, thinking of what I would need to sell in order to make the price.

“Are you sure?” Rene asked.

“Have I ever welshed on you before?” I asked, letting my anger slip a bit.

“Of course not,” Rene said. “I only ask because I happen to have a job that could use your unique touch.”

“I’m not doing a job for you for that amount,” I said. Rene looked offended. He was very good at that look.

“I would never do that to you,” Rene said, “Usual rates. I’ll just take this off the top.” Rene smiled beatifically as I stewed. I needed the money, but damn it, the twins had to come first. Then again, I couldn’t do anything if I didn’t have operating cash. Especially in New York. Even the beggars required bribes.

“Fine, what’s the job?” I asked.

“That man is my brother Bernard,” Rene said, pointing at the man with the twins. “The last I heard, he was in Marseille working for the European Office of the Interior Ministry. I need you to find out what he’s doing here in New York.” The offer smelled too good to be true.

“You’ve got a dozen investigators in your firm. Most of them a hell of a lot better than me. Why do you want me to look into this?” I asked.

“Because Bernard is a Liberation toadie,” Rene answered. “If he’s doing something, it’s going to have the government’s fingerprints all over it.”

“And you can’t jeopardize your government contracts by possibly running afoul of Liberation by using your staff,” I said.

“I’m glad you understand,” Rene said. “I’ll give you everything I have on Bernard. After that, you won’t get anything else from my firm. Normal disclaimers.” Essentially, he’d throw me to Liberation’s wolves if his firm needed protection. To his credit, Rene probably wouldn’t like doing it, but business was business after all. Freelancers couldn’t take those kind of things personally.

“I’ll get back to you when I have something,” I said.

“Kevin, my brother is a loathsome creature,” Rene said, “I wouldn’t be surprised by anything he may have gotten himself in to doing. Still, I’d prefer if you could avoid killing him. Family is family, after all.”

“Do you really think that’s a possibility?” I asked. Rene gave a Gallic shrug. I left the office with a paying gig, information, and a sinking feeling. Yep, this was going to be one of those jobs.

Bernard Descartes really was a loathsome man. If anything, loathsome was too kind of a word. In the six months Bernard was stationed in Marseille, he racked up three disciplinary actions for abuse of his position. The language on each was standard bureaucratese, but I could read between the lines enough to tell Bernard was extorting sexual favors for special treatment from the refugees. Considering what kind of hellholes the refugee camps were, Bernard must have been a special kind of monster to get three write-ups. Those should have been enough to at least demote Bernard, if not send him to some obscure posting. Instead, he was in New York. Even if Bernard took a lower pay grade, he shouldn’t have been able to get a job in the city. New York was one of the Liberation Government’s preeminent postings.

The first item was to get an idea of where to intercept Bernard for some quiet questioning time. Delph sent two of her children to dig up Bernard’s routine and get into his files. Even if Bernard wasn’t security conscious, that would take at least a day before anything useful could be found. Delph would act as my clearinghouse for anything her children brought back.

I continued to dig through Pablo’s files. There were fifteen second gen demis that were missing. They ran in ages of eighteen down to eleven. Eight girls and seven boys. Seven whites, four Hispanics, two blacks, one Asian, and one Sioux. Only the twins were from within a hundred miles of New York. The only thing that connected them were that they all demis that had just come into their powers in the past six months. All of them ran away from home shortly after, and all had shown up in New York and met by Bernard. After that, the kids vanished off the face of the planet.

“So why are they all coming to New York?” I asked. “If they wanted to be famous, they’d go to Vegas.”

“To join the Praetorians?” Delph suggested, her projection appearing at my elbow. “The Chairman would never have let the twins join the Praetorians. If the girls bought the Liberation Government’s propaganda, they could have run to New York.” I looked back through Pablo’s files.

“That makes sense for the twins, and these two,” I said, pointing at the black girl from Dallas and the Sioux girl from South Dakota. “The rest of the kids weren’t children of Irregulars. If they wanted to join the Praetorian Academy, all they’d have to do is walk down to the local Liberation office and demonstrate their powers. Do you see any other connection?” Delph was quiet for a long moment.

“Not so much a connection, but a lack of one,” Delph answered.

“Delph, you’re being cryptic again. We share headspace, but I can’t read your mind,” I reminded the AI.

“Did you notice that, except for the twins, none of the missing children’s powers share both family and direction?” Delph asked. I sat back up and looked at the files. Damn it. This is why I wanted Kate to find a real detective to find the girls instead of me. Picking up clues wasn’t exactly one of my strong suits. I was more of the killing people and breaking things type of freelancer.

Much to the annoyance of the scientists (who preferred more precise terminology), demis classified their powers by being in one of seven families – earth, air, fire, water, light, mind, and body – and having either an internal or external direction. Asking a demi if he or she is an innie or an outie has a completely different connotation. Low-grade demis’ powers manifest from a single family and a single direction. Mid-levels could have another family in the same direction or both directions in the same family. The highest level demis have powers from more than one family and in both directions.

“So, why would someone need all of those second gens?” I asked.

“Whatever it is, we need to find out quickly,” Delph said. “Whatever they want the children for, they now have a full set.” I hated when Delph pointed out those kinds of things.

I stepped in behind Bernard as he walked out of the restaurant. He was oblivious to my presence. After all, why should he worry? He was safe in the middle of the Green Zone that encompassed lower Manhattan. He didn’t need to worry about street crime, much less someone hunting him through the streets.

To hunt Bernard, I was camouflaged in the uniform of a Relief Force technician. With Delph keeping the demi-detectors off of me, I was essentially invisible. RF techs were all over the Green Zone. The plan followed the KISS principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid. One of Delph’s children cracked Bernard’s personal calendar. Seven o’clock, dinner with another bureaucrat followed by a nine o’clock appointment at one of the “comfort houses” on the edge of the Green Zone. Bernard wasn’t high enough to warrant a personal car, so he was forced to walk to his appointment with the Relief Force’s sex workers. Between the restaurant and the comfort house, there was a beautiful bottleneck in front of the skeleton of a new apartment building about three blocks from the comfort house. Bump Bernard into the construction site, and we’d have all the time in the world for a question and answer session. It’s not like the sex workers would miss him if he didn’t show up for his appointment.

As the twenty-story latticework of steel loomed over us, I picked up my pace. The electronic lock on the construction fence blinked from red to friendly green. That was my cue. I took two quick strides. Bernard just caught me out of the corner of his eye an instant before I shoved him through the unlocked gate. He let out a string of French curses as he rolled on the dirt.

“You better run now!” Bernard said defiantly, pulling out a small device out of his jacket pocket. Bernard effortlessly combined arrogance and stupidity. It was an attitude I’d encountered often when dealing with Relief Force bureaucrats. I wonder if Liberation holds training on how to project that attitude.

“Very nice. You remembered to hit your panic button,” I said, “So, that gives me, what, at least two minutes before the RFC shows up.”

“It won’t be the RFC that comes to deal with you. It will be the Praetorians!” Bernard shouted. Well, that was interesting. He could’ve just been bluffing, but I didn’t think Bernard was that smart. No, he was boasting. Time to pop his bubble a bit. Bernard’s confident expression melted a little as a predatory smile spread across my face.

“You’re so precious. First, your little boast just confirmed that you probably have the answers I want,” I said, “Minor bureaucrats don’t rate a Praetorian response unless they’re involved in some very interesting projects. Then, there’s the second thing.”

“What’s that?” Bernard asked, his face paling.

“Your distress signal is being rerouted from the Security Directorate to the Sanitation Directorate,” I answered. “So, unless you think the garbage collectors are going to come riding to your rescue, we have all the time in the world.”

“How in the devil did you manage to accomplish that?” asked a new voice in a cultured, British accent. Bernard and I both looked up as the veil was dropped. Four people stood on the steel girders above us. All were dressed in the tight, black uniforms of a Praetorian Covert Action Team.

“Fucking ninjas,” I murmured. Intense pain hit me as Maestro seized control.

The Americans that created my cybernetic body gave me a couple of AIs to help me succeed in my mission. Delphi was designed to give me an electronic warfare and intelligence capability. Maestro is the other AI in my head. His job is to make the hodgepodge of human and alien technology work together under combat conditions. Maestro is very good at his job, but he doesn’t cope well in peaceable society. Convincing him of that nearly killed us, but in the end we came to an agreement. Part of that agreement was that he could come out of his electronic box if there was a significant threat of death. Being surprised by a ninja team easily cleared that threshold.

My skin was ripped apart as my nannites pushed through to form armored plate. There was a moment of darkness as the featureless glacis plate slide across my face. An instant later, the augmented reality HUD snapped to life. Maestro scanned the four demis. Three men and a woman. One looked like a meat wall, but the others didn’t have anything that tagged them as any specific type. At least one was had to be a light-external to hold that good of a veil.

“Holy shit, it’s the Metal Ghost,” Leader Ninja said. The others were slack-jawed. It’s always nice when your reputation precedes you. Maestro’s calculated odds and a combat course appeared on the HUD. My cybernetic body was tough as a tank and strong as most powerhouse demis, but my real power lay in my nannites. The molecule-sized machines could be formed into a variety of armor and weapons. They flowed down my arms and formed into particle pulse pistols.

Delph, shut down their comms! I ordered, Maestro, course approved! Rapid pulses of super-heated particles raked the girders above the ninja team. The steel flashed white hot in an instant. The latticework groaned as the structure buckled. The ninjas leaped down to the ground. Leader Ninja and Meatwall both landed with that odd grace of the demi-powered strong. The woman vanished, which made her the ninjas’ cloaker. As the last ninja landed, my heat sensors flared. A fire-external most likely. That one jumped to the top of Maestro’s threats. Maestro immediately pivoted and attacked. Fire-ninja was shredded from dozens of pulsed beams. Even demis don’t react as fast as Maestro.

“Bobby!” Cloaker screamed with that particular anguish of seeing a lover cut down in battle. She reappeared four yards to my right and unleashed a massive laser beam. Maestro snapped up a particle shield that deflected most of the laser. Pain and alarms blared in my head as photons dug holes in my armor. Maestro returned fire while tasking nannites to repairing the damage. Cloaker vanished behind a new veil. That’s when Meatwall charged.

Maestro fired a barrage of pulses at Meatwall, but they were deflected by the head to toe crystalline armor that suddenly appeared. Maestro dodged to the side as Meatwall sliced down with a diamond sword that materialized in his hands. The two beam pistols disintegrated into their component nannites and reformed into a monomolecular katana. Whoever programmed Maestro’s sword program spent way too much time watching samurai films or anime.

Boys, Bernard is escaping, and the RFC’s noticed the comm blackout, Delph reported. They’re sending an SRT. I really didn’t want to deal with a Special Response Team. Neither did Maestro. The HUD showed Maestro’s updated combat course. Ruthless was probably the kindest word I could use to describe it. Maestro doesn’t worry about things like bystanders and collateral damage.

I’m taking over Maestro, I said, feeling my mind slipping back into my body. I dodged Meatwall’s slice. He wasn’t the dangerous one of the team. The katana melted into a smaller cutlass in my right hand and a beam pistol in my left. Delph, have you found their comm circuit?

I’ve narrowed it down to half a dozen, Delph answered as I parried a flurry of strikes from Meatwall. He was grinning behind his clear face armor. He wouldn’t be for long.

Disco ball all of them, I ordered. I felt my power reserves dip as Delph blasted all of the comm circuits with a range of electronic noise. Meatwall’s sword vanished as he gripped his head. I slammed my cutlass into his chest. The monomolecular blade punched through his crystalline armor like it was silk. Meatwall’s eyes went wide in shock and pain before the light went out of them.

I spun to fire a stunning blast at Bernard, but Maestro overrode me and jumped into the air. I bit down my protest when the dirt below us melted into black glass. A targeting reticle popped up on an empty patch of dirt. A light-external can bend light, but she couldn’t stop Delph from triangulating her with the disco ball attack. I let Maestro aim and fire. Cloaker’s veil dissipated as her body fell to the ground. Her chest was dominated by a six-inch-wide hole.

I turned back to Bernard, half-expecting to see him gone. He was on the ground with the Leader Ninja standing over his twitching body. The air around the pair shimmered. Maestro helpfully painted the ninja with several targets with expected percentages for disabling the ninja. I fired two pulses. Leader ninja somehow dodged the light speed blasts. There was only one way that could have happened.

Maestro, take the shot, I said, surrendering control. Leader Ninja gave me a quizzical look an instant before Maestro bisected his throat with a pair of pulses. Goddamn mindfuckers. Goddamn ninja mindfuckers. I knelt next to Bernard. His eyes were rolled up in his head and he was humming a French nursery rhyme.

Où sont les enfants?” I whispered to Bernard as my hands pulled everything out of his pockets. “Where are the children?” He just continued to hum his little song, completely oblivious to my words.

The RFC is almost here, Delph said. I’m going to drop the comms blackout so I can hide you from their sensors.

No, give me another five minutes before dropping the blackout, I said as I walked over to the Leader Ninja. The heat from the particles cauterized the holes as they opened up the ninja’s neck. Good, he wasn’t bleeding all over the place. I checked his suit. Yep, Covert Action was still using the same model of combat suit. Damn good thing too. I pulled the suit’s backup computer as well as the power supply. I reached around his side until I found the small yellow button. I held my finger over the button.

Delph, work your magic, I said. I could feel her annoyed huff before she dipped into the device.

Done, all of their data is scrambled, Delph reported a moment later. By the way– Maestro tried to seize control to take out the two RF constables coming up behind. Ninjas were one thing. I wasn’t about to murder beat cops who weren’t doing anything wrong. Maestro felt my adamant resolve on the issue and threw up a new combat course.

Do it, I said. He spun around. Nannites formed metal batons in hand. The two constables’ eyes went wide as Maestro was suddenly between them. The batons hummed and whistled as Maestro first knocked the constables’ sidearms out of their hands before striking them across the head. The low-energy pulses from the baton strikes stunned the two constables into unconsciousness. Both sank to the ground. I didn’t wait around for the next batch of constables to show up before sprinting into the night.

The steel door hissed open. An unwelcome whiff of musty air wafted across me as I walked into the old staging area. The Americans built a few dozen of these staging rooms across the North American sector when they thought I was just going to be the prototype for dozens of cyborg infiltrators. Liberation quietly destroyed most of them after they destroyed the remnants of the Americans after the war. During the war, there three of these staging points in New York. The ones in Queens and Brooklyn had since become compromised. My last one was in upper Manhattan. I guess Liberation’s counter-intelligence group couldn’t conceive that the Americans would have the audacity to stash one of their facilities under one of their own buildings.

The staging areas were designed to recharge my internal batteries, repair my battle damage, and regenerate my skin sheath. It was dominated by the cradle, which looked like a metal dentist’s chair plugged into a first-generation mainframe. I plugged the lead ninja’s power pack into the cradle. I don’t know the physics of the cradle’s power plant, but the thing needs a significant jump to get it running from dormancy. I felt more than heard the thrumming of the cradle spooling back to life. Satisfied I could at least recharge the energy I spent fighting the ninjas, I checked on the material reserves. That’s when I discovered the cause of the musty smell. Two of the three skin vats had become contaminated and purged since the last time I was here. There was enough left for maybe one or two skin sheaths. The nannite reservoir was little better. At least I had enough metal reserves to replenish the nannites I’d expended.

“We need to find out what’s on these comps,” I said, plugging the ninja’s comp unit and Bernard’s smartphone into the isolation jacks. Those jacks allowed me – or more specifically, Delph – to examine them without worrying about a virus attacking the rest of the staging area systems. Delph plunged into the staging site’s computers like a swimmer into a lake. She emerged in one of the holo projectors.

“You want me to do it fast?” she asked.

“No need,” I said, querying my internal systems, “I’m going to be on the cradle for the next twelve hours. Hopefully you’ll have dug up a lead by then.”

“And if I haven’t?” Delph asked, voicing my fears.

“Then, we’ll figure something out,” I answered.

“You know, when you say that, things have a habit of getting destroyed,” Delph said, “Or people get killed. Or both.” I sat down on the cradle’s chair. Restraint clamps locked down.

“Then, you better find something,” I said as the cradle whispered my mind to sleep.

There are some things a person should never wake up to. A world-wide plague. Alien ships raining fire down on cities. Your lover trying to kill you in your sleep. The leader of the North American Praetorians patiently waiting as you emerge from cradle-sleep. It took all of my will to keep Maestro from seizing control and shedding my just regenerated skin sheath.

“Hello Brian,” I said, hoping my voice was calm. His smirk told me that I managed it.

“Kevin,” he replied. Brian Stellum, better known as Primus Novus Americana, has been described on more than one occasion as an African-American version of Superman. Just under six-and-a-half feet tall, built like an Olympian, and movie-star handsome, Brian’s the warm, smiling face that all demis see when they go in for registration and recruitment. To be fair, Brian is probably the most honorable man I know. He was also my closest friend. Even after I blackmailed his boss and team to pretend I was dead. Fortunately, that was just after we’d killed the Demnisen general and pushed both fucking races off our world. They were a bit more willing to listen to my proposal at the time. To my relief, he wasn’t wearing his Praetorian blues, but just a simple red t-shirt and blue jeans. I was talking to my friend, not the strongest demi on this side of the world.

“You know, you screwed up,” Brian said, with that warm, melodious voice known all over the North American Sector. “You left those two cops alive. After what you did to that guy, I’m surprised you showed any mercy.” There was a gentle probing in his voice. I hesitated a moment before I answered.

“What were you told about what happened?” I asked.

“My team was notified when two constables identified the Metal Ghost as the demi who stunned them when they were responding to a blackout of all communications in a four-block radius. I’m assuming that was you, Delphi. You’re the only one I know who could play that much havoc with our systems.” Delph’s holographic form beamed with the compliment. “They reported finding a minor bureaucrat whose mind was reduced to little more than mush.” He looked away as I stood up from the cradle. “Um, could you do us both a favor and put on some clothes?”

“Brian, you know me,” I answered as I slipped into a unitard. “I’m not physically capable of doing something like that. Ruining someone’s mind, I mean. I can put on clothes just fine.”

“Okay, so who did that to Bernard Descartes?” Brian asked. “And how did you know Bernard?”

“I was doing surveillance on Bernard for a job,” I answered, “And no, I’m not going to tell you my client. As to who did that to him, it was a ninja team.” Brian’s eyebrow crooked up.

“So why didn’t CA report that one of their teams ran into the Metal Ghost?” Brian asked. “You’re still officially deceased. At least for the moment.”

“You’d have to ask whoever’s heading up the Covert Action Directorate these days,” I answered, “When you do, you might want to ask him or her why they’re covering up having one of their teams wiped out.”

“What?” Brian asked, “You killed an entire CAT?”

“There were only four of them,” I answered, “And they weren’t expecting to face me.” It wasn’t bragging. I wasn’t a match for Brian, but I was easily in the heavyweight class among demis.

“What is going on, Kevin?” Brian demanded. I could see the anger and fear in his eyes. I pondered the question. What was going on? There were missing second generation demis. It looked like they covered each of the major expressions of the demi power families. When Pablo started poking around, he ended up dead in a confrontation with Praetorians. The one person known to be involved with the kidnappings was attacked and turned into little more than a human vegetable by a Praetorian ninja team. I didn’t like where the facts were pointing. I made a quick decision and hoped Brian would forgive me.

“I can’t tell you,” I answered.

“What the hell do you mean you can’t tell me?” Brian asked, his voice barely under control. I hesitated for a second. Brian never swore – unless he was really pissed. I mean, I can count on both hands the number of times I’d heard Brian swear. Even when we were in desperate fighting against the aliens. I could tell Brian everything, but I knew how he would react. Brian would move heaven and earth – maybe literally – if he knew about the missing kids. Brian reluctantly compromised his morals with some of the shadier things the Liberation Government did because he believed the government was doing more good than harm. I didn’t want to think about what would happen if Brian found out that the Liberation Government was involved in luring away second gen kids away from their parents. Even if their parents were Irregulars. I wasn’t a fan of the Liberation Government, but I feared more what would happen if wasn’t Brian leading their Praetorians in North America.

“Brian, you need to trust me,” I said.

“Trust you?” Brian asked, his voice menacing with skepticism.

“Yes, trust me,” I answered. “If I thought you could help, I would tell you. Right now, it’s better if you don’t have any knowledge. Also, probably better if you didn’t tell the Primus Novus Americana that you saw me.” Brian let out a dark chuckle.

“If you want me to ignore you and whatever you’re doing, then get it done fast and quietly,” Brian said. “I assume you don’t want me to ask hard questions to Director Bennington about her missing team?” My head snapped up.

Anne Bennington is the Director of Covert Affairs?” I asked, and a chill went down my spine.

“I guess you didn’t get the memo,” Brian said with an almost satisfied dryness in his tone.

“Well, now I feel less guilty about taking out those ninjas,” I said. “It is one less team she’ll send after me.”

“I’m sure she’s too busy running her directorate to pursue an almost decade-long grudge,” Brian said.

“Are we talking about the same Anne?” I asked. “The same Anne who tried to murder me in my sleep?”

“To be fair, you did sort of provoke her,” Brian said. In the spirit of true wit, I flipped him the bird. Brian laughed, and I knew we were good again.

“Do me a favor Kevin. Will you try to stay below the radar?” Brian asked.

“Fully intend to,” I answered.

“You always fully intend to,” Brian replied.

Of course it was raining. Anytime I staked out a building, I never got decent weather. Since it was summer, the rain started pouring five minutes after I set up on the roof across from the warehouse. At least this time I brought a poncho. Less to protect me then to protect the gear I lugged up to the roof with me. I just got to be cold and wet. That never gets any better. You’d think the Americans would have been nice and turned those sensations off.

Much to Delph’s annoyance, the ninja’s computer fragged itself the moment she touched it. The ninjas’ combat suits may not have been upgraded since I left Liberation service, but their on-board computers had a bunch of brand-new security systems. Bernard’s smartphone wasn’t much better, but it yielded up an address to Delph’s careful touch. An address that belonged to a Mazarin Corporation. I would’ve considered that a dead lead if Brian hadn’t told me who was heading up the Covert Directorate. Anne was slipping if she was reusing an old cover name. I hoped that this was where they – whoever they were – was holding the missing kids. Looking at the dilapidated warehouse, it didn’t seem likely.

“Well, whatever they’re doing in there, they’re making sure no one barges in on them,” Delph said from the monitor of the surveillance camera. “They installed an Altheon 9102 system with all the bells and whistles.”

“Does that mean you can’t blind it?” I asked, with a slight challenge in my voice. Delph frowned at me. She hated when I used that tone of voice.

“I can, but not quickly,” Delph said. “I sent a few children to lay the groundwork. If you have to go in before tomorrow night, the most I may be able to do is delay the RFC from responding.”

“You might need to do that,” I said as a blue panel truck drove up to the warehouse. I focused the surveillance camera on the truck. The driver was wearing the uniform for an RF vehicle driver. What would the Relief Force be bringing to the warehouse? I pointed the camera at the back of the truck. The screen went white. Whatever was in the back was shielded to the nines. The driver backed the truck up to a loading dock. A tube extended from the back of the truck until it was flush with the loading door of the warehouse. That sort of thing falls into my “suspicious” category.

Maestro, don’t shed my skin unless I fucking tell you or we hit a critical threat, I told the combat AI. Maestro grumbled, but reluctantly agreed. I didn’t want to waste my limited resources if I didn’t need to do so. Those kinds of things were expensive when you didn’t have the backing of a government. I judged the distance between my roof and the warehouse’s roof. Maybe thirty feet. I hated long jumps.

Delph, do what you can, I ordered as I took a running start and bounded into the air. The AI screamed something about my recklessness as the wind whipped around me. The warehouse’s roof rushed up to me. I braced for the landing. The metal roof of the warehouse made an odd gong as my boots hit. Then the roof buckled, and I plummeted into the warehouse.

I was momentarily dazzled by the sudden shift from dark to brilliant light. As my eyes focused to the interior of the warehouse, I slammed into the floor of the warehouse. Maestro informed me that the ground was concrete and there were minor faults in my legs and spine from the impact. Also, there were a dozen targets surrounding me. True to his word, Maestro didn’t take over and shed my skin sheath. Instead, he helpfully overlaid targeting data on my vision. My head ached with the new data. Flesh eyes were not designed for all of that additional stimuli.

“What the fuck?” screamed a male voice to my right. I turned and saw a ninja flanked by two Covert Action commandos. Well, all parts of the Covert Action Directorate were being well represented. The rest of the people were in standard RF work uniforms. Except for a target that was standing in the shadows near the loading dark. Maestro highlighted that one as the priority target and screamed to let him take over.

“I really want to make a joke about dropping in, but ninjas have bad senses of humor,” I said. The commandos leveled their submachine guns at me.

“Case in point,” I said. The RF workers dashed behind expensive-looking equipment. They were the smart ones.

“You told me this was a secure location,” the shadow figure said, and I froze. The voice was a pleasant-sounding, computer-generated male voice. Underneath, I heard the slight click-clacking of inhuman speech. Alien speech. “Witnesses are not to be allowed.” Maestro screamed to take over, but I ignored the AI. I wanted that fucking alien alive. I wanted to know why they were back and working with Liberation.

Maestro flashed a warning. I jumped towards the two commandos as they opened fire. Even highly trained soldiers don’t react well to fast moving targets coming at them. A few bullets buried themselves in my heavy jacket. I reached under and pulled out a pair of pistols. Usually, dual-wielding pistols is just an exercise in making noise with occasionally hitting your target. Usually. Unless you have a combat AI using advanced sensors to guide your fire using a cybernetic body. Both commandos were cut down as 10mm rounds punched through their visors. I wasn’t paying attention to them. I was watching the ninja.

The ninja stepped back as his two subordinates went down and waved his hands. The warehouse went black. Not dark, as if all the lights were turned off, but the blackness of all light being extinguished at once. My headache intensified as Maestro overlaid the thermal imaging feed onto my vision. I stopped to let my vision settle down – which was when the ninja attacked.

I barely caught the ninja’s heat signature as he attacked from my left. His fist slammed across my face, and I heard him yelp from the sudden pain. Yeah, I was wearing a skin sheath, but my jaw was made of a titanium/alien alloy. I’m sure it felt like punching a foam rubber covered metal bar. My face throbbed with pain. That was the downside to keeping my skin sheath. I fired twice to open up the distance between the ninja and me. He shrugged off the 10mm slugs. For fuck’s sake, who was this guy? Two power families, and he could do an interior and exterior of a body power? I thought I knew all of the high-powered demis. There weren’t exactly a large number of us.

The ninja lunged, and I dodged to the side. I didn’t even realize my mistake as I moved right into the alien’s blaster. Intense pain flooded everywhere. Maestro and Delph went silent. All of my HUD displays vanished. Something hard pushed up against my body. I realized it was the concrete floor. I didn’t even remember falling. I felt more than saw the two figures standing over me.

“On second thought, don’t kill him,” the alien said. “Put him in a capsule and make sure he’s with the test subjects.”

“Why? The subjects we have now should give you everything you need,” the ninja said, with an annoyed tone.

“You gave me examples of the mutations we caused, but this one is something else entirely,” the alien answered. It crouched down next to me. “And I’ve so wanted to see the Metal Ghost in person.”

Well fuck, I thought as the blackness took me.

As I emerged from the blackness, my mind was flooded with information from my sensors. I barely kept from screaming as pain quickly followed the data flow. Maestro usually filtered my sensor feeds so they weren’t overwhelming, but I couldn’t feel the AI in the back of my head. I couldn’t even sense Delph. Panic flooded me. I needed my two AI helpers to fully function. And they were my friends. Well, at least Delph was.

Get a hold of yourself, Kev, I thought. It’s been a while, but you’ve worked without Maestro before. The Americans made it a part of the initial training with my then-new cybernetics. I hated them for it at the time, but I was grateful for the tortuous session when I fought with Maestro for control of our body after the war. I forced myself to tame each individual sensor feed at a time. In a few minutes I had a picture of my surroundings. I was in some sort of enclosed pod that shielded me from outside data, such as GPS, radio, and Internet signals. Dozens of small probes were embedded in my skin. They were conducting some sort of low level disruption that screwed with my cybernetics and kept me immobilized. Best guess was that they’d slapped me into a med coffin (but don’t ever use that term when medical professionals are around). Damage from the alien’s blaster was repaired, but my material reserves were dangerously low. Any further damage meant time in the cradle and then finding more materials. Some of those were rare. As in, need to break into a Liberation lab to “acquire” more, rare.

Since it didn’t look like I was going to be mobile anytime in the near future, I contemplated my predicament for a moment. An alien was meeting with a very powerful ninja, but I didn’t know why. It sounded like the children were being collected for the alien, but again, why? The aliens didn’t leave because demi powers were superior to alien tech. The aliens left because we bled both sides to the point neither wanted the planet. So what the hell was going on?

A strong jolt yanked me out of my thoughts. The med coffin pivoted and stood upright. The locks whined, and the entire front of the coffin swung open. I blinked at the sudden bright light. Sensor data tried to overlay my vision, but I pushed it back. I looked down. Oh good, I was naked. I always liked to face my enemies with my package flapping about. Hands reached into the coffin and pulled me out onto a bizarre cross between a gurney and a dolly. I was strapped down before I realized that the disruptors were gone. One sensor feed helpfully told me that the straps were designed to hold demis.

For a moment, I thought I was in an ICU. The room was large, but there were no windows. Twenty med coffins were arrayed in two rows. Nurses in scrubs walked among the coffins making notations on the tablets in their hands. At the end of the room was a glass door. Beyond the door was a large machine that looked eerily similar to my cradle. Instead of the chair was some kind of transparent pod with a metal slab and restraints. My attention was ripped from the machine as the alien and two human doctors – a man and a woman – walked into the ICU.

“Would you like a robe?” asked the alien in that synthesized voice, holding the item out. Aliens were very human-like. Except for the yellow-tinged skin, translucent hair, and being about half a head taller than most people. Oh, and the pincers that came out of their mouths. Other than all of that, they looked just like humans. The alien wore a simple black unitard and a white lab coat. Where did an alien get a lab coat in its size?

“I probably should so that I don’t embarrass your friend there,” I quipped. I normally didn’t go for dick jokes, but my wit was a bit dulled with the pain of trying to keep the data streams manageable. The male doctor’s eyes narrowed, but the woman doc chuckled. The alien draped the robe over me. It was a plush one, like the kind you get at expensive hotels. I might have accidentally acquired a couple on jobs for Rene.

“What is that?” I asked, nodding at the machine in the other room.

“I thought you were going to ask where you are first,” the alien mused. He motioned to the human doctors. They walked over to one of the coffins. Satisfied with the readings on the display, the two doctors and a few nurses rolled the coffin out of the ICU and over to the machine in the other room.

“That wasn’t an answer,” I said.

“True. Showing you would be better than explaining,” the alien said, motioning me to follow it. “I’ve been told by my colleagues that I tend to lapse into technical speak when speaking about the procedure.” An orderly helpfully wheeled me through the glass door as the alien walked beside me. The other room was cold. My sensors informed me that it was fifteen and a half degrees Celsius in the room. Maestro despised imperial and defaulted all of my sensor feeds in metric. My best guess was somewhere around sixty degrees Fahrenheit. The other room was much bigger than the ICU. It was easily forty or fifty feet high and nearly three hundred feet wide. The left side of the room was a glass-enclosed control room. The ninja I’d fought was in the control room standing next to a thin woman with auburn hair and a sour expression. Her flashing brown eyes were all the confirmation I needed that Anne Bennington, head of the Praetorian Covert Action Directorate, still wanted me to die horribly. The feeling was mutual. I have a hard time forgiving people who try and kill me.

“Sukarat Fellion, what is he doing here?” Anne asked, the slightest accent from her days at Oxford. She called the alien a Sukarat, but that wasn’t a military rank in either the Omnisen or Demnisen militaries. Exactly who was this alien?

“His particular power manifestation is unique among the demis. It fits into so many different families and directions, it has never been properly categorized. We need to test the procedure on him as well to ensure that it works as we’ve promised. I’m sure he will support our work once he sees what we’ve accomplished,” the alien said. “He served your government during the war. Quite admirably, according to our reports. Although, your reports say he was killed when your forces took down the Demnisen flagship. Very curious.” Anne started to say something, but visibly stopped herself. At least my blackmail was still holding for the moment. Of course, Anne was at her most dangerous when she felt cornered.

“There were some unconfirmed rumors that he somehow managed to survive, but nothing concrete until now,” Anne said, coolly. “I’m surprised that he did not make himself known to the Liberation authorities. It makes a person suspicious.” A malicious smile spread across Anne’s face.

“I was burned out after the war,” I said, “I needed time away from everyone.”

“Really? You match a freelancer that has been operating since the end of the war. Well, I’m happy that you decided to drop into our little clean-up,” the alien said. “You are a such a unique case among the mutations. There’s never been anyone like the Metal Ghost.” Everyone in the room tensed as the alien said my old demi name. The ninja took a step in front of Anne as two others stepped closer to her. Like I said, sometimes it’s nice when you’re reputation precedes you. This wasn’t one of those times.

“Why did you attack us?” the ninja asked. I looked at him for a long moment, and then over at Anne. She knew me too well to try any subterfuge. It wasn’t my strong point anyway. If it had been, she wouldn’t have figured that I was a spy the night before we infiltrated the Demnisen ship. Of course, I never did find out why she didn’t tell anyone after her failed attempt at murdering me in my sleep.

“Kids were going missing,” I said, shrugging my shoulders within the limits of my restraints. The ninjas tensed at the slight movement. That was interesting. I was all tied up, but the ninjas were still worried. At that point, something occurred to me. These were all relatively young ninjas. All they knew about me had to come from the old war stories the older Praetorians. I’d heard enough of them in passing to know the stories were like any good war story – embellished to the point of fantasy. These fuckers had no real idea of what I could and couldn’t do. At that point, I’d take any advantage if and when it came down to a fight.

“The subjects? I thought they were all volunteers,” the alien said, looking at Anne.

“Most of them are,” Anne answered. “We needed to use alternative methods to recruit the latest batch.”

“Oh. I’m sure they’ll be happy after the procedure,” the alien said.

“What procedure?” I asked. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m so glad you asked,” the alien said, his pincers spreading wide in a horrific version of a smile. He motioned for two orderlies. They opened the coffin and lifted out one of the missing kids. I recognized her as the Sioux girl – Rebecca Gonzalez. The girl was maybe thirteen, and in that awkward stage of going from girl to woman. If I remembered correctly, Rebecca was the fire-internal that manifested as a pillar of fire. Her body had that limpness of the heavily sedated. The two orderlies opened the machine’s pod and strapped the girl onto the metal slab. As they closed the pod, it rotated upright. The girl was hanging from her restraints in some sick re-creation of a crucifixion.

The alien nodded to the techs in the control room. The machine hummed to life and hundreds of tell-tale lights winked to life. A second later, Rebecca jerked violently against her restraints. It looked like she was having some sort of seizure. From the alien’s pleased expression, everything was going just as he expected. There was a moment of panic when the girl stopped moving, but then I could see her chest rise and fall with steady breathing.

“Relax, Metal Ghost. Or is it the Metal Ghost? Your language is overly complex. As I was saying, please don’t worry. The girl is all better now,” the alien assured me.

“What are you doing to her?” I demanded, unable to keep the anger out of my voice.

“We are helping her. Now, she will be able to live a normal, happy, and productive life,” the alien answered, confused by my anger. My stomach plummeted as an idea flashed through my head. They couldn’t be doing something like that, could they? I kept my mouth firmly shut as the machine continued to hum away. The next ten minutes felt like ten hours as I watched Rebecca’s limp form. Finally, the machine wound down, and the pod laid back down. The orderlies opened the pod and undid the restraints. A doctor made some routine checks on Rebecca before sticking a hypodermic in the girl’s neck. A few seconds later, Rebecca screamed in terror.

WHERE AM I?” Rebecca shrieked as she leapt off of the table. The two orderlies stepped cautiously towards Rebecca. I smiled as the girl fell into a fighting stance. Her face scrunched up in concentration, and then in shocked terror as nothing happened.

“As you can see Director Bennington, the procedure is a complete success,” the alien said.

“Her powers are completely eliminated?” Anne asked from the control room. Rebecca froze as she heard the question. The two orderlies used her distraction to attack. Before Rebecca realized what was happening, the girl was restrained and on the floor. To her credit, Rebecca still struggled and tried to take a bite out of the orderlies.

“For all intents and purposes,” the alien answered. “Technically, part of the process suppresses the subject’s powers until the gene-scrubbing takes full effect over the next eight to twelve months.” The alien walked over to the struggling girl. In the blink of an eye, the alien took a sample of the girl’s blood. Aliens were fucking fast in close quarters. The alien put the sample into a handheld device and examined the screen.

“As expected, her demi powers are suppressed and the nannites are replacing the mutated genes responsible for her power manifestation. The mutations for improved disease resistance are completely unaffected,” the alien said. “Using this process, we should be able to clean up that nasty effect within two years without making them susceptible to all of the nasty diseases running around this planet.”

“How did you take my powers away? Why would you do that?” Rebecca demanded. The alien cocked his head in confusion at the girl’s questions.

“Why would you want those horrible mutations?” the alien asked, “Why would you want to be so different from your fellow human beings? How could you hope to properly assimilate in your society?” She screamed in frustration as she struggled to free herself.

“Don’t bother trying to explain, Rebecca,” I said, “Aliens can’t understand why people would want to be different.”

“Enough!” Anne barked. “Take the girl down to the holding room. Social Services will deal with her and get her reintegrated.” Anne smiled down at me. It was a predatory smile. “Sukarit, perform the procedure on the Metal Ghost.” Thankfully, the alien’s gasp was louder than my own.

“Director, I must protest!” The alien said, “I have not been able to take any proper samples from him. I need time to study him.”

“You’ve had him in a coffin for twenty-four hours,” Anne said, “Are you telling me you gathered no data in that entire time?”

“We found out he has a metallic skeleton, but other than that, our sensors found nothing more about him,” the alien answered. “I suspect the disabling field and his skeleton were causing interference with the sensors. We need him in a proper lab to fully explore the Metal Ghost.”

“I appreciate your scientific curiosity, Sukarit, but that one is too dangerous to be running around with his powers,” Anne said, with a smile. “Unless you don’t thing it won’t work?”

“It’s been successful so far in over seventy cases with a wide variety of power manifestations,” the alien said indignantly, “His powers should be suppressed and removed with the procedure.”

“Fuck no,” I murmured. See, here’s the thing. I’m sure that you’re thinking that I should be doing my best Briar Rabbit impersonation. Please Briar Fox, don’t throw me in that briar machine! After all, everyone except a small handful of people know that my powers stem from this nifty cyborg body packed with nannites that the American government whipped up from alien scrap and DARPA’s toy box – and Anne wasn’t one of them. Except the entire truth is a bit more complicated.

There’s a very good reason that I was the only successful outcome of Project Scorpion. Before becoming the six-billion-dollar man, I was a demi. Among the Irregulars, I was known as Whisper. Why? Because I’d made a joke that I was a technology whisperer, and like all good nicknames, it stuck. And well, there was the whole shy thing, particularly around girls. Give me a break, I was only fourteen when I hooked up with the Irregulars. The gist of this history lesson is that it’s my demi power that allows me to control my cybernetics without being torn apart or driven insane. So, in a very real sense, Anne throwing me in that damned machine was going to strip my powers away from me – and probably kill me to boot.

I didn’t survive this long by letting things try to kill me without doing everything I could to return the favor. One of the orderlies hauled Rebecca out of the room, while the rest of the orderlies wheeled me over to the power-stealing machine. I closed my eyes and focused on what my sensors were telling me. The restraints were designed to hold demis, but they were brittle as well as strong. At least at the molecular level. I found the nannite control. Memories surfaced from past training sessions. I felt my demi power flow over my body and the nannites responded to its touch. I told them what I wanted and let them go to work. Then, I looked through my sensors. Without Maestro, I wasn’t going to get the full performance out of my body, but I’d picked up a few things over the years of watching the combat AI work.

Wait for the restraints to loosen, I cautioned myself as I set up the course of action. Fighting without Maestro was sort of half pre-programming and half-improvising on the fly. Fortunately, the Americans left some combat templates for my use buried in the control systems. I selected one, made some minor modifications, and waited for my opportunity. I didn’t have to wait for long.

I felt the tiniest slack in my right restraint and executed the course of action. First was the intense pain as my skin sheath melted off and the nannites formed my armored shell. The armored glacis slid over my face and the HUD snapped to life. Two monomolecular blades formed in my hands and slit the restraints with the simple waves of my hands. One blade swept down to free my legs. I launched the other at the alien with as much strength as I could muster. The blade lanced through the alien’s head like a ballista. A geyser of pale, yellow fluid burst from the alien’s head as it collapsed to the ground.

I leapt from the dolly and bounded across the tiled floor to grab my sword. As soon as my hand touched the hilt, the nannites flowed back into my body. At that point, my pre-programming slammed into reality. I expected the ninjas in the control room to join the fray, but they all just stood next to her. For a brief moment, I thought Anne was going to face-off with me herself. Just as I was relishing the thought of going up against her again, the two CA teams in the room dropped their veil.

Without programmed actions, it took more effort to get my systems to do what I wanted. Particle pulse pistols formed in my hands as four black-clad Praetorians attacked from all sides. I sprayed energy blasts to open up some fighting room. Two of the ninjas went down with cauterized holes in their torsos. The other two shrugged off the blasts and kept coming. The bigger one lunged, and an icicle shot out of his hand. I barely dodged the icicle – and ran right into the second’s attack. Smaller ninja got his hands on me and electricity surged painfully through me. Alarms blazed in my head as some of my systems went down as the surge protectors snapped into place. I smacked the ninja with a pulse pistol. He went down in a heap. Those kinds of demis weren’t called glass cannons for nothing. I turned back to Iceboy.

The world went white as God’s sledgehammer struck me across the back of my head. Shrill alarms blazed through my mind as damage and sensor reports went wild. My vision cleared just in time for a granite fist to slam across my face plate. Yup, granite. Fucking rock-armors. Why couldn’t Anne have stuck with just using sneaky power types as ninjas and leaving the bruisers in the straight line Praetorian teams?

I forced the nannites to form a plasma gun in my hands. Flashing icons warned me that a plasma gun would drain too much power from my already low reserves. What the hell? When had my power levels gotten that low? Damn it, Maestro always managed the power grid, and I hadn’t been paying enough attention. Well, fuck it. I’d rather go out being torn apart by Anne’s ninjas then from my cyber-systems trying to kill each other. I’d seen what happened to the Americans’ previous experiments.

I never had the chance to use the plasma gun. Anne appeared next to me. Without Maestro, I couldn’t move fast enough to get out of her reach – and she knew exactly where to hit me. There was the briefest flash of pain as her hand punched through my armor. Once inside, her real power hit sending all of my systems scrambling. Last time she did this, it took Maestro, Delph, and me working in an intricate concert to stay alive. This time the only thing that saved my life was the fail-safes shutting everything down to minimal load. Everything went black as my sensors shut down. I felt my body collapse to the ground, but it was detached. It was kind of like when a roller coaster drops with only a bit of shutter as it hit the tiled floor. My mind raced as I was picked up. I needed my AI’s back if I was going to have any hope of surviving the next few minutes. Except that alien’s disruptor blast destroyed them. Or did it?

My body was completely shut down to only the life-sustaining minimum. The fail-safes the designers put in kept the systems overloading when hit by energy blasts like Anne’s and that ninja of hers. Did the designers do the same thing for the sub-systems that housed my AI’s? I couldn’t remember. I’d never needed to restart my AI’s, but I still had my demi power. At least for a little longer. I reached out with my mind to the small computers where my AI’s “lived”. I poked and prodded until I saw how the sub-systems were put together. Switches? Could it be that easy? I flipped both – and nothing happened. Despair and desperation filled me. What else could I do? I didn’t even know how long I had. I couldn’t feel what Anne’s people were doing to me. I couldn’t even tell if the power-stealing machine was turned on.

Kevin? asked a wonderfully familiar female voice. Delph sounded like she was just waking up from a very long nap. Just after Delph spoke, I felt Maestro joining us. He was royally pissed off. That was a good thing. Maestro pissed off can be a terrible sight to behold.

Short time, I thought to the two AI’s and relaxed my normal mental blocks that kept the three of us out of each other’s personal thoughts. For the briefest moment, my brain felt like it was going to explode as the two AI’s ruthlessly shifted through everything that happened since the alien disruptor took them off-line. Maestro started bringing my body on-line. My batteries were dangerously low as were my nannite reserves. Sensors came up, and I found myself in the pod with the humming of the power-stealing machine spooling up in my ears.

Delph, can you get into that machine? I asked.

No hard interface and this room is locked down, Delph said. I don’t have enough resources to hijack anything. We need more power if we’re going to do anything useful. She was right. I couldn’t even fire a single particle pulse with my batteries reserves so low – and I needed my cradle to recharge my power systems.

Maestro chuckled. Both Delph and I stopped dead. Maestro doesn’t chuckle. Maestro barely registers amusement. Before either of us could form the question, Maestro flooded our shared mind with a schematic. Oh holy fuck, those Americans were scary. No wonder Liberation made sure that the American government was completely destroyed when it couldn’t be brought to heel.

Can we do that? I asked.

We’re kind out of options, Delph answered, If this doesn’t work, we won’t be able to do anything else. Maestro was annoyed that we were using up precious time instead of letting him act. He had a point. I relented and Maestro channeled all available energy to the nannites. The molecule machines flowed out of their reserves to my arms and legs.

“What the hell is he doing?” Anne demanded an instant before the nannites snapped into the schematic Maestro found. Alien nannites generally are locked down to only a few uses. It’s supposed to be a security feature against issues like gray goo or criminal use. I’ve always used my nannites to form weapons and armor or to do repairs, so that’s all I thought they could do. I was wrong. Very wrong. The American engineers managed to strip the alien controls on the nannites and substituted their own much looser controls.

The schematic Maestro used turned the nannites into essentially energy vampires. As soon as the power-stealing machine’s nannites invaded my body to gene-scrub me, my nannites stripped them of every sub-atomic bit of energy. My nannites didn’t stop there. They yanked every bit of power they could from the power-stealing machine itself, and then from the building’s own power grid. The room went dark as circuit-breakers snapped into place to stop the power surge as the nannites tried to pull in more from the city’s power grid. From the burnt electrical smell that filled the room, the circuit-breakers weren’t quite fast enough to prevent most of the computers from being fried. Even better, the power-stealing machine was leaking wisps of smoke. The restraints released, and for the first time in my life, I thanked the Liberation Office of Workplace Safety that required automatic medical restraints to be released when the power goes out. The nannites flowed back into me as my HUD filled with icons. I smiled at the power icon. Main batteries at full and my two spare capacitors were brimming with power.

Delph, Paul Revere! I ordered the AI. There was the briefest hesitation before I felt her “leave” as she found an open node. Next to deal with the ninjas before they realized I wasn’t restrained. I set up my parameters and let Maestro control the combat. Maestro immediately reformed the nannites into the pistols and sprayed the control room with particle blasts. Sparks and explosions filled the small room. Maestro turned the guns on the two ninjas standing in front of me. They had the barest instant to realize they were under attack before dozens of beams shredded their chests. The pulse pistols shimmered and reformed into blades. Four quick strokes and the front of the pod was on the floor.

Ninjas, as much as I deride them otherwise, are not simply demi-powered thugs in black suits. Thugs would still be standing around dumbfounded when the lights went out and the supposedly restrained prisoner was killing their comrades. Ninjas acted – and darkness was their preferred environment. Well, I was damned good in the dark as well.

Maestro, two behind have disrupters, I thought, looking at the sensor feeds. Maestro gave an exasperated sigh to let me know he already knew that. Okay, so why is your course of action aimed at the two in front of us? Maestro didn’t answer. Maestro was a firm believer in letting your actions do your talking. He kicked up the pane of lexan sitting on the floor and flung it at the two ninjas in front.

Both dived to each side. Maestro already had the pistols formed and fired into the ninjas’ paths. One jerked as the energized particles tore through his side. The other grunted, but kept going. He rolled into a crouch and then pounced. He was fast enough to surprise Maestro – which might have meant more if Maestro wasn’t a highly specialized combat AI. It took a fraction of a second for Maestro to recover from the surprise and alter his course of action. The pulse pistols melted into heavy punch daggers as Maestro dashed forward to meet the ninja. The ninja’s eyes sparkled with predatory gleam as he landed on us. Maestro let the impact force us to the ground. It was like getting hit with a cannonball (yes, I’ve had that experience, and no, I’m not going to talk about it now). This was probably the rock-armor bastard with the sledgehammer right hook. As we tumbled, Maestro and the ninja struggled to land effective hits. Grappling isn’t fun with an experienced opponent. I thought Maestro was struggling with the ninja – until he effortlessly spun the ninja into a disruptor blast. The ninja convulsed as the blast shorted out every neuron in his body. Maestro threw the now-limp body at the ninja who still had a charged disruptor.

The ninja effortlessly dodged the flying body – but not the grenade Maestro liberated from the stunned ninja. Nannites formed a curved tower shield as the room shook from the small ball of death exploding. Fragments pinged off the shield. The nannites flowed back into my body. The three ninjas were turned into shredded hulks. Grenades were great for reducing demis to ground meat. The orderlies and a couple of the other ninjas didn’t fare too well either. Best of all, the grenade put paid to the power-stealing machine. Delicate devices don’t do well with dozens of quarter-inch-wide holes punched through them. It was one of the reasons clearance teams during the Liberation War were very judicious in the use of frags. Couldn’t have all that valuable alien tech reduced to scrap, after all.

Maestro took cover behind the remains of the power-stealing machine. Sensors said that the last two ninjas on the floor were taking cover on the other side of the ruined machine. I checked my power reserves. Both spare capacitors were depleted, and the main was down about a third. Power was always the precious commodity in a fight. It’s why I needed Maestro to manage it.

You couldn’t have grabbed a couple more grenades? I asked Maestro. He grumbled, but didn’t argue the point. Maestro didn’t take well to having his few mistakes pointed out. Okay, try to kill these last two without using up too much battery. Maestro scoffed and reminded me of how he used the nannites to recharge us just a few minutes earlier. Yeah, and Anne’s probably got the power grid locked down now. She’s too smart to let us use the same trick twice. Maestro reluctantly conceded the point. The pulse particle pistols merged into a precision rifle. Take down the first one with the rifle and then kill the second with blades. Maestro was nothing if not efficient, if a little on the ruthless side.

“Stand down! Everyone stand down!” Anne commanded. She stood up in the wreck of the control room. Maestro screamed to unleash a stream of particle pulses at her, but I reminded him that Anne was off the kill-list for right now. Instead, he slid around the corner and took down both of the ninjas with quick blasts. They were dead before they knew they were under attack.

“Goddamn it, Kevin! I said stand the fuck down!” Anne screamed, outraged.

“In case you forgot Anne, one, I don’t work for you, and two, you just tried to wipe my powers,” I answered. “Why the fuck would I listen to any orders coming out of that mouth of yours?”

“Because if you don’t, I’m going to kill all of the remaining subjects,” Anne answered, getting herself back under control. “If you will stand down, I’m willing to negotiate.”

“If the deal doesn’t involve me walking out of here with those kids without further and future harm from you and yours, then I might as well finish killing all of your ninjas,” I said. “By the way, thanks for giving your ninjas frags. That made my job so much easier.”

“Kevin, you’re not that ruthless,” Anne said, “You wouldn’t have come this far unless one of the subjects wasn’t important to you personally. I know you, and you would not gamble with that life so recklessly.”

“What are you proposing?” I asked.

“You turn yourself over as a CA asset. I will let the remaining subjects go,” Anne answered.

“Why would you let the kids go now?” I asked.

“You’ve destroyed my machine and killed the Omnisen scientist who developed the process,” Anne answered. “Right now, the subjects only value to me is as a means to compel your cooperation. If I have your cooperation, then they are more valuable to me released.”

“You can’t honestly think I’d work for you,” I said.

“I didn’t say work for me. I said turn yourself over to CA,” Anne said. “I want to know what the American government did to you. The Sukarit was right. We should have studied you before trying to strip your powers. I let my feelings cloud my judgement. You know that I rarely make the same mistake twice.”

“I’ll make it easy for you Anne. The Americans did what every government does,” I shouted back, “Pretended to help me while fucking me over.”

“How very amusing,” Anne said. “Are you going to cooperate, or shall I just tell my personnel to kill the remaining subjects?” I was just about to tell her to go fuck herself, but there was a tingle in the back of my head. Well, it was about damn time.

“Okay Anne, let the kids go, and I’ll turn myself over to you,” I said. Her eyebrow arched in surprise. “I want proof that they’ve been released and safe before I stop killing your ninjas.”

“You don’t trust my word?” Anne asked, affronted.

“You tried to kill me once, Anne. Your trustworthiness went down in flames like a kamikaze after that,” I said.

“You are one to talk about trustworthiness. You were a spy and a traitor to Liberation,” Anne said in that terse tone she used when infuriated. “Unlike you, I never once lied in the entire time we-” Her jaw snapped shut. The room fell silent except for the sparking of destroyed electronics.

“You are not negotiating in good faith. You have no intention of surrendering to me,” Anne said, her temper under control. Damn, I was hoping to keep her pissed off for a little longer. “Give me one reason not to kill you and the subjects?” As if on cue, the building shook.

“What the hell was that?” Lead Ninja demanded. Anne frowned at her bodyguard’s lack of deportment. Another tremor rocked the building.

“It must be a demi of some sort,” Anne answered, coolly, “Not enough sound for an explosion.” She fixed her gaze on me. “You called in the Irregulars?”

“Actually, no,” I answered, “Descartes Solutions received a strong tip that kidnapped children are in this building, or at least, that’s what he’ll tell the net.” I returned her cool gaze. “Maybe you shouldn’t have turned his brother’s brain into mush.”

“I see,” Anne said. She was quiet for a few moments. “I’m assuming you have a solution percolating through that brain of yours.” I smiled under my glacis.

“Your ten percent should be in your account now,” Rene Descartes said, turning his monitor to show me the transfer. Rene maintained a policy in his company of giving any employee or freelancer ten percent of the value of a contract that he or she brings into the company. In this case, Descartes Solutions was given a lucrative non-competitive contract to be “on-call” consultants for the Covert Action Directorate. Of course, having a contract with CA meant Descartes Solutions was under a non-disclosure clause regarding any activities that the CA Directorate may or may not have been involved.

“That should give you operating capital for a while,” Rene said, “I have a strong feeling that you won’t be awarded any Liberation contracts for some time.”

“Well, not under of any of the current identities they know about,” I said, taking a sip from the glass of whiskey. Rene always knew where to get the good stuff.

“Speaking of which,” Rene said, handing over six leather folios. Each represented a clean identity. Or at least, clean in that they weren’t associated with me. I’d have to check each’s personal history before using them. I learned that the hard way, and Southern California had one less forger after the incident.

“I didn’t think my fee covered new identities for both the kids’ families and all of these,” I said, holding up the folios.

“It didn’t. It barely covered the cost of the six in your hands,” Rene said. “The kids and their parents I did out of my own pocket.” He gave a very Gallic shrug. “I feel somewhat responsible for their situation since it was my brother who led them here. I should have done something about Bernard years ago, but he was our mother’s favorite.”

“Thank you, Rene,” I said. “For everything.”

“I’m considering that favor I owe you paid. I’m not letting you hold that over my head after getting me to blackmail the CA Directorate,” Rene said, the smile on his face belying his harsh tone.

“As I keep saying, blackmail is only an ugly word when your life doesn’t depend on it,” I said, “And you’re not blackmailing the Directorate, I am.”

“Do you really believe Director Bennington doesn’t hold me as culpable as you?” Rene asked.

“Not enough to the point she would be willing to expend the resources needed to take care of you cleanly,” I said.

“I don’t want to know what was being done at the place, do I?” Rene asked.

“Your ignorance might be the only thing keeping you alive, right now,” I said.

“Director Bennington believes that I have no knowledge?” Rene asked, trying to pretend to be nonchalant.

“She knows how much I would have told you in order for our little conspiracy to work. She’s dealt me with before – and no, I’m not going to tell you that story,” I said.

“Please, it’s enough for me to know that the freelancer I’ve known for the last six years is actually the Metal Ghost,” Rene said. “Although, if you want to tell that story, there might be some cash in it for you. You know how I like complete intelligence files.” I finished off the whiskey and set the glass back down on Rene’s desk.

“Enjoy your contract, Rene,” I said, standing up. “Au revoir.”

The hundred grand was spent before I’d left the Descartes Solutions building. Between that and selling two of my safe houses, I had barely enough to resupply my New York staging area. Getting the organic material for my skin sheaths and rare metals for my nannites was expensive and required finding a supplier that owed me a serious favor. Several serious favors, actually. It couldn’t be helped. Liberation, or at least it’s North American Covert Affairs Directorate, was now officially aware that the Metal Ghost not only survived, but was active. Anne may have made a deal to keep her involvement with the Omnisen secret, but she didn’t forgive or forget. I knew I was going to get pulled back into her machinations at some point.

Kate sent me a picture of the twins and their foster parents in their new house. They were all smiling. Part of that old debt was paid. Kate also sent me a nice note, or at least nice for Kate. Something along the lines of she was glad I managed to get the kids out and not get killed. Kate never did the sentimental well, even when we were together. At least there was a hint that maybe, possibly, sometime in the future she might be open to becoming friends again. That made me happier than I expected.

My reminiscing was interrupted by the knock I’d been dreading all afternoon. Brian walked into my apartment. His smile was a bit wary. He’d been annoyed at my evasiveness over the phone, and I couldn’t blame him. As he sat down, I delayed a little bit longer by getting him a beer.

“Thanks. Rumor is that the Metal Ghost was involved in that rogue CA operation over in Battery Park,” Brian said.

“I thought that would keep quiet longer,” I said.

“It’s too good of a story. Even for CA,” Brian said. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”

“That depends how comfortable you are with keeping things from the Primus Novus America,” I answered. Brian’s smile disappeared.

“You know I don’t like that game,” Brian said, his voice devoid of any humor.

“It’s not a game, Brian,” I said.

“It never is. So, why don’t you tell me what you called me over here about,” Brian said.

“It started when a friend from my Irregular days called me out of the blue,” I started. I told him everything. Well, mostly everything. I shaded Rene’s involvement a bit and the fact that I had a stack of new identities. I loved Brian like a brother, but if things went sideways, I needed to disappear completely. Brian started scowling as I explained Anne’s plot. By the time I was done, the scowl a deep crease across his face.

“Goddamn it Anne,” Brian said, to the ceiling, “I knew she was up to something, but I never thought she would do something like this.” I watched my friend. Damn, I hate when people disappoint me.

“When did you find out that CA was working with the Omnisen?” I asked. His neutral expression told me all I needed to know. At least he didn’t try to lie to me.

“It’s not just the CA,” Brian said, “You asked me to keep this from my other half, so now I need you to keep this from the Metal Ghost.” Gods damn it, I hate when people throw my own words in my face.

“Fine. You’ve earned that much,” I said.

“Sort of what I was thinking,” Brian said. “About a year ago, Liberation was contacted by the Omnisen. Basically, they were offering assistance rebuilding our world. Liberation agreed.”

“After everyone we lost pushing those aliens off our planet?” I asked, barely keeping my voice under control.

“Kev, calm down. Please,” Brian said, “You aren’t the only one who made that point. Vociferously.” Brian sighed. “You haven’t seen the reports. Europe is still a decade before it will be restored to something like where it was before the war. North America is a little better, but not much. The rest of the world? At least twenty years. We would have an entire generation whose only experience will be refugee camps or Relief Force control. And all of it is going to require mountains of treasure.” I forced myself to sit down.

“Liberation needs to get us productive again,” I said, “Productive and paying taxes.”

“They haven’t said that last part, but yeah,” Brian said. “Omnisen help would exponentially increase our ability to rebuild the world. Not just rebuild, but give people a real chance at a better life than the ruins around us.”

“So what do you want me to do?” I asked him. He was very quiet for a long moment.

“Have you told the Irregulars about the alien?” Brian asked.

“No. There wasn’t an opportunity. They’ve been too busy hiding the kids from the government,” I answered. “They didn’t want me knowing where any of the kids were going.”

“You need to talk with the Chairman,” Brian said. “We may need the Irregulars to be a check on Liberation.”

“That’s an odd sentiment coming from you,” I said.

“I still think Liberation is the best hope for humanity,” Brian said. “What’s that old Arab proverb Saladin kept telling us? ‘Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel?'” We both chuckled. Saladin had been a good friend to both of us before he was killed during the final battle with the Demnisen.

“From what I’ve been hearing, Liberation has been cracking down on the Irregulars,” I said.

“Which is why I want you to talk with the Chairman,” Brian said. “If Liberation is worried about the Irregulars, then someone in the Directorates know that the Irregulars can be a threat. That makes the Irregulars the ones we need to have ready.”

Brian left not too long later. I watched the sunset across New York harbor. For the first time in seven years, I felt that curious mix of accomplishment and apprehension. Accomplished that the mission at hand was done, but tempered with the apprehension of knowing the slogging was going to go on for a very long time.

So, what are you going to do? Delph asked. Instead of answering, I walked from the window to the phone sitting on my desk. I pressed the speed dial.

“Yes?” Kate asked.

“I need to talk with the Chairman. The Irregulars may need to take down Liberation.”

Monday Fiction – Getting the Job Done

Yeah, I know. I’ve been mostly ignoring the blog lately. Mostly because life’s been hectic and kicking me around for the past few months. Not sure yet if that’s going to change. Anyways, this is the short story I submitted to Baen’s Fantasy short story contest. Since I didn’t win, I figured I’d post it up here for y’all to enjoy.

This story takes place in the Badmoon universe, but in Kentucky. Things are a little different there.

–Getting the Job Done–

Tysach. The learning time in the Ancestors Tongue. For the pups of Louisville-Jefferson County, it’s when the pups learn of pack traditions, history, and how to survive in the harsh world of the supernatural. Tysach is a hard time for the pups, and sometimes pups don’t survive. Longeye and his hit pack are there to make sure death isn’t from an outside attack. That is the job, and hunters never fail the job.

Longeye looks back at the shaman teaching pups not much younger than her. She must be strong and smart if the Spiritmaster trusts her with tysach, Longeye thinks. At least she doesn’t treat my hit pack like we’re her servants, unlike other shaman. A cold wind blows through the camp. In true form – the man-wolf of human legend – Longeye’s senses are much sharper. His pelt is also warmer than any jacket.

“CONTACT!” screams Mountain, Longeye’s second. The ripsaw sound of Mountain’s M240 fills the small hill valley. Blue light from behind draws Longeye’s gaze from his second. The shaman formed a cerulean shield in front of the pups. Longeye’s heard the stories when shaman fought, but Longeye has never seen such a powerful use of the magicks. An unnatural roar focuses Longeye back on the combat. He sprints to join his hit pack.

In between two hills are a half-dozen creatures unlike anything Longeye’s heard about. The creatures are fifteen feet tall with wide, round bodies and spindly arms and legs. A wide face protrudes from just below the shoulders. The monsters are mottled grays, like they’re made of rock. Following Mountain’s lead, Longeye brings his stubby AK74U up and fires a short burst into the closest monster. The bullets spang off the creature’s hide like they hit concrete. The monster turns and opens a mouth as wide as its head and filled with jagged teeth that look more like stalactites.

“What the fuck are those?” Thumper asks, sliding in the snow behind Longeye.

“No idea,” Longeye answers his hit pack’s last member, “Silver and lead don’t seem to have any effect. Bring the fire!” Thumper smiles and unlimbers his Milkor grenade launcher. The bulky weapon coughs four times. The first two grenades knock a pair of monsters to the ground. The third showers another monster with fragments. The final grenade pops and hisses as the white phosphorus melts into the monster’s body.

“Well, that seemed to–” Thumper is cut off as the fifth and sixth monster charge the hit pack.

How could those huge forms move so fast through the snow? Longeye thinks as he leaps to the side. Thumper fires his last two grenades, but the two charging forms shrug off the high explosive. Longeye aims at the small dot eyes and fires. The bullets do little more than draw the monster’s attention. The monster looms over Longeye and brings down its arm. Longeye leaps out of the way, but the damn thing manages to tag him in the leg. Pain flashes through Longeye as he rolls in the snow. The leg’s broken. He waits for a second for the wound to heal. Fear flushes through him when the pain doesn’t subside like it should.

“They’re archanal!” Longeye warns his hit pack. Archanal wounds defeat the lycanthropes’ natural healing. Longeye needs to shift his tactics, but the monster is back on him too fast. A stone backhand sends Longeye flying for a few yards before slamming into a tree. His back heals instantly, but his muzzle and jaw aren’t working. Blood pours down his pelt as Longeye gasps for air. In the mix of pain, cold, and oxygen deprivation, an idea emerges. Longeye gathers his strength and waits as the monster thunders to finish him. Longeye’s mind barely registers that he doesn’t hear Mountain’s machinegun or Thumper’s grenades. Longeye focuses only on the monster’s wide mouth. The monster looms over Longeye with that mouth wide open. Longeye yanks the pin off the thermite grenade and jumps. The metal cylinder grates against the monster’s teeth before bouncing into its maw. An instant later, Longeye’s side erupts in pain as the monster slaps him out of the air. Longeye’s conscious long enough to hear the grenade detonate inside the monster. What looks like lava pours out of its mouth before the monster sinks to the ground. In moments, the monster melts into a heap of stone.

Well, at least I got one of the bastards, Longeye thinks before darkness consumes him.

Pain and stink bring Longeye back to the world. The first things he sees are yellow eyes and rust color fur. That shaman. The one who made the shield when the fight broke out. From the stench, she’s smearing wolfsbane in all of his wounds. The foul medicine burns, but it expels archanal magic to let his body heal with its normal speed. With a grunt of pain, Longeye sits up. The entire county’s Order of Spirits is in the hollow. A dozen of shaman are casting wards around the hollow, while the rest are standing over the huddled pups. Longeye looks around. He can’t see Mountain or Thumper.

“I’m sorry, hunter. Your friends didn’t make it,” the shaman says, sympathetically. “You probably shouldn’t see them right now. The Order will prepare them for travel to the cravex after the hollow is secured.”

“I appreciate your concern, but those two were my hit pack. I need to see them,” Longeye says. To her credit, the shaman helps Longeye stand and walks him to the bodies of his friends. Or what’s left of his friends. Longeye’s seen hunters shot, sliced, burned, and mutilated. Torn apart is a new one for Longeye. The pile of body parts that had been Mountain and Thumper makes his stomach churn. He doesn’t even hear the Guildmaster walk up. The leader of the hunters puts a comforting hand on Longeye’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Steven,” the Guildmaster says, using Longeye’s cover name, “From what the shaman and the pups said, the three of you fought hard against those creatures.”

“Do you know what they were?” Longeye asks. The old wolf shakes his head.

“No. Neither does the Order. The Spiritmaster is communing with the Ancestors at the cravex,” the Guildmaster answers.

“Why didn’t they kill the pups?” Longeye asks. The Guildmaster looks uncomfortable at the question. Longeye’s stomach plummets. “Who did they kill?”

“It’s not who they killed,” a new voice says from behind Longeye. All three lycanthropes instinctively drop to one knee. Karl Silverbane, Lord of Jefferson County, radiates fury. The two Red Knights standing at his side look like hunters who failed a mission.

“Melanie?” Longeye asks the Guildmaster. By tradition, a pup in tysach, is treated by their family as if dead until he or she returns to the packs after the Rite of Initiation.

“We can’t find her,” the Guildmaster answers. “We did find a pup’s body. One of the other pups identified him as Melanie’s current paramour.” The Guildmaster gives the lord a sidelong look. “Everything points to Melanie being kidnapped.”

“Who would be insane enough to kidnap Lord Silverbane’s daughter?” Longeye asks. “Not even the LCV would sanction that. They would never endanger The Peace.” The Louisville Council of Vampire controls almost all of the vampires in Louisville and the surrounding area. Their Inner Council is very careful to follow the tenets of The Peace after Florida erupted in open war a few years ago. Neither the lycanthropes nor the vampires want that particular fire to spread to Kentucky.

“They are the natural suspects,” the shaman says, “Our races have been at war for centuries.” Longeye and the Guildmaster trade knowing looks.

“I know you just lost Michael and Kevin, but you’re my best investigator. I need you to find out who did this and get Melanie back,” the Guildmaster says.

“I’ll take the job, but I’m going to need help if whoever’s behind this has more of those monsters,” Longeye answers.

“What do you need?” the Guildmaster asks. From the look in his eyes, the old wolf is willing to sign off on damn near anything. Usually, only the Guildmaster’s personal hitter got such carte blanch.

“You will take her,” the Deputy Spiritmaster says as he walks up to join the small group. He points at the young shaman. The Deputy Spiritmaster glares, and the shaman looks down.

“Exactly why would my hunter take her with him?” the Guildmaster asks in his most polite voice. Longeye steps away from his boss. When the Guildmaster is that solicitous, someone’s going to spend the next few weeks with wolfsbane smeared over their entire body. One does not become the leader of the hunters without having the ability to back it up.

“The Ancestors command it,” the Deputy Spiritmaster answers. “They have told the Spiritmaster the pup will only be returned if both that hunter and this one are the searchers. They must begin by speaking with the scarred leech.” The Deputy Spiritmaster looks like the words leave a foul taste in his mouth. Longeye signals the Guildmaster, who motions for Longeye to speak. It’s that trust that endears the Guildmaster to his hunters.

“She can come. I know who the Ancestors are talking about,” Longeye says. The Deputy Spiritmaster looks revolted, but the shaman looks intrigued. That’s a hopeful sign if the two are going to work together, especially considering the normal rivalry between hunters and shaman. Longeye looks over to the Guildmaster. “Boss, I’m going to need some stuff from the armory and $100,000 in cash.”

That’s who your contact is in the LCV?” the Guildmaster exclaims. “I’ll need a couple of hours to pull together the cash. Take her with you to the armory. I’ll have the money delivered to you there.” The Guildmster walks off, issuing orders into a cellphone. The Deputy Spiritmaster storms back to the rest of the shaman leaving Longeye alone with the shaman. He holds out his hand.

“You can call me Steve,” Longeye says, using his cover name. She tentatively takes the proffered hand. Her grip is firm with the barest hint of uncertainty.

“I’m Jen.”

Jen is annoyed as she steps out of Steve’s car. Okay, hunters are supposed to be mysterious. They’re the lord’s assassins after all. Still, Steve didn’t have to ask her to go sit in the car while he talked with the scarred leech. Okay, the scarred leech is the leader of the Bleeders, the vampire counterpart of the hunters. And yes, Jen had growled at the leech guarding the door before Steve asked her nicely to wait for him in the car. It’s just frustrating. The Ancestors said that she needs to help. It’s not her fault that she doesn’t know all of this cloak-and-dagger shit.

The address the $100,000 bought is a small antiques shop in Jeffersontown. Even in her human form, Jen can smell the stench of leech. There’s an unusual scent, but it’s so faint, Jen dismisses it. Whatever left that scent is long gone. Steve gets out of his car and scans the area. The streets are mostly deserted at this time of night. Orange sodium lights reflect off the dirty snow on the curbs.

CRACK! The sound comes from inside the shop. Jen opens her mind and soul to the Ancestors. They fill her with their magick. Steve moves to the door with a small machine gun in his hands. He shoves the door open and storms into the darkness. Jen follows behind him, preparing a pair of rites in her mind. Her eyes attenuate to the darkness inside the shop, as she nearly gags from the intense stench of leech.

In the middle of the shop is a leech changing to true form in death. The black fluid that had once been human blood is pooling beneath the body. Behind the counter is another leech holding a smoking pistol. Steve keeps his machine gun aimed at the vampire behind the counter as he moves to the body and kicks away a pistol.

“Well, it’s not often I see your kind in my shop,” the vampire says with a pleasant smile on his face. His heavy German accent turns the “w’s” to “v’s”. The vampire puts the small pistol away. Steve lowers his machine gun.

“Porthos sent us your way,” Steve says, “He thought you might be able to identify something for us.”

“I am always happy to do a favor for a friend of Porthos,” the vampire says. There’s something in the vampire’s tone that sounds like the vampire is repaying a favor. The vampire holds out his hand. “Klaus.”

“Steve, and this is Jen,” Steve says, taking his hand. Jen warily shakes the proffered hand.

“What happened here?” Steve asks, motioning to the body on the floor.

Ach, that damned television show,” the vampire says, disgusted. “Every new independent in Kentucky thinks he’s the lawman or the criminal from that show. Some of them are dumb enough to see if they are faster than me. It’s almost to the point I shoot any young nosferatu that walks in here wearing one of those stupid hats.” Klaus looks back. “Bruno! Get out here!” A large ghoul strides out from the back room. He snarls at Jen and Steve, but Klaus shushes his servant. The vampire wordlessly motions to the body.

“So, what did Porthos think I could identify for you?” Klaus asks as Bruno hauls the humanoid bat form of the dead leech out of the front of the shop.

“Could you tell us what this is?” Jen asks. She silently casts the rite, and an image of the monster appears above her hand. A warm sensation runs through Jen when Steve looks suitably impressed. The vampire stares at the image for a long moment.

Mein Gott,” the vampire murmurs, “I hoped I would never see those again.” The vampire’s eyes flick to Jen. “Why do you want to know about these?”

“Six of them attacked the pups during tysach,” Jen answers.

Unmöglich!” Klaus exclaims, “Those are Russian earth monsters! They cannot be here. Not on this continent’s soil!”

“Well, they are!” Jen snaps, “I watched them tear apart two hunters. I barely held them back.”

“How did you do such a thing?” Klaus demands. Jen looks to Steve, unsure if she should tell the vampire. The hunter nods.

“With a shield,” Jen answers.

“You held six of these at bay with a shield?” Klaus asks. “Our best wizards on the Ostfront barely held them back when they attacked us, and they needed to combine their strength in order to do that much.” Klaus gives Jen an amazed look. Then, an arrow is sticking out of the vampire’s chest and black fluid is spilling out onto the counter.

Steve spins, crouches, and brings up his machine gun in one graceful movement. Jen tries to mimic the hunter as she turns back to the door. The doorway is filled by – a were-ram? It’s humanoid, and easily eight feet tall from the top of its curled ram horns down to its cloven feet. Light tan fur covers the body. The face is more human than sheep-like. The ram-man takes a step into the shop and nocks another arrow in its polished wood bow.

Steven’s machine gun stutters. Jen is surprised how much more quiet it is than the ones the hunters used in the hollow. A half-dozen red holes bloom in the ram-man’s chest. The ram-man takes a step back from the gunfire, but looks more annoyed than injured. Steven kicks over a table, sending ceramic knick-knacks crashing to the floor. Jen crouches down behind a shelf of metal trinkets. There’s a hard thunk as the ram-man sinks its arrow into the table Steven is hiding behind. The hunter raises up and fires his machine gun again. The bullets just seem to piss off the ram-man. Well, if bullets don’t work, maybe it was time for something else.

STORMAYRE!” Jen shouts. She’s nearly deafened and blinded as lightning bolts arch from her outstretched hands to the ram-man. Cooked meat smells and smoke fill the shop as the ram-man is reduced to a charred heap. Jen falls to one knee, panting like she’d just run a marathon.

“Are you okay?” Steve asks, suddenly at her side. His voice is kind of tinny as her ears heal.

“Yeah, that rite just took a bit out of me,” Jen answers.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a shaman throw around that kind of magick,” Steve says. Jen shrugs.

“It’s not something we do on a regular basis,” she says. Steve just nods. Then he shoves her to the floor as the store’s frosted windows shatter from a fusillade of arrows. Jen pushes the hunter aside and peers around the shelves. Five more of the ram-men stand on the street pointing arrows into the shop. Jen prays to the Ancestors that the street are deserted. This is too blatant. If too many humans see what the attack, the pathwalkers will come and restore balance. Their definition of restoring balance favored wiping out entire supernatural populations.

Jaegar!” Klaus shouts. The vampire’s laying down at the end of the counter. He tosses Steve a worn assault rifle. “That will stop those bastard dusios.” Steve brings up the assault rifle to his shoulder and fires. The gunfire deafens Jen again. A ram-man crumples to the ground. The four remaining ram-men – dusios? – bellow deep howls of rage as they loose their arrows.

DENMANT!” Jen snarls. A translucent blue shield appears. The arrows flash into embers as they strike it.

“Can you lower that shield long enough for me to get another burst off?” Steve asks. Jen grits her teeth in concentration as she silently asks the Ancestors.

“No,” Jen answers.

“We can escape out the back,” Klaus says.

“We can’t leave those things out there,” Jen says. A steady stream of arrows pelt the shield as the ram-men advance on the shop.

“Jen’s right,” Steve says. “How do I get up on the roof?”

“Follow me,” Klaus says.

“Hold them here,” Steve says, gripping Jen’s shoulder. “I’m going to take them out.” Steve follows the vampire into the back room. Jen musters up her strength and focuses the magick into the rite.

He’d better hurry up.

Longeye and Klaus go out the back door into a narrow alley. Klaus motions to a metal ladder just to the right of the door. Longeye quickly strips and sheds human form for true. The world becomes more real as his senses sharpen. Longeye leaps up to the roof and sprints across the roof. He sheds back for human. Longeye doesn’t know where Klaus got an MP44, but he needs to be in human form to aim the seventy-year-old weapon. Firing human-sized guns while in the nine-foot tall true form takes a lot of practice. Longeye aims at the biggest of the ram-men. The MP44 stutters with a short burst. The creature slumps to the ground as rust-red blood pools on the street.

Much to Longeye’s surprise, the ram-men don’t scatter. They just stop in the street and aim up at the roof. Steve manages to take down a second ram-man before ducking down. Three arrows sail over the building. Longeye crab-walks a few yards to the right before rising up. A ram-man guessed almost right as the hunter pops back up. Pain blossoms across Longeye’s scalp. The hunter’s aim is better, and the third ram-man goes down. Longeye crouches back down. He smiles as he feels the wound seal. At least the arrows aren’t archanal.

There’s another bellow, but it’s cut off in the middle of the roar. Longeye rises up and looks down at the last ram-man. The hunter’s eyes go wide. The ram-man is encased in ice. The Ancestors must really like Jen to let her throw around those kinds of spells – or we are really fucked. I hope that Bruno ghoul can clean up those bodies. Longeye walks back to the alley side and jumps down. Hitting the asphalt, he rolls up into a crouch and waits the few seconds it takes for his legs to heal from the drop.

“I come here to kill the vampire my babushka hates, and look what I find,” says a new voice. Longeye looks up to see a tall, dark-haired human standing at the mouth of the alley. “You’re the werewolf who killed my elemental.” Longeye snatches his pistol from his discarded clothing and brings it up just in time to see Klaus bouncing off a shimmering shield in front of the wizard. At that instant, Jen sprints out of the shop. The wizard gives Jen an appraising look.

“And you’re the one throwing around all of that werewolf magic,” the wizard says. “So, we now have the three heroes who will try to stop me. How appropriate.”

“Who are you?” Jen demands.

“I’m not going to make it that simple,” the wizard answers, “I’m required by the ritual to give you a chance to try and stop me. If you don’t, then the girl werewolf will be sacrificed for the ritual.” The wizard smiles. “I will tell you one thing in the name of being sporting. You have until midnight tomorrow to stop me from sacrificing your precious girl werewolf.” Longeye snaps his pistol up and fires three rounds. The bullets ricochet off the shield.

“No!” the wizard snaps, “You will abide by the rules of the ritual, hero. You three will confront me tomorrow night. If you do not, then not only will the girl die, but every living thing in a hundred mile circle.” The alley goes dark for an instant. When Longeye can see again, the wizard is gone.

“So, let me get this straight,” Jen says, “You, me, and the Nazi vampire are supposed to stop a ritual before midnight or not only do we lose Melanie, but a bunch more people get killed?”

“That sounds about right,” Longeye confirms.

“To be fair, I was never that good a Nazi,” Klaus says, “My lieutenant always complained I lacked sufficient Nationalist Socialist ardor. It was such a shame when he fell on that land mine outside Stalingrad.” Jen and Longeye trade wary looks.

“So, how do we do this?” Jen asks.

“If you’re hunting lycanthropes, follow the packs. For vampires, follow the power,” Longeye answers, “For humans, you follow the money.”

Klaus pulls his battered Volkswagen Beetle up next to the fence. The vampire gets out and walks over to the two lycanthropes. Longeye stifles another yawn. Finding this place took all night and most of the day. Jen surprised him how good she was in things he’d always assumed were hunter specialties. He thought about how much of his old prejudices were still valid on the drive up to the property.

“I thought all of you hunters drove those big, black SUV’s with tinted windows,” Klaus says, walking over to Longeye’s beloved Subaru WRX. The vampire is dressed only in a flannel shirt, jeans, and hiking boots. “Is your boot able to hold all of your gear?” The vampire’s words bring a momentary pang of grief. Mountain always complained that he barely fit in the front seat of the compact. It’d been a running joke between Longeye and his second.

“I prefer nimble over mass,” Longeye says. The vampire nods as if Longeye said something profound.

“Now, if only you didn’t drive it like my grandpa,” Jen says, climbing out of the passenger seat. The teasing tone is welcome after the long night and day of work.

“If I drive like a bat out of hell, then it’s because everything’s gone to hell,” Longeye replies. He gives Klaus a sober look. “You’re here much later than we agreed.”

“It took more time and resources to fulfill my part of our arrangement,” Klaus answers, “Now, what did you find about our wizard? Besides this compound.” Jen smiles as she hands a tablet to Klaus.

“Michael Kursk,” she says, pointing at the picture of the dark haired man with a dour look on his gaunt face. “Came to America from Russia when he was a toddler. Orphaned shortly after. Made a ton of money in Silicon Valley before selling everything and coming east. He just bought this large swath of undeveloped land. According to the Ancestors, this area is magically significant. For humans, anyway.”

“You have been busy since I last saw you,” Klaus says. The vampire scrolls to the next page and grunts.

“That’s his grandmother,” Jen says, pointing to the photograph of an old Russian woman in traditional dress including the kerchief over the gray hair. “Kursk found her a few years ago and brought her over from Russia.”

“That’s not his grandmother,” Klaus says, with a growling tone that puts up both lycanthropes’ hackles. “That’s a fucking Baba Yaga.” Jen gasps.

“Are you sure?” Jen asks.

“Yes. Saw the Dämon on the battlefield,” Klaus says, then chuckles. “Bitch’s minions wounded me enough to bring me to attention of Great Council. I’m a nosferatu because of that monster.” There’s a quiet moment as Longeye looks between Jen and Klaus.

“What the fuck is a Baba Yaga?” Longeye asks.

“Nasty Russian demon,” Klaus answers. “Does some bad magic on her own as well as controlling other spirits from Slavic lands.”

“That’s one way of describing them,” Jen says, giving Klaus a skeptical look.”Ivan, another shaman, says they were once human wizards that let themselves be possessed by a spirit of destruction. I hadn’t heard they could control other spirits, though.”

“How do we kill her?” Longeye asks, before Klaus and Jen could start an argument. The two trade unsure looks. “Can we kill her?” The two both wore uneasy faces.

“I don’t know,” Klaus says. Jen shrugs her shoulders.

“Have you found out what the ritual is?” Klaus asks.

“There are a few possibilities,” Jen says, “They range from very bad to cataclysmic. Best guess is that they are trying to raise Zmey Gorynych.”

“That name sounds familiar,” Klaus says, “Who is that?”

“Not who. What. A three-headed dragon,” Jen answers. “It’s similar to the Greek hydra. No one has seen one in over a millenia. The stories about it are contradictory, but all say the Zmey is very bad news.”

“So, we have no hard information about what’s going on up there, but we have to stop it,” Klaus says.

“That sounds about right,” Longeye says.

“Well, then we might as well get on with it,” Klaus says. The vampire starts toward the chain link fence topped with razor wire that runs the perimeter of Kursk’s property.

“Do you have snips?” Klaus asks.

“We had something else in mind,” Jen says. The two lycanthropes walk a few feet away, disrobe, and shed their human forms for true. Jen pulls on the black formal robes of the shaman. She picks up the sling bag Longeye prepped for her and tosses it over her shoulder. The hunter pulls out a rig designed for hunters working in true form. Kevlar and steel to protect the torso, and pouches stuffed with spare magazines, knives, and other assorted toys of destruction. Finally, Longeye pulls out the RPK.

“You are full of surprises, hunter,” Klaus says, as he joins the two lycanthropes. Klaus is carrying the old MP44 and now wearing modern body armor with more magazines for the rifle in pouches on his side and front. Much to Longeye’s surprise, Klaus is wearing an old German stahlhelm instead of a more modern helmet.

“I’m full of surprises?” Longeye asks, pointing at the World War II-vintage helmet and rifle.

“These kept me alive on the Ostfront against Stalin’s soldiers and monsters,” Klaus says, “I just thought all hunters used those M16s, not dolled up AK-47’s.”

“Give me a break, it’s not like I slapped a bunch of Tapco on this,” Longeye replies, hefting the weapon. “Besides, this will lay down a ton of fire.” As if to emphasize the point, Longeye rocks in a 75-round drum and pulls the charging handle.

“Never mind, then,” Klaus says, “Shall we go find something for you to use all those bullets on?” Longeye slings the RPK before tossing the vampire over the fence. As Klaus covers the forest, Jen and Longeye leap over the eight-foot tall fence. Satisfied that no one is waiting to ambush them, Longeye leads the trio through the forest.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Klaus whispers.

“Satellite photos showed there are recently constructed buildings about two miles inside the property. Five pre-fab buildings forming a pentagon around a paved area with a gravel path leading back down to the main highway,” Longeye answers.

“According to my superiors, the buildings are in the middle of some kind of mystical convergence, but they couldn’t say more because it’s human magic,” Jen supplies.

“I would call that a good guess,” Klaus muses. Longeye pointed into the forest. Through the forest and snow, the two miles takes almost an hour for the trio. It would’ve been less, but Klaus isn’t as good at moving through the snow as the lycanthropes. The vampire grumbles, but otherwise they are almost silent as they move to the buildings.

Finding the site isn’t hard. Giant floodlights light up the entire area like it’s daytime – including the new structure in the center of the buildings. It’s forty feet of steel, concrete, and rock. Scaffolding wraps around three sides with more floodlights attached to the metal framework. A pathway winds up the structure from the ground to the top. Small outcroppings – almost like balconies – sprout out every ten feet up. Longeye pulls out binoculars and scans the buildings. A couple dozen humans walk around the site. Most are dressed in jeans and jackets. He doesn’t seen any unusual bulges that might be concealed weapons.

“There’s Kursk,” Longeye says, pointing to a figure walking up the tower. Kursk walks out onto an outcrop about halfway up that juts over the courtyard. Longeye fights down the temptation to just shoot the bastard, but he needs to finish his original job.

“I don’t see the Baba Yaga or Melanie anywhere,” Longeye says.

“Melanie’s in that building,” Jen says, pointing at the building across the compound from the trio.

“How do you know?” Klaus asks.

“She was a pup in my charge,” Jen answers. Longeye always wondered if the shaman put trackers on the pups during tysach. It would certainly explain how the shaman found his groups when they “wandered off.” Klaus accepts the explanation.

“I don’t know where the Baba Yaga is, but I can feel strong magic,” Jen says. Suddenly, Jen whirls around. Longeye doesn’t ask any questions and swings the big RPK back to the forest. Two ram-men emerge from the trees leveling bows. Longeye places the holographic dot on the chest of the closer one and squeezes the trigger. Five splotches of red appear on the ram-man’s chest before it stumbles back. Longeye swivels to the second one. Jen grunts as an arrow sinks into her chest. A second burst takes down the second ram-man. Longeye looks back to Jen. She’s already pulled out the arrow and her body is healing the bloody hole. The two ram-men stand back up – and are joined by a half-dozen more.

“MOVE!” Longeye shouts. The trio sprints out of the forest. At full speed, they reach the buildings in a few seconds. The three leap on top of the nearest roof and bound into the courtyard on the other side. Dozens of weapons are pointed at them by humans and ram-men. Six of those rock creatures are standing in front of the structure like sentinels.

“Hold them!” orders Kursk from his pulpit two stories above the ground. “I was expecting so much more from the three heroes. I am very disappointed. Still, two werewolves and a vampire will make a nice snack for Zmey Gorynych.” Jen hisses as she sees Melanie – unconscious, bound and gagged – dragged into view by an old woman in shabby clothes and kerchief tied over her hair. Longeye clicks his mike and hears two clicks in response.

“Send it,” Longeye says quietly.

“What was that werewolf?” Kursk asks. As if in answer, a rocket streaks across the courtyard and slams into one of the rock monsters.

Jen throws up the shield as the rock monster explodes. Some of Kursk’s human followers are pulped by the stone shrapnel. The ram-men are knocked down by the blast, but they get to their feet looking unhurt. Then, bullets start whipping into Kursk’s followers. Jen’s surprised she only hears the zips as the bullets pass by. Steve doesn’t look concerned, so Jen keeps a determined look on her face. She has her own tasks to complete. Jen focuses on Melanie and the Baba Yaga.

“It’s time,” Steve says. Jen touches the Steve’s gun and ammo pouches as she casts the rite. The power of the Ancestors flows through her to the hunter’s weapons. The Ancestors are angry, and the power tastes of their rage. At Steve’s nod, Jen drops the shield. Seven of the ram-men are right in front of them. Steve sprays gunfire into the group to open up ground for the trio. Almost as if on cue, the Bleeders join the fray with the entire Hunters Guild right behind them. The courtyard devolves into a mass of bodies, blood, and gunfire. Jen pushes all of that aside as she sprints towards Melanie and the Baba Yaga with the vampire at her side. Steve leaps up onto the structure to kill Kursk.

“Damn you werewolf!” Kursk sputters as Longeye charges up the tower. “I said only you three heroes could challenge me! You’re violating the ritual!”

“I hate dealing with fucking amateurs,” Longeye shouts back. “You think combat is like what you see on television. Since you’re going to die tonight, let me tell you a professional secret. Always bring backup.” Enraged, the human wizard hurls a fireball at Longeye. The hunter ducks, but his back explodes with pain from the near miss. Longeye snarls as he fires back at Kursk. The air in front of the wizard shimmers. Bullets ricochet as if they hit a wall. Longeye plays his hunch about the shield and empties the drum of the RPK as he runs sprints up the stairs. Kursk is blurred behind the shimmering. As the gun runs empty, Longeye lets the RPK fall on its sling and lowers his shoulder. His full mass slams into the invisible shield. Pain flashes as his shoulder and collarbone shatter under the impact, but Longeye didn’t rebound off of the shield. The invisible barrier is shoved back. Kursk is suddenly airborne. Unfortunately, Kursk smirks as he casts a hovering spell.

“That was inventive, if futile,” Kursk says. The wizard raises his hand and the concrete around Longeye shatters into dozens of stinging shards. “My followers will prevent any of your pathetic attempts to stop me.”

“You might want to take a look at your followers,” Longeye replies. His wounds are healed, so Longeye rocks a new drum into the RPK. Kursk looks down and blanches as he watches hunters and Bleeders slaughtering his ram-men. Even his stone monsters aren’t able to withstand the high-explosives both sides brought to the party.

“How could you defeat my dusios with mere guns?” Kursk demands.

“Did you think the Ancestors were going to let you sacrifice our pup if they could do anything to prevent it?” Longeye asks. “They remember those monsters you’ve unleashed, and they knew how to make our weapons work against them.” Kursk’s face twists in fury, but then smiles as a woman’s voice booms across the courtyard. Longeye follows his gaze down to where Jen and the Baba Yaga are dueling on the ground below.

Thank the Ancestors everyone’s keeping clear of us, Jen thinks as she sends another lightning bolt at the Russian demon. Jen knew going into the fight that the Baba Yaga is dangerous, but if any of Jen’s attacks hurt the Baba Yaga, she couldn’t see. By contrast, Jen’s auburn coat is slashed where the fur and skin was burned away. The Russian demon stands over Melanie and waves her long, thin hands in intricate motions. Jen casts the protection rite as lights of unearthly colors sparkle between and around the two.

Then, there’s an odd pulse in Jen’s magick, as if the Ancestors regret something. Before Jen can decipher the pulse, her shield vanishes. The Baba Yaga’s curse crackles through Jen. Every pain receptor in Jen’s body fires off simultaneously. Jen realizes it’s her own screaming she’s hearing. Her strength disintegrates and Jen crumples to the ground.

Why? Jen asks, Why did the shield fail? What did I do wrong?

NOTHING, the Ancestors answer in her head. If Jen wasn’t in so much pain, she’d marvel that the Ancestors are speaking to her. WE CANNOT DEFEAT THAT ONE’S POWER YET. Jen feels cold hands clamp down on her.

Kursk bellows a triumphant laugh as Jen falls. Longeye spins back to the wizard and rips off a burst. Kursk’s shield easily deflects the bullets. Before Longeye fires again, hooves clomped up the path behind him. The hunter whirls just as a dozen arrows are loosed at him. Longeye drops to the ground, but not fast enough. Pain flashes as three arrows sink deep into his shoulders and back. Longeye opens up. The enchanted bullets scythe down the ram-men. In a few seconds, all of them are dead or dying. Longeye turns, but Kursk is gone. Longeye catches sight of Kursk and the Baba Yaga pulling Melanie on to the top of the structure. From the looks on their faces, Longeye is sure that the ritual is about to begin.

“Well, that’s a clusterfuck, isn’t it?” Klaus says, startling Longeye. Klaus is supporting a battered Jen with one arm while holding a Walther P-38 with the other. Longeye recoils at the stench of wolfsbane that is smeared all over the shaman’s wounds. Jen’s breathing hard, but determination glows in her yellow eyes.

“Are you good?” Longeye asks Jen, keeping his voice as neutral as possible.

“Yeah, are you?” she asks in return, with a hint of anger.

“Yeah, everything’s healed back up,” Longeye answers, “What happened down there?”

“The Ancestors,” Jen answers.

“Why would they do that to you?” Longeye asks, confused.

“I have an idea, but we need to get up there now,” Jen says, with a note of command in her voice. Longeye grins as he rocks in a new drum. One more left.

“That looks like the best pathway,” Klaus says, motioning to the scaffolding with his pistol. “If you will clear the way, I will carry our young hexen.”

“I am not a witch,” Jen protests as she climbs onto the proffered back.

“Well, that’s not what you call yourself,” Klaus quips. Longeye chuckles as Jen playfully slaps the vampire. Longeye hops onto the scaffolding. Two humans pop up from the upper levels and rain down fire with machine pistols. Longeye grunts as two bullets hit, but they aren’t silver. Longeye’s body heals the wounds almost as fast as the humans make them. He aims at the wooden planks above him and opens fire. Blood pours down from the holes.

Longeye swings up to the next level. Satisfied that nothing is attacking, he motions for Klaus to follow. In the blink of an eye, Klaus is standing next to Longeye. The damned Kraut leech doesn’t even looked strained by Jen’s weight.

“I hear more above us,” Klaus says. Longeye plucks a small cylinder from the front of his rig, pulls the pin, and arches it up onto the planks above us. Klaus’s eyes go wide in horror. Longeye just smirks at the vampire.

Granata!” someone screams above. Longeye scampers up as the scaffolding gently shakes with the explosion. The hunter lands on the planks as the two humans blink furiously. Longeye doubts they hear the twin bursts that end their lives. Having a flash-bang go off in your face will do that to you. Klaus doesn’t look amused as he joins the hunter.

“Next up is the prize,” Longeye says, pointing at the planks above them.

“Are you going to use more of your firecrackers?” Klaus asks.

“I’ve got an idea,” Jen says, and quickly sketches out a plan. Longeye doesn’t like the plan, but he’s learned to trust the shaman’s instincts. Klaus looks skeptical, but nods. As Klaus blurs into motion, Longeye pulls himself up just enough to bring the RPK onto the next level. The Baba Yaga holds Melaine over a stone tub while Kursk puts a silver blade to the pup’s throat. Both are chanting something that sounds Russian.

Two ram-men guards see Longeye and loose arrows. The hunter grunts in pain as one digs into his right arm while the other punches through his ear. Longeye places the holographic reticle on a guard and fires a short burst. He doesn’t even watch it fall before swinging the light machine gun to the other ram-man. They fire at the same time. Longeye nearly lets go of the scaffolding as the most intense pain he’s ever felt explodes through his head. It takes him a moment to realize what’s happened. That bastard shot my eye out!

Longeye forces himself onto the top of the structure as his body works to heal him. Dammit, where did that bastard get an archanal arrow? At least Longeye killed the ram-man. Longeye crawls towards Kursk and the Baba Yaga. Kursk sees the hunter and scowls, but doesn’t stop chanting. Kursk hands the blade to the Baba Yaga before storming towards the crawling hunter.

Longeye yanks the arrow and feels his eyeball tear out of the socket. It’s a sensation Longeye never wants to feel again. He slaps a wolfsbane patch in the hole and grunts as the pain flares with the wolfsbane’s burn. Kursk kicks Longeye’s RPK out of his hands. The wizard moves faster than Longeye expects. The hunter slashes with his claws, but Kursk jumps out of the way. With the space opened up, Longeye draws his pistol and flicks on the flashlight. Kursk’s nifty shield doesn’t stop the brilliant 200-lumen light. The wizard shrinks back as he rubs at his eyes. To the wizard’s credit, he never stops the chanting. Longeye lines up the M&P’s sights and squeezes the trigger. The air in front of Kursk shimmers as his shield deflects the nine millimeter rounds. Longeye looks over and sees a malicious smile on the Baba Yaga’s face. As the demon pulls the knife back to cut Melanie’s neck, Longeye looks behind the Baba Yaga. Jen is mouthing words to the Ancestors as she casts.

“NOW!” Longeye screams. Melanie vanishes from the stunned Baba Yaga’s hands as Klaus darts in to rescue the pup. Then, the stone tub explodes like a landmine. Longeye is deafened by a screeching roar that shakes the tower. Four brilliant green tendrils lash out from where the stone tub had been. One tendril wraps around Kursk. He screams in Russian as the tendril pulls him into the ground. There’s an audible pop as the tendril and Kursk vanish. The Baba Yaga dodges two other tendrils with surprising deftness. Then, she points at Jen and chants in Russian. The three remaining tendrils lash out at Jen.

“Fuck no you don’t,” Jen snarls, “QVARE DOMA SCARTH!” The tendrils quaver as the Ancestors’ power stops them cold. First one, and then another tendril dissipate as Jen and the Baba Yaga battle. The remaining tendril pulsates as it whips between Jen and the Baba Yaga.

Brilliant turquoise light surrounds Jen’s forearms. Longeye smells burning flesh and fur. Jen shoves her arms in front of her and screams in pain and fury. The green tendril sways for a moment before it lances through the Baba Yaga. The Russian demon looks down at the glowing green tendril with a startled expression. Then, the entire top of the stone tower explodes.

Longeye recognizes the familiar scents of the Guild infirmary as he regains consciousness. Longeye opens his eyes. Relief flushes through him as he sees through both eyes. Thank you Ancestors! I’m not going to be expelled from the Guild. It’s a fear all hunters have, even if they pretend otherwise. Longeye looks over as the door opens. The Guildmaster and Jen walk into the infirmary in human form.

“I have something for you,” the Guildmaster says, handing Longeye an envelope. Inside is a business card for Klaus’s antique shop.

“I got that too,” Jen says. “I’m not sure what the card means.”

“Klaus is willing to continue talking to us,” Longeye answers. “You’ve scored your first contact in the vampire world.”

“Is it bad that I don’t think that’s a bad thing?” Jen asks. The Guildmaster barks a laugh.

“You may wish to refrain from bringing that to the Spiritmaster’s attention,” the Guildmsters says. Then, the Guildmaster looks back at Longeye. “Steven, you did good work. Albert wants you to rest for a few more days, and I think you should take the doctor’s advice. You will be out in time for the funerals.” The Guildmaster’s face grows dark. “We lost seventeen. After the funerals, I need you to take over Brian’s slot.” Longeye’s eyes go wide. Brian McKellan, better known as Bladesmith, is – or had been – the leader of the hit packs. The Guildmaster gives a short nod at Longeye’s unanswered question. Then, the Guildmaster abruptly turns and walks out of the infirmary.

“How’d you come out?” Longeye asks Jen. She purses her lips before sliding up the sleeves of her sweater. Her forearms and hands are covered in twisted burn scars.

“It was all archanal, and I didn’t get wolfsbane on them in time,” Jen says, clearly embarrassed by her scars. “Even taking on the Baba Yaga while she was distracted, I still needed to handle so much magic that I did this to myself.” She looks to be on the verge of tears. Longeye reaches out and puts a hand on her arm.

“Stop. You did the job,” Longeye says, “You paid a nasty price, but you did the job, and in the end, that’s all that matters. Anyone who tells you different is a fucking idiot. If anyone gives you grief for your scars, you put them in their fucking place. If you ever need it, the entire damned Guild will back you. We know the price of getting the job done.” Jen cocks her head and gives the hunter a smile.

“Thank you,” she says, standing up, “I didn’t mean to talk about that. I just wanted to make sure you were okay before I have to go out to the cravex to prepare for the Rites for the Dead.” The cravex is the lycanthropes’ holy site where all the rituals are performed. Her smile turns sad. “My first duty as caretaker is to handle the most funeral our packs have seen since the Great Fatherland War.”

“Caretaker?” Longeye asks, not sure he heard correctly. Jen nods.

“I’m now the third highest in the Order of the Spirits,” Jen says, “Right behind the Spiritmaster and Deputy Spiritmaster.” She leans over Longeye. “Can I tell you that it scares the hell out of me?”

“I’m not worried. You’ll get the job done.”

Monday Fiction on Hiatus

Monday Fiction is going to go on indefinite hiatus because life has gotten a bit hectic around here. I just don’t have the time to write that I would like, and what time I do have I want to devote to finishing the novel I’m currently working on.

I hope to have the novel ready for sale (yes, actual sale) by the first quarter of 2016.

If I can go back and finish up Avalon, I will. Until then, this will be where things will hold.

Monday Fiction – Avalon Chapter 8


“Wow, this place is small,” Corrie said as Erik led her into the apartment. “I thought Anya was exaggerating when she talked about it.” Erik ignored the flash of pain from Corrie’s words. She was just making conversation, not trying to remind him of what he had lost.

“Yeah, well they won’t look for you here,” Erik replied, “The master bedroom is at the end of the hall. You can use that one.” He walked into the second bedroom and started peeling off his gear and armor. He stopped as he noticed that Corrie was standing in the doorway and watching him. 

“This is your place, why don’t you take the master?” Corrie asked. 

“For the same reason I haven’t been to this place for a couple of years,” Erik answered, trying to keep the pain out of his voice. He wasn’t as successful as he thought, because Corrie strode into the room and gave him a sisterly hug. Erik braced as her arms came around him, but relented and let him enjoy the warmth of the physical contact. He didn’t care how long they stood there. He had missed Corrie’s comforting presence.

“I’m surprised you kept this place,” Corrie said, finally breaking the silence. 

“I didn’t,” Erik answered, finally shrugging out of her embrace. “It’s owned by one of my family’s companies. They’ve just been nice enough to let me use it again.” He gave her a crooked smile. “You should go get cleaned up.”

“I’m not the only one,” Corrie said, punching Erik in the shoulder, “You’re a bit whiff too.”

“If I may remind you, your highness, I was doing that until you came in and interrupted me,” Erik shot back. 

“I did not interrupt you. I was checking on the well-being of one of my subjects. My concern is never considered an interruption,” Corrie said in a lofty tone. “I will now tend to myself while you make yourself presentable for such august personage, such as myself.”

“If you’re not careful, I’ll make you cook for yourself,” Erik said. Corrie stuck her tongue out at him as she walked back to the master bedroom. They spent the next few hours getting cleaned up followed by cleaning their gear and weapons. They worked in a companionable silence that Erik felt relaxing, especially considering the tension of getting off of Battle Island. Dodging delvers and their minions was bad enough, but they also had to evade the Army patrols out doing search and destroy missions against the Dark Towers. Having to cart around Ensign Bartley as well just increased the difficulty. 

“I hope that girl will be okay,” Corrie said as if she was reading Erik’s mind. 

“She should be fine,” Erik said, “You did a good job on the emergency patchwork and the ship’s captain said he’d make sure that she made it to the Hospitallers.” He turned back to look at Corrie as he heard her stop working.

“Seriously Erik, how long do we have before someone finds out that I’m not dead?” Corrie asked. There was an odd spike of determination in her emotions when she asked the question. Erik frowned as he realized she was planning something. He mentally frowned, careful not to let the expression on his face. Corrie wasn’t exactly known for the timidity of her plans.

“Probably twenty-four hours,” Erik answered, “It could be fifteen or it could be thirty. It’ll depend on when the Hospitallers call the base to tell them they have one of the Army’s ensigns. Even if it’s fifteen, we should be long gone from Battle City by then.” He looked her straight in the eye. “Why?”

“I’ve been going over what happened in my head,” Corrie answered. “I was at five thousand feet doing a wide sweep when my wing suddenly exploded. At first, I thought it was just a structural failure because nothing the Dark Towers has should be able to hit a plane that high up. Then, I was too busy trying to survive my plane disintegrating to figure out what happened.” Corrie went silent, and Erik could feel the determination building in her as she mentally prepared herself to lay out her plan. 

“Whoever did this is waiting to find out if I’m dead,” Corrie said, “This may be the best window we’ll have to find out who’s behind this and why they’re trying to kill me.”

“I thought intelligence was my job, not yours,” Erik said. 

“No, intelligence was Samantha’s job. You’ve always been more of a well-trained thug,” Corrie said in a teasing tone. Erik just rolled his eyes. Corrie’s expression grew serious again. “Listen, whoever is behind this must have had some help from inside the Army. How else did they know I was flying and where? It’s not like pilots have a set schedule.”

“Granted,” Erik said, not liking the spike of excitement in Corrie’s emotions. 

“I know my fellow officers,” Corrie said, “They play the political game almost as hard as they fight the Dark Towers in the field. Probably more so in the Air Forces than the ground pounders. If one of them set me up, they’re going to keep the evidence of who they’re working for until I’m confirmed dead. They’d need the leverage on their partners if the Imperial Guard came looking.” Erik took one look at the excited light in Corrie’s eyes.

“You want to go get that evidence,” Erik said, with a resigned tone.

“Of course,” Corrie said, a predatory smile spreading across her face.

“Corrie, I just pulled you off that island so that we could get you someplace safe,” Erik said, “A lot of work has gone into getting you back to the palace, and a lot of people have put themselves on the line for you. I’m sure the Saint is going to tear the fort apart looking for whoever was behind you getting shot down. Can we at least wait until we have you back behind a wall of Imperial Guard?”

“Erik, if I show back up at the palace, the bastards behind this will circle the wagons and we’ll never find out who it was,” Corrie said. “Erik, please. You’re the only one I’d trust to help me do this.” He sighed and felt Corrie’s soaring excitement.

“You said the same thing when we stole your father’s car because you had to go talk with Jamie Harrington,” Erik shot back. Corrie smiled at the jab. She knew that if he was bringing up their past capers, then he was already mentally preparing to go on another.

“That would have worked if you hadn’t missed the turn,” Corrie said, standing up.

“You were the one who was driving and managed to crash the car into Harrington Keep,” Erik protested.

“Which I wouldn’t have done if you hadn’t missed telling me the turn,” Corrie said as if that should have evident even to a small child. She gave him a wide smile.

“I’ll make some calls and see what I can arrange,” Erik said, reaching for his phone. 

Monday Fiction – Avalon Chapter 7


“Thanks Aunt Belinda,” Anne said as she hugged the short, round woman in the doorway. Anne smiled as she spied the twelve-gauge Remington leaning in the corner of the doorway. Aunt Belinda was still the practical woman Anne remembered. That was one of the reasons that Anne led the group this deep into the old city.  

“Oh, it’s no bother. I do so love having company these days. Even if it’s under rather unusual circumstances,” Aunt Belinda said, ushering the group into her small, comfortable house. “Anne dear, did you know that there’s a BOLO out on the four of you?” 

“Been listening to the police scanner again, Aunt Belinda?” Anne asked as she shut and bolted the door. Anne did a quick check around the neighborhood to see if they had any followers. The street didn’t have any unusual cars or lights on.  

“Well, I like to keep my hand in the game, you know,” Aunt Belinda answered as she scurried from the door and down to the short hallway to the kitchen. Anne, Samantha, Princess Anya, and Veritas followed her back. Anne felt part of her relax as the smells of home-baked brownies and coffee floated down to them. 

“Sit, sit,” Aunt Belinda said, motioning to a worn kitchen table and chairs. Steaming mugs of coffee and a plate of brownies seemed to materialize the moment the four sat down. 

“We should not relax yet,” Veritas said, “They are bound to be checking all of your family to see if they are harboring us. We probably don’t have a lot of time.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” Aunt Belinda said, “It’ll take a few days before they’ll think to look here. Besides, we should at least have a couple of hours warning before they show up at my front door.” Anne smiled as Samantha and Veritas did quick re-evaluations of the elderly woman. 

“You have my most heartfelt thanks, madam,” Princess Anya said. Aunt Belinda’s eyebrow crooked the tiniest bit upward at Anya’s accent. Anne restrained the giggle, but Aunt Belinda must have heard something because she bestowed one of her rare glowers on Anne. 

“Okay, Veritas, time to spill,” Anne said, looking at the elf, “What in the hell is going on?”

“Language, Anne. A lady shouldn’t speak like that,” Aunt Belinda reproved. Anne gave the older woman a look of contrition. 

“With all due respect to our host, I can’t discuss this in front of her,” Veritas said, and gave Aunt Belinda a small bow. The respect in the elf’s voice and gesture caught Anne off-guard.

“Aunt Belinda can keep a secret,” Anne said, “We’re trusting her not to report us to the authorities.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Anne. I’m not offended. After all, if I don’t hear what’s happening, I can’t testify about it later,” Aunt Belinda said, “Help yourself to anything in the kitchen, just please make sure to clean up after yourselves. I have some knitting to attend to.” She patted the three woman on the arm and dashed out of the kitchen.

“Okay, Veritas, talk,” Anne said, sharply. The elf looked back down the hall before turning back to the group. He looked like he wanted to ask about Aunt Belinda. Instead, he took a deep breath and looked down at his wristwatch.

“Three hours ago I discovered two men trying to place a bomb below the bedroom of the prince,” Veritas said. Princess Anya gasped. 

“We didn’t hear anything about that,” Anne said.

“Of course not, because I didn’t report it through the normal channels,” Veritas said.

“Why not?” Anne asked. Veritas gave her an exasperated look. 

“Would you stop interrupting, Detective?” Veritas asked. Anne folded her arms beneath her breasts and nodded at the elf. 

“I interrogated the two men who were setting the bomb,” Veritas said, “They were just local mercenaries in the city’s criminal ecosystem. They were hired through a local middleman named Yamin. They had no idea where the money originated and were even provided the explosive to be used. The device was one of the Navy’s medium limpet mines. Used properly, it would have easily blown through all of the normal and magical defenses surrounding the prince.”

“Wait, the American Navy or the Imperial Navy?” Samantha asked. 

“American,” Veritas answered. Samantha let out a string of curses that surprised Anne.

“So, someone on this side of the gate wants my husband murdered?” Princess Anya asked, confused. “I thought the purpose of these negotiations was to cement a stronger relationship between the Emperor’s government and the American government.”

“No, your highness, it wasn’t the Americans,” Veritas said, “Or at least, those of us in OSI don’t believe it was the American government.”

“Well, if it wasn’t the Americans who set this in motion, then who?” Princess Anya demanded. 

“The Saint believes that there is a coterie among the aristocrats who are not happy about your father-in-law seizing back his traditional powers,” Veritas said. “Not surprising considering the Emperor destroyed a hundred years of precedent that gave most of his power to the House of Lords.”

“If they didn’t want their powers taken away from them, then they shouldn’t have cowered behind their walls while the Commandante was wreaking havoc across Avalon City,” Princess Anya said with the first hint of true malice Anne had heard from the woman. Samantha snorted, and the princess glowered at the psychic. Veritas cleared his throat to continue.  

“That may be true, your highness, but it doesn’t change their actions,” Veritas said. 

“So, how did that bomb figure into Kurt giving us the ‘go-to-hell’ code?” Anne asked.

“I rendered the explosive in the mine inert and then enlisted the aid of Mr. Schneider and Agent MacMurtry. I thought it would be better if they discovered the bomb, considering the current tensions between the various security teams. If people on this side of the gate alerted the security teams to the presence, it was doubtful that the Americans would have been behind it. Plus, we were hoping that it would flush out the conspirators. Such was not the case.”

“Are Kurt and Jason okay?” Anne asked, not sure if she wanted to hear the answer. Veritas nodded and Anne felt like she could breathe again. She hadn’t realized exactly how worried she’d been about Kurt. 

“It seems someone else alerted the security teams about the bomb,” Veritas said. “Fortunately, the responding team of the Imperial Guard assumed the three of us had just stumbled onto the criminals and took them down. It was through them that we found out that the reported target was not the prince, but you, your highness.” Princess Anya paled and held her hand to her mouth. “Once Mr. Schneider found out the target, he asked me to get you out of the building.”

“Why would they want to kill me?” the princess asked.

“Because then they can get their own choice as the prince’s new consort,” Samantha answered without a hint of compassion for the princess. “Everyone knows that Prince Rupert is easily swayed. Having their own princess tow whisper what they want in his ear?” Princess Anya looked about to unload another salvo, but Anne held up her hand before the two women could even start to bicker. Much to her surprise, they both backed down. 

“So, as far as everyone back at the hotel is concerned, Kurt and Jason were just in the right place at the right time?” Anne asked. Veritas nodded as he sipped at the coffee in front of him.

“Won’t they learn otherwise from the two who were setting the bomb?” Princess Anya asked. 

“They didn’t survive interrogation, I’m afraid,” Veritas answered. Princess Anya stared at the elf in shock. Anne was also startled by the elf’s casual response, but Samantha didn’t seem surprised. Anne guessed that the death of certain prisoners was considered a normal outcome for those in the Office of Special Investigations. It was those kinds of revelations that rubbed Anne’s nose in the fact that her friends came from a very different culture. Anne out those thoughts away and pondered on their current situation for a long moment. 

“We have no idea who was behind the attempt?” Anne asked, finally breaking the silence.

“Not really,” Veritas answered. “OSI thinks Earl Dorn of Oyster Bay is the leader of the coterie, but we’re not sure if he is involved in his members more energetic plans.”

“Not surprised,” Samantha said, “Earl Oyster Bay is one of the staunchest conservatives in the House of Lords.” 

“I’ll let you three deal with the politics. Do you have pictures of the two men?” Anne asked. Veritas produced a phone from inside his jacket and handed it to Anne. She recognized both men as freelance hitters, although they both tended to stick to working for one of the city’s mafia families. Anne paced up and down the kitchen as she thought over what had happened and what she knew. 

“Okay, we’ll stay here until tomorrow night,” Anne said. “Then we’re going to question who hired these two and find out who is behind this.”

Monday Fiction – Avalon Chapter 6


Erik leapt from the truck to where Corry crouched over the wounded Ensign Bartley. Corry didn’t even look up at him as she snatched the med kit from his hands. Erik let Corry work as he stripped Bill’s corpse. Damn it, why did Call and Bill have to take the money? Why in the hell did they agree to assassinate the princess of the Empire? The whole plot against Corry made no sense. She wasn’t even the heir to the Imperial throne. So, why try and eliminate her? 

The snarl of orcs snapped Erik’s attention to the wall. Two of the eight-foot tall creatures perched above Corry and the ensign. Both were aiming their heavy crossbows down. Erik grabbed Bill’s pistol off the ground and emptied the magazine at the two orcs. The .400 Imperial cartridge did okay against goblins and draks, but it wouldn’t penetrate against the thicker hides of the orcs. That didn’t mean getting by a whole bunch of the bullets didn’t hurt the orcs. A crossbow bolt skittered off the asphalt while the other thunked into the shed above Corry’s head.

“Erik, would you stop them from doing that?” Corry ordered without looking up. “It’s distracting.” Erik knew better than to reply when Corry was in her working zone. He unslung his rifle. The two orcs tossed their crossbows, drew heavy swords, and leapt down off the wall. Erik stitched one with a burst as soon as it hit the ground. Its partner charged Erik with a bellow. Erik fired two more bursts, but the orc ignored the wounds and slashed out with its sword. Erik rolled to the side. The orc redirected his blade faster than Erik thought it could move. He barely managed to deflect the blade with a telekinetic push. The sword sparked as the orc dragged it across the asphalt. 

Erik rolled up into a crouch with his rifle leveled at the orc. He emptied the magazine into the monster. Twenty rounds tore the orc’s chest open. Erik dropped the spent magazine into a pouch before snatching a charged magazine and slamming it into the magazine well. He scanned around him, looking for more threats brought by the gunfire. 

He felt the alien emotions at the same time as he heard the heavy grunts. Two trolls rose up from behind the ruins of a small building. Trolls were twice as tall, twice as strong, and twice as tough as orcs. About the only good thing was that the ponderous monsters were about half as smart as an orc. Erik slung his rifle and jumped to the heavy machine gun on the back of Bill’s truck.

Erik had barely grabbed the heavy machine gun’s handles when the sun was blocked by a twelve foot section of wall one of the trolls threw at him. Erik made a quick calculation and jumped. There was a disheartening crunch as the wall flattened the truck. 

“What the hell just happened to the truck?” Corry called out from behind the shed.

“Trolls,” Erik answered as his mind raced with how to kill the two giant monsters. If he’d had another second or two, he could have brought the heavy machine gun with him. 

“Why’d you wake up the trolls?” Corry asked, with an exasperated tone.

“Because I was trying to save you from those two orcs, and I didn’t sense them sleeping here,” Erik shouted. 

“Don’t yell at me, Erik. Just hurry up and finish them off,” Corry said. 

“How exactly would you like me to do that without the heavy machine gun?” Erik asked as he dodged a six-foot metal bar as it whistled past. 

“Maybe that magic sword of yours?” Corry called out. 

“Don’t have it. Long story,” Erik said. That actually caused Corry to shoot a surprised look over her shoulder at him. Erik didn’t have time to enjoy catching Corry off-guard. The trolls were continuing to try and squash him with debris. He managed to knock the man-sized boulder off course so that it missed him by a foot or two. It still showered him with shards. 

“Well, what about Little Britches?” Corry asked. Erik thought about that as he dodged more improvised missiles from the trolls. That might work, but Erik would have to get in close to the trolls. Closing with trolls was generally considered a bad idea. 

Erik made some quick calculations, sprinted, and then pushed himself into the air. The trolls stared up at him. They didn’t react well to surprises, and humans weren’t supposed to fly unless they were in one of their contraptions. As Erik arched down, he drew Little Britches and aimed the stubby tri-barrel. Three feet above the troll’s head, Erik touched off the armor-piercing barrel. 

Erik had the barest instant to see the heavy dart pulp the troll’s head before Little Britches’ heavy recoil tossed him back away from the troll and straight into the second troll’s fist. Pain flashed as Erik was slammed to the ground. Erik pushed with a bit of power to slide out from the troll’s stomp. He swung the heavy weapon around and touched off Little Britches’ fragmentation barrel. The troll howled as a hundred and fifty flechettes sliced through the its foot. The monster staggered back, trying hard not to step on the mangled mess of its foot. 

Erik leapt into the troll and touched off the final barrel. The troll screamed as the white phosphorus landed into its hide. Trolls were vulnerable to fire and burning. The troll ran away from Erik with a loping gait. Erik popped open Little Britches’ breech and three heavy steel casing clattered on the asphalt. Erik slipped in three more six-inch long, two-inch wide cartridges.

“Can I tell you how glad I am that the Imperial Guard let you keep that weapon?” Corry said as Erik approached.

“I’m fine thanks. Just a few bumps, bruises, and scrapes,” Erik said flatly. 

“Why are you complaining?” Corry asked, “Aren’t you Jaegar the Troll-Killer?”

“Because I killed one troll with a magic sword!” Erik nearly shouted. Two more orcs dropped down. Erik turned, put them both down with rifle bursts, and then turned back to Corry. The woman had one of her knowing smirks on her face. 

“Hey, now you’ve got two more on your record. She’s stabilized, but we need to get her to a field hospital,” Corry said. “Give me that rifle and ammo pouch so I can cover is while you carry her.” Corry scanned the horizon as Erik unslung the weapon. “Where are we going?”

“Thirty-Fourth and Broad,” Erik answered. “I’ve got gear stashed there for you.” He concentrated on the moaning ensign and carefully lifted her with some power. This kind of fine work was always more draining. “We’ll need to hurry or we’ll miss the boat.”

“Boat, what boat?” Corry asked as they moved into the city. She shot another orc that tried to stop them. 

“The boat that’s going to pick us up at 1600 tomorrow at Green Cove,” Erik said as he guided the ensign’s body through the streets as fast as he could reasonably control. When they were a bit safer, he’d fashion a stretcher and carry her. 

“Why don’t we go to Fort Andrews?” Corry asked. 

“Because the Army may be complicit in you getting shot down,” Erik answered.

“Damn it. It can never be easy, can it?” Corry said as she covered their rear.

“That’s my line,” Erik complained as he covered their front with his submachine gun. 

“Where do you think I got it from?” Corry asked. As they rounded another corner, she stopped Erik long enough to give him a chaste kiss on the cheek. “By the way, thanks for coming to get me.”

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