Book: Orion Awakened
J. N. Chaney
Orion Awakened and Renegade Star Copyright © 2019 by Variant Publications
Book design and layout copyright © 2019 by JN Chaney
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living, dead, or undead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from JN Chaney and Jonathan Yanez.
Books in the Renegade Star Universe
Renegade Star Series:
Renegade Union (Out Now!))
Renegade Empire (March 2019)
Nameless: A Renegade Star Story (Out Now!)
The Orion Colony Series:
Stay Up To Date
He also created a special Facebook group called “JN Chaney’s Renegade Readers” specifically for readers to come together and share their lives and interests, discuss the series, and speak directly to him. Please check it out and join whenever you get the chance!
You can also join Jonathan Yanez’s fangroup, called Jonathan’s Reading Wolves. Check it out for more info about his upcoming releases.
For updates about new releases, as well as exclusive promotions, visit the author’s website and sign up for the VIP mailing list. Head there now to receive a free copy of The Amber Project.
Enjoying the series? Help others discover The Orion Colony series by leaving a review on Amazon.
Orion Important Characters and Terms
Orion Uncharted Map
Check Out the Renegade Star Series
Get a Free Book
Books in the Renegade Star Universe
About the Authors
Book 3 in the Orion Colony Series
J.N. Chaney Jonathan Yanez
Book Description Orion Awakened: Orion Colony Series #3
An alien awakens from a long sleep.
An impossible prophecy that cannot be ignored.
Dean and his friends are trapped on a world they can barely comprehend with enemies on all sides and a growing need to survive.
There's more to this place than any of them could have dreamed.
But what is the strange infection spreading across the forest, and where did it come from?
Who or what is the Great Dawn?
The world is full of secrets, and Dean Slade is at the center of it all.
Time to discover the truth.
And the many adventures to come.
To everyone who’s gotten knocked down following their dreams.
You get back up. You don’t give up. That’s not who we are.
Orion Important Characters and Terms
Dean Slade : Former gladiator world champion fighting under the name Dean “Steel Hands” Slade, current mechanic on the Orion.
Stacy Wilson : Civil Authority Officer Special Agent. Stacy infiltrated the mechanic ranks on Earth acting as an undercover agent for the Civil Authority. Her mission was to acquire information working in the yards where the seed ships were constructed. After the Orion’s crash she has taken a more active role as a Civil Authority Officer.
Ricky Matthews (Rick) : Dean’s only friend going into the events of Orion Colony. Ricky is a mechanic and has a gambling issue. He also has a crush on Arun Drake one of the Eternals leading the Orion.
Boss Creed : In charge of the mechanics on Earth as well as on the Orion. Boss Creed is a fare but stern foreman.
Dr. Kelly Allbright (The Professor) : Gifted doctor well versed in caring for the injured and sick. Doctor Allbright has cared for Dean a handful of times already despite their short term of affiliation.
Dr. James Wong (Al) : Head of technology on the Orion. Doctor Wong was responsible for treating the technology that allowed Dean and the rest of the team to find the second Disciple on board. His receptionist was in fact the second Disciple discovered on board the Orion and the one that brought the seed ship down.
Maksim Aleksandre Kuznetsov Petrov: Disciple, AKA Jeffrey Hooke, AKA Trevor Bishop, AKA the Assassin. Discovered while trying to sabotage the Orion. Captured and imprisoned in the prisoner cell block aboard the Orion.
Mutt : Genetically engineered to be larger, stronger and faster than normal canines. Mutt met Dean on the Orion when Dean stumbled on Maksim trying to infect the animals with a violent strain of rabies. Mutt found Dean again once the Orion crashed.
Arun Drake : Arun is one half of the sister, brother team leading the Orion. Belonging to a wealthy Eternal family, Arun’s passion is to help those less fortunate than herself. She sees this trip on the Orion her chance to offer aid to Transients she sees as equals. She’s loyal to a fault and ferocious when it comes to protecting others.
Elon Drake : Much like his sister he sees this trip as an opportunity to aid the Transients he sees as his fellow man. Pilot of the Orion, Elon sacrificed his own life to stay aboard the Orion and land the ship. In the process he lost his leg.
Iris : Cognative in charge of the Orion, Iris is one of the sentient Artificial Intelligences coupled with the twelve seed ships leaving Earth. After the Orion’s crash, Iris has been given limited power. The long range scanners, navigation, and communication sections of her ship are currently down.
Eternals : Advanced humans who have been genetically modified with advanced healing and extremely long lifespans. After a few centuries, an additional mutation caused the Eternals to develop albino features, giving them a distinct appearance. They are responsible for most of Earth’s advanced technology, including the seed colony ships, such as Orion, as well as Tritium Cores, slipspace drives, and Cognitives.
Transients : Normal humans who do not posses the Eternal gene. After Eternals arose on Earth, Transient humans were delegated to the lower class, unable to accumulate wealth or obtain high-level positions in either business or politics. This stagnation led to a rebellion in which the Transients demanded equal opportunity. To satisfy this need, the Eternals offered them a deal: venture out into the far-flung reaches of the galaxy and colonize distant worlds, taking their lives into their own hands. The Transients agreed, and so began the greatest mass exodus in Earth’s history.
Slipspace : A dimension beneath our own in which faster-than-light travel is possible. While it is not fully understood, many theorize that slipspace tunnels are in a constant state of nuclear fusion and fission, destroying and creating atoms simultaneously at all times. It was believed that slip tunnels were a naturally occurring phenomenon, but this is incorrect. In truth, the slip tunnel network was created by ancient ships from Earth as they expanded across the galaxy. While some tunnels collapsed over time, many remained to this day, providing modern ships with a faster-than-light means of transportation. Since modern ships cannot create their own tunnels, they must continue to rely on the existing network to travel. The Orion is able to create these tunnels.
Kronos Five : The original planet the Orion was headed to before it was sabotaged and taken off course.
The Orion : One of the twelve original seed ships made to take Transients off Earth. It is shaped like a small moon. It is capable of carrying one hundred thousands passengers. With hundreds of levels including storage, housing and recreation the Orion is a small city in itself. When it crashed the Orion was broken in two. The front half of the ship was landed by Elon, the back half broke into multiple sections scattered around the planet.
Civil Authority : The ruling power policing Earth at the time the Orion launched. Stacy Wilson is Civil Authority Officer, she acted as an undercover agent until the Orion crashed. The Orion was accompanied by a strong presence of Civil Authority Officers upon launch. Only a handful of Civil Authority officers survived the Orion crash.
The Disciples : The first and oldest cult to oppose the Eternals. The Disciples believe that any genetic mutation or evolution of the human body is evil. They’re an underground terrorist group responsible for multiple attacks on Eternal businesses and Eternals themselves.
They never came back. The exploration team led by Captain Ezra Harold disappeared with zero radio communication. It had been a full week since we returned to find a three-fingered alien waiting for us. In that time, Iris communicated with the alien named Tong, learning his dialect and teaching him our own.
Lucky for the survivors of the Orion, Tong was highly intelligent and a quick learner. This was one of the reasons he was selected by his own race of people to be the one woken if help should arrive.
At the moment, I found myself, along with Stacy, inside the alien’s home base in the gut of a mountain just outside the landing area of the Orion. It was decided that introducing the alien to the rest of the survivors would be too much for the time being. Until a way to integrate Tong into our lives was found, he would remain a secret.
The rest of the Orion crew and I took turns staying with him. They brought him food while Iris shared information and they learned about their new home planet.
“No way,” I said, looking over at Stacy. “He looks more like a big gecko, not an alligator.”
“You’re blind,” Stacy said, rolling her eyes. “Totally an alligator man.”
We were staying with Tong in the large circular room where we first found him. He showed us a control panel along the side of the wall that allowed bright lights to shine overhead as well as change color. Right now, the lights were bright white.
Tong looked at us with a wide grin, showing all of his stubby teeth. In the week Iris worked on teaching him English, the two had made incredible bounds, but there was still a steep learning curve.
“What is gecko?” Tong asked, still smiling. When he talked, his words sounded guttural and harsh. “Tong am Remboshi.”
“Right, right,” I said, nodding to the smiling alien. “You’re a Remboshi—that’s your race—but on Earth, you look like a creature we have called a gecko.”
“No gecko.” Tong waved a hand dismissing the idea. “Tong am Remboshi.”
“So, Tong, tell us,” Stacy said, leaning against the wide circular wall of the room. “What lies to the east in the mountains?”
Tong cocked his head to the side as if he didn’t comprehend the words. This was the main problem we were having with him. He could understand some dialogue, but he kept getting caught up on physical locations and in depth questions. Still, it had been two days since I had seen him last and he could talk a lot more now than he could then.
“Mountains? East?” Tong blinked his large yellow eyes at us, clearly confused.
“Mountains,” I said as Stacy searched for an alternate way to ask her question. I made the design of large upside down V’s on the ground to try and simulate a mountain range. “You know, big mounds of earth.”
Tong came closer to look at what I was doing. I tensed involuntarily as he approached, despite knowing he was a friend. He had never made any kind of aggressive act toward us at all. Still, with an alien only a few feet away, my fight or flight mode kicked in.
Easy, Dean, easy, I coached myself. If he tries anything, you’re the one with the blaster. Plus, his anatomy is close enough to a human’s that you could beat him in a fight. Probably.
Tong didn’t seem to notice me tense up. He stared down at the ground as I traced the mountain range, trying to make sense of it. Finally giving up, the alien shrugged his tiny shoulders, looked at me with an almost sorry expression, and shook his head.
“Here, this might work,” Stacy said, rummaging through the pack at her feet. She came out with a large smart pad, then scrolled through the device before offering it to me. “You can draw on it with your finger.”
“We’ll give it another shot. He understands more now than when we tried two days ago, so who knows, maybe it’ll work,” I said, accepting the pad.
Drawing things for Tong to grasp was something we’d tried twice before with limited success, but he was learning quickly.
I created a square with my finger in the center of the white screen. Tong peered down at my seated position, edging down for a better look. Uneasy again at his close proximity, I rethought my position and rose to my feet. Tong didn’t seem to notice or care. His eyes were on the smart pad.
“This is us, here,” I said, pointing to the square again. I pointed to myself, then Stacy, and then to him. “Dean, Stacy, and Tong, here.”
“Shtacy, Great Dawn, Tong,” Tong said, nodding along and using his names for us.
Stacy laughed then lifted a hand to her mouth to stifle the giggle. “Sorry, but come on, the way he calls you Great Dawn is a little funny.”
I ignored Stacy, going over to the left side of the pad and creating a mountain range with large upside down V’s. It was to the east of the square in the middle of the map, just like they would be in real life.
“And these are mountains,” I said, pointing to the mountain range I’d drawn. I wasn’t proud of them, but I’d never be a world class artist. In truth, a little kid could have done a better job.
“Ahhhhhh,” Tong said in a long exhale of breath. “Mountains.”
“Yes,” I said, seeing a glimmer of recollection in those large yellow eyes.
Tong searched the ceiling in thought. He bit his lower lip in a very human show of concentration. “In your words, Remboshi name Mountains of Death.”
I looked over at Stacy with a deadpan expression on my face. “You hear that? Mountains of Death.”
“Why can’t they be the Mountains of Eternal Peace or the Mountains of Hope?” Stacy wondered, shaking her head. “I guess this place has it out for us every time we stop to look around.”
“Sleeping Remboshi,” Tong said, pointing to the southern portion of the map. “My people sleep here.”
“He’s pointing to that mist swamp place to the south, isn’t he?” Stacy said, shaking her head. “Of course, he is.”
I let a long exhale escape my lips. I’d never been to the mist swamp, but I remembered the story Doctor Allbright told of her escape ship landing there.
“Well, how about over here?” I asked, pointing with my finger to the opposite side of the mountains we knew nothing about. “What’s over here?”
Tong took a step back. If his face could have turned pale, I got the sense it would have. He shook his head from side to side. A mixture of fear and sadness in his eyes.
“Bad Remboshi,” Tong said. “Bad Remboshi called Rung. Rung fight my people. Rung create the Zyg. Zyg spread over planet try and kill us all.”
“Zyg?” I looked over to Stacy. “Do you think Zyg means…”
My voice trailed off. Stacy lifted a finger into the air, asking for silence. She pressed the pointer and middle finger of her opposite hand into her left ear. “Iris, can you translate the word ‘Zyg’ for us?”
“Certainly,” the Cognitive’s crisp voice came through loud and clear in my own earpiece. “A rough translation for the word Zyg in English would come back as Legion.”
“Holy bananas,” I said, piecing together the story Tong was telling us. “Tong, can you show us a picture of the Rung or of the Zyg?”
Tong nodded. He traveled over to the circular pedestal-type desk in the center of the room and placed his right hand on the stone pillar. A moment later, a holographic yellow control panel appeared in front of him.
“Hey, Iris?” I asked.
“Yes?” Iris answered.
“How come we’ve been working with Tong for a week now on communicating, and all of a sudden, today he can nearly have a conversation with us?”
“He has been showing improvement day by day. His race may learn at a different rate than we are used to,” Iris said through my earpiece. “Perhaps his kind learn through studying and thinking internally then show outward progress at once.”
“Right,” I said, gripping my blaster. I made my way with Stacy over to where Tong had activated the control section of the pillar.
“Did you know it could do that?” Stacy asked, pointing with her chin at the images popping up from the stone cylinder.
I noticed she was also holding the weapon tighter.
“Not a clue,” I said. “Tong’s been holding out on us.”
If Tong understood we were talking about him, he didn’t show it. The three fingers on each of his hands were racing across a holographic control panel. Each button on the control panel was etched in a symbol I did not understand. A wide screen appeared floating in space above us, showing an image of a Remboshi with metal pieces attached to its body.
“Rung,” Tong said, pointing to the image. “Our enemies.”
I took a closer look. The Rung were Remboshi that looked as though they had been genetically altered with technology that made them a bit larger than Tong. These guys had to be a foot taller and had used some kind of genetic enhancing.
It also seemed as though they weren’t afraid to experiment on themselves. The Rung in the picture had a left metal eye, and its right arm was completely mechanical.
Tong motioned to my ear and then again to my hand. It was something we had done in the past. He wanted to communicate with Iris.
“We can do one better for you,” I said, bringing Iris up on the smart pad I still held in my hand opposite the blaster. “Iris, Tong would like a word.”
“Certainly,” Iris said.
Tong rattled off in his language to Iris. It sounded like a series of hard clicks and hisses in my ears.
Iris answered him in his own language. She ended with, “Tong, if you want to learn English, speaking it is the fastest way to learn.”
Tong nodded then cleared his throat, or maybe he coughed; I couldn’t tell.
“Rung once part of my people,” Tong said, pointing to the picture. “Rung obsessed with enhancing body. Break off from main Remboshi clan and begin a war with my people. The Rung create the Zyg, or Iris tell me English name is Legion. Legion become self-aware, try to kill us all, Rung and my people. We hide underground and wait for Great Dawn to save us.”
Tong said this last part pointing at me with proud smile.
“What is Great Dawn?” I asked. “Why do you keep calling me that?”
“A prophecy foretold by our seer,” Tong said. “The Dawn would come once more to our planet.” He pointed to me again with a fat finger. “Humans are the Dawn. You are Great Dawn.”
“Listen, buddy, I wasn’t even supposed to come on this trip. We crash-landed here by accident,” I said, hoping he was understanding everything I was saying. “I’m not sure what this seer of yours told you, but maybe they have it wrong,” I said, shaking my head. “They had too much to drink one night and started spouting nonsense, that’s all.”
“No, you are Great Dawn,” Tong insisted, never losing that smile. “You are Great Dawn.”
“Maybe there’s a better way to go about this,” Stacy stepped in. “Tong, why do you think Dean is this Great Dawn?”
“You all Children of the Dawn,” Tong said with a sharp click of his teeth. “Dean is Great Dawn.”
“Yes, but how do you know Dean is the Great Dawn?” Stacy asked again.
Something must have clicked because Tong’s eyes widened and he went back to his control panel, bringing up another image on the screen above us.
“No freaking way,” I muttered, my voice barely a whisper. “How is that even possible?”
Stacy almost dropped her rifle.
It was a symbol. The same symbol I wore on the medallion hanging from my necklace.
I paced up and down the tent erected for Arun to use as an office. It was stationed against the open side of the Orion, the greatest scientific feat of engineering, which had come crashing down, thanks to the hate of a few extremists calling themselves the Disciples.
Now the Orion was nothing more than a massive ball that had been cut down the center. It rested on its side, exposed for the alien world to see. A wall had been erected around the open back half of the Orion.
The wall itself was two stories tall with a catwalk ringing the inside. A pair of watch towers were now under construction on either side of the massive gate that allowed survivors access.
Inside the wall was a city of tents. Those who didn’t want to have to live their lives in the sideways Orion made a home for themselves here. They used the pop-up shelters and tents the ship had carried here.
Each seed ship held enough shelter, food stocks, and supplies for a colony of one hundred thousand. Although half the vessel and many of its supplies had been lost in the crash, we had more than enough. There were only a few thousand of us now.
“Will you stop walking around like that? You’re making me nervous,” Arun told me without looking up from her smart pad. “It’s not going to help.”
“How is that even possible?” I asked, stopping myself from turning in her tent, only to walk down the short diameter of her office again. “I mean, that’s not a coincidence. That symbol is exactly like mine.”
Arun Drake massaged her temples. As an Eternal, her white skin and hair clearly set her apart. The grey uniform she wore was almost laughable under the circumstances, but I got that she still wanted to give the survivors a sense of order. They needed that much right now. It was the uniform the officers aboard the Orion were required to wear, a symbol of order.
“I wish I had more answers for you, Dean,” Arun said with a weary sigh. She exhaled slowly. “The fact is, I don’t. If everything Tong is telling us is true, we have a much larger problem. Legion nearly wiped his people out the first time. What do you think he’s going to do to us?”
“Yeah, and that’s why you have got to tell the people out there what we’re dealing with,” I argued. I didn’t realize how strongly I felt about the subject until now. “You have to tell them everything. How this was no accident, about Legion and about the freaking lizard man we found.”
Anger flashed in Arun’s eyes. She stared at me with those cold blue irises of hers. I stared right back.
She knew I was right. That was probably why she broke off her stare first.
“I just wanted to give these people a better life,” Arun said, slumping in her seat. “I just wanted to give them something more, and now look at us. Some kind of viral weapon to the north that’s self-aware and aliens to the east.”
“Don’t forget about whatever is in the mist to the south,” I reminded her. “Whatever’s in there is creepy too.”
Arun gave me a deadpan stare.
“I wish I had more answers for you.” I repeated back her own words to me. “But right now, we have to share the information we have and come up with a solid game plan.”
Arun chewed at the inside of her cheek.
We heard footfalls on the other side of the tent flap then a familiar voice. “Is this a bad time?”
“No, Elon,” Arun said to her brother. “Come in. Dean was just telling me what I already know I have to do. I’m just sitting here like a stubborn child, not wanting to do it.”
Elon opened the tent flap and stepped inside. Like his sister, his snow-white skin and hair gave him away as an Eternal. The limp he walked with from the injury he sustained in the crash was completely gone.
I still marveled at the regeneration ability the Eternals possessed. Elon lost his entire leg in the crash, only to have it regenerate as good as new.
“I’m going to tell the survivors everything,” Arun said as if she were confessing to her brother. “I just wanted the walls up around us to give them a sense of safety before I snuff out what little hope they have. I just wanted to give them something to hold on to.”
Elon looked to me.
“Did you do this?” he asked. “I’ve been trying to get her to tell everyone what happened since we crashed.”
“I think Tong got to her,” I said, fingering the medallion that hung off my neck. My thumb ran over the familiar grooves of the symbol. Two swords pointing away from one another, one thicker sword in the center with a circle around the blade. “With more questions than answers being posed, we need to tell people what we do know.”
“Well, at least we know what Legion is now and how it was created,” Elon said, scratching at the back of his head. “A weapon made by the Remboshi separatists that has gone rogue.”
“Now we need to know how to kill it,” I added.
“We have defenses, water, and food.” Arun sat straight back into her chair. The leader who had seen us through this was back again. I could see the fire in her blue eyes once more. “We have long-range scanners up and running. Thanks to you two and the expedition team you went out with, we even have a means of transportation and armor. What we need now is to find out what happened to our other expeditionary force.”
“And kill Legion,” I added. “You didn’t see it up close like Elon and me. The longer we allow it to spread to survivors and animals, the harder it is going to be to put it down for good.”
“Yes, of course,” Arun said, drumming the tips of her fingers against the desk top in front of her.
“I came to let you know that I installed a hard light emitter in the chamber where we found Tong,” Elon told his sister. “Now no one has to stay with him. Iris will be able to keep tabs on him and let us know if he needs anything.”
“Thank you,” Arun said, standing from her desk. “Well, let’s call an assembly.”
“You’re going to tell them now?” I asked, surprised.
“Better to get it over with and have the truth out in the open,” Arun said, shaking her head. “We have to tell them for their own safety now. I can’t have our people stumbling across the infected or running scared for their lives if they happen to get a glimpse of Tong somehow.”
“You’re doing the right thing,” Elon assured his sister.
“So, you keep telling me. Iris, can you call an assembly in the courtyard, please?” Arun asked the Cognitive. “Say, ten minutes?”
“Of course,” Iris said in all of our earpieces.
A moment later, I was striding alongside Arun and Elon as we moved through the tent city. The Orion itself acted as our backbone with the walls forming a large U-shape around the exposed end of the hull.
“Colonists of the Orion,” Iris’ familiar voice boomed through speakers erected both on the wall and on the exposed interior. “Please gather in the courtyard inside of the gates in ten minutes. There will be a short meeting to take place. Thank you.”
People hurried to finish their tasks around the tent area. Those who spotted our group gave us quizzical looks before hurrying on.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Ricky’s familiar voice found us as we walked toward the main gates. “Something wrong?”
“Why would you think that?” Elon asked him.
“Because there’s always something wrong,” Ricky said with a weary shake of his head.
“He’s not far from the truth,” Arun commented dryly.
Ricky knew about everything from the Disciples sabotaging the Orion to Legion and Tong. I found myself grateful to have a sounding board and a friend in Ricky. I should probably tell him that one day.
“Arun’s going to spill the beans,” I told him.
“All the beans?” Ricky asked, keeping stride with us. “Like the whole pot?”
“The whole pot,” I confirmed.
Ricky whistled low under his breath.
We finished winding our way through the encampment, past the cafeteria tents and the housing tents, all of which were the same dark green color. It was nearing midday; as such, the twin suns beat down on our heads.
Survivors looking forward to their midday meals were eager to find out why a meeting was being called instead.
We arrived at the main gates. They were two massive sheets of welded steel held shut by a series of tight-fitting chains.
Boss Creed led the mechanics working on the project. His broad back labored over a particularly heavy piece of metal. I had come to think of the man more as a friend than a former boss.
What’s gotten into you? I asked myself. Calling people friends now. You’re getting soft.
I thought back to the very real idea that there was a change taking place inside of me. Instead of trying to figure that out, I jogged over to where Boss Creed strained with the piece of steel to lend a hand.
The support beam was large enough for a three-man job, but Boss Creed was somehow managing to maneuver it on his own.
“Here, let me help. Can’t have you throwing out a hip on us,” I said as I leaned down and grabbed one end of the steel beam. The metal had been shaded by the wall. It felt cool in my hands, a welcome feeling from the warmth the suns brought.
“I’m not going to argue with you there.” Boss Creed gave me a wide grin. Tiny rivers of sweat dripped down his forehead. “I heard the notice Iris blared out over the speakers. I just need to get this on the frame, then I’ll come over too.”
I hefted my side, walking over the piece of unforgiving steel to the base of the left watch tower.
Boss Creed grunted as we heaved it into two rungs, then wiped a forearm across his brow.
He looked like he wanted to say something then thought better of it and grabbed a container of water resting by his feet.
“You have nightmares about them too?” I asked, reading his thoughts. I lowered my voice. There was no reason to get anyone else panicked. They would be worried enough once Arun made her announcement.
“Every time I close my eyes,” Boss Creed said. “I see them running at us, tearing Mark apart, ripping Tom right off the crawler. People need to know.”
“They’re about to,” I said, nodding over to where a large throng of survivors waited to hear what Arun had to say.
Someone brought a chair for Arun to stand on. Arun’s voice was loud enough to carry.
“I’m going to keep this short and straight to the point,” Arun began. There was no look of weariness in her eyes now, no remaining vestige of the slumped-over leader she had been in her tent. “Dealing with the events in the crash has been more than anyone should have to go through. You have all come together. We now have water, food, shelter, and even a wall.”
Shouts came from the crowd along with claps and cheers.
“Whatever comes our way, we will overcome together,” Arun continued after the cheers died away. “I know you realize this and that is why I feel comfortable telling you what we’ve discovered. The Orion did not fail from any faulty manufacturing. The terrorist group known as the Disciples planted operatives on the ship and blew it from space.”
The crowd silenced as they processed the information. There were murmurs as the survivors looked to one another for a consensus as to how they should feel.
“Apart from this, we have discovered a virus that is infecting survivors and changing them,” Arun went on, sweeping her gaze over the crowd. Seemingly bolstered by her own words, she continued. “The virus takes all rational thought from them and causes them to become violent. We’re still understanding this ourselves, but the signs of those infected are a black substance like oil that comes from their orifices.”
I felt my gut twist deep inside my stomach. I knew what was about to come next.
“Lastly, we discovered an alien structure on the planet and an intelligent alien species inside,” Arun continued. “Again, we are gathering information, but the alien does not mean us any harm.”
Shocked silence filled the courtyard where the crowd of survivors stood.
It was so quiet, I could hear my own heart beating inside my chest.
Arun looked over the crowd. She was about to say more, when a violent bellow filled the midday air around us. The ground trembled under our feet.
“There!” a lookout on the catwalk shouted. “Something’s coming!”
Boss Creed and I were running for a ladder to get onto the catwalk while the crowd processed what was happening. With the news just dropping, survivors were still trying to comprehend it all, and looks of confusion covered most of their faces.
I didn’t blame them.
The noise of some kind of prehistoric animal came again. A deep booming roar hit my sternum and reverberated inward.
I reached the top of the catwalk that was two stories over the planet’s ground. Looking out, I had a clear view in front of us of grassy rolling plains to the west and south. The Orion was behind us to the east and the jungle to the north.
A great lumbering beast charged toward us from the jungle. I knew the creature well. It was the same giant rhinoceros-looking son of a gun that had been taken down by the infected. We’d run into him while we made our run from the jungle a week before.
He galloped over the terrain, closing on the wall fast.
Stacy appeared next to me a moment later. Since Captain Ezra Harold never returned from his expedition, she had taken charge of the Civil Authority Officers.
“All civilians off the catwalk now and reinforce the gate!” Stacy barked, bringing her own rifle to bear on the creature that was now no more than half a kilometer away from the wall. “I need every officer to the north wall immediately.”
Those officers already on the wall on watch opened up along with Stacy. They aimed their pulse rifles at the beast, who was close enough now for us to see black liquid streaming from his eyes and mouth.
BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!
Blaster rounds peppered the beast, who seemed largely unaffected. The rounds bit through the creature’s hide, but he didn’t stop. If anything, they only enraged him even more.
The monster charged forward, possessed of one mind.
I looked at Stacy, then Boss Creed, helpless. I wasn’t an officer. The only time I carried a weapon was when I was going outside the wall.
“What’s happening?” Arun joined us, brandishing the hand-blaster she always wore on her belt.
“It’s infected.” I grimaced.
The creature was seconds away from ramming head first into our newly constructed wall. We were about to see how sturdy our defenses really were as each of us braced for the impact. At the last second, the creature pulled a hard right, hugging the wall.
Stacy looked up at us, confused.
That was when I realized what was going on. “The gate!” I shouted, already shoving my way back down the stairs. “Reinforce the gate!”
I couldn’t say how I knew for sure, but I remembered my run-in with the infected earlier. I remembered how they’d exhibited intelligence instead of just attacking wildly.
The gate, although locked, would be an easier entry point than a solid steel wall.
I broke into a sprint when I reached the ground, and adrenaline coursed through me, making my heart pound in my chest. Everyone was shouting, making it impossible to hear any distinct voice. Weapons’ fire added to the chaos on the wall along with the roars of the creature as it wailed a garbled battle cry.
The alien beast hit the gates to the west so hard that the entire wall shuddered. An officer too close to the point of impact on the catwalk screamed as she fell, landing hard on the ground inside.
Her left leg crumpled underneath her weight, sticking out at an odd angle. Part of me wanted to stop and help the fallen woman, but the cold truth was if the beast got past the wall, we were all screwed. Other survivors raced to her side to offer aid, solving the dilemma for me.
I finally reached the gates, assessing the damage and figuring out how we could secure the point of entry. The wall had absorbed the impact well, but how many hits like that it could take was anyone’s guess.
I couldn’t see the beast, but I could sure hear it. Another mad roar echoed into the air.
“I need you and Boss Creed to make sure it doesn’t get through,” Stacy shouted from her position on the catwalk. “We’ll keep firing at it from up here!”
I nodded, racking my mind for an effective way to brace the gate.
The creature slammed itself into the gates again. This time, those on the catwalk held on when the creature battered the wall, causing a steel-rending tear as the gate on the right groaned. An indention a foot long and roughly the size of the creature’s head penetrated the outside of the wall. A single horn poked through before it was forced back, leaving a hole the size of my head.
I took the opportunity to see what was happening on the other side of the wall. The creature’s hide was tougher than I first thought. Yes, some blaster rounds had gotten through and wounded the beast, but far too few. From what I could see, two spots on the creature’s back and left shoulder were bleeding.
“Aim for the eyes!” Arun shouted from above.
“Those steel beams we were using before,” I shouted over to Boss Creed and anyone who would listen.
A handful of the bravest survivors, Ricky and Elon among them, joined us at the gates to see if there was anything they could do to help.
“Here!” Boss Creed shouted as we ran with him to the pile of heavy steel beams meant for the watch towers.
I grabbed one, as did Elon and Ricky. We hefted one of the pieces that had to be three meters long and weigh at least four hundred pounds and moved toward the gates.
“Hurry, before he hits us again!” Elon bellowed.
We stuck one end of the beam into the dirt ground a few meters from the gates. The other end wedged against the gate itself.
“We need anchors on top of the beams!” Ricky yelled.
“Too late, here it comes again!” Stacy shouted from the wall.
I looked through the hole in the gate. She was right; we had seconds.
“Brace the beams!” I yelled, throwing the weight of my own body on top of the beam we’d just erected. It was better than nothing. Everyone who was working to secure the gate did the same. Some hung off the beams; others pressed their bodies onto it, while the rest pushed with all their weight against the gate itself.
“No!” I screamed as well-intentioned survivors pressed against the steel frame.
My entire frame rattled, from the bones in my spine to my teeth. The beam in my arms bounced despite the pressure of me, Elon, and Ricky all pushing it down, and those who forced their bodies against the gate itself where thrown back violently.
The bottom of the gate groaned before shaking loose from the rest of the wall. It hung more than stood now, supported on one end by the corner anchor against the wall. The other end of the gate was secured to its left counterpart with a heavy chain.
“This isn’t going to work,” Ricky said, wheezing.
“One more blow and it’ll be through,” Elon agreed.
“No.” I was surprised to hear the ferocity in my own voice. “No, not today. We’ve worked too hard. We’ve come too far.”
A reckless idea entered my mind. Instead of talking myself off the ledge, I decided to go with it.
“Get everyone away from the gates,” I said as I took off at a sprint. “Get back from the gates.”
I heard them yelling after me, asking questions, but there wasn’t time to explain. The alien battering ram was going to be back in seconds and the gate would fall if it took another hit. I ran like the hounds of hell were at my heels. The encampment was in pandemonium. People were yelling and crying and more than a few walked in a daze.
During the madness, Mutt had found me, adding his own bark to the chaos around us. When he saw me take off back into the encampment, he joined me. His light eyes looked at me for direction, as if to say, “I don’t know what you have planned, but count me in.”
I ignored it all, making for the opposite side of the wall where the crawler was parked. It was our only mode of transportation and I was taking a huge risk using it now. Still, no one would be alive to use it at all if the alien creature was allowed inside.
I reached the crawler, jumped inside the driver seat, and slammed my hand on the digital reader. It recognized me and gunned to life just as the beast hit the gates for the third time.
The left gate shuddered and crumpled inward.
Thanks to Stacy’s and Arun’s efforts, and the efforts of those on the wall, two more chunks of raw meat had been opened up on its hide. Its right eye was missing now. Blood gushed from its body, leaving small streams of dark liquid in its wake.
The right gate came down and the animal stumbled inside.
“Bad idea, bad, idea, bad idea,” I said, and slammed my foot onto the gas pedal. The beast was as large as a small bus, but the crawler itself was no joke either. It was built to haul things, not necessarily made for speed but pure power.
“Mr. Slade,” Iris sounded in my earpiece. “I need to advise you against this course of action. The odds of you surviving a head-on impact with the alien beast are—”
“Never tell me the odds,” I yelled, ripping the earpiece out of my ear. The crawler jerked to life and took off.
The creature, having broken through the gates, stopped for a moment as if it were looking and studying the inside of the compound. The act looked unnatural, as if the creature were nothing more than a puppet being used by its true master. When it swung its one eye toward me, a snarl lifted its lip.
I raced across the compound. I had to be travelling at least fifty miles an hour when the beast started its charge in my direction. Like two titans, we sprinted toward one another.
I roared as the creature let out another bellow of its own. His sounded more impressive, but I wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
It was so close now, I could see the madness in the creature’s eye. It’s funny how in times like this the clock seems to move at a crawl. The world travels in slow motion. I’d experienced this before during fights. My senses were so cued up, every single detail struck me individually.
I saw the black orb it called an iris, the virus that was Legion spreading from its eyes and mouth in thick, inky lines. The ebony streaks looked like veins just under the skin.
I saw the impossible damage the beast had already taken from multiple blaster rounds. For all intents and purposes, the creature should be dead. There was no way with the amount of blood it had already lost it should be on its feet.
There were entire sections of the creature that were missing. Its skin was charred, and smoke drifted from its many wounds. The stench of its ruined skin touched my nose and reminded me of burning garbage.
I saw all of this in the space of a few seconds. Then time sped up.
Just stay in the crawler, a voice in the back of my mind itched. Stay in the crawler. You’ll die a hero. You’ll save all these people and you’ll get what you want. You’ll get to be with Natalie and your baby. Just stay in the crawler.
I had to make the decision now. My time was up. If I stayed in the driver’s seat of the crawler—now traveling seventy miles per hour—I might die in the collision. Or I could bail out and take my chances rolling on the ground.
Both options sucked, but jumping out instead of going head to head with the beast seemed like the better choice. The Dean I had been on Earth would have stayed in the crawler. The Dean today couldn’t. The reasons piled one on top of each other. There were too many people that needed me. Natalie wouldn’t approve, and heck, what if I survived the collision but got seriously hurt in the process?
Jumping from a moving vehicle traveling that quickly wasn’t exactly something I practiced in a day-to-day setting. I threw myself as far away from the open crawler door as I could. When I hit the ground, I rolled with the momentum. The air rushed out of my lungs when I struck the ground. Multiple bruises and scratches covered my face and exposed hands and arms.
The beast struck the crawler head-on with a sickening crunch. It sounded like a giant sledgehammer hitting a piece of raw meat.
When I stopped rolling, I got a chance to look behind me. The crawler was still in one piece, its front frame bent inward and smoking. Sparks shot out from underneath the hood.
The dazed alien creature stumbled backward before falling to the ground and writhing in some kind of serious pain. Stacy appeared by the creature a moment later, a cross between empathy and wrath in her eyes.
She unloaded on its one good eye. Gore and brain matter flew up in every direction. Stacy stood so close, some got on her shirt and pants. It didn’t seem to bother her.
As if a spell had fallen over the yard, everyone remained still. I think our brains were still trying to process what we had seen.
I was torn away from the grasp of the moment as Mutt bounded up to me. He stuck his snout in my face, sniffing me all over as if he were searching me for any serious wounds.
“I’m good.” I placed a hand on his face and gave him a scratch and then a playful push. “Don’t put that thing in my face. I’ve seen what you do with it.”
Mutt’s tail wagged, then he looked like he was about to nuzzle me again. Instead, he lifted his head to the air, taking in a big sniff. Worry crossed his face. The dog ran from his position next to me toward the broken gates, barking like a hellhound.
I knew Mutt well enough now to tell when something was seriously wrong. This wasn’t his happy bark or the one he used when he wanted me to scratch his belly. This one was laced with aggression.
“There!” one of the suits on the catwalk shouted. “In the tree line. There are hundreds of them!”
I struggled to my feet. More shouting ripped through the courtyard as if we were all woken from the spell by Mutt’s barking.
“Are you okay, Dean?” Elon asked, making it to my side and pulling me to my feet.
“I think ‘okay’ is a stretch, but I’ll live,” I said, dusting myself off.
“You’re bleeding,” he said, looking down to a long cut on the palm of my right hand. I’d used my hands to soften the fall and, as a result, paid the price.
“I’m fine,” I told the concerned Eternal. “It’s a long way from my heart.”
Elon looked confused at first. Apparently, that wasn’t a saying where he came from.
Instead of trying to explain it to him, I turned and made my way over to the gate with everyone else. Boss Creed, Ricky, Arun, Stacy, and others were already there.
“This can’t be good,” I said under my breath as I joined them.
I was right.
The suit on the wall was the first to notice people coming out from the tree line to the north. I shaded my eyes from the suns overhead and squinted.
There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands. All survivors from the crash. Unlike the survivors inside of our own walls, these people were already taken by Legion. Their eyes stared without seeing. The blackness dripped from their mouths and ears.
“What are they doing?” Ricky wondered. “What are they waiting for?”
“Orders?” someone asked from atop the catwalk.
“Don’t shoot,” Stacy said.
I agreed with her decision; not only was the group too far away, but there were a lot of them. If they charged our open gates right now, we might be overrun.
“What do you say about getting inside and fixing this gate?” I asked everyone around me.
“I think that’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” Arun said, turning to address the crowd gathering at the gate. “Everyone, we need to keep you inside. Our mechanics will fix the gate.”
“But those are our people,” someone in the throng shouted.
“They need help,” someone else said.
“They’re infected,” Elon said, raising his voice in a very unlike Elon way. Usually, he left the directing and orders to his sister.
I could see why. Arun looked tired again. The mask of leadership she wore on her brow could fool most, but I knew her better.
“We deserve to know everything you know,” a strong voice called out from the crowd. “We have that right, you know.”
I looked over to see the same large man who I’d run across in the cafeteria when Captain Harold asked for volunteers. His size and girth struck me again. He couldn’t be more than six feet tall, but he was built like a refrigerator. A gleam in his eyes told me he knew how to use his weight to his advantage.
Shouts of agreement from the crowd egged him on.
“You’ve been keeping information from us and we need to know everything,” he said again. “We have rights, too!”
More cheers and yells of affirmation erupted from the group.
“Officer John Bower, that’s enough,” Stacy commanded, stepping toward the much larger man. “There’s a time and place for this. Right now is not it.”
“If not now, when?” John asked, not to be outdone. “Our leadership is keeping us in the dark.”
“Not your leadership,” Arun said, stepping forward. “Me. I made the decision to hold back information until we knew more. To protect our people.”
“Our people?” John asked. “You’re an Eternal. I have no problem with that. If I did, I would have never come on this journey to begin with. What I do have a problem with is you deciding we need protection. We don’t; more than that, we need the truth.”
“Enough!” Stacy yelled, getting into John’s face. “Officer Bower, stand down.”
John ran a thick tongue over his wide teeth. For a moment, he looked down at Stacy as if he was going to throw his blaster to the ground and resign right there and then. Instead, he shook his head and took a step back.
“You know everything we know now,” Arun said. “If you have questions, so do we. We’re trying to figure out exactly how to combat this virus. The alien species we discovered on the planet is helping us with that now.”
A stunned silence fell on the group. They hadn’t had the time to properly digest the fact that aliens were real.
“How many aliens are there?” someone asked, their voice in awe.
“One woke from a kind of cryogenic sleep and there are others still sleeping,” Arun answered. “He is working with us and friendly to our cause.”
“What do they look like?” another voice asked.
“Can we see them?” still someone else asked.
The questions poured out like a dam long overdue to burst.
I still hadn’t forgotten about the horde of infected staring at us from the jungle tree line. When I turned back to look, they were gone. The logical part of my mind told me they pulled back into the jungle, but it felt off and I wondered how they’d disappeared so quickly and silently.
Arun noticed the same thing. She ushered people further inside, along with Elon and Stacy’s help. They moved them away from the gate and began answering all of their questions.
I heard all of this happening but refused to take my eyes off the jungle tree line. I remembered exactly how brutal and violent this virus could make people. Legion was out there waiting for its opportunity.
“Did you see the way that rhino alien animal was looking around the courtyard before you rammed it?” Boss Creed asked, joining me. “It was like something was controlling it.”
“And why didn’t they attack?” I asked. “There had to be hundreds of them. They might have been able to overrun us right now.”
“If I had to guess, this feint was only to gather information,” Boss Creed said with a weary shrug. “Maybe they wanted to test our defenses and see how we would react to an attack.”
“We need more guns,” I said. “And stronger walls. But definitely more guns.”
“Not arguing with you there,” he replied without looking at me. His dark eyes still scanned the horizon.
“Defenses are going to be a temporary solution,” Ricky said, joining us at the gates. “Eventually, they’re going to kill us or we’re going to kill them. It’s the way things are out here.”
Boss Creed and I looked at one another, then both of us looked to Ricky.
“What?” Ricky shrugged off our expressions. “I can be thoughtful too.”
“Well, let’s all be thoughtful as we get back to work,” I said, examining the gate, the alien carcass, and the still-smoking crawler. “We have work to do.”
Boss Creed took the lead on fixing and reinforcing the gate while Ricky led a team in wheeling back and fixing the crawler. Yours truly was left with the job of getting rid of the giant alien carcass in the middle of the courtyard.
Before I tackled the task, Doctor Allbright insisted on seeing to my hand. The fall from the crawler had left me with a few nicks and cuts, but they were all manageable beside the laceration on my left palm.
“You seem to have a knack for getting yourself in trouble,” Doctor Allbright said, using the Heal Aid to clean then close the wound on my hand. It stung, but the pain was manageable to me by now. I was familiar with the tool like an old acquaintance.
“Yeah well, I guess trouble just seems to find me,” I said.
“I ran into Lou today,” Doctor Allbright casually said. “He was looking for you. Said he found something he wanted to show you.”
My mind went to the padre. Our little excursion together to find the prison section of the Orion ended in our first run-in with the infected. He had pulled his weight and done well.
“Did he say what it was he wanted to show me?” I asked.
“No, but he seemed excited to share,” Doctor Allbright continued. “You should see if you can find him. I think he’s one of the few who still likes staying inside the Orion.”
“I don’t know how people are still doing that,” I said, shaking my head. “Trying to live in a craft that’s on its side day in and day out messes with your mind. The walls are the ground and the floor and vice versa. No thank you. I have enough issues without thinking I’m drunk every time I wake up.”
Doctor Allbright chuckled then stepped closer to examine her handiwork on my palm. There was a long lightning-bolt-shaped scar on my hand. We both took a second to examine it.
She had done a great job repairing the wound. The bleeding stopped and only a dull ache came from my hand when I opened and closed my fist.
“Thanks, doc,” I said. “So, you have any kind of bone saws or drill or anything else around here I can use?”
“No, certainly not for that.” Doctor Allbright gave me a disapproving stare. She turned in the confines of her tent with a whirl from her white coat. “I can’t believe you would even ask.”
“What?” I asked innocently.
“You want to use the few medical tools I have to cut open that alien-infected beast and move its body parts outside the wall?” she asked.
“You catch on quick.” I gave her a rueful smile.
“Well, thank you, but the answer is still no, absolutely not,” Doctor Allbright said again. “You’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“Burn it,” Doctor Allbright continued. “You’ll have to drag it outside of our gates and burn it.”
“Drag it?” I screwed my face up in disbelief. “That thing has to weigh a solid ton. The crawler is out of commission for the time being. We’d have to do it by hand. It would take a few dozen able bodies to make that happen.”
“I saw chains in the supply tent,” Doctor Allbright volunteered.
I stood up from the medical table, still flexing my hand. I was thinking over the idea of getting a saw from the supply tent meant to cut metal when Doctor Allbright’s warning removed that option as well.
“Besides, if you cut it open, who knows what kind of toxins it could be carrying from the virus or even in its natural biology. We know nothing of these beings,” she said.
“Right.” I bit back a smart reply and made my way to the animal corpse at the center of the courtyard.
There was a small gathering of people still gawking at the creature. I didn’t blame them. The alien corpse looked like some kind of weird hybrid between a dinosaur and a rhinoceros, its black and red hide pocked-marked by blaster fire.
In that moment, staring down at the impossibly beautiful creature, I felt sorry for it. A new wave of anger toward this virus or Legion or whatever you wanted to call it swelled in my heart.
Here was an animal who just wanted to live. Who would have kept on living had the virus not infected its body and drove it to pure madness. I knew what I had to make my number one goal as soon as I disposed of the body. I had to find a way to take out this Legion, starting with another sit-down with Tong.
Hopefully, another day or two would see his English improve even more.
“How are we going to get this thing out of here?” I turned to see Hannah, the woman who had lost her husband only a week before to the virus, standing behind me, hands on her hips. “Crawler’s still down. We going to pull it out?”
“I guess so,” I said with a shake of my head. “We’ll have to use chains, maybe secure them around the horns.”
I got a whiff of the creature’s carcass. It made my eyes water.
I spat on the ground next to me.
“That’s truly wretched,” Hannah said, raising a hand to her nose. “I’ll grab the chains and some help.”
“Thanks,” I told her.
Hannah nodded and was about to turn away. Over the last few days, I’d wanted to talk to her about her husband’s death. I knew what she was going through on a first-hand basis.
“You know, if you ever want to talk about what happened, Mutt and I are good listeners. Mostly Mutt,” I added.
Hannah already had her back toward me. She stopped in her tracks. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew she heard me.
“Thanks,” was all she said before she continued on.
I didn’t expect anything to be honest. I knew she was hurting from the inside out—the numbness, and how she was throwing herself at anything she could to take her mind off of everything.
“You inhale too much of those fumes coming off that thing and you’re going to kill what brain cells you have left,” Stacy joked, fake gagging as she reached my side. “You should really get a scarf or mask or something to put around your mouth and nose.”
Stacy reached into her own cargo pants pockets and pulled out a white handkerchief. She tied it around the lower half of her face.
“Your suit’s good?” she asked, taking a step back from the aroma of death coming from the creature. “That big guy, Bowers, seemed pretty pissed.”
“Yeah, well, no one’s happy having information kept from them, but most of them understand. Arun and Elon are still fielding questions from anyone who has them. I think that will go a long way now.”
I nodded, deep in my own thoughts.
“You have that look again.” Stacy lifted an eyebrow in my direction.
“What look?” I asked.
“The look, like you’re about to get in trouble. Like you’re up to no good,” Stacy said.
“That’s just my face,” I protested, feigning innocence.
“Yeah, right,” Stacy answered back. “If it helps, we’re probably thinking the same thing.”
“That we’re not going to survive an attack if Legion comes at us in an all-out assault.” Stacy’s eyes made their way to the gates that were under construction. “We need more and better weapons. And we need to take this fight to Legion.”
“I’m not arguing with you there, special agent,” I agreed with Stacy. “Or do I call you captain or something now that you’re in charge of all the suits?”
“I’m temporarily overseeing them until another officer can be selected,” Stacy said. “After Captain Harold went missing, it’s a short list of anyone who has any rank around here.”
We stood in silence thinking over how accurate her words really were. So many lives were lost in the crash. Those few who survived were still in the fight for their lives. Every day we were losing numbers.
Motion to my left caught my eye. I looked over to see Hannah with a heavy chain wrapped over her shoulders. A small army trotted alongside her. No doubt recruits she enlisted along the way to help us move the alien corpse. Meenaz and David walked with her, each shouldering some of the long chain.
It was good to see familiar faces. People I knew who wouldn’t back down from a fight. Because, like it or not, a fight was coming our way.
“Oh my, sweet gingerbread boy,” Meenaz said, souring at the smell. “What is that?”
“Smells like someone burning tires.” David grimaced. He unshouldered the chains he carried.
“Come on; let’s secure the chains around the horns and get this over with,” I said, holding my own breath. I took one of the two long chains they’d brought and went to work.
The chains themselves were nearly as thick as my forearms. They would be able to hold for sure. We just needed to make sure we would be able to provide the moving power to drag the carcass out the gates.
All around me, people were gagging as they helped to secure the chains. To the survivors’ credit, when others saw what our small group was doing, they came to help.
Someone started passing out torn strips of white canvas to people to help with the smell.
“Here,” someone said behind me. A cloth was pressed into my right hand.
“Thanks,” I said, not looking at it. I was in the middle of securing the second chain around the alien’s horns.
I stepped back, examining my work as others began to pick up the chains and form a line. I looked down at the cloth in my hand, ready to secure it around the lower half of my own face.
But the cloth in my hand was crimson. Not bright red or pink, but a very specific color of deep, dark red. I’d seen the color twice before. Once when we apprehended the Disciple named Maksim, and then again when the second Disciple blew herself to kingdom come, taking the Orion with her.
Cold goosebumps raced down my spine. I turned immediately, aware of everyone around me. A throng had come out to help move the carcass from inside our walls. Trying to tell exactly who handed me the handkerchief was impossible. Dozens of people secured the chains while others moved to the opposite side of the alien corpse, ready to pull.
I felt the material in my hand, looking down at it again to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind. No, it was the very same one Maksim wore. I’d bet my life on it.
“Hey, Dean, you good?” Hannah called from her place with the rest of survivors preparing to haul the animal.
“Yeah,” I lied. It seemed I was doing a lot of that these days. “Yeah, I’m good. It’s secure.”
I made my way to the end of one of the long chains, gripping it in my hands. I didn’t put the handkerchief on my face. I couldn’t, knowing where it had been before. Instead, I wrapped it around a palm. It didn’t seem right somehow to just toss it to the side, not after everything it had been through.
“All right!” Stacy’s commanding voice filled the void of my thoughts. “On three, we pull together! One, two, three!”
I laid into it. Eyes still open, examining the courtyard, my body did the work on auto while my mind ran through the possibilities.
To think Maksim was here somehow in the courtyard was delusional, or was it? We didn’t find a body when we examined the prison section of the Orion. We thought we saw him when we buried Ira. He could be here, somehow concealing himself among the survivors. No one knew exactly what he looked like, save a handful of us that had apprehended him.
I kept searching those gathered with no luck. My body went through the movements on its own as Stacy yelled out when we were to pull. The carcass began to move inch by inch, leaving a gruesome trail in its wake. The blood was so dark, it was nearly black, crimson like the handkerchief in my hand.
Dinner that night was a lesson in gluttony. I’d missed lunch, and after working all day, I decided to take it upon myself to gorge and fit as much food into my mouth as possible.
I sat in one of the cafeteria tents in a chair by myself. I didn’t mind being alone. In fact, it was something I’d begun to miss. It seemed like every day I was needed to do this or that. I ate with my head down and took a hands-on approach to my meal.
Mutt whined next to me and I threw him a fair amount of scraps. He was more like me than I wanted to admit. We both didn’t care much what we were eating, only that it came in large amounts. He snapped up the goods in midair before they fell to the dirt.
A long pink tongue ran over the outside of his mouth. He sat at attention, wagging his tail, staring at me with baleful eyes that seemed to say, “Come on, are you going to eat that? You’re not going to eat all of that, are you?”
I gave him more than I should.
“Dean, Dean, there you are!” Lou came over to my corner of the cafeteria with a wide grin on his face. “I looked for you outside the gates after that carcass started to burn, but someone said you’d already gone.”
“Didn’t see much of the point in watching that poor animal burn,” I said, popping a biscuit into my mouth. “It had already been through enough.”
“I understand completely.” Lou’s face went from a look of happiness at seeing me to concern at the topic of conversation. “That’s partly why I’m here. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what we faced in the jungle . . . and, well, I want to help.”
Mutt and I both looked at him sideways. Lou was a good guy, maybe even a great guy, but I wasn’t sure what he was getting at.
“That’s nice, Lou, good for you,” I said, getting back to my meal. “I’m sure we could use a padre in here. There has to be a lot of people looking for religion at the moment. When the world is at its worst, the church is at its best, right?”
“Yes, no,” Lou said, taking a seat opposite me. “That’s not what I mean. You see, I was praying in my room aboard the Orion. Something told me to go to the top of the ship. I looked out the way we had come through the jungle when we made our escape. That was when I saw it.”
The way Lou let the words hang, I knew he was baiting me. He wanted me to ask what he saw. I refused to get trapped; instead, I took another bite out of my biscuit.
“Well?” Lou asked.
“What?” I said.
“Don’t you want to know what I saw?”
“Not really,” I said, already feeling the fatigue of the day setting in.
“I saw that,” Lou said excitedly, pointing to the lightning bolt scar on the palm of my hand. “I saw that in the jungle and now you bear the mark.”
“Hate to lay this one on you, padre, but I just got this scar today. It was a memento courtesy of our friend Legion out there—if it is a he, after all,” I said, looking down at the lightning-bolt-shaped scar Dr. Allbright and the Med Aid left me with. “Sorry to burst your bubble. It’s not a birthmark or anything like that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Lou said, refusing to be put off. “The only thing that matters is that we stand together and keep the faith. Come with me. I’ll show you.”
It was hard to say no to the man. Usually, I didn’t have a problem with that. Right now, the way Lou looked at me, I realized he wasn’t going to go away until he convinced me to come.
“You’re not going to let this go, are you?” I asked.
“Nope,” Lou said, cracking a grin through his white beard. “It’ll take an hour of your time. Two hours at the very most. You must see this, Dean.”
I looked down at Mutt, who only had eyes for the food on my plate at the moment.
“Don’t gorge yourself,” I told Mutt as I left the rest of the food on the plate for him. I put it on the ground and looked over at Lou, who was far too eager. “Lead the way, padre.”
Lou jumped to his feet with surprising quickness and took off through the cafeteria. He didn’t waste time either. He wanted to talk the entire way to the Orion.
“The suns are just setting now. It should be the perfect time of day to see it with the Farsight,” Lou said excitedly. “Farsights are the brand of binoculars stowed on the Orion for our use.”
“I know the company,” I told Lou. “I helped stock a lot of what’s on the ship.”
“Oh right, right,” Lou said, not to be outdone. “There are a few of us who have used the very top section as a place of worship and encouragement.”
“Good for you,” I said again.
We reached the very edge of the Orion, where the defensive wall began and ran an oval around the courtyard. Lou was up the scaffolding to the wall before I could ask him how we were going to reach the top of the ship.
“Just—we’re just going to climb all the way up there, huh?” I asked, watching as Lou made his way up the steel side like some kind of spider monkey.
“Don’t worry,” Lou called back. It’s easier than it seems. We’ve been using all the elevator shafts on the perimeter of the Orion to work our way up. There are handholds in place.”
“Right,” I said, following the eager padre. Heights weren’t exactly my favorite thing in the world. Traveling in the massive seed ship was easy. I’d had tons of steel around me. Right now, scaling the outer rim of the broken ship without any kind of safety harness was something entirely different.
“Oh, what did you do today, Dean?” I muttered to myself as I searched for handholds on the shell. “Oh, nothing much. Talked to a gecko man, went head to head with an alien rhinoceros, and then climbed a spaceship.”
“What’s that?” Lou called down.
“Nothing; just enjoying the view,” I told him.
Lou smiled back at me through his white beard and continued upward. The speed at which the man pulled himself up made me think I needed to figure out what kinds of drugs he was on and start taking those too. Lou was a machine, carefully picking his footing and handholds, then pulling himself up to find the next.
We climbed four stories on the perimeter of the Orion before Lou took our efforts just inside the colony seed ship. True to his word, he used the elevator shafts. A few meters inside the elevator shaft where we stopped, someone had cut a series of square holes in what was now the elevator ceilings. Not only that, they had secured metal bars on the side of the walls to act as ladder rungs.
“Who had time to do all this?” I asked.
Lou gave me another of his manic signature grins in response.
“How long did this take you?” I asked.
“It’s not that bad,” Lou said with a shrug. “I just used a torch to cut out the sections leading one elevator shaft to the next then welded a few bars in place to act as ladder rungs.”
“How long?” I insisted, not letting him dodge the question.
“Who knows?” Lou stuck out his lower lip in thought. “I got the call as soon as we landed, then went on the excursion with you and then worked on it again. A few weeks?”
I was left standing inside the hall-like elevator shaft, the edges of the Orion and the setting suns of the planet only a few meters to my left.
Lou seemed to think our conversation was over. He climbed the steel rungs in front of us and disappeared into the next level.
“Come on, we’re almost there,” Lou said. “Only another twenty shafts to walk through.”
“What did you mean when you said you got the call?” I asked. “Hold up, maybe I don’t even want to know.”
“You know like when you feel like you’re being led, like when you’re doing something you know is right? Instinct, but on a deeper level,” Lou called back.
I spent the next few minutes climbing through shaft after shaft and the narrow headspace in between the elevators. These were maintenance halls that had been set up in case we needed to get to elevators without disturbing the machines from carrying passengers.
Sweat gathered at my brow as the lack of any kind of air-conditioning made the inside of the Orion warm and stuffy. I followed Lou the rest of the way in silence. Half of me wanted to ask him more about what he believed. The other half refused to pull the thread on that ball of crazy.
Slowly, the ground beneath our feet began to curve to the right, following the circular shape of the Orion. We were getting closer and closer to the top of the ship. To my right, I could look out of the different shafts and dead spaces we traveled through to track our progress.
Lou wasn’t wrong. The higher we went, the better the view we had. The planet opened up before us like some kind of map. The jungle to our north, rolling meadows to our west, and the forest to the south.
The swamp lands beyond the forest were too far away to see. My imagination picked up that empty piece of the map and filled it in for me. The stories Doctor Allbright had told us when we found her. Creatures in the mist snatching up survivors was truly something out of a nightmare.
“Here we are,” Lou called from the shaft above me.
I was glad we’d made it to the top. My arms were getting fatigued from climbing the different levels and pulling myself up through the square openings.
I dragged my body through the last one. What I saw took my breath away. Lou was being modest when he said a few had gathered here. There were at least two dozen individuals who looked at me, nodding. They stood, sat, or sprawled in the elevator shaft disappearing far back into the tunnel-like room. Lights were strung on the walls, powered by a small generator. They even had music playing, something old and soft.
Pillows and blankets were on sections of the floor, as well as tables and chairs further to the rear.
“Lou convinced another sheep to join the fold?” A woman came up to us and extended a hand.
“No, this one’s no sheep.” Lou grinned at the young woman like a proud father. “He’s more like a wolf on our side.”
I took the woman’s hand and gave her a firm shake. Her hands were calloused like my own. That meant years of manual labor or perhaps even some kind of training.
“Good to meet you,” she said with a grin my way. “My name is Eleanor Hughes. Lou dragged me up here a few days ago on my break. Been spending most of my time off here now. It’s a climb but worth it.”
“Dean,” I said, releasing her hand.
Eleanor reached to her hip and pulled out a Farsight. The cylinder-shaped scope extended in her hands. “Here, take a look for yourself.”
I accepted the Farsight. Turning, I lifted the scope to my right eye. I wasn’t disappointed.
I’d seen it before as I climbed, but the view through the Farsight was worlds apart from what the naked eye could make out. This high up and with the Farsight, I could see grass blades in high definition. The vibrant shades of green that marked foliage to the deep rustic brown tree trunks were made from popped out at me.
I still couldn’t see the sea to our west, but I had a feeling it was just out of sight. I scanned the forest to the south. The Farsight was strong enough for me to see little animals running up and down branches. The creatures reminded me of fat squirrels with six legs.
“Look to the north,” Lou coaxed. “To the center of the jungle.”
I didn’t really want to, but I could guess what I was going to see. He had told me as much. I swung the Farsight to the jungle interior and followed the directions, looking over at the center of the foliage.
My eyes landed on a giant stone monument shaped like a lightning bolt. From this distance, even with my vantage point and the Farsight, it looked like a tiny needle poking up out of the tree line.
Memories of racing through the jungle crossed my mind. I had seen the monument close up for the briefest of moments, when Legion was on my heels and I couldn’t exactly stop to take in the sights.
“That’s where we need to hit him.” Lou’s normal carefree voice took on a dark tone. “That’s where we’ll defeat him. At the heart of his being.”
I lowered the scope, taking a steadying breath, then handed the tool back to Eleanor. She gave me a knowing grin.
“Lou’s so sure about things, huh?” Eleanor smiled over at the older man. “In a world where nothing is, sometimes it’s nice to hear something so direct.”
Lou was about to open his mouth to protest, when a friendly voice called his name.
“I’ll be right back, excuse me,” Lou excused himself, going over to the man and engaging him in conversation.”
“I like Lou,” I said, pursing my lips. “Don’t get me wrong, I really do. Sometimes he just asks a lot. He’s got faith I don’t.”
“You’re preaching to the choir.” Eleanor chuckled. “I guess in a world where aliens exist and there are virus strains capable of controlling animals and people, we could all use a little more faith.”
“Maybe,” I said, looking down at my own hand. The lightning-bolt scar that was part of me now was a direct match to the monument I had just seen in the jungle.
You’re seeing what you want to see, I thought to myself. Aren’t all lightning bolts the same shape anyway?
“You’re the famous gladiator too, right?” Eleanor asked. “Don’t worry, I don’t want your autograph or anything. That clinic you put on in the cafeteria a week ago spread like fire in our small community. What I want to know is how you ended up here.”
“The long version or the short version?” I asked.
“I’ll take the short version.” Eleanor looked out past me to the alien sky. The suns were nearly past the horizon. Darkness was coming on quickly. “I need to climb down before it gets too dark.”
“Being a gladiator didn’t really work out,” I said, thinking it wasn’t a lie at all. “I trained as a mechanic, and when they needed bodies to man the Orion, I stepped up. You?”
“Classic story of not being able to get ahead in life.” Eleanor shrugged. “When there was a chance at a new start here on the seed ship, I jumped at the offer. Not just me, but my extended family as well. They couldn’t get on the Orion, but they’re scheduled to leave on a different seed ship. I think it’s called Titan. I was pissed we couldn’t all go together at first, but after what happened to us here, I’m glad they didn’t come.”
I nodded along with her words. Rustling behind me made us both pause our conversation. A thick bird that looked too fat to fly rested on the floor of our level. Its beak reminded me of a parrot.
I took a step back, not trusting anything this planet had to offer.
“Don’t worry,” Eleanor said, reaching into her pocket and coming back with half a biscuit. “They’re harmless.”
She tossed the biscuit to the chubby bird, who caught it in midair and flew away despite its bulk.
“You’re welcome,” Eleanor shouted to its back. She turned to me. “Well, I’m going to say goodbye to the rest of the crew up here. It was nice meeting you. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
“You too, Ms. Hughes,” I replied.
I thought about going over to Lou and saying goodbye, but the padre was deep in a conversation with a small group of people. I had seen what he wanted me to see. That was enough for him.
I made my way back down the Orion, thinking about everything from the scar on my hand to the words Lou shared. The jungle interior did seem to be where Legion started. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that something there could be his downfall. I needed more information first.
Tong would have to tell us how to defeat this virus—if it could be defeated at all. Didn’t that gecko alien say his people went into hiding until the virus died out? That would mean they couldn’t fight it.
The suns were already down by the time I reached the ground. I walked toward the tent Ricky and I shared. It was early for bed, but I was feeling every bump and bruise from the day. Just lying down for a while before actual sleep felt like a small slice of heaven.
My path took me by Arun’s tent. She was just stepping outside when I walked by.
“Doctor Allbright said you went to see her.” Arun looked down, squinting through the night to try to get a better look at my hand. “Are you okay?”
“Just a scratch,” I said, trying not to get involved in another conversation. I didn’t want to be rude, but honestly, I needed a shower and some rest.
“Actually, I’m glad I ran into you,” Arun said. “Elon and Stacy are on their way. We need to come up with a plan.”
“Great,” I said, edging past her. “You all have fun with that. I have a date with a hot shower and a bed.”
“We want you in on this,” Arun said as if she were already telegraphing my excuses and swatting them aside. “We need you in on this, Dean. Like it or not, people are starting to look up to you. After the show you put on in the cafeteria tent, and what you did with that alien beast that crashed through our gates—you’re a hero to these people.”
“I’m not trying to be anyone’s hero,” I told her with a shake of my head.
“And that’s what makes you the perfect hero.” Arun gave me a tired smile. “Come on. I don’t have the energy to argue with you. Elon and Stacy will be here any second.”
Arun waved me to follow and disappeared into her tent.
I sighed. Sleep wouldn’t be in the cards for me tonight.
The thing I hated most about this entire conversation was that we both knew I was going inside to hear what the plan was. The need to stay out of things was slowly evaporating. At the end of the day, I realized I would rather know what was going on and be part of the solution than a bystander kept in the dark.
“It’s hard to recognize you after your haircut and shave, especially in the dark,” Stacy said from somewhere behind me. “I’m used to seeing you with that long hair and beard. Kind of miss it actually.”
I turned around to see Stacy and Elon approaching down the dirt path to my right.
I ran a hand through my short hair and then over the even shorter beard that was beginning to grow back over my face.
“I don’t miss the hair, but I was thinking of bringing the beard back,” I said. “I don’t even recognize myself when I look in the mirror anymore.”
“I think we’re all changing inside and out,” Elon said, opening the tent flaps for us to walk inside. “After you.”
Stacy took the lead and followed. The inside of Arun’s tent was longer than it was wide. There wasn’t a bed, which led me to believe she was one of the few who still slept aboard the Orion. Her tent had a couple bookcases, hard-light emitters for Iris, and a desk on the far side of the tent with a chair for her and two chairs facing her.
No one really felt like sitting. Arun leaned against her desk while we all stood quietly, lost in our own thoughts.
“Where do we even begin?” Stacy asked all of us.
“We begin with what’s most important,” Elon answered. “We need to secure this base as well as we can. Boss Creed is leading the mechanics in reinforcing the gates and walls. The twin watchtowers he’s building will help as well, but we need better weapons.”
“I agree with everything you’ve said, brother,” Arun said, biting her lower lip. “However, we can’t forget about the expeditionary force led by Captain Harold. They never returned and it’s been over a week now. We have to send someone to find them.”
“Iris, have you been able to bring anything up using the long-range scanner you have in place?” Elon asked the empty air around us.
A moment later, the Cognitive materialized. Thanks to the hard-light emitters set up in Arun’s tent, she was able to take on a physical appearance.
“I have been unable to thus far,” Iris answered. “The communication section of the Orion Captain Harold and his expeditionary team were sent to recover is still there as far as I can tell.”
Iris brought up a map of the area around her. It floated above her open hand in a bright green light. On her map, the Orion appeared, as well as the mountains to the east and the communication section of the Orion.
“Tong’s people must have had some way to communicate and some kind of weaponry,” I said, pointing to the map over Iris’ hand. “I say we talk to our friend, but the best bet is to swing east to see what happened to Captain Harold, and then go south to where Tong’s people are sleeping.”
“If Ricky can get the crawler back up and running, we can make that entire trip in a few days’ time,” Arun said out loud.
“We?” Alon asked. “You should stay here and—”
“Not this time.” Arun’s voice was firm. “You went out on the last run and nearly got killed. It’s my turn to go while you stay and defend the base.”
Stacy and I shared a look before glancing at the siblings. Both their eyes were as hard as blue diamonds. Elon finally gave way.
“The only reason I’m giving in is because you’re right. I did go last time. I also know you can use a break from running the Orion. You look horrible,” Elon said with a sly smile to his older sister.
“Good,” Arun said, giving her brother a hard stare. “We’ll take a small team and leave as many here as we can to defend the base. “I’ll check with Ricky and make sure the crawler is ready to go first thing in the morning.”
“I’ll get us supplied and put someone in charge of the Civil Authority while we’re gone,” Stacy volunteered. “Hannah would be my first choice. She has previous military experience. Right now, we need that more than a Civil Authority Officer trained to deal with urban situations.”
All eyes swung toward me.
“What?” I asked. “I just wanted to sleep.”
“Maybe you and Iris can inform Tong of the plan,” Arun suggested. “We’ll need him to come along with us if we’re going to travel to his installation.”
I glanced at the holographic map Iris still held in her hand. She didn’t show the section of the mist swamp beyond the southern forest, but I knew it was there. If we were serious about reaching Tong’s installation, our path went right into the unknown.
Sleep came without a problem that night. After the hot shower, I basically fell into a coma. Even better, there were no nightmares of the past. Ricky was gone when I fell asleep, working on the crawler. When I woke, his bed was still empty. I guess I had damaged the crawler worse than I originally thought.
The alarm clock by the bunk beds Ricky and I shared stood on one of the few pieces of furniture in our tent, a four-drawer dresser we shared, which contained the few changes of clothes we owned.
The alarm numbers stared at me bright red in the darkness, showing an ungodly early time. I elected the night before to get a solid night’s sleep and talk to Tong in the morning. The others would meet me at the alien’s mountain base, and we would leave. Iris had already informed Tong of our plan. My going was more out of courtesy than anything else to make sure the alien was ready.
I yawned, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. My cargo pants and long-sleeve shirt would work for another day. The fleeting idea that they needed to be washed came and went as I shoved my feet into my black boots.
Outside, only the suits on guard duty and the very earliest of risers were about. Cooks in charge of preparing breakfast walked down the road with large containers and supplies. A shift of mechanics that worked around the clock were busy on the watchtowers by the front gate.
I touched the earpiece in my right ear to speak with Iris. “You tell Tong I’m on my way?”
“He knows and he’s very excited,” Iris said. “His English has gotten better even since the last time you talked to him. He should be able to communicate with you on a very normal level.”
“Can’t wait,” I said, making my way to the gates.
“Stacy asked me to inform you that she will load the body armor into the crawler. You will be able to gear up Tong’s mountain installation before you depart on your journey,” Iris said.
“Right, the armor we found in the jungle, the gear David came across along with the crawler,” I said, remembering the body armor well.
The air was chilly in the morning before the planet’s twin suns beat the dawn back. I heard someone grunting and the familiar sounds of a bag being struck as I walked toward the gates.
The sounds piqued my interest. They were the same I had heard every day for the better part of my life. I missed the rhythm of gladiators hard at work, grunting and panting as they landed punches in the training room.
I weaved my way down a pair of tents, surprised to find myself at the northern section of the wall where the Civil Authority Department had constructed their headquarters. From behind the massive tent they used to run their operation, someone had set up a punching bag, bench, and weight rack.
John Bowers landed blows from his meaty hands on the bag. His fists were wrapped in white cloth. He had great form: head down, chin tucked, hands protecting his face.
The man knew what he was doing.
“You come to train too?” John asked without even looking at me.
“Not today,” I said, not missing a beat. “I’m on my way out. Heard someone trying to train, so I thought I’d come and leave some pointers.”
John slammed one more fist into the bag so hard, it nearly toppled the entire structure holding it in place. He looked over at me with a smile. “Anytime you want to step into the pit, you know where to find me.”
“Too few of us already,” I said, walking closer and examining his workout area. “I can’t have you out of commission while you’re recovering. Stacy would kill me.”
John grinned. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and motioned to the impromptu gym around him. “It’s not much, but I salvaged what I could.”
“It looks great to me,” I said, finding myself missing the smell of sweat and the sounds of lifting. “You said you were a gladiator too?”
“Trained under the best,” John said, taking a seat on the bench before grabbing his water bottle. “Never made it to the level you did because of an injury to my left knee, but I would have. I worked out at George Lopez gym.”
“No way,” I said, taking in John again and finding a new level of respect for the man. “I worked with George for a few years. Did he kill you with his cardio drills?”
A wide grin split John’s face. “I thought I was going to die more than once with that routine he had with all those burpees and sprints.”
“I puked a few times,” I said, remembering those years with fondness. “Couldn’t eat jalapenos for a while after they came up one day.”
We both grinned. A moment of easy silence passed between us as we found neutral ground.
“You know, I had you pegged wrong,” I said to John. “I know it doesn’t mean much, but it’s nice to have another gladiator in this mess.”
“If it makes you feel better, I didn’t really like you either,” John said with a lopsided grin. His face suddenly turned sober as he remembered something. “I uh—I know it was kept quiet in the media, but in the circuit, amongst the other gladiators, I know why you retired. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, yeah, me too,” I said, faced once again with the memory of my past. “Well hey, I gotta get going, but I’ll see you around.”
“Anytime you want to use my little area to train, open invitation,” John said, rising to his feet.
“I’ll take you up on that,” I said. “It’s been too long.”
“Doesn’t seem like you’ve lost much,” John said. “That was quite a clinic you put on last week.”
“Yeah, John, I guess old habits die hard,” I said.
John nodded. “My friends call me JB.”
“See you around, JB,” I said. I left reminding myself to try being nicer to people I didn’t know. I had written JB off the first time I met him and then again at the gate yesterday. Now after taking even a few minutes getting to know him, he wasn’t that bad of a guy after all.
I made my way to the front gate, where a pair of suits recognized me and allowed me to exit. The gate was reinforced with a steel panel as well as two extra anchors that secured it to the rest of the wall. It wasn’t exactly impenetrable, but it was twice as strong as before.
The chill morning air encouraged me to jog the rest of the way around the wall and make my way east behind the Orion. I stopped when I reached the hill, hearing barking coming from behind me.
Mutt galloped to my side and gave me dirty look.
“What?” I said. “I didn’t know if you wanted to come on this one. Remember what happened last time?”
Mutt huffed out of his mouth. He kept pace with me, nose to the ground, sniffing all around him.
We reached the open mountain doors leading into the chamber where we first met Tong. The alien was there waiting for us. His reptilian face broke into a wide grin when he saw Mutt.
Tong knelt down on the ground with his mouth open in a surprised and delighted smile.
I heard Mutt growl beside me.
“Easy, boy,” I said. “He’s a friend.”
“Great Dawn,” Tong said, looking at me and then Mutt. “Is this your companion? I’ve never seen a companion such as this.”
“Dean, remember?” I asked. “Not Great Dawn. Just call me Dean.”
“Dean,” Tong repeated. “Is this your companion?”
“He’s an animal—a dog named Mutt,” I said, exchanging looks with the pup. “I guess he’s a companion. I’d call him a pet, but he found me and pretty much takes care of himself.”
“Hello, companion Mutt,” Tong said, waving his three-fingered hand. Tong looked at me, stopping his wave in mid-action. “Am I performing the wave action appropriately, Dean? Iris instructed me. This is the way humans say hello?”
“Yeah, that’s great,” I said, scratching at the underside of my jaw. “Did Iris tell you about our plan? To head out this morning?”
“Yes, she did, and I have a few concerns,” Tong said, still waving his hand at Mutt and now at me.
“You can stop waving now,” I told him. “We just do like two or three waves and that’s it.”
“Oh, how interesting,” Tong said, blinking rapidly. “I have so much still to learn.”
“Don’t worry about it; even some humans don’t have stuff like this nailed down. We call those people awkward,” I said. “But that doesn’t matter right now. What concerns do you have with our plan?”
“Well, to begin with, there is no need to secure the communication section of your colony ship.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“My own people have a communication installation set inside where we are headed. Also, there is no one to communicate with.” Tong shrugged his slender shoulders. “My species is very advanced. We’ve sent out signals trying to communicate with any other life in the galaxy and there has never been any response.”
“Did your people ever construct ships to go out and explore?” I asked.
“Never,” Tong said with a look of concern. “The idea had been brought up before. We sent out unmanned crafts, but our resources were always better spent elsewhere, and then the war broke out with the Rung faction. After that, we were locked in a civil war.”
“You said you weren’t able to defeat Legion, so you went into hiding,” I said listing off the many questions I wanted to ask Tong. “What makes you think we will be able to defeat it now?”
“Because your people are the Dawn foretold of in prophecy,” Tong answered with another of his wide smiles.
“Right, I should have seen that one coming,” I said. “You have weapons and supplies in that underground base where your people sleep?”
“Oh, yes, many,” Tong said with a nod.
“All right, I guess we have a plan, then. We’ll swing by to see what happened to our expedition team and then head down to your installation,” I said.
“Yes, I am eager to be off.” Tong opened his arms to take in the large chamber. “I am also eager to meet more humans. Iris tells me you are such an interesting people. I want to know more about your digestive system, and your inability to see in the dark truly baffles me.”
“Yeah, well you can ask someone else about their digestive system,” I told Tong. “I—”
“We’re loading the crawler now,” Arun said into my earpiece, cutting me off. “Is Tong ready?”
“Yeah, we’re ready,” I said, answering Arun’s question. “Tong has a few questions for you about your digestive tract.”
Tong looked at me, nodding emphatically.
“Riiiiight,” Arun said. “We’ll be there soon.”
“They’re on their way,” I told the alien. “I’m going to wait for them outside. Gather whatever you need and come join me.”
I traveled back up the slightly inclined tunnel that led to the giant doors of the alien cave chamber. Mutt remained content to stay behind and explore the cave. I stretched weary muscles as the cool morning air hit me. Motion caught my attention from my right.
When I looked over, I saw a rock the size of my fist bearing down at my skull. I didn’t have time to register who was holding it. Pain exploded behind my eyes, stars filled my vision, then blackness.
I wasn’t fully conscious, I knew that much. Warm blood soaked the back of my hair and ran down my back. I was being dragged by someone. I didn’t have the strength to turn back and see who.
I swam in and out of consciousness. Memories of being taken somewhere came to me in short spurts like a heartbeat while I was being dragged by the back of my shirt over rough terrain, then nothing.
When I came to, I had no idea how much time had passed. Someone had tied me to the trunk of a tree, then things faded to black once more. My arms had been taken behind the tree and my wrists secured so tight, I thought my shoulders would pop out of their sockets, then the world faded to black again.
“Wake up, wake up,” I heard a voice playfully chant through the darkness of my unconsciousness. A hard slap across my face brought the taste of blood to my mouth. “I said wake up. It’s rude to ignore guests.”
My head felt like a baseball must feel after a homerun. I felt sick to my stomach. The light hurt my eyes and sent pain knifing through my skull. I looked up to see the back of a tall man. He wore black pants and black hood, but I knew who it was. I recognized his voice.
“I was wondering when you’d show up,” I said, spitting a mixture of blood and saliva to the side. “Thanks for your handkerchief the other day. It was thoughtful.”
Maksim still didn’t turn around. His shoulders shuddered with laughter. While the moment of manic glee passed over him, I took the time to test my bonds.
I was seated with my back against a wide tree trunk, and my arms were stretched behind me, making my joints scream with pain. Either a rope or some kind of leather strap held my wrists securely behind the tree. There was absolutely no give in the material securing my hands. Already it was biting into my wrists, cutting off circulation.
“You looked like you could use it more than me,” Maksim said, shaking his head. “That alien smelled horrible. It always surprised me how one can hide in plain sight. I slipped past the guards on the wall the night before. When that beast attacked, it gave me the perfect opportunity to get lost in the crowd. How many survivors do you have in your little compound now? Two thousand? It can’t be more than three.”
I didn’t give him anything. I didn’t know why he wanted me alive unless it was to torture me for information. He could have killed me at the exit of the cave. Instead, he took the time to take me all the way out here.
I looked around to see if I could recognize anything around me. The trees were those that belonged in a forest, not a jungle. They were interspersed and still thin, not close together like in the thick part of the forest near the mist marsh.
I could only guess, but I imagined he’d taken me to where the forest began, just south of the Orion. I would be barely out of yelling range, just far enough for no one to hear us.
“Not going to say anything?” Maksim said. “I didn’t expect you would. I imagined it would take some coaxing to get information from you.”
Maksim finally turned around. What I saw made my already sour stomach want to vomit on the forest floor. The right side of his face was burned to the extent it didn’t even look like skin clinging to his skull anymore, but rather bright pink mush that wrinkled like some kind of scaled snake.
The lip on the right side of his face curled up to reveal his teeth. He wore his hood, so I couldn’t see how much of his hair was burned, but to be honest, I didn’t want to.
“You see what I’ve sacrificed for my cause?” Maksim leaned in close to my face. “You see how deep my resolve lies?”
The stench coming off his burned flesh smelled like charred meat. He leaned in so close, our noses almost touched. “You see, Dean, this is what I’ve sacrificed. What are you willing to sacrifice, I wonder?”
“That fire that burned your mug must have cooked your brain too if you think I’m going to tell you or help you with anything,” I said. “What’s your plan now, to live a life bent on seeing the colony destroyed? Your Disciple friend already killed thousands and stranded the rest of us here. What more do you want?”
“I want the death of the Eternals and all who follow them,” Maksim said, rearing up to his full height. “And you’re going to help me.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said, not being able to help a smile crossing my lips. “Good luck with that, Two Face.”
Apparently, Maksim didn’t appreciate my choice of words to describe his new appearance. A fist collided with the left side of my jaw and another with my right cheek.
If nothing else, I could take a punch. Not a rock to the back of my head, but a punch, I could deal with.
I laughed, shrugging off the blows.
That pissed off Maksim even more. He sent another blow to my left eye then pulled up short.
“No, no, you’re used to this kind of brutality, aren’t you?” Maksim said, standing up straight. He let his fist fall to his side. “I could beat you into a bloody pulp and you’d just sit there and laugh. In that way, you and I are the same.”
“Yeah, you keep on saying that, but if we were so similar, you’d think we’d get along better,” I said with a long sigh. I worked my jaw around; it was already beginning to swell.
“If I can’t get you to talk or help me on your own”—Maksim paused here dramatically to let the tension build— “you’re going to force me to kidnap another.”
A sick feeling swept over me as I understood what Maksim was getting at.
“Who would I bring?” Maksim asked rhetorically. “I’ve seen the way you look at Stacy. She would be the obvious choice. But I wonder if you’d let an Eternal die right in front of you? I hear those abominations can grow back their own limbs. I wonder how many pieces I can cut them into before they would die. What do you think?”
I didn’t say anything. I knew this was all an act to try and get me angry. It was working, but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. My mind was running on overtime, trying to see past the fog of pain and concentrate on an escape plan.
Think, I told myself. You’ve been in bad spots before. Think about how you’re going to get out of this one.
“The girl it is,” Maksim said as if he’d just made up his mind. “If you’ll watch her die, then I’ll grab an Eternal next.”
“What is it that you want to know?” I asked. “You know everything already if you were there inside our walls. Arun announced it. You know about the aliens, the virus, our numbers—you already know it all.”
“I know most, but not all.” Maksim turned to me again. “This virus, how is it spread? Where did it come from, and most of all, can it be manipulated to work on an Eternal?”
Puzzle pieces began to fit in place in my mind as I worked on exactly what Maksim was getting at.
“Why would you want the virus to work on an Eternal?” I asked, already suspecting the answer.
Maksim gave me a grin that held no true joy. The right side of his burnt lip receded up to show all of his teeth on that side of his face.
“What if there existed a narrative where the Eternals did all of this?” Maksim asked. He moved his hands in the air as if he were painting a grand picture. “What if the Eternals did this all on their own? A master plan to kill off hundreds of thousands of Transients while only sacrificing a handful of their own? What if, after the crash, they started a virus to kill the transients that remained, sacrificing themselves to the virus in the process?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I knew Maksim was crazy, but this was sheer insanity. It wasn’t enough that the Orion crashed, killing the vast majority of Transients. It wasn’t enough for him that we were all stranded. He wanted to kill us all and, in the process, smear the Eternal name.
“You know, when the Orion broke apart upon descent to this planet, I thought I was dead,” Maksim said, looking to the sky as if he were getting a divine moment of inspiration. “I thought that was it for me. When I landed in the water, I knew my purpose was not yet served. I still had work to do.”
“You are really drinking that Disciple Kool Aid, aren’t you?” I asked, tempting another beating. “You think that what you’re doing now is anything short of the work of a psychopath? I’ll tell you what, I’m going to get out of here sooner or later. I don’t know how, but I will, and when I do, I’m going to do what I should have done to you from the beginning. I’m going to kill you.”
“There he is! There he is!” Maksim turned and leaned down to look into my eyes. “I knew you were in there, brother. Two feathers from the same bird, you and I.”
Maksim reached down and tore the medallion off my neck. The thin chain broke with a single jerk. I bit my tongue, fighting the urge to yell out and tell him to give it back. I knew if he understood how important it was to me, he never would.
“Two swords pointed away from one another, you and I,” Maksim said, staring at the medallion. He ran a thumb over the design. “A single blade in the center, an unknown destiny, the circle around the blade the Orion itself.”
“I’m so sick of listening to your garbage. Kill me, leave me, and go kidnap someone or whatever you’re going to do, but listening to you drone on is torture I can’t take.” I raised my voice. “Come on, Maksim, what do you say you and I just finish this right now? You let me go and one of us walks away from the clearing. Let’s just end this, brother.”
That last word caught his attention, as I knew it would. He looked at me with eager eyes as if he’d wanted me to call him by this title our entire conversation.
“Yes, yes, maybe,” Maksim said, walking toward me. “Maybe I’ll beat you within an inch of your life and then untie you so we could finish this here. You’re a better fighter than I am, and I understand that, but you lack the cunning I possess. Maybe—”
A shriek from my right ended whatever nonsense Maksim was going to suggest next. Our eyes widened as the screams came from all directions, at once building to a crescendo of pure madness.
I knew exactly what those sounds meant: Legion. By the look on Maksim’s face, he knew what it was as well. How the Disciple managed to survive outside of the wall for this long without becoming infected was a question I couldn’t answer.
Maksim whirled around to put his back to me once more. Motion from every corner of the forest caught my eyes. Transients turned by the symbiotic virus known as Legion ran from tree to tree, using them as cover.
“They’re going to kill you; there are too many of them,” I said. I gritted my teeth, straining against my bonds so hard they bit into my skin and drew blood.
The screams of those infected by Legion continued.
“You got to let me go,” I told Maksim. “Whatever we have between us has to be put aside for another day. You know you have a better chance with me than without me.”
The sounds of infected were getting closer. Their screams lifted to the air and echoed in the still. The faint presence of wildlife that had been chirping and scampering a moment ago was gone now.
Maksim turned to me with drifting eyes. He pulled a knife from the inside of his boot. I recognized the level of uncertainty in that look. Not uncertainty that he was about to fight, but whether he should free me or not.
“Maksim,” I growled. “You’re dead without me. You know it.”
Maksim rushed to my side. The knife in his hand was positioned to slice down on my bonds. He never got the chance. A thick figure bolted from a tree meters to our right. It tackled Maksim to the ground.
He was a large man wearing a dark grey uniform, setting him aside as a Civil Authority Officer. He rained down blows on Maksim, assuming a dominant position. Blackness filled his eyes. Dark rivers of the substance oozed from his mouth and ears.
Maksim brought his knife up and across the neck of the man, opening a wide gash that ran freely with black blood. The man fell on him, gurgling as he tried to hold the wound closed with his hands.
“Come on! Come on!” I yelled, straining against my bonds with everything I had. I leaned forward, digging my feet into the ground. The sticky hot sensation of blood running from my wrists where the strap cut into me did nothing to stop my struggling. I knew in seconds I’d be dead if I didn’t get free.
Two more infected reached Maksim. To his credit, he dispatched them both swiftly and efficiently. He was a hard man to put down when he had a blade in his hands. That was something for me to remember in the future.
Maksim drove the end of his blade into the right ear of his first attacker. The second attacker, he used its own momentum against. Maksim flipped the crazed woman over then fell on the infected blade first with a violent stab that went into her left eye.
One of the infected charged me. He couldn’t be more than a teenager. He was slender with long limbs and a shriek that said he was going through puberty. He came at me with a wild, hungry expression. The kid dove at me arms first.
I coiled my legs underneath me, catching him in the chest. For the briefest moment, his look of victory melded to shock.
“Not today,” I grunted as I uncoiled my legs like a spring, sending all the power I had into the motion. The kid flew back, slamming into another pair of infected.
They were all over the place now. Dozens of the infected screaming. Most of them went for Maksim. I think Legion understood I was out of commission at the moment and less important.
Another attacker came my way, this one an older woman with curly brown hair. She was smarter, coming at me from the side. I tried to twist my body around to hit her with my legs, but the bonds were too tight.
A wave of infected came at Maksim and he went down.
The woman grabbed my throat in both of her small hands and squeezed. She didn’t say anything, but I swear there was a look of recollection in those macabre black eyes.
I fought for breath when none came. There was nothing I could do. I even tried to lower my chin and bite her hands, anything to live. It didn’t work.
“Shhh, shhh, go now,” the woman coaxed me as she squeezed the life out of me.
A thump on the tree I was tied to caught my attention; the blade of Maksim’s knife stuck deep into the trunk right above the strap holding me secure.
I gritted my teeth, giving everything I had left to the motion of sawing through the rope or whatever was holding me in place.
My hands fell free. Sore, fatigued, and choking, I grabbed the old woman by her own throat. With a series of violent motions, I slammed her fragile skull against the base of the tree that had held me prisoner a moment before.
By the third strike, she’d released her grip on my throat. By the fifth, she was unconscious and probably hemorrhaging. Her body slumped to the ground beside me. Legion could take over the bodies, but it seemed they were still as fragile as they had been before.
I struggled to my feet, grasping at the handle of the knife stuck in the tree. Weak from loss of blood and oxygen, I still refused to go down without a fight. Nine meters in front of me, I saw Maksim reeling under the onslaught of a half dozen infected.
He looked like he was about to be overwhelmed. A red sheet of fresh blood covered his face. His nose looked broken, his left hand held close to his chest as though it were useless.
I had a decision to make then and there. No time to consider the outcome either way. I could leave the Disciple who had been nothing but the very worst of problems or I could stay right here with him, possibly giving my own life in the process.
He would never know. He faced me, but the blood in his eyes must have obscured his vision. He didn’t call out. All he had eyes for at the moment were the group of infected closing in on him.
What are you going to do, Dean? I asked myself. Whatever you’re going to do, decide now.
For all the reasons I should leave him and make a run for it, there were two that made the decision for me. First, I’d be dead without him, strangled by some old infected woman. Second, as different as we were, we were both Transients not infected by Legion. Right now, there was a war going on. Us against them.
“Hey,” I barked as loud as I could. Already I was preparing myself for what was about to happen. I rolled my neck, stretching my arms out by twisting them to my sides. I didn’t wait for them to respond and stalked toward them. “Hey! Legion!”
An eerie moment took place when I used the name of the virus. All the infected turned to look at me at exactly the same moment.
I wished for something witty to say before doing the thing I did best in this life but came up blank. I settled for, “You want one of us, you got to take all of us!”
By the time the last word left my lips, I was on top of the first infected, slashing out with the knife in my right hand. I was trained as a gladiator, so hand-to-hand weapons weren’t my specialty, but they sure as heck helped.
I held the knife blade down near my pinky as I went to work. This let me play to my strengths. I could rely on my regular fighting style while still using the blade as a ripping weapon when I swung.
My tank was already near empty. The blood loss from my head and wrists threatened to put me out for the count. I let out a battle roar and rallied everything I had left to use on Legion. They came at us in a swarm. Hands reached for my legs and arms. A few of the infected even carried rocks and clubs with them.
I took one out after another, going back to my training days and laying into them. They came at me en masse with a swarm mentality. I never let myself get surrounded and used pinpoint accuracy to take them out with shots to their jawlines and temples. I miscalculated a swing from sheer exhaustion and went down as one of the infected tackled me from behind. My chin slammed against the ground.
I thought I was done as a pair of hands reached down. They weren’t infected hands. Maksim sent a heavy boot to the skull of the infected who had taken me down to the ground and pulled me up in single motion. No words; he just put his back to my own.
The infected circled us. For as many as we put down, more had come to bolster Legion’s ranks. My back pressed against Maksim’s was the last position I thought I’d find myself in that day.
“Here, you’re better with it,” I said, handing him the knife. “Just don’t stab me in the back.”
“I’ve saved you twice now,” Maksim said, accepting the knife. “If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead.”
“Where did you take me anyway?” I asked, trying to get my bearings as more and more of the infected came through the sparse forest grounds to surround us.
“The forest to the south of the Orion,” Maksim answered, confirming my suspicions. “We’re only a few kilometers out.”
“We can’t stay here and fight; we have to make a go for it,” I told him. “I’m going to break through their lines and run like hell.”
I was going to say more, when the most angelic sound I’ve ever heard reached my ears. The sound of a crawler gunning toward our location echoed through the woods. The infected stood upright once again, turning their heads as one to search for the sound.
“Dean, we’re coming!” Ricky’s voice shouted through the forest.
I caught a glimpse of them to my left, the crawler bearing down on our position like a missile.
Legion sensed all was about to be lost. It charged toward Maksim and me in one last desperate attempt to kill us before help could arrive.
I roared as my fists connected with bodies. It was little help; there were way too many of them now. Maksim and I were completely surrounded.
I went down again, but I took a few of them with me in the process. Two of the infected held my arms to the ground, while a third lifted a rock over its head to crush my own.
I tried to kick out, but two more held my legs to the ground. I wasn’t sure what happened to Maksim. I could still hear the crawler somewhere in the background, but that wasn’t really a priority right now. I was about to die and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
I found myself wanting to live in that moment. It was a strange feeling for me after living a life for so long where I didn’t care what happened to me. The rock came down.
I was wrong. The sound of the crawler was the second most glorious sound. The first was a blaster rifle going off at the exact right instance.
One moment the infected’s head was there looking down on him with a drooping scowl and madness in its black eyes. The next, it was gone in a spray of red, courtesy of a blaster round. The body wobbled like a drunk, before dropping the rock harmlessly to the ground.
A flash of grey and white fur with teeth rushed by my eyes. Mutt barreled into the infected holding me to the ground, freeing my left arm. That was enough for me to wrestle myself free from the grip of the infected.
All around me, red blaster fire lit up the scene.
The infected paused for a moment as if they were having an internal debate whether to attack this new threat or take off in the opposite direction.
Apparently, they agreed on the latter. At once, they fled. They ran in all directions, scattering into the sparse forest cover.
I looked up to thank my saviors. Stacy, Arun, and Ricky all held blasters. Tong sat in the front cab of the crawler, wide-eyed at the events surrounding us.
I picked myself off the ground, looking for Maksim. He was gone. I wasn’t sure if he escaped or the infected got to him. Either way, there was no sign of him now.
“You’re bleeding pretty badly,” Stacy said, running to my side.
Mutt sniffed at my bloody fingers with a whine. A thick tongue came out and licked me, as if that was going to make me feel better in and of itself.
It kind of did.
“What happened?” Ricky asked, joining Stacy. “You don’t look so good.”
“Story of my life,” I said. “I was jumped right outside Tong’s cave. Maksim whacked me on the head and dragged me out here. The party was interrupted by Legion. I don’t know if Maksim got away or Legion got to him first.”
“Maksim?” Ricky said, putting his back to us. He scanned the forested area one more time to be sure we were alone.
The only thing besides our group in the surrounding area were dead bodies. One of the bodies to our left coughed, then cackled with laughter.
I looked over to see a young man with the infection coming out of every orifice. He looked at us with a smile. In his white teeth were rivers of the black substance.
“History will only serve to repeat itself,” the young man said with a smile. “You will all die or become part of Legion.”
I opened my hand, motioning to Ricky’s rifle.
Rick handed it to me, no questions asked.
“What do you want with us?” I asked. I knew the answer to the question; I just wanted to hear it from him first. “It’s you, isn’t it? I’m talking to Legion.”
“Why do you ask questions to which you already know the answer?” Legion asked.
“It’s him.” Tong’s distinct voice reached my ears. I looked back to see as he and Arun approached. “I’m sure it’s him.”
“A Remboshi has awoken,” Legion said with a smile. “It’s your kind that were my creators, my father.”
“Not my kind, but the sect of the Remboshi who broke off, the Rung. Those that worship technology and advancement above all else.”
“I call them Father and you Mother,” Legion said with awe in his voice. “I have been alone for too long these years, barely surviving in animals and plants on this planet. Long had I wished for stronger, more able-bodied hosts to possess again. Then, when the Orion crashed, my prayers were answered. A near unlimited source of new bodies for me to inhabit, and now look—you, too, have awoken from your sleep, eager to be consumed.”
“The Great Dawn has come to end you once and for all,” Tong said, staring down at Legion with stoic eyes. “Your days on Genesis are at an end.”
“My rise to power is only beginning.” Legion grinned again. “The more I infect, the greater my reach extends, and the more knowledge I gather as well. Once I infect you, Remboshi, I will possess the information you do, to locate the rest of your people, wake them, and draw them into my fold.”
“Never,” Tong spat.
I had yet to see the Remboshi angry, but I guessed this was what passed for it in his kind. Tong’s hands balled into fists and his eyes widened. He bared his short, stubby teeth.
“Are we done here?” I asked. “I’ve been waiting to shoot him since he started talking.”
“Ahhh, the ever-vigilant hero,” Legion said, looking over at me. “When I possess your body, you will be my champion. I will—”
Legion’s head exploded in a mess of skull and brain matter.
I looked over to Stacy, who replaced her blaster in her side holster.
“I was getting tired of him running his mouth,” Stacy said. “There was nothing new he was going to tell us.”
I nodded. I had wanted to be the one to put him down, but as long as he was out for the count, I could live with that.
“We’ve got to take a look at your head,” Ricky said, grimacing at the amount of blood running down the back of my skull. “We need to get you back to the Orion and have Doctor Allbright take a look at you.”
“No, I’ll be fine. We need to move on,” I said. “The sooner we reach Tong’s installation, the sooner we can get the weapons to deal with Legion and put him down for good.”
“Let me see,” Arun said. She walked around to my back and gently took my head in her hands, examining my wound. “I don’t have a Heal Aid, but I’m sure we have a needle and thread in the kit. We can do this the old way if you insist on coming along with us.”
“I insist,” I said without hesitation, handing the rifle back to Ricky. “How did you find me anyway?”
“Well, you left a patchy trail of blood behind you and Mutt did the rest,” Stacy answered.
I looked down at Mutt. He wagged his tail.
“Could have used your help when I was getting jumped,” I said down at the genetically engineered dog. “Where were you then?”
Mutt cocked his head to the side as if he were trying to understand what I was saying.
“It’s all right; you always pull through when it counts,” I said, ruffling his soft ears.
“We push hard, we still might be able to make it to the communication section of the Orion by night,” Arun said. “Ricky will drive with Tong and me in the front. We’ll give you a few minutes to get that wound on your head sealed up.”
“Thanks,” I said.
We made it back to the crawler, where Stacy went to work on sewing up the back of my head. Ricky, Tong, and Arun were close enough to help if needed. They stood beside the bed of the crawler, planning their next move.
“You know what you’re doing back there?” I asked, only half teasing. “I don’t want the back of my perfectly shaped head looking like a quilt from a first-time sewer.”
“Perfectly shaped head, huh?” Stacy asked as she rummaged through one of the black crates in the back of the crawler. “How many concussions did you have when you were a gladiator?”
“Too many,” I answered honestly.
“I’m going to have to clean the wound first,” Stacy said, finding a bottle of disinfectant, a needle, and thread from the medical kit she rummaged through. “It’s not going to tickle. Do you want something for the pain?”
“No time, and if we get ambushed again, I don’t want to be slow from the meds,” I said, gritting my teeth. I searched the ground looking for something to bite down on. I wasn’t sure if it really worked, but over the years when I was treated for my wounds using a Heal Aid, biting down on something helped. Like I could channel my pain into that single act. It was probably in my head, but either way, it worked.
I leaned down and grabbed a short stick that had fallen from one of the trees. It was as thick as two of my fingers and not much longer. I placed it in between my teeth and bit down.
“Go ahead,” I mumbled outside the bit in my mouth.
“Here we go,” Stacy said.
The cold liquid cleaning the wound felt good for about point zero five seconds. Then it turned to fire. It felt like someone poured molten lava on the back of my skull.
I grimaced, letting out a big breath of air in a near growl, then bit down on the piece of wood between my teeth, grimacing.
“You’ve got this,” Stacy coached me. “Just wiping clean the wound now and then we’ll start to sew. It’s not often I have a captive audience like this that can’t talk back. It’ll be like a free trip to the shrink for me. Hmmm, what do I need to get off my chest?”
I knew what Stacy was doing. She was talking to me to try and get my mind off the searing hot pain coming from the back of my skull. It didn’t work, but I appreciated the sentiment.
“Well, we’ll need to get you another earpiece, since yours was knocked off in the battle royale with Legion,” Stacy said, going down a mental checklist. “You should get something in your stomach and definitely water after this. You can sleep in the back of the crawler until we get to the communication section of the Orion.”
Each time Stacy put the needle in my skin, I could feel a tiny icepick digging away at the meat at the back of my skull. Pain was something I was familiar with. You didn’t get as far as I had in the gladiator world without your fair share of injuries and scars.
Stacy went on doing her best to distract me from the pain. I took my mind away from the agony in the back of my skull by focusing on her voice more than the words. When the pain became too much, I bit down on that unlucky piece of wood like Mutt would on a Christmas ham.
“There we go,” Stacy said, removing her hands from my head to examine her handiwork. Looks like some kind of screwed-up lightning bolt design, but you’re good to go.”
I ignored the lightning bolt reference. Somehow, I knew Lou would have jumped at the analogy, bringing together a parallel of what they meant.
“Thanks,” I said, spitting out the piece of wood that now had bite marks in it. I went over to the back of the crawler and found a towel and a canteen, letting the water run over the cloth. The cuts on my face stung when I touched the wet rag to it, but it was a familiar pain.
“There’s food in that large case in the back right corner of the crawler bed,” Stacy pointed out. “You sure you’re good to go with us for the rest of this mission? No one is going to fault you for wanting to head back to the Orion.”
She tried to hide it, but I could sense there was a deep concern in her voice. She was worried for me. If it was up to her, she probably would see me sent back to the Orion for proper treatment and a day or two of downtime.
“Not a chance,” I said, grabbing a protein bar from the case of food supplies and sitting down in the back of the crawler. “Just get the crawler moving. I’ll be good to go after a nap.”
Ricky, Arun, and Tong filled the cab of the crawler. I could hear the Remboshi going on and on about facts of his planet. I might have been more interested in listening in if I wasn’t so tired from the day’s events already.
People forgot how taxing fighting could actually be. That was why there were rounds in most organized fighting. After a handful of minutes going all out in a fight, the human body was fatigued to the point of quitting altogether.
I worked on chewing the protein bar quickly, just wanting to get the food in my stomach before I closed my eyes.
Mutt and Stacy jumped into the back of the crawler with me. Mutt’s nose sniffed the air hard. He looked at the rest of the protein bar in my hand. I tossed it his way. It didn’t even hit the ground.
Stacy closed the back gate of the crawler. Ricky gunned the engine and pulled forward with a slight jerk.
“I’m on lookout,” Stacy said, finding a standing position next to the rear of the cabin. She patted the blaster at her hip. “We’ll be okay. You get some rest.”
I found a spare jacket in one of the crates in the crawler. The rocking of the crawler bed lulled me to sleep with a dream I wouldn’t remember when I woke.
I stood in a massive dining room, a large table with elegant chairs in front of me, and fancy paintings on the wall. A gaudy fireplace sat to my left.
Who the heck lives here? I wondered. Why would someone own all of this stuff?
The double doors opened and little girl with brown hair pulled back into pigtails walked in. She wore a white dress and couldn’t have been more than three or four, but I was bad at guessing things like this. She looked at me shyly then giggled.
I didn’t know how I knew her, only that I did. She was familiar somehow, like I had known her all along.
I took a knee with a smile. I didn’t interact with kids, so the best I could do was give her a goofy grin and wave.
That was when I noticed I was dressed in slacks, a button-up shirt, and black dress shoes. The fabric felt soft and expensive. I hadn’t worn anything like this in a long time.
Something itched in the back of my mind. Something that told me I was in dream. It felt so real though, too real to be a figment of my imagination.
“You look nice dressed up,” the little girl told me with a sly grin of her own. “You’re beautiful. You have a beautiful face.”
The innocence with which she said the words made me smile then stop and think. I chuckled. “Thank you. You’re beautiful too.”
“Thank you, you’re so nice.” The little girl twirled around in her dress. She spun with all the grace of a child and none of the self-consciousness. She was determined in what she wanted to do and didn’t care what I might think.
“Mommy is going to come,” the little girl said, pointing at the doors. “She just wanted me to come in first and say hi. You’re exactly like she told me you would be.”
I opened my mouth then closed it again. Realization hit me like a gladiator never could. Tears sprang to my eyes, but I didn’t let them fall.
The double doors opened again. This time, a radiant white light showed a silhouette. The outline was of a woman. I knew who this was before I saw her. Natalie came into the room. She wore a plain dress like the little girl. A necklace with a medallion hung on her slender neck.
I rushed to her, unable to keep the tears at bay any longer, then scooped her up in my arms, understanding now this could only be part of a dream. A dream I wished I would never wake up from.
Natalie laughed and hugged me back. She buried her head into the side of my neck. I hugged her so tight, I thought I might hurt her.
“I’m dreaming,” I said, more tears streaking down my cheeks. “I’m dreaming.”
Natalie wiped my tears with her thumbs. “Sometimes dreams can save us. We don’t have long, but I wanted to tell you that we’re safe and we understand why this all had to happen.”
“We,” I repeated, understanding exactly who she meant.
Natalie broke away from my arms for a moment, motioning to the girl to come forward.
“Dean, I’d like to introduce you to your daughter, Jemma,” Natalie said. She went down to her own knee, beckoning the child forward. “Come on, Jemma, this is your father. The man I’ve told you stories about.”
I fell more than went to my knees. More tears came with the absence of actual sobs or crying. I just couldn’t stop them.
Jemma came forward with a smile and whispered in Natalie’s ear. Her whisper was loud enough I could hear. “Can I hug him?”
“I think he’d like that very much,” Natalie said, looking over to me.
All I could do was nod, too choked with emotion to speak.
Jemma came to me with a silly grin on her lips. Like her mother, she wiped the tears from my cheeks. Next, she swung her little arms around my neck.
I couldn’t describe what I felt. It was more than happiness; it was pure innocent joy, the likes of which I could never remember experiencing before. Love on the most primal, open level.
I wrapped my arms around my daughter. She felt so tiny, so very small in my embrace.
Get it together, I told myself. Get it together.
I’m not sure how long I held her. The only thing I was sure of was, when she let go of my neck, the moment came too soon. I gave her one little tiny squeeze, remembering how she felt in my arms, the clean sweet smell of her hair, then let her go.
“Jemma, can you go into the rest of the house and give us a moment?” Natalie asked our daughter. “I’ll be right in. We just need to talk.”
“Okay, Mommy,” Jemma said, giving me one final glance. “I’ll see you again one day soon, Daddy. I love you.”
“I love you too,” I managed to say.
She was gone, her bare little fleet slapping across the wood floor. I’d remember that sweet noise forever.
“I need for you to understand two things,” Natalie said, bringing me back to the present moment. “First, everything that’s happened has done so for a reason. These people you’re with need you. You’re going to save thousands of lives.”
“What?” I searched Natalie’s eyes for understanding. “What are you talking about? I’ve never been a leader.”
“Maybe they don’t need a leader.” Natalie stared back into my eyes. “Maybe they need a protector. Second, you have to let us go.”
I shook my head, not believing what I was hearing.
“You’ve mourned us long enough,” Natalie said, choking on her own words for a moment. Tears shone in her eyes. “You have to let us go and enjoy the life you have around you. Make the best of the time you have left knowing Jemma and I are cared for and we’ll see you again.”
“No, no, how can you ask me to forget you?” I asked, shaking my head in dismay.
“I never said forget,” Natalie said with an arched brow. Her eyes sparkled as the light caught the tears that lived there. “We will never forget. But you still have a life to live. You still have a purpose to fulfill. Yes, be sad, but there is a time for sadness as is there a time for happiness. I want you to be happy. I want you to be happy, my love. Don’t dwell on us but remember us always with a smile as you live your life.”
I shook my head again, trying to understand what she was saying. I already did, but it seemed strange. Letting her go, letting them go was such a foreign idea.
“You go be the man you were always meant to be.” Natalie placed a hand on my chest. “I won’t be coming back. This is it.”
Natalie moved in closer, placing her lips on mine.
I woke in the back of the crawler, trying to remember my dream even as the details of the event faded. A sense of peace rested in my chest where Natalie had touched me. Tears fell down my face. I rubbed them away then sat up too quickly. A dull pain in my head reminded me of the events that had occurred that morning.
The crawler rocked back and forth underneath me. The sky overhead told me I’d slept far longer than I intended. Bright pinks and purples streaked the sky as the twin suns descended past the horizon.
Mutt looked up at me from his spot beside me on the crawler. His tongue lolled out of the side of his mouth in a dopey grin.
Stacy looked back at me from her spot behind the cab of the crawler. Her legs were bent in an easy stance to absorb the sway of the vehicle.
“I was going to wake you soon,” Stacy said with a smile. “How’s the head, Sleeping Beauty?”
“It feels alright,” I lied, still trying to remember every detail of the dream that had left me with such a deep sense of peace. I couldn’t. “I think I’m going to be okay.”
“Good. Here, I forgot to give this to you.” Stacy tossed me the medallion that Maksim had torn off my neck. “I saw it on the ground.”
“Thanks,” I said, catching it from the air.
“We’re out of range from communication with Iris now, so we’re on our own,” Stacy informed me.
I stood up on shaky legs, going over to where she leaned on the back of the cab for support. I had a chance to study the terrain. In front of us and to the left, dark mountain ranges reached up to touch the sky. To the south, the first lines of the forest scattered out and were lost in the growing darkness.
“We shouldn’t travel in the dark,” Arun said via the comm unit in my ear. “According to the map Iris gave us, we should be reaching the Orion communication level soon. We’ll stop there and rest for the night.”
“No sign of Captain Harold or his team?” I asked.
“None,” Ricky answered. “No tracks or markings they might have left either, nothing. It’s like they disappeared.”
An uncomfortable silence fell on our little group at those words. The crawler continued forward, racing the setting suns. Ricky switched on the vehicle’s high beam lights to compensate.
We reached the foot of the mountains less than an hour later. There was no sign of life save for a few birds in the distance and the scampering alien lizards on the ground around us.
Ricky pulled to a stop at the base of a steep sloping mountain whose peak was lost to the darkness.
“I can try to scout a way around or through,” Ricky suggested.
“No need,” Tong said through the comms. “I can see what you’re looking for there, just to the left of the foot of the mountain.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Follow the slope on the left side of this mountain,” Tong instructed. “You’ll see the silhouette of the section of the ship.”
“I don’t see anything,” Ricky said. “I just see another mountain.”
“I don’t think that’s a mountain, Rick,” I said as I picked up Tong’s line of sight. “That’s a piece of the Orion.”
Unlike the prison section of the ship we discovered the week before, this section was much larger. It was deceivingly massive. On the map Iris showed us, it looked small—sure, larger than the prison section by a bit, but not this big.
No wonder we missed it in the growing dark. It rose from the left side of the mountain in front of us like some massive hill. The stars twinkling overhead were obscured by thick clouds, as was the giant moon that usually beamed down.
Now that I saw it up close, there was no thinking it was anything else. It was obvious. I couldn’t unsee it if I wanted to.
“So, what’s our play here, Arun?” Stacy asked through the comm. “Are we going in or waiting it out until daylight?”
“We take the crawler up there and park until morning,” Arun decided. “There’s not enough room for us all in the cab of the crawler, but there is in there. We see what we can for now, find a secure spot, then go exploring with the daylight.”
“Will the vehicle be able to make it up the steep incline?” Tong asked.
“What do you think, Dean?” Ricky asked me. “You think we can make it up there?”
“We’ll make it,” I said. “Just drop it in gear and take it slow.”
“You got it, brother,” he replied, adjusting the gears and sending a hard shiver through the base of the crawler.
“Hold on,” I told Stacy.
Stacy nodded, gripping the handles on the outside of the cab. Even Mutt pressed his belly to the bed of the crawler and spread out on all fours.
Ricky used the high beams and the added floodlights. Two large lights in the grill of the vehicle shot out along with two smaller lights on each front fender. On the top of the cab near where we held on, four more lights opened from the roof and shot brilliant white lights into the darkness.
The mountains were bare of any undergrowth. Reddish-cream rocks and sands made up the impressively large terrain.
True to his word, Ricky took it slow, creeping forward meter by meter. Maybe it was because I had just been ambushed earlier that day, but I felt a sense of unease, as though we were being watched. The hot day air was just giving way to the night’s cooler touch, causing goosebumps to flow down my neck.
I kept my head on a swivel, seeing the mountain ahead of us and the looming section of the Orion, but nothing else. Even the wildlife had gone to bed for the time being.
Slowly, the broken hull took on more shape. It was easily four times as large as the prison section we found and hadn’t fared as well in the crash as the other. More than half of it had been annihilated on impact. Debris and broken twisted steel were everywhere. Ricky rolled over what could have been a sink, then a section of a door, and so on and so on.
Memories of how great the Orion had been when we took off flooded my mind. How had something so massive come to be nothing more than garbage? It arched on the side of the mountain as if it were trying to camouflage itself on the alien terrain.
Darkened metal showed streaks of where a fire had begun then burned itself out. Still, there was no sign of life, either alien or human.
“Eyes open,” Arun reminded everyone. “I think—”
“There.” Tong’s sharp eyes caught sight of something in the night. “By the underside.”
We all looked in the same direction. It was actually the outside of the ship, but since the ship was shaped like a large moon, this section that broke off looked like a dome.
“What?” Ricky asked, still edging forward. “I don’t see anything.”
Just outside of the crawler’s right headlights, I saw it too. Something small, too small to be a human, scurried deeper in the Orion’s husk.
Mutt lifted his nose and sniffed the air.
“Alien?” Stacy asked. “Tong, did you recognize it?”
“I did not,” Tong answered. “I do not think it is a species on Genesis.”
“Then where did it come from?” Ricky asked.
I looked down at Mutt.
“Hey, weren’t there multiple animals that were in the storage bay along with Mutt? Maybe a few others survived the crash?” I offered.
“Maybe,” Arun said. “For the time being, blasters out and let’s find some cover for the night. We’ll look for survivors and clues to whatever that thing was tomorrow.”
“How about over there to the left?” Stacy asked.
A large arch with access to the inside from either the right or left stuck out of the ground. Ricky maneuvered the crawler over to it, shining the bright lights into the underside of the structure.
“Son of a monkey’s uncle,” Ricky said under his breath.
We pulled just outside of the archway. Stories above us, open levels hung with everyday appliances like cords, ropes, wires, towels, and so forth. It looked like someone had ripped off the side of the Orion then turned it to rest on its side.
“We’ll make camp here and take turns on watch,” Arun said.
Ricky pulled the crawler to a stop.
I jumped down and scanned the area around us. I still had that uneasy feeling like we were being watched by someone or something.
It can’t be Maksim, I reminded myself. Even if he were crazy enough to follow us, we traveled by crawler. On foot, it would take days to make the same trip. But if it’s not Maksim’s eyes you feel, then who’s is it?
That was the million-dollar question I didn’t have an answer to.
Instead of dwelling on something I wouldn’t figure out, I busied myself by making camp. Like Arun suggested, we stayed close to the crawler just inside the dome the Orion provided.
Like our own encampment before we cleaned it up, debris littered the area. It reminded me of a tornado touching down in a residential neighborhood, leaving a path of wreckage and destruction in its wake.
We sifted through what we could and threw larger items to the side before settling down to eat. Dinner consisted of a prepackaged kit containing sandwiches and sliced fruit. We ate in silence, washing down our meal with the canteens of water.
“You know what I miss most?” Ricky said, finally breaking the silence.
“Not worrying about being killed at every turn?” Stacy asked.
“Well, that too,” Ricky added. “But I was going to say fast food. I miss greasy, fattening fast food. The kind you know isn’t good for you, but you’re going to sacrifice the waistband and eat it anyway.”
“I too would like to try this fast food you speak of,” Tong said, munching on his sandwich. “Although the food you provide has been very good as well. What is the expression? Thumbs up?”
Tong went on to extend his right hand. The middle finger of his three-fingered palm went up, flipping us all off. Tong smiled and maneuvered his middle finger to each of us to make sure we all saw.
“Thumbs up.” He grinned.
“Oh, Tong.” Arun cracked a smile. She showed him with her own hand. “Like this. This is thumbs up.”
“Oh, of course,” Tong said, closing his other two fingers into a fist and pointing his thumb up.
We sat in a circle with no fire, just our flashlights to provide the light we needed. The usual clear sky was muddied by the clouds overhead. We didn’t see the creature, but Mutt sure smelled it.
The hackles on his back rose beside me as we finished our meal. He went to all fours but stayed low to the ground. His ears were as straight as soldier in a salute. He was focused on the area deeper into the crash site.
Ricky went for his rifle. Stacy and Arun pulled out their sidearms. They pointed them into the darkness, but with no target to shoot at, we stood still.
I placed my hand on the back of Mutt’s neck. I was afraid he was going to rush into the night. If he did, we’d lose sight of him. If he came across something he couldn’t beat on his own, well, let’s just say I was growing a soft spot for the animal.
Something very much like a cat’s meow came from the darkness. With my free hand, I added my own flashlight power to that of the others. Our beams of light sliced through the eerie darkness like sharpened blades through bread.
Nothing, but the noise came again. I was sure it was a meow this time.
Mutt trembled on his feet. He was a coiled spring, ready to be let loose.
“Hold on, buddy,” I whispered in his ear. “Hold on, give us a minute. Stay.”
Over my time with the dog, I came to realize he was well-trained and obedient. He had been groomed to go on this trip with us and whoever had trained him had done a stellar job. Mutt’s eyes never left the darkness in front of us, but he did stay.
“Ricky,” Arun whispered as the sound came yet again. “The floodlights on the crawler; can you point them in this direction?”
“Yes,” Ricky said. Slowly, he rose to his feet and went over to the driver’s side of the crawler. He unlocked the door and pointed one of the side floodlights in the direction we were all looking.
A brilliant white light shot out, making our flashlights look like puny candles in comparison.
Ricky worked the light around, finally settling on two shining orbs I knew were eyes. The creature didn’t just sound like a cat; it was a cat, one of the largest I’d ever seen.
“Arun?” Stacy asked. “Is this one of the creatures taken aboard the Orion? Did it survive?”
“Cats were on the list as well as dogs to provide companionship for our new colony,” Arun said. “I can’t imagine more than a few animals of any kind survived the crash. It’s a miracle we found Mutt.”
“Hey, it’s okay.” Stacy used a soft voice as she hunched low and slowly made her way to the cat. “It’s okay.”
The cat gave her one look then bolted back into the darkness.
Again, I felt Mutt tense under my hand. Every natural instinct he had and some unnatural ones told him to give chase.
“Easy, buddy,” I told him. “We’ll let you go tomorrow when there’s more light. We can’t see you if you run off now. We don’t know what else is out there.”
Mutt whined but obeyed.
“We’ll take watch in shifts,” Arun said. “I’ll take the first one while you try and get whatever sleep you can. Tomorrow, we’ll search this site then head for Tong’s installation for supplies.”
We all agreed. Sleeping came easier than I thought. Even though I slept most of the afternoon away in the crawler, fatigue was still bearing down on me.
We slept close in a circle with blankets under us and backpacks for pillows.
I drifted off into another dream that I couldn’t remember when I awoke. It couldn’t have been more terrifying than what we might face in the morning.
The night was colder than most. If I was Lou, I might have found meaning in that. The thick blanket we slept on as well as the ones that covered us did their jobs. Stacy woke me for my shift in the early hours of the morning.
She handed me Ricky’s rifle to hold while I stood watch.
“See anything?” I asked as I rubbed sleep from my eyes.
“Nothing,” Stacy said. “The cat didn’t even come back.”
I nodded, stretching with the rifle in my right hand.
Stacy went back to sleep as I surveyed our camp. Dew sprinkled the ground. The sky overhead was just beginning to clear as the moon and stars gave way to the twin suns that ruled the day.
I found myself in awe not for the first time at how much this planet was very much like our own. Minus the killer intelligent virus and the aliens, this place might have been nice. I could see a seed ship coming here to touch down and begin a new life for thousands of colonists searching for a brighter tomorrow.
Of course, none of this had happened, thanks to our Disciple friends. Plus, as much as we wished otherwise, we did have a killer virus trying to wipe us out and feuding aliens to deal with.
I felt someone watching me again. This time, I looked over to the four sleeping bodies underneath the blankets. Tong was wide awake. The morning rays caught his yellow eyes and reflected them back to me.
He gave a toothy grin and flipped me off again.
I waved back.
He removed himself from the blankets and made his way over to my side. He kept his voice low as to not wake the others.
“Dean, I am glad you are awake, we must talk,” Tong said, nodding as if he were agreeing with himself.
“I’m about at my limit for prophecies, killer viruses, and such crazy talk,” I told him. “You have anything else in your vocabulary?”
“Well, yes and no,” Tong said, thinking for a moment.
“More yes or more no?” I asked.
“Perhaps that is for you to decide,” Tong told me. He worked his shoeless toes into the ground below us as if he were doing some kind of morning stretch. “I thought you should know that the prophecy of the Great Dawn tells of his partner—a fierce warrior and leader of her own tribe. Together, they are an unstoppable force.”
I looked over to Arun.
“Nothing against her, but Arun isn’t really my type,” I said. “Maybe you got this all wrong and Ricky is the Great Dawn. I think he’s into her.”
“No, not that leader.” Tong motioned with his head over to where Stacy slept. “I can smell the pheromones off her when she’s around you.”
“Too much information, buddy,” I said, shaking my head. “Stacy and I are just survivors thrown into this thing together and trying to make the most of not getting killed.”
“Sometimes it is these such events that draw us even closer.” Tong nodded with knowing eyes. “Trust me, I am well-versed in these things.”
I didn’t really want to feed into the crazy talk coming out of Tong’s mouth, or maybe I just didn’t want to consider the reality of what he said.
I did feel something for Stacy. I’d buried the feelings when they came up before. It felt wrong to want something for myself, like I was cheating on my wife. Given my recent dream, I sensed peace with that, like a new ideology had taken root deep in my heart.
These were feelings I didn’t really want to explore at the moment. We were about to head into the mist swamp searching for weapons to kill a symbiotic alien virus. This was neither the place or time to start doing soul searching.
Tong sensed that part of the conversation was over.
“I would like to volunteer as tribute to coordinate the morning meal for our expedition,” Tong said submitting his formal request. “Does that seem appropriate?”
“You mean you want to make breakfast?” I asked.
“Yes.” Tong nodded quickly. “Breakfast.”
“Knock yourself out,” I said.
Tong busied himself, walking quietly around the camp. He searched the food container, sniffing at a variety of options. My attention fell from him for the time being. The suns were coming up, and although partly obscured by the clouds, I began to see details of the section of the Orion around us.
Like I had suspected, this piece was massive. It looked it like had been even larger when it crashed down and entire sections of it were crushed on impact. Burn marks showed where fire had lived and died.
I looked up into the variety of levels, trying to guess where the communication section would be located. I really had no idea.
The arch-like structure that rose above me extended out so far, I had to squint to see where it ended.
“What’s that smell?” Ricky sat up. “Is something burning?”
I looked over to what Tong was doing. The alien had begun toasting protein bars over a lighter. I didn’t bother to give him direction. He seemed happy with that goofy grin of his.
“Tong’s making breakfast,” I said with a shrug.
“Is it morning already?” Stacy said, sitting up from her spot on the blankets. “I feel like I just went down.”
I stood looking at her for a moment too long, with what Tong told me about the prophecy running through my mind.
“What?” Stacy looked at me with a sideways glance. “Do I have drool coming off my lip or something?”
“Naw, you’re good,” I said, shaking my head. “Just sporting some killer bed head. You could start a new trend.”
“Did you just tell a joke?” Arun asked, rising from her own blankets. “I’m either still dreaming or Dean just told a joke.”
This got a chuckle from Stacy and Ricky.
“Don’t get used to it,” I said, shrugging it off. “I slip up from time to time like everyone else.”
As our team prepared for the day’s journey, Tong served us breakfast.
I’m not really sure what kind of food the Remboshi were used to eating, but one thing was certain, it wasn’t anything good. Tong burned two protein bars and used them as a kind of sandwich bread. In the middle, he piled on jerky and used smashed apples like a paste to hold it together.
He munched on his, happily looking to all of us for approval.
“Is it good?” He looked at us with a smile and wide eyes like our praise meant the world to him.
We all looked at each other. Arun took the first bite. It was dainty and barely a nibble, but she managed to swallow the concoction with a grin. “Thank you, Tong, that was very thoughtful of you.”
“Mmmm…” Stacy said, taking a bite out of hers. It was clear she was holding it in her mouth instead of actually chewing. “So good.”
While Tong was busy looking at the others, I shoved one of the protein bars into my mouth and let the rest dangle by my lowered hand. Mutt came over and took care of it.
“I love it,” I lied when Tong looked to me.
“I don’t know why we didn’t think about this sooner,” Ricky said, actually taking another bite of the prepared meal and chewing noisily. “This is delicious.”
We all looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
“What?” Ricky looked back. “I like it.”
Tong looked on with his same wide grin and even clapped his hands a little.
“We should head out,” Arun said, bringing us all back to the task at hand. “Priority one is to find out what happened to Captain Harold and his team. Priority two is to search this section of the Orion for the communication level and salvage anything we can.”
I handed Ricky his rifle back. “This part of the Orion looks massive.” I pointed my eyes upward. “Do we take the crawler or walk?”
“Maybe both,” Arun said. “I don’t want to leave our only means of transportation unguarded, but I do see the value of walking slowly on foot so we don’t miss anything.”
“We can take turns driving the crawler slowly while everyone else walks,” Stacy offered.
“Let’s do that,” Arun agreed. “Whoever is in the crawler won’t need a weapon. The other three walking outside will use them.”
“Let’s make it happen,” I said.
Stacy took the first shift in the crawler, moving the vehicle so slow, it matched our own walking strides. We fanned out, creating a line with each of us a good ten meters apart from one another, and the crawler in the middle.
Arun took our left flank, followed by Tong, the crawler, Ricky, and me, and we slowly made our way under the arched part of the wreck.
“Tell us what the communication level looked like again?” Stacy asked over our comms. “What am I looking for?”
“Iris made me memorize the location of the communication level, but it looks so different upside down,” Arun admitted. “It should be on the lower left side of this arch if it wasn’t completely destroyed in the crash.”
“Hey, hey, I think I have something,” Ricky said.
I looked over to my left, where he intently stared at the ground. We all converged on his spot, minus Stacy, who stayed behind the wheel of the crawler. Ricky stared down at the ground, where a portion of the rocky mountain soil was clear of any debris. Sure enough, a pair of footprints were in the dirt.
They were large, looking like they could have belonged to a man or even Captain Harold himself.
“What do you think happened to them?” Ricky asked.
“I don’t know, but that footprint means they made it this far,” Arun said. She looked up at the Orion, then to either side, searching the area again.
Unlike the previous day, the sky had cleared and the suns gave us a clear line of sight with plenty of illumination.
“Captain Harold?” Arun shouted to the area around us. “Captain Harold, can you hear us?”
No one responded.
“Perhaps we should see if we can follow the prints,” Tong suggested. Iris had been right. His English was nearly perfect now. “With so much debris, it will be difficult, but perhaps we can pick them up again.”
“It’s the best lead we’ve got,” I agreed, following the trajectory the prints were headed.
We continued, finding a print here or there for the next fifty meters before I stumbled on a book in the debris. It wasn’t the book itself that caught my eye, but rather the dried blood on its cover.
I knelt down to examine it and confirm it wasn’t something else, but there was no denying the substance was blood. There was more of it splattered on the ground near the book. I was sure of it now. Being a gladiator, I’d gotten to see my fair share of the stuff.
“I don’t think there is any doubt they were here and something went wrong,” Arun said as she, Ricky, and Tong peered over my shoulder.
“What did you find?” Stacy asked over the comms.
“Dried blood,” I answered. “A lot of it.”
“Where the heck did they go?” Ricky asked. “What happened to them?”
Something Tong said in passing hit me like a ton of bricks.
“Tong, what did you call these mountains?” I asked him. “When we brought them up for you to see on the map. You had a name for them.”
“The Mountains of Death,” Tong said. “However, they earned that name for the bloody conflicts my people had with the Rung here during the Blood War. There shouldn’t be anything vicious enough to take out a group of your kind. The only creatures that could pose a threat are the werelions, but they travel alone and would not dare confront a group.”
“Ahead of you.” Stacy’s voice sounded dry in disbelief. “Look up.”
I knew something was wrong by the way she said the words. Stacy was a leader like Arun and Elon, not easily shaken.
I looked back at her through the windshield of the crawler. Wide-eyed, she pointed with a finger to the ceiling. I looked up, following her gaze. Hanging from the underside of the Orion were bodies.
The corpses were definitely human colonists. Each one was hung upside down by their feet, swaying gently in the wind. They were grouped together in a tight circle. It was easy to miss them amongst the debris hanging off the Orion. There were cords, doors, wires, and everything else you could imagine hanging from the ceiling above us.
They also had to be four or five stories overhead. The moment stretched on as we all fought to comprehend what our eyes were telling us. They were too far to see exact details, but it was easy to tell they weren’t moving.
“We must go. We must go now,” Tong said. He wasn’t looking at the ceiling above us anymore; he was searching the mountainside all around us for anything that moved. His eyes darted this way and that in paranoia. “I was wrong. I do not know how they know, but I was wrong. We must go now. Please, we must go now.”
“Who?” Arun asked. “Who were you wrong about? Are they here now?”
“The Rung, the faction of Remboshi who worshiped technology and broke off from my kind.” Tong pointed a finger to the bodies hanging overhead. “This is how they claim their territory. This is what they do to their enemies. Somehow they must have found a way to hide from or fight off Legion. They are here.”
While Tong spoke about the Rung, I examined our area for the hundredth time. Still nothing. The mountainside we were on sloped steadily upward to our right. To the left, it went down before the next mountain began its own upward ascent.
“Well, I think we have our answer as to what happened to Captain Harold’s group,” Ricky said under his breath. “We should cut them down. It doesn’t feel right leaving them like that.”
“How did they even get them up there to begin with?” Stacy asked.
“We should go. We should go now,” Tong said.
“You said the Rung created Legion to kill your kind, but then the virus became self-aware and tried to overtake everyone,” I said, looking to Tong for his thoughts.
“Yes, yes, that’s right,” Tong said, nodding. “We could not defeat Legion. The Remboshi went into hyper-sleep to wait for a time when the Dawn would come. I awoke when you arrived.”
“Can we assume the Rung did the same thing?” Arun wondered out loud. “Perhaps they too went to sleep. When the Orion crashed, it triggered them to wake as well.”
“It is possible.” Tong wrung his hands together. “Please, we must go now. The Rung possess weapons of great power. If they are here in these mountains, they will be back soon.”
I looked over to Arun. The Eternal caught my eye. I knew we were thinking the same thing.
“I don’t like leaving them here either, but it’ll takes hours to scale that thing and cut them down,” I said.
“The communication section of the Orion was destroyed in the crash as well,” Arun said. “I can be sure of that now.”
“What?” Ricky asked. “How?”
Arun pointed a long finger to where the end of this particular Orion section rested against the mountainside.
“Because the communication section of the ship should be right there and it’s not,” Arun explained. “We’ll check quickly to see if there is anything salvageable, then we should move on. Hurry.”
We jogged the rest of the way to where this end of the broken Orion touched the ground. We passed right under the hanging bodies. I knew I was too far to see their eyes. Still, I swore they followed us.
My imagination ran wild with thoughts of hearing whispers on the edge of the wind. Maybe the dead did talk up here, but I wasn’t going to wait around to find out.
At a jog, we reached the end of the Orion in a few minutes. Arun was the only one who knew what she was looking for, while the rest of us stood watch. She handed me her blaster as she went to work digging through the remains of what had once been a mighty ship.
Part of me felt a bit dirty, like we were some kind of salvagers taking from the dead. The Orion was once proud and new; now there was nothing more than wreckage left to grow old, rust, and eventually be lost to time.
“It’s not much, but it’s all that’s left,” Arun said. “At least all I can see.”
I looked over to a small pile of equipment Arun gathered by her feet. As a mechanic used to working on cargo bay doors, vehicles, and such, I didn’t have the first idea of what was needed to make long-range communication operate.
Stacy hopped off the crawler and brought a large, empty container with her from the back of the bed. Quickly, she, Arun, and a frightful Tong placed the items inside and carried it back to the crawler.
Ricky and I followed close behind. We shared a moment where our eyes locked, then Ricky made a cringing expression. I nodded.
Something hard hit the side of the crawler.
“Run,” Tong yelled, throwing the crate into the back of the crawler. “Run! They’ve found us!”
Mutt was going ballistic, barking at the space behind us. I ran, turning to fire blindly at whatever was attacking us.
Ricky and I both let loose with a series of red blaster fire from the ends of our weapons. I was too busy running forward to aim, much less search the area for exactly who was shooting.
Stacy jumped behind the wheel of the crawler and shifted it into reverse. Arun and Tong didn’t bother going into the front of the cab; they jumped into the back.
“Mutt, get in,” I yelled, reaching the crawler and finally turning to see who was shooting at us.
They looked smaller, like Tong, with green scaly skin and metal body parts coming from under their long cloaks.
More enemy rounds hit the steel fender and hood of the crawler. I couldn’t tell what they were using for weapons. They weren’t blasters, that was for sure.
Mutt bounded into the back of the crawler and I hopped on next.
Arun crouched behind the cab of the crawler in the bed of the vehicle. She returned fire, covering Ricky and me.
Ricky made it to the other side of the crawler. I offered a hand down as he threw his hands on the side of the bed.
“Go! Go!” Ricky shouted as I hauled him on board.
Stacy hit the accelerator, slamming us all forward as the crawler took off like a rocket in reverse.
One second, Ricky was grabbing onto me, climbing aboard. The next, he was slumped in my arms. Pain filled his eyes, and I hauled him the rest of the way aboard by the back of his jacket.
We fell in the back of the crawler together, my hand sticky with Ricky’s blood.
Enemy fire was still coming our way. Arun did her best to return rounds, but there were too many of them. Stacy could have won a medal for the way she tore backward in the crawler.
But her driving skills would have to wait to be rewarded for the time being. I rolled Ricky over on his side. His body shook so hard, it was clear he was hurt badly.
Tong crawled beside me to help. Together, we found the wound on Ricky’s left side. The projectile left a smoking hole where it hit him right under the armpit.
Tong wasted no time securing one of the blankets we’d sewed the night before. He jammed it into the wound to stop the bleeding.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Ricky winced. “I’m better than that. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, hey,” I said, rolling him onto his back so he could look up at me. “None of that. You’re going to be fine. You’re okay.”
I wasn’t a doctor. I didn’t know if any of that was true, but it was what he needed to hear. Ricky was in shock and going on and on about how sorry he was for getting shot.
Stacy tore down the path we’d come, leaving the sounds of the enemy weapons behind.
Arun fell to her knees beside Ricky. She went over to his left side, where Tong was applying pressure.
“What’s going on back there?” Stacy asked from the cab. “Is everyone all right?”
“Ricky’s been hit. Get us out of here,” I answered.
“Hold on,” Stacy said. She slammed the wheel to the right, turning us in a sharp one-hundred-eighty-degrees, then forced the crawler from reverse to drive and we were off again.
“You are going to be just fine,” Arun said, looking down at Ricky. “Ricky, you are going to make it.”
“Arun, Arun, I just want you to know that I think you’re a beautiful—a beautiful woman.” Ricky coughed up blood as he said the words. “I want you to know that I admire you not only for that, but for your spirit—”
Ricky was going to say more, but a coughing fit took him. More dark red blood fell from his mouth. His body convulsed at the action.
“Stop talking,” Arun told him. She held his right hand tightly in her own. “You stop talking now and save your energy. You’re going to be okay, Ricky.”
I wanted to believe Arun’s words more than anyone. It was hard when Ricky’s normally tan, smiling face was pale and spattered with his own blood.
Arun and Tong went to work securing an actual bandage on Ricky’s side from the supplies we brought. They stopped the bleeding for the time being, and Arun administered a sedative to help him rest.
We propped Ricky up against the side of the crawler. He fell in and out of sleep.
“We need to get to my installation as quickly as possible,” Tong instructed us as we sat in the back of the crawler. “We have medical supplies there that will be able to save your friend.”
“What did he get hit with?” I asked. “What kind of weapon?”
“Our weapons are unlike your own,” Tong said, shaking his head. “We shoot metal projectiles through the air at great velocity. Although the piece of metal is no larger than my finger, when it is lodged inside the body it can do great harm.”
“Like one of our own old school bullets but longer,” I said, taking in the length of Tong’s finger. “We used to have weapons like that on Earth. They’re relics now. We invented newer and better ways to kill each other.”
“I should have brought the Heal Aid,” Arun said quietly. Her eyes never left Ricky’s barely rising chest. “I knew I should have. We only have two working Heal Aids at the Orion. I was afraid if we took the extra one and something happened to the one Doctor Allbright uses, the entire colony would be in jeopardy, and now because of my decisions…”
Arun allowed her voice to trail off.
“You did the right thing,” I said, not really trying to make her feel better but running the scenario through my mind and deciding what I would have done. “I would have done the same thing. Ricky’s a tough kid. He’ll make it long enough for us to get him some help.”
“I’m following the directions we set up before we left the Orion,” Stacy said through her comms. She stayed behind the wheel after we made our escape. “We should arrive at Tong’s installation before the suns set—sometime in the late afternoon if we don’t run into trouble.”
“Got it,” I said. I turned to Tong with a raised eyebrow. “What were those things shooting at us? The Rung?”
Tong nodded. “I don’t know if they too went into a hyper sleep to be woken when the Orion crashed or if they have been in hiding this entire time. All I know is where Genesis stood when my people and I were put to sleep. Legion ran wild over our planet. The Rung were nowhere to be found.”
Genesis, I thought to myself. I keep on forgetting this planet’s name is Genesis.
“I need your word, Tong,” Arun said, her normal calm leadership attitude gone. A dangerous look lived in her eyes. “I need your word that you can save Ricky if we get to your installation.”
“Arun Drake,” Tong said, using her full name. “If we can get there in time, my species has healing tools specific to treat this kind of injury. If we can get there in time, Ricky will live.”
That seemed to be enough for Arun at the moment. She placed her back to the cab and stared at Ricky’s sleeping form.
His chest rose slowly then descended and repeated the process. I had a feeling Arun was watching him breathe, making sure he didn’t stop.
I never even thought about what this whole mess would look like without Ricky. He was addicted to gambling, said childish things at times, and cracked inappropriate jokes, but our lives were better for having gotten to know him.
I didn’t want to think about trying to survive on Genesis without him.
Mutt made his way over to Ricky and placed his snout in the man’s lap. He whined before lying still.
I moved over to Ricky’s other side and sat by him. The events of the morning cascaded through my mind again. Questions like how many Rung were there? Would they attack the Orion? How were we going to get into Tong’s installation if it was in the mist marsh? All of these questions went unanswered.
Stacy drove all morning following the heading we had plotted out in advance. Our road took us through the forest to the south and the unknown beyond. Stacy maneuvered us through the forest, finding an old overgrown path Tong directed her toward. It clearly had not been maintained in a very long time. Trees fell over the road in sections, as well as bushes and overgrowth, but Stacy always found a way around.
It was while we were sharing a midday meal on the road that Ricky finally stirred. His eyes blinked open, taking in the scene around him.
“Oh, it wasn’t a dream after all. This sucks,” Ricky said.
“How are you feeling?” Arun asked, immediately going over to his side. “How’s the pain?”
“Not great.” Ricky winced. “I feel like I’ve been shot by a blaster round that’s still inside of me.”
“You’re not far off,” Tong said, chewing on his protein bar-jerky-smashed apple concoction. “The weapon that found you sent a metal projectile as long as my finger into your body. It’s inside of you now.”
We all looked at Tong, deadpan. He just nodded and took another bite.
“Not helping,” I said, then looked back to Ricky. “We’re going to get you some help, buddy. Tong’s people have medical devices that can help you. We’re going to reach his installation soon. You just have one job. All you have to worry about is hanging in there.”
“You’re going to make it and you’re going to be fine,” Arun reassured him. “You can tell me whatever it was you were saying before, once you’re well.”
Arun and Tong engaged Stacy in a conversation about the best route to take to their destination and timing.
I took the opportunity to sit next to my friend. I wasn’t going to tell him this, but he looked like death warmed over. Gaunt and flushed, Ricky looked how I felt after a match in the pit.
“That bad, huh?” Ricky asked.
“What?” I asked.
“You’re taking a seat like you’re going to comfort me or something.” Ricky sighed then winced at the action. “I’m going to die, aren’t I?”
“What? No,” I said, shaking my head. “Can’t a guy just sit down with his friend?”
“We are friends, aren’t we?” Ricky said with a loopy grin. “I’m glad we’re friends.”
“Those painkillers Arun gave you might be kicking in,” I said, looking over to Mutt, who still had his head in Ricky’s lap. “I’m not here to comfort you or anything like that. That’s Mutt’s job.”
“His furry ears tickle my fingers.” Ricky grinned then winced again. Another coughing wave hit him. I could see the agony clear on his face as his chest convulsed with each cough.
“Easy, buddy,” I told him. “We’re just a few hours away now. You are going to make it.”
“We’re a few hours away from some creepy mist land with monsters inside,” Ricky said, shaking his head. “What if we can’t get past them to the installation?”
“We will,” I said. “We’ll figure out a way. We always figure out a way. We’ve been sabotaged by Disciples, attacked by some weird alien symbiotic virus, and shot at by aliens, and we’re still here. We’re going to make it, Rick, if for no other reason than we’re too stubborn to die.”
Ricky smiled at that then rested his head against the rear of the crawler. His eyes tilted upward to the canopy of tree branches overhead.
“Have you thought about what happens if we can’t make it off this rock?” Ricky asked. “I mean, if we survive all of this and we still can’t get back to Earth?”
“Honestly, I’m just trying to take it one day at a time,” I said. “We got the long-range scanners up and running. We’ll figure out the communication piece next while we deal with Legion.”
“But what’s the end game here?” Ricky tuned his gaze from the clear sky back to me. “I mean, what if we do all of this and we can’t call for help or get off this planet? What if we’re stuck forever?”
“Then I guess we’re stuck forever, and as bad as that sounds, we’ll have to make do. What other option will we have?” I asked him. “But right now, our focus has to be on the next step and the next step after that.”
Whatever Ricky was going to say next was cut off by Stacy’s voice. “Gang, we’re getting close. The visibility ahead of us is decreasing.”
Both Ricky and I turned our attention forward. Sure enough, Stacy had made great time. We were still a few hours ahead of the setting suns. With any luck, we could get into the site’s safety before nightfall.
The massive question mark was would we be able to make it past the mist? A hundred meters in front of us, a light rolling fog wafted through the forest. The strangest thing about the fog was it almost knew how far to go into the forest without advancing further.
The fog remained content to stay in a long line that continued on as far as the eye could see on both the right and left side. Eventually, the wall of mist was lost to sight.
“This road will lead us to the installation,” Tong said, nodding. “By your measurements, it is three kilometers into the mist.”
“Remind me again why you chose to build your installation in a mist with monsters?” I asked.
“When we built this installation, there was no sign of the mist or creatures that lived inside of it,” Tong answered. “Both the mist and the creatures must have overtaken this area while my people slept.”
“Any idea of what kind of animal we’re dealing with here?” Arun continued the line of questioning. All of our eyes were still on the rolling mist wall in front of us. “Did this creature exist while you were here?”
“It’s hard to say.” Tong tapped a large finger against his small chin. “The report Doctor Allbright gave of the creatures in the mist isn’t much to go on.”
“She never saw one face to face,” Stacy said in a low tone, recalling the report. “She couldn’t tell how large they were, only that they moved quickly and had what looked like tentacles.”
“The only species I know of that are equipped with tentacles as well as the ability to move on land is an animal called the sawg, but that creature is content to remain in the ocean and is not an eater of meat,” Tong answered. “Bear in mind things could have changed. I have been asleep with my people for many, many years.”
“Great, so what are we waiting for?” I asked. “Let’s get this over with. We put Ricky inside with the driver and the three of us are on guard out here. We shoot anything that moves.”
“I’m in the back this time around,” Stacy said, putting the crawler in park and exiting the vehicle. “Someone else can drive. I’m the best here with a blaster.”
Everyone turned to look at me.
“What?” I asked with a scowl on my face. “Why is everyone looking at me?”
“Tong can’t drive,” Arun said, motioning to the alien. “Stacy and I are both better shots than you. No offense, but you can’t hit much to save your life.”
“Just because you say ‘no offense’ in front of something doesn’t mean you can just say whatever you want,” I muttered. “No way. I need to be back here where it’s most dangerous.”
“Arun’s right.” Stacy shrugged. “Hand to hand, I’d bet my money on you over anyone on this planet, and who knows, maybe even Earth, but right now, the idea is to shoot them before it gets to that point.”
I looked over at Ricky for help. He shrugged.
Even Mutt avoided eye contact.
“Fine,” I said, not even trying to mask my frustration. “Let’s get this done.”
I sat behind the wheel of the crawler, remembering what had happened the last time I drove. Ricky sat to my right and Tong was in the passenger side seat. Stacy and Arun had tied themselves to the rear of the crawler with thick straps. Stacy chose the rifle and Arun had her blaster. The third firearm was in the cab with me. If things got bad, I planned on rolling down my window and laying into whatever was out there, bad aim or not.
We even secured Mutt to the back bed with a strap around his neck so he didn’t try and jump out. The leash gave him free rein to roam around the crawler bed but not enough to make a run for it if he smelled something interesting.
“Here we go,” I said, staring down the wall of rolling mist in front of me. I slowly edged the crawler forward. All the lights the vehicle had at its disposal were on high, illuminating our path.
Not for the first time, the mist struck me as something unnatural. By that, I didn’t even mean alien. It almost seemed made by someone or something. The way the mist stopped at a solid line as if a wall were keeping it in place gave me the creeps.
One look at how Ricky was faring beside me was enough to steel my resolve. His breathing was shallow, and his skin had taken on a pasty sheen.
“Stay on this path,” Tong reminded me. “Only three kilometers by your measurement and we’ll be there.”
“Take it slow,” Stacy said from her spot behind the cab of the crawler. “Take it slow and we’ll make it.”
I eased the vehicle forward until it crested the wall of mist so thick, it might as well have been soup. Even with the aid of the lights on the crawler, I could only see two, maybe three meters in front of me. That was where visibility was lost and I was on my own.
I gripped the steering wheel tight enough to make my palms hurt. I leaned forward in my seat, craning my neck, and squinted, trying to figure out what might be out there. To be honest, I wasn’t even really sure I wanted to know.
“My people have a story about a creature that lives in one’s imagination,” Tong said slowly. “It is a creature of nightmare that grabs on to those impure of heart and rips them from limb to limb.”
“Not the time for stories,” Stacy said over the comms. “Tong, we really have to teach you something called timing.”
Tong remained quiet, staring out the window in wonder.
I kept the crawler moving slowly as to not lose the path in front of us. One of the worst things that could happen would be if I went off path and we were lost in this mist swamp for good.
Slowly, the landscape began to change. The trees became sparser, their spindly trunks further and further apart. The hard dirt softened under the crawler’s giant wheels, and the road soon threatened to be lost to us as we continued on.
“The way the road is turning into muck, we’re going to be out of a clear path soon,” I said over our comms.
“Keep this same heading,” Tong said, pointing with a thick finger out the front of the windshield. “The road to the installation was straight with no deviation.”
I glanced down at the control panel on the dash of the crawler. One of the things the vehicle came equipped with was a compass. I locked on to that now and let that guide me as we continued.
“It’s colder here,” Arun commented as if she were thinking to herself out loud. “The mist muffles your voice too.”
We went on like this for minutes that stretched into what felt like hours. Inside the cab, it was dead silent. Save for our breathing, no sounds penetrated the thick walls of the surrounding mist.
Mutt whined once and Stacy gave him a few pets, reassuring him it was going to be okay.
Just when I thought we might make it to Tong’s installation without seeing one of those creatures, motion to my left made me take my foot off the acceleration. I wasn’t sure what I had seen in the mist, but like Doctor Allbright had said, it looked big. It appeared again, this time gliding through the fog no more than a few meters to my left. The ground shuddered under what must have been its considerable weight.
“Guys,” I said as quietly as I could.
“I saw it,” Arun whispered back. “To the left. I can’t tell if it was one or more than one.”
We sat there for a moment considering our options.
Slowly, I eased my foot off the brake, and we continued on. The armor I wore was bulky in the crawler seat, but I’d be grateful for the extra protection if I needed to get out.
“Two kilometers in,” I said, keeping track of how far we’d traveled. “We’re almost there. We should—”
The entire crawler suddenly buckled hard, jerking to a stop. I turned my head from side to side, scanning for movement, but saw nothing. Then Mutt went ballistic as Stacy and Arun opened up with their weapons, firing into the gloom.
“Go! Go! Go!” Stacy screamed over the comms.
“Behind us!” Tong yelled.
I looked into the rearview mirror and saw something that would haunt my memories forever. Two reddish-pink tentacles appeared out of the mist and gripped the rear gate of the crawler.
Stacy and Arun were firing at the tentacle holding us in place. To their credit, they were hitting their marks.
I slammed my foot onto the gas pedal. At the same time, enough blaster rounds struck the tentacles to make the creature think twice about its hold. The beast let out a deep bellow steeped in pain before finally releasing us.
As soon as the rear tires hit the ground, we were off. Mud sprayed on either side of the vehicle as we rocketed deeper into the mist swamp. More and more sounds penetrated the thick fog. The deep wailing followed us as we sped forward.
The strangest thing about the wailing was that it didn’t sound angry or annoyed at being wounded. It genuinely felt sad, like the cry of a lonely creature wailing.
“I couldn’t see what it was, did you?” Arun asked.
“Just those two arms that grabbed onto the back of the crawler,” Stacy shouted back in excitement. “It has to be huge, larger than the crawler or that rhinoceros alien that attacked the colony yesterday.”
I wanted to ask more questions. My mind was still reeling from what I had just seen. At the moment, it was all I could do to fight and keep the steering wheels straight. Going fast in the deep muck made the crawler sway from side to side. Heavy vibration traveled up my arms and into my chest as I fought the wheel.
“Dean, watch out!” Tong screamed.
I saw it at the same time his warning came. A thick tree stump was sticking out from the marsh, creating a roadblock. At first glanced it seemed like any fallen tree, but upon closer inspection, it looked more deliberate. Someone had set in place specifically for us.
I jerked the wheel violently to the left, tipping the crawler to one side, causing the right front and rear wheels to come out of the muck for a second. Before we could lose anyone, I slammed the wheel back to the right, refusing to let my foot off the gas. That thing was still behind us, it’s wailing was still too close for comfort, and there was no way I was slowing down.
A quick look in the rearview mirror told me we were safe for the time being. Both Arun and Stacy held on to the back of the cab with one hand as we rocketed forward. Their other hands were on the grips of their weapons. Like my own, their heads were on swivel, searching for any sign of the monster.
I finally had the chance to look down at the compass to right our path. We were only a few degrees off from our original heading.
“Good driving,” Arun told me.
“We can add that to the list of your talents,” Stacy said sarcastically. “You know, opposite the one where we note how bad you are at shooting.”
“Thanks for that,” I said dryly, finally allowing our forward momentum to slow. “I think we lost it. I don’t hear it anymore.”
“I think you are correct,” Tong said, swallowing hard. “I do not hear the sound of that creature anymore.”
“Creature or creatures, we still aren’t sure,” Arun reminded us. “Tong, how far are we out now?”
“We should be there soon,” he said, looking down at the gauge that had been tracking our distance since we entered the mist land. “The installation will be difficult to miss.”
That proved to be an understatement.
As if someone just decided the mist should part for us, it did. One second we were in the thick rolling fog, the next we’d burst through it like some kind of physical barrier.
The crawler had already decreased in speed, but when we burst through the fog, I decided to err on the side of caution and step on the brake. For the hundredth time since we landed on the planet, my mind was having a hard time figuring out what my eyes were seeing. I knew what I thought they saw, but that couldn’t be right.
A wide circle free of mist opened up in front of us. About two hundred meters directly in front of us was a black pyramid that rose five stories into the clear blue sky.
I stopped the crawler altogether, marveling at the awesome structure in front of us.
“Is everyone seeing a giant pyramid in a space where the fog just stopped?” Ricky asked.
“Yep,” I said.
“Good, I thought I was dead for minute or maybe hallucinating,” Ricky said.
“Tong, is this your installation?” Arun asked over the comms.
“Yes, yes.” Tong nodded vigorously. “This is the Tch tichs sa Installation.”
“Nope,” I said. “Definitely don’t understand that. Try again.”
“Uh, in your language, the Cerberus Installation,” Tong said, as if that was going to end all of my questions instead of opening up Pandora’s box of more. “Quickly, we must get inside. Ricky is not breathing.”
I looked over to Rick, who had just been cracking jokes a moment before. Sure enough, he wasn’t breathing.
“Rick!” I yelled, shaking his still form. His eyes were closed and he didn’t respond, no breath coming in or out of his lips.
“Hold on,” I pleaded. I pressed the gas pedal, sending us forward toward the pyramid. The ground here was hard again and the crawler’s tires gripped it, spurring us forward.
It was as if by some miracle this pocket of the marsh was shielded by some other worldly force. I didn’t really know where the pyramid opened, but I aimed the vehicle at the base and pushed the motor to its limits. From the outside, it looked like it was made of a single piece of black slate rising in clean lines toward the heavens.
“Ricky?” Arun asked, panicked. “Ricky, talk to me.”
Ricky didn’t make a sound.
We were at the front of the pyramid a second later, and I was out of the crawler as it came to a stop. I grabbed Ricky, not worrying about how I moved him. If we didn’t get him breathing soon, he was dead already.
Stacy and Arun unclipped themselves from the back of the crawler, along with Mutt. Tong jumped out of the passenger side seat, racing to the pyramid. He slapped a three-fingered hand on the cold rock surface.
A dull beep sounded as the surface read his hand.
Tong tried again.
I bit back yelling at him for the time being. I knew he was trying. Screaming at him wasn’t going to help.
Arun didn’t feel the same way.
“Tong, what’s wrong!?” Arun ripped off her helmet. Her tone was so harsh, I thought for a moment she was going to point her blaster at Tong. “Get us inside!”
“I’m trying,” Tong said, placing his hand on the black rock surface again. “It’s not—someone has overridden my access code.”
“Someone?” I looked at him in half confusion, half anger.
“We need to start CPR,” Arun said, running over to me and helping to place him on the floor. “We need to get him breathing.”
I obeyed, already preparing to accept the idea that Ricky was gone. I started chest compressions on my unmoving friend, while Arun tilted Ricky’s head back and pressed her lips to his.
“Tong, what are you talking about, that someone changed the access code?” Stacy asked, trying to make sense of what was happening behind me. “You’re the only one of your race that should be awake. That’s what you told us. That you alone were awoken.”
“I—I don’t know. I don’t understand,” Tong replied, wringing his hands in a very human like gesture.
I had my right hand over my left, both placed on his chest, counting the compressions in my mind as we worked on him.
Arun pressed her lips to his one more time when Ricky coughed up blood. She rolled him onto his side, a concern still dominating her features.
I sat back on my heels, breathing a sigh of relief.
“Easy, easy, you’re safe,” Arun said, cradling his head in her lap. “We’re here.”
“What the hell is going on?” I rose to my feet in anger. The happiness of Ricky being alive vanished as the reality of our new problem set in. Tong had led us on a wild goose chase, and I wasn’t letting that go.
To my surprise, Stacy was already on the case, towering over Tong with a firm grip on her weapon. She wasn’t pointing it at the alien, but the ferocity in her voice told me that action wasn’t far behind. From the look on Tong’s face, he understood that too.
“Answers now,” Stacy said. She still wore the dark helmet on her head, her face hidden to us. “Why won’t the doors open?”
“They should have,” Tong said quickly, panic edging into his voice. “It couldn’t have been the Rung. They wouldn’t have been able to get inside. It had to be one of my own, a Remboshi.”
We all looked over to the pyramid.
“Whoever is inside,” I said, shouting to the pyramid. “Whoever you are, we need help for our friend. We are not your enemy. Please, please, let us inside. He’s dying.”
The stone pyramid remained silent.
Anger started to build in my chest. I didn’t ask nicely often, and I never asked twice.
“If you are one of my own race, then please believe what we are saying,” Tong said, picking up my tactic. “The Great Dawn has come. Our salvation is at hand. I’m not sure how or why you woke early, but our salvation is nigh. You must be familiar with the prophecy. He is here, he is the Great Dawn, and I can prove it.”
Tong came over to me with an excited look in his eyes. He reached for my necklace.
Maksim had broken the chain, but it was still in my pocket. I got the idea of what he was trying to accomplish, so I fished the medallion out and handed it to him.
“Look! Just look! This is the symbol of the Great Dawn,” Tong said, lifting the medallion into the sky and toward the pyramid. “Just look.”
Once more, the pyramid was silent for a moment.
“I’m going to rip this thing open with my bare hands if that’s what it takes,” I growled.
“You would not be able to get in,” a voice came from some hidden speaker set in the pyramid wall. “You moronic beings would not be able to get in.”
We all exchanged looks with one another. The voice sounded like Tong’s. It spoke haltingly and slowly, over-pronouncing the T’s and S’s just like he did.
“Who are you?” Tong asked, his confusion mirroring my own.
If this is a Remboshi like Tong, how the heck does it know how to speak English? I asked myself. It was a thought in futility. There was no way for me to know.
“I am Remboshi like you,” the voice said in broken English. “I’ve been watching, monitoring your progress. I know you believe they are the Children of the Dawn but I am not convinced. No, no, I am not convinced at all.”
“Look, just look, if you are a Remboshi, then you know the symbol that was foretold of his coming. Just look,” Tong said, lifting the medallion he held in his hand toward the pyramid again. “You must also know who I am. You know that our people trusted me and me alone to awake when the Dawn arrived. If you do not trust them then trust me.”
The pyramid grew silent.
I took the opportunity to look over at Ricky. He didn’t look good. Arun had him on his side, stroking his hair and whispering soothing things into his ear. If Rick hadn’t been on death’s door, he would have loved that.
Arun caught my gaze, everything she couldn’t say out loud in her tear-filled eyes. She shook her head.
We needed to get him in. I knew that.
“It does appear that the medallion is the same symbol as the one we were foretold to watch for,” the voice said thoughtfully. “Is aid all you seek here?”
“Aid and the use of the weapons and gear left for us,” Tong said. “Pardon my candor, but you are not supposed to even be awake. I was supposed to bring the Great Dawn here for supplies and, if there was no threat, to awaken the first installation of our people.”
“But I am awake, I did awaken. Now what do I do?” the voice hummed to itself. “Maybe I’ve been talking to myself for too many years now. Maybe I do need to branch out and make new friends. Okay, I’ll let you in. Hold on.”
“How do you speak English?” Stacy asked reluctantly, as if she wanted to save the question for a later time but couldn’t help herself. “How are you able to speak our language?”
“I told you, young one, I’ve been watching you. I’ve been watching it all, even the communication between Tong and the light woman you call Iris. I learned as Tong learned,” the voice answered.
Stacy and I exchanged looks. I knew I shouldn’t have been surprised. What on Genesis was easy? What on this godforsaken planet was ever simple to understand?
A hiss came from a piece of the ebony pyramid in front of us. A section of the stone, large enough for the crawler to enter, opened. The slab of rock receded a few feet into the pyramid before lifting into the ceiling, revealing a square entrance. A moment later, lights clicked to life, running the length of the cube-shaped tunnel.
“You should hurry and get your dying friend inside,” the voice said in a rush of words. “He does not seem like he will make it much longer.”
As if the spell were broken, we jumped into action, Arun and I gently placing Ricky in the back of the crawler. Stacy and Tong jumped into the cab of the crawler, while Mutt remained content to trot alongside the vehicle.
The tunnel was shorter than I first thought, and we were only a hundred meters inside when it opened into a wide holding area with numerous vehicles of alien design.
These vehicles were neither like the crawlers nor the rovers we used. They were closer to weapons of war. Four large tires, even larger than those on the crawler, supported a bulky frame lifted from the ground. Two seats opened in the front of the vehicle with an open cab roof.
A weapon was placed behind the driver and front passenger, the barrel of the weapon extending over their heads. The back of the vehicle was smaller than that of the crawler, room for one person to stand while firing the weapon.
There had to be dozens of the vehicles all lined up, ready to be deployed. The staging room was also lined with neat rows of crates, all painted dark green. The letters burned into the crates were alien, but the symbols for weapons were universal.
Images of rockets, explosives, and blasters identified their contents. My heart skipped a beat. There was enough equipment in here to arm every single survivor at the Orion. We could have our own army. Perhaps not as numerous as Legion, but definitely better equipped.
Stacy pulled our crawler to a stop in the middle of the giant room. The pyramid door we used to enter closed behind us, then another door opened to our left, leading us further into the pyramid.
“This way,” Tong said, jumping out of the crawler. “This way to the medical wing.”
Questions crashed through my mind, but I pushed them away to focus on Ricky. Arun and I supported him as Tong led the way. Stacy and Mutt brought up our rear. The pyramid was even larger than I’d originally thought. A wide white hall that was brilliantly lit led us to a long room full of medical equipment.
At least I guessed it was medical equipment. I wasn’t really sure what I was seeing. The only things that looked remotely familiar were reclining chairs with a variety of monitors and tools attached to them.
“Here,” Tong said, pointing to a chair bed in a line of them to our left. “Place Ricky here and remove his armor.”
We didn’t waste time, and all of us pitched in to help. Arun and Stacy started at Ricky’s feet, while I worked on his breastplate, his breathing coming out shallow and labored. His eyes were closed and deep rivers of sweat came from his dark hair and brow.
“Stay with us,” Stacy said fiercely, voicing what we were all thinking. “You stay with us.”
A few seconds later, we had Ricky lying on the table in his cargo pants and long-sleeved shirt.
“The shirt as well,” Tong said. The Remboshi grabbed a stool on wheels beside Ricky. He reached up and brought one of the monitors down in front of his eyes. With the three fingers on each hand, he started to type in commands.
I ripped off Ricky’s shirt, ignoring the amount of blood soaked into the fabric. Bruising around where the round found him gave way to a nasty hole right under his armpit.
“Is he going to be okay?” Arun asked. “Tong, tell me he’s going to be okay.”
“We shall see,” Tong said, biting his lower lip. It wasn’t an expression I was used to seeing from the Remboshi. It didn’t make me feel any better.
Standing there and watching Tong work on my friend was one of the most frustrating and humbling things I’ve ever had to do in my life. Ricky’s life was out of my hands at the moment. I had done all I could do—we all had. Now it was time to sit back and wait.
Tong maneuvered his hands around the display screen like a conductor leading a full orchestra. I was surprised to see the part of the ceiling above Ricky’s bed lower down and a series of metal arms extend, which Tong controlled with his panel. They were equipped with everything from syringes and gauze to pliers and clamps.
Tong walked us through the process as we stood back and waited.
“I’m going to give him a sedative so he doesn’t wake while I begin the procedure,” Tong started, tapping a button. “After that, I’ll use a clamp to widen the wound and a tool we created to deal with wounds such as this. It will draw the projectile out of his body. We should then be able to close the wound.”
I heard everything he said but registered none of it. I felt helpless and sick to my stomach when I noticed Ricky’s blood staining my hands.
I looked down at the crimson stains on my palms, remembering the last time I had cared for someone whose blood was on my hands. As soon as the memory came, I was drawn from those thoughts as Tong looked up from his monitor and smiled.
“Ricky will be fine,” Tong said firmly. “I’m sure of it.”
“How can you be sure?” Arun asked, confused. The metal arms of the machine were still working on Ricky. A needle retracted from one of his veins while a clamp made the entrance to his wound larger. A sleek metal rod rested just outside of the wound and vibrated slowly.
“Our technology is advanced to the point where it will be able to tell us the probability of the surgery’s success,” Tong said with a wide grin, indicating he was pleased with the results. He moved his monitor over for all of us to see. Of course we didn’t understand a thing on there. The scribbling looked like hieroglyphics to me.
“Nope, still different language,” Stacy reminded him.
“Oh right,” Tong said. “It says the round missed any major organs. The round will be pulled out, the wound closed, and a full recovery is expected.”
I let out a sigh of relief. Fatigue and the need for a meal hit me next. I wasn’t sure what time it was, but I knew we’d missed lunch. It had to be closer to dinner.
We all stayed and watched as the vibrating rod outside of Ricky’s wound drew the metal round out. Just like Tong said, the metal piece was as long as a finger and just as thick.
Another arm came down from the ceiling to laser his wound shut. I wasn’t really sure it was a laser, but it looked close enough and seemed to perform the same function.
Tong let out a heavy sigh as he pushed himself away from the monitor and rubbed at tired eyes. “He just needs rest now. I can have the system wash him and give him what nutrients he needs by way of an injection, but he’ll heal.”
Tong finished his words by flipping us all off again. The symbol he thought was a thumbs-up would have been comical if we weren’t all so tired.
“One of us should stay with him.” Stacy said what we were all thinking.
“I assure you he will be safe,” Tong said, tilting his head to the side. “We can check on him later. He will be sleeping with the sedative I administered.”
“Thank you, Tong,” Arun said, moving over to the stool by Ricky’s bed. “Thank you for everything you’ve done to save our friends, but I agree with Stacy. One of us should stay with him. I’ll stay.”
Tong shrugged as if he didn’t understand the human sentiment.
“We’ll bring you back some food,” Stacy said to Arun.
“As much as I want to tear into a bacon sandwich,” I said, feeling the pit in my stomach grow a little bit bigger, “I want answers more. Suddenly, that voice we were talking to in the pyramid has gone quiet. What do you say we go pay it a visit?”
Stacy nodded, patting the blaster at her hip, and handed me the rifle she carried strapped over her shoulder.
“Of course,” Tong said, lifting his hands, “although I assure you, you will not need your weapons. Whoever has awoken from my species allowed us in. He or she might be a bit untrusting or not used to dealing with anyone, depending on how many years they’ve been awake, but there will be no need for weapons.”
“Always be prepared,” I said. “Lead the way.”
Tong nodded and we left Ricky and Arun to watch over Ricky.
Tong led the way out of the medical wing, past the staging area where we left the crawler, and to the center of the pyramid. Another wide-open room with a spiraling staircase in the center led us to the second floor.
“The lower levels of the pyramid expand deep underground. That is where my kind rest in hyper-sleep,” Tong explained as we traveled up the steps. “The ground floor consists of the housing, supply rooms, and the medical wing as you’ve seen. It also holds our sleeping quarters and food supplies.”
“What’s on the second level?” Stacy asked.
“The command station, communications, and security,” Tong explained. “Whatever Remboshi have awoken would be at the command station.”
I tightened the grip on my blaster, preparing myself for anything. My instinct told me Tong was right. The Remboshi in control here had let us in. If they wanted to try to hurt us, they could have already. They could have let Ricky bleed out right there in front of the pyramid.
Still, if I had learned anything during my time on Genesis, it was to be prepared, and I didn’t take my hand off the rifle as we crested the last step. The level consisted of a wide-open atrium allowing the light to fall into the room through a glass-like ceiling two stories above us.
From the outside, the black pyramid looked as though it had been made of one complete piece of rock. Apparently, looks could be deceiving. The upper pointed dome of the pyramid was made from dark glass.
The room showed four different paths in a kind of plus-sign-shaped intersection. Tong once again led the way. He made for the door directly in front of us. This time, when he pressed his hand to the smooth wall, a green light activated. A slab of metal receded a few inches into the wall then lifted into the ceiling.
Stacy and I followed, our weapons at the ready.
So far, this was the only room that was not brightly lit with light coming from the floor and ceiling. This room was dark, with the only means of illumination coming from monitors on the right and left sides of the walls. In front of us, another darkened window pane showed the view of the planet beyond. Not that there was much of a view to begin with. The window showed a few meters of dark soil, then the swirling mist wall beyond.
A control panel with a low-backed chair looked out onto the scene below the pyramid. The back of a reptilian head greeted us in silence.
“Thank you for letting us in,” Tong said in English so Stacy and I could understand. “Our friend’s life was saved because of you.”
The Remboshi with its back toward us didn’t say a word.
I sensed something off and brought my weapon up. Stacy must have felt the same thing. Her blaster came to bear on the back of the alien’s green scaly head.
While Tong spoke to the back of the head, I picked up images on the monitors. There had to be twenty screens on both sides of the wall. Images of the forest, the jungle, the mountains, and even the Orion popped up. My mouth dropped open as I saw the wall we’d constructed, and even survivors as they labored within our walls to construct the watchtowers and fortify the wall.
“Will you not turn and look at the Great Dawn who has come to save us?” Tong asked with a sense of disapproval in his voice. “Will you not greet your saviors who have come to aid us?”
We were still a dozen meters from the chair when it began to slowly turn. To say the events in the dark room were creepy would be an understatement.
“They’ve been watching us?” Stacy whispered under her breath.
Mutt, who had been following us, lowered to the ground and growled.
When the chair finally made its way around, I wasn’t sure what I had been afraid of this entire time. The Remboshi who sat there was even smaller than Tong. If I had to guess, it was female, with longer lashes. Whether it was male or female, one thing was for sure, it looked old and tired. Bags hung from its eyes and a series of wrinkles clung to its mouth and neck.
Unlike Tong, it didn’t wear a uniform. Instead, a white robe fell from its body.
Tong immediately knew who it was. His mouth dropped open, and he fell to his knees as if he were in the presence of some king or queen.
I had no idea who the wrinkled gecko was in front of me and didn’t even bother to lower my blaster. The Remboshi in the chair studied us with impassive eyes.
“Forgive me,” Tong said, still looking to the ground in front of him. “Forgive me. I did not know it was you.”
The Remboshi in the chair moved its eyes to me and Stacy as if it were looking for a similar act. I shook my head and shrugged as if to tell it, “Nope, not doing that.”
Stacy didn’t move either.
“Who are you and why have you been watching us on these monitors?” Stacy asked.
Tong looked back at us from his kneeling position, mortified. He shook his head, about to say something. Terror lived in his eyes as well as a healthy dose of confusion.
I wanted to tell him, “Welcome to the club, buddy,” but didn’t think this was the appropriate time.
All right, you old bag, I thought to myself as I held eye contact with the Remboshi in the chair. Out with it. What kind of nonsense are you going to tell us now?
“Please, please, lower your weapons,” Tong said, shaking his head and twisting his six fingers around each other. “You do not need them. This is the one. This is Jezra herself, who told of the prophecy of your coming. She alone said the Children of the Dawn would come to free us.”
“That’s great.” Stacy relaxed her grip on her weapon. She still didn’t lower it. “Now answer the question, Jezra. Why have you been watching us?”
Jezra pursed her thin lips and squinted at us like an old woman would in trying to see her grandchildren. Her eyes moved from me to Stacy, then back again.
“It thought you would be bigger,” Jezra said, blinking a few times for good measure. “You know, more savior-like. Oh well, I guess you will have to do. We should probably get started then. Ready to save our world?”
“I have so many questions, I don’t even know where to start,” Stacy said, finally lowering her weapon. She took a long, weary sigh.
I felt for her, being just as tired, hungry, and emotionally and mentally drained. I just wanted a plate of food and a warm bed to go curl up in and assume the fetal position. I was reminded of a saying my coach Johnny had for me. He used to say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
“What the heck, I’ll bite,” I said, also lowering my weapon. “How are you watching all of us on the screen? I mean, you have drones or something overhead?”
Jezra rose from her seat and shuffled over to me wearing some kind of old sandals on her three-toed feet. She looked at me from all angles then blinked a few times, even poking at my arms and butt.
“Hmmm, yes, yes,” Jezra muttered to herself. “Maybe he is the one. Maybe, maybe, maybe…”
Her voice trailed off as she continued to inspect me like a piece of meat. I had done the same thing to juicy pieces of steak on my dinner plate.
“Excuse me,” I said, turning to look at her again. “Answers? How are you able to see everything on these monitors?”
“I believe the word you use for it is cameras. No, maybe a satellite,” Jezra said, rethinking her own word. “Hold on.”
We watched open-mouthed as Jezra shuffled over to her seat, digging for something in the cushion. She came back with a pair of thin glasses she wrapped around her reptilian head. The lenses of them made her eyes looks even larger.
“Ah, that’s better,” Jezra said, coming over to us yet again. “Now does that answer your question?”
“You have satellites?” Stacy asked, looking from Jezra to Tong like he had been holding out on us this entire time. “Why didn’t you tell us you have satellites?”
“Not satellites.” Tong said the word as if he were trying to figure out exactly what it meant. “I could really use Iris to communicate right now. I do not think you would call them satellites. We have a low-flying station that is able to pick up images at great distances.”
“Uh, yeah, sounds like a satellite to me,” I said.
“Is it in space?” Stacy asked.
“No, not in space. Low flying in our orbit, just visible to the naked eye if you knew where in the sky to look,” Tong answered.
While they were going over the definition of what a satellite was, Mutt went over to sniff at Jezra.
Jezra, unlike Tong, did not seem to be as amused with our mascot. She shooed him away with an open hand. When that didn’t work, she lightly hissed at him to be gone.
Mutt stopped growling at her and thought it was a game. His tail started to wag and he jumped from side to side.
“No, no, shhh, shhhh,” Jezra said, waving both hands at the dog. The motion only excited Mutt more.
“Easy, buddy,” I told Mutt. “Let’s leave this priestess or seer or whatever she is alone for the time being. We need more answers from her.”
Mutt looked at me with his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. He pretended to pounce on Jezra one more time for good measure. She recoiled, then Mutt grinned and came back to my side.
“Filthy four paws.” Jezra scowled at him.
“So getting back to topic,” Stacy said, taking in the room once more. “You’ve been watching us and learned English when Iris taught Tong? You can hear us? Why haven’t you been communicating with us? Why didn’t you let Tong know you were awake?”
“So many questions, so many questions.” Jezra said, rolling her eyes. “The answer is yes and no, like so many answers tend to be. If you have so many questions, why aren’t you asking me why I woke from our hyper sleep? Why aren’t you asking how I control the fog and mist monsters?”
“Well, yeah, I was getting around to that,” Stacy said, doing a double take. “Did you just say you controlled them?”
“Yes, yes, that’s right,” Jezra said, leaning back in her chair. She pressed the fingertips from both hands together, creating a steeple. “I did not reach out to you when the Orion crashed for two reasons. I can only hear audio transmission, not send it. Also, I was not sure you were the Children of the Dawn until this very moment.”
I exchanged looks with Stacy again.
“Why weren’t you sure until now?” I asked her. My frustration was starting to show through in my tone. I didn’t care. “Why didn’t you know right away if you foretold this whole prophecy?”
“My vision came to me and I knew our savior would come in an alien race of people. Two would rise up as lovers to lead the charge—those two are standing right in front of me now,” Jezra said as if it were fact. “I knew Tong believed you to be the Children of the Dawn but I was not completely sure until I saw you two look at one another. It was the same look in my vision, the very same look.”
I intentionally didn’t look over at Stacy, nor did I acknowledge the fact that Jezra referred to us as lovers. It was just a little too much.
“So you monitored us with some kind of low-flying satellite and you learned English by spying on us, but how did you wake up?” I questioned. “Tong said his people were in hyper sleep. Only he was supposed to wake up when we arrived.”
“Unless he was lying to us,” Stacy said with steel in her voice, narrowing her eyes at him.
“No, no,” Tong insisted, looking back at us. He shook his head wildly. “I did not lie. That was what was supposed to happen.”
“He speaks the truth,” Jezra confirmed, placing her hands onto her lap as she muttered something under her breath.
We all stood silent, waiting for her to continue.
She muttered more under her breath. It wasn’t English.
“Well, how or why did you wake up? How long have you been awake?” Stacy blurted out.
“Ahhh, there is the question I’ve been waiting to answer,” Jezra said, nodding along with Stacy’s words. She repeated them again. “How long have I been awake?”
Jezra mumbled to herself, counting her three fingers on each hand, then going down to her toes and counting those. She went back to counting her toes and fingers over and over again, then finally lifted her head with a smile. “Sixty-eight years. I’ve been awake sixty-eight years, three months, two weeks, five days, nine minutes, and eight seconds if I am using human means of time correctly. And I’ll be the first to say I’m probably not.”
“Sixty-eight years?” I took a step back in shock. “You’ve been awake sixty-eight years all by yourself? Here?”
“I have been hard at work preparing for your arrival and securing our location as well as providing the means in which to defeat Legion and the Rung,” Jezra said, blinking at us through her thick-framed lenses. “I was awoken from my hyper sleep by yet another prophecy. Instead of going back to sleep, I elected to remain awake and prepare.”
“Another prophecy?” Tong asked with awe in his voice. “Please, tell us. What did you see?”
Even I had to admit this Jezra chick had me on the edge of my seat. If she was right about us coming to their planet, what else could she be right about?
“That is not to be told at this time,” Jezra said, rising from her seat. “But come, you all looked famished and in need of rest and a shower if I detect the odor correctly.”
“Not so fast,” I said, still wanting to know more despite the angry roar my stomach made in protest. “The fog, those creatures in the mist—what are they? They killed some of my people when we landed.”
“Yes, I couldn’t stop them in time,” Jezra said. For the first time, I saw regret wash over her wrinkled face. “I did stop them from killing you, though.”
“What are they?” Stacy asked again.
“I knew I couldn’t chance either the Rung finding this installation or Legion until he was wiped out,” Jezra said. “When I awoke, I created the mist around this marsh as well as the creatures through scientific engineering. The creature already existed in a way. I only made them larger through experimentation. I also gave them the ability to permanently walk on land.”
“The sawg?” Tong asked.
“Yes,” Jezra answered. “The sawg already indigenous to our planet were upgraded in a way. They became my protectors that live in the mist.”
“I still have a million questions, but I could use some food and I’m sure Arun would like something to eat now as well,” I said, motioning for the door. “Lead on.”
Jezra nodded then headed out of the chamber and to the circular stairs leading to the first floor.
I hung back with Stacy.
“You buying all of this?” I asked under my breath.
“Something seems off,” Stacy said, shaking her head. “Everything has an answer that fits too perfectly in line.”
“Yeah, and she’s kooky as an old bat,” I said. “I don’t think she’s playing with a full deck, if you know what I mean.”
“Eyes open,” Stacy said with a nod. “We’ll talk with Arun and see how she wants to play all of this.”
Up ahead, we followed Tong and Jezra to the eating area. It turned out to be nothing more than an open room with tables and chairs. There was no kitchen or service line, just a number of square openings in the wall. Above each opening was a display screen with a series of buttons.
I watched, interested, as Tong and Jezra each went up to their own square in the wall. They maneuvered through the display screen, pressing buttons and swiping until the each decided on a food item, or what I guessed were food items.
After they each selected their meals, they pressed a button. A moment later, the food they’d decided upon came out on a tray from further into the wall.
“What the f—”
“How did you do that?” Stacy asked, cutting me off.
“Oh of course.” Tong waved us over to an empty square in the wall. He showed us how to maneuver through the options for food. “This is called a—a nutrition creator. I think those would be the words closest to it in your language at least. You can scroll through food options here. Once you’ve decided on something, you select it and then press this button.”
Tong ran through the process, looking at us with a nod.
Jezra took her food to one of the tables and started to eat.
Stacy and I followed Tong’s instructions, going through choices we didn’t understand. I stopped my sideways scrolling on something that looked like a bowl of spaghetti. I knew it couldn’t be spaghetti, but it looked like white noodles with meat sauce on it.
“What do you think, Mutt?” I looked down, asking him. “How much like spaghetti could this taste?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jezra and Tong speaking. Jezra motioned to the door of the room and the two stood up and walked over. I wasn’t sure what they were talking about. It was in their own tongue again, but Tong looked worried.
I saw motion coming from the square opening in the wall. My bowl of definitely not spaghetti came to rest in front of me on a conveyer-like belt. It smelled like tuna.
“Dean!” Stacy yelled so loud from right next to me she nearly gave me a heart attack.
“I know, I know, it can’t be spaghetti smelling like that,” I said, looking back at my bowl of food.
“No, the doors!” Stacy yelled again.
I looked over to where she pointed. A clear glass door to the room we were in separated us from Jezra and Tong. On the other side of the door, Tong looked just as confused as we were.
White gas from the ventilation shafts overhead poured inside our room.
Mutt started to bark. He raced for the closed door and jumped at it. Despite throwing his weight at the barrier, it didn’t move.
Stacy and I followed, already coughing as the gas filled our lungs.
“Let us out! What are you doing!?” Stacy screamed, slamming her fists into the white door as we reached it. “Tong, open the door.”
Tong’s mouth was moving, but we couldn’t hear a word. He slammed on the door from his side.
When I joined them, I caught sight of Jezra lifting something out of her robe. It was a short piece of steel.
“Tong, behind you!” I screamed, lending my own weight toward bringing down the door.
Already my head felt lighter, courtesy of whatever gas was being pumped into the room. I coughed, still trying to point behind Tong at Jezra. The old Remboshi wore a look of utter madness in her eyes.
Jezra brought her weapon down on the back of Tong’s head hard. He crumpled to the ground in front of us.
I slammed my fists into the door so hard, the entire clear door shook but didn’t break.
I started to cough, my head swimming.
“Stand—stand back,” Stacy said, lifting her weapon to the door. Her movements were slow as if she were performing them under water.
I fell backward.
Stacy sent a round into the glass door. It didn’t do a thing. Mutt was already unconscious next to me. The last thing I remembered before blackness came for me were Jezra’s huge eyes peering down at us from the other side of the door.
One second I was on the floor, thinking, There goes my chance to see if it tasted like spaghetti at all, the next I was awake on the ground in a circular-shaped room. The room was big enough to fit a dozen crawlers inside. Lights set into the two-story ceiling gave me enough illumination to know I was alone.
Two doors set on opposite sides of the room were the only way in and out. There were no windows.
I dragged my sorry behind from the ground, thinking I should have seen this one coming. I was putting too much trust in people these days. I knew there was something off about the Remboshi prophetess. Something hadn’t seemed right about her from the start.
My head started to clear from whatever it was I had been gassed with.
What the heck, might as well try the doors, I told myself. It’s not like you have anything to lose.
I tried the two doors in the room without luck. Worry laced my thoughts, not for myself but for everyone else.
Tong, Stacy, Arun, Ricky, and even Mutt were in danger. Who knew what the mad Remboshi had done to them.
“Oh, I see you are awake.” Jezra’s voice filled the room. “I will give you a moment for your head to clear from the Niox.”
“Why are you doing this to us, you old bag?” I asked to the ceiling. I couldn’t tell where her voice was coming from. My best guess was there were speakers mounted somewhere overhead. “I thought you said you believed us, that we are the Children of the Dawn?”
“I do believe that, but I have been wrong before.” Jezra laughed as though she had just shared something funny. “These are my people’s lives that hang on your shoulders. I have to not only be sure, I have to be positive without a shadow of a doubt.”
“What did you do with everyone else?” I asked, clenching my hands into fists. “Where are they?”
“Rest assured I am only holding them in cells for the time being,” Jezra answered. “They are safe. Even your smaller friend that was wounded and the woman with him are cared for. I locked them in the medical wing.”
“How generous of you,” I said through bared teeth.
“Despite what you may think, I am not your enemy,” Jezra said.
“Yeah, okay,” I said, shaking my head. “I might have believed that before I saw you crack Tong over the head and gas Stacy, Mutt, and me.”
“Tong would not see reason. He refused to have you endure the tribunal.” Jezra sighed. “I had to do what I did to ensure you are the one.”
“Listen, lady,” I said, raising my hands into the air. “I don’t even want to know what a tribunal is. I’m not going to play any of your games. Being awake so long by yourself has warped your mind, you feeble old bat. You’re not thinking straight. Let me out of this room and we’ll take Ricky and the supplies we need to defeat Legion, then we’ll be on our way.”
“You keep using terms to describe me like ‘bag’ and ‘bat,’” Jezra said over the speaker. “But I wonder what they mean.”
“Nothing good,” I promised.
“Look to your left, if you would,” Jezra said.
I really didn’t want to, but what else was I going to do? Go sit in a corner and feel sorry for myself? Not my style.
With one door behind me and the other on the opposite side of the circular room, I looked left to the plain wall.
This chick has really lost her mind, I thought to myself. How did I not see exactly how crazy she was before?
A portion of the wall receded a few inches, then up into the ceiling. A monitor flicked to life, showing Jezra on one side and three smaller squares giving me views of my friends.
True to her word, the monitors showed Ricky and Arun safe and in the medical wing. Ricky was actually sitting up and aware. He looked better—tired, but better.
Stacy and Mutt were together in a room not unlike my own but much smaller. Mutt walked back and forth nervously. Stacy was studying the door to her room, no doubt trying to think of a way to get out.
Lastly, Tong stood alone in a room much like the smaller circular room Stacy and Mutt were in. The alien sat down in the middle of the room with a look of resignation.
“See,” Jezra said with a smile. “I have not hurt them, only placed them in rooms until we know with certainty that you are the Great Dawn. Like you said, I have been awake for too long. My brain is not what it used to be. What if I am mistaken? What if there is a one percent chance that you are not the Great Dawn and I doom my people by giving over all of our supplies and assets to you?”
I remained quiet for a moment, studying Jezra on the right side of the monitor. I beat myself up for not giving her enough credit. Single-handedly, she had captured all five of us—six if you counted Mutt. There was so much more to her than met the eye.
“Well, let’s get this over with,” I said, taking a deep cleansing breath. I prepared myself for what came next. “What is it that you want me to do? What’s the tribunal?”
“A test,” Jezra said with a wide grin. “A test just to be sure you are who you say you are, and who I think you are.”
“I never said I was the Great Dawn, that was Tong’s assertion. And couldn’t you just have asked me to take this test instead of gassing me and throwing me in this weird room?” I asked.
“I don’t think you would have agreed to this kind of test.” Jezra shrugged. “When I brought it up to Tong before I gassed you and knocked you unconscious, he was very much against the idea.”
“So what is the tribunal?” I asked her. “We’re going to play charades or you give me a riddle or something?”
“Not quite,” Jezra answered. “The tribunal is a test of willpower and courage—raw determination, if you would. The prophecy of the Great Dawn I saw so many years ago showed me a leader without limits. I saw a being capable of dealing with loss at the greatest level and using that loss to make him stronger not weaker.”
“Is this all some kind of fancy talk to say you want me to fight someone?” I asked the screen, unamused. “Usually, people want me to fight someone.”
“Yes and no. The answer is always yes and no.” Jezra leaned close into the monitor so all I could see were her large blinking eyes. “The test is one part combat the other pure determination. It will take iron will to see Legion and the Rung defeated. You must possess not only the heart of a champion but the intellect of a leader.”
“You’re starting to lose me,” I said. “What do you want me to do? If you want me to jump through a hoop to get out of here, then fine, let’s just get it done.”
“Very good, very good,” Jezra said, leaning back.
I couldn’t see what she was doing, but her gaze looked down now as she moved her hands over some kind of control panel.
A hissing sound started in the center of the room, then a panel in the floor moved to make room for a cylinder to rise from the ground with two arms extending out. It stopped about chest high, the pair of arms extending a meter in length and as thick as my torso.
“Your opponent will be a modified drone we used to train our own troops during the Blood War with the Rung,” Jezra informed me as she went to work pressing more buttons on the keyboard in front of her.
Another hissing sound met my ears. The door opposite my side of the room opened from the ground up, revealing a robot. I had seen robots before. They had them back on Earth. But this robot was different. It stood easily six feet with a Remboshi-shaped body, reptilian head, skinny limbs, and a thick tail.
It walked into the room with the grace of a living being, no clunky steps or awkward movements. Its gecko-shaped head sported bright yellow eyes, and the steel encasing its body was dark grey.
“The first test is one of determination,” Jezra began. “The two of you will each take a section of the turnkey in the center of the room. Each of you will try and rotate it in a different direction. Once one of you have turned it a total of three times, the test is over.”
“I’m not making excuses here, but your Remboshi robot over there is probably stronger than I am to begin with,” I said. “Why don’t you get in here and go against the robot?”
“Fair point, fair point,” Jezra said from her seat behind the monitor. “I set the training bot’s strength level to match your own. The only difference here is that the robot will not tire and you will.”
“Wonderful,” I said, stretching my arms and shoulders. “Let’s get this over with.”
The steel of the turnkey felt cold under my hands. The robot was directly to my left on the other side of the device. It was impassive to say the least, looking at nothing besides the steel cylinder in front of it.
“You may begin,” Jezra said from her place on the monitor.
I leaned into the steel bar in front of me then bent my knees and extended my arms. Head down, I pushed for the life of me. I think I got lucky. The turnkey actually moved a meter or so as the robot beside me adjusted his own grip on the turnkey and matched my strength.
Hope died a moment later as we came to a halt. We were deadlocked. The robot was using the exact same force I was using on the turnkey. I understood I had to think of something fast. My arms were already burning from pressing my palms into the steel and air came in faster, labored gulps.
“Now you see the true test of things,” Jezra said. “What will you do when you are faced with an enemy that matches you perfectly? What will you do when your enemy will not give in or tire?”
I didn’t waste the breath to respond. I had a finite amount of time to come up with a plan and execute said plan before my energy reserves ran out. With no food in my gut and little rest, I knew my tank was going to run out soon.
I faltered for a moment trying to change my grip on the cylinder. The robot noticed and used my temporary distraction to take another step in the turnkey. I wrapped my arms on the underside of my cylinder, pressing my chest into the steel bar now. My legs were still bent in a split lunge position as I pressed my frame into the steel.
I stopped losing ground for the time being.
Think, think. Focus and think, I told myself. This thing is as strong as you are and won’t get tired. You’re not going to beat it no matter how strong you are. You have to think of something else.
The idea hit me like a thunderbolt. It might not work, but I was crazy enough to give it a shot. Giving up my grip on my side of the cylinder completely, I turned and waited for the robot to slowly stalk forward, carrying the entire weight of the turnkey himself. When he reached me, I leaned into the steel cylinder and he pressed forward on the opposite side.
The turnkey came to a complete stop again. The robot was so close, I could reach out and touch him. That was point. On the other side of the cylinder and this close, I got a better look at it.
Gears just under his metal exterior hummed and buzzed in a low tone. If it did take notice of me at all, it didn’t show it, so singular was its purpose.
“Interesting, very interesting,” Jezra said from her place in the monitor. “What is your strategy now?”
I still wasn’t going to waste breath in talking. I needed to act now. Every second that passed, I was exerting energy. I allowed the turnkey to move forward and went to work on the robot itself.
The cylinder began to move as I struck out with the heel of my foot to the right ankle of the robot. I gave ground as the turnkey cylinder in front of me pushed me back. I had three full rotations to work with. If the robot forced me back that far, the test would be over and I’d lose.
Over and over again, I slammed the heel of my right foot into the left ankle of the robots’. Shock of pain from the force of the blows exploded into my foot and leg, but I ignored them and kept hammering away.
“Oh, I see, I see,” Jezra said. “Yes, yes, I recognize it in you. This is not a strategy that has worked in the hundreds of times the tribunal has been used, but perhaps you will succeed where others failed.”
With every blow I landed, I let out an exhale. Over and over again, I struck the same ankle of the robot. I didn’t need to break it. I just needed him to limp the slightest bit. If I could put him off balance or put a hitch in his gait, it might be enough.
I struck him over and over again, hoping I was making progress but not seeing any. The robot continued his relentless press forward. I lost track of how many times I hit him. I didn’t lose track of how many turns the turnkey performed. We had already made one full rotation. Two more and Jezra would write me off as an imposter and we’d be screwed.
Images of what would happen if I failed this test filled my mind. Would we be kept here as prisoners? Would we be thrown out without the supplies we desperately needed? Would we be thrown out into the mist marsh to deal with those creatures?
I wasn’t sure and had no intention of finding out. For the first time since I heard of all this crazy talk of the Great Dawn, I actually wanted to convince someone that I was, regardless of how I felt.
I continued to slam the heel of my boot into the robot’s ankle, all the time giving ground as he pressed the turnkey ever forward, despite the pain shooting up my left leg.
The turnkey made another full rotation. It coiled like a spring at the base of the revolving cylinder. As the robot made its third and final rotation, the cylinder became the harder to turn.
Come on, Dean, I told myself, rallying. Sweat began to gather at my brow. Come on, you’ve gotta take this thing out!
I knew his ankle joint had to be weakened by now. Being a trained professional, I knew exactly how and where to strike, so I struck hard. Robot or not, a joint was a joint. In an act of desperation, I reared my foot back and sent a kick out to the robot’s left lower shin rather than the ankle joint. That finally did it. There was a pop and a whine of gears. The robot faltered.
There was no time for celebration. I saw my opportunity and went after it. Gone was the laser precision and measured blows. Now it was all me and how much heart I could pour into pushing.
I ran back to my piece of steel opposite the robot and slammed into the bar with everything I had.
The robot, to my left, was slipping on the ground, struggling to walk and stay balanced on its one working ankle. A mixture of steam and smoke came from the wounded appendage.
My chest heaved, sucking in oxygen as fast as I could. Inch by inch, I fought the robot back. At times, we were deadlocked, but every time the robot shifted either forward or back, he lost more ground thanks to the broken ankle.
I couldn’t feel my right foot at all after so many strikes to the metal, but that was fine. I gave into the primal force inside of me that had won me so many fights before.
“Rawww!” I shouted as I threw my body against my bar, only to take a moment to gasp for air and then go again.
Again and again, I made the challenge, pushing the robot back farther and farther. I lost track of how many rotations I had made, refusing to give up.
People say anger is a dangerous emotion, and they’re right. Unless you can channel that anger into something useful that allows you to get rid of all that bad energy in a positive way. I did just that.
I remembered how pissed I was about crash landing here and I pushed. I remembered how many people we’d lost and I pushed. I remembered how my life as a gladiator ended and I pushed.
A loud click filled the room as the cylinder in front of me stopped moving altogether and locked into place. I’d won.
I fell to the ground on all fours. My lungs burned even more than the muscles on my arms and legs. My chest felt sore from where I had slammed it against the bar in front of me. Rivers of sweat fell from my face and sprinkled the ground below me.
“Yes, yes!” Jezra shouted from the monitor. “You are who I thought you were. You are who I thought you were. One more test, Great Dawn. The final tribunal awaits. I believe in you.”
“It’s super weird for you to be rooting for me,” I said, finally getting my breathing under control as I sat back on my heels. “Half of me wants to knock you out right now. Scratch that. Most of me wants to knock you out right now.”
“One more test, one more test,” Jezra repeated like a mad woman. “Hand-to-hand combat next. You were made for this, Dean. Your gloves are there across the room. I would hurry if I were you.”
“Hand-to-hand combat with a freaking robot?” I asked, pushing myself to my feet. “Why don’t you just break every bone in my hands?”
I looked up in time to see the robot I injured limping out of the door on the opposite side of the room. Another training robot of the same make and model passed its counterpart on the way to me.
Just like the turnkey rose from the ground in the room, another cylinder sprouted from the floor. This one had a pair of thick gloves on the top.
“Hurry,” Jezra encouraged me. “Get them on, hurry.”
I stumbled over to the gloves. They were unlike anything I had ever worn. It shouldn’t have been that surprising since I was on an alien planet speaking to gecko people.
The gloves were matte black with openings for my fingers. On the knuckles of the pads, steel iron was worked into the fabric. It looked like I had brass knuckles underneath.
“I guess I really do have steel hands now,” I said out loud as I put the gloves on my hands and shook my head. “Dean Steel Hands Slade fighting on alien planets.”
I muttered this all under my breath while I worked the wraps on. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to game plan. The robot in front of me was advancing, and he meant business.
He reached me just as I strapped on the second glove. The robot was quicker than I expected, swiping at me with a closed fist. I ducked the blow, remembering its speed and accuracy as I danced around it on tired feet.
Exhaustion was something I would just have to deal with. I’d lost a ton of water sweating during the first test, and I felt the numbness in my foot spread up my leg. All of this I filed away and never took my eyes off my opponent.
It swiped at me again, leaving its metal torso open. I took my chance, sending a left-right combination that would have felled any human in the gladiator pit.
The robot looked down at me. He didn’t even move. The area where I struck his torso barely showed a dent.
I was in for one heck of a fight.
I knew better than to let my guard down. I blamed half on being so exhausted I could barely stand and the other half on sheer shock that I failed to move the robot with those blows. Either way, the robot sent out a blow I barely dodged. His metal hands racked the left side of my head from my ear into my hairline, leaving a long gash and spilling warm blood.
And so the fight began.
I was barely fast enough to avoid the blows sent by the robot. Slamming my fists into his head and torso was completely ineffective. The only upside was that the gloves absorbed the blows. The steel in my gloves hit the steel of the robot’s exterior, creating tiny divots and dents.
Burning fatigue descended on my arms as I bounced around searching for any kind of opening to exploit. The whole foot stomp trick wasn’t going to work on an opponent that was trying to take my head off. I’d had it easier before. The robot on the turnkey hadn’t tried to harm me; its single function was to push forward. This robot’s single function was to kill me.
For every shot the robot got in on me, I got twenty, but it didn’t matter. In minutes, his body was riddled with the feeble attempts I’d made at finding any kind of weak point. From his arms to his torso, head, and even legs, he was armor. The joints I targeted would give eventually if I could send a good fifty shots at it, but there was no chance of that.
Every time I got in close, I absorbed at least one blow while landing precious few of my own. A strike to my stomach doubled me over. Another blow to my jaw split the inside of my mouth. I couldn’t take much more, and my strength was flagging.
I rethought my strategy, bouncing away from the robot and letting my aching arms rest by my sides. The metallic tang of blood filled my mouth. I was going to lose unless I did something drastic. Maybe, maybe at full power and rested, I could take the robot, but I was far from either of those at the moment.
The robot stalked toward me and I jogged away. I needed to buy more time to think.
This is just like the first test, I told myself. You can’t win straight up. They know that. You know that. So how do you win?
I scanned the room for anything I might have missed. Anything that I could use as a weapon, anything that would give me the edge I needed.
My eyes fell on the turnkey.
“Don’t give up!” Jezra cheered from her monitor. “You can do it! Don’t give up! I believe!”
I blocked everything out as a second plan formed. The turnkey was still up with its two metal bars extended and wound tight, so I ran over to it and took a closer look.
I had wound the cylinder tight like a coiled spring at its base. It was locked in place now, but if I could hit it hard enough, maybe the mechanism locking it in place would give, sending the metal bars spinning back into their normal position.
I struck one of the metal bars. The turnkey shook.
You can do this, I told myself. This is going to work. Time it. You just have to time it.
I squared up on one side of the turnkey, keeping one eye on the advancing robot. Blood dripped into my eyes, but I blinked it away. I had bled before. It wasn’t anything I wasn’t used to.
The robot descended on me, those empty yellow eyes stalking me. It reached for me across the turnkey with an open hand like it was going to grab my face and rip it from my skull.
I saw all of this then ignored it. A single purpose entered my thoughts. I focused on the target in front of me—the steel bar locked in place after being wound so tight.
I let another roar escape my lips as the air exited my lungs. My right fist was a rocket pushed forward with the torque of my entire body. I had broken jaws, ribs, even sternums with that fist. If I could do that, I could break one freaking turnkey. I had to.
“Rawww!” I yelled, slamming my fist into the bar. The mechanism holding the turnkey in place broke somewhere inside the contraption. I let the force of my blow carry me out of the way of the turnkey as the metal arms spun widely.
With nothing to keep them in place, they gave way to the coiled force inside. The metal bar closest to the robot made contact with its right side. It crushed the metal torso, sending the robot flying into the wall.
Smoke and sparks erupted from the training robot. Still it fought its way back to its feet. the left side of its body caved in. Its head had made contact with the wall first, so half of the left side of its skull was crushed.
Still it rose again, fighting to regain its balance.
I wasn’t about to let that happen. I sprinted at the robot, flying through the air in a tackle my trainers would have shaken their heads at. All form was out the window, I just needed to put this thing down for good. I landed on the robot as it struggled, my chest colliding with the steel frame of its body. Pain lanced through me as I pressed my body against the robot’s, forcing it to the ground.
The arm on its injured right side flailed toward me, trying to grab anything it could get its metal hand on. I traded my position on the robot’s back for an arm bar then wrapped both my own arms around the right arm of the robot, positioning my legs over its chest. I used my entire body against the one injured limb.
If the robot’s side had not taken the damage from the turnkey, there was no way this would’ve worked, but the arm was already half falling out of its socket anyway.
Using my legs, I pressed down on the robot’s chest while my arms and back arched backward to tear the limb away from the body.
The robot tried to fight back, but I was a dog with a bone. There was no way on this green planet I was letting go. Tapping into the deepest part of my reserves, I ripped the robot’s arm from its body. Both the useless arm and I fell to the ground.
The robot stumbled in front of me, smoke and sparks coming from where its right arm used to be. It wobbled on its feet for a few seconds before finally falling but still refused to quit.
“Oh come on,” I said, frustrated. I pushed myself to me feet, feeling woozy from the lack of food and blood. “Just go down already!”
The robot was on its knees, its single hand trying to push its way back to its feet one more time. I almost felt sorry for the hunk of metal as I straddled its back and wrapped my right arm around its neck. Almost.
With the rear naked choke, I applied pressure on the already damaged head and neck area. When the turnkey flung the robot across the room, the robot had landed head first, caving in the left side.
I knew this was it. If I could rip the head the rest of the way off, or even the wires and gears within going to the head, it would be over.
Metal dug into my arm where I applied the choke. I ignored it. Not holding back, I pulled for everything I was worth and used all my anger as fuel.
Ripping sounds from somewhere within the robot’s neck cut through my own heavy breathing. Wires and gears in it were strained past their intended points and ruined.
With a final sigh, the robot fell dead underneath me. I didn’t even move to roll off the thing, I just lay there trying to catch my breath.
“Bravo! Bravo!” Jezra said, clapping her hands together.
I didn’t even look up. It was a weird feeling to want to punch someone who was cheering for you at the moment.
“I am going to free your friends immediately as well as get you care and sustenance,” Jezra announced.
I finally looked up to see her pressing buttons on the keyboard in front of her furiously. The smaller screens next to her showed the doors of the cells everyone else was in opening.
Just needing a minute to gather myself, I rolled off the robot and lay on my back, staring at the white ceiling. Jezra was going on and on about some nonsense of being on her way and I would be fine and our future was bright and blah, blah, blah.
Eventually, the doors to my chamber opened and everyone poured in except Ricky. Stacy fell to her knees, worry etched on her face, and Mutt licked at my hands, whining low in his throat.
I could hear Tong and Jezra going at it in their own tongue, and Arun appeared over my head a second later.
“You look horrible,” Stacy said. Her sarcasm was there, but I saw pity and concern as she looked over my bloody face.
“You should see the other guy,” I said with a grin.
“Can you sit up?” Arun asked. “What happened? One second, I was watching over Ricky, the next we were locked in the medical wing. Then Tong came for me saying that you had defeated the tribunal.”
“I’ll explain everything,” I said. “I just need some painkillers and food. I feel like I’m going to pass out.”
“Right,” Stacy said. She and Arun helped me to my feet, each putting one of my arms over their necks to support me.
Tong and Jezra were still hissing and clicking at one another. I had never seen him so worked up. I hoped he was cursing her out at the moment, calling her a dirty bag gecko or an old bat lizard woman.
Jezra broke off her conversation with Tong when she saw me approach.
“I’ll meet you in the medical wing with food. After a shower and rest, you’ll be as good as new,” Jezra promised.
“You think we’re just going to be friends with you now?” Stacy growled. “You gassed us and nearly killed Dean.”
“The gas only put you to sleep with no other side effects and the Great Dawn needed to be tested. It was unfortunate, yes, but it needed to be done,” Jezra said with a shrug of her shoulders. “This is the only way things could have happened and so they have.”
I was too tired and in too much pain to deal with Jezra now. I just shook my head. Stacy and Arun took me to the medical wing as Stacy filled Arun in on everything she’d missed, and I filled both of them in on my robot battle royal.
When we entered the medical wing, Ricky was awake and propped up in his bed. His lower jaw dropped as he saw me carried in.
“Do you feel as bad as you look?” he asked.
I took his own appearance in as Arun and Stacy laid me on the reclining chair next to his.
“Worse,” I said with a smile. I regretted the action immediately, as pain shot into my lip.
Tong came into the room a moment later, rushing over to grab a stool and examine me.
“I just want you to know that I had no idea what she was going to do,” Tong said nervously. “I apologize on behalf of my people. I—”
“It’s all right,” I said to the Remboshi, cutting him off. “I saw you take a lump on the back of the head. I know you didn’t have anything to do with this.”
“Wait, what’s going on?” Ricky asked from his bed. “How long was I out?”
Stacy was about to answer him, when Jezra rushed into the room, a look I had never seen before on the seer’s face.
“It’s Legion,” Jezra said, staring at us with wide, panicked eyes. “It’s attacking the Orion.”
“What do you mean?” Arun asked.
“There are two of them?” Ricky asked, seeing Jezra for the first time.
“Show us,” Stacy said in a hard voice. It was clear she was far from forgiving Jezra for gassing us.
I felt strangely indifferent toward the old bag. I knew I should be pissed. She gassed me then made me fight two of her robots. I would’ve liked to think she wouldn’t have let me get too messed up in the second fight if I had lost, but who knew? Either way, I only wanted to lay her out a tiny bit at the moment.
Jezra made her way over to a screen on the medical wing wall. She opened the keyboard below it and typed in a command. A moment later, a view of her low-flying satellite showed the Orion. It was dark outside. Jezra clicked a few more commands and heat signatures popped onto the screen in bright red forms.
My heart stopped. There were thousands of them. Larger inhuman animals showed that Legion had infected more than just the survivors. A variety of creatures swelled the ranks of the human survivors.
We watched, spellbound. As one, they moved out of the forest to surround the Orion.
“What are they doing?” Arun asked. “Attacking at night?”
“I feel like they’d be running or sprinting for the gates if they were attacking,” I said. “Remember how that infected rhinoceros thing came at us before? That was an attack. This, this is a—”
“This is a siege,” Stacy said, taking the word out of my mouth.
“Legion will wait on—on what?” Ricky asked, trying to piece the events taking place in front of us together. “He’ll wait until we have to go out? The Orion has plenty of food and water housed inside the craft. They can stay in there for a long time to come.”
“Maybe Legion doesn’t know that?” Stacy offered.
“It knows,” I said. “It’s doing something else.”
“A show of force to decimate morale?” Tong offered. “Maybe this is all to incite fear into the survivors of the Orion.”
“Whatever it is, we have to get back,” I said, trying to sit up from my chair. A wave of dizziness came over me. I would have completely fallen out of my seat if it weren’t for Stacy. She came over to me and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder, pressing me back down.
“We will go and help, but we’re not going to travel at night anyway, and you need to get stitched up,” Stacy said, looking over at Tong. “Tong, can you get Dean put back together? Arun and I will go over the supplies we need to take back with us.”
Stacy paused a moment and looked over to the ever-blinking Jezra. The older Remboshi held her gaze.
“You’ll show us where all the weapons are kept and let us know if Legion makes a move against the Orion,” Stacy instructed, her tone brooking no argument. “Oh, and I want our weapons back.”
Jezra didn’t seem offended to be talked to this way. She nodded and led the other two women out the door.
“Lean back, Dean,” Tong said, going to work on his monitor. Metal arms identical to those that had worked on Ricky moved down from the ceiling. I ignored the pain the needle brought to dull my aching body.
Tong started cleaning my wounds and closing my cuts as Ricky started the line of questioning.
“So there are two of them now?”
“Yeah, Jezra’s the seer that told of the prophecy of us coming,” I said. “She built that mist wall and the creatures in it too.”
“What the—? I didn’t see that coming,” Ricky said.
“None of us did,” I answered.
“And she can see the Orion?” Ricky asked. “How?”
“A low-flying satellite.” I sucked in my breath as Tong closed the wound on my head.
“Sorry, almost done,” Tong said.
“Man, get laid up and miss all the fun,” Ricky said, shaking his head. “I feel good enough to help wherever you need me. Just let me know.”
“As much as I want to get going, Stacy was right,” I said as Tong finished his work and replaced the monitor. “We shouldn’t travel at night, even if Jezra can control those mist monsters. If Legion isn’t attacking the Orion right now, we have some time. I don’t know how much good I’d be in a fight right now.”
“You need food and rest.” Tong jumped to his feet and hurried out of the medical room. He called over his shoulder, “I’ll be right back, just a moment.”
“This place is crazy,” Ricky said with a cough.
“Brother, you have no idea,” I answered. “How much do you remember after getting shot?”
“Just bits and pieces,” Ricky said, shaking his head. “Something like being in the crawler then driving through mists and a pyramid. Then I woke up here with Arun looking after me. I thought I was in heaven.”
“I bet you did,” I said, laughing. I reached a hand to my ribs with a grimace. It seemed the pain meds Tong gave me had their limits. “Don’t make me laugh. It hurts too much.”
“Man, look at us,” Ricky said, shaking his head. “Two mechanics from the slums now side by side in an alien pyramid. What the heck happened?”
“You got me,” I said, letting a long exhale escape my lips. “In all seriousness, you should know Arun seemed pretty twisted up about you. I don’t want to give you any false hope, but—”
“You’re saying I’ve got a chance?” Ricky looked over at me from my left. “Dean, don’t mess with me here. Was she like crying? How worried about me was she exactly?”
“I mean, I didn’t see her cry, but she was worried for sure,” I said.
“Excellent,” Ricky said, his lips curving up to form a dopey smile.
“Here we go.” Tong returned, interrupting our conversation with two huge trays of food. There was no spaghetti-looking, tuna-smelling stuff on this one. Mutt looked up from his place by my reclined chair and licked his chops.
Tong placed a tray on my lap after sitting my chair up, then did the same to Ricky. The one thing I needed more than sleep was food. Ricky and I tore into the meal like savages.
Tong tried to hide a look of wonder, or maybe he was appalled, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t care either. There were some leafy greens on the plate that I ate more because I figured it was good for me than for the actual taste. A thick slab of meat almost tasted like steak if I closed my eyes. There was pudding-like stuff that wasn’t half bad and a pitcher of something that tasted like fruit punch.
All in all, it was a meal fit for a king. By the time I was done with mine, I felt like a new man.
Tong cleared away our trays for us and dimmed the lights.
“Rest now,” Tong said. “After a full night’s sleep and a shower in the morning, both of you will feel so much better. Again, I want to apologize for Jezra’s behavior. So many years awake on her own has twisted her brain into something that does not see properly.”
“It’s not your fault,” I told Tong. “You just keep your eye on her and don’t let her get behind you. We’ll all have her under a microscope from now on.”
“Agreed,” Tong said, exiting the room.
After the alien left, I closed my eyes, ready to pass out into a coma.
Ricky let out a huge burp next to me. “Hey, Dean are you awake?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Oh, good,” he replied. “Can I ask you something?”
“I already told you I think you have a shot with Arun,” I said. “Just ask her out already and you’ll know for sure.”
“Yeah, after we fight back the living virus, get out of this mad mist, and defeat the Rung,” Ricky countered.
“Fair point,” I said.
“But that wasn’t what I was going to ask you,” Ricky said. “Do you think we have a chance of getting out of this alive? You think we’ll ever see Earth again?”
“That’s a big question, brother,” I said. I opened my eyes to the dull light in the room. “I don’t know if we’re ever going to get back to Earth, but I’m sure not going down to Legion or the Rung without a fight.”
“Me either,” Ricky said as if that was exactly what he needed to hear. “I dream about Earth sometimes. You know? Maybe they’re not even dreams sometimes. It’s like if I have my eyes closed for too long, my subconscious just drifts back home. Not like home had any real value. I mean, we lived in the slums in those apartments outside of the yard. Does that make sense at all?”
“I think so,” I said, staring at the ceiling. “I guess we just have to move on. Moving on doesn’t mean forgetting, but we’ll die in the present if we live in the past. That’s a lesson I’m still learning myself. Don’t think I have it all figured out, but maybe Lou and Jezra are rubbing off on me. Maybe there is some kind of plan behind all of this. At least I’d like to think so. Ricky? Rick?”
I looked over to see Ricky’s eyes closed. Steady snores drifted from his mouth.
“We’ll be alright, Rick,” I mumbled as I closed my own eyes. “We’ll be alright.”
It felt like I had only slept for a matter of minutes before someone gently shook my shoulder.
I opened my eyes to see Stacy above me.
“Hey, champ,” she said with a smile, looking down at me. “You think you can stand?”
“Yeah, yeah, is everything okay?” I asked.
“Everything is fine, or as fine as it gets around here,” Stacy said, helping me sit up.
I grimaced at the action. My body felt like one giant bruise.
“How we looking?” I asked. “What time is it?”
“You’ve slept for eight hours,” Stacy said. “This place is filled with everything we would ever need. Things are looking up. I mean, besides not being able to shoot Jezra.”
“I thought for sure you were going to knock her out,” I said with a yawn. “I mean, I almost did.”
“What stopped you?” Stacy asked.
“Probably the same thing that stopped you,” I answered. “In her own twisted way, Jezra was trying to help. There are too few allies on this planet. If she says she’s one now, then we’re not exactly in a position to say no. We need all the weapons we can get our hands on. You saw what Legion is doing. Who knows how long it’ll be content to remain outside the walls.”
“I’ll never forgive her for what she did to you,” Stacy said, going over to wake Ricky. “Showers are down the hall to left.”
“What a minute; you were worried about me?” I asked with an arched eyebrow. “Little old me?”
“Don’t let it go to your head, Slade.” Stacy smirked. “And if you tell anyone this, I’ll deny it all, but you’re starting to grow on me. Maybe it’s that prophecy Jezra told us about or the fact that we’re about to die every turn we make.”
We stood there staring at one another in the dimly lit room. Stacy was easy on the eyes, even if her personality was the exact opposite. Her honey blonde hair was down behind her ears for the moment and her eyes alight with mischievous fire.
“Huh?” Ricky broke the tense moment. “What did I miss? Are we going now?”
“Shower and food if you can walk,” Stacy said, breaking eye contact and helping him into a sitting position.
Ricky’s injury was a lot worse than my own. Sure I’d lost a fair amount of blood, but things like a sore foot, cut lip, or even a laceration on the side of my head paled in comparison to getting shot.
Stacy helped Ricky get to his feet. It was too soon. Ricky stumbled, about to fall before Stacy and I got him back on his feet.
“I’ll get Tong to see if they have a seated shower or maybe he can wipe you off or something,” Stacy said when she saw there was no way Ricky was going to be able to take a shower by himself.
“No alien is going to touch the family jewels,” Ricky said, shaking his head. “I’ll manage somehow. Maybe you can get me in there and I’ll take care of the rest. Unless, Arun—”
“No, Arun’s not going to give you a sponge bath,” Stacy said with an arched eyebrow of her own. “Come on. I’ll help you get in.”
I did what I could helping Ricky get to the shower, which consisted of offering a hand to steady him. Stacy did most of the supporting.
The showers were in a section of Cerberus I hadn’t seen yet. Stall doors lined up along the backside of a tile floor. Like most of the Remboshi installation, everything was white down to the stone-like floor, walls, and ceilings.
Stacy and I helped Ricky into one of these stalls before shutting the door for him. The stalls themselves were spacious, and as luck would have it, came with a seated area as well as a tube-like contraption that looked like a yard hose more than a showerhead.
“I’ll grab you two some towels and clean clothes,” Stacy said after we closed the door to give Ricky some privacy. “I’ll be back in fifteen.”
As Stacy walked out of the room, I took the shower next to Ricky. Like his, there was a square seated area that was made from the same stone as the floor. A hose came off the wall on the opposite side. A series of four buttons were below the hose, which I couldn’t read.
I took off my clothes and hung them on a hook that came out of the wall next to my seat.
“Any idea on what button to press?” Ricky asked from his stall.
“Nope,” I said.
I heard him curse as a spray of water erupted from his hose.
“The left button’s hot,” Ricky announced. “I think the right one is cold. The further we push the buttons in, the more of that kind we get.”
“Got it,” I said, pressing the hot-water button in two-thirds of the way and the cold-water button in just a third. Warm water came out of the hose. I noticed another hook above the hose, so I placed it there and started to clean up.
I didn’t realize how bad I smelled or how dirty I was until the stone floor was stained with dark brown and black streaks of water.
The center two buttons ended up being soap that was introduced into the water stream. I could have stayed there all day. Heck, I could have stayed there all night too.
There was just something about taking a hot, unrushed shower that rejuvenated my mind and body. All in all, I was feeling pretty good for a guy who went two rounds with robots after being chased through the mist by monsters. After my shower, I opened the door to see two piles of clothes and fresh towels.
I toweled off. Hearing Ricky finishing his own shower, I tossed a towel over the edge of his wall, along with his clothes.
“There you go,” I said. “You good? I mean, I don’t really want to help you get dressed or anything, but if you can’t, I can send Mutt in or something.”
“How thoughtful,” Ricky said snarkily. “I’m good. It just might take me a few minutes.”
“I’ll wait,” I said, putting on my own clothes.
The clothes provided were tight-fitting grey bodysuits, much like the ones Tong wore. They were a bit small, but it worked. I wasn’t going to start a new fashion trend or anything, but clean clothes were clean clothes.
Tong came in with a smile on his face and another tray of food.
“For many a time, I waited and prayed for the Great Dawn to arrive and now here he is standing in front of me and wearing the clothing of my own people,” Tong said. “I have brought food so you can eat while you change.”
I started to dig into the breakfast while Ricky slowly made his way from the stall, his wet hair clinging to his pale face. He looked a lot better but still far from a hundred percent. He leaned against the stall door for support.
“Can a guy get a little help around here?” Ricky asked.
Tong and I both jumped forward to help. I grabbed Ricky around the waist on his left. Tong did the same on his right. We guided him down to a bench like rock that rose from the ground.
“Thanks, that’s better,” Ricky said with a heavy sigh. “The pain in my side is killing me. Is that normal?”
“Does it feel like a horrendous aching coming from within?” Tong asked. “Like the very worst bruise you’ve ever had but only inside your innermost being?”
“Yeah, yeah exactly like that.” Ricky winced.
“Yes, that’s normal.” Tong shrugged, handing Ricky something that looked like a sandwich. “It’ll feel better day over day. For the time, just eat and rest.”
“Eat and rest?” Ricky repeated the words as he accepted the sandwich. “I can do that.”
We sat in mostly silence for the second time as we ate our meal. The eating was a bit more relaxed now since we weren’t starving. I had something that looked like fish but tasted like chicken. There was some other spicy mush that reminded me of eggs.
Jezra walked into the washroom holding a clear square glass plate in front of her. She watched the glass like a monitor.
“We should go now,” Jezra said. “We should get to the Orion right away. I feel as though Legion will make its move soon.”
I looked over at Tong and Ricky for their consensus.
“You think you can travel?” I asked Ricky.
“I’ll find a way,” Ricky assured me, grimacing as he stood up.
“Arun and Stacy have loaded the predators with everything we will need,” Jezra said with an approving nod. “We are ready to depart as soon as we equip you with your enhanced body armor.”
“Enhanced body armor?” I said, looking over at Tong.
Tong beamed with pride. “You didn’t think we would send the Children of the Dawn into a battle without being prepared, did you?”
“Yeah, kinda,” Ricky said, looking down at his skintight clothing. “I thought we were just going to wear our old body armor over these onesies.”
“I was up all night with Jezra preparing your combat armor,” Tong said, clapping his hands with glee. “Come, come. I can’t wait to show you.”
I grabbed one more handful of the chicken stuff and headed out the door with the others. Ricky was putting on his best face, but Tong and I helped him along.
Lucky for us, we didn’t have to go far. Jezra led us to the same room we were in when we first arrived with the crawler. The main cargo room was massive with the impressive vehicles he’d called predators on one side and the crates of gear on the other.
Two things were different from the first time I saw the room. Three of the predators now had flatbed hitches behind them, each one loaded with a series of crates I assumed were weapons and gear. And there were suits of futuristic armor waiting for us on the side of the cargo hold where the crates sat. Stacy and Arun were already busy placing theirs over their legs and torsos.
The armor looked vastly different than our own. It was white with a kind of scaly fabric under the thinner joint portions.
Jezra wasted no time in pointing out how the armor was made.
“The outer shell of the armor is much like your own.” Jezra pointed out the areas over the shoulders, chest, and abdomen. “Where the Remboshi armor differs is the scaled fabric we use underneath. We have created a means of dispersing any impact over a larger distance by something we call liquid armor. It looks like scales, but as you’ll see, it is quite different.”
I left Ricky in Tong’s care as I went over and examined the suit. Jezra was right. The body armor was a bit heavier than our own, but there was no weak point where our joints met, like our shoulders or hips.
The white scales weren’t soft, but they weren’t metal either. They were like super tough rubber that didn’t give.
“They will stop a Rung round,” Tong explained. “A round from one of your own weapons, I cannot be sure of.”
“Fancy, right?” Stacy said, showing me her helmet. It was smaller than our own with two large spaces to look out the eyes. A dark visor gave us protection with no nose opening while two vents near the jawline would allow us to breathe.
“I can get behind this,” I said, looking over to Jezra. “Could have used one of these when I was going through your tribunal test yesterday.”
“Yes, well, today is a new day.” Jezra shrugged off the comment, pointing to the right side of the chest plate. “Do you recognize this?”
“How could I not?” I said. It was the same symbol as on my medallion. The two blades facing away from one another. A single blade in the middle with a circle around it.
“The symbol of the Great Dawn,” Jezra said in a hushed breath of reverence.
“How about weapons?” Ricky asked. He was managing to stand under his own power, but Arun still helped him put on his armor.
I bet he was loving that.
“I thought you’d never ask,” Stacy said, going over to one of the many open crates. “Check this baby out.”
Stacy leaned down to reach inside the green case and came back with what looked like some kind of heavy handgun. The barrel was short, the grip meant to be wielded with one hand. The clip that came down off the weapon looked almost comically long.
“It fires the same steel rounds as the weapon that wounded Ricky,” Tong explained. “It’s a reliable firearm. In your tongue, it would be called a judge.”
“I like the sound of that.” Ricky grinned from where he sat.
“Wait until you see what’s in this box.” Stacy nodded over to another crate by her feet with a wide grin. “Christmas came early.”
The way Stacy wiggled her eyebrows, I knew it was great for us and bad news for Legion. I followed her over to the open container and peered inside to see a row of what looked like heavy knife handles with no blades.
The black handles were large enough to be held in either a single or a two-handed grip. Stacy leaned down and picked one up.
“These are special,” Stacy said with a twinkle in her eye. “Stand back.”
I obeyed without question, noticing the almost manic gleam in her eyes.
She held the weapon in her right hand. There were two buttons near her thumb and she pressed one, sending a series of smaller metal pieces out from the handle to form the shape of a long knife.
I closed my mouth so it wouldn’t hit the floor.
“Wait, there’s more,” Stacy said, clearly enjoying my stunned expression. She hit the other button on the blade, and another series of metal pieces unfolded from the handle, making the blade three times as long. Stacy held a sword in her hand now.
“The ray is something we are very proud of,” Tong said with a wide smile. “It was in development for years. Easy to store and handy whether you require a knife or something larger.”
“I’ll take two,” I said, reaching into the container and grabbing a pair. They felt good in my hands. Who was I kidding? They felt great.
I wasn’t traditionally trained with weapons, but any kind of short blade I could use as an extension of my fists worked for me.
The next few minutes were spent putting on our armor, grabbing whatever weapons we wanted, and loading the rest into the predators.
“You know, for an advanced, rather peaceful race, you sure have a lot of aggressive names for your weapons,” I said to Tong as we loaded a green crate of what looked like grenades into the back of one of the predators.
“What do you mean?” Tong asked.
I nodded over to the heavy machine guns mounted on the rear of the predators, the ones peeking over the driver and passenger side seats. “What do you call that bad boy?”
“The Blood Shot 2000,” Tong said, catching my meaning. “Oh, I see your point. I never thought about it like that.”
“Let’s load up,” Arun said, helping Ricky into the passenger seat of one of the predators.
Jezra shuffled into the cargo bay. She wore her own white scaled armor with the same white robe trailing behind her. In her hands, she held the clear glass square. From my vantage point, it looked like she was staring down at a clear piece of glass.
When she came closer, I could see she was looking at an image on her side. It was the same image of the Orion. Legion had surrounded the walls with a number that easily doubled our own.
Legion had been busy picking off the survivors before we could save them.
A variety of animals showed as well in the morning sun. There were the large rhinoceros creatures and a series of the long centipede snake animals I had run across in the jungle before, along with more nightmarish creatures I hadn’t yet seen.
As far as I could tell, Legion still wasn’t making a move, nor was the Orion firing on Legion. If words were being exchanged at all, we weren’t able to hear them. The Remboshi’s low-flying satellite was only able to see images at great distance.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked Jezra as she waited by my side.
“I’m traveling with you,” Jezra said, patting my butt like she was my coach in some kind of game. “Come now. We have no time to spare.”
I jolted at the unexpected action.
I traded looks with Stacy, who was busting up with laughter.
“You heard the woman,” Stacy said, jumping into the driver’s side seat of her own predator. “Buckle up, buttercup. It’s going to get bumpy.”
With Arun and Ricky traveling together, Stacy and Tong each drove a separate vehicle. Mutt jumped in the back of mine with Jezra in the passenger side seat.
It felt wrong somehow leaving so much behind. There were still another eight predators lined up against the wall with enough armor and weapons to make at least two more full trips using all of them. Our beat-up crawler that had been through so much with us now sat quiet next to the predators.
In comparison to the shiny new combat vehicles, the crawler looked like an old heavyweight fighter with a gut and past his prime.
Jezra leaned forward in her seat, flipping a few dials and turning buttons on the predator dashboard in front of us. I had no idea what she was doing, and most of me didn’t even want to know.
I busied myself putting on my helmet and adjusting the straps on my seat belt. Unlike the crawler, the predator had an open T-shaped roof. The harness was different as well. A V-shaped strap came over my chest and buckled into another harness near my crotch.
The security feature was snug without being suffocating. The helmet I wore was strangely comfortable with cool air being let in through the two vents near my mouth.
Jezra’s voice filled a comm unit in my helmet a moment later.
“There is no need of helmets now,” Jezra said, speaking into the predator’s dash. “The sawg will not harm us. Also, communication will be available through the predators.”
I looked at the Remboshi beside me. She placed her helmet between her feet and busied herself with the glass screen.
“Dean and I will take the lead,” Jezra continued. “The sawg will not harm you. You will be able to pass unhindered. I’ll also alleviate the mist around us. Stay close and we will be fine.”
“As soon as we get underway, I want to know how you created the mist as well as the sawg,” Arun said via the communication device in the dashboard of her predator.
“I will tell you as soon as we get underway,” Jezra agreed.
Jezra pointed to a button next to a steering wheel that looked like a sideways X.
I pressed the button and felt the engine roar to life. It ran heavy and throaty. I liked it.
“There are depressors on the right side of the steering wheel to go forward and on the left to stop,” Jezra explained. “Press the right one by your fingers gently.”
Ignoring her, I gunned that sucker, sending Jezra and myself both into the back of the seats. Mutt got low really quick. The predators zoomed toward the closed door of the cargo area.
“Wait, wait!” Jezra screamed. “I have to open the cargo bay doors!”
“Well, you better hurry, then!” I said to her. I knew it was kind of a jerk move, but she had just stood by and watched a pair of robots kick the crap out of me. Getting back at her felt good. It was the little things in life.
Jezra managed to compose herself long enough to press a few buttons on her glass pad. The cargo bay door slid up into the roof just in time for us to snake underneath.
“I guess I deserved that,” Jezra said with a slight pout. “I am sorry. The tribunal had to be done.”
“Meh.” I shrugged. “I’m not exactly going to celebrate being gassed and tested, but I get it. In a weird twisted way, I get it.”
This brought a smile to Jezra’s face.
She looked down at her glass pad one more time to touch a series of buttons.
We exited Cerberus in a long column, four predators outfitted with trailers full of equipment behind us.
We edged toward the mist, crossing the dark rich soil that existed between the pyramid and the fog wall.
“Give me just a moment,” Jezra said. “Mist is dissipating now and the sawg will leave us be.”
“Okay, story time,” Stacy said over the vehicle’s comms. “How do you control the mist and these sawg things?”
“And why did you let the sawg kill survivors when Orion escape crafts landed on Genesis?” Arun added.
We all waited to hear what crazy story Jezra was about to tell us. She didn’t disappoint.
“I awoke from my hyper sleep sixty-eight years ago to a new vision of our future. I knew what I had to do. I needed to prepare the defense of the Cerberus Installation and monitor for your arrival,” Jezra began. “The sawg are large peaceful creatures that survive in the ocean of our planet. I saw them as protectors of our people and of the Cerberus Installation. I began experiments on them, testing and manipulating their DNA until they grew both in size and in their confidence in traveling over land. Traditionally, sawg prefer living in the water, not the marsh land.”
Jezra told her story as the mist in front of us evaporated. It was my first good look at what we were traveling through. Muddy fields continued out in front of me as far as the eye could see. Random green shrubbery bushes and dead trees dotted the landscape, breaking up the monotony of the dark muck and mud.
“I soon learned sawg were no different than many animals,” Jezra explained. “I spent decades training them until they were as docile as Mutt. I fed them like pets and worked out a high-frequency system of commands to call them when I needed them. It helped that the creatures are naturally territorial animals. They protected the area around Cerberus.”
“Protected you from what?” I asked. “I thought Legion didn’t gain power until we landed. The Rung were asleep as well, weren’t they?”
“The Rung retreated when they realized they could not defeat Legion,” Jezra explained. “However, they did not go into hyper-sleep like we had. They hunkered down in their own cities. Over the years, they have sent scouting teams over the mountain range to see if we were still here and to check on Legion’s power. They have tried to take the Cerberus Installation on two occasions. Both times, the sawg have turned them back.”
“And the mist?” Stacy asked over the comms. “What about the mist? How do you control that?”
“Vents in the ground,” Jezra explained. “The Cerberus Installation was equipped with vents as well as escape tunnels should the installation ever become overrun. I’ve used both as a means to pump a massive amount of mists into the area surrounding the installation. With a series of chemicals mixed with the mist, I was able to compound the outcome by one thousand-fold, creating what you traveled through on the way here.”
Jezra went on telling us her story. My mind wandered to how much work went into the woman’s task of protecting the installation. I couldn’t imagine being alone for so any years. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t exactly a social butterfly, but being completely cut off from everything? That was a reality I didn’t want to have to comprehend.
A low bellow broke into my thoughts, coming from somewhere on our left. I swung my head in that direction and stared.
I knew what I was seeing wasn’t an elephant. I knew that in the back of my head, but the creature I saw approaching us sure as heck looked like one. It was massive, dwarfing even the rhino-like creatures we had already come across during our stay here on Genesis.
The beast lumbered slowly toward us on four massive legs. Each of its limbs was easily the width of any tree trunk I had seen in my stay here. The height of the juggernaut had to be at least three stories tall. Massive ears fell from its head, paired with a thick trunk and a pair of tentacles that fell from either side of its mouth. These appendages dragged on the ground, occasionally slithering up to sway in the air around it.
Its skin looked thick, like weathered leather. I saw one first then another and another. A herd of the creatures moved our way, not threatening in the least. They actually looked curious to see us.
“Son of a Remboshi,” Ricky breathed in awe. “That’s what’s been in the mist this entire time?”
“Yes, the sawg are vegetarians by nature,” Jezra informed us with an easy smile. “They spend most of their time digging through the marsh for plants with their tentacles. They are also great swimmers and have the ability to sense movement in the mist.”
“And why did you allow them to kill innocent colonists when we landed?” Arun asked with a hard tone in her voice. “Why didn’t you call them off? We have reports of at least one ship being attacked in the mist.”
“I was away from the control station when your ship landed on Genesis,” Jezra said with regret. “I received the warning there were ships landing. By the time I was able to see with my own eyes what our low-flying satellite had brought in, it was too late. I called the sawg off, but not until they had taken many survivors. Apologizing won’t help them now. I understand that, but I am sorry.”
Jezra continued to tell us about the events surrounding our crash, but my attention was wrapped onto the gigantic alien animals beside me. I didn’t have words to put behind my thoughts. I was completely dumbfounded. The creatures weren’t just moving mountains, they were amazing animals.
It was all I could do to keep my attention on the heading Jezra gave me out of the mist lands.
“You said the Rung tried to gain entry into the Cerberus Installation twice before?” Tong asked, intrigued.
“Yes,” Jezra explained. “They were turned back both times. They never sent a full force to try and penetrate the mist lands. The first time, they sent a scouting party of four; the next, a group of a dozen. Both times, the sawg turned them back. They never bothered me again.”
Everyone fell silent, digesting the information Jezra had given us. At the same time, our eyes couldn’t leave the colossal alien animals to our left.
“I will once again activate the mist when we are through,” Jezra informed us. “The sawg will see that the Cerberus Installation is protected while we are gone.”
Jezra started humming quietly to herself. It was a tune I felt like I had heard before. Something low and soft, almost soothing.
We traveled in silence the rest of the way through the mist lands. I focused on the road ahead of me and the plan of action we would need to put in place once we reached the Orion.
It was highly unlikely Legion was just going to let us through. We would have to bulldoze our way through alien creatures and bodies of infected colonists. Hopefully, we would be within communication distance with the Orion to form some kind of plan before Legion saw us approach.
There was still the unanswered question of Maksim running around unchecked as well as the roving Rung. Who knew how far they traveled past the mountain range? Who knew how many they numbered now?
We made good time through the marsh. It was strange to think how peaceful and calm the place was now with the absence of the mist or fog. I almost liked it. It was the most uneventful trip we had had yet.
Soon the swamp grounds gave way to harder terrain. Live trees began to form around us, signaling our exit from the marsh and our entrance to the forest to the south of the Orion.
Jezra’s fingers flew over her glass control panel.
I could only assume she was activating the mist once more. She maneuvered her finger deftly over the glass plate in front of her, bringing up a view of the Orion once again.
“We can be sure that Legion will know we are coming,” Jezra said with a click of her tongue. “It has eyes everywhere. The more beings it consumes, the smarter it becomes.”
“And there’s no way of reversing it?” I asked. “I mean, instead of killing all of these people, is there a way to pull Legion out of them? Or even kill the virus?”
“Not one that we know of, but that does not mean the way does not exist,” Jezra answered. “We may yet find a way to kill the virus without harming the host. Perhaps with the artificial intelligence aboard the Orion, we will be able to come up with a plan.”
“If there is a way Iris will be able to find it,” I said with hope I didn’t necessarily feel. Something told me the end of Legion would be through violence, not a vaccine. “When the Rung first created Legion and it got out of control, what tactics did you try?”
“We searched for a cure, tried to fight it in an all-out war, even tried speaking with it.” Jezra swallowed hard as the events of those days played back through her mind. “There was no escape from it. Legion has one goal, like any symbiotic virus: to spread and consume.”
“We’ll find a way to beat him,” I said.
“I know you will,” Jezra said with sad eyes. “I know you will because I’ve already seen you do it. You are a champion, Dean. You are a protector.”
“I don’t know about all that,” I said, shrugging off her compliment. “I’m just a guy trying to survive.”
“Still, I have faith in you,” Jezra said with unblinking eyes.
“I’ve really got to introduce you to this guy I know back on the Orion,” I said, thinking of Lou. “You two are going to get along great.”
“We should keep our eyes open,” Arun’s voice sounded over our dashboard speakers. “We’re going to go through the same area where we came across Dean and Maksim. Who knows if he’s still here or if Legion is still in the area.”
We traveled through the forest watching for any sign of them. The trees helped block out the hot twin suns overhead. Every time we passed a shadow or a tree branch moving in the gentle breeze, I looked closer.
My senses were on high alert. I didn’t think Maksim would be bold enough to attack all of us, but if Legion was still in the area, well, who knew what it would do.
We traveled on the overgrown road with bushes and trees pressing in on us from both sides.
“There are no animals,” Stacy observed. “Like when we first landed. That first night. There were no animal noises.”
She was right. An eerie silence covered the forest floor. The air was thick and hot, with even the breeze coming in warm.
Our scale armor was equipped with an internal temperature gauge, and for that, I was thankful. Despite the armor’s best attempts, a line of sweat gathered at my brow.
“We should stop soon,” Tong warned us after another hour of traveling through the forest. “The Orion is going to be in front of us soon. We need a plan.”
“To have a plan, we need to coordinate with the Orion,” Stacy said. “Maybe we pull off the road and two of us go by foot until we can get a signal and word to Elon and Iris.”
“I think that’s a great idea,” Arun answered. “I’ll g—”
“I’ll go,” I said, cutting Arun off before she could volunteer.
“Great, Dean and I will go on foot to see with our own eyes what’s happening and establish communication with the Orion,” Stacy said.
I heard Arun mutter something, but she didn’t argue. The simple fact was that I was expendable. Arun and Elon were our leaders as far as I was concerned. In chess, you protected the king and queen. As menacing as the queen might be, she was your best chance of winning.
We pulled off the overgrown dirt road in a clearing to the right. I could see the edge of the Orion poking out beyond the trees. We were close.
Everyone hopped out of the predators to stretch or grab a bite to eat. We all met in a circle, checking our gear. Stacy was decked out like some kind of super soldier with a judge on her right hip, and a ray blade on her left. She even removed one of the heavy bloodshot machine guns from the turret in the rear of her predator.
She muscled the thing over, placing the barrel over her shoulder.
I gave her a quizzical look.
“What?” she asked. “I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”
“Hey, you do you,” I told her, grabbing a pair of ray blades as well as one of the judges. I rounded out my gear with a Farsight.
“Don’t go far,” Arun ordered us. “Just as far as you need to see and establish communication.”
“You got it,” I said, already heading for the Orion.
Stacy and Arun exchanged a few words I couldn’t hear. I didn’t mind. I made sure my helmet was clipped to my belt with the magnetic hold and moved forward.
Mutt trotted beside me.
I let him come. He was well-behaved and I didn’t think he’d make a run for the Orion if he saw the infected.
Stacy caught up to me a minute later. She trotted along, carrying the Blood Shot like it was a sack of groceries over her shoulder. The chick was stronger than she looked. I liked that about her.
“Everything okay back there?” I asked.
“Yeah, Arun just gave me instructions on what to tell the Orion, depending on what they say to us,” Stacy said, shrugging her shoulder in her scale armor. “Let’s get eyes on the Orion first and then see if we can talk with Elon or Iris.”
“Let’s do it,” I said.
Together, we wound our way through the forest, heading for a short hill that rose half a kilometer in front of us.
“There,” Stacy said, pointing. “If we get to the top of that hill, I bet we can see what’s going on.”
We jogged together the rest of the way. I was going to offer to carry the blood shot for her, but she didn’t look like she was struggling at all. Mutt loped beside us with his pink tongue hanging out the side of his mouth.
In no time, we were climbing the sloping hill. At the top, we went down to our hands and knees and then our bellies in an army crawl. We chose a spot between two lush trees and peeked out from beneath the branches.
The scene in front of us seized my gut. The view from Jezra’s low-flying satellite had been deceiving. A horde of infected survivors completely surrounded the Orion. I was bad at guessing at these things, but there had to be twice, maybe even three times the number of our own survivors inside the wall. Added to that were the alien creatures Legion infected.
“Can you read us, this is the Orion.” Iris’ familiar voice sounded in the comm units inside of our earpieces. “We need help. Can you hear us?”
“Iris, this is Stacy,” Stacy responded. “Iris, can you hear me?”
“Yes, Stacy, it’s good to hear your voice,” Iris said. “I’ve been running this message on a loop in all frequencies trying to reach you. Where are you now?”
“We’re close, just to the border of the forest to the south,” Stacy answered. “We’ve brought supplies and vehicles, but I’m not sure how we’re going to get them to you. Has Legion made a move? Any move at all?”
“Yes, Legion has given us an ultimatum with twenty-four hours to decide—either we join him or die,” Iris said. “I’m patching Elon into the line now.”
“Stacy, is that you?” Elon asked.
“Yes, Dean and I are here,” Stacy answered.
“Thank goodness. We’re overdue for some good news.” Elon breathed a sigh of relief. “Is everyone okay? What did you find out?”
“We found the second expeditionary unit. They’re dead,” Stacy said. “We ran into the Rung and ran. Next we found the installation Tong told us about. We have gear and weapons to arm a small army, but we have to get to you first. As soon as we show up, Legion’s going to be on us.”
“We have vehicles, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to punch a hole through those rhino animals,” I said. “Ideas?”
The channel was silent on both ends as we all tried to think of something.
“We just have to figure out a way to neutralize those rhinos,” I said, thinking out loud. “The humans and those centipede things won’t be able to stop one of our vehicles. They aren’t big enough.”
“We could try at night,” Iris suggested. “Perhaps under the cover of darkness, you’d have a better chance of making it to the gates before the larger creatures reached you.”
“That night work,” Stacy said through her teeth. “I wish we had a better option than a maybe. What’s to say those things can’t see just as well during the night as the day. Or if Legion can see through all their eyes, maybe darkness isn’t that great of an ally either.”
“We need something big to bulldoze through them and clear the way,” I suggested. “We need a battering ram or a—we need a sawg.”
“A what?” Elon asked.
“Dean, I think you got hit too many times in the head,” Stacy said.
“No, no, hear me out,” I said, excitement starting to edge into my words as I bought into my own wild idea. “Jezra said she can control them, right, like pets or the way we give Mutt an order. Why wouldn’t she be able to call one here and send it out in front of us to clear the way? I mean, those things were three maybe four times the size of the rhinos.”
“Hold on,” Elon said, confused. “Who is Jezra and what’s a sawg?”
“Jezra is another Remboshi we found at Tong’s installation,” Stacy explained as she worked my crazy idea through her mind. “The sawg is a massive alien animal in the mist land she controls.”
“It’ll work,” I said, looking at the place of the suns in the sky. “We can get it here as the suns go down, then send it in, in front of us while the suns are in Legion’s eyes. It’ll work.”
“I’m not going to pretend I understand it all, but it’s the best thing we’ve got at the moment,” Elon said. “What does Arun think about it?”
“We’ll get her on board,” I said. “Trust me.”
Everyone on the channel groaned.
“Come on, when have I been wrong?” I asked.
“How much time do you have?” Stacy asked with a smirk. “We’ll be in touch, Elon and Iris, let us get things set on our end.”
“Understood,” Elon said. “In the meantime, we have all our weapons on the walls. “We can give you some cover when you make your move.”
Stacy and I wiggled on our bellies back into the cover of the forest. Mutt followed as we got up and jogged back to the others.
“You think this is really going to work?” Stacy asked in between breaths.
“Why not?” I asked. “The sawg are big enough to get here soon if they come now. Jezra said she can control them.”
We saved our breath for running as we made it back to those waiting. I let Stacy give everyone the update, finishing with, “And Dean had an idea of how to get through.”
I told them my plan in detail, watching their faces when I finished. Everyone stood silent. Even Jezra just stared at me opened-mouthed, blinking through her thick goggle-like glasses. Tong’s tail swished side to side optimistically. He seemed like the only one already bought in.
“Will it work?” Arun asked Jezra. “Will the sawg obey you at that level of detail?”
Jezra was quiet, as if she were weighing the odds.
“Oh come on,” I said, interrupting the tense silence. “You’re always telling me to have faith. You’re the one that has all these visions. I’m the last guy to have faith in anything, but maybe, just maybe, I’m the right guy to be crazy enough to do this. I see a way inside our walls. I say we take it.”
“The sawg have never been outside of the mist land,” Jezra said slowly with a grin. “I know they will come. Getting them back may be easier than we anticipate. They are creatures of habit. They will hear the signal if I send it. I made sure the range would reach out a great distance. I have faith.”
I looked over to the others. Ricky was grinning from ear to ear. Tong nodded excitedly. It was Stacy and Arun I would have to convince.
“What’s to keep the sawg from tearing down our walls?” Arun asked.
“Or accidentally trampling us in the process?” Stacy added.
“I’ll lead them in a predator right into Legion,” I answered. “Once we’re in, I’ll turn off the signal, letting them go back to the mist land.”
“And they’ll just return home?” Arun looked over to Jezra for a consensus.
“If they do not, then we can always lead them back using the same signal to call them,” Jezra suggested. “They know me. I do not think they would attack your walls if they saw me on top of them.”
We all waited to hear what Arun would say.
Stacy shook her head like she didn’t like the idea.
“Stacy, let Elon know what we’re going to do. Have them ready to open the gates,” Arun said.
“Arun?” Stacy asked like she was about to argue.
“We’re not going to be able to get through on our own,” Arun told her. “Do it.”
Stacy didn’t seem excited, but she walked back the way we came to get a signal through to Elon and Iris.
“How long until the sawg can get here?” Arun asked Jezra.
“The beasts are surprisingly swift over land if they have a desire to get somewhere,” Jezra looked down on her glass pad. “I’m sending out the signal now that will call them. They’ll be here in a few hours. I should be able to track their progress with the low-flying satellite.”
“So we have a few hours to prepare,” Ricky said.
That was exactly what we did. We ate, hydrated, and rested while our giant escorts traveled toward us. Jezra was right. We were able to track the sawg as they lumbered toward us. There were half a dozen of the massive creatures. Four looked as though they were full grown, and two were adolescents.
While we waited for them, we hatched our plan.
“Elon and the colonists inside the wall will open the gates for us when they see us coming and provide whatever fire support they can to cover us,” Stacy informed us. “I told them not to shoot the sawg.”
“I’ll take the first predator with Jezra’s glass table,” I volunteered. “As soon as you’re in, I’ll switch off the signal and get into the gates myself.”
“I should take the tablet,” Stacy said. “I remember how you drive. Did you think we forgot about that head-to-head collision with the rhino?”
“I did that on purpose,” I said indignantly.
“Uh huh,” Stacy said.
“I’m taking the signal,” Arun said, silencing us both.
“Arun.” Ricky shook his head, starting to protest.
“This,” Arun said, taking in the landscape of the planet around us. “All of this is my doing. Elon and I were in charge of the Orion. We crashed and now we are surviving. This is on me.”
“The crash wasn’t your fault,” Ricky said. “You can’t blame yourself for lunatic Disciples willing to blow themselves up to bring it down.”
“I don’t blame myself for the Orion being blown out of space.” Arun clenched her jaw. “I blame myself for not stopping it. That is on me. I’m doing this now. I’m leading the sawg. End of discussion.”
I knew enough about Arun to know that look in her eyes meant business. She was going to take the lead on this one no matter what the rest of us said.
I stood silent as Ricky and Stacy tried to argue with her. Like I thought, it was no use. The Eternal wouldn’t be swayed. This one was her fight.
When Ricky and Stacy couldn’t get through to her, Arun looked at me. “Are going to try to convince me you should be the one to do this?”
“Would it help?” I asked.
“Not in the least,” Arun answered.
“Well, there you go,” I said.
The suns began to lower past the horizon as we prepared the predators to move. Jezra showed Arun how the glass pad worked and gave her instructions on how to turn off the soundwave calling the sawg.
Tong, Stacy, and I unhitched the trailer from the predator Arun would take to make it lighter. We placed it on one of the other three predators. It was decided Ricky would drive the predator with the dual trailers in the middle of my and Stacy’s vehicles.
Jezra would drive the predator with Stacy manning the weapon, followed by Ricky. Tong and I would bring up the rear with me as the gunner. Arun would be on her own, leading the herd of sawg in front of us.
“We should prepare ourselves,” Jezra said, looking down at the glass pad one more time before handing it off to Arun. “We’ll be able to hear them anytime now.”
“Helmets on for this one,” Tong reminded us. “There is a night vision feature in them if you require it.”
“I’ll see you inside the wall,” I meant to say to everyone, but my eyes found Stacy.
“Not if I see you first.” Stacy winked at me.
“Be safe, everyone,” Arun said. “Don’t take any unnecessary risks.”
Ricky and the others looked like they were going to chime in but they were stopped when the ground started to shake.
Earthquake? Or I guess Genesisquake? I thought to myself for a split second. No, Sawgquake.
“In the predators!” Arun shouted. “Let’s go, let’s go!”
I jumped into the back of the predator last in line. Tong secured his helmet and entered the driver seat.
The ground was practically rolling now. I fumbled with my own helmet, barely managing to secure it on my head. It wasn’t dark enough to use the night vision mode just yet. The twin suns still showed half of their brilliant orange and yellow over the tops of the forest trees.
All the predators were lined up to the right of the path. Last in line, I had the perfect vantage point to look behind me at the charging behemoths.
The sawg didn’t care about crashing into trees or even staying on the path. Along with the ground shaking under their mighty feet, cracks from trees splintering filled the air.
These trees weren’t saplings either. Thick, full-grown forest trees were nothing more than speed bumps to the creatures lumbering toward us. That deep wail came with them now, not of sadness but excitement this time.
My peripheral vision caught Arun’s predator speeding off the side of the road to get in front of the herd and lead them into Legion. I couldn’t bring myself to look away from the beasts. They were passing mere meters to my left. With one false step or a macabre thought, they could crush me with a single stomp of their massive legs. Heck, not just me; they could crush half the predator if they wanted.
It seemed like Jezra head been correct. They didn’t care about us or seem to give us a second thought. They were solely focused on Arun and the high-pitched frequency we couldn’t hear.
They passed us in a rush, sending the predator rocking back and forth. I had to bend my knees and grab on to the hand grips of the blood shot mounted on the rear of the vehicle.
“Let’s go!” Stacy shouted as Jezra gunned their predator to life. She maneuvered their vehicle back onto the road, right behind the sawg. Ricky followed and Tong was right behind him.
I adjusted my grip on the weapon in front of me, making sure to keep my thumbs off the buttons. I gripped the two handles that ran up and down for support. Button depressors rested by both my thumbs. The Blood Shot was on a turret, allowing me to move the barrel of the weapon right and left, up and down, and a V-shaped sight rested on the end of the barrel.
“Short bursts will work best on the blood shots,” Tong yelled into the comm unit in our helmets. “The ammunition container holds a thousand rounds. You shouldn’t need more.”
I filed this information into my data banks. I was too concentrated on staying upright and working on calming my breathing to answer. My heart hammered in my chest. The familiar feeling of adrenaline came fast and easy.
My senses were at an all-time high as we barreled through the darkening forest. In a few minutes, we were through and on the plain headed toward the Orion itself.
Communication with the Orion kicked in at the same time.
“We see you!” Elon shouted through the comms. “My stars! Those creatures were in the mist?!”
The chatter over the channel was something I ignored for the time being. My focus was on Legion. I always got the creeps when the symbiotic virus moved its infected as one body.
Right now, every infected human or creature swung its head, looking at us in awe. I had to admit I didn’t blame it. It must have been terrifying to witness Arun barreling toward them like a battering ram with a herd of sawg behind her and three more assault vehicles behind them.
Arun was still a good kilometer away when Legion finally moved into action. It didn’t react like we thought, sending the infected rhinos after us first. It moved everything to intercept Arun.
Thousands of infected humans along with the rhinos and the centipede creatures made a rush for Arun’s predator.
“Arun, kill the sawg signal!” Stacy screamed. “Pull back!”
I knew Arun wasn’t going to obey the command in the slightest. I’d seen her eyes. She still blamed herself for the Orion. She was ready to sacrifice everything if it meant getting these supplies into the gates.
“Arun, don’t!” Ricky yelled.
“Take care of each other!” Arun yelled.
Arun’s predator slammed into the front line of Legion’s infected like a rocket. I couldn’t see much since we had the view of sawg butts in front of us, but one second she was there, the next her predator was swarming with infected both under and on top of the vehicle.
“No!” Elon and Ricky screamed. Stacy’s voice was somewhere in there as well. Hers was more of a roar of rage than a scream of sorrow.
The mass of infected beings struck the sawg next. Unlike the predator, Legion wasn’t able to take down the massive beasts.
The sawg created a lane for us, just like we thought they would. Bellowing their war cries, the sawg waded into the infected. They swung the tentacles coming from the sides of their mouths from side to side, sending infected humans and animals flying through the air.
Even the large rhino-like aliens had no chance. The sawg hammered into them, sending them reeling. Enormous sawg legs crushed anything that got in their way.
The next thing I knew, we were traveling through the opening created by the giant beasts.
Stacy opened fire first. Her weapon sounded nothing like our own or even the weapons the Rung used when they ambushed us. The sound the blood shot made was one of its own.
Her weapon discharged, sending metal cylinders into those Legion controlled. Although the sawg cleared a path for us, that lane was quickly closing as Legion sent in even more infected after us.
“We have to get her,” Ricky screamed over the comms. “We can’t leave Arun out here.”
A moment later, I was within firing distance of the infected. I aimed down the sights, pressing both thumb buttons as I locked on to a group of infected centipede creatures crawling toward us on a hundred tiny legs.
The blood shot went off, sending shockwaves through my arms and into my chest. If Arun wasn’t in trouble and the hour so dire, I would have enjoyed firing the weapon.
I was the first to admit I wasn’t the best with a blaster, but the weapon took away a lot of the guesswork. I tore into the centipedes without remorse. The steel bolts penetrated their thick hide, sending up a shower of gore and blood.
I tracked my rounds, keeping those infected dumb enough to come for me at bay.
I cleared one side then swung the blood shot over to the other and swept that side. We were making amazing progress amongst the bulk of the horde.
The sawg peeled off, going in their own direction away from the wall. Arun’s signal had gone down with her.
The defenders inside the Orion swung the gates open. A firing team led by Boss Creed and JB formed a line at the entrance to the wall and let loose on Legion with a hose of red blaster rounds.
We were going to make it. The entrance to the wall was less than a click away.
I knew he was going to do it before everyone else.
“Ricky! What are you doing?” Stacy yelled over the comms.
“I’m not going back without Arun!” Ricky yelled.
I looked up from firing on a group of infected that approached from our right flank. Ricky kept his predator on a direct line to where Arun’s had gone down. He never deviated to go for the safety of the wall for a moment.
“Cover him!” Stacy ordered.
I was already on it. Tong followed Ricky toward Arun’s downed predator without hesitation. Jezra circled Stacy’s predator around.
Arun’s predator was on its left side. A mound of infected scurried over it like a colony of ants over some kind of larger bug.
Stacy sprayed Arun’s predator with weapon fire.
I didn’t trust myself to shoot into the mess and not hit Arun by accident.
Tong pulled our predator beside Ricky’s as he struggled to get down out of the driver seat. Still wounded, he moved slowly.
“Rick!” I yelled, jumping down from my Blood Shot and running toward him. “Ricky, I’ll get her. I have a better shot.”
Ricky pulled away from me like a man possessed. He stumbled toward the downed predator. I grabbed on tighter, forcing him back toward the predator I had dismounted.
“Ricky!” I screamed into his face. I slammed my helmet into his to get him to focus on me. “Rick, trust me. I have a better shot of wading in there and getting her. Think about it. You cover me from the blood shot on the back of Tong’s predator. You’re the better shot. Be smart!”
“You bring her back!” Ricky yelled right back into my helmet. “You bring her back, Dean. You promise me!”
I didn’t know if she was even alive in there, but I knew what Ricky needed to hear if we were going to live through the next few minutes. Stacy and the rest of the survivors from the wall were doing a great job keeping the infected off us, but it wasn’t going to last forever.
“I’ll get her,” I said, shoving Ricky back toward Tong’s waiting predator. “Get the blood shot up and keep them off me!”
I didn’t wait for an answer. I waded into the infected around Arun’s upturned predator. There were bodies everywhere, both human and alien animals. Hands grabbed for me from infected pinned beneath the predator.
I shook them off and searched for any sign of Arun. All around me weapon fire erupted. Both red laser fire from those inside the colony as well as the blood shot’s rounds rained down on my position.
I heard the rhythmic dat-dat-dat of a second weapon. Ricky had gotten the other Blood Shot up. I had one shot of getting out of this alive, but I had to be quick. I couldn’t let myself get overrun.
Infected grabbed on to my helmet, arms, and legs as I searched for Arun in the mound of twisted metal and bodies. My movements were quick and violent. I struck out with brutal accuracy at Legion as it tried to bring me down.
Then she was in front of me. Arun was still strapped into her seat, unmoving, unresponsive.
“Arun!” I yelled as I felt a hand grab the back of my helmet, then something ripped the hand off a second later. I looked back to see Stacy behind creating a wall of rounds around me. That chick was nuts. She could have killed me. I might actually be in love.
“Arun, let’s go!” I shouted again, reaching in to unbuckle her strap and drag her from the predator. She didn’t move.
It wasn’t until I pulled her out that I saw the lenses in her helmet were both broken open. A mixture of blood and dark ooze fell from her sightless eyes.
I wasn’t a freaking doctor, but I didn’t have to be one to know Legion had infected her. If it was even possible to infect an Eternal. If Arun was even still alive.
I swung her body over my shoulder and made a run back to Ricky’s predator that now sat empty. Screams from Legion, roars from the infected, and shouts from our own survivors added to the mayhem around me. I focused on getting Arun into the passenger side of the predator and hopped into the driver’s side.
The predator roared to life under my direction. We headed for the safety of the Orion wall.
You’re going to be alright, you’re going to be alright, I repeated in my mind as Arun slumped forward in her seat.
All three remaining predators made it within the safety of the wall a minute later. The gates closed behind us. We’d made it, but at what cost?
Once we were inside the wall, Legion fled. Not the running-for-your-life kind of retreat, more of a regroup-and-rethink kind of retreat. That had me worried, but there were other more pressing things to consider at the moment.
Ricky and Elon, along with the others, attended to Arun. She was still breathing but just barely. Multiple fractures and a punctured lung would have been enough for her to bounce back from if she hadn’t been infected with the Legion virus.
They were all with her now, trying to figure out what she needed, how she could be helped if at all.
I found myself on the wall in the hours after our return to the Orion. I looked out over the dead bodies lying on the field of battle. The sawg were gone, but to where I had no idea. Maybe they traveled back to the mist land, maybe they decided to make a new home for themselves in the jungle.
I shuddered when I thought what an infected sawg would be able to achieve under Legion’s control. Those beasts were massive. It was difficult to comprehend how Legion would be able to overcome one of them no matter how great its numbers.
“I think they’ll return home,” Jezra said, reading my thoughts and joining me on the wall.
“What?” I asked.
“I think the sawg will make it back to the mist lands,” Jezra answered. “They are creatures of habit. I mean, that’s what you were thinking, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, shaking off the feeling the old bat could read my thoughts. “So you must feel like a fish in a glass bowl at the moment, huh?”
“Yes, Tong and I have received our fair share of stares,” Jezra answered, looking down the catwalk along the wall. A pair of suits who were staring at her immediately looked away. “It will take time for your kind to accept us, but they will.”
I nodded. I looked down at my once white scale armor, now bloody from the battle and stained with dirt. My helmet clipped onto my waistband freed my hands.
“You think she’s going to make it?” I asked. “I mean Arun.”
“I think she has a strong chance,” Jezra answered. “There is no telling what the Legion virus will or will not be able to do when introduced to an Eternal. Dean, I came up here to tell you something important.”
There was something in Jezra’s voice that made me look up. I gave her my full attention. Her eyes were huge, her face etched in stone with hard wrinkles carved by time.
“The second prophecy I received, the one that woke me from my hyper sleep.” Jezra said each word slowly as if she were having a hard time pushing the words past her thin lips. “You need to know.”
“I really don’t want to by the sound of it,” I said with a sigh. “What is it?”
“Dean, I was wrong. The Orion—the Orion will be overrun,” Jezra said, swallowing hard. “For a second time, the Orion will fall.”
Check Out the Renegade Star Series
Taking place 2000 years after the Orion Colony Series, experience the bestselling series from J.N. Chaney.
They say the Earth is just a myth. Something to tell your children when you put them to sleep, the lost homeworld of humanity. Everyone knows it isn't real, though. It can't be.
But when Captain Jace Hughes encounters a nun with a mysterious piece of cargo and a bold secret, he soon discovers that everything he thought he knew about Earth is wrong. So very, very wrong.
Climb aboard The Renegade Star and assemble a crew, follow the clues, uncover the truth, and most importantly, try to stay alive.
Experience the beginning of a sprawling galactic tale in this first entry to The Renegade Star series. If you’re a fan of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, or Indiana Jones, you’ll love this epic, space opera thrill ride.
Warning: This book contains action, cussing, and general badassery. Read at your own risk.
Get it here: My Book
Get a Free Book
He also created a special Facebook group called “JN Chaney’s Renegade Readers” specifically for readers to come together and share their lives and interests, discuss the series, and speak directly to him. Please check it out and join whenever you get the chance!
You can also join Jonathan Yanez’s fangroup, called Jonathan’s Reading Wolves. Check it out for more info about his upcoming releases.
For updates about new releases, as well as exclusive promotions, visit the author’s website and sign up for the VIP mailing list. Head there now to receive a free copy of The Amber Project.
Enjoying the series? Help others discover The Orion Colony series by leaving a review on Amazon.
Books in the Renegade Star Universe
Renegade Star Series:
Renegade Union (Out Now!))
Renegade Empire (March 2019)
Nameless: A Renegade Star Story (Out Now!)
The Orion Colony Series:
Orion Uncharted (Dec 2018)
About the Authors
J. N. Chaney has a Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing and fancies himself quite the Super Mario Bros. fan. When he isn’t writing or gaming, you can find him online at www.jnchaney.com.
Jonathan Yanez is the author of over 30 books. He has worked as a personal trainer, model, and life coach, not to mention a wide array of other professions. When he’s not writing, you can find him online at https://www.jonathan-yanez.com/