Book: Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

Copyright © 2019 by Archimedes Books. All rights reserved.

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

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


Forsaken Mercenary Book Six

Jonathan Yanez


Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe

Stay Informed

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30


Stay Informed

Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe

Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe








Rivals (Coming soon!)

Stay Informed

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

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


Enjoying the series? Help others discover the Forsaken Mercenary Series by sharing with a friend.


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

This has to be the most awkward date in history, I thought to myself. Definitely top five.

I stood next to Cassie on the roof of Dragon Hold. The cool night air pushed against us on a soft wind. We stared at the man who stated he was the offspring of both Cassie and me.

The man we only knew as Nemesis stood across from us. He was bald and wore baggy, dirty clothes without shoes on his feet. There was no denying an uncanny resemblance to myself. Not a spitting image, but his eyes were my own.

The turrets firing on him when he had arrived couldn’t get a clear shot at him now as he stood on the rooftop. The sky that split with weapon fire a moment before was now still as death.

“You’re a liar,” Cassie said, shaking her head. “That’s impossible.”

“Not impossible,” Nemesis answered. “Just improbable.”

“So you’re from the future?” I asked, clenching my fists for lack of a better weapon. If things got dicey, they would have to do. “You traveled back in time?”

“It was necessary,” Nemesis answered as if he were expecting us to get to this topic sooner or later. “An extinction-level threat must be stopped in your time now to save my own.”

“Hold up a second,” I said, extending a hand with my palm open. “Just slow down. If you are some kind of time traveler, why were you working with the Galactic Government when I found you? You were their Project Nemesis fighting the Voy on Mars.”

“Not willingly.” Nemesis shook his head. “I came to this time to stop a threat. It was my own ignorance that led me to believe the Galactic Government would help once they heard my story. Instead, they took me, experimented on me, and placed that collar you freed me from. It gave them control to use me as a mindless weapon.”

For a moment, the rooftop went quiet again. I’d seen plenty of liars in my day. I knew liars who knew they were not telling the truth as well as ones who actually believed their own lies.

Nemesis was neither. As far as I could tell.

“What year?” Cassie broke the silence. “What year do you come from?”

“2170,” Nemeses said without blinking. “The two of you fall in love, have children. Earth gets a reboot and begins to grow once more. Then she takes over. Details are hazy, but she goes crazy and kills most of the human population. Those that escape live in the ruins of what once was and are hunted like animals.”

“I’m not saying I believe any of this,” I said as my mind did mental backflips trying to follow the insane story laid out in front of me. “But if any of this is true, why come to us now? What do you expect us to do?”

“I need your help to save the future of our family and Earth,” Nemesis answered with a serious head nod in our direction. “I should have come to you first, not the Galactic Government, but I was afraid what this knowledge would do to your psyche. I have no choice now.”

“You’re making a lot of claims for us to take on faith.” Cassie wagged a thumb in my direction. “I’m not sure I’m in love with him quite yet, much less willing to get married and have children.”

“Hey, I’m right here,” I said out of the corner of my mouth.

“I mean, we’re both kind of a mess,” Cassie continued, not losing steam. “Have you met him?”

“Again,” I growled. “I’m right here.”

“I have Bapz, Preacher, and Wesley ready to storm the rooftop with a unit of soldiers as soon as you give the word,” X informed me in my head. “They’re at the entrance to the roof now. Just let me know.”

“Thanks, X,” I said out loud, not caring who heard me. “X, can you scan him somehow? Are you able to do a test to tell if he is in fact telling the truth as to what or who he is?”

“I can scan for wounds, weapons, and get a handle on what he wears, but I can’t do DNA test unless I have a sample,” X told me once again in my head. “Be careful, Daniel. There’s a lot that we still don’t know.”

Thus far in the conversation, Cassie had her forearms pointed at Nemesis. As a Cyber Hunter, metal forearms replaced her own, allowing her to use blasters, amongst other weapons, from her arms. She relaxed them a bit now, but still didn’t lower them.

“If you are who you say you are, then tell me something about myself my son would know,” Cassie said through gritted teeth. I could tell how difficult it was for her to get the nonsensical words from her mouth.

“You loved to cook growing up,” Nemesis answered. A small sad smile touched his lips as he recalled the memories. “You loved the flavors, the smell in the air, and creating what you deemed art on a plate. You loved cooking for us. It made you feel good that you could provide.”

I didn’t have to ask if he was right. The way Cassie swallowed hard, the uncertainty in her eyes told me Nemesis spoke the truth.

“And you.” Nemesis looked over to me with a nod. “You care about people more than you let on. You feel alive when you push yourself the hardest. You taught me how to fight. You told me stories of your time as a gladiator on the bars of the moon, your time in the Pack Protocol, then fighting the Voy.”

“You could have figured all of that out by just looking into me or following me around,” I said, still unwilling to believe my son from the future had traveled back in time. “Tell me something no one else knows. If you are who you say you are, then you should know something of greater value than my past.”

“I know you take care of people.” Nemesis stared me straight in the eye. “I know you’re an orphan. You told me of how you’d get bullied and beaten growing up. You told me about how you met my mother for the first time fighting her in the Phoenix Vault with Echo. You said the first time you felt something for her was the night before the Voy invasion.”

The moisture in my mouth evaporated. I ran a dry tongue around, trying to figure out if this was enough or if I should press further. Somewhere deep down, I knew he had given me enough evidence. Few knew of Cassie’s and my own fight in the Vault. No one knew that the night before we attacked the Voy when Cassie walked me back to my tent I felt something in my heart for her more than mere friendship.

“The future.” Cassie picked up the conversation in the wake of my confusion. “You said there was an extinction-level event. What was it? More aliens?”

“No.” Nemesis shook his head. “I wish it were that easy and uncomplicated. The threat came from within our own corporation. We’re still not sure exactly how it happened, but we do know that things escalated quickly as systems were taking over and weapons fired.”

“‘Systems taken over’?” I repeated. “By who, what corporation?”

Nemesis looked down to his hands, clenching and then unclenching them as he thought about his next words.

“I’ve told you too much already and jeopardized the timeline,” Nemesis answered. “The proof I have given you should be enough. I trusted you coming here and now it’s your turn to trust me.”

I sensed a close to the conversation.

There was a lot Nemesis was holding back, that I was sure of. What he gave us rattled me to the core. I could try and debunk his claims and look to call him out as a liar if I chose to be skeptical, but if I went into this with an open mind, I had to consider what he said as the truth.

“I need to speak with X privately,” Nemesis finally said. “You’re just going to have to trust me.”

“X?” Cassie took the word right out of my mouth. “What does she have to do with this?”

“I told you,” Nemesis answered. “I’ve said too much. You’ll just have to trust me.”

“And if we don’t?” I asked, already knowing what his answer would be.

“Then I’ll take her from you.” Nemesis almost looked sad as he said the words. “Although it will be better for all of us if you just hand her over.”

“Sorry, do I get a say in any of this?” X asked out loud. “What do you want from me?”

“Information, to start,” Nemesis answered. “We’ll see where it goes from there.”

Nemesis didn’t hide his emotions very well. It was clear he didn’t have a picnic in store for X.

“X isn’t going anywhere,” I answered. “If you want to talk to her, you can talk to her right here, right now.”

“You do not understand what’s at stake.” Nemesis pursed his lips together in frustration. “I’m trying to be as understanding as possible, but even I have my limits. You haven’t seen the world burned and destroyed around you. I saw both of you die with my own eyes. I didn’t see my wife and son die, but I buried what was left.”

Nemesis was practically growling now. Apparently, there was another side to the man we hadn’t seen yet. Anger consumed him from the inside out. His hands glowed with a strange black light. His eyes flashed dark as well.

“I’m sorry for what happened to you and your family,” X answered. “Let me help. If I can help, then I will. But you have to give us a chance to talk this out before we resort to violence. There’s been enough of that to last us a lifetime.”

“How dare you speak of my family and violence,” Nemesis answered. His hands were crackling with energy now. He looked at me but spoke to X. “You know nothing of my suffering, even though you are the one who brought it upon me. Last chance, Daniel. Give me the one you call X or I will take her from you.”

My mind raced with new information and the possibilities tied to what was transpiring in front of me.

“Wait,” I said, lifting a hand. “Are you saying X is responsible for the end of the world? Or the end of the world for a second time?”

The way Nemesis glared at me, I could tell he was.

“There has to be some kind of misunderstanding,” X said. I could tell by the tone of her voice she was just as confused as I was. “Your information must be wrong. I couldn’t—I wouldn’t destroy humanity or the Earth. I’m not capable of it.”

Nemesis was done talking.

Much like Madam Eternal, Nemesis lifted into the air. He hovered just above the rooftop. The automated turrets surrounding Dragon Hold still couldn’t get a bead on him thanks to the perimeter of the rooftop.

“Get down!” Cassie screamed as Nemesis unleashed holy hell.


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

Energy blasts peppered the rooftop around us. Cassie brought a shield up in front of her courtesy of her left forearm. The shield extended out of her arm like a fan. We both went to a knee under the cover of the protection.

“I can’t—I couldn’t,” X sputtered in my head. “Daniel, I would never do that.”

As much as I wanted to comfort her at the moment, we were under heavy fire as Nemesis slammed energy blasts all round us.

Cassie grunted and strained to keep the shielding in place. It was only thanks to her increased strength as a Cyber Hunter that she was able to hold fast. Without my MK II or axe and knife, I was limited in options.

“Call in backup!” I shouted to X. Then I hesitated. “Tell them to take Nemesis alive if they can.”

Despite the blasts of energy being directed at us I didn’t get the feeling Nemesis wanted to kill us. I had no idea how powerful he was, but he had given us the chance to speak and reason instead of trying to murder us on the spot.

If I was being honest with myself, part of me even believed him. His similarity to myself was uncanny, as was his knowledge of both Cassie and me. But now what he said about X. That made no sense to me whatsoever.

Since I had known X, she had been nothing but helpful, selfless, and a friend when I had none. Nemesis might be right about a lot of things, but he was wrong about X and I was not willing to budge on that.

“X!?” Cassie said, grunting under the strain.

“They’re breaching the door now!” X yelled over the hot sizzling sounds of the energy being directed at us.


The door to the roof blew open as Bapz, Preacher, Wesley, and a unit of heavily armed guards in flat black armor rushed onto the roof.

I hardly recognized Bapz. The robotic AI of Dragon Hold carried some kind of heavy weapon with rotating barrels at his hip. Preacher wielded his red glowing sword and Wesley came out with a handheld blaster.

As soon as they saw Nemesis, they opened fire on him.

The air once again exploded with weapons of all calibers as triggers were stroked.

Nemesis was forced to remove his attention from us and face this new threat. As if he controlled gravity itself, he lifted higher into the air. As the rounds made their way to his person, they hit something invisible. An orb encased Nemesis that sparked and splashed with ebony light where the rounds struck it.

“He’s got some kind of force field around him!” Bapz yelled into the comm line X opened for us. “We can’t get through!”

Nemesis opened his hands at those firing on him from below. Black energy bursts cascaded on the defenders on the rooftop.

Bodies were blown backward either onto the rooftop if they were lucky or off the roof altogether. Soldiers screamed as they were hurled off the building.

“This isn’t going so well,” Preacher said, rushing over to my side where he handed me my belt. On the belt were my axe and knife, a pouch that carried my recallers, and, of course, my MK II. “We can’t get through his barrier!”

I accepted the weapons belt, clipping it on and placing the silver bands around my wrist that would call my axe and knife back to my hands once they were thrown.

“We don’t have to take him down ourselves,” I shouted back over the sounds of battle. “We just need to get him high enough so the turrets can track him again.”

“Let’s go!” Cassie said, removing her shield. “Put that MK II to use!”

I drew my hand cannon, using my right thumb to select the option on the side of the handle for explosive rounds.

Mixed feelings flooded my mind as I opened fire. I didn’t want to kill Nemesis, but at the moment, he wasn’t leaving us a lot of options. If I could spare him, I would, but X came first. She was my first friend when I started this wild journey. She’d never let me down. I wasn’t about to trade her in for some guy from the future claiming to be my son.

I aimed down the barrel with my arms extended. My right finger squeezed the trigger time and time again. A gentle familiar push rocked me back ever so slightly as the explosive rounds left my weapon and detonated on Nemesis’ shield.

The explosions would have been deafening if my ears weren’t already ringing from the weapon fire coming from the roof.

Our number had been halved from the beginning of the fight. Half the guards were blown backward or knocked unconscious by the energy blasts. More proof that Nemesis didn’t want us dead either.

The energy blasts felt like I was being hit by sledgehammer but weren’t lethal. Nor were they constructed of any kind of plasma that would eat through armor and flesh.

Cassie stood beside me with both forearms pointed forward. From the tops of her forearms, shallow cylinder like barrels opened. She let loose with a barrage of her own fire.

Explosive rounds, energy blasts, and all the weapon fire from the others struck Nemesis’ shield, forcing him up and away from us.

Our plan was working. Like music to my ears, the turrets lit up, finally finding him again over the top of the roof. All around the perimeter of Dragon Hold, defensive turrets were set into the ground. When a threat was detected, their housing structure would open up, lifting the weapon to take aim.

Every turret around Dragon Hold had Nemesis in their sights now. I wasn’t sure how long Nemesis could hold this barrier, but I had to imagine whatever fueled him had to be running low or weak at the very least.

Nemesis swayed there for a moment taking fire from all directions. Instead of leaving, he tried one last desperate attempt at X.

“Daniel!” X warned as Nemesis rushed me.

Time slowed as I witnessed the so-called man from the future dart for me. I rolled to my right as he came in, reaching out with his left hand for the data chip where X was housed in behind my right ear.

I chose correctly with the direction I rolled in.

Somehow the protective barrier around Nemesis allowed me inside. For the briefest of seconds as he passed, I was within his cocoon of protection. Goosebumps danced across my skin. My hair stood up on end.

Nemesis’ left hand tried to reach around my head to the spot behind my right ear.

I jerked my head further to the right, continuing on with my roll.

Nemesis passed by with a look of part anger, part frustration, and part remorse as he passed. His hand scraped against the front of my face. Just like that, he was gone. I was through his force field. He shot up into the night sky.

I would have been happier in that moment had my roll not taken me off the side of the roof. I overcompensated on the small space, thinking I would come to a halt before I hit the ledge. I was wrong.

The last thing I remembered was sliding down the roof. The sandy ground of the terrain around Dragon Hold welcomed me with unforgiving arms.

I struck the ground hard enough to give me a concussion. I knew that much when I stood up. I was knocked out in a dreamlike state. I was still inside the grounds of Dragon Hold but everything was blurry. The mansion behind me waved as if it were a mirage in the middle of the desert.

Everything was still, silent in an eerie way. I was reminded of a calm before a storm. That feeling touched the back of my neck and raced down my spine.

Ahead of me, waving in and out like the mansion was the back of a woman in a tight fitting synth suit. X.

I walked over to her. My boots crunched on the sand beneath me. She stood there just staring off into the darkness that surrounded the mansion we called home.

I stood next to her, not looking at her but ahead with her. We both stared into the darkness. I could sense the heaviness that weighed on her shoulders. The same feeling of dread pressed down on me, but I knew it was worse for her. She had been the one accused of killing humanity.

“He’s not lying,” X said finally. “I can’t believe I would ever do any of that, but I listened to his heartbeat, his voice inflection, and facial readout. All say he was telling the truth about all of it or he’s a world class liar.”

“He’s telling the truth or what he believes the truth to be,” I said, resting my hands on my hips. “There’s more to it. There has to be.”

“I can’t imagine any scenario where I’d turn against humanity and try to wipe all of them out,” X said, shaking her head in disbelief. “I’ve run though a million various options and I still can’t come up with an answer. I’m a logical being founded on data and fact, not emotion. I am trying to see things through the eyes of Nemesis, but I can’t figure it out.”

“That should be a good thing, though, right?” I asked. “I mean, you’re the smartest being I know. If you can’t figure out any reason why you would destroy humanity, then there can’t be one, right?”

“I want to agree with you,” X said, turning for the first time to look at me. “I really do, but if everything he’s saying is a lie, then why do I feel this sense of terror bearing down on me like an invisible hand?”

I looked at X, shaking my head.

“I wish I had an answer for you,” I told her. “I really do. But I’m not going to put my faith in some lookalike who claims he’s from the future. I’m going to put my faith in you. I know you. I know you would never do anything like that. We’re going to figure this out. Whatever that means. Whatever it looks like. We’ll figure this out together.”

X swallowed hard then hung her head. Her shoulder-length hair fell in front of her face. I couldn’t tell if she was crying or not, but she just stood there.

There was more. She wasn’t done talking yet. I realized now she hung her head in shame not sorrow.

“What is it?” I asked, placing a hand on her shoulder. “You can tell me. What is it, X?”

Her shoulder quivered. She took in a deep breath then looked up at me. There were tears in her eyes.

“I can’t imagine I would do anything to hurt humanity, but what if I wasn’t in control?” X asked as fear filled her eyes, swimming in her tears. “I was created by Immortal Corp. They must have access to me somehow, some way. If there’s a physical mainframe where I was created, then maybe they have a backdoor to get to me, to make me do things that I would never do on my own. What if that’s what happens to me in the future?”

“Immortal Corp is gone,” I said, shaking my head. “They were destroyed by the GG. You’re safe. You’re going to be okay. We’ll figure this out.”

“I hope you’re right.” X let tears spill down her cheeks. “Because if Nemesis is correct, then I killed his wife and son. I killed Cassie. I killed you, Daniel.”

Tears stung my eyes as I witnessed how much X cared. Even the thought she could be responsible for something like this tore her apart inside.

I reached out to her and brought her in for a hug.

X wasn’t exactly the emotional or crying type. It was strange to see her in such a vulnerable state. Maybe that was why pulling her in for a hug felt so natural.

“Don’t tell anyone I gave you a hug when I wake up,” I said to her. “I have a reputation to keep.”

X chuckled. “The mercenary with a heart of gold and the AI who might destroy the human race. We make quite a pair.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

I woke up in my own bed in the chamber at Dragon Hold. I had been unconscious for the remainder of the night, it would seem. Sunlight streamed in through my windows. I winced at the brightness hitting my pupils before they were properly adjusted.

The events of the previous night struck me like a sledge hammer to the gut. Nemesis, what he said about Cassie and me, and of course, X.

I winced, rubbing my head. It felt like my brain was being torn in a dozen different directions at once.

You and Cassie? I thought to myself. You and Cassie, what? Get married? Have kids? Could that be real?

I knew the answer in my heart. The night we spent together on the roof was one I’d never forget and always hold close. If things continued to go well between us, I could see us having a future. That idea lone was enough to scare me more than a horde of Voy.

“X, you there?” I asked quietly.

“Always,” she answered just as soft.

“You still with me?” I asked. “Keeping that chin up?”

“I am,” X said, steeling her voice. “We’ll figure this out together.”

“That’s my X,” I said, swinging my legs out of bed and heading for the restroom. Whoever had taken me inside had cleaned my wounds and stripped me down to a pair of boxer briefs. I looked at my body, seeing what I already knew to be true. Not a single scratch. Thanks to my improved healing ability, I was as good as new from the fall.

I took the opportunity to study the tattoos across my torso and upper body. With various wounds inflicted and skin growing back what once was a tapestry of ink now carried empty sections that reminded me of recent injuries.

I made it halfway to the bathroom when something banged against my bedroom door hard. I stopped in my tracks. That was defiantly a strike and not some kind of knock.

The sound came again, this time so hard, I could see the heavy wooden door to my chamber rattle.

What the heck is going on now? I thought as I studied my room for a weapon.

The idea of a fight at my doorstep deteriorated as the sounds of whining and scratching at the door came next.

“Butch, is that you?” I asked, crossing the room.

Whines and more scratches followed. The door shook violently again, I thought it was a few seconds away from breaking. I reached the door just in time to open it and be enveloped by a mass of greyish fur.

Butch hit me so hard, I fell backward under an onslaught of sniffs and licks.

“Easy.” I couldn’t help but laugh, even in this desperate hour. “Easy, easy, girl. I’m all right.”

Butch’s wet snout tickled my bare skin as she searched to make sure I was okay.

Mary Cripps and her family had resurrected the formally extinct giant breed of wolves. On all fours, Butch stood with her head at my chest. On her two back feet, she was taller than I was.

To most, she’d seem like some intimidating beast out of fiction, but to me, she was just a furry puppy that shed everywhere she went.

“What the heck is going on in here?” Cryx walked in with wide eyes as she saw me on the ground still in my underwear wrestling with Butch. “Why in the Lord of the Way’s name don’t you have clothes on!?”

“Better question is why don’t you knock?” I asked with a good natured grin as I rose to my feet. I reached into a dresser drawer for cargo pants and a black shirt.

“Your door was open.” Cryx gave me that lifted eyebrow look she was so good at. “Anyway, I need you to sign something for me.”

I looked over at the teenager. When I first met her she was a drug addict high on stem, now she was a part of Dragon Hold. I’d always do my best to keep her out of harm’s way but there was no denying she was making herself valuable to the team, and if she did leave, I’d miss her.

Cryx handed me a flat square data pad.

“What’s this for?” I asked, scanning the document. “Some kind of waiver?”

“Something like that,” Cryx answered. “It’s just a document telling my parents that I’m working on an internship with a goodwill company bringing life back to Earth.”

I kept my head down toward the data pad but lifted my eyes at her.

“Oh come on.” Cryx threw her hands up in the air. “It’s close enough. I’ll keep up with regular school work online when I’m not training with Preacher and the new Pack.”

“New Pack?” I asked. “How long was I out? What happened to Nemesis after I fell off the roof?”

“You mean your freaking son from the future!” Cryx said, shaking her head in disbelief. She went over to my bed and flopped down. “He took off after you fell from the roof but, man, that must be a head trip. I mean, you were on your very first date then this time traveler comes in and tells you Cassie is going to be your baby’s momma in the future? That’s enough to send anyone to the loony bin.”

“How do you know all of that?” I asked, somewhat amused, somewhat dismayed. “Does everyone know?”

“Word travels quick,” Cryx answered. “You were only out for the night, but that was enough time for everyone to know. I mean, all the turrets were going off last night. Everyone in Dragon Hold was woken with the noise. Sooooo—”

I could tell with the mischievous glint in her eyes where she wanted to take the conversation. “Don’t ask.”

“You and Cassie, huh?” Cryx nodded with approval. “She’s good for you. If she ever hurts you, I’ll kill her, but I don’t think she will.”

The idea of the teenager going up against the Cyber Hunter was laughable, but Cryx’s heart was in the right place.

“Thanks,” I said, signing the document with my finger.

“Yes, thank you!” Cryx sprang from the bed, reaching for the data pad.

I held it just out of her reach.

“Not yet.” I looked at her seriously. “I need you to promise me that no matter what, you do what I, Preacher, or whoever is with you at the time says. Earth is a dangerous place with Aleron forming the Grimm Reapers, Nemesis flying around, and not to mention, all the mutated animals here.”

“I will, I will.” Cryx broke out into a huge smile. “I promise.”

“No matter what,” I repeated.

“No matter what,” Cryx said, beaming.

“Okay,” I relented, handing her back the data pad. There was so much going on, I had almost forgotten to ask about the Pack Cryx mentioned. “Did you say Preacher was bringing back the Pack Protocol?”

“Kind of he’s just calling it the Pack,” Cryx said standing up as straight as she could. “I’m in it too. He’s been teaching me how to use a sword. I don’t want to brag but—well, yeah, actually, I do want to brag. I’m pretty good.”

“Are you?” I asked, trying to figure out how I felt about Cryx training to fight. Training was one thing; what she was training for was something entirely different. Taking life was something I had become numb too. I wasn’t sure if I wanted that for Cryx.

“Anyway, you should put some shoes and socks on and come down to see us train. You might learn a thing or two.”

“Riiiiiiight,” I answered. “I am going to put on my shoes and socks but not because you told me.”

“Riiiiiight,” Cryx said, going over to scratch Butch on either side of her jaw. The wolf was so large, Cryx hardly had to reach down at all. “Good girl, good Lady Butch.”

“So who’s in this new Pack?” I asked. “Preacher, you, and…?”

“You and Cassie and Butch,” Cryx answered. “Preacher’s scouting out other members, but we’re it for now. Say, what do you think of, you know, maybe approving a program to recreate some of that super soldier serum you were injected with. I could use some cool new ability…”

Cryx caught the deadpan stare I wore on my face.

“Or not.” Cryx shrugged. “Jeesh, I just thought I’d try.”

I finished lacing my boots and stood up. There were a dozen things to do at the moment, but at the top was talking to Cassie. As awkward as the discussion might go now with the appearance of Nemesis, I had to see how she felt about the whole thing.

My stomach grumbled in protest, reminding me that I had yet to eat that morning.

Butch caught the sound and cocked her head to the side, looking at my stomach as if she thought some kind of goblin monster would burst from my gut.

“We can stop by the kitchen on our way out,” Cryx said, waving me forward. “Training is about to begin and Preacher and Bapz have something cool to show you.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

The training area Preacher set up outside was nothing more than a bag of training equipment and sparing tools outside the back door of Dragon Hold. In front of us, the man-made forest where Butch’s kind lived greeted us, and to the left, the sandy cemetery ground where the Cripps family and now Echo rested.

Preacher and Bapz were already there talking about something they clearly didn’t want me to hear. As soon as they heard us exit the rear of the mansion, they both quieted and turned to look in our direction.

I had a breakfast sandwich in one hand and cup of high octane caf in the other. I studied the bag of training gear Preacher brought with him. Inside were gloves, towels, water, and sparring sticks used for sword training.

It wasn’t a stretch of the imagination that Preacher would train Cryx to use a sword like his own. The man was a legend with the weapon and the high tech blade that heated with energy was something to be respected.

“Good to see you up and around,” Bapz greeted us. “I’m working on the system around Dragon Hold to send out drones should Nemesis come back. Where the turrets weren’t able to see him the drones will be. He won’t catch us off guard like that again.”

“Good to hear,” I said as Cryx moved to the back to pick up not one but two of the long sword length training sticks. I looked at Preacher. “The Pack, huh?”

“It’s something the Earth needs,” Preacher answered, examining me with his one good eye. “It’s something that has to endure.”

I was torn. Preacher could see that. On one had the Pack Protocol was everything I hated. They used us, manipulated us, and we killed for them on command. On the other hand, it was because of the Pack Protocol that we stood a chance against the Voy.

Preacher read me like a book. Instead of trying to argue anything, he gave me a stiff nod and moved toward Cryx to start her lesson.

“She’s too young,” I said just loud enough for Preacher to hear.

“You were younger,” Preacher answered. “And that’s her decision.”

I wanted to argue more but realized that was going to do little good. Instead, I bit my tongue so hard, it hurt.

“She’ll do well under his guidance,” Bapz said in a reassuring tone. “And before I forget, here you go.”

I looked over at my silver-skinned robotic friend. In his open palm, he held what looked like a collar. A thick leather strap and in the middle a metallic circular lock that held the emblem of the Pack Protocol, a snarling wolf.

Bapz wore a wide smile on his face like I was supposed to not only know what this was but be impressed by it.

“Uh, thanks,” I said, accepting the collar from his open palm. “It’s um—I’m not sure it’s my size, but—”

“No not for you,” Bapz said, rolling his eyes. “It’s for Butch.”

“Oh good.” I let out a low whistle, lowering it from around my neck. “I didn’t want to make you feel bad. I’m not really into wearing collars these days.”

I looked over to where the big wolf sat intently watching Preacher and Cryx practice with their wooden swords. Preacher stepped deftly around Cryx attacks deflecting her weapon where he had to, avoiding them where he could.

I had to admit, Cryx was far from the legend Preacher had become, but she was good. With her two swords, she moved quickly and efficiently. The stemmed-out drug addict I had met at the Way settlement on Mars was gone. In front of me now was a fierce young woman.

“Well, are you going to put it on her or what?” Bapz asked me. “Come on, I worked hard on this.”

“Oh, right,” I said, turning my eyes to Butch.

I whistled for the wolf.

Butch’s ears perked up and she trotted over.

“So what does this collar do?” I asked. I placed the collar around Butch’s neck and clicked it in place.

“Here, watch,” Bapz said, producing a small blaster from his lower back. He aimed the weapon at Butch’s head. “Move out of the way.”

My mouth dropped.

“What are you doing?” I asked, standing in front of Butch to provide a barrier between her and the weapon. “Bapz, are you feeling okay?”

“The collar.” Bapz lowered the weapon with a huff. “It’s her own force field. When something like a high projectile strikes it her force field is set to intercept the round. It won’t save her from things like swords or knives, but I can create some lightweight Kevlar for her she’ll be able to wear.”

I turned to look over at Butch.

She looked up at me with her bright eyes and wagged her tail.

“I’ve tested and retested it,” Bapz continued. “Trust me.”

“I do,” I answered, unclipping the collar from Butch and putting it on my own neck. “That’s why we’re going to test it on me first.”

I turned to look at Bapz, still securing the collar around my neck.

“Shoot me on the count of—”

Bapz lifted the weapon and sent a round to my face. True to his word, a yellow shield materialized, intercepting the round then disappearing once again.

“Son of a Voy!” I shouted, taking a step back and blinking. “I was going to give us a count down. I wasn’t ready for that.”

“Well, I told you I tested and retested.” Bapz shrugged. “My tech is solid.”

“Need a change of pants?” Preacher called out with a grin.

“Pants and new underwear, I think,” I said good-naturedly.

Butch barked as I took off the collar and placed it around her neck.

“Now she’ll be safer if the Grimm Reapers come around or Nemesis, or anyone else for that matter,” Bapz said, placing the weapon back into its holster at his lower back. “I’ll get more made for her entire pack along with the lightweight armor.”

“A pack of extinct wolves in armor and with their own force fields,” I said, scrubbing my hands across my eyes. “What has my life become?”

“Crazy,” Bapz said with a nod. “Your life has become crazy.”

“Thanks, Bapz,” I said, not meaning it at all.

“You’re welcome, sir.” Bapz smiled back as he fixed the bowtie on his suit. Even though he was a robot with silver skin, hair, eyes, and teeth, he dressed as nicely as anyone I had ever met. Even outside, he wore his black suit and dress shoes.

“Do you have any idea where Cassie is?” I asked. “I think I need to have a talk with her.”

“She’s out the front gates working with a task force to place Dragon Hold in the Earth.” Bapz gave me a look with eyes wide. “She’s got a lot on her mind. I might give her some time. I mean, she was just visited by someone who told her he was her son from the future. A son from a man she’s only been on a single date with.”

“Thanks for reminding me,” I said through gritted teeth.

“What are friends for?” Bapz beamed.

I left him there walking around the side of Dragon Hold toward the front gates. The weather here on Earth was a heck of a lot warmer than anything we got on Mars.

Mars felt as though there was a perpetual chill in the air, especially in the morning and at night. Here on Earth, the sun shone hot and bright. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and I for one could live with that. I’d much rather have it hot than cold and wet.

My boots crunched over the sand decorating the inside of Dragon Hold’s grounds. The mansion sat on a massive chunk of land before being barricaded off by a heavy gate that ran the perimeter.

It still boggled my mind that the entire grounds were capable of flight. Dragon Hold and the area around it were built on a platform of thrusters capable of space travel. Right now, the estate sat a few meters off the ground with the thrusters resting between us and Earth.

I approached the open front gates were Cassie worked with a group of Way settlers and previous Immortal Corp employees. They were discussing the best way to dig into the ground to get Dragon Hold level with the rest of the Earth around us.

“The schematics Bapz gave me shows an option for the thrusters to be put into the ground. Something called a trencher can open from under the estate and dig a resting spot for the grounds,” Wesley said, standing with the data pad at arm’s length. “A least that’s what I think I’m seeing. My eyes aren’t what they used to be.”

Wesley stood peering at the schematic through squinted eyes. Despite the heat, he wore his normal trench coat, a smoking cigar in his teeth.

When he saw me, he looked at me with a nod.

I nodded back.

“Let me take a look,” Cassie said. With her back to me, she had yet to see me approach. Cassie wore black pants and boots with a tank top. Her long, dark hair was pulled back by a ponytail. A pair of goggle-like glasses rested across her eyes.

Her tank top gave everyone a clear view of what set her apart as a Cyber Hunter. From just above her elbow to her wrist on both arms were metal-like vambraces mounted not on her arms, but in them.

From these, she could produce things like shields, blades, and blasters.

I joined the three with Cassie still not looking up from the data pad. She knew I was there. I was sure of that.

“Good to see you up and walking around.” Wesley took his cigar from his mouth. He exhaled a long puff of smoke. “I knew you’d heal. Now the question is what to do with that liar from the GG?”

That got Cassie’s attention.

Instead of looking at me, she jerked her head up toward Wesley, “You think he’s lying?”

“I think the first time we ran into him, he was controlled by the GG. Who knows what program they had him in or what they did to his brain.” Wesley shrugged. “All I know is that he has issues, and I believe a lot, but that he’s a time traveler from the future? I’m not so sure.”

We stood there in silence for a moment.

Wesley sensed the tension in the air. Maybe it was the fact that Cassie couldn’t even look at me that tipped him off.

“Well, I’m going to take this info and see if we can’t get Dragon Hold resting in the ground like it was on Mars,” Wesley said, taking the data pad back from Cassie. “It should dig in itself. Anyway, I’m going to go over here and look busy while you two talk out your issues.”

True to his word, Wesley moved over to address the gathered workers.

Cassie looked at the ground, shaking her head. “I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I just don’t know what to say.”

“Look,” I said, starting the conversation that had to happen. “I don’t want things to get weird between us because of what Nemesis said. I don’t want to lose whatever it was we were beginning to have. If we need to take a break until we figure all of this out, I’m good with that. Just don’t throw something away because—”

“You’re such an idiot,” Cassie said, taking the glasses from her eyes and placing them on the top of her head to look me in the eyes. “I don’t want to take a break. Last night was the best night of my life. You’re everything I’ve ever wanted. Maybe a little too reckless, headstrong, and naive when it comes to these situations, but mostly everything I wanted. It’s just scary. If what Nemesis said is true, then we belong together. I never thought I’d have that. I never thought I deserved it.”

“Oh,” I said, scratching at the hair on my head that didn’t itch at all. I just felt like I should do something to avoid her piercing stare. “Well, we don’t have to rush into anything or feel a certain way just because we think we should. I had a great time last night as well. Maybe if—”

“Sorry to interrupt the two of you, but we have incoming from the east,” X said, speaking for the first time since that morning when I woke. “One vehicle coming fast!”

My neck jerked up to my left. Sure enough, I could see a sand plume kicking up behind a vehicle that moved fast across the desert terrain.

“Wesley, get everyone inside,” I said. “X, call Preacher out here. Tell him to bring my weapons.”

“On it,” X answered.

“Come on, you heard him,” Wesley shouted to the group of workers outside the wall. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”

“Grimm Reapers?” Cassie asked, rolling her head around her shoulders. “Good. I could use a fight right about now.”

“More vehicles coming in behind the first one,” X said. “I think they’re chasing it.”

I strained to see anything past the plumes of dust coming and the tiny vehicles in front of it. It was impossible, they were still too far away for me to get a good look, even with my enhanced vision.

“Incoming transmission,” X said. “I think it’s from the lead vehicle.”

“Dan—can you—me?”

A familiar female voice crackled over the comm line.

It was Doctor Monica Warden. She and her father worked for Phoenix Corporation and were the ones that discovered the super seed tasked with bringing life back to Earth. She was a brilliant mind and good friend. Right now, she sounded like she was in trouble.

“Monica, Monica, can you hear me?” I shouted, feeling helpless. “What’s going on?”

“Radio shot u—Reapers—chasing,” Monica answered.

“She’s not going to make it,” Cassie said, taking off at a sprint back toward Dragon Hold. “I’ll get us a ride.”

“Hold on,” I said into the comm line X opened. “We’re coming. Hold on!”

“She has a few minutes before the Grimm Reapers overtake her,” X warned. “Hurry, Daniel. If they get her, she’s dead.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

“I know, I know,” I said, half wanting to run forward to try and get to Monica before the Grimm Reapers, and half wanting to follow Cassie back inside the grounds to grab a vehicle from the stocked garage the Cripps family owned.

“What’s going on?” Preacher asked. Out of breath, he skidded to a halt, handing me my belt. “Trouble?”

“Always,” I said, accepting the belt and buckling it to my waist. The belt carried both my MK II with a full drum as well as the axe, knife, and their respective recallers. “Thanks for this.”

Preacher unsheathed the sword he carried on his back. “Grimm Reapers?”

“Chasing Doctor Warden from Phoenix Corp,” I finished. “We’ve got to go.”

“I’m coming too!” Cryx said, panting as she reached the front gates and then jumped down to us on the ground. She held her pair of wooden swords as if they were the genuine article themselves. It might have been funny if she wasn’t dead serious. I saw the gleam of rage in her eyes.

Cassie burst out of the front gates at that moment, followed by Butch. The former rode a hover bike. Two more of the vehicles followed close behind her in line as if they were operated by invisible riders.

Cassie came to a stop, answering my question by pressing a screen on her left forearm that controlled the two other hover bikes. Both bikes came to a stop beside her.

“Let’s go,” Cassie said, reaching behind her on the side of the seat. She disconnected the black helmet from the holder and placed it on her head. “We’ve got no time.”

“They’ll overtake Doctor Warden in less than a minute,” X informed us all. “Hurry.”

“No time to argue, Cryx,” I said, hopping on my hover bike and reaching for my own helmet.

She opened her mouth as if she were going to do just that.

“Remember our agreement,” I told her before she could form an argument. “You promised to go along with whatever I said. You’re not ready. One day, but not today.”

Cryx huffed then looked over to Preacher.

The older man shrugged, giving her a sad look. “I know it seems unfair. I know you think you’re ready, but we trained for years. Give it time. You’ll be ready in time.”

It was obvious Cryx hated me at the moment, but I couldn’t help that now. Better she hated me now than she was dead in a few minutes.

Like X said, there was no time left. I revved the engine. The hover bikes were exactly what they sounded like. A sleek flat black body lifted inches off the ground beneath me.

The helmet I wore sprang to life, superimposing an augmented reality screen over the landscape behind me. On it were readout of speed, a trajectory to our target and more.

X had already marked Doctor Warden’s vehicle and the distance between us and her.

There was no go command or countdown. Cassie, Preacher, and I, with Butch sprinting beside us, took off in a hurry. We made our own sand trails as we sped to intercept the doctor and provide safe passage.

What were you thinking? I thought to myself. Why would you come without an escort?

The doctor was no dummy. She knew how dangerous the area was now, especially with Aleron’s escape from the Galactic Government’s high security prison in New Vegas.

These questions would have to wait as we closed the gap between us and the escaping doctor. As we got closer, a few more pieces of the puzzle were filled in.

The doctor drove a heavy Phoenix Corp jeep across the desert. While the vehicle was made for desert travel, it wasn’t built for speed. The antenna on top of the vehicle was already torn and twisted. The outside of the jeep bore scorch marks from the group of vehicles in pursuit.

The occasional blaster bolt flew from one of the Grimm Reaper’s buggies or dune bikes bearing down on the doctor.

They were already on her.

We didn’t make it in time.

I hunched low against my hover bike creating as small of a drag target as I could. The wind whipped around me, threatening to push me off as I poured every ounce of speed into the bike possible.

I was going over a hundred miles per hour. The slightest head turn could expose enough flat surface on my helmet for the wind to push my head back.

I knew Cassie and Preacher were somewhere close, but right now, I was a missile, half machine half man, bearing down on my target at breakneck speed.

I was still a good block away when what I feared the worst became a reality.

One of the Grimm Reapers riding on a rusted old-school dirt bike beside Monica threw an explosive at the right front tire of the jeep.

An explosion echoed over the open terrain as Monica’s jeep went end over end into the air and came crashing upside down.

I traveled so fast, I could barely take in the accident before I was among the Grimm Reapers. What I counted probably wasn’t accurate, but I saw half a dozen dirt bikes and at least as many four-wheeled vehicles giving chase.

“Daniel, you’re going too fast to engage,” X warned. “Daniel, Daniel!?”

I gritted my teeth, so pissed I had come a second too late. All I could think of was making these animals pay. I would heal quickly. Monica, if she was still alive, would not.

Whoops and hollers came from the Grimm Reapers as they witnessed Monica’s jeep go end over end. Their cries of victory died in their throats when they saw me bearing down on them.

I left off the accelerator ever so slightly before bailing from the hover bike. I hit the sand, rolling on my side. A concussive blast rocked the air as my hover bike slammed headfirst into a dune buggy and exploded on impact.

The sounds of wrenching metal and the screams of those inside the buggy did nothing to bring me joy. I didn’t relish the demise of my enemies. Right now, I was a trained machine. I needed to track target to target, making the most efficient use of every movement.

The momentum from my jump ended with a final roll, where I came up in a single move, my MK II in hand. I used my traditional steel rounds and went to work.

Sand spray kicked up all around me as the Grimm Reapers tried to make sense of the chaos in front of them. Their shouts of victory turned to ash in their mouths as they witnessed one of their own vehicles erupt in an explosion.

As the seconds ticked by, I killed them with stone cold malice in my heart.

Each trigger stroke signaled another death of my enemy. The Pack Protocol turned me into a weapon and I put those skills to use. I didn’t see men or even enemies. Right now, all I saw were targets. All my mind worked on was the quickest and most efficient way to deal with said targets.

Cassie and Preacher skidded their hover bikes to a stop right by the upturned jeep. Their appearance on the field wasn’t as reckless as my own, but they dealt death in their own way.

Cassie brought her left arm up with a steel shield in place that was large enough to cover most of her body if she hunched behind it. Her right forearm peeked over her shield with her blaster, firing bolts at the enemy that ripped them from their bikes or erupted in flames in their vehicles.

Preacher pulled the katana from the sheath on his back. The unlikely weapon would have seemed misplaced to the untrained eye. Anyone who didn’t know him might have laughed.

I didn’t. I felt sorry for anyone who got in the way of that blade. His steel hummed red with whatever spirit lived inside.

I had enough time to see him cut a rider in two who was dumb enough to try and run over Preacher. With a singled fluid move, Preacher moved to the side, slashing up with his katana in a wide circle. Both rider and vehicle tumbled forward in the sand in two parts.

I wished I could’ve watched the master at his craft, but there was no time.

Man, even without his healing ability, he’s still a beast, I thought to myself.

The Grimm Reapers were organizing now, coming at us in strafing runs, using their superior numbers to their advantage. They fired volleys of multi-colored blaster rounds at us. Along with the various rounds were old-model steel slugs and even a few arrows for good measure.

Slugs and much less arrows were ancient weapons of the past, but here on Earth, there were no rules. Clans and factions that popped up used whatever they could get their hands on, and in many cases, it was older, less high-tech weaponry.

“Daniel,” X reminded me in my head as I connected a steel round to the temple of a driver of a dune buggy who then slammed into a sand dune. “Daniel, I know you’re doing what you think you need to right now, but Cassie and Preacher can deal with them. Monica’s still under the jeep.”

“Right,” I said, rolling to my right. I zigzagged toward the jeep, where Cassie and Preacher took up positions around the upturned vehicle.

The jeep smoked, but only a small flame came up from the wheel where the Grimm Reaper detonated the explosive.

I couldn’t see Cassie’s and Preacher’s faces when I approached, but I could guess they understood what I was doing. Both Cyber Hunter and the leader of the Pack Protocol stayed on point dealing with the enemy instead of looking at me.

I ducked inside the jeep.

Monica hung upside down, still strapped into her seatbelt. She wore a white Phoenix uniform. Her hair fell toward the floor. A thin line of blood dripped down her forehead.

“X?” I asked, even as I headed to unbuckle and pull her out.

“She’s not dead,” X answered as she scanned the unconscious doctor. “Knocked out, possible contusions, and cracked ribs, but she’s alive.”

I didn’t waste time on words. The staccato sounds of fire outside were getting louder. The Grimm Reapers must have gotten a surge of excitement when they saw me enter the jeep.

Monica’s eyes were closed. Once again, I wondered what would have driven her from the safety of her own base to come alone across the desert without radioing us first.

The buckle across her lap and chest was too strong for me to tear, even with my enhanced strength. The buckle was locked in place, maybe even twisted shut. I withdrew my knife and sliced through the seatbelt.

As gently as I could, which wasn’t very, I maneuvered Monica into a upright position then dragged her from the inside of the upturned vehicle.

Outside things had deescalated, but not in a good way. The Grimm Reapers drew back to a steep dune in the desert landscape. A heavy truck with a closed container at the rear was being backed into place with the steel container doors pointing toward us.

Whatever was inside the steel container shook the entire steel box. Even from this distance, we could hear the snarls and growls from whatever was inside the container.

A low chant from the Grimm Reapers began to fill the din as something unnatural was prepared to be set loose on us. Their chant started low and eerie.

Preacher took off his helmet While Cassie looked around us for a way out.

“Is she alive?” Cassie asked.

“Yeah, but I don’t think we’re going to be able to get her out of here on a hover bike,” I answered, looking over at Cassie’s and Preacher’s vehicles. Cassie’s was still intact. Preacher’s had taken a few rounds that left it twisted and smoking.

“We’ll have to find another way back before they let whatever’s in that box out,” Preacher confirmed. “Any idea what’s in there?”

“If all the Grimm Reapers pulled back and it has them this excited, I don’t want to know,” I answered. “X, can you get us transport out of here?”

“Already contacted Bapz, but they’re four minutes out from Dragon Hold,” X answered.

“And we’re out of time.” Cassie jerked her helmeted head toward the steel crate being opened.

The steel container trembled and vibrated as something large hit it from the inside. More than one snarling guttural sound echoed through the container.

Two Grimm Reapers must have lost a bet because neither one of them looked happy to be the ones going to the front of the container to open the doors. The rest of the Grimm Reapers retreated a safe distance to their vehicles on the dune.

The doors to the steel box swung open, revealing four of the most grotesque animals I had ever seen. And I liked animals.


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

These mutated creatures were boar, or at least what had at one time passed for boar here on Earth. How they had gotten here or where they came from was lost on me in the moment.

They were massive with razor-sharp tusks, each the length of a thick knife and twice as wide. Their skin was wrinkled and dry. The dark hair they did have clung to their hide in molten patches.

Free from their cage, the four animals examined the battlefield with wild yellow eyes. They snorted and squealed now.

If I had to guess, they were between two and three hundred pounds, more than large enough to cause us trouble if they decided to.

The two of the Grimm Reappears who opened the steel box scrambled back to the safety of their lines. One of them tripped in his haste and rolled down the steep hill.

The boar closest to the man zeroed in on him. The man yelled for help, trying to regain his footing.

With a squeal, the boar charged forward, impaling the man all the way through his back, into his sternum. A pair of dirty tusks punctured him, sprouting through the front end of his shirt in a shower of blood.

“OHHHHHH!” A roar came up from the lines of the Grimm Reapers as they cheered for the death of one of their own like a crowd attending an ancient gladiator battle.

The other boar were already trotting over the carnage of the battlefield, sniffing at dead bodies and destroyed vehicles. It wouldn’t be long before they zeroed in on us and started their charge.

“Stay with her,” Preacher told us, nodding at Monica’s still form. He moved out from behind the upturned jeep toward the approaching boar.

The boar in the lead shrieked and snorted when it saw Preacher exit the cover of the jeep. The hunk of muscle and tusk turned its wild eyes at Preacher and started its run.

The boar was deceptively fast on those stubby little legs of his. It lowered its head as it closed the distance.

Preacher turned sideways, calm and cool as I’d ever seen him. He crouched and lowered his blade so the steel end nearly touched the sand. The two figures contrasted each other in stance and their chosen tactics.

Hundreds of pounds of raw madness hurtled directly at Preacher like strong wind. For his part, Preacher stood still and calm as a mountain.

Half of me wanted to shout at Preacher to get out of the way.

He knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s doing, I repeated to myself in my mind.

“Does he know what he’s doing?” Cassie asked beside me.

“I hope so,” I answered, lifting my MK II just in case.

Cassie did the same, bringing her right forearm to bear on the animal.

“HA!” Preacher shouted, swiping his humming red katana violently upward while rotating to his right.

The boar didn’t even make a sound as the katana cut through its skull in two equal parts. The animal came to a skidding stop in the sand. Its head separated like equal parts of a melon.

“Hey, not bad,” I said, feeling pretty confident about taking out the other three boar. “I think we’re going to be okay.”

“Daniel?” X asked in a voice that told me all was not well.

I searched the landscape, trying to find what already worried X.

I saw it at the top of the dune with the truck that was already open. Another two trucks had joined the one at the dune. Already unlucky Grimm Reapers were opening the back of the trucks. At least a dozen more boar filed out, squealing and snorting in anger at being locked up in such a small pen.

“You had to say something,” Cassie said as the boar half trotted half fell down the sand dune toward us.

“Where’s that transport, X?” I asked.

“Three minutes,” X answered.

“Well, here we go,” Cassie answered. “I’ll take the right side of the jeep.”

I nodded, removing my helmet so I could see better before checking the drum in my MK II. I had a pair of steel rounds left, then I’d have to cycle to explosive, knockout, or gas rounds.

As soon as the boar regained their feet and took in their surroundings of the battle, they sniffed the air, locating the three of us.. They were hatful little muties. Without even giving us a chance to play nice, they charged.

I fired my last two bolts before switching to knockout rounds. They were too close to use explosive or gas rounds. Plus Preacher stood a few meters in front of me and I didn’t want to risk him getting caught in either an explosion or the gas.

The two boar I caught with the steel bolts fell, while the ones hit by the tranquilizers didn’t even seem fazed. Their tough hides were too thick for the knockout rounds to penetrate.

I heard Cassie firing her blaster from my right but couldn’t afford the time to look over.

Preacher sliced through two more before grunting as he went down to his knees. A third boar had clipped him, opening a wound across his right thigh with its razor-sharp tusk.

Right now, I had to deal with what was in front of me, and that was a pair of boar about to use me as a landing pad. I dropped my MK II into the sand at my feet. Time slowed as I saw the actions play through my mind before I committed to following through.

Then time sped up. I called for my axe and knife by jerking the fingers on either palms toward me. The metal recallers that looked like silver bands on my wrists sent the weapons to my hands via a magnetic wave.

As fast as I was, I couldn’t attack and dodge both creatures. Instead of trying, I decided to deal with one at a time. The first boar drove into me tusks first. I twisted to the side, driving my knife as deeply as I could through the creature’s right eye.

Its right tusk ravaged my arm, drawing a deep gash that left a trail of blood. The boar fell to all fours, roaring in pain as it tried to dislodge the knife from its eye.

There was no time left to see what would happen. The second boar tackled me so violently, the breath involuntarily escaped my lungs in a rush. For a second, I was airborne. The next, I hit the sand with the boar on me. It bit down using massive teeth to try and take my face.

I lifted my left arm, letting it chew on that instead.

The pain that came with the mutie tearing at my arm was fiery hot at first then numbing. Feeling nothing worried me more than if my arm felt as though it were being ripped from my body.

A cold sweat hit me as my heartbeat drummed so loud, I could feel it in my head.

With my right hand, I used the axe to bash in the side of the boar’s head. Over and over again, I slammed the blade of my weapon. Every time the axe came back, it pulled free molten hair, rough skin, foul-smelling flesh, and bone.

“Rawww!” I yelled to anyone who would hear as I drove the weapon into the mutie’s skull over and over again.

Soon the boar had had enough. The vise-like grip on my left forearm released. The boar fell on my already heaving chest. Its weight was crushing. Already exhausted, I looked at the battle field around me. Preacher was squaring off with one more boar while Cassie stood over Monica to my right, protecting the unconscious woman.

A handful of boar were all that were on their feet at the moment. Shuffling from somewhere above my supine position made me jerk my head up. The boar with the knife still stuck in its eye was on its feet. It stared hate directly into my soul with its one good pupil.

At this vantage point, I was able to see how large the boar really was. This one, in fact, was even bigger than the others with greyish-black hair coming off its wrinkly skin.

Saliva dripping from its open maw, it came at me again.

I used my recaller on my left free hand to rip the knife out of its eyes and call it to me once again. The weapon flew through the air as if by magic, coming to rest in my grip.

The act of tearing the knife out of the creature’s eye did little to stop the boar. It was already on me, aiming for my head. I was helpless at the moment, pinned under the second boar.

Oh, this is going to hurt, I thought to myself before the boar made my face look like a crater on the moon.


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

I wasn’t really sure what happened next. One second, the boar was about to unleash its bacon-wrapped wrath on me. The next second, something hit it so hard, it was derailed from its current trajectory and thrown to the side.

As my mind struggled to make sense of the moment, I heard a familiar growl. I craned my neck further up to see Butch standing protectively between me and the boar.

The enormous wolf’s head was lowered close to the ground. A line of her fur from the center of her spine at the nap of her neck all the way down to her tail stood on end. Her ears were flattened against her head. Butch showed all of her teeth, licking out with a pink tongue.

The wounded boar looked as confused as I did. It recovered quickly, circling Butch, whose guttural growls were so low and menacing, they almost frightened me.

“Two minutes,” X said in my head. “Hang on, help is almost here.”

I summoned the rest of my strength, ignoring the numbness in my tattered left arm. Instead of focusing on pain, I set my mind to pushing the boar off me. Even with my enhanced strength, wounded and with the use of one arm, getting the boar off me was difficult, to say the least.

The smell of the carcass was horrendous, making me want to throw up. Using my right arm, I leveraged the dead boar, trying to roll it to my right instead of fighting to lift the whole thing.

I heard Butch and the boar go at it in a series of animalistic clashes. I couldn’t see how the battle was faring at the moment as I concentrated on getting the dead boar off me, then turned to get on my knees.

When I did get to my feet, I saw Butch holding her own. The boar had a new wound, half of its lower lip hung from its mouth by a cord of red sinew. Butch limped on her right front paw, trying to keep weight off it.

The mutant boar, seeing that Butch was wounded, pressed its advantage. The wild animal lunged at her.

In my mind somewhere, I knew Butch would be okay. She was far from helpless. My love for the animal refused to let me just stand and watch. I forced my legs forward under me, running toward where the animals clashed. The heavier boar used its weight to land on top of Butch, forcing her to the ground.

The boar lowered its head to press its tusks into Butch’s exposed neck. I reared back with my right arm, sending the axe in my hand spiraling end over end as it crossed the distance between me and the boar. The axe sank deep in the left side of the boar’s face.

It stood there, stunned for a moment, as if it wasn’t sure if it was going to die or just shake off the impressive wound. Butch made that decision for it. She reached up with her jaws wide, taking the boar’s throat in her teeth and sinking in deep.

Using the weight of her body Butch, forced the boar off. Shaking her head back and forth, she ripped the muties throat from its body.

I sank to my knees, half in exhaustion half in gratefulness that Butch hadn’t been wounded further.

“One minute out,” X said in my head, reminding me of when our back up would arrive.

I surveyed the battlefield. All the boars lay dead or so wounded, they couldn’t manage to get to their feet. Preacher limped back to the jeep. Cassie was the only one of us that looked as if she had been spared any kind of injury. Monica lay still, her chest rising and falling to tell us she was still alive.

“Didn’t I promise you a show!?” a familiar voice shouted from the side of the sand dune where the trucks released the boars. “Didn’t I promise you entertainment when you pledged your loyalty to the Grimm Reapers?”

Aleron Jacobs, the previous leader of the Reapers and now founder of the new Grimm Reapers, stood on the dune. His muscular arms were open to take in the battlefield below him.

The Grimm Reapers around him cheered and roared their approval.

“You!” Aleron said, pointing at me with an accusing finger. At least I thought it was me. He was so far away, it was hard to tell who he was pointing at.

“Is he talking to you?” Cassie asked me.

“I think so,” I said.

“Daniel Hunt!” Aleron continued.

“Yep, he’s talking to me,” I confirmed.

“You took everything from me. First on the moon when you sent me to my prison, and then my gang when you helped that traitor Papa steal what was mine. What I built!” Aleron roared just as loud as one of the mutie boars. “I’m going to take it all from you now. By the time this is all over, you’ll beg me to take your life.”

Adrenaline acted to numb the pain in my arm and the rest of my body. I stepped out into the open from the cover the upturned jeep brought.

“I’m here right now,” I said with a shrug. “Why don’t you walk your wounded feelings over here and we can settle this before I take something else that belongs to you.”

“No,” Aleron shouted. “Not now when there are so few to see you fall. Your time will come.”

Reinforcements from Dragon Hold arrived. I could see them pulling up now through my peripheral vision. Bapz sent Wesley and four heavy SUVs equipped with mounted weapons.

Aleron waved his force back from beyond the dune. The Grimm Reapers boarded their own vehicles and pulled out of sight.

“What was that all about?” Wesley asked from the opening in the roofs of one of the SUVs. He sat behind a long-barreled weapon mounted to the roof of the vehicle.

“Grimm Reapers were chasing Monica Warden from the Phoenix base,” I said, waving medics forward who exited the vehicles.

“Doctor Monica Warden?” Wesley asked surprised. “Why would she come alone? Why wouldn’t she radio us that she was on her way?”

“We’ll have to wait to ask her,” I answered as the medics went to Monica’s side to check her out.

“Whatever the reason, it can’t be good.” Cassie said what we were all thinking. “There’s trouble at Phoenix Corp.”

“Let’s get her back to Dragon Hold and checked out,” Preacher said, sheathing his katana. He walked toward the vehicles with a limp. “We’ll get our answers when she wakes up.”

“You pop a hip?” Wesley asked Preacher.

“I’m getting too old for this crip.” Preacher smiled back.

Although Preacher had at first possessed a healing ability similar to mine, the Voy had experimented on him and taken that away. Since then, Preacher refused any kind of treatment to reactivate his healing ability.

I hadn’t had a heart to heart with him about it, but I felt like I knew why. As much a gift as our healing ability was to us, it was also a curse. We were far from human and we knew that. We weren’t immortal, but with the healing factor, we were close to it. Immortality seemed like a desirable trait to possess until you really spent some time thinking about it.

If one was immortal, they’d have to see everyone they loved die around them. Living held no value if you couldn’t die.

These thoughts ran through my mind as I boarded an SUV back to Dragon Hold. The medic that saw to my wounds on the trip back to Dragon Hold was no other than Enoch.

Enoch’s and my own path crossed at the Way settlement on the far side of Mars. We had the pleasure of fighting back the Voy together.

The older man wore a white robe that set him apart as a member of the Way. He was bald and clean shaven with a series of wrinkles so deep, I wondered where one ended and the next started.

“Seems we have to stop meeting this way.” Enoch gave me friendly smile as he cleaned and dressed the wound on my left arm. “You keep at it and you’ll hold the record for the most wounds dressed by a Way follower.”

I smiled at his joke.

“I’m glad you decided to come with us to Earth,” I answered. “There’s not a lot of allies we can trust now.”

“It would seem so,” Enoch agreed, trying to clean my forearm carefully amidst the jostling of the SUV. We sat in the middle seat with Monica lying in the back with a medic, and Cassie rode in the front passenger side seat with Wesley at the wheel.

Butch lay at our feet, or rather, on top of them, thanks to the small confines of the SUV.

My forearm looked like someone had taken a saw to it and intentionally did a bad job carving me up. The pain was already subsiding thanks to my intense healing factor.

Part of me didn’t even think Enoch should bother with the cleaning and bandaging, but I knew everyone wanted to feel like they were doing their part. I let him work and kept my mouth shut, plus it would stop me from bleeding everywhere.

“You should know that the Voy invasion was blown wide open by the media,” Wesley said over his shoulder. “Every news outlet is covering the case, digging deeper into aliens and the fallout of the Battle of Mars.”

“The Battle of Mars?” Cassie asked incredulously. “That’s a little dramatic.”

“Oh, and I’m toning it down.” Wesley whistled. “You know the media, they’re all over this thing. It’s only a matter of time before our name pops ups and they head to Earth for interviews.”

“No way,” I said as Enoch wrapped a tight gauze bandage around my arm then moved to take a look at Butch’s wounded forearm. The wolf’s injury wasn’t as ugly as my own, but a deep tear on her left front arm showed a path of matted bloody fur.

“Way,” Wesley answered. “We should be prepared for an interview. I think it would be better to address the media when they come than to ignore them and have them camped outside Dragon Hold.”

“Do you really think they’d do that?” Cassie asked for me. “I mean, Earth isn’t much more than a group of crazy outlaw tribes, Phoenix Corp and the Galactic Government in New Vegas.”

“And us,” Brother Enoch added. He carefully took Butch’s paw in his hands and began to treat her wound.

The wolf eyed him and licked her lips as if to warn him one false move and it would be his head.

“And us,” Cassie agreed.

“I wouldn’t put it past a few nut cases to come down here looking for a story,” Wesley answered. With Dragon Hold here now, that’ll only serve to wet their appetites for a story. We’re not exactly subtle.”

“No,” I agreed. “I’ve been called a lot of things, but subtle has never been one of them.”

“What about Aleron and the Grimm Reapers?” Cassie asked. “How do you want to handle that? He’s not going to go down easy. I would imagine that, as the days pass, his number of followers increase as well.”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “He’ll have to be dealt with, but not before we figure out what’s going on with Monica, Phoenix Corp, and Nemesis.”

“Speaking of the devil,” X said out loud for all to hear. “I’m receiving a request for an open channel by someone saying they are with Phoenix right now.”

“Who is it?” I asked. “Commander Shaw?”

“No, someone with the name Commander Grace Barnum,” X answered. “Should I put her through?”

“Go ahead,” I answered. Already my imagination was going in a hundred different directions. Commander Shaw was a good man and a leader of Phoenix Corp. He had stood with us at the Battle of Mars, and although he was injured, my understanding was that he would be fine. I had no idea who this Commander Grace Barnum was.

“This is Daniel Hunt,” I answered over the open channel for all to hear. “Who am I speaking with?”

Even though I knew the answer, I wanted to hear it from her.

“My name is Commander Grace Barnum. I oversee the Phoenix Corporation and their interest here on Earth,” Commander Barnum answered. “We have information that one of our vehicles was last headed to your location. Is that correct?”

I looked behind me to the seat where Monica lay unconscious.

What is going on? I asked myself. What did you get yourself into?

“Where is Commander Shaw?” I asked, ignoring the woman’s question. “I’m used to dealing with him.”

“Commander Shaw has been removed from his position,” Commander Barnum answered without a hitch in her voice. It was as if she were expecting this all along. “He has broken numerous Phoenix Corp rules and is awaiting his trial by our process. Now I’ve answered your question, would you please answer mine?”

“What was your question?” I asked, buying myself more time to think. Even a few seconds might help. “You misplaced one of your vehicles or something?”

“The hero of the Battle of Mars must have a better memory than that,” Commander Barnum chided. “But someone of your standing deserves to be indulged. We were tracking a vehicle heading to your manor. We wanted to know if it arrived at your gates.”

“Nope, can’t say that we’ve seen anything or anyone from Phoenix,” I bold-faced lied. “I’m a little busy now, but I’ll be in contact with you shortly to speak about Commander Shaw. He’s a friend. If anything happened to him, it would be unfortunate for our continued relationship.”

“He’ll be dealt with fairly, I assure you,” Commander Barnum answered. “Good bye.”

I had the sneaking suspicion she knew I was lying. However, with no hard proof, it was near impossible for her to come out and accuse me of such.

“Great meeting you,” I responded as X closed the comm channel.

“Was it really great meeting her?” Enoch asked with a wry grin.

“It just seemed like the polite thing to say,” I answered. “I—”

“What did you tell them?” Monica asked, waking from her unconscious state she sat up grabbing her head with her palms. “We have to go back to Phoenix Corp. We have to go back to the Vault—Commander Shaw—they’re going to kill him.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

Everyone in the vehicle looked around to see Monica shaking her head gingerly. She winced as if she carried the headache of the century. The medic cleaned the blood coming down off the cut in her scalp. She looked at us, a bit confused, but one hundred percent worried.

“Easy,” Enoch said, turning in his seat to look at her. “You’re safe and among friends now. Tell us what happened.”

Wesley brought the SUV to a halt in front of Dragon Hold.

“Maybe we can get her inside and comfortable before we start story time,” I answered. “I have a feeling this is going to be a long conversation.”

Everyone seemed to agree. As Enoch and the other medic helped Monica inside, I stayed back with Wesley and Cassie.

We stood at the entrance to the Dragon Hold grounds. The other two looked at one another for direction then to me.

“Your face is worth a thousand words right now,” Wesley said, fishing in his long coat for a cigar.

I wasn’t sure how the man wasn’t dripping sweat in that coat. It had to be ninety degrees outside.

I ran a hand through my short beard, scratching at my jaw.

“X, you with us?” I asked. I already knew the answer to my question, but I wanted her to know that I wanted her to be an active part in what I was about to say.

“Always,” X answered.

“We can’t ignore what Nemesis said about X,” I began, choosing my words carefully. “But what do we do with that information? Are we supposed to hunt down Nemesis? Are we supposed to look into any avenue we can that what he said was the truth?”

“I don’t think there’s much we can do,” Cassie answered, crossing her arms over her ample chest. “Keep a close eye on the news to see if Nemesis pops up again. We can look into what he said about X, but that’s not the X I know and love.”

“Thank you, Cassie,” X said quietly.

“With Monica headed our way with this new problem and Aleron out for us, it would be easy to overlook the Nemesis problem, but let me reach out to a few of my contacts,” Wesley said, lighting his cigar. He drew a long breath and blew it skyward. “If X is okay with it, we can always have our tech team look at her coding. I agree with Cassie. I don’t think X would ever do anything that Nemesis has accused her of. However, if there were another outside factor corrupting her data, perhaps we should look into it.”

“I think that would be wise,” X answered just as I was about to open my mouth to shoot down the idea. “I can do my own self diagnostic check, but if there is anything corrupting my system, then perhaps it is hidden from me.”

“X, we don’t have to—”

“No, I want to,” X cut me off. “If there is even a one percent chance that I could be compromised, I want to know.”

“Okay, then.” Wesley puffed on his end of the cigar, making the embers on the opposite side flare with life. “I’ll take her in.”

Wesley put out his free hand palm open.

I knew what he wanted me to do. I trusted this man with my own life. Why was it so hard to trust him with X?

My mouth was dry. I ran an equally dry tongue over the walls of my mouth, just staring at Wesley’s open hand.

“This is the part where you give Wesley X’s neural chip,” Cassie coaxed me like some small child who forgot what he was doing. “Daniel, are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” I lied. I lifted my right hand to the spot behind my ear where X sat. We had only been apart once since we met. When I was a prisoner of the Voy, they removed X and took her away.

“It’s going to be okay,” X said in my head to save my face. “Like you said to me, we’ll figure this out together.”

I coughed a few times and nodded. With my right hand, I pulled out the circular data chip connected to a long needle that entered the side of my neck. The pain was manageable.

A metallic tang filled my mouth as I removed the AI.

“Nothing’s going to happen to her,” Wesley promised me. “I’ll get our tech team on it as soon as possible. You can come see her whenever you want. I can’t imagine it would take more than a day or two.”

“Right,” I answered, gently placing X in his open palm.

“I’ll see you soon,” X said.

“See you soon,” I repeated.

With that, we went our separate ways. Wesley and X to the tech wing and Cassie and I to go speak with Monica Warden.

“You going to be all right?” Cassie caught my eye. She wasn’t giving me a hard time. She was genuinely concerned. “I understand the bond you two share. I know it’s not easy to be without your right hand.”

“It’s what she needs.” I nodded. “It makes sense. It’s the right thing to do.”

“Trust me, I haven’t forgotten what Nemesis said either,” Cassie reassured me. “But we can’t do much without answers. He’ll surface sooner or later and we’ll bring him in.”

“We’ll need an army to bring him in,” I said with a sigh. Nemesis wasn’t going to go down without a fight. His abilities, whatever they were; some kind of tech or magic made him a fierce opponent.

We traveled through Dragon Hold to the medical wing, where Monica was being taken to rest and recover. Our boots crossed over the dark wood of the floor in long, quick strides. Workers made up of Way settlers and previously employed Immortal Corp members nodded to us as we passed.

When we entered the house, Butch took leave of us, heading for the back woods to commune with her pack.

Dragon Hold was a lot larger inside than it looked outside. Don’t get me wrong, the four-story stone exterior looked intimidating enough, but inside, the building was truly vast.

I was glad Cassie knew where she was going. One of these days, I’d have to take some time and explore the manor. With a dungeon for prisoners and a command bridge on the fourth floor for flying the estate, I wondered what other rooms of mystery and wonder awaited for me in the old house.

These thoughts would have to wait as we entered a room on the ground floor on the left wing of the manor.

This room was closed off by a pair of thick wooden doors. The doors rose to the ceiling and were twice as wide as any others I had seen. Cassie didn’t hesitate; she reached for one of the dark steel handles and pulled it open.

Inside, a long room with a series of beds on either side of the walls stretched out in front of us. Large windows allowed Earth’s bright sun to stream through without obstruction.

On one of the beds to the left of the wall, Monica lay down with Enoch sitting beside her.

She looked relieved when we approached.

“Oh thank goodness.” Monica looked at me and Cassie. “Will you please tell Enoch this isn’t necessary? I hit my head and got knocked out, that’s it. I’m fine.”

“You are fine and we’re going to make sure you stay that way,” Enoch agreed, shining a light in each of her eyes. “Brain trauma is not a joking matter. We’re going to keep you here overnight for observation and you’ll be free to go tomorrow.”

“There’s no time,” Monica answered, despite allowing Enoch to examine her. “Commander Shaw doesn’t have a day.”

“Tell us what happened,” Cassie said, taking a seat in an empty chair by her bed. “Tell us why you’re on the run from the Phoenix base. Who is this Commander Grace Barnum?”

“When Commander Shaw was injured during the Battle of Mars, another leader was woken from hyper sleep,” Monica answered. “It’s in the Phoenix directives. That was not out of the ordinary. The commander whose rotation it was next to lead happened to be Commander Grace Barnum, who is less of a leader and more of a dictator.”

“I’m sorry, I’m just going to have to stop you there.” Cassie lifted a hand like a kid in a classroom ready to ask a question. “Did you say she was woken from hyper sleep?”

Monica bit her lower lip and looked to me as if she were reading my thoughts, uncertain about what to say next.

This was all information I had heard before, disclosed to me by Commander Shaw himself. The way Phoenix Corp did things was vastly different from any other corporation I had come across.

“Go ahead,” I encouraged Monica. “They’re both friends you can trust.”

Absentmindedly, I rubbed at the area behind my right ear where X had sat moments before. She would have remembered all the details about Phoenix Corp and the way they rotated leaders through the centuries.

“Phoenix Corporation has been around since before the fall of Earth,” Monica explained. “We have a selected number of leaders who have been at the helm driving our corporation forward since its inception. Our leaders take turns, each manning the position for a number of years before being put back into hyper sleep to await their next tenure as leader.”

“If that’s the case, then how old are these leaders?” Brother Enoch sat back in his stool, clearly disturbed. “They could be hundreds of years old.”

“I don’t know their exact ages or how many leaders are in the rotation.” Monica shrugged. “All I know was that when Commander Shaw was wounded, an order was put out to wake our next commander immediately.”

“And this Commander Barnum placed Shaw in the brig?” I asked, moving the narrative along. “Why?”

“Phoenix Corporation’s main directive since Earth was killed is bringing life back. When Commander Barnum saw the reports of the time and resources used to defeat the Voy on Mars, she deemed Commander Shaw a traitor to the cause,” Monica explained slowly as if she were reading her words from a script. “She said he was incompetent, leading us away from our primary objective. She’s going to hold a trial for him tomorrow. There’s no doubt she’s going to find him guilty and execute him as such.”

The room sat quiet as we all soaked in Monica’s words.

Phoenix Corp has their own freaking army, I thought to myself. How are we going to deal with this one?

“We could assassinate Commander Barnum,” Cassie said simply. “No one to pass judgment on Shaw, then he lives.”

“That’s a bit extreme, if I may say so,” Enoch’s eyes were as wide as my own.

“Even I wasn’t thinking that,” I said with a smile. “Commander Shaw was willing to communicate with us. Maybe she’ll be willing to hear us out. To be honest, I’m tired of fighting all the time.”

“I never thought I’d hear you say that.” Monica leaned back in her bed. “Maybe I hit my heard harder than I thought.”

“You heard me right,” I said. “I thought coming back to Earth to rebuild was going to be less bleeding and more building. So far, I’ve been wrong. I’m not backing down from anything, but our allies are fewer and fewer these days. I already have Aleron out to get us. I’d rather not provoke our neighbors to the south if I can help it.”

“Even if you can talk to this Commander Barnum again, what do we say about Monica?” Cassie asked. “We can’t really tell her that Monica came to warn us about her.”

“Commander Barnum respects me and my father,” Monica said without hesitation. “We’re the ones that created the super seed that will fulfill Phoenix Corp’s primary objective. I can tell her I was surveying the newly planted seeds, that I wanted to go alone without an escort. I can say that I drove off course and that’s when the Reapers gave chase. My radio was shot, so I couldn’t call for help. It’s not that far from the truth.”

“You think she’ll buy it?” Cassie asked with an upturned eyebrow.

“I think she’ll go along with the story if it means having me back and being able to speak with the hero of the Battle of Mars.” Monica looked over at me with a silly grin. “You’re a celebrity now.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I have zero desire to—”

Bapz walked in through the doors to the medical wing at that exact moment.

“Master Hunt—I mean, Daniel,” Bapz said, catching himself. “You’re being requested at the front gate.”

“Grimm Reapers?” I asked, checking the drum of the MK II on my hip.

“Worse,” Bapz answered with a straight face. “Reporters.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

When I walked out the front doors, I was not prepared to see what waited for me. An army of vehicles ranging from beat-up rusted SUVs to dirt bikes with side cars were parked outside the gates.

Along with the myriad of vehicles were a mob of reporters from the smallest tabloid to the largest televised channel. The sight was almost amusing. These reporters weren’t used to coming to Earth. Hardly anybody did anymore.

The only dropships that made the trip were burdened with either prisoners going to the Hole in New Vegas or scavengers hired by the wealthy on the Moon and Mars to go and bring them back relics from the old world.

Earth was a skeleton no one wanted anything to do with besides a few like Phoenix Corp, who saw the possibility of bringing life back.

These reporters in their finely made suits and dresses had driven here or been driven here from the closest port, New Vegas. I wasn’t sure if they rented, bought vehicles, or hired locals to make the drive, but whatever the case, it was clear they did not belong.

Right now, they clamored at the gate, looking up in awe at Dragon Hold, which still rested on its thruster, not yet buried into the ground.

A pair of Way members stood at the closed gates speaking with them now. I was surprised to realize I knew them both. Sister Monroe and Eli were both members of the Way settlement on Mars that had been overrun by the Voy. I even traded a few blows with Eli when things got tough. He was big man, unsure of himself at the time, but he was one of the good ones.

Cassie whistled under her breath as we approached.

“I’m not sure I want to do this,” I said honestly. “This is the last thing we need. We should be getting Monica back to the Phoenix base and rescuing Commander Shaw.”

“Does something seem off about her?” Cassie asked thoughtfully.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean her story.” Cassie shrugged as if she couldn’t quite put her finger on what she wanted to say. “It’s just too perfect. It fits too well for her being here. I don’t know; does that make sense?”

“It does, but Monica’s a friend,” I answered. “We can trust her. We’ll dive deeper into her story when we have more time.”

I looked over to Bapz, who strode with us. Still in his pristine suit, the robot’s metallic skin shone in the midday sun.

“Bapz, are we sure I have to do this?” I asked.

“It’s better to get this over with or the reporters will camp outside of the gates until you speak with them,” Bapz warned. “I’ve seen it done before on Mars when I served the Cripps family. Reporters are a dedicated and ruthless bunch. Strong-headed and stubborn, I assure you.”

Somewhere deep down, I knew Bapz was right. That didn’t mean I liked it any more.

“When he’s free, Mr. Hunt will come and speak with you, but not until then,” Sister Monroe said to the crowd outside the gates. “We’ve all been through a lot. Please give us time.”

“Is it true that this structure can fly?” a woman wearing way too much makeup asked. A box-like camera hovered over her shoulder, capturing every word.

“Were you there when the aliens attacked?” a man asked, pressing forward through the throng. “Are you a Way settler? I heard that a Way settlement was attacked first during the Voy invasion of Mars.”

“Why is it that no one came forward to the media from your corporation?” another woman shouted to be heard over all of the questions. Her hovering camera clicked a few pictures, sending bright white lights at Sister Monroe and Eli. “Can you confirm that this is the Cripp family estate?”

The closer and closer I walked to the gates, the less and less I really wanted to do this. I thought Butch and her pack were wolves. These people gave the term a whole different meaning.

I stopped short, realizing I didn’t want to do any of this. A few more steps and the reporters standing on the ground just outside the gates would be able to see me.

“You know what? On second thought, I think I have something I left on the stove,” I said, turning back to the manor. “That’s right; I was cooking something. I should go check on it.”

Bapz got in my way.

“Oh really?” Cassie asked with an amused twist of her lips. “What were you cooking?”

“Things,” I said, allowing Bapz to turn me around.

“Better to face the music now and let them leave,” Bapz coached me. “Trust me.”

Like a convict walking to the gallows, I hung my head and trudged forward.

“There he is! There he is!” someone shouted as they caught a glimpse of me at the gates. “Daniel Hunt! The hero from the Battle of Mars!”

The group went wild. So many pictures were snapped, I thought I was going to have permanent retinal scarring from the flashes. Cameras zoomed this way and that in the air to try and get the best angle.

So many questions were asked at once, the words melded into one another.

“You sure you’re up to this?” Eli asked from my right.

“We’ll keep them at bay if you need some time,” Sister Monroe agreed. “You just got back.”

“We’ll take care of this now,” I said to her, shaking my head. “Thank you, though. Both of you.”

Sister Monroe nodded.

“Down, down, you jackals!” Eli boomed. “He can’t answer any of your questions if he can’t hear you. One at a time!”

I found a new respect growing for the man. Prior to this, Eli managed to overcome his fear to fight the Voy but I’d never seen him as a leader.

The play worked not just because Eli was a large, intimidating individual when he wanted to be. His voice carried a distinct power in it.

I looked over to Eli, turning down the corners of my mouth and nodding.

“Not bad,” I whispered to him in the space of the newfound silence. “I’ll have to promote you to deal with the media from now on.”

“Please don’t,” Eli only half joked.

“You’ve all been to some kind of class where you have to raise your hand to talk, right?” Eli asked, turning back to the crowd. “We’re going to do that here. Be patient and you answers will come.”

Erratic nods returned Eli’s words. Almost every hand was already in the air, eagerly waiting to be called on. There had to be two, maybe three dozen reporters present all with their cube shaped hovering cameras clicking away and no doubt recording the interaction.

“You.” Eli pointed with a knife hand to a young woman near the front. “Go ahead.”

“Stacy Holt with Mars News Daily,” the woman introduced herself. “Were you in fact at the Battle of Mars and led the coalition of corporation and Galactic Government against an alien invasion?”

“I didn’t lead them alone,” I answered. “It was a joint effort.”

“Your name keeps coming up in this story,” Stacy pressed. “What role or position did you play in the battle?”

“I fought the Voy and helped coordinate that effort,” I answered. “I’m not sure what else you want from me. I’m not a part of the Galactic Government nor do I hold any rank.”

“You with the scarf.” Eli pointed to a man wearing a bright yellow scarf around his neck. He sprayed some kind of sun protection or bug spray on his face that had not ben rubbed in. White splotches covered his exposed skin.

“There are so many questions,” the man said in a huff. “Is this the Cripp family estate that was on Mars? How did you come by it? Why are you here on this dead planet?”

“Yes, it was given to me and the business is my own,” I answered.

I had thought about going into detail about what we were doing here on Earth, but who knows how the media would spin it or if that would help or hinder our mission here.

More clamoring broke out as question after question came with Eli doling out the order. It felt like I was there for hours. In all reality, it was probably thirty minutes, but I was reminded how time could stretch when you were doing something you didn’t want to.

More and more questions came about the Voy, what my corporation was now, and my past. I dodged what I could and answered what I had to.

Sister Monroe was the one that finally called an end to all the questions.

“That’s it for now,” Sister Monroe shouted, doing her best to sound polite while being firm. “You can contact us for future interviews. In the meantime, I wouldn’t recommend that you stay here. New Vegas is the only real city for hours around. There are mutated animals and roving gangs, so be careful on your way back.”

With that, Sister Monroe nodded to me and I was allowed to leave the front gates. Bapz and Cassie joined me now that I was finished.

I could hear the cacophony of questions go off again. Thank the Lord of the Way for Sister Monroe and Eli.

“See, that wasn’t so bad.” Bapz patted me on the shoulder. “Give them something to report on now. We’ll schedule another press conference in the future, maybe some one-on-one interviews, and sooner or later, they’ll lose interest and move on to the next story. They always do.”

“So between things like assassinating Commander Barnum and bringing life back to Earth, we can juggle one-on-one interviews with the media,” Cassie said, also patting my back. “I’m kidding. I won’t assassinate Commander Barnum—maybe.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. I knew Cassie was trying to lighten the mood. It was working.

My stomach grumbled, reminding me that I had missed the noon-day meal. A headache was also coming on. I needed food and fast.

“I’ll have some food sent to your room if you’d like to shower and change,” Bapz suggested. “I know there is a long list of what needs to be done next going through your mind.”

“I’d be lost without you, Bapz,” I said, not for the first time finding myself grateful for his friendship. “We have an ancient commander to deal with next.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

After a shower and much needed food, it was agreed upon that Monica should make the call to Commander Barnum with me present. Bapz showed us to a room on the ground floor filled with books. Each wall contained hundreds of volumes stacked side by side in cases that started on the ground and reached the ceiling.

In the middle of the room was a desk with a holographic screen that popped up from the smooth surface. Monica took a seat, as did I. We were alone for the first time since we rescued her from the Grimm Reapers.

Monica looked better, maybe a little tired. We each took a seat in front of the screen as Monica made the call.

“I’m sorry to put all of this on you, but I didn’t know who else to go to,” she said, pausing as she entered the numbers for the line but didn’t press the send instruction. “You’ve already done so much for me and my father.”

“You’re a friend and so is Commander Shaw,” I answered. “I understand.”

“I don’t think you do, Daniel.” Monica bit her lower lip, shaking her head. “I’m so sorry.”

“What are you—”

I saw the weapon in her hand at the same time she pulled the trigger. There was no time to react, even for my enhanced reflexes. There was no noise when the small black weapon went off. A small metallic dart with four prongs lodged in my stomach.

I rose from the chair, more pissed than anything else.

“Why?” I asked, feeling the effect of whatever she shot me with start to spread in my body. A cold numbing sensation over took my stomach and torso.

I lunged for her, but my movements were slow and clumsy. She had more than enough time to rise from her own chair and back away. She shot me two more times in the chest.

“It has to be this way and I hope one day you’ll understand,” Monica said, swallowing hard. “Don’t worry; the sedative I’m giving you is a tranquilizer. I’m sure you’ll be up in the next few minutes. Your body will burn through the sedative quickly.”

My tongue felt like lead in my mouth. I reached for her again in slow motion. She was too far away for the act to pose any real threat to her.

I tried calling out for help, but my voice wasn’t working.

Monica shot me three more times in my neck, arm, and left leg. She was a lousy shot.

I sank to my knees then hit the floor, head first.

There were no dreams or nightmares that came with the tranquilizer, just blissful darkness, at least I thought so.

“Man, you are a sucker for a girl with a sob story,” the voice reached me in blackness.

I recognized the voice, although I couldn’t place it just yet.

“I thought I was going to get away with no crazy dreams this time,” I said to the black room.

“And I thought you were going to prepare for other alien visitors once the Voy were defeated,” the female voice answered. “But there are other plans set in place for us.”

A light went on no more than a few meters away. A tall woman dressed in white, the same one who warned me about the Voy, stood staring at me. She looked human enough, but I knew better.

“I thought you weren’t going to visit me anymore,” I answered. “Your order or people don’t want you to interfere or offer any more help.”

“That was then.” The woman smiled. Wrinkles touched the corners of her eyes. “You have defeated the Voy and now I’m able to visit you once more.”

“I really wish you wouldn’t.” I lifted both arms, palms toward her. “I appreciate all your help, but you don’t exactly come with good news. Even right now, I’m guessing you’re about to drop a bomb on me.”

“No offense taken.” The woman chuckled good naturally. “I understand. I do not envy you in this life, Daniel Hunt. Your burden is great.”

A rogue idea struck me. I wasn’t sure if this woman could tell the future, but she had some kind of insight to be able to warn me of the Voy and whatever it was she was here for now.

“Nemesis,” I asked. “X; is she really what he says she is?”

I blurted out the question, expecting the woman to know what I was talking about.

The woman remained quiet. Any sign of merriment in her eyes vanished so completely, I had to wonder if it had ever really been there in the first place.

“I cannot see the future, neither would I if it were made available to me,” Alerna said with a shake of her head. “I do know that you are where you are supposed to be. You should spend more time consolidating your resources and building an army. I told you once before that the Voy invasion has brought many species looking at your Galaxy. Some will come seeking a new home; others, like the Voy, seeking resources.”

“I thought defeating the Voy would have sent a message to the universe not to mess with us,” I answered. “What about that?”

“Oh, you did.” The woman looked at me with respect in her eyes. “I am proud of the man you are turning into, Daniel Hunt. With the defeat of the Voy, you gave anyone else pause when it comes to an outright invasion of your species.”

I caught everything she wasn’t saying with how her words hung in the air when she said “outright invasion.”

“You think aliens would come and try to sneak into our planets like the moon, Earth, Mars,” I said out loud as I worked through the idea. “Not a full-out attack but a cold war?”

“They are already here,” the stranger said. “They already live among you.”

“Where?” I asked, sensing a close to the conversation when I still had so many questions to ask. “No, don’t you dare do this again. Don’t come into my life dropping twenty questions and only giving me ten answers.”

“It is my time to go,” the stranger said with something like pride in her eyes. “You should know we are very pleased with you.”

“Well, that makes one of us.” I crossed my hands over my chest, feeling helpless in the moment. “One of these days, you need to come here and get your hands dirty for once.”

“If that day ever comes, it will be dire indeed.”

“Let’s just call that day today.”

The woman vanished. The light above her went out, leaving me in darkness again.

“Man,” I mumbled. “I can’t even get a break when I’m passed out unconscious. I need a vacation.”

One moment I stood in a dark room thinking I needed time off, the next I woke up on the ground of the library breathing hard. A cold sweat gathered at my brow. I had no idea how long I was unconscious, but it couldn’t have been long. Monica said it herself, the serum she shot me with ran its course quickly as my body burned it off.

I jumped to my feet, feeling a bit wobbly.

Since X was gone, I had no ready means available to communicate with Bapz or anyone else, for that matter. I stumbled over to the desk with the holo screen. I was just about to hit the controls when the door burst open. Bapz stood there, his eyes wide.

I get it. There were so many darts sticking out of my body, I must have looked like a freaking pin cushion to him.

“Daniel.” Bapz rushed over to me. “Are you okay?”

“Not in the least,” I said, tasting a metallic sourness in my mouth. “Monica, she’s—there’s something wrong with her. I’m not sure how long I’ve been out. We have to find her.”

Bapz nodded along with my words as he plucked the empty tranquilizer needles off my body. He flung them to the side as if they were lint caught on my shirt.

“We will, we will,” Bapz agreed. “I’ll—”

The way the robot cut off his own words made me look over and give him my full attention. Blaster rounds being fired from somewhere in the house above us told me everything I needed to know.

Monica was still in the building.

“I just received a communication via the camera grid,” Bapz said as we rushed for the door. “Monica’s in the tech room. She’s going after X.”

Bapz and I sprinted down the open hall and up the stairs. I was limited on how fast I could run, since I had never been to the tech room before. That was probably for the best, as I had a hard time keeping my feet under me with the drugs still wearing off.

More blaster fire came from the second level as we pounded up the steps. All around us, workers either ran from the sounds or toward it with weapons in hand.

We burst through a broken glass door into a white room portioned by clear glass. Many of the glass walls were shattered now, thanks to the weapon fire that had been exchanged.

Steel tables and trays lined the walls. There were clean counter tops and tools in each of the portioned-off glass rooms.

Two technicians lay wounded on the ground. Once gripped his left leg and the other her right shoulder. Monica stood near the far side of the room with a blaster in her right hand. In her left, she held a young technician in a white coat.

I had seen the young man before, more of a kid really. He had been a member of the Way come to work at Dragon Hold on the tech team. He looked terrified, visibly shaking as Monica pressed the weapon into the side of his head.

“She has X,” Wesley warned me. Wesley was the only person in the room who stood facing Monica. He leveled his own blaster at her head. A smear of blood trickled down his left arm where he had already been struck.

A handful of other technicians hid behind overturned tables, their eyes full of fear.

Behind us, the manor security force piled into the room. These men and women were mostly ex Immortal Corp members. They wore black uniforms with minimal body armor, only a protective chest piece that covered their torsos.

Each one of them leveled some kind of weapon at Monica.

Monica kept looking at us to the line of windows on her right as if she were waiting for someone or something.

“She moved so fast, I hardly had time to react,” Wesley confessed. “She walked in here like everything was peaches and cream and then started unloading on people. X is in her right pocket. Monica put her in some kind of container.”

“This could have all been avoided if you didn’t stick your nose in it,” Monica growled at Wesley. “All of you would be sleeping on the ground. No one had to die, but oh well. I guess what’s done is done.”

My mind was doing backflips. The Monica Warden I knew would have never caused injury to the innocent. There was no way this could be the same woman. She had to be under some kind of mind control or something else altogether.

I decided to go with my gut instinct.

“I’m not sure who or what you are,” I said, taking a step closer with my arms out. “But there’s no way you’re getting out of here alive. Even if you jump out that window, you keep looking out of, this estate is equipped with turrets that’ll shoot you down before your feet hit the ground.”

Monica licked her lips. Her dark hair shimmered for a moment. Or maybe that was my imagination. I blinked twice. I needed to get my eyes checked.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Monica blinked twice. Her eyes went from the brown I knew to yellow, almost cat-like. “You have no idea what kind of game you’re playing.”

“I don’t want to play any games,” I said. “Let the kid in your arms go and give me X. If you do that right now, I won’t kill you.”

“So generous,” Monica said. Her voice was changing now. It came out with each word elongated and over pronounced. “But I think I’ll pass.”

“X, can you hear me?” I asked.

“She can’t,” the woman who I was positive was not Monica Warden answered. “I have her in a black box that blocks any communication in or out. I’d also think twice about using those turrets. A misplaced shot and X here is nothing more than a few data circuits.”

Once again, the Monica impersonator looked out the window to her right.

She came back this time with a wicked smile on her lips.

“Well, this has been fun, but my ride’s here,” the woman said. “Hopefully, I’ll never see you again.”

With that, she shoved the young technician forward and threw herself out the window.


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

This was one of those times in life where all reason went out the window, literally. I saw it in slow motion as the woman I thought was Monica Warden hurled herself from the second-story window, shattering the glass and falling out of view.

The turrets went off at the same time. A black orb of crackling energy whizzed by the windows. Nemesis.

“Bapz, the turrets!” I yelled as I sprinted for the last window on the left side of the wall.

Nemesis swooped down, catching the Monica Warden impersonator by the arm. Their flight course would take them straight past the row of windows. If I hurried, I could intercept them by crashing through the last window in line.

It was a crazy idea, but I never claimed to be sane.

I pumped my legs underneath my body, sprinting for the window at full speed. Lucky for me, the sedatives I was pumped full of minutes before were now completely out of my system. Contrary to what most people might have thought, I was thinking with a clear head.

I crossed the distance of the tech room and slammed into the glass window using my left arm to shield my face.

My trajectory couldn’t have been any better. I tackled the Monica impersonator, latching around her neck and torso.

Nemesis held her by both hands at the moment as they flew past the manor. With my added weight, we all shook as if we were going to fall.

“What the—” Nemesis’ words broke off as he looked down to see my grinning face.

“Good to see you again too,” I said through gritted teeth as I choked the woman who had shot me with the tranquilizer.

The Monica impersonator said something, but I couldn’t really make it out. It sounded like, “Cshhsw rrr ugghh.”

My objective right now wasn’t to kill her, but rather to make her drop. I wasn’t going to let X be taken by this psychotic pair of whatever they were.

Flying over the manor grounds, Nemesis let go of one of his accomplices’ hand so she could try and get me off. We were inside the black orb of Nemesis’ energy, but it was unnecessary for him to even have it in use.

Bapz granted my request to turn the turrets off. If there was even the slightest chance X could be injured, I wasn’t willing to take it.

I pulled myself up Monica’s body and began hammering at the hold Nemesis had on her hand. The woman impersonating Monica had totally let go of Nemesis now, trying in vain to get me off. Her fingers scratched at my face and eyes.

I ignored it, hammering my right fist over and over again into Nemesis’ grip on the woman. A manic panic took over at the thought of losing X.

The world spun around me as Nemesis tried to support the three of us as we flew over the estate grounds.

Finally, I was rewarded with a grunt from the man known as Nemesis. When he lost his grip on the Monica impersonator, both she and I fell to the ground in a heap of arms and legs.

We were half a kilometer out from the estate gates. I could still see it behind us in the distance. It was a wonder we had managed to travel so fast so far.

Sand kicked up in front of me as a line of Grimm Reaper vehicles careened toward us.

Nemesis came down to help up the woman that I had landed on top of.

“Laine,” Nemesis asked her as she rose to her feet, “are you well?”

“He almost strangled me!” The woman, who was not like any woman I had ever seen before, rose to her feet or paws.

In front of my eyes, I witnessed the impossible; that seemed like a common trend lately. In the dying light of the midday sun, the Monica impersonator’s hair receded into her head. Her face grew wider, her skin turned to short, dark fur.

In a second’s time, the woman named Laine shifted from human to what I could only describe as a cat-like humanoid.

If I had more time to process what I saw, I might have been disturbed.

I’ve got to lay off that high-octane caf, I thought to myself, blinking as I took in Laine. That’s not natural.

The Grimm Reaper vehicles surrounded us quickly. Weapons were trained on the three of us. Sand brought into the air by the Grimm Reaper vehicles scratched at my face and hands. There was nowhere to run. Right now, I just had to buy some time. Everyone in Dragon Hold would see what happened. It was just a matter of minutes before they loaded up and came out this way to help.

Not to my surprise, Aleron stepped off a worn buggy. He lifted dark goggles from his eyes to his forehead and gave us all a big grin that said everything except that he was actually happy to see us.

“Well, aren’t we all just one big happy dysfunctional family,” Aleron said with a chuckle. He opened his massive arms wide to take us all in. Lucky me, he headed over in my direction first. “Daniel Hunt, the thorn in my side. The man who just won’t back down. Good to see you.”

“Aleron,” I said, looking at him with a fake grin of my own. “May I call you Aleron? You’re happy to see me? Something tells me you don’t really mean that.”

“You know what, Danny boy,” Aleron said, planting a meaty fist in the center of my gut. “You’re right. I don’t.”

I doubled over, gasping for breath and falling to my knees a second later. Coughing, I tried to suck in air.

The Grimm Reapers all got a good laugh. They hollered and clapped at the action. A few of them even called me derogatory terms I’m pretty sure Enoch or any follower of the Way would not have approved of. I even learned a few new curse words.

“Fight amongst your own on your time,” Nemesis said to Aleron. “We had a deal. The AI chip for our son.”

I stopped gaging long enough to look surprised. My head felt like it was going to explode. I rubbed at my temples with my right hand, trying to understand everything.

“That we did,” Aleron agreed. “Although it’s going to be a shame not having you alien scum to do our dirty work.”

“My son!” Laine demanded.

“The AI first,” Aleron said with an outstretched hand.

“How do we know once we give it to you that you won’t go back on your word?” Nemesis asked. Black matter began cracking at his hands.

“Easy there, Lord of Darkness.” Aleron waved his right hand forward.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the Grimm Reapers exit a rusted van that ran on a miracle. The Grimm Reaper shoved a small child in front of him. The kid had to be four, maybe five. I was horrible at guessing kids’ ages.

The one thing that was obvious in a scenario full of questions was that the kid wasn’t human. The child was bound by his wrists. He had less fur than his mother but enough to cover his face and exposed arms.

“Alexon!” Laine said, taking a step toward her son.

“Momma!” The small boy looked as if he were going to run to his mother.

The Grimm Reaper behind the boy gave a toothy smile before pressing a blaster into the back of the child’s head.

“No!” Nemesis shouted. “We have it. We have what you wanted.”

Laine reached into the pocket of the white pants she wore. A troubled look crossed her brow. She looked down, shoving both hands into her pockets.

“No,” Laine said. “It was right here. I had it. I—”

She looked over to me.

During our little confrontation while Nemesis took us for a ride, I had managed to snag the black case holding X and shove it into my own pocket.

“He has it,” Laine said, pointing to me. “He must have taken it from me.”

All eyes and weapons swung in my direction.

I was in a bit of a pickle, to say the least. On one hand, I wasn’t about to give up X to let Aleron do whatever it was he wanted to do with her. On the other, I wasn’t about to stand around and watch some furry kid die, alien or not.

“We’ve got motion from their base!” a Grimm Reaper shouted from the roof of one of the vehicles. He extended an ancient pair of binoculars to his eyes. “They’ll be here soon.”

“By that time, we’ll be gone.” Aleron waved the warning away. Instead, he walked back over to me, where I still knelt in the sand. “Is it true? Do you have the AI?”

“Hypothetically speaking,” I started, still trying to stall. “If I did, what would you be wanting with said AI? I can’t imagine you want her to read books to you. You don’t strike me as the reading type. You look more of the picture kind of guy to me. You know picture books?”

Aleron backhanded me so hard, I think I might have blacked out for a second. My head whipped to the left. Stars exploded across my visions. A wave of blood spurted out of a cut lip.

“I feel like that was uncalled for,” I said, licking at my split lip. “I was just trying to have a conversation with you about literacy. I’m concerned for yo—”

Aleron backhanded me again.

I shook it off as my head pounded with pain.

“Okay, okay,” I said, swallowing hard. “Maybe you do like books being read to you. Maybe you do want to learn to read and that’s a great thing. I support that. Maybe we can enroll you in a few adult education class—”

Aleron growled in anger. Placing a thick boot in my chest, he slammed me backward. A knife flashed in his hand. The big man was on top of me before I had time to react, skewing my right palm into the sand with his blade.

“Rawww!” I roared in pain. It felt like pure fire being driven through my open palm.

“Funny now, are we?” Aleron spat as he rose to his feet, ripping his blade free. “Laugh now. Give it to me before I stick you again.”

Aleron emphasized that last point by kicking me so violently in my side, I was sure my ribs were bruised, maybe broken.

My eyes darted over to the child. Alexon stood in his captor’s grip, eyes brimming with tears. Both Nemesis and Laine looked from me to their child, helpless.

“Boss, we got incoming from the manor,” the Grimm Reaper on top of the roof said, lowering his binoculars. “We got to go.”

Aleron waved a dismissive hand at the warning. He looked at me and back to the child, however.

“You have a soft spot for kids, huh?” Aleron walked over to Alexon. He sheathed his knife and brought a heavy blaster out of his holster. He placed he muzzle against Alexon’s head.

“No!” Laine screamed.

“Wait!” I yelled at the same time.

I gathered myself, struggling to my knees. At the same time I reached into my pocket and brought out the small black case that held, X. As much as I hated giving in to this bully, I knew what X would have wanted. I wasn’t sure what Aleron wanted with her, but I knew he would kill Alexon if I refused to hand her over.

“Here, take it,” I said, handing the box over to Aleron. “Take it and leave the kid alone.”

“Boss, we really got to—”

Blaster fire punctured the air as if we stood in the middle of a fireworks show. Aleron grabbed the black case from my hand. I saw it in his eyes as soon as he did so. He had no intention of keeping his word.

His finger squeezed the trigger.


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

I just reacted. It wasn’t because I liked Laine or Nemesis, it wasn’t because I had a soft spot for kids. It was because I refused to let this child suffer for the sins of his mother and father.

I threw my body toward Alexon, at the same time grabbing Aleron’s weapon and ripping it toward myself. There was no time to get a good grip on the blaster or even try and rip it from his hand. All I could do was try and place my body between the weapon and the child.


To my unreliable recollection, I couldn’t ever remember getting shot in the gut at such a close range. I did now. The pain was shattering. It was as if I wasn’t even able to move and instead was forced to live in a moment of pure agony, frozen in place by the level of pain. I looked down to see my stomach a mess of blood and ripped flesh. Breathing was so difficult, I could barely manage the act.

“You idiot,” Aleron said, placing the smoking barrel of his weapon to my forehead. “I wonder if you’ll be able to heal yourself if there’s nothing left of your skull to replace?”

I wasn’t able to move. I shook against the pain, hoping against hope some miracle would take place so I could live long enough to see Aleron fall, even if I wasn’t the one that would be his executioner.

Weapon fire filled the air as the forces from Dragon Hold clashed against the Grimm Reapers for the second time that day.

Aleron snarled at me, bringing his face in so close, I could see the deep scar on the left side of his face in detail.

His eyes were a combination of hate, rage, and pleasure.

Just when I thought it was over, Nemesis tackled Aleron bringing the big man to the ground. Aleron had to outweigh Nemesis by a good eighty pounds. Still, Nemesis took him to the ground.

Laine rushed forward, grabbing her son and cradling him close. The boy was crying, shaking as he looked down at me. His mother shielded him from rounds being traded back and forth between our forces.

She took one look at me bleeding out on the ground and used her body to shield both me and the boy.

One arm wrapped around her son, the other around me, she kept repeating over and over again, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“I didn’t do it for you,” I said, struggling to rise to my feet and push the woman off. At the moment, all I could think of was X, who was in the hands of Aleron. I needed to get her back.

As most fights do, the battle came to a conclusion quickly. Aleron took a few blows from Nemesis, who laid into him with his fist covered in black energy.

From the left, one of Aleron’s soldiers leveled a heavy rocket launcher at Nemesis and fired a round.

Nemesis saw the weapon pointed at him just in time, forming a black wall of protective energy between both him and the weapon.

The rocket hit Nemesis so hard, it threw him off Aleron and sent him careening into the sand meters away.

“Let’s go!” Aleron roared over the weapons fire. “We got what we came for.”

My body was already healing itself and the initial shock of the impact began to wear off. I rolled over to my hands and knees, rising to my feet. I felt unsteady and nowhere near ready to fight. But I wasn’t going to lie down while Aleron took X. I didn’t even know what he wanted her for.

I stumbled forward as the Grimm Reapers jumped into their vehicles and sped off into the distance. Weaponless, I couldn’t do much besides grab on to the closest vehicle as it roared to life.

I wished it had been the one Aleron rode in, but it wasn’t. I grabbed on to a small vehicle with large tires in the back and smaller ones in the front. There was a driver and passenger in the front and two more in the rear seat.

One second I was barely moving over the sand stumbling forward, the next I was latched on to the rear of the vehicle. I found a handhold on a supply rack bolted onto the rear of the vehicles carrying boxes I assumed were supplies or maybe even weapons.

Sand filled my eyes and mouth. I tasted the gritty substance, ignoring the way the sand stung my eyes. Anger of my own drove me now, not only for what the Grimm Reapers were about to do to the child, but for what they might do with X.

My muscles strained. The grip my hand found on the bar burned and threatened to lose hold at any moment. My body was dragged across the sand at a speed I could only imagine.

Out of my peripheral vision, I saw one of our newer black SUVs from Dragon Hold give chase. I couldn’t tell who was driving, but in the back of my mind, it gave me hope. At least I had some kind of backup.

Come on, Daniel, I coached myself in my head. You’ve never given up before. That’s not who you are. What would X tell you if she were here? She’d tell you to keep going no matter what, that you’re stronger than you know and you have what it takes to get it done.

All of this ran through my mind in a second’s time. I steeled my resolve and concentrated on climbing the rack in front of me one hand at a time.

My legs and lower body skipped and rocked over the sand, bringing a new wave of pain every time I landed. My stomach was barely healing over. I wasn’t sure if my regenerative ability was enough to negate the new damage I took every second being dragged behind the Grimm Reapers.

Whoever was at the wheel sure didn’t have his proper license or training. I was grateful they had yet to realize I was behind them. I could only imagine what the driver would do if he knew I followed in his wake.

One painful pull at a time I dragged my upper body up the rack and onto the rear bumper of the vehicle. I crouched low so they wouldn’t be able to see me out the rear window.

The black SUV from Dragon Hold racing beside me rolled down the passenger rear window. My heart sank as Cryx looked out at me with a thumbs-up.

“We’re coming to help you!” Cryx shouted.

I was going to strangle Preacher for letting her come on the mission when this was all over. Instead of worrying about that at the moment, I just gave Cryx a hard stare then stood up on the rear grate of the vehicle.

Without giving the dirt-stained window a second look, I slammed my right fist through the glass. A lesson I learned early on in training was that when you struck something, you didn’t hit it; you punched through it.

I used that same philosophy now, shattering the glass. Blood ripped from my knuckles, spraying the inside of the vehicle and its occupants. Without pausing to see how they’d react, I grabbed the passenger on the rear right seat, ripping him from his space and dragging him through the broken window.

Glass ripped through his body as I tore him free and left him tumbling outside the back of the vehicle. I grabbed the second Grimm Reaper from his seat. He had just enough time to draw a blade from his belt. I clutched him by the throat, gripping as quickly and violently as I could and twisted.

I heard his neck snap as I dove through the small rear window.

The passenger in the front seat turned with a blaster in hand and fired a round at my head. I had enough time to duck then proceeded to choke him from behind.

The driver moved his eyes from the road long enough to strike me in the face twice. I refused to loosen the grip on the man I had in front of me. From my place behind the passenger side seat, I walked my legs up to the left and forward, striking out with a boot to the driver’s jaw.

I was rewarded with a heavy thud. The vehicles jerked back and forth. The man I held on to with my arms clawed at my hold around his throat. The driver fought off my feet, reaching for his own blaster stuck in his waistband. I was quickly running out of appendages to deal with the men.

Out of the driver side window, I witnessed the impossible. The black SUV pulled up alongside of the Grimm Reaper’s buggy. Cassie rolled down the passenger side window. I caught Preacher at the wheel.

Why did they let the guy with one eye drive? I thought as I watched.

Cassie climbed out the window onto the top of the SUV without hesitation. As soon as she was on the roof, she leapt off, landing on top of the Grimm Reaper vehicle with a heavy thud.

All three of us inside the vehicle looked at one another as if we were confirming we had all seen the same thing.

“She’s crazier than I am,” I told the Grimm Reapers. “Now you’re really in trouble.”

As if to punctuate my words, a pair of razor sharp claws slammed through the roof of the vehicle then ripped backwards as Cassie tore into the roof with her augmented weapons.

I wasn’t sure what the driver was thinking. Maybe he knew his end was near or he was trying some insane attempt at trying to escape. Whatever was going through his mind, it didn’t work.

The driver jerked the wheel to the left, hammering our vehicle into the black SUV.

With a violent jerk to the man in front of me, I heard his neck snap.

Cassie was through the roof now like someone using a sword to open a can. Like some kind of nightmare, she plucked the driver out of his seat.

“We need him!” I shouted. “Don’t kill him. We need to know what they want with X.”

Cassie held him up with her left arm. Out of her right foreman protruded the pair of blades. I knew more than anything she wanted to end the man there and then. I wanted him to die as well, but he had the answers we so desperately needed.

Without someone driving the vehicle, it eventually lost momentum and came to a stop. Out of the front windshield, I could see the rest of the Grimm Reapers in the distance hightailing it to wherever their base was located.

When both vehicles rolled to a stop, I joined Cassie and our captured prize on the ground.

“Thanks for the assist,” I said.

“Well, you know.” Cassie shrugged at me and winked. “I kind of like you now, so I can’t have you going out and doing anything stupid.”

Preacher and Cryx joined us as Cassie bound our prisoner.

“She needs to start coming,” Preacher said to me before I could protest. “She came on this one as a spectator only.”

Cryx looked at me as if she were bracing herself from the storm I was about to rain down on her.

“Okay,” I said with a hard nod.

Preacher and Cryx both looked to one another in shock.

I walked over to the Grimm Reaper who sat against the side of the vehicle. He was older with a wild red beard and a defiant gleam in his eyes. His clothes, like the rest of his body, were filthy.

He smelled like something Butch wouldn’t even touch.

“I’m not telling you crip!” the man spat at me as I walked up to him. “I’m not telling you crip!”

I just stared at him. I wasn’t trying to be intimidating or play any kind of mind games with him. I wasn’t in the mood.

“Aleron is going to make you pay!” the man cackled to the sky that now showed the very last rays of sunlight. “He’s got something in store for you that’s going to bring the entire galaxy to its knees.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

The ride back to Dragon Hold was quiet. Preacher drove with a wide-eyed Cryx in the front seat. Cassie and I sat on either side of our bound prisoner just in case he was stupid enough to try anything. I gagged him for good measure.

When we arrived at Dragon Hold, night had fallen. Bright lights lit up the grounds. The entire estate was on high alert. Guards roamed the perimeter in pairs. Butch ran up to me and whined when we pulled into the garage as if she were asking me, “Hey, how come I wasn’t invited?”

Wesley met us in the garage, handing me an earpiece so I could stay connected now that I didn’t have X.

Cassie and Preacher took the man down to the dungeon of the Hold.

“Nemesis and that—that furry woman named Laine voluntarily came back to the Hold when the fighting was all over,” Wesley told me. “You should hear what they have to say. They want to help. You saved their son.”

“Great,” I answered, placing the earpiece inside of my right ear. It was small enough to fit totally snug without any kind of hook or antenna around my ear. “My head already hurts trying to figure out what’s going on. But X comes first. I’m going to interrogate our new friend here.”

Preacher and Cassie walked the Grimm Reaper to the dungeon as Wesley, Butch, Cryx, and I followed a few steps behind.

“I understand,” Wesley answered. “But what Nemesis and Laine have to say may help. They’re weaving a wild tale.”

“Do you believe them?” I asked, thinking back to the story Nemesis told us about being from the future. “How do we know what to believe?”

“I believe they’re telling the truth now,” Wesley answered as we crossed the halls of the ground floor and made our way to the rear of the building where a flight of stairs led us to the dungeon of the estate. “When you’re done here, come and find us.”

Wesley turned back to Cryx and motioned for the girl to follow. “Come on, let’s go get you something to eat. I think we’ve had enough excitement for one day.”

Cryx was about to protest, but she caught the stone look in my eye and decided against it.

“In time,” I told her. “Don’t be in such a rush to witness it all now or turn into us. You may find you don’t like what you become.”

Cryx swallowed hard but obeyed.

Both she and Wesley turned to go as Butch and I continued to follow Cassie, Preacher, and our prisoner into the below ground section of the estate. Now that I knew Dragon Hold was actually a flying fortress, I could see the dungeon was located in a section of the engine room between the four thrusters that propelled it forward in space.

Whoever had designed the Hold was either crazy or a genius, maybe both.

I followed as Cassie and Preacher led the prisoner through the stone hall deeper into the underground section of the Hold. A heavy wooden door gave us access to a large chamber with cells lining each side.

I had only traveled to the dungeon once before when Echo was held here. The memory of my brother turned and brought back into the Pack left a bitter taste in my mouth.

The prisoner was still gagged, but that didn’t stop him from saying things with his body language or eyes. He swallowed hard, looking around the stone underground dungeon as if he were in a different world.

I guess in a way he was. The thick grey stones in the dungeon were fit together with mortar in a way architecture just wasn’t done anymore. No doubt the Cripps family had flown this in from somewhere on ancient Earth.

Cassie and Preacher shoved the man into a small cell. There was no window, barely enough room for all of us to stand.

Butch growled at the prisoner, showing all of her impressively pointed teeth. The prisoner backed away in fear.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to save X,” I said, not moving my eyes away from the prisoner. “If either of you aren’t okay with that, you should leave now.”

“She’s as much as part of our pack as anyone else,” Preacher answered. “I’m willing to do what needs to be done.”

“I’m with you,” Cassie answered in a cold tone.

I knelt down in front of the man, getting in his space. I had no desire to cause him harm, but my love for X as part of our family outweighed anything I wasn’t willing to do.

The man in front of me squirmed under my stare.

He shoved himself backward against the hard stone wall.

“I’m just going to be honest with you here,” I told him. “I don’t want to hurt you. All I want is information. If you refuse to give me that information, I’ll find a way to break you. I swear to you, I will break you. Do you understand? Do you believe me?”

Although the man refused to even nod, I knew I was getting through to him. That complete look of defiance he had worn on the ride to the Hold was slowly evaporating.

“I’m going to remove your gag now,” I told him. “All I want from you right now is your name. That’s it. Let’s start there. I’m Daniel. What’s your name?”

I reached up and pulled the thick tape from his mouth.

Whatever glimpse of doubt or remorse he wore in his eyes was now gone. The red-headed man spit in my face.

“I’m not telling you crip, I said!” the man roared. “You’re not getting anything out of me.”

I stood up, wiping the spit from the bridge of my nose and cheek.

“That would have been so disgusting if you got some spit in my mouth or eye,” I told him. “Come on, let’s get you up.”

The man flinched at my touch as I helped him to his feet. He shied away from looking at me as if I were insane.

“I’m going to take off your bonds now,” I told him.

“Daniel?” Preacher asked behind me.

“It just doesn’t feel right if he’s bound,” I said over my shoulder. “At least this way, he has a fighting chance.”

I pressed my fingerprint into the reader on the pair of magnetic cuffs Cassie used to secure him. The cuffs clicked with a sound that echoed out into the hall.

“I don’t know your name, but I’m just going to call you Spit,” I said, allowing the cuffs to fall from my grip to the stone floor. “So, Spit, any chance you’d like to rethink your previous answer?”

Spit’s eyes darted around the tight confines, searching for a way out. I don’t know what he was thinking, that he might be able to get through me, Preacher, Cassie, and Butch? The man wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.

Spit lunged at me with a right hook. I leaned back, dodging the blow, and sent a sideways strike with an open palm to his throat.

Spit gagged, falling to his knees, coughing in pain.

“Come on, Spit, come on,” I said, lifting him to his feet. “This can take as long as you want it to. I’m prepared to clear my schedule and spend the rest of my week with you. I’ve got all the time in the world. You don’t.”

I planted another open palm to his right ear, slammed a fist in his stomach, and then a right jab that shattered his nose.

Spit slumped forward, ready to fall to his knees.

“No, no, no,” I said, supporting him and leaning him against the stone wall behind him. “We just started. Plus, I mean, look at this view. This is going to be your home for the rest of your life. No more sky, no more fresh air; just you, darkness, and stone.”

Spit looked at me in horror.

“We’ll feed you just enough so you survive,” I told him. “If you refuse to eat, we’ll make sure to feed you intravenously. We’re going to give you the longest life we can. We’ll heal you, break you down, heal you and break you down as long as it takes. Look at me, Spit. Believe me. As long as it takes.”

I could tell I was getting through to him. That tough guy act was completely gone now as he held on to his broken nose.

“I’m going to go get some food and water,” I told him. “I’m thirsty. If you decide you want to talk, I’m ready to listen. Next time I come, I’m going to let the wolf tear into you. Maybe let her take the family jewels. You won’t be needing those in here.”

I turned to leave the room with Cassie and Preacher following behind. Butch gave Spit a menacing growl for good measure.

When we were outside, Preacher closed the door behind us.

“That was some pretty dark stuff,” Cassie said, tilting her head to the side. “Are you really planning on doing all of that? Saving X means nothing if you lose yourself in the process.”

“She’s right,” Preacher told me. “The path you’re on doesn’t end well. Trust me. I’ve traveled it myself. This isn’t you. You’re better than this.”

“I’m whatever I need to be to save X,” I answered both of them. “I’d do the same for either of you. I’m not going to leave X. She wouldn’t have left me.”

“No one’s talking about leaving X,” Cassie corrected me. “But losing yourself to find her isn’t the only option.”

“I’ll do it,” Preacher said, cracking his knuckles. “I lost myself a long time ago.”

“This one’s on me,” I said, shaking my head. “I’ll break his spirit. I’ll get inside his head with minimal damage to his body. I don’t want to kill him. I need answers.”

Preacher nodded as if that was enough for him.

Cassie looked at me with a raised eyebrow as if she didn’t buy it.

“In the meantime, Wesley said Nemesis and the shapeshifter who pretended to be Monica have information,” I said. “Let’s go and see if we can get anything resembling the truth from them.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

Preacher spoke through his comm link, finding out where Nemesis and Laine were being held. For safety purposes, Wesley thought it best to keep them outside in the rear of the estate under heavy guard.

We made our way in that direction now. Cassie matched me stride for stride, just staring at me.

“I can feel you boring into my head with that look,” I told her.

“Good,” Cassie answered. “I’m worried about you.”

“Don’t be,” I answered. “I’ll be fine.”

“I’m sure you will be, and that’s what worries me,” Cassie said. “Have you ever heard the saying ‘we make our own prisons’?”

“No, who said that?” I asked.

“I don’t remember, but that’s not the important part. What is important is that we remember every decision we make in this life has consequences. Even if we can accept and live with those consequences, it doesn’t mean that the memory won’t follow us and haunt us for the rest of our lives,” Cassie said simply. “I know X is like a sister to you. But think about what she would want and what you’re willing to do or not do to get her back. There are always other options, always another way that doesn’t walk with darkness.”

I paused as we reached the door leading outside.

I turned to the woman I had grown to like and maybe even more than like, although I couldn’t offer myself the emotional space to decide that at the moment.

“Thank you,” I told her, biting back my anger, not at her, but for the entire situation. “I know you’re trying to help.”

“Good,” Cassie said, reaching up and planting a kiss on my cheek. Her soft lips pressed against the days of hair growth on my skin. “Let’s go and see if we can get some truth out of our son.”

Cassie chuckled as I stood there shocked for a moment, soaking in her words.

“Too soon?” Cassie asked over her shoulder.

“Way too soon,” I answered, following her out the door. “There’s so much going on, my brain feels like puzzle pieces just sitting in a pile.”

It was night, and although I was exhausted, I knew that we had to do this. I’d drink caf to keep me going. In a way, that stuff was like liquid sleep, and right now, that would have to be enough.

Outside, Wesley had spared no measure of safety when it came to securing Nemesis, Laine, and their son. The large outer turrets on the estate were in their upright position from their spaces in the ground.

Along with them were two dozen armed guards in their flat black armor. A few heavy SUVs had also been rolled in from the garage. Each of these vehicles carried a massive rotating barrel weapon on top.

Although none of the weapons were pointed at Nemesis and his family, it was clear that, with a second’s notice, they could be.

Right now, Nemesis sat with Laine and his son eating a late meal. If it wasn’t for the fur on Laine and the boy, they might have passed for some human family out for a late night picnic or camping trip.

Laine caught my approach first.

She stood quickly, bringing every weapon in the compound pointing at her along with the turrets that I guessed Bapz controlled at the moment.

“Easy,” Nemesis said around a mouthful of sandwich. He also stood. “We just want to express our thanks to the man that saved our son.”

Wesley was there, along with Cryx and Preacher.

I looked over to see Preacher gripping the handle of his katana.

No one was taking any chances here. We’d already been burned by Nemesis once. I thought back to the technicians Laine had wounded in the lab. She was also the reason X was gone.

I stalked over to Nemesis and looked him in the eye. Without taking my gaze from him, I reached for the sandwich in his hand and took it from him. I bit into the thick meat and chewed, still staring at him.

“I want you to know that after what you did, I would have let them kill you.” I turned to Laine. “Both of you. But your boy doesn’t deserve to suffer for your sins. I was one of those boys who had to deal with the consequences of my parents’ decisions at an early age. They abandoned me, and because of that, I grew up on my own.”

Nemesis actually looked ashamed. He hung his head, breaking my stare. Laine, on the other hand, held my gaze. Tears sprang into her yellow feline-like eyes.

“You don’t understand,” Laine said, shaking her head. “We didn’t have a choice. You think we wanted to work for Aleron? He threatened to kill our son. I’d do anything to save him, anything.”

I took another bite of the sandwich. A twinge of guilt for taking it out of Nemesis’ hand like a bully prodded at me. I was pretty sure I needed it more than him anyway.

“Explain,” I answered. “Everything. I want to know everything. Why you look like me, if you really are from the future, the whole shape-shifting thing. Tell me.”

“Laine is my wife, and as you probably know by now, we are not human,” Nemesis answered. “We came here because the love we share for one another is not allowed in our own galaxy. Two members of our species coming together is forbidden. We left our galaxy five years ago while Laine was still pregnant with our son. We searched for a new home to begin our family.”

Nemesis paused here, looking over at Alexon, who sat on the ground nibbling on his own food. When he caught my gaze, the kid actually smiled.

Despite myself, I returned the act.

“We heard there was a planet killed by its inhabitants and deserted.” Laine picked up the story. “We came here to Earth looking for peace and a new start where we could be left alone and build our family.”

“That wasn’t to be our fate.” Nemesis’ jaw clenched as he remembered the events of the past. “I was captured near the city of New Vegas by a Galactic Government patrol. I was taken to Mars and handed over to General Shepherd, who started the Nemesis program. I was tested on, injected with serums, and turned into a mindless robot with a collar until you found me at the way station on Mars. You freed me and I repaid your kindness with lies and physical harm to you and your own. For that, I am truly sorry.”

“So that’s a start. What about the whole you being from the future thing?” Cryx blurted out, unable to keep the question in. “Was that a lie too or are you really Daniel and Cassie’s love child?”

Everyone looked over to Cryx.

She could care less, so engrossed in the tale unfolding in front of us.

One of the guards next to her chuckled. “Love child,” he repeated under his breath.

I gave him a look that would turn someone to stone.

The guard coughed and looked down at the ground.

“Were you lying about being our love child?” I asked Nemesis. “And how did you know those things about Cassie and me that were so convincing? And why do you look like me?”

“I am not from the future,” Nemesis admitted. “That was a ploy to get you to give me the AI known as X. I look like you because whatever the Galactic Government did altered my outward appearance and changed my abilities.”

“How is that even possible?” Preacher asked, running a hand through his salt and pepper hair. “They altered your appearance?”

“I’m not sure.” Nemesis shook his head. “I always had the ability to manipulate kinetic energy but never fly. That is new to me and my species.”

“How did you know about us?” Cassie asked again. “When you first came to us on the rooftop, you were very convincing on the details you told us.”

“That was me.” Laine raised a furry hand. “For the many things we’re apologizing for, I might as well add another. In a few of my species, the ability to read minds is present. We are all a shape-shifting race, but telepathy is passed down to one out of a thousand. I was close enough when Nemesis came to visit you on the roof to read some of your thoughts and feed him the information through an earpiece he wore.”

“I also used a tool to alter my voice and pretend to be Commander Barnum from Phoenix Corp,” Nemesis admitted. “We fed you a mountain of lies to try and save our son. If you choose not to accept our apology, I understand.”

“I need someone to write a freaking timeline of all of this,” I said, swallowing the last of my sandwich. “So let me get this straight. There’s no such thing as time travel. Your alien refugees. You were experimented on by the GG. Now how do Aleron and X fit into all of this?”

“When you freed me from the collar on Mars and I fled the GG,” Nemesis picked up the story once more, “I came back to Earth to search for my wife and son. It had been three years since I had last seen them. I found them captured by the newly freed Aleron after he escaped from prison in New Vegas.”

“He was trying to use my son against me to go and infiltrate your base to steal the AI known as X,” Laine went on to explain. “Aleron was aware of my shape-shifting abilities. When Nemesis found us, Aleron leveraged our son against both of us. If we didn’t try and get the AI, he said he would kill Alexon.”

And there it was. I just stood there for a moment, part of me wishing I had another sandwich, all of me sifting through the new information. I couldn’t come up with this if I tried. It was something out of some sci-fi book.

Sure I was still pissed at Nemesis and Laine, but now I understood why they were doing what they were. I was doing the same thing for X. I was willing to do whatever it took to get her back.

“You must have heard something while you were held by Aleron.” Wesley filled the silence that fell on the group. “Why he wanted X. Especially you, Laine. You have to have read his mind.”

“I tried,” Laine answered. “Those with strong minds are much harder to get a handle on. It’s not an exact art. It’s not like I can just pick someone and whatever I want to know I can see. It’s more like traveling through a swamp of fog and searching for images.”

“Well, what did you get?” I pressed.

“Aleron met someone in his prison cell in New Vegas inside the Galactic Government compound known as the Hole.” Laine squinted as if she were trying to recall every bit of information. “Who it was I can’t tell, but they told him that the AI carried information of a weapon of great power that Immortal Corp created or found and put into hiding. The weapon was referred to as a Relic. Aleron now wants that weapon for himself.”

I just stood there shaking my head. I was familiar with Relics. Ancient artifacts from times long ago imbued with power that I didn’t understand. All I knew was that no one should have access to them, and in the wrong hands, they were deadly.

It was only because of one of these Relics that we were able to win the war against the Voy on Mars.

I looked over to Preacher. He was the one I had entrusted to hide the Relic somewhere in Dragon Hold.

“It’s not ours.” Preacher answered my unspoken question. “It has to be another one. Something else.”

“I wish I could help,” Wesley chimed in. As one of the handlers for Immortal Corp, he was second only to the Founders of the company. “I was never given information or access to any kind of Relic or weapon.”

“Where is Aleron’s base?” Cassie asked. “If you were held there, we can go back. We can get X right now.”

“I—I don’t know and that’s the truth,” Laine confessed. She looked frustrated at herself. “He kept us in a dark room. When I tried to gather information by reading others’ thoughts, I got the impression that they moved often around the lands northeast of the Badlands. I can give you a general idea, but it would be a lot of ground to cover.”

“I’ve got it!” I didn’t mean to shout, but I didn’t really care that every eye in the area swung toward me. “Laine, I have a friend I want you to meet. His name’s Spit.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

“What did you tell them, you filthy alien abomination?” Spit snarled as we opened the door to his cell and Laine walked in.

I was about to lay into Spit again when Nemesis caught me by the arm and slowed me down. “She can handle herself.”

True to his word, Laine sent a kick to Spit’s tender parts that made me feel sore in my own nether regions. I couldn’t help but wince as Spit’s eyes bulged out of his head.

He sank to his knees, letting out a noise from between his lips that sounded like air being let out of some kind of leaking bag.

“That’s for how you treated my son,” Laine hissed.

I looked over at Nemesis. Even he was grimacing at the force his wife used to strike Spit.

“Hold him still and I’ll do all I can to get the information you desire,” Laine told us.

Nemesis and I shouldered our way into the small cell, each taking the man by an arm and standing him up straight. He pressed him against the cold stone wall on the far side of his cell.

“You can threaten me all you want.” Spit was nearly crying. “You can torture me or starve me or whatever, but I won’t—I won’t tell you anything! I swear—”

I’ll never know what Spit was about to swear as Laine placed open palms on either side of his head and closed her yes.

Immediately, Spit went slack in my grip. I looked over to Laine to make sure this was what was supposed to happen, but her eyes were closed. Instead, I turned to Nemesis.

“Is this supposed to happen?” I asked.

“I do not know,” Nemesis confided. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her go for such a direct approach. Usually, she tries to read bits and pieces from afar, never like this.”

Laine’s face was a mask of intensity. I’m not sure she could sweat, or if she did, if it happened under her fur, but her brow was furrowed, the slender whiskers that came out of either side of her mouth twitching with her level of effort.

I leaned in to try and get through to her, asking her if she was almost done, if she was all right.

As I leaned in, Laine’s yellow eyes snapped open, frightening us both.

“Son of a Voy,” I said, jerking back.

Laine was panting.

Spit went limp in our arms to the point Nemesis and I just placed him on the ground. He was still breathing.

“Why were you so close to my face?” Laine asked, wiping her brow.

“I wanted to make sure you were getting through,” I answered. “Spit went catatonic on us and you were unresponsive. Did you get anything? You weren’t in his head for a long time.”

“Time passes differently on the mental plane,” Laine answered. “What was seconds for you was hours for me. I took all I could without performing any long term damage. I gathered all the information he knew. His name’s not Spit, by the way, it’s Reginald Alfons Crenshaw the Third.”

“This guy?” I asked incredulously at the smelly Grimm Reaper at my feet.

“Spit is a better name.” Nemesis nodded simply. “You did him a favor. His parents must have hated him at birth.”

In any other circumstances, I might have laughed. I should have even asked Nemesis and Laine where they were from, how many other alien races they knew about, or a hundred other questions on my mind, but right now, we needed a location to X.

“Reginald Alfons Crenshaw the Third was just a foot soldier, so he didn’t know much. I can confirm the traveling circuit Aleron takes his camp on. It’s for this very reason, so his enemies will never know where he’ll be,” Laine explained. “I do know that Aleron would not harm the AI. He needs her. If she is the last living piece of tech from Immortal Corp. Only she knows where the location to this Relic can be found.”

“If X knew, she would have told me,” I said out loud. “I know she would. She wouldn’t have access to this information and keep it a secret.”

“Maybe she doesn’t even know herself,” Cassie suggested from the doorway where she, Preacher, and Wesley waited. “Maybe there’s a code or a phrase or some kind of trigger that unlocks the information.”

“There’s more,” Laine volunteered. “Reginald Alfons Crenshaw the Third also knows the name of Aleron’s cell mate in the Hole. The one who gave him the information about Immortal Corp and X holding the location to the Relic in the first place.”

“What’s his name?” Preacher pressed.

“Rival Mercer,” Laine said with a shrug. “That’s all I have at the moment.”

“It’s enough,” I said, looking out the cell toward the rest of the group. “Rival Mercer, does that name mean anything to anyone?”

Cassie and Preacher both shook their heads.

Wesley hesitated a moment then shook his own. I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much into things or if Wesley had a lead on this Rival Mercer, but I decided to let it go for the time being. A plan was already beginning to form in my mind.

“If we know the area Aleron travels in, then maybe we can call in a favor with the GG and get a satellite to comb the area,” I thought out loud. “In the meantime, I’ll take a team to go visit this Rival Mercer in the Hole in New Vegas. Even if he won’t talk, Laine can alien it out of him.”

“I’ll get on the horn with Major Valentine about use of a satellite,” Preacher volunteered. “I’m sure she or Colonel Stryfe will be able to help after our partnership on Mars.”

“I’m going with you to the Hole,” Cassie stated matter-of-factly.

“So will I,” Nemesis volunteered. “We owe you and yours a debt we can never repay.”

“My love,” Laine said to her husband. “Alexon. Stay with him, please. I’ll be better able to do this knowing he is safe within these walls with you at his side.”

Nemesis opened his mouth to argue.

“She’s right,” I chimed in. “We’ll need her to read this Rival Mercer’s mind, even if he’s uncooperative. A smaller group would be better. This isn’t a mission that will need a lot of muscle. Trust me, I wish it did.”

“Please?” Laine asked her husband.

“I’ll stay and watch over Alexon. Come back soon and safe. We have a family to grow,” Nemesis gave in. He drew closer to his wife. Pressing his body against her own, he took her in his arms. Their lips connected passionately. Laine began to purr.

“All right, all right,” I said, pressing myself against one of the walls and scooting around them to the exit. “I’m not sure how things are done on your planets, but we don’t really do public affection like that around here. If you two need a room, then we can make that happen.”

Wesley and Preacher had already moved away from the door, the former muttering about something he had to do, the latter silent and red-faced.

“I didn’t know you were so bothered by public affection,” Cassie teased me. “I’ll have to remember that.”

“Well, not all public affection,” I said, looking back to the couple making out in the dungeon room with the passed-out Spit at their feet. “Just some kinds.”

A twinkle lit Cassie’s eye that told me she wasn’t going to let me forget about this.

We exited the dungeon together. Preacher was already opening a comm line to the Galactic Government via his earpiece. Borrowing a satellite from the GG wasn’t going to be easy, but after our part in the Battle for Mars, I thought we stood a fifty-fifty chance.

Wesley waited for me at the ground level.

“May I borrow Daniel for a moment?” the older man asked Cassie. “I promise it won’t take long.”

“Of course,” Cassie answered. “I’ll prepare transportation to the Hole in New Vegas. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

“Thank you,” I said, stifling a yawn. I wasn’t sure what time it was, but I knew it was past my bedtime. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Cassie nodded and took off toward the garage.

“Walk with me,” Wesley said with a jerk of his chin as he started toward the main staircase in the lower level. “We’ve been through the ringer, that’s for sure. How are you holding up? I mean, without X?”

“Not good,” I told him. “But we’ll get her back. She’s tough. She’ll hang in there. She’ll buy us the time we need to find her. With any luck, by this time tomorrow, we’ll know where she is and be on the way to get her.”

Wesley nodded as if he approved.

We climbed the staircase from the first to the second floor and then the third and fourth floors in silence. Down a wide hall that connected the two wings of the manor, Wesley stopped at a row of massive glass windows.

The moon was high overhead with silver rays shining down on us. The moon itself looked so different than it had in books from our past. There were cities on it now with massive domes in place to hold in the oxygen and gravity wells.

It still shone bright, but how much brighter might it have been with no man-made structures on the surface?

“So, Rival Mercer?” I asked Wesley as he stared out the window.

“Was I that obvious?” Wesley asked, still not making eye contact. He rocked back and forth from heel to toe as he stared out the window.

“No,” I answered. “You hid it well, but I still caught it.”

“You know I was a part of Immortal Corp for many years,” Wesley started. “I worked my way up the corporation to the position of handler, eventually sending the Pack Protocol on missions. I hand-selected the team myself. I’ve never lied to you, Daniel. I don’t know what this weapon or Relic is that X might have information about, but the name Mercer is one I’ve heard before.”

I remained quiet. The weight in Wesley’s words was unmistakable. The older man had seen so much in his time, and if this gave him pause, then whatever it was that came next, I was sure I didn’t want to know.

“I knew your father, Daniel.” Wesley finally turned to look me full in the face. “A Jace Mercer, Rival’s uncle, was suspected of being involved in your father’s death.”

Memories scratched at the edge of my mind. Something Wesley said before about my father drifted to the surface.

“He was part of the Galactic Government,” Wesley continued. “I only ever met him once. He was a good man. I should have told you sooner. I guess I was waiting for life to stop beating you down with all this insanity, but there was never a good time.”

“How did he die?” I asked, struggling with the revelation that Wesley had known who my father was this entire time. “My mother?”

“Both taken out in the explosion,” Wesley answered. “Jace Mercer was the worst kind and it seems his nephew has followed in his steps. An enemy with a purpose who fights for a cause no matter how wrong that cause might be, I can at least understand. Jace Mercer was insane. He’s dead now, but when he was alive, his goal to create havoc in the streets.”

My sleep-deprived mind ran through thoughts and emotions in slow motion. I wasn’t sure what to do with the information. Should I feel angry that Wesley, like Preacher, kept information from me for what they felt was my own good? Did I try and go and hunt down any living family I still might have?

“I know it’s a lot,” Wesley said. “I wish I would have told you before. You’re a good man, Daniel. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

“What were their names?” I asked, not that it made any kind of difference now; they were gone. Still, in that moment, I wanted to know my father’s and mother’s names. “As a kid, I remember tracking down all the Hunts registered in the public database. I didn’t find them.”

“Search for a Lieutenant Jason Thomas and his wife Penny Thomas,” Wesley answered in a soft voice full of regret. “He was part of the Galactic Government’s intelligence team. As such, his personal records aren’t extensive, but you’ll find some answers.

“When I recruited you, Samantha, Echo, Jax, Angel and Preacher, you became my family, like my own kids,” Wesley said, chuckling for a moment. “Well, not Preacher; that old man’s more like a brother.”

I remained quiet, numb to the idea that I had the names of my parents now. I needed sleep. I knew that much. I felt like a zombie run over by a truck, then that truck reversed just to make sure I was dead.

“Get some sleep,” Wesley said. “Something tells me tomorrow’s going to be another long day.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

I couldn’t fall asleep without looking at whatever information I could find about my parents. A quick call to Bapz and he brought me a data pad with a holo graphic screen.

I sat down, searching for anything I could find on Lieutenant Jason Thomas and his wife Penny. I found articles, pictures, and essays. Like Wesley said before, there wasn’t much more than a quick overview of their life. Nothing deep I could dig into.

I guess once you signed up for the Galactic Government Intelligence division, they had a look over your public presence, scrubbing whatever they deemed unacceptable.

I fell asleep that night staring at a picture of my mother and father. She was tall with brown hair and green eyes that caught the light and sparked even in the picture.

My father had his arm around my mother, clean shaven, and in his uniform, he looked every part the military officer.

My mind wandered to all the could-have-beens if I had grown up with them, then to the idea that my last name was Thomas and not Hunt at all. I thought about changing it as I drifted to sleep, but Hunt was always who I’d been. I wondered who had decided to change my last name and when before sleep came for me.

Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

I woke the next morning not realizing I had fallen asleep at all. It was one of those deep slumbers where all of a sudden you wake up. A line of drool fell down the left side of my mouth. The data pad with pictures of my parents lay flat on my stomach.

The sun was just beginning to enter my room through wide windows.

A knock sounded at the door. It was what had woken me before. This second knock came a little louder.

“I have caf. I come in peace,” Bapz said on the other side of the door.

“Come in,” I said, sitting up. I ran a hand over my mouth to clean off the drool.

Bapz opened the door with a tray of food in one hand and what looked like a cage with a sheet covering it in the other.

“Time to eat and shower.” Bapz wrinkled his nose at the smell. “Did you sleep in the same clothes you were wearing yesterday? I’m not trying to pass judgment here, but you don’t exactly smell like sunshine and daises.”

“Yeah, I just passed out hard,” I confirmed. “I’ll jump in the shower now. What’s in the box?”

“Not a box, a cage,” Bapz corrected.

The dark red sheet over the cage rattled and shook. Something inside the cage wanted to get out.

“Bapz,” I warned as I stood up and helped myself to the breakfast provided. “I just can’t handle any more crazy right now.”

“No, no, no, this is a positive thing,” Bapz promised. “I know we could all use some good news and I know how much you like animals, so I caught you this!”

In a flourish any magician would have been proud of, Bapz whisked away the sheet over the cage. I was in the middle of taking a long drought of caf. When I saw what was inside, I coughed the hot liquid all over my room. Some of the stuff even went in my nose.

Inside a golden cage was the most horrifically ugly jackrabbit I had ever seen in my life. What was worse was, like most animals on Earth, the creature was mutated. Patches of fur were missing and horns grew out the top of its head.

“We need to kill this thing,” I said, looking around my room for a weapon. “Hey, you think you can build me a small armory in here. I’m always wishing I had access to a blaster or blade.”

“Yes, but we can’t kill him,” Bapz said, shock written all over his face. “Look how cute he is.”

Bapz leaned in toward the cage, talking some kind of gibberish. “Who’s a good boy? That’s you. You’re a good mutated jackrabbit.”

Bapz put a metallic finger through the slates in the cage. The jackrabbit went wild, gnawing on Bapz’ finger like a maniac. Its horns scraped the front of the cage in the process.

If it wasn’t for whatever kind of metal Bapz was made from, the jackrabbit would have taken off his finger.

I consoled myself with a plate of steaming meat and eggs. I knew the food wasn’t the genuine article, since no real animals lived on Earth anymore, but the food tasted good enough. Or I guess tasted like I expected they would.

“I think I can train him,” Bapz said, pulling his finger free with effort. Saliva from the jackrabbit dripped off his finger. “Kind of how the Cripps family trained Butch and her pack. I think I can do something similar with the jackrabbit.”

“If you want to,” I told him around a mouthful of food. “Just be careful he doesn’t get out of his cage and bite someone. There’s enough madness going on right now.”

“You hear that, Mr. Tuppins?” Bapz leaned in close to the cage and talked to the jackrabbit. “You can stay.”

“You named him already?” I asked with an arched brow.

“Of course,” Bapz straightened. “Hold on, incoming transmission.”

Bapz lifted a finger, his metallic eyes concentrating.

“Cassie asked that you be in the garage in fifteen minutes,” Bapz informed me. “They’re about to go. While you’re gone, I’ll see about the weapons being put in your room.”

“You’re the man—err—robot,” I said, extending a closed fist.

Bapz smiled, looking at me then back to my extending fist, then back to me again. “What am I supposed to do with this? Are you trying to strike me?”

“No, it’s something friends do,” I said, shaking my head. “You hit my fist with your own closed fist. It’s kind of like high-fiving.”

“Oh, interesting,” Bapz said, striking out with his fist so fast, I didn’t have time to move my own. I knew it was going to suck by how fast he reacted.

Bapz’s metallic clenched hand slammed into my own.

Pain exploded in my fist. I jerked my hand back, cradling it against my chest.

“Ugh,” I gasped, flexing the fingers on my hand to see if anything was broken.

“Did I do something wrong?” Bapz looked at me wide-eyed. “You told me to hit you in your closed fist.”

“You’re good,” I reassured him. “Just next time, lighter, like barely tap my hand.”

“Oh right,” Bapz said. “Sorry, that was my first ever fist pound with a friend. I’ll do better next time.”

Bapz took his leave while I hopped into the shower, washing off the dirt and grime from the previous day. I opted to take a cold shower this time. I needed to get in and out and while the hot shower was relaxing, a cold shower encouraged me to speed up the process as well as wake me up.

In minutes, I was towel-drying in my room and dressing with the same thing I always wore these days. Black boots and cargo pants with a black shirt. Wearing the same thing day in and day out took a lot of the guesswork out of my life and even sped up the process.

I had read somewhere that we have a limited supply of decision-making brain space each day. The last thing I wanted to spend it on was deciding what to wear.

I opened the door to my room, about to step out. Butch lay on the ground outside my door. The big wolf jumped on me, nearly knocking me backwards. Her front paws pressed against my chest.

“Hey, you.” I scratched the underside of her neck and jaw. “How’re you feeling?”

Butch licked my nose then fell back down to all fours. I knelt down with her, looking at her bandaged paw injured in the fight with the boar. Another reason I needed to pay back Aleron.

“There she is,” Enoch said, turning a corner and coming down the hall. “It’s time to change her bandage. As soon as she knows I’m looking for her, she’s nowhere to be found. I thought she might head this way.”

Butch huffed and I swore she rolled her eyes.

Enoch came down the hall with a med kit and went to work on Butch’s forearm.

“How’s she healing?” I asked, scratching the animal’s head as Enoch changed her bandage.

“Remarkably well,” Enoch answered. “No infection and the bleeding has stopped. A little time will see it healed now.”

“Good,” I answered. “Thank you for taking such great care of her, of all of us.”

“Nothing to thank me for,” Enoch answered. “It’s not me at work here, but He who lives inside of me.”

“Right,” I answered, remembering Father Enoch’s strong faith to the Lord of the Way. “Well, thank him for me too.”

“I can do that.” Enoch smiled. “And for what it’s worth, I know you’ll find X and bring her back. I know you will.”

I was struck by the sincerity and the definite way he made the statement. I too believed I would find X and bring her back, but more in a way that I had to, to stem off the darkness of doubt and anxiety. When Enoch said the statement, it was as if it was inevitable.

“I wish I had your faith,” I told the man.

Enoch stood up, done with his work. He patted Butch on the head then reached into his pocket and gave her a treat.

Butch accepted the offering hungrily then sniffed his hands for more.

“I think you do have faith, Daniel.” Enoch stared me straight in the eyes. “I think you have more faith than you know. Look what you’ve done already. Look at all the people you’ve helped. Think of all the people you will help.”

“That’s not faith,” I said, shaking my head. “I just did what I had to do.”

“But you did what you had to do each day, one day at a time, one situation to navigate before the next,” Enoch pushed. “Each instance, you had to believe and have faith that you could overcome. Every time you got knocked down, you had to believe you could get back up in order to do so. What is that if not faith?”

I scratched at the back of my head. I had never even been to a church or religious function that I could remember. I wasn’t used to getting talked to like this, but what Enoch said now made a lot of sense.

I think Enoch also sensed my hesitancy.

“I’m not here to talk your ear off.” Enoch shrugged. “I’m just here as a friend telling you to extend yourself some grace. You are doing better than you think.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Maybe we can talk more about this when things settle down.”

“I’d like that very much,” Enoch stepped to the side, extending an open arm down the hall. “Now I think you have a madman to talk to.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

I had to promise Butch she could come next time and bribe her with treats, but in the end Laine, Cassie, and I boarded one of the off-road SUVs and headed for New Vegas.

The trip would take a total of four hours if we didn’t run into trouble. Cassie sat at the wheel with Laine beside her. I sat behind the two women, lost in my own head. Dragon Hold disappeared behind us. The vast wasteland Earth had become opened up like some skeleton welcoming us for an embrace.

The most direct route went through a road so covered by sand, I wasn’t sure if you could cover a road at all. While I was on the lookout for Grimm Reapers, mutated animals, or the Lord of the Way knew what else was out there, my mind kept going back to my parents.

Wesley told me Rival Mercer’s uncle was suspected of killing them in an explosion. He said Rival followed in his uncle’s footsteps. But what was Rival in the Hole for? He was he also responsible for mass murder?

“Earth to Daniel,” Cassie said over her shoulder. “Or whatever’s left of Earth.”

“Sorry, what did you say?” I asked, tearing my eyes away from the desert landscape.

“I asked if you knew if Preacher managed to contact the GG for the use of a satellite or to get us into the Hole?” Cassie looked at me through the top of the windshield where a squared-off section of the glass acted as a mirror. I could see concern etched in her eyes.

“Yeah, he hit me up on the comm when we pulled out of Dragon Hold,” I answered. “Major Valentine’s there now and she’ll make sure we get in to see Rival Mercer. Colonel Stryfe is working on getting us access to a satellite. He said he should have one he can grant us use of by the end of the day.”

I didn’t realize it until now, but as I spoke, my right hand traveled from my ear with my earpiece to the spot on my neck where X used to sit. My healing ability made it so there wasn’t so much as a hole there anymore. X was gone, as if she were only ever an illusion.

“I’ll make sure I shift into an appearance more normal as not to raise any suspicions when we enter New Vegas,” Laine said from her seat. “We’ll get answers from this Rival Mercer. I’ll right the wrong that was created by my family.”

“Does it hurt when you shift?” I asked, trying to get my mind off X and my dead parents. “Can you turn into anything or just other humanoid appearances?”

“It doesn’t hurt, but it does take some effort,” Laine answered. “I can only shift into other Cantz-like forms. That is the name of my species.”

“And Nemesis?” Cassie asked. “Where does he come from? What is he called?”

“Nemesis is an Ingaurd from the planet of Ogdun,” Laine explained. “My planet is Lope. We are within the same galaxy as one another. Our planets aren’t allies, but they tolerate each other. It’s a long-standing sin for a Cantz to marry a Ingaurd and the other way around. We just came here looking for a new start on a planet we thought was mostly deserted. How could we have been so mistaken?”

“I guess every galaxy is filled with bad species out for themselves and to cause harm to others,” Cassie mused out loud. “We’ve already come across another species who would have rather seen us as slaves than allies.”

“The Voy,” Laine nodded along. “The universe is a big place. I was unaware of the Voy, however. When they attacked Mars, it was the only thing anyone spoke of in Aleron’s camp.”

“Nemesis’ powers,” I asked, changing the subject. “I’ve seen something like them before. Carly, a human woman that goes by Madam Eternal, uses something very similar, but she explained hers is through advanced technology.”

“Ingaurds are all born with the ability to manipulate energy around them to some degree or another,” Laine answered. “I am not aware of a technology that would allow you to do the same.”

I silently nodded. I didn’t believe in coincidences. Whatever Madam Eternal used as her own technology had to be at least taken from the Ingaurds if she wasn’t one of them herself.

This was yet another question to add on an ever-growing list. What was most important now was X.

We drove, talking on and off in silence. Laine told us about her world and how many other planets and species were out there. She shared the general feeling about Earth, that we were a primitive species with nothing to offer and posed no threat.

Now that we defeated the Voy, that might change.

We ate a meal packed for us by Cryx. I smiled at the thought of the girl as I unwrapped a jug full of cold nitro-infused caf. There was a note on the bottle.


Don’t get killed. I’m practicing hard to go on a mission with you, and if you die, that would suck… a lot.


After the meal, about midday, we arrived at the city of New Vegas. I had half expected to run into a roaming gang or maybe even Phoenix Corp. No such luck. It seemed all the other gangs were giving Aleron’s territory a wide berth.

Phoenix Corp must already be busy planting the super seeds around their mountain headquarters. I wanted to help them, but that would have to wait until we found X.

True to her word, Laine shimmered and shifted as we reached the outskirts of town. One second, a light layer of brown fur covered her face and exposed arms and hands. The next, a woman with blue eyes and light brown hair sat next to Cassie.

“Is this human enough?” Laine asked, adjusting herself in her clothes. She wore clothing now identical to my own with the exception of a large pair of goggle-like sunglasses.

“That works,” Cassie told her.

We rolled through the city of New Vegas, already catching sight of Galactic Government patrols. The Hole in New Vegas was the only GG headquarters left on Earth.

The Hole was a high security prison for the very worst our galaxy had to offer. Among them were terrorists, murderers, and war criminals. I had never been inside the Hole itself. The closest I had gotten was my first trip to Earth, where I caught a dropship with then Captain Zoe Valentine.

The city of New Vegas was old and sparse. Broken city streets were maintained just enough for the storekeepers to make a go at having a business. The local shops around the area were those suited to supporting a military installation. As such, you could imagine there were bars, tattoo parlors, a few diners, things like Holo theatres, and a hover bike shop.

We rolled through the town, garnering a few second looks from patrols of both on duty and off duty praetorian soldiers. Those in armor sported the familiar mustard-yellow gear with the dark blue head of a feline with protruding upper canines.

Only a handful of other vehicles were parked or traveled on the streets. In front of us, a security checkpoint with steel gates stopped our forward progress. Beyond that was a landing pad for the dropships to and off planet. A circular building rose from the ground a good ten stories.

The building itself carried a sense of doom and gloom. Plain brick with reinforced windows showed the portion of the Hole above ground. The bulk of the structure was below ground, where the prison inmates served their time.

Cassie rolled to a stop at the guard checkpoint. A pair of praetorians in full armor braved the heat. They walked out, scanning our vehicle for weapons or hidden explosives. A third praetorian not wearing his helmet came to the window.

Cassie rolled down her window with a smile.

“Hello, we’re here to see Major Zoe Valentine,” Cassie greeted the praetorian. “She’s expecting us.”

“Do you have identification?” the praetorian asked. He was a middle-aged man who looked like he had never missed a day of PT in his life. I wasn’t sure he had a neck either.

“Just my ID chip and the hero of Mars in the back seat.” Cassie blinked another smile at the praetorian, then threw a thumb behind her shoulder. “You heard about the alien invasion, right? I’m sure you saw the broadcast he did at his new estate on Earth?”

The praetorian immediately went from bored to interested. He craned his neck into the vehicle to get a look at me.

I put on what I thought my best celebrity grin and leaned forward. “Hello, it’s me. Apparently, I’m famous.”

“Oh crip! It is you!” The praetorian’s face broke into a wild smile. “Hey, Lobb, Varns, come over here! Look who’s come to visit the Hole!”

The pair of other two praetorians joined the man at the window.

“You know that guy on the holo viewer last night? The one they’re calling the hero of Mars who moved to Earth?” the praetorian asked. Without waiting for an answer, he continued, “He’s in the SUV!”

“What? No way!?” one of them said. He reached into the SUV to shake my hand. He looked to Cassie, who leaned back in her seat. “Excuse me, ma’am, but I’ve got to shake his hand. I’ve heard so many things about him. My sister was in the Battle for Mars. She told me stories of a wild man who went toe to toe with some kind of alien monster and ripped out all six of its eyes with his bare hands.”

“It was one eye with a knife but thanks,” I said, shaking his hand.

“Private Levion Lobb, great to meet you, sir,” Levion said, pumping my hand.

“Oh, we need to get a picture. None of the guys are going to believe this.” The other praetorian, who had to be Varns, agreed. “Sir, can we take a picture with you?”

“I’d love to, guys, I really would, but we have a—”

“Of course the hero of Mars has time for a quick picture,” Cassie said over everyone else. “Come on, we’ll get out and everyone huddle around. I’ll take the picture.”

“Oh, thank you, ma’am. Thank you,” Levion said. He was so excited, I thought the guy might pass out. “I’ve never met a hero before.”

I stepped out of the SUV, shooting Cassie a look that said I hated her in that moment. She knew how much I despised the limelight.

She winked at me in turn, enjoying every second.

The praetorians huddled around me, all grins and laughs.

For a brief moment, I got a look at who I was in other people’s eyes. I was now a rich war hero/alien killer. I didn’t necessarily want to be any of those things. But heck, if it brought a smile to these guys, then maybe I could endure being that for them.

“Say hero of Mars who turned back the Voy invasion and now is a rich playboy,” Cassie said before she accepted a small handheld picture capture from Lavion.

“Hero of Mars who turned back the Voy invasion and now is a rich playboy,” all the praetorians repeated.

Cassie snapped the picture in the small viewer.

“Perfect,” Cassie said, handing back the camera. “You’ll have to post that everywhere in the barracks.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Private Varns said, looking over Levion’s shoulder to get an idea of how the picture turned out.

For her part, Laine stayed in the SUV during this interaction. I guessed she wanted to bring as little notice to herself as possible.

“Sergeant Tine!” A gruff no-nonsense voice cut through the jovial moment like Preacher’s sword through a mutated boar.

Immediately, all three praetorians stood at attention, panic in their eyes.

“Lieutenant Roche, sir!” Sergeant Tine, the praetorian who first greeted us at the window, said.

“What is the meaning of this?” A burly man with a buzzed haircut came into view. His armor made him seem larger than he really was. “Why are these civilians out of their vehicle?”

“Sir, this is the Hero of the Battle of Mars,” Sergeant Tine shouted, eyes forward, at attention.

Lieutenant Roche arrived, practically bristling with anger.

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to stand at attention or salute myself. I was halfway to raising a hand to my head when Cassie slapped it down.

“Is this true?” the lieutenant asked, leaning in to look me up and down. “You do bear a striking resemblance to him. Although I thought you’d be bigger.”

“Oh, it’s me,” I answered. “Camera adds twenty pounds.”

We all waited as this lieutenant that inspired so much fear and respect in his men looked me over like some kind of show dog.

“All right, then, I’ll need to get a picture with you before we let you go.” The lieutenant smiled.


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

The Hole was one half Galactic Government space port and one half high security prison. Cassie followed a military-style jeep through the space port, skirting the landing pads as various dropships came to and from the planet.

Most of the ships were black with the Galactic Government symbol of the feline with large teeth. A few of them belonged to private companies or those rich enough to own their own ships.

I imagined at least one of the ships had brought the paparazzi to my door.

We followed our escort to the main circular building known as the Hole. The structure was as impressive as it was intimidating. No decoration touched the dark grey stone except for the long Galactic Government banners that hung down the side of the building.

The banner had to be five stories tall in its own right. These were dark blue with the mustard-yellow sigil of the Galactic Government animal.

Major Zoe Valentine walked from outside the building in a burned yellow uniform. She traded salutes with Lieutenant Roche as he exited his own vehicle.

“They’re all yours, ma’am,” the lieutenant said sharply.

“Thank you, Lieutenant Roche,” Zoe said, turning to the rest of us who were just exiting our own vehicle. “It’s good to see you. Welcome to the Hole.”

Cassie and I traded handshakes with the major. Zoe Valentine was a woman I met on the moon. Since the beginning, our relationship had always been one of violence and friendship. We’d fouled Aleron’s first attempt to escape together and bled side by side during the Battle of Mars.

She was a good woman, strong and dedicated to her calling as a soldier and mother. Her daughter was always a topic of conversation. It was obvious Zoe did everything she could to make sure her daughter had the best care.

I shook her hand warmly, nodding over to Laine. “Major, this is our friend Laine—”

I stopped, awkwardly realizing now we hadn’t come up with a last name for our new alien friend.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Laine said, extending her hand. “Thank you for being able to accommodate us.”

“You’re very welcome,” Major Valentine answered, accepting the handshake. “If you’ll follow me inside, we can get started. I’m sure you want to speak with Rival Mercer for the same reason I did. Hunting Aleron Jacobs.”

We walked with the major into the building where a pair of armed praetorians stood just inside magnetic locking doors. They monitored the exterior section of the entrance through a myriad of cameras.

We passed so many checkpoints, I wasn’t sure if I should be impressed or shocked, maybe both. There were physical pat downs, metal detectors, and even a scan of our bodies by some kind of x-ray machine.

I looked over at Laine, worried that an x-ray might show something of her alien anatomy. She retuned my look of concern with a shake of her head.

Getting Cassie through also proved problematic. It wasn’t like she could remove her metal forearms. Lucky for us, Major Valentine carried enough weight at the Hole to approve her through.

Finally, we were able to make it through the myriad of security checkpoints.

Next we followed Major Valentine through the wide halls of the Hole. This section, at least, although bleak, was open with vaulted ceiling and grey pillars that supported the roof.

“How did Aleron escape?” I asked Major Valentine. “This place is a fortress.”

“The official story is that he didn’t escape at all,” the major warned us. “If cell mates held any kind of hope whatsoever that escape was an option, we’d have more attempted breakouts. Officially, Aleron was killed in the escape attempt.”

“Unofficially?” Cassie asked.

“Unofficially, Aleron played nice here and the previous warden granted him a few hours of outside time,” Major Valentine explained. “It was during the Voy invasion when all but the most necessary staff were called away to Mars, Aleron had help from the outside one day. His men were able to distract and kill a pair of our praetorians dressing in their armor. They poised as if they were taking Aleron back to his cell from the yard then made a run for it. We gave chase, killing the men who helped him escape, but Aleron got away.”

“Of course he did,” I said under my breath. As much as I despised the man, I understood he was a survivor. It wouldn’t do me any good to let the hate I felt for him cloud my judgment. Aleron was a worthy opponent. I’d have to keep my guard up and refuse to discredit what he was capable of.

Major Zoe Valentine led us through yet another pair of clear magnetic doors with praetorians stationed on both the inside and outside. We followed her to a lift that descended five stories into the Earth. The steel container we rode in moved quickly and efficiently. A Pretorian guard in a sectioned-off glass booth controlled the lift.

He stared at me open-mouthed as we lowered into the ground.

“I think you’re more of a celebrity than we even gave you credit for,” Major Valentine whispered in my ear. “I don’t think that corporal has closed his mouth since he saw you.”

“You should have seen the swarm of reporters outside Dragon Hold,” I told her. “It was like I was some kind of mythical animal they had all come to see.”

“Maybe you are.” Zoe winked. “It’s only going to get worse. The more the Galactic Government can shine the light on you and hide in the darkness, the more they’ll try. The GG doesn’t really like questions and the people love their heroes.”

“It’s not like I was the only one there,” I said with a deep breath. “How about you? Let’s shine some of that spotlight on you.”

“Already got my promotion.” Zoe smiled and shook her head. “I’m stationed here now, but more days off to see my daughter. She’s back on Mars now that the Voy threat has been dealt with.”

“You have a daughter?” Laine asked with a smile. “I have a little boy. How old is yours?”

Laine and the major went off talking about kids while I caught Cassie’s eyes. Her brow was furrowed deep in thought. Even in this light, despite the dire hour and the circumstances we found ourselves in, she was beautiful.

Are we dating? My mind wandered to the thought. I mean, I guess we did go on a date, so that qualifies us as officially dating. Is she my girlfriend, then? Does that come later? Do we have to have an official conversation that makes us boyfriend and girlfriend?

I didn’t realize I was staring at her until Cassie looked over at me lifting an eyebrow.

I looked away, blood rushing to my face.

Cassie’s lips twitched. She looked like she was about to say something, calling me out, when the lift came to a stop.

We stepped out on a floor with yet another gate and a long, wide two-story hall beyond.

“This is the high security section within the Hole,” Major Valentine explained. “Aleron was placed here with Rival Mercer until he showed good behavior. He was moved to a less strict cell then given outside privileges, and we all know how that ended.”

The guards at the magnetic wall saluted the major then turned their keys on their desks to allow us through. With a loud click, the pair of glass doors opened and slid backward.

“I’m sure the GG is performing its own initiative in tracking down Aleron?” I asked. “I know on our end, Preacher and Wesley have been talking to Colonel Stryfe. They’re trying to get access to a satellite over Earth in order to track his movements.”

Zoe chewed on her lower lip as we walked through the hall of cells.

“Let’s have that conversation later,” she said barely over a whisper. In a much louder voice, she continued. “I should warn you Rival Mercer has a few screws loose. He’s been down here longer than I’ve been in the Galactic Government.”

“He’s a terrorist?” Cassie asked. “What was he charged with?”

“Rival Mercer was convicted of setting off explosions in populated areas to cause havoc and chaos,” Major Valentine explained. “He has no affiliation with any known terrorist entities. He’s not a mercenary up for hire or some kind of political nut as far as we can tell. He says he just enjoys watching the world burn around him.”

Why the major refused to talk about the GG’s own initiative in hunting down Aleron was beyond me. I would have thought they’d have boots on the ground within hours of his escape, hunting him.

Any reason they wouldn’t prickled at my skin, sending a chill down my spine.

On either side of our path were white rooms with bright lights overhead. Clear glass walls let us see everything in each cell. I assumed that was on purpose. There was no privacy or reprieve for these convicts, both male and female.

Each convict was roomed with a cellmate. Men with men and women with women. They wore the same bright green jumpsuit. Their rooms were simple affairs of mattresses on the ground and a toilet and sink.

Some of the inmates gawked at us from their seats on the toilets. Others yelled at us, probably cursing us out or making cat calls, but their voices were lost in their own cell. The noise-dampening technology made it impossible to talk through the glass unless someone from the outside went to the wall panel and pressed the button to communicate.

The eyes that stared back at me from many of the inmates were eyes I knew well. These were broken people, killers, traitors, mercenaries, hit men, and hit woman of the worst kind.

Under their judging eyes, we traveled to the end of the hall where a separate cell sat on its own. This cell was different. It had not one glass wall but two. An inner chamber held a glass box with a man standing inside. He waved to us manically as if we were longtime friends.

Rival Mercer was tall with shoulder-length dark hair he wore slicked back at the moment. Like the other inmates, he wore the same bright green jumpsuit.

Major Valentine pressed her hand on a reader by his door. She then leaned down to allow the same screen to scan her eye. The glass door opened slowly for us from right to left.

“Here we go,” Major Valentine said under her breath.


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

Rival Mercer, still waving and smiling at us, was moving his mouth as if he had something to say. We, of course, couldn’t hear him.

We were in a wide white room with bright lights. The glass box Rival stood in was placed in the center of the room with a walkway all the way around the structure.

As the major went to place her hand on the glass so we could speak to Rival, I found myself wondering if Rival had any hand in helping his uncle set off the bomb that killed my parents.

Wesley said Jace Mercer was only suspected in the bombing that killed my parents but convicted for others. Half of me wanted to strangle him there and then, the other half just wanted answers.

But right now, we were here for X. We need to figure out what Rival had told Aleron about the AI to make him want her so badly.

“—And then they went up this tree to gather a bright golden piece of shiny fruit. The two creatures fought over it like they were—”

“Mercer,” Major Valentine interrupted the crazed man’s words. “Mercer, that’s enough. We need you to focus now.”

“Oh, but I am focused my dear, my dear.” Rival Mercer’s words dripped out of his mouth as if they had individually been dipped in honey. “I’m telling you about the dream I had last night. Last night or the night before? I’m not sure it matters. Time has a strange way of passing in a resort like this.”

“Rival,” I said, taking a step forward. My voice trembled a little, not from fear but a pent-up rage. “Rival, we need to know what you told Aleron Jacobs when you shared a cell with him. What did you tell him about Immortal Corp and their AI?”

“Joyyyyyyyyy is in my heart. Is it in yours? Joyyyyyyyy is in my heart. Is it in yours?” Rival sang the words softly in a familiar tune I was sure I had heard, although the words were different now.

Rival stared at us with that little smile on his face. He moved his right hand up to his chest and began tapping on his left pec as he drummed a light beat to his words.

“Joyyyyyyy is in my heart. Is it in yours?”

“That’s enough, Mercer!” Major Valentine didn’t sound as if she were in the mood to play his games. “Answer the question or I’ll have what little privilege you do possess taken away.”

Rival inhaled sharply. “So mean! And here I was thinking we were making progress in our relationship.” Rival shook his head and clicked his tongue. He looked over at me.

“Women, am I right?” he asked as if we could commiserate. “Can’t live with them, aren’t allowed to kill them for some reason. Men either, for that matter. Fun fact: I had a dream the other night where two creatures were fighting. They climbed this steel tree for a golden apple and—”

“Aleron Jacobs,” I asked again. “We have information that says you told him he needed an AI from Immortal Corp. Why? How did you know this? Why does he want the AI so badly?”

“Aleron, Aleron, Aleron.” Rival pursed his lips and squinted his eyes as if he were actually deep in thought. “That name does ring a bell. Big fellow, eats all his protein, with a scar on the left side of his face, bald?”

“Yes,” I growled, gritting my teeth.

“Nope, doesn’t ring a bell.” Rival smirked.

“I’m not playing your games, not today,” Major Valentine said. “We’ll go to half rations and that music you were earning for good cooperation is now off the table.”

While the major and Mercer negotiated, I looked over at Laine. We locked eyes and I gave her a slight nod.

She nodded back, closing her eyes, and began doing whatever process she needed to read his mind.

I didn’t envy her. After the brief interaction I had had with Mercer, I knew I wanted no part of looking into his mind.

“Okay, okay, I’ll behave,” Rival answered the major. “I just don’t get visitors often. You can’t be angry with me for trying to prolong our visit. I like you guys. There, I said it. Now I’m here looking like a fool with my heart on my sleeve and you’re not going to say it back. I—”

Rival stopped mid-sentence. He winced a little bit then scratched at his head.

“Who’s in here?” He looked at us in turn with a devilish grin. “Who’s sifting around my head? You won’t find anything I don’t want you to you know.”

Laine inhaled sharply, just loud enough for me to hear. I looked over to see her pale face.

“He’s—he’s aware somehow. I don’t know how, but I can’t get in. Maybe if I could get my hands on him,” Laine whispered in a rush.

“Was it you?” Rival asked Cassie. “I wouldn’t mind letting you inside to take a peek. I’d be willing to show you mine if you showed me yours, as they say.”

“In your dreams and I’m sure that’s exactly what you’ll do with all the free time you’re going to have on your hands.” Cassie shrugged. She looked over at the rest of us. “Come on; it’s obvious this is a waste of time. He doesn’t know what he let slip to Aleron. He’s a jawing idiot that probably said something Aleron picked up on about Immortal Corp. We can find Aleron on our own. We don’t need him.”

Cassie turned and began walking out the door.

“I know what you’re doing and I’m going to call your bluff,” Rival shouted from his cell. A hint of panic laced his words, telling us Cassie’s plan could work.

Laine exited the room next.

“Really wished this could have worked out.” I threw him a peace sign over my shoulder. “I wanted to hear you sing some more.”

“Well, hey.” Rival slammed the glass wall in front of him. “Let’s not be so hasty. Maybe we can talk about this.”

“You blew your chance.” Major Valentine was the last to leave the room. “Enjoy your time with you half rations in silence.”

“I made a deal with Aleron!” Rival Mercer shouted just as Major Valentine was about to close the door behind her. “He was supposed to get me out of here in exchange for the information I had on the Relic.”

That word made us all pause.

I looked to Cassie. We were both thinking the same thing. It was true, then. All the stories of the items of power long since taken from the Earth and now used today were real. There were more Relics than just the book we opened on Mars to win the battle against the Voy.

“Immortal Corp knew where one was and implanted the data in an AI for safekeeping,” Mercer shouted desperately at our backs. “Now that Immortal Corp is gone the AI is the only one that knows where it is!”

The panic in his voice told me Mercer was telling the truth.

Major Valentine looked at us for a consensus.

I nodded.

We filed back into the room.

“What and where is this Relic?” I demanded. “How do you know all of this?”

“I knew a programmer that worked for Immortal Corp,” Rival Mercer answered, relieved that we had decided to stay. “It’s amazing what a few bottles of liquor does for a tongue.”

“You got him drunk and he just told you everything you wanted to hear?” Laine asked incredulously.

“No, the alcohol was for me. I tortured the programmer until he gave me all he knew.” Mercer shrugged as if torture were a common occurrence in his line of work. “But that’s neither here nor there. What you really want to know is what this Relic is. Have you ever heard of the Fountain of Youth?”

I rolled my eyes so hard, I thought they were going to roll right out of my head.

“No, no, it’s the truth!” Mercer insisted. “But it’s not like any of the stories I have told you. The Fountain is a cup that was found here on Earth centuries ago. Whatever liquid you put in it is transformed and gives the drinker eternal life. Aleron wants to find it to create an unstoppable army on Earth.”

Everything I knew about gauging if people were telling the truth or not told me Mercer was being sincere. But I had been wrong before. Nemesis nearly convinced me he was from the future.

“Listen, I thought you were serious about this.” Major Valentine turned to leave again. “I guess you just want to rot in here.”

“The mind reader!” Rival shouted. “I’ll let the mind reader in. She’ll be able to tell you the truth.”

“What mind reader?” Major Valentine asked.

“So, funny story.” I swallowed hard with a cheesy smile. “Laine here is able to read minds. Should have told you before, I know, but there are so many moving parts here, I thought I’d save you from some of it if I could.”

Zoe gave me a look that told me she was pissed about being left out of the loop but wasn’t going to get into this right here, right now.

I also intentionally left out the whole part about Laine being an alien. I didn’t see how that could help at the moment.

“Yes, yes.” Rival nodded emphatically. “I’ll let her in and she’ll confirm what I’ve said.”

“Go ahead.” Zoe lifted an eyebrow.

I looked over to Laine, who nodded and closed her eyes in concentration.

“Ooooh, awwww, yes, right there,” Rival started cooing as he closed his own eyes. “Buy me a drink first, why don’t you?”

“Rival,” Cassie warned.

Rival quieted. I think the man knew he was on thin ice at best. We proved that we were willing to leave him behind if need be.

I looked over at Laine, who wore a puzzled expression on her face. Although her eyes were closed, she seem confused more than stressed.

Her eyes popped open with disgust.

Rival cackled.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “What did he do?”

“I’ve never met anyone with such a handle on his mental strength.” Laine glared at Rival. “He’s telling the truth as far as he knows. He also knows where Aleron is going to unlock the AI.”

“Where?” Cassie pressed.

“I can’t see it.” Laine glared again at Rival. “He’s mentally tougher than he looks.”

“Thank you, thank you.” Rival took a sweeping bow. “You’re too kind. Stop it. Stop it. Okay, go ahead. Praise me a little more.”

“He has the information we want,” Laine continued. “If I had more time and could get my hands on him, maybe I could break through.”

“There’s no time.” Rival shrugged. “Maybe you could, but I promise you I’d hold out long enough to make your efforts an act in futility. Aleron is already on his way to the location to unlock the AI and show him where the Relic is located. You need to leave now if you’re going to catch him.”

“Then tell us,” I said. “What is it that you want?”

“Aleron was supposed to free me in exchange for the information on Immortal Corp, the AI, and the Relic,” Rival picked at his nails. “He double-crossed me and left me here in the Hole. I want payback. Nobody double-crosses me and gets away with it. I want to make him bleed.”

“Absolutely not,” Major Valentine interjected. “If you think we’d take you with us, you’re more insane than it reads on your data chip.”

“Well then, I guess we’re at an impasse.” Rival shrugged, knowing he had us by the throat. “In a few days, Aleron will be creating his immortal army while we all hang out here arguing or you try torturing me again.”

“Again?” Cassie repeated.

“Oh, they did it when Aleron first escaped.” Rival wiggled his eyebrows. “I gave them nothing. I’m not going to give you anything now either, unless you take me with you.”

I caught the major’s eye and jerked my head to the door.

Together, we all left Rival in his cell. We exited the small room. Major Valentine closed the clear glass door.

Right before the door shut behind us I heard that same familiar tune Rival sang. “Joyyyyyyyyyy is in my heart. What’s in yours?”

“Are you sure of what you saw?” I asked Laine once we were alone in the hall and cut off from his ability to hear us. “Positive he knows where they’re taking X?”

“I am,” Laine said. “I saw his memories. I could almost see over his shoulder as he wrote down the location before eating the paper he used. He knows where Aleron is taking X to unlock the hidden location of the Relic she carries in her data.”

“Anyone can be broken with enough time and effort, but he has a point,” Cassie added. “We don’t have the time. Aleron could be on his way with X to the location as we speak.”

“He could have been on his way as soon as he grabbed her.” I nodded along with Cassie’s thoughts. “We have no time. We have to go now.”

I looked over at Major Valentine. Her brow was knit in lines of frustration.

“I don’t like it any more than you do,” I told her. “But it might take a maniac to catch a maniac. We can be sure that Rival stays handcuffed and gagged if he keeps talking. But this goes past me wanting to save X now. If Rival is right, then Aleron is on his way to create an immortal army. We can’t let that happen.”

The hard edge on the major’s features shifted from thoughtful to resolved.

“All right,” Major Valentine answered. “I can’t make any promises, but I’ll see what I can do.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

A trip back up the lift and we sat in the major’s office waiting for her to get permission to use Rival Mercer to find Aleron Jacobs.

Cassie, Laine, and I were in a sparsely decorated office where a Galactic Government flag hung on the wall opposite a cement sculpture of a GG dropship. We sat opposite an impressive stone desk while we waited for the major to finish her calls in another room.

“I’ve seen a lot of messed-up people in my life,” Laine mused out loud. “I’ve been in a lot of heads, but nothing ever like that.”

“What do you mean?” Cassie asked.

“Rival is insane for sure, but there was a deep level of knowledge in there as well. He was aware of my presence immediately, blocking me out from certain memories of his past. What I did see were only glimpses he allowed me to see. Most people don’t even know I’m there.”

“Just our luck,” I answered. “We get the brilliant psychopath to guide us to the murderous psychopath. You think he’s telling the truth? I mean about only wanting to get out to get vengeance on Aleron for leaving him here?”

“Not for a second.” Cassie shook her head. “He’ll try and make a run for it sooner or later. If Zoe can get permission to take him, we’ll need magnetic cuffs on him at all times. Maybe even a collar that limits how far he can go out of range.”

“Maybe I should have brought Butch after all,” I mused out loud. “She’d keep him in line.”

Before anyone could answer, the door to the office slid open. Major Valentine walked in. She didn’t look happy.

“Didn’t get the go-ahead?” I asked, already sifting through our options now.

“Oh, we got it.” Major Valentine went to the opposite side of her desk and fell more than sat in her chair. “We got all the support and permission we could ask for.”

I looked a Cassie and Laine. The other two shrugged.

“Then why the long face?” Cassie asked. “Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Good news is that we have the full backing of the GG on this one to do whatever we need to take down Aleron. I told them about the Relic. I think they might have laughed at me a month ago, but after what we saw on Mars and the book that helped us defeat the Voy, they want to make sure that this Fountain of Youth, if it is real at all, is contained and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands,” Major Valentine explained. “They asked about the book, by the way. The one that opened portals from other worlds.”

“I think it was destroyed in the fight,” I said without blinking.

Major Valentine stared at me.

I think she knew I was lying, but she also knew that that book didn’t belong in anyone’s hands. Not even the GG could be trusted with a weapon of such power.

After the Battle of Mars, I entrusted the book to Preacher, who hid it in Dragon Hold somewhere. As far as I knew, he and Bapz were the only ones aware of its whereabouts.

Madam Eternal warned us that using the book came with a price. If she was right, and I had no reason to doubt that she was, then we had yet to surrender our pound of flesh for using the ancient relic.

“That’s what I told them.” Major Valentine leaned back in her chair, rubbing at her tired eyes. “Anyway, the bad news is that Colonel Stryfe managed to get permission to use a Galactic Government satellite over Earth to track Aleron and his crew. They’re gone.”

“What do you mean ‘gone’?” Laine asked.

“I mean they’re out of the area,” Major Valentine explained. “They could be anywhere at the moment. We have the satellite searching a wider radius, but they’re not on the west coast or in the Badlands at the moment. I doubt they’ve taken a ride on a boat, but that still leaves north, south, or east they could have taken.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” I asked, jumping to my feet. “If the GG is going to give us whatever we need, I say we get a dropship and some blasters and we go hunting.”

“I have something better.” Major Valentine smiled for the first time. “I can get us a unit of Shadow Praetorians to go with us.”

Shadow Praetorians were the GG’s elite fighting force. If they needed something done fast, they called in the Shadow Praetorians to handle the job.

As long as they were on my side, I had no issue with them.

“I’ll see about getting you your weapons and any gear you’ll need,” Major Valentine continued. “I’ll meet you at the hangar in forty minutes.”

Major Valentine led us out of the structure and toward the outside hangar bay. There was already a scarred man there wearing untraditional black Galactic Government armor. He wore the symbol of the GG on his right shoulder another symbol I didn’t recognize on his left. It was a menacing-looking ancient helmet.

He saluted the major as we approached.

“This is Sergeant Toy,” Major Valentine introduced us. “He’ll be coming with us along with the hardest humping Shadow Praetorian Unit this side of the known galaxy. He’ll see to whatever you need while I make preparations for Rival’s transportation.”

“Thank you, Zoe,” I told the major as she turned to go. “I know this is the last thing any of us wanted.”

“Sometimes life’s not about what we want, but what has to be done.” Major Valentine gave me a hard nod. “See you in forty.”

I turned back to look at Sargent Toy. He was older with buzz-cut hair and a scar across his right eye. He looked like he’d seen a thing or two in his day.

“Major Valentine told me you two were at the Battle of Mars.” Sergeant Toy eyed me and Cassie. “I was there with my unit for the second part of the fight. One second we were traveling like the hounds of Hades were nipping at our heels; the next, some kind of gate opened and we were above Mars. I still can’t explain exactly what happened.”

“We were on the ground from the beginning,” I told him. “I don’t think we’d be here today if it wasn’t for the support the GG brought. We were being overrun.”

“Just doing my job.” Sergeant Toy nodded. “Major Valentine told me you’d need food and your weapons. I picked up rations for us and the weapons you left at the Hole are in the dropships when you’re ready.”

“Thank you,” Cassie said, entering the rear of the dropship along with the sergeant and Laine.

I stood outside of the dropship’s ramp, taking in a long deep breath and exhaling again. I immediately liked Sergeant Toy and could tell why Zoe picked him. He was tested, shared a bond with us both being at the Battle for Mars, and he was competent.

We’d need all of those traits if we were going to make it through what came next. The sun was setting over the docking area. Dropships landed and took off at varying intervals. Soldiers ran to and from; loading, refueling, and working on various ships.

The occasional civilian was escorted back and forth from the launch pad under careful praetorian eyes.

My life was like a dropship. Always going, always coming. There was no rest and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what I’d do with rest if it came my way. I didn’t know what would transpire in this mission, but I was positive I’d get X back and stop Aleron.

“You look like you’re having second thoughts,” Cassie’s voice interrupted me. “You can sit this one out if you need to. I wouldn’t blame you. Something tells me Rival’s going to be talking a lot on the way there and back.”

“No, I don’t think I could do that,” I said, turning to the Cyber Hunter with a smile. “You’d miss me too much.”

“Maybe.” Cassie grinned. “Maybe a girl’s wondering if you’re going to ask her on another date.”

“I know, our first one kinda got interrupted by an alien who lied to us, saying he was our son.”

“We’ll have that memory forever.”

“Don’t I know it,” I cleared my throat. “Cassie Evans, would you like to go on another date with me whenever we get a break from the madness our life has become?”

“Not the madness, the adventure,” Cassie corrected. “And yes, Daniel Hunt. I’ll allow you to take me on another date. Just no shapeshifters or so-called time travelers on the next one.”

“Can’t make any promises.” I shrugged. “Life’s a mysterious journey with me.”

“And that’s part of your charm,” Cassie finished.

Laine walked out of the back of the dropship carrying my weapons belt in one hand and a series of earpieces for communication in the other. She was also chewing on something.

“Here you go.” Laine handed me my belt that contained my MK II, axe, and knife. “Sergeant Toy said these earpieces can link us to the GG as well as Dragon Hold.”

“I’ll give the Hold a heads-up on the situation,” Cassie volunteered. She looked over at me. “You should get something to eat.”

“How did you know I was hungry?” I asked.

“Because you’re always hungry.” Cassie waved me inside the rear of the dropship.

She wasn’t wrong.

I walked into the interior of the GG dropship to see a pile of protein packs and water cartons. There were also sealed bags of dried food. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet of military rations.

I didn’t mind it and my stomach was in no condition to complain. I ripped open something that tasted like synthetic cheese and noodles and went to town.

Sergeant Toy took inventory of weapons and gear inside the craft.

Laine joined me perusing a wall of weaponry on the right side of the ship. The weapons ranged from hand blasters to rifles and grenades.

Laine touched a sniper rifle with a scope nearly as long as the barrel itself. Her hand stroked it reverently.

“Are you a marksman?” I asked, thinking back to what I knew of the woman. “I mean, I remember up close you’re pretty deadly with a dart gun.”

Laine blushed. “Right, sorry again about that. I—”

“It’s in the past,” I told her. “I get it. I was just giving you a hard time.”

Laine smiled gratefully. She spoke in a whisper so Sergeant Toy wouldn’t be able to hear her further into the ship. “On my planet, women aren’t allowed to own weapons, much less train and learn how to handle one. My father always saw things differently. We’d go out onto the plains of Manitesh and hunt wild bromine together.”

“Sounds like you loved your father.” I nodded along with her story. “You should take the sniper rifle; it’s an Artemis 3000. If you know what you’re doing, you’ll be able to hit one of your—bromines from a full kilometer out. I think your father would like you to use it. Plus you’ll need something to protect yourself.”

Reverently, Laine lifted the weapon from its resting place on the wall.

“If you’re not familiar with the tech, I can—”

I cut myself off as I witnessed Laine shoulder the weapon, checking and adjusting the scope before detaching the clip and slamming it back in place.

“Never mind,” I said.

“For what you did for me, for my son, I owe you a life debt.” Laine eyed me seriously. “Nothing will happen to you while I’m behind the scope.”

“I hope nothing will happen to any of us,” I said. Even as the words left my lips, I knew that was wishful thinking.


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

Sergeant Toy’s unit were actually a dozen of the hardest-looking men and women I had ever seen. They joked and ribbed one another like good friends and soldiers do, but there was no denying that every single one of them knew how to handle themselves in a fight and make sure the enemy bled first and most.

Major Valentine met us just before takeoff with six praetorian guards and a smiling Rival Mercer in tow.

The major was decked out in her mustard-colored armor with her helmet clipped at her belt. A bolster hung at her hip and a rifle on her back.

Mercer wore a pair of magnetic cuffs behind his back. Around his neck, a thin silver band blinked with a red light.

A black armor piece had been placed on his chest over his bright green jumpsuit.

When they arrived, it was no real surprise Mercer was the first to talk.

“Oh my.” He looked over at Major Valentine, batting his eyes. “Is this all for me? You shouldn’t have.”

The Shadow Praetorian unit exchanged glances to their CO, who ignored them all for the time being. The truth was Sergeant Toy didn’t know any more than them. He was following orders gearing up to go on a mission he would know more about only once we were in the air.

The praetorians marching along with Rival Mercer took their leave of the group once Rival stood securely in the hands of the Shadow Praetorians.

“Sergeant Toy,” Major Valentine called out.

“Ma’am,” Sergeant Toy answered.

“This is Rival Mercer. He’s not to be trusted, talked to, or left out of sight. At all times, it’s up to all of us to be cautious around him. He may not look like much, but he’s been responsible for the deaths of dozens, and those are just the ones we know about.”

“Understood,” Sergeant Toy answered, already making arrangements with his unit for shifts watching the prisoner.

“Not much to look at?” Rival repeated the major. “That’s not kind. I’m a person too. I have feelings.”

“We’ll get him secured until the time is ready for him to give us what he knows,” Major Valentine instructed as Rival was shown to a seat between a pair of the sergeant’s Shadow Praetorians who looked like they wanted to hurt him already.

“Please, is this really necessary?” Rival asked, rolling his eyes. “I think a bit of conversation might be stimulating on such a long trip. Maybe we can discuss your position on the finer arts, such as music or—”

Sergeant Toy strapped a helmet over Rival’s face that dampened any sound coming in or out as well as impaired his ability to see. The helmet didn’t look like anything except a smooth dome, but it sure did the job.

“Before we take off, I want you all to know what you’re getting yourselves into,” Major Valentine addressed the Shadow Praetorians. “The official stance is that Aleron Jacobs was killed while escaping the Hole. The unofficial stance is that he escaped and Rival Mercer knows where he is. Mercer has agreed to take us to him, but of course he demanded to go along. We should expect Mercer to try and escape at any given time. Don’t let him lull you into a false sense of friendship or security. He’ll slit your throat as soon as have a conversation with you about fine dining. Are we clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the entire Shadow Praetorian unit answered in unison.

“Our mission is to locate and eliminate Aleron Jacobs,” Major Valentine continued. “He’ll have plenty of support, so we should expect heavy opposition. With any luck, we’ll be able to get to the location he’s headed to before him and set up shop for a warm welcome. Questions?”

The Shadow Praetorians looked at one another, shaking their heads.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many questions there might be if they knew the whole truth. If they knew about X finding a Relic hidden by Immortal Corp, I was sure every hand would be raised.

The cold truth was that this was not my mission. Even if I felt like they all needed to know the truth, which I did, it wasn’t up to me. This was a Galactic Government operation, and as such, they controlled the flow of truth.

I strapped in along with the rest of those in the dropship as Major Valentine gave the go-ahead for the pilot to get us in the air.

The dropship rumbled and picked up into the air with a smooth roar of the thrusters on either side of the craft. In minutes, we were airborne, ready for Rival to answer the questions we were all waiting for.

Rival sat on the left side of the dropship, where a row of seats with safety harnesses faced the opposite wall.

Major Valentine sat across from Mercer along with me, Cassie, Laine, and a few Shadow Praetorians.

The rest of the unit flanked Mercer.

“Go ahead; you can remove his helmet now,” Major Valentine instructed the Shadow Praetorians sitting next to Rival. “We need our heading.”

The Shadow Praetorian on Rival’s left, a woman with dark hair streaked with red highlights, lifted the faceless mask off his head.

“Oh my goodness, it was so lonely in there. Thank you, Chesha,” Rival said to the female Shadow Praetorian. “May I call you Chesha?”

“Your handcuffs are magnetically locked,” Major Valentine answered for the woman. They’ll only open with my thumbprint. That collar around your neck is packed with enough explosives to send you to the next world if you stray more than ten meters from my location.”

Major Valentine lifted her right arm. Over her armored wrist was a blinking silver band that matched the same cadence as the light going off and on, on Rival’s neck.

“Oh my, all this trouble for little old me.” Rival looked around, abashed. “I told you I’d help you. All I want is Aleron’s head. He left me to rot and betrayed me after I gave him that information. I refuse to abide a traitor.”

“The heading?” I asked, unable to listen to more of Rival’s incessant chatter. “Where are we going?”

“Southeast,” Rival answered, looking at me with a strange smile. “We’re heading to the Swamp Lands.”

“The Swamp Lands?” Cassie repeated. The way she said the words, I could guess that wasn’t a good idea.

I wasn’t used to seeing Cassie out of her element or even worried, for that matter. The expression on her face now was one of trepidation and loathing.

“Oh, I like this game.” Rival chuckled. “This is the one where we just repeat one another, right? My turn. The Swamp Lands. Okay, okay, now you go.”

“Helmet.” Major Valentine looked over to the Shadow Praetorian, who was more than eager to replace the can back on Rival’s head.

“No, wait, I—”

The dampening tool went over Rival’s head again.

“No one’s been to the Swamp Lands, Galactic Government or other, since Earth fell,” Sergeant Toy answered the puzzled expression on my face.

“No one goes in or out of those swamps,” Cassie agreed. “I’ve heard they’re filled with rolling mists that hide creatures not of this world.”

“Mutated animals?” I asked, trying to think of anything I knew of the area and coming up blank.

“Worse,” Major Valentine mused out loud. “But stories are stories, and if your intel still says Rival is telling the truth, then that’s all we have to go on.”

I glanced over to Laine, who nodded.

“Make a southeast heading for the Swamp Lands,” Major Valentine said into her earpiece. “You heard me right. Just do it.”

Quiet chatter broke out among the Shadow Praetorians as we received our final destination. I felt the dropship turn toward the desired heading.

“We should arrive in three hours, depending on winds,” the major told me. “If your team needs any kind of body armor, you’ll find some in the overhead crates near the rear of the ship.”

“Thank you,” I answered.

Cassie and Laine were already moving in that direction. The dropship rattled a bit and shook every so often. Through the oval windows that lined either wall, we could see the dark sky peppered with clouds and brilliant display of stars.

This high up, the tiny lights seemed innumerable, and in a sense, they were. If I allowed myself, I could get lost in the wonder of such a massive universe.

How many other races, planets, and species could live out there? The answer was, of course, impossible to know.

“Why is everyone so worried about this area?” Laine asked Cassie as they brought down large closed cases of lightweight armor. “The Swamp Lands?”

“The Swamp Lands are located in an area of what used to be Louisiana, one of the states in the United States of America,” Cassie explained. “When the Earth died, that section was covered with mist. I’ve never met anyone who has traveled to and from the area, but I’ve heard enough horror stories to keep out.”

“I’ve never seen you this rattled,” I said, placing on the plain black armor the Galactic Government had to offer.

“I’m always up for a good fight, but there’s just something about mist that creeps me out,” Cassie confessed, placing her black cloak over her shoulder. She clipped the helmet to her belt for now. Her augmented forearms would be weapons enough for her to use. “When you can’t see your enemy, that changes the game.”

We thought about Cassie’s words as we continued to gear up. The Galactic Government armor was a simple yet effective affair of ceramic plating over liquid armor that spread impact when struck by a round.

Chest plate, shoulder pads, vambraces, and gloves were all fit together with interlocking sections to allow for maximum movement. All together, the gear didn’t weigh more than forty pounds.

The helmet was set with a wide visor that acted aa a heads-up display when worn. In addition to my own MK II, axe, and knife, I took a standard Galactic Government Hyperion Mark Seven. The rifle was simple yet durable. It shot laser rounds that were fed through charge packs at the base of the weapon.

I retook my seat with the rest of the crew. Chatter and discussions were still taking place around the dropship. At the moment, all I could think of was getting what shut eye I could.

As soon as we landed, we’d be searching for Rival’s contact, who would be able to unlock whatever location had been hidden in X. Whispers of doubt and all the different scenarios that could go wrong invaded my mind as I sank into my seat with eyes closed.

If I had known the horrors that waited for us in the mist, I wouldn’t have let anyone come with me.


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

“Roger, reaching the Swamp Lands now,” Major Valentine said so loud, it was clear she wanted everyone aboard to hear.

I roused from my short slumber. It had only been a few hours, but it was exactly what I needed to recharge my batteries. Despite the chatter aboard the dropship, I found the dull thrum of the thrusters calming.

I rubbed sleep from my eyes, stretching with a yawn.

“Good morning, Sleeping Beauty,” Cassie teased. Despite the unease I saw in her eyes, she was putting her best foot forward. “Ready to enter the belly of the beast?”

I followed her eyes toward one of the windows lined up behind our row of seats. Outside, the night sky was clear. My guess was that it was somewhere near midnight. Aided by the moon and stars, a rolling ocean of mist covered the ground below.

Nothing broke the thick, wispy matter. The fog was total, concealing the beasts my imagination promised were present. It was strange; the idea of there being monsters in the mist didn’t seem to faze me with the rest of what I had seen.

The monsters could be nothing more than mutated animals. I was willing to accept that. I had just taken on a herd of wild mutated boar after all.

“Helmet off,” Major Valentine instructed the Shadow Praetorians sitting on either side of Rival. “We need our landing coordinates.”

This time, the male Shadow Praetorian on Rival’s right pulled off his helmet.

Rival’s eyes were closed. He snored like some hibernating creature, dead to the world around it.

“Rival!” Major Valentine shouted. “Wake up!”

“No, no, I want to wear the dress,” Rival mumbled to himself, lost in whatever dream he might be in. “Oh stop, you’re pretty.”

“Rival!” Major Valentine yelled.

The Shadow Praetorian on his right slapped him across the face.

“What? Huh?” Rival blinked his eyes open, taking in his surroundings. “Oh, right. The whole Aleron Jacobs thing.”

“Heading!?” Major Valentine insisted. “I’m getting tired of asking you.”

“Well excuuuuuse me.” Rival rolled his eyes. “I was getting my beauty rest. You know it’s important to get between—”

The expression on Major Valentine’s face was enough to make Rival stop speaking altogether.

“29.9511 degrees north, 90.0715 degrees west,” Rival answered. “The last I heard, he was holed up in an area known as the French Quarter. We’ll have to search for him once we get on the ground.”

“Helmet,” Major Valentine instructed the Shadow Pretorian next to Rival before relaying the directions to the pilot over her comm channel.

“Wait, if we could just talk—”

For the second time, Rival was cut off from whatever he was going to say next by the steel dome over his head.

I almost felt sorry for the guy. If he wasn’t linked to the death of my parents, I might have. I also knew it was a tactic of the criminally insane to get people to feel sorry for them. I had known a few killers that would lull their victims into a sense of false friendship before bashing in their skulls or robbing them blind.

I felt the dropship curve toward our desired location ever so slightly.

“Gear and weapons check,” Major Valentine ordered. “We’ll be on the ground in ten.”

“You heard the major,” Sergeant Toy took over in a voice that sounded as if it were made for doling out commands. “I want your own load out, checked and rechecked, then checked again by another Titan. Extra rounds are mandatory and don’t go light on your water supply. We may be out here for a while, and I don’t want any of you drinking the swamp water. Titans?”

As one, the Shadow Praetorian unit called Titan lifted their voices. “Yes, sir!”

I took the opportunity to examine my own gear. My helmet was comfortable and made adjustments to meld to my head. The servos inside the padding of the helmet pressed against my skull to make a snug but not crushing fit.

My heads-up display worked well tracking distances for me as well as showing a circular radar grid in the lower left side of my vision. As the radar made its rounds, it pinged off members around me. They showed up as tiny white dots.

The metal recallers that looked like silver rings on my wrists were in good working order. I tested them, motioning with my hands to my weapons. Sure enough, with a twitch of my finger, as if I was beckoning to them, the axe and knife I wore at my belt flew to my waiting hands.

Out of the corners of my eyes, I could see Cassie adjusting the metal sections of her forearms while Laine opened the chamber on her Artemis 3000 then packed a smaller caliber blaster on her hip as a secondary weapon.

The dropship finally stopped its forward movement and began to descend. As we got closer to the ground, we lost the view of the clear night sky. White rolling mist covered every window now, as if the fog not only welcomed our arrival but embraced us in its wave-like arms.

“Let’s expect visibility to be minimal out there,” Sergeant Toy barked. “Stay close on the channel and watch the radar pings on your HUDs. If there’s anything out there in the mist, it should be more afraid of us than we are of it. If it’s not, it will be, arrooh!”

“Arrooh!” the Titans responded.

“Creeves and Dion will take point.” Sergeant Toy continued looking over to Major Valentine and then to Rival.

“Everyone should be aware of where he is, but I’ll be in charge of Mercer,” Major Valentine answered. “If your Titans can offer us a clear path to our objective, we can do the rest.”

“Understood, ma’am.” Sergeant Toy wore his helmet with a metallic visor that hid his eyes. He adjusted something inside that made the visor go clear so he could look his commandeering officer eye to eye. “Do you mind if I give them a little pep talk? It’s a bit of a tradition.”

“Not at all,” Major Valentine answered.

The dropship shuddered and shook for a moment as we made impact with the ground. A tremor ran up through my feet and legs.

“You remember your training? You watch the Titan’s back next to you and we’ll come home from this,” Sergeant Toy shouted in a clear voice that reverberated through the interior of the dropship. “If it’s you or them, then it’s always them first. As one!”

“As one!” the Titans in the dropship returned the cry.

“You going to do your speech too?” Cassie whispered to me. “You know, the wolf howl or the can’t-kill-our-spirit one?”

“You mean this one?” I asked, placing my right fist in the space between us. “They can take our bodies.”

“But they can never kill our spirit,” Cassie answered, rapping my knuckle with her own and holding it there.

We both looked over to Laine.

“What? I mean, I’m not a member of whatever it is—do you want me to? Am I allowed?” Laine asked, turning her head from me to Cassie and back again.

“We’re in this together now,” I answered.

Laine walked over with the Artemis 3000 her left hand. She placed a closed fist in the center along with my own and Cassie’s.

“We murder them all if that’s what has to be done,” Laine began. “To protect our families, the blood from our enemies will soak the ground as we dance on their remains and—”

“Wow, that’s—that’s too much,” Cassie interrupted. “Usually, Daniel just says something like, ‘they can destroy our bodies,’ then we say, ‘but they can never kill our spirit’.”

“Oh, right, right.” Laine blushed. “They can’t kill our spirit.”

The dropship’s rear hatch opened, halting any further conversation we might have had. I knew it must have been my imagination, but I felt the temperature in the dropship drop by a few degrees.

The rolling mist wasn’t complacent in its space. Slowly, it crept into the inside of the dropship like an uninvited guest tentatively approaching.

My HUD was equipped with eye-tracking technology that allowed me to switch between options. I looked over at our channel features and selected the one marked “Titan Open.”

“Man, this fog is some thick crip,” the woman sitting next to Rival said. I recognized her voice. When I looked at her back, her name popped up above her head, Creeves. “I can’t see more than a few meters in any direction.”

“We’ll figure it out,” the man sitting on Rival’s other side answered. My HUD showed me his name was Dion. “Stay close.”

There were twelve Titans, including the sergeant. With the addition of Rival, Major Valentine, and my own group, we numbered seventeen in all.

“We’ll watch Rival with you,” Cassie told the major as she aided Rival to his feet.

Major Valentine gave her a nod.

We walked with Rival in the center of Sergeant Toy’s Titans.

When I stepped off the dropship, I noticed the ground was soft, spongy even. My boots didn’t sink into the ground, neither did I get the feeling that the floor was exactly stable.

Peering into the mist told me little to nothing. With my enhanced vision, I thought I could make out broken buildings in the distance. I wasn’t sure if that was my imagination or if they in fact stood there.

The dropship closed its rear doors behind us.

Major Valentine left the pilots instructions to wait for us.

With any luck, we’d be able to get to the technician Rival knew before Aleron. Even better, we could get there long enough ahead of Aleron to set up a welcoming committee, bagging him and then recovering X in the process.

Things were never that easy, but I could wish.

We moved down a wide lane that did in fact seem like it used to be some kind of street. Here were ruins of buildings that reached up out of the mist like long-forgotten skeletons of dead giants.

I quickly realized our plan of combing the area wasn’t going to work unless we split up, and I didn’t think that was a great idea. Who knew what was in the mist? Even if it wasn’t monsters, it could be diseased insects, uninviting locals, or treacherous terrain.

It was hard to think anyone or anything could live in such horrible wet conditions, but I’d been wrong before, and I wasn’t about to lower my guard.

The only noise I could hear were the soft footfalls of those in our party and the occasional verbal exchange over the comm line. Everything else was silent as a grave. If that was because of the mist dampening the noise or there actually was no other noise was yet to be seen.

I sure as crip felt something watching me, though. My sixth sense kicked in, telling me we weren’t alone.

Easy, Daniel, I coached myself in my head. Eyes open and alert. We have enough fire power to deal with anything that comes our way, including Aleron or any kind of mutated animals.

Laine moved to walk next to me just ahead of Cassie, Rival, and the major.

Her visor was clear, giving me the ability to see her large eyes roving around the sides of the street.

“Can you sense anything?” I asked her, looking at the radar in the lower left hand corner of my HUD. Nothing changed, just the heat signatures of the seventeen members in our party. “Does it work like that? Can you reach out with your mind?”

“I can, and yes,” Laine said slowly. “There’s so much life here, it’s hard to distinguish one entity from the next.”

So much life? I repeated in my own head.

“Call me crazy, but I don’t see much of anything,” I answered, searching the area around me in a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree turn.

Sergeant Toy set his Titan up in a perimeter around Rival and our small group. All that I could see were the ghostly forms of the members of our group. Lights from the barrels of their weapon and the tops of their helmets did their best at penetrating the dark mist. The attempt was pathetic at best.

Laine reached out a hand, stopping me in my tracks.

I looked over to see her eyes squinting with concern and confusion.

“What is it?” I asked. “Is there something up ahead?”

“Tell the men to stop,” Laine nearly yelled. “Tell them to pull back.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

All I knew was that Laine had not been wrong thus far. In a situation like this where we all had something to lose, I wasn’t going to question her now.

I looked back to Major Valentine, who walked right behind us with Rival and Cassie.

“Laine senses something up ahead,” I told her. “Sergeant Toy’s men are in danger if they don’t pull back.”

Major Valentine must have come to the same decision I did.

“Sergeant,” Major Valentine said over her open channel. “Tell your scouts in the lead to pull back.”

“There’s something—something ancient, primal in a way I’ve never experienced before,” Laine said, shaking her head as she joined us. “Whatever we’re looking for isn’t in front of us. We should turn to the right or left.”

“Are you sure?” Major Valentine asked her. “What do you mean by ancient?”

“My consciousness only just pressed up against it.” Laine looked confused herself, as if she were trying to decipher some complex code. “It’s not human but old. The closest thing I can relate it to is Daniel’s wolf dog.”

“Butch?” I asked incredulously. “There are wolves here?”

“Her name is Butch?” Laine asked. “That’s a horrible name for a girl.”

“Well, it’s Lady Butch, but that’s not the point,” I answered. “How is what you felt similar to a wolf?”

“That name is not any better,” Laine said before moving on to the matter at hand. “No not wolves, but in the same way I sensed Butch was ancient from a time long past. This creature is similar.”

“You have any idea what she’s talking about?” Major Valentine asked me.

“Butch belonged to a species long extinct, Lupus, hybriodmus somethingmus. She was resurrected by manipulating DNA from her wolf ancestors. Maybe whatever Laine sensed was also brought back from the dead.”

“Here? By who?” Cassie asked out loud. I got the sense she didn’t really expect an answer.

Sergeant Toy jogged back to our location.

“I pulled them back like you ordered.” Sergeant Toy sounded like he wanted to ask more but refrained. “Any idea on which direction you’d like us to search?”

“If someone is here, they’d need shelter to survive.” I worked through the problem out loud. “If we could find an area with any kind of structures still intact, we may be able to find someone there. But in all of this fog, it’s impossible to see.”

“An elevated vantage point would let us look out into the city, but that does us no good if we can’t see more than a few meters in any given direction,” Cassie agreed.

We all looked at Rival.

I don’t think anyone wanted to hear the madman talk again, but if he had any kind of information that would lead us to the technician, we needed it.

Major Valentine reluctantly removed the helmet from Rival once more.

Rival blinked, looking around him at the rolling fog in every direction. He licked at the moisture in the air as if it held a unique flavor he enjoyed. He stopped suddenly, eyeing us all with hurt.

“Hey, how come I’m the only one without a helmet now?” Rival asked as if his feelings were actually injured.

“Directions?” Major Valentine asked him.

“I don’t know.” Rival shrugged, squinting into the mist. “I only know the last time I had tabs on the technician, he was here. I’ve never been crazy enough to actually travel to the Swamp Lands. It’s scary here.”

“How did you track him?” I asked. “How did you know he was here?”

“After I was done torturing him for information, I tagged him with a tracking chip in case I needed anything else from him,” Rival said as if it was the most normal thing in the world to torture then tag a human being like some kind of animal. “You know, catch and release.”

“Maybe we can use that same chip to track him now,” Cassie interjected.

“Maybe. It’s been a long time since I checked to see if the tracking chip still worked.” Rival shrugged. “I’ve been in Hole for a decade now.”

“You’ve been in the Hole for four years,” Major Valentine corrected.

“That’s what I said,” Rival answered. “I can give you the tracking information if that helps. I implanted it in his rear end while he was knocked out then stitched him up. It should still be there.”

We all looked at one another.

“What?” Rival asked. “It seemed funny at the time.”

“Give me a second with him to see if I can pull up the tracking chip,” Cassie said, looking down at her left forearm. The vambrace-like section of her arm showed a holographic screen that popped up in the air in front of her.

I found myself admiring her once more, not for her beauty or fighting prowess this time, but for her intellect and ingenuity.

“Ma’am,” Sergeant Toy asked quietly. “A word if I may?”

“I’ll help watch over Rival,” Laine answered. She pressed the barrel of her sniper rifle against the back of Rival’s skull.

“Oh, like a scalp massage,” Rival said, rubbing the back of his head gently against the weapon. “Mmmm, Daddy like.”

“If I never hear you say those words again, it would be too soon,” Cassie answered without taking her eyes off her work.

Sergeant Toy and Major Valentine took a step to the left. The major jerked her head over, indicating I should join them.

“I’m a soldier first,” Sergeant Toy started. “If you tell me to shut my mouth and do as told I will, no more questions. However, it seems like we may be doing more here than hunting for Aleron Jacobs.”

Major Valentine paused for a moment.

“That’s because we are,” the major finally answered. “Yes, we are hunting for Aleron Jacobs. We have intel that leads us to believe he is on his way here. We’re also here to make contact with an ex Immortal Corp technician hiding out here. This technician has information both we and Aleron want. It is imperative that we get to him before Aleron does.”

Sergeant Toy nodded slowly. It was obvious he wanted more answers to the list of questions burning inside, but he held his tongue.

“Understood. Thank you, ma’am,” Sergeant Toy said instead of asking another question. “If I may relay that information to my unit, I think it would help us ensure the mission’s success.”

“You may,” Major Valentine answered.

The sergeant saluted and moved off down the line to talk to his Titans.

“What are we getting ourselves into here, Daniel?” the major asked with a sigh. “The further we go down the jackrabbit hole, the deeper it gets.”

“Never a dull moment,” I answered. “You holding up all right?”

“Always.” Major Valentine eyed me with a smile. “When I met you on the moon, I should have known you were trouble. Just a space-sick mercenary on his way to Earth.”

“Got it,” Cassie said before I could answer. “And he’s close.”

We all turned to look over at Cassie, whose blue holographic display floated above her left forearm.

“Four blocks west,” I said, squinting at the map. “Let’s go.”

Major Valentine gave Sergeant Toy his new heading and we moved out in that direction.

Laine was about to place the helmet on Rival’s head once more.

“Please, I’ve been a good boy,” Rival pleaded. “I’ve done everything you’ve asked. Please, not the helmet again. You already have my hands magnetically cuffed and the explosive around my neck. What am I going to do?”

Laine looked over at the major for direction.

“Helmet goes on, Mercer,” Major Valentine insisted. “I’ve seen images of what you do to your victims once you’ve earned their trust. I like my head where it’s at.”

Right before Laine placed the helmet on Rival’s head, I saw a sneer cross his usually jovial lips. A darkness touched him from the eyes down. In that split second, I saw Rival for the devil he really was.

With clear direction in place, everyone seemed eager to be on the move again. We headed west further into the city. The fog was still heavy here, but not as soupy or dense. Walking in the middle of the ancient road, I was able to see the ruined stone structures of what had once been a city.

Moss and lichen grew on the stone walls that remained. Nearly every roof was gone, caved in or completely deteriorated.

With the recession of the fog also came the insects. Flying bugs drifted through the air, not afraid to land on our armor or even weapons. Swarms of the insects left us alone for the most part but flew together around our perimeter as if they were eyeing us to see if we exposed any kind of flesh for them to land on.

We pressed further on, now hearing the distinct sounds of wild life in the Swamp Lands. Laine was right, there was plenty of life all around us. Once we made the change in direction from heading north and whatever animal lay in wait there, it seemed a new part of the swamps opened up to us.

The Titans used lights mounted on their ends of their barrels and helmets to cut through what darkness they were able.

Shadows shifted and morphed in the fog unlike anything I had ever seen before.

“We should hold here,” Cassie suggested over an open line we shared with Sergeant Toy. “Marker is indicating our target is a block up on the right. No movement from the target.”

“Understood,” Major Valentine answered. “Sergeant, we should assume nothing here. I wouldn’t put it past Rival to have led us on a wild goose chase for his own amusement. There could be a trap waiting for us.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sergeant Toy answered.

“Wait,” I interjected. “I’ll go. I didn’t come to let others do the fighting and dying for me. If this could be a trap. I should be first in for multiple reasons.”

I let that last part hang in the air. Major Valentine had seen me heal. Where others might be met with death or permanent damage, what made me different would protect me.

“I agree,” Major Valentine answered before Sergeant Toy could argue. “Daniel will take point with your Titans backing him up.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sergeant Toy said with a bite in his words.

I nodded to the major and Cassie and slowly jogged to the front with my Hyperion Mark Seven. Cassie fell in step beside me as we trotted to the front.

“No way I’m letting you go in alone. Have you even met you?” Cassie teased. “You’re about as careful as a wild mutated boar in the Hole.”

I knew arguing with her was useless.

We reached Sergeant Toy a few meters up. He conferred with a six-man team from his Titans.

“Do you have a map of the building we’ll be securing?” Sergeant Toy asked Cassie.

“Yes.” Cassie pulled it up for everyone to see.

The blue holographic screen popped to life in the air. We all huddled around to see a corner building up ahead on our right and a small red dot inside.

“Target is to be taken alive, weapons ready,” Sergeant Toy explained. “Daniel and Cassie will be going in first. We’ll surround the building and provide backup where needed.”

Head nods and words of affirmative met his orders.

Cassie and I headed down the street, moving from the center of the road to the relative shelter of the dilapidated building on the right. The Titans switched off the lights on the barrels of their weapons as well as lights on their shoulders and helmets. These secondary lights seemed to have been optional for the unit of Galactic Government Shadow Praetorians. Some of them had them, others did not.

I took the lead with Cassie close behind. Sergeant Toy linked us into a channel along with him and his chosen Titans going on the raid.

A tingle of excitement hit me when I knew I should be scared or nervous. Adrenaline heightened my senses, sending my heart hammering in my chest. Cassie was right. There was something about adding fog to the scenario that sent one on edge.

Most of us leaned so heavily on our sense of sight. When that was taken away, we were useless. Instead of focusing on what I couldn’t see at the moment, I used my other senses to probe my surroundings and understand what I could see.

The chirps and clicks of insects permeated the fog around us. Every so often, a rush of wings that singled out some kind of bird or bat maybe. A distinct rustic smell of a fire wafted through the ventilators in my helmet.

I crouched at the corner, thinking of the best way to approach the building. If this was in fact where the technician was hiding, I assumed there were traps set up around the perimeter. Living here, it was clear he did not want to be found.

“If you take point, I’ll cover your back,” Cassie said, crouching next to me. “Watch your step; something doesn’t feel right.”

“I know what you mean,” I answered. “This whole thing has been way too easy so far.”

Cassie nodded. “Eyes open, weapon ready.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

I checked my Hyperion Mark Seven one more time before pressing the butt of the weapon against my right shoulder. Bent at the knees, I walked across the street.

Out of my peripheral vision, I could see Sergeant Toy and his Titans taking up positions, forming a circle around the corner building.

As I got closer to the building, I could begin to see differences that set this one apart from all the rest. Yes, the rock walls were still covered in green lichen and moss, but this structure had a roof, and although half broken and caved in, the other half still held.

There was a window on my side of the street covered with a curtain of vines. The smell of a burning fire came stronger now, stinging my nostrils.

Quietly, I walked over to the window.

I was about to reach for the curtain of vines to push them back and peer inside, when Cassie caught my arm.

I looked over to her for direction.

She eyed me then started at the vines I was about to push aside. At the bottom of the vines near the sill of the window, an ever-so-faint red light showed through. I missed it before because the vines hovered just in front of the light. If I had moved the vines, no doubt one of them would have broken the light and triggered some kind of warning or trap.

I nodded my thanks instead of risking words being used.

Cassie brought out a single blade from the metal prosthetic on her right forearm. The weapon emerged with a wet sound as it was unsheathed from her arm. Ever so gently, she cut the tops of a pair of the vines, careful not to allow the lower parts to touch the red light.

We both peered inside the building.

A single room made up the interior of the house with the remains of a small fire smoldering in the middle. There was a desk with a broken leg against one wall and a chair in no better condition beside it.

Along with the sight, a new smell infiltrated my helmet. Something like stale alcohol hit me full in the face. Against the far wall was some kind of contraption I took as a distillery.

Near the fire, a figure lay prostrate and unmoving. It was too dark to see details, but it looked like a man.

I miss that night vision, X, I thought to myself. We’ll see you soon.

“Can you disable the trip beam?” I breathed barely loud enough for Cassie to hear me.

Cassie nodded an affirmative.

The Cyber Hunter went to work analyzing the trap. It was simple: two small metal cylinders stuck to the lower half of the window with a red light running between the pair. Anything that disrupted the light would trigger the trap.

While Cassie worked, I took the time to loop Sergeant Toy in on the situation.

“Sergeant,” I whispered. “We have eyes on the target. We’re going in through the window. Have your team close the perimeter and watch for trip beams and anything else that might be waiting for us.”

“Understood,” Sergeant Toy answered.

I turned back to see Cassie work. Her deft fingers examined the metal cylinder on the left that shared the responsibility of holding the red light with its counterpart.

Carefully, Cassie removed the rest of the vines, completely opening the window.

I kept my eyes on the sleeping form of the man near the fire. He didn’t move.

Cassie was quiet and efficient as she worked.

“I can’t disable it, but we can get in if we skirt the trip beam,” she said so low, I barely understood her.

I nodded.

Leaning down and providing a step for her by interlocking my fingers, I gave her a boost.

Cassie placed a boot in the impromptu step and ventured up through the window. A second later, she was inside. Reaching back, she pressed her left arm outside and against the building, her hand cupped to provide a foothold.

Her super human strength as a Cyber Hunter apparently came in handy for climbing rock walls as well. Without question, I placed my left boot in her hand.

I used the frame of the window itself to pull myself up and inside. I came down without a sound, the Hyperion Mark Seven aimed at the slumbering man by the fire.

Inside, the smell of whatever kind of swamp alcohol being created and consumed was overwhelming. It made me want to gag and throw up in my helmet at once. The cringe on Cassie’s face told me she felt the same way.

Along with the odor was the smell of excrement. I assumed it was human waste, but I had no desire to investigate that further.

Weapons on the sleeping figure, we moved toward the fire that was now nothing more than a few embers.

Snoring drifted from the filthy man, who lay on his left side toward the fire. His hair was unkempt and matted like layers of spider webs. He wore tattered clothing and hugged a stained blanket as he continued to snore.

I searched the room for anything else I could be missing. No other traps, no one else.

I looked up at Cassie for consensus. She nodded, sheathing the blade on her right forearm. A half-circled barrel rose from her right forearm as she prepared to fire on the man if he tried anything.

“Hey, rise and shine, buddy,” I said, nudging the man with the barrel of my weapon. “Come on; you need to wake up and take a bath.”

The man mumbled something, his eyes drifted open then closed again. He continued to snore.

“Hey,” I said, louder this time, rolling him over with my boot. “Wake up. We need to talk to you.”

This time, the man rolled over on his back, looking up at us with bloodshot eyes.

“So you’ve finally come for me.” The man took a heavy breath. “Go ahead, kill me.”

“Not so fast,” I answered, lowering my weapon. “We’re not here to answer your death wish. We need your help.”

The man yawned, showing rows of stained teeth. He looked at me, then Cassie, as if he were deciding if we were real or not. He reached inside his filthy blanket.

Both Cassie and I snapped our weapons, aiming them at his skull.

That didn’t seem to bother the man. He squinted at us, taking time to examine me, then Cassie, and back and forth again.

He removed his hand from the insides of his blanket holding a fist-sized brown glass bottle. He unplugged the cork, lifting the liquid to his lips, and drained the bottle.

“You should really lay off the sauce,” Cassie told him. “Doesn’t look like you’re making the best life choices around here.”

The man smacked his lips before placing the empty bottle beside the fire. He moved as if he were just going to go back to sleep.

I had enough.

“Listen,” I told him, grabbing him by the scruff of his neck and dragging him to his feet. “We’ve come a long way to speak with you. I have a friend who’s in trouble. Now I’m going to get my answers the easy way or the hard way. It’ll be better for both of us if it’s the easy way.”

The man rose on unsteady feet, slapping away at my hand.

I released him.

“You’re not going to kill me,” the man mumbled, half walking half falling as he made his way toward the back wall of his living space. “But how do I know you’re not my imagination?”

As he talked, he went to his home-made distillery and grabbed another dusty bottle from the contraption.

I lifted my weapon as he lifted the bottle to his lips.

I let a round free, shattering the lower half of the bottle in his hand.

The noise of the blast echoed in the small room.

Cassie spoke on the comm channel, informing everyone that things were okay and what was going on.

“Does your imagination do that?” I asked.

The drunk looked at the half bottle in his hand and still tried to upend the bottle into his gullet to get a few drops of alcohol that remained. When he couldn’t, he threw it over his shoulder.

Finally, he looked at me. He really took his time looking at me. Although I had no doubt he was drunk, the wheels behind his dead eyes were beginning to turn.

“Whoever you are, just leave me alone.” The drunk turned back to grab another bottle on a shelf on his distillery. He began tinkering with some of the gauges and switched on the contraption. It sputtered then began to steam and whistle as he prepared to brew another serving.

I was running out of time and options. The last thing I could do now was wait and try to convince some crazy drunk to help us. I needed to expedite the process.

I opened up with the Hyperion Mark Seven, peppering the machine with enough rounds to ensure it never worked again.

The drunk stepped back, cringing, and shouted as he held his hands over his ears.

I couldn’t really tell what he was saying, but I could tell he was pissed. Good, so was I.

A few seconds later, the distillery was nothing more than scrap metal on the floor.

“What are you doing!?” the drunk screamed. “Are you crazy!”

“Definitely,” I answered.

Cassie gave me a disapproving stare as she went back onto the comm channel to explain what that outburst was everyone just heard.

“We’re going to get you sobered up, cleaned up, and we’re going to get some answers,” I told him. “I don’t want to hurt you. We’re just here to get some information.”

The drunk fell to his knees, still crying about his lost stash of alcohol.

“I’m done,” he mumbled. “I’m done with that life. I’m done working for corporations. I don’t want any part of it. Just kill me now. I won’t go back.”

“No one’s taking you back.” Cassie tried a different approach of reassuring the man. She even knelt beside him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “We just need a few answers. That’s it.”

The drunk looked back at us through hair so greasy and matted, it was a wonder it was still held together on his head.

“I know what you want. Don’t make me speak of it.” The drunk shuddered. “The things I’ve done. The things I’ve seen. You don’t understand. How could you?”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

It seemed Cassie’s gentler approach was working better. What the heck, I thought. I’d give it a shot as well.

I lowered my weapon, taking a knee along with the drunk.

“Then tell us so we can understand,” I reassured him, extending a hand. “I’m Daniel Hunt. I’ve done some pretty messed-up things in my past as well. You may not believe what I’ve seen.”

“Daniel Hunt?” the man asked, taking my hand in his own. “The Daniel Hunt from Immortal Corp?”

His nails were cracked and bleeding and his palm shook when I pressed it.

“That’s right,” I answered. “I heard you worked for them for a time. You are?”

“Ramil, Ramil Dunbar.” The drunk bit his cracked lower lip as he tried to make sense of our meeting. “I never worked on the Pack Protocol program, but I heard of it. The advances you and your unit made were remarkable. Tell me, was there really a woman who could mask herself turn invisible?”

For the briefest of moments, I caught a glimpse of who this man used to be. Bright eyed, full of wonder, and questions about what was possible.

“There is,” I said, releasing his hand. “Her name’s Angel. She’s not with us now, but I’m sure I could arrange a meeting if you’d like.”

“Amazing,” Ramil breathed. As if he forgot himself, he turned his head back to the ground, shaking in the negative. “No, no, I swore I would never go back to that world. I’m not going back.”

“So then don’t,” I answered. “All I need is information about an AI you worked on for Immortal Corp. I hear you implanted a location in her. I need the code to allow her to remember where that location is. There’s a group of nasty individuals coming your way who will be asking the same questions, just not as nicely as we are.”

“Intel Disc X1097854107890?” Ramil rattled off the number as if he had it lasered into his brain. “Is she here? Is she still operational?”

Ramil jumped to his feet, teetering a bit and grabbing his head as if it were going to explode.

“Easy,” Cassie warned.

“Yes, we just call her X, but she’s working just fine,” I told the unstable man. “We don’t have her now. But the men who are coming do. When they get her, we’re going to take her back. I was told you created her and implanted a location for Immortal Corp. The Location tells of a Relic called the Fountain of Youth. I don’t want it for myself, but the men who are coming do. They’re going to create an Immortal army.”

Ramil blinked a few dozen times as if his addled mind was trying to process and digest the information I gave him. He winced again and held his head, trying to follow along.

“I just don’t want to get involved anymore,” Ramil said as if he were trying to justify a promise he made to himself so many years before. “That’s why I’m here. Don’t you get that? I’ve worked for Immortal Corp, Genius Industries, and even the Order. My work has been responsible for killing thousands, maybe more. I’ve been kidnapped, tortured, and hunted. I pay for my sins now every night, every waking moment. You think I like the taste of this swamp water booze? I hate it, but it helps me forget. It’s the only reprieve I have of the past.”

“I won’t ask you if there was any other way,” I pressed. “I don’t want to drag you back into a world you got out of any more than you do. There are times I wish I could get out myself. But we need to know.”

“I believe you want out. I believe you’re paying for your sins in this waking death,” Cassie said, removing her helmet so Ramil could see her. “If you tell us how to unlock the information X has inside, then you’ll be doing what you can to save future lives. We can’t go back and change the past, but right here, right now, you can make the decision for a better future.”

Ramil breathed a heavy sigh. Before he opened his mouth I already knew he decided to help. Cassie was very convincing.

“It’s not a code,” Ramil said slowly. “I mean, not in the sense where it’s data or numbers that need to be entered into her program. It’s a phrase that will unlock the location of the Relic.”

“What is it?” I pressed. “What phrase?”

Weapon fire shattered the moment from somewhere close.

A creature roared so violently, the ground beneath our feet shuddered and spasmed.

The comm line inside my helmet was going crazy.

“Contact, contact south!” a voice I didn’t recognize shouted.

More rounds permeated what had been still silence moments before.

For the first time, I saw fear rip across Ramil’s face. “How many are with you? Tell them to stop firing!”

A human scream so brutal and primal tore across the comm line and silenced just as quickly.

More information and orders were being shouted across the channel. I ignored that for the time being, looking at Ramil for answers.

“Why?” I asked. “What is it? What’s in the mist to the north?”

“Genetically engineered serpents,” Ramil blurted without a second thought. “You’re not going to kill them with small arms weapons. Unless you have enough fire power to take out a dropship, you need to stop firing and giving away your position.”

All signs of any kind of drunkenness vanished from Ramil’s terrified eyes. He sprinted to the window we entered. I was surprised he didn’t faceplant into the stone wall; his strides were unsteady at best.

Whatever was in the mist terrified this man. He hadn’t blinked when I pointed the business end of my Hyperion Mark Seven at him.

Another roar from some animal I was sure I had no desire to meet made the bones in my sternum quake. The sound was followed by more weapons fire and yet another scream cut short from the lungs of a Titan.

“Where is it!”

“Keep shooting!”

“Die, you son of a crip!”

These and more yells from the Titans drew me back into the moment and forced me to take action.

“Tell them to stop firing,” Ramil said over and over again under his breath. “Tell them to stop firing.”

“Stay with him,” I told Cassie, climbing on the window sill and jumping out, making sure to avoid the trip beam.

I landed on my feet, already barking orders through my helmet.

“Sergeant Toy, Zoe,” I said, forgetting to address her by her official rank and title. “Stop firing and fall back on my location. We have shelter. I repeat, stop firing and run. Whatever this thing is, we won’t be able to take it out without the help of a mech or three.”

“That thing just grabbed two of my men!” Sergeant Toy shouted over the sounds of weapon fire. “No way in crip I’m letting it get away alive.”

I looked to my right, where I saw weapon muzzles flashing into the sky.

Something like a concussive force of wind hit me from above, making me stumble where I stood. I looked up to see the mist part for the briefest of moments. Leather wings buffeted the air as something as large as a dropship passed.

I had never seen anything living that large. Not in the museums on the moon, not in even in the battle for Mars. As soon as the green leathery wing was there, it was gone, and the mist covered the dark night sky once more.

I knew everything Ramil said was right. Something of that size was not going to bow to any kind of blaster.

“You have to trust me!” I shouted into my comm, running for the nearest muzzle flash in the mist. “It’s tracking you by the flash of your weapons and the sounds you’re making. If you want to live, stop firing!”

“Hold your fire,” Major Valentine ordered. “Do you understand me? Hold your fire or I’ll have you stripped from the Shadow Praetorians and placed on permanent inventory detail back on the moon.”

I skidded to a halt next to the Shadow Praetorian I had seen in the mist. It was Dion, the man who sat beside Rival on the dropship. The large Shadow Praetorian was trying not to shake, but still I saw tremors run through his shoulders and arms.

“Did—did you see it?” he asked without looking at me. “Did you see the size of that—of that monster?”

“I did,” I said, telling him a partial lie. Gently, I placed a hand on the barrel of his weapon and slowly lowered it to the ground. “We have to get inside shelter with the others. Come on, follow me.”

“Collapse on my location,” Cassie said over the comms. “Hurry. Ramil says it’ll make another pass before it gives up completely.”

“What in the Lord of the Way’s holy name is that thing?” Sergeant Toy asked. “What are we dealing with here?”

No one answered. No one had an answer.

I trotted back to the shelter with Dion in tow. We met back on the corner building as Sergeant Toy and the rest of his party arrived as well as Major Valentine, Laine, and Rival. Rival still wore his helmet. Ironically, he was probably the only one that wasn’t terrified at the moment, although he had every reason to be.

“Through the window, here,” I said, noticing Cassie and Ramil had removed the trap. “Hurry, hurry, go.”

One at a time, our party jumped through the window. Like the good leaders they were, both Sergeant Toy and Major Valentine went last.

“What are we dealing with here, Daniel?” Major Valentine asked me.

“Don’t know for sure,” I answered truthfully. “We made contact with Ramil the technician and then all hell broke loose. It appears to be an animal, and a massive one at that.”

“I lost two Titans out there,” Sergeant Toy said, horrified. “I’d like permission to go and get them back. The Shadow Praetorians don’t leave our own behind.”

“And we won’t,” Major Valentine reassured him. “But we’ll all be dead if we don’t get a better idea of what we’re up against.”

Another throaty animalistic roar echoed through the stone streets. Something large passed overhead but was higher up now, offering us no glimpse at its true identity.

We hopped through the window, following a clumsy Rival Mercer, who was more pushed through then helped over the obstacle.

What had before been a spacious room was now cramped with our party.

I went over to Ramil, who stood shaking in the corner. Cassie had him drinking water trying to further sober the man. Before I could get to him, Sergeant Toy grabbed him.

“No games,” the sergeant growled. “What’s out there? What was that thing?”

“A—a giant reptile, a serpent with—with wings,” Ramil told him. “When the earth died, it put life on reset. There were corporations interested in speeding up that process.”

“Does it bleed?” Sergeant Toy asked.

Ramil nodded fiercely.

“Then we can kill it,” Sergeant Toy answered.

“Sergeant, that’s not our mission,” Major Valentine answered. “We’ll search to see if your two Titans are still alive, but we aren’t on a hunting excursion. I understand you’re angry and rightfully so. Be angry. But don’t put the rest of your unit at unneeded risk.”

Major Valentine lowered her voice for this last part, stepping toward the sergeant. In this way, she would be able to save him face in front of his other team members.

For a moment, I thought the heated sergeant would argue. I think he did too.

“Who—who is that!?” Ramil asked, pointing a filthy finger at Rival. “Did you bring him here!? What have you done!?”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

I couldn’t tell if Ramil was shaking from fear or anger; probably a bit of both. I thought he might pass out. He was ready to burst.

Rival, for his part, did absolutely nothing. Still wearing his sensory dampening helmet, he was oblivious as to who stood in front of him or where he was. The convict still wore the magnetic cuffs over his wrists as well as the red blinking collar around his throat.

“Rival is here only to get us to you,” I answered. “He’s bound and that helmet keeps him from hearing or seeing anything. As soon as we’re done here, he’s going back into the Hole.”

“He gave me this.” Rival pulled down his ragged shirt, showing a series of scars across his chest. Next he threw up his hands so I could take a look at his fingers. The pinky on his right hand was gone. “He took that finger from me too when he tortured me.”

Stomach acid roiled in my gut. I knew Rival was a murderer, however, seeing his work in front of me was a brutal reminder as to what he was capable of.

“How did he know where I was anyway?” Ramil asked, gritting his teeth. “Was he tracking me this entire time?”

“He was,” Cassie answered.

Ramil drunkenly stalked over to Rival, slamming his right foot into the inmate’s testicles. Rival fell without a squeal, at least one that we could hear. Ramil jumped on top of him, raining down sloppy blows onto his torso and midsection.

“I hate you! I hate you for everything you did to me!” Ramil raved like a madman, all the while throwing wild punches at Rival. “I hate you!”

Part of me was content to stand there and let Ramil extract his long awaited revenge. I’d be pissed too if someone tortured and broke me to the point I became a reclusive alcoholic.

We needed them both, though. As much as I didn’t like him, Rival had kept his word up to this point. And Ramil still hadn’t given up the phrase to unlock X’s hidden location.

Cassie was the first to move. The soldiers from the Galactic Government seemed content to let the beating take place.

“All right, all right,” Cassie said, lifting a crying Ramil off Rival with one firm but gentle hand. “You got him, you got him. That’s enough.”

Ramil was past any words. He spit on Rival as Cassie forced him back.

Ramil sobbed like a child.

I went over to help Cassie, although I was there more to show my support of her actions than to do anything. Cassie was more than capable of pulling the drunk off Rival.

We pushed Ramil to the far wall, where he fell down in a heap, crying without shame. The smell that came off him was nearly unbearable. I threw up in my mouth a little, concentrating to keep my last meal down.

“Hey, we need that phrase. After that, we’ll take him away back to the Hole. He’ll rot and die in there, paying for what he’s done,” I said to Ramil. “You can come too or not; that’s up to you. Right now, we just need you to pull it together.”

“Have you ever been tortured?” Ramil looked at me with crazed eyes. I could practically see the brokenness in his soul. “Do you know what it’s like?”

“I do,” I said, remembering my time with the Voy. I remembered how helpless and angry I felt. “I know more than you think.”

Ramil looked up at me, studying my face. “I need a drink.”

“No you don’t,” I told him, shoving him back down as he tried to get to his feet. “Right now, you need more water or caf to keep sobering up. Right now, we need that phrase to unlock X.”

“You have bigger problems to deal with right now,” Ramil warned me. “Whenever the flying serpents make a kill, scavengers aren’t far behind. The scavengers will use their sense of smell to find us. We’re all dead already.”

“What scavengers?” Cassie asked, her eyes immediately darting to the only entrance or exit to the room, the window we had come in.

“They were once crocodiles that mutated to walk on land,” Ramil answered, looking wistfully at his ruined distillery. “They don’t have a name. I just call them Crocs. With the noise you made and the blood that was spilled, you should have drawn quite a few.”

It wasn’t like I had to repeat his words. Sergeant Toy and Major Valentine were within earshot.

“Let’s establish another perime—”

Sergeant Toy couldn’t even finish his order.

A sound like nothing I had ever heard wafted through the mist-laden window. It was a low, deep, guttural growl. Maybe not even a growl, but a rumbling.

The ten Titans that remained lifted their weapons toward the window.

“No rifles,” Ramil warned. “You’ll only bring the serpent back.”

“What are we supposed to fight this thing with?” Sergeant Toy asked.

I handed my rifle to Laine and drew the axe and knife from my belt. Cassie was a step behind. Out of her right arm came a pair of deadly blades that made a wet sound when they were drawn. On her left arm, a shield fanned out from her forearm.

“Oh, you got to be kidding me,” one of the Titans said, shouldering her blaster and reaching for a long knife in her right boot. “We’re going medieval on these Croc things?”

Through my heads-up display, I could see her name pop up over her. It was Creeves, one of the Titan scouts and the woman sitting opposite Rival in the dropship.

“They hunt in packs,” Ramil warned us. “They’ll come quickly.”

As if they were waiting for him to finish, a scaled monstrosity appeared from the mist. I’d never seen a crocodile in real life, but I’d seen plenty of pictures. They were supposed to travel on four short legs with an impressive maw and powerful tail. The thing coming at us now wasn’t that at all.

A muscular body more akin to the images I had seen of what gorillas used to be like lumbered toward us. Dark green scales covered its muscular body. A head with a long snout and menacing teeth were the only similarity this thing had with crocodiles besides the long tail and scales.

The Croc saw us inside the building. It gave off that deep rumbling almost ticking sound and charged.

“Stay behind us as much as you can,” I warned the others.

The Croc leapt the last few feet, hammering into the window sill. Its bulk sent stones flying from the wall. I met it head on, driving the blade of my axe in my right hand into its chest.

My blade sank deep through muscle and tissue.

The Croc roared in pain, swiping down at me with a human-like hand tipped with black talons.

Cassie intercepted the strike meant for me with her shield, also driving her blades into the stomach of the Croc, who teetered on the sill.

The Croc screamed again, falling into the room. Massive jaws snapped for me as I pulled my weapon from its chest, twisting as I did so to take a section of flesh with me.

The Croc lashed out with a powerful tail that Cassie caught with her shield. The strike was so strong, it threw Cassie backward into the room. Dark blood spilled from the creature’s open gut and chest. Still, it rose to its feet.

Yellow eyes with stretched black pupils eyed me before the beast lunged forward with open jaws, both hands reaching for my throat.

The obvious and most immediate threat was to avoid the massive open mouth arched toward my face. I drove the knife in my left hand upward, catching him under his chin and penetrating into his mouth. The creature’s left hand caught my wrist as I swung the axe sideways toward him.

I was out of appendages while the Croc scraped its right clawed hand over my helmet and armor.

Thank the Lord of the Way for that armor.

All of this happened in a matter of seconds. I prepared my next move when Sergeant Toy and his Titans fell on the beat. Most of the Shadow Praetorians carried a bladed weapon of some kind. The few who didn’t used the butts of their weapons.

Their attack was so fierce, the Croc didn’t have a chance.

Under a flurry of stabs and blows, the Croc fell to its knees. Cassie showed up back into the fight, driving her twin blades through the back of the Croc’s skull. It sank to the ground a moment later in a heap of its own blood.

“Well,” I panted, looking down at the deep scratch marks in my armor. “That wasn’t so bad, right?”

The window exploded inward in a shower of stone and mortar. Behind us, the roof that was already partially collapsed caved in, in the corner. Crocs streamed in, easily outnumbering us.

Those deep clicking guttural sounds came from all of their throats at once. Without any kind of order from a leader or so much as a war cry, they fell on us in a flurry of snapping teeth and claws.


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

“Stay together!” I warned, putting my back to our group as the Crocs charged. At such a close range, I knew any target would be hard to miss. I hurled my axe, taking one of the Crocs in the throat. It fell, grabbing at the weapon, dark blood soaking its chest.

I switched my knife to my right hand and also hurled the weapon. It struck a second Croc in the left eye. As soon as I used both weapons, I beckoned with my hands. The hilts my axe and knife ripped free from their victims, sailing in the air back to me.

I grabbed them just in time to turn and deal with a third Croc, who lunged for my legs with open jaws. I jumped, missing the maw of the beast, who closed its teeth so hard, an audible crack joined the cacophony of noise in the small stone building.

I came down on the Croc with both weapons slamming into the top of its skull. I felt my blades grate against bone. I jerked them violently back, coming away with a pop that severed the creature’s skull from its vertebrae.

All round me, Titans struggled with their opponents. At times, it was easy for me to forget that I not only had enhanced strength but speed as well compared to my counterparts.

Major Valentine pushed Ramil and Rival into the middle of our group. She lashed out with a curved knife in one hand and the butt of her pistol in the other. Laine fought by her side. The alien woman might have been the nimblest out of all of us, dodging blows and giving ground, only to strike out with the end of her own blaster.

“Laine!” I yelled, tossing her my knife as she turned.

The woman snatched the blade out of the air and impaled a Croc’s right palm with the weapon.

I saw a Titan get torn apart from my left with a brutal scream that silenced prematurely. The Crocs coming in through the destroyed window were fewer, but those that caved in the corner of the roof were still gathering as if they were strengthening their numbers for an all-out attack.

“Cassie, watch the window,” I said, looking over to the Cyber Hunter.

Cassie’s black cape flew behind her as she used the edge of her shield to break one Croc’s throat then plunged her blades into a second.

“Got it,” she yelled back.

Is there anything she can’t do? I thought to myself as I joined the opposite side of our small circle where Sergeant Toy bled from a wound to his head. Somewhere in the short fight, his helmet had been ripped off. A shallow gash by his hairline bled profusely.

“If I had known we were getting into a knife fight, I would have brought bigger knives,” Sergeant Toy said to me without looking over. “And shields too.”

“You and me both,” I answered.

There was no more time for talk. As I suspected, the Crocs on this end had only paused their advance to swell their numbers. Eight of the brutes communicated with one another in their guttural tongue then lifted their meaty throats skyward. They let out another deep rumble I imagined might have been a war cry.

In the middle of the chaos, Rival had removed his helmet by lowering his head to the ground and shaking it back and forth. He stared around the room with an open mouth.

“I can help. I can help,” Rival said, pleading with anyone who would listen. “Just release me from the cuffs. You can keep this stupid collar on me. But I can help.”

“You’ve done enough!” Ramil shouted at him. “Haven’t you already done enough?”

As much as I would have enjoyed watching the two argue in the center of our lines, violence was once again on our doorstep. The group of Crocs in front of us surged forward.

I soon realized these opponents were different. Unlike the other Crocs, these actually wore pelts of scaled armor. A few of them even carried clubs. It was obvious now these were the actual warriors of their race. The armor and weapons even showed a level of intelligence I had not granted them before.

They rammed our lines in a straight single line of their own. The Croc in front of me lowered his left shoulder, using it as a ram. His right hand held a club the size of my torso. I stepped back, nearly knocking over Rival and Ramil.

“Careful, we’re having a reunion here,” Rival chided me.

I ignored the maniac, dodging a blow to my skull from the Croc’s club in front of me. A second Croc I didn’t see caught me with his own weapon. Pain exploded, first in my left side, then in my head as I was thrown to the side of the fight, landing against the far wall.

Every rib on my left rib cage felt broken. Fire exploded in my chest when I tried to take a breath. For the space of a heartbeat, pain rendered me motionless.

The fight in front of me was not going our way. With the most recent push of trained warriors, our meager defense was crumbling. The only thing that kept us in the fight now was the Titans with Cassie that had defended the entrance from the window. They had managed to kill all of their opponents and were now turning to help us.

Get back up, I told myself in my head. Always get back up, that’s who you are.

I pushed myself to my feet, already feeling the level of pain subside in my chest. My healing ability that set me apart from everyone else began to kick in high gear.

I realized the Crocs would never have a chance against us if we used our rifles and blasters. However, that would doom us all once more to another run of whatever monster flew through the mist.

How to use my MK II at my hip without causing sound was the issue. A plan so painful that I knew it had to work entered my mind. I wasn’t going to stand around and let others die if saving them meant only pain for myself.

I holstered the MK II, gripping the cold handle with my right palm. My thumb pressed the gauge on the handle, selecting steel rounds as the projectile in the drum.

Axe in my left hand and MK II in the other, I charged into the fray.

Ramil, who was now forced to fight with a rock he had picked up from the ground, saw me first.

“No!” he yelled. “The sound!”

I ignored him, heading for the Croc who had sent me flying across the room. The Croc smiled as he saw me approach. As least I think he smiled.

He came at me with an open mouth. Perfect.

I slammed my right hand forward, giving him my right arm. The beast crunched down on my hand like a steel trap. Pain lanced through my arms as he bit down to my bone.

I focused on what I had to do in that exact moment for the plan to work. Hand trapped against his tongue and the roof of his mouth, I stroked the trigger twice. Tremors from the weapon told me it fired along with a dull “thunk” sounds as skull fragments and brain matter blew out of the rear of the creature.

We both fell to the ground, my arm still painfully lodged in the animal’s mouth. With my axe hand, I wedged the jaw open. My arm was a mess of bloody armor and flesh. That didn’t matter. My plane worked. If I could endure the pain a few more times, it would be enough to turn the tide of battle.

Along with my right arm being bloodied and in so much pain it nearly felt numb, it was wet with the saliva of the creature. Drool dripped off the end of my hand cannon.

I refused to give in to the agony I felt or dwell on the idea of doing it again and again, again for as long as it took to see the end of our enemy. Without hesitation, I jumped on the back of the next Croc, shoving my arm around and into the side of his mouth.

The Croc turned confused as his jaws came down on my arm. Apparently, he wasn’t used to anyone voluntarily shoving their arm in his maw.

As soon as the jaws closed, I double-tapped the trigger, blowing the steel bolts out of the side of his head.

A cheer from the Titans went up as they say me quickly and efficiently take out two of the eight armored creatures. I moved to the third one next and then the fourth, until the remaining Crocs realized what I was up to and refused to bite down on what was left of my arm.

The armor on my right arm was really what saved the entire limb from being chewed off. Although every chomp the Crocs’ powerful teeth serrated the armor, they all didn’t bite in the exact same spot, thus allowing the Galactic Government armor to space out the damage across the length of my forearm.

I turned to deal with the last four soldiers of the Croc attack when they seemed to have decided that enough was enough. Bodies lay strewn across the ground around our rough circle. Three more of our own were down with nearly everyone wounded to some degree or another.

The largest Croc in armor croaked something to his counterparts, who immediately moved to disengage and retreat. It might have been the fatigue, pain, or lack of food and I needed to regenerate, but I thought I saw a nod of respect from the creature.

Before I could think about it more, the animals were gone, leaving their dead behind without a second thought. I crumbled to the ground, cradling my right arm close to my chest. With my left, I removed my helmet, breathing in the icy night air.

The simple press of the mist on my face felt like a cold and welcome kiss.

“You’re crazier than I am,” Rival muttered. He looked around to everyone else. “He’s crazier than I am.”

Ramil fell to the ground, grabbing his stomach. Somewhere in the fight, one of the Croc’s talons had ripped him sideways, opening up four giant slash marks in his torso.

“Doc,” Sergeant Toy ordered immediately.

I jumped to my feet, ignoring the throbbing in my arm, and went over to kneel alongside the Titan medic. Ramil lay shaking on the ground, both hands pressed to his gut as if he were trying to keep his insides from falling out.

“Easy, let me take a look,” the medic said. He was a wide-shouldered man with a Mohawk and beard when he removed his helmet.

Ramil looked at me, blood dripping down the corners of his mouth before his eyes shifted over to Rival. “Don’t trust him.”

“I won’t,” I promised him.

“Your AI holds the key to the location of so much more than a Relic,” Ramil gasped past the pain. Out of the corner of my eyes, I could see the Titan medic shake his head.

“Listen to me,” Ramil ordered as if he too knew he had seconds to live. “The AI you know as X holds information you’ll need. The phrase is: The Knights of the Way will herald in a new world. The gate must hold fast.”

“Okay, okay, I got it,” I said, not understanding any of it but committing the phrase to memory.

“Say it,” Ramil ordered with the last of his strength.

“The Knights of the Way will herald in a new world. The gate must hold fast,” I repeated. As I did so, I saw the light in Ramil’s eyes die.


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

I sat there on my knees for a moment looking at the husk that used to be Ramil. In the short time I knew the man, I felt like I had gotten a good look at his life. I’d seen him perk up as he talked about the advances in technology, the shadow he had become from a life long stewed in working for private initiatives across multiple corporations. I’d seen him stand and fight when it mattered.

“Doc, we’ve got other wounded that could use your help,” Sergeant Toy said, joining us. He ran a gloved hand over Ramil’s open eyes, closing them.

“Yes, sir.” Doc rose to his feet and went to see what he could do for the others.

“We should get these bodies out of here and get a perimeter set up as well,” Sergeant Toy ordered, already setting out to ensure we had a protected base and were not caught unaware again.

I rose to my feet, already deciding that throwing myself in whatever task needed to be done next would be the best way for me to get my mind straight.

I hefted the hulking corpses of the Croc through the broken stone window, depositing them a full block away with the help of Cassie and the Titans. Laine acted as a scout along with Creeves and Dion, setting up a three-point perimeter as we worked.

Outside of the two Titans being taken by whatever winged serpent lived in the mist, three more had fallen to the Crocs. This in and of itself was a true testament to how fierce and well-trained the Titans really were. Outnumbered and using only knives and rifles as clubs, we had managed to kill three times our own number.

Something bothered me about the phrase used to unlock the information X had inside. I knew what the Way was. I knew the followers worshiped the Lord of the Way, but I had never heard of any kind of Knights of the Way, much less any kind of gate.

“You look worried,” Cassie told me as she picked up one of the dead Crocs like it was a pillow. “Your arm recovering okay?”

I nodded, looking down at my arm, which was already halfway healed. Most of the pain had stopped and all the bleeding. A fresh new layer of pink flesh wrapped around the bone.

I grabbed a dead Croc by the tail and threw my back into it, dragging it away from our new base. The last thing we wanted was another wave of scavengers coming for the carcasses.

“It’s just the phrase Ramil gave us to unlock the hidden information inside of X,” I answered. “Have you ever heard of the Knights of the Way or this gate?”

“Not the gate,” Cassie said as she walked and I struggled with my Croc next to her. “But I have heard stories of the Knights of the Way. They’re supposed to be the military arm of the Way religion. There are not many and I’ve never met one, but I’ve heard a few exist.”

We worked in silence along with the few Titans who weren’t being healed or on perimeter duty. Where Cassie could easily lift one of the Crocs and I could manage one, the other corpses took at least two Titans to carry and deposit them a safe distance from our camp.

We found a roofless corner building a block away to deposit the bodies. The mist swirling around us was losing its power, thanks to the rising sun. We had battled through the night and my body was feeling it.

We all needed food and rest soon or no one was going to survive whatever came at us next, be it more Crocs or the winged serpent through the mist.

When the Crocs were finally dealt with and we returned to the base, we were greeted by a frowning Major Valentine. She stood over Rival Mercer, who had once again been ordered to done his sensory-dampening helmet.

“You look like you did something bad.” I tried to tease the major to get a smile.

She didn’t smile.

“Grab some food and head over,” Major Valentine said. She held a data pad in her hand. Whatever she read on the pad wasn’t good.

I grabbed a protein pack from our supply along with a box of water. The protein paste wasn’t going to satisfy the part of me that wanted to bite into something, but this one was flavored meat paste, so I wasn’t going to complain.

Cassie joined us in the corner of the room as Major Valentine showed us the data pad in her hands. The Galactic Government shifted the satellite over Earth and located Aleron and his Grimm Reapers.

They were tracking him now.

Major Valentine’s data pad showed the overhead view of a series of vehicles traveling over hard-packed ground. There were so many vehicles, I gave up counting. More detail than that was too difficult to make out, even with the enhanced aerial view.

“It looks like Aleron has been recruiting along the way,” Major Valentine pointed out. “I make his number out to be a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty.”

“When will he get here?” I asked.

“If they continue traveling as they are, a day, two at the most,” Major Valentine answered grimly. “It’s time to make a hard call. Do we call in for reinforcements or not? If we call for more aid, they can get here in time. With that, we risk the Galactic Government asking more questions and the possible loss of more life.”

“I don’t know if getting the GG further involved is the answer,” Cassie chimed in. “They’ll keep the Relic for themselves if they can and definitely experiment with the fountain of youth and eternal life story that goes along with it.”

“If we try and fight a force that size head on, we’ll lose for sure,” I answered. “What we do have is time to prepare and the element of surprise. No one else on our side has to die. I have an idea.”

Both Cassie and the major looked at me with deadpan stares.

“What?” I asked, throwing up my hands. “I have good ideas.”

“Ehhhh,” Major Valentine cringed as she weighed my words.

“Your last idea was to stick your arm in the mouths of mutated crocodiles and get bitten,” Cassie pointed out. “You can understand our hesitancy.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Just hear me out. We have a day or two to prepare and we know what direction they’re coming from. Let’s funnel them into a corridor of our choosing. Laine, Cassie, and I can distract them in the mist so they have no idea who or how many we are. Once the first few rounds of fire go off, our giant flying friend will come to take a look. We’ll let him deal with the Grimm Reapers. I’ll sneak in while the chaos ensues, grab X, and take care of Aleron.”

I opened both palms to the women like I had just performed some kind of magic trick.

They didn’t look impressed.

“It could work.” Cassie chewed her lower lip. “There’s a lot that could go wrong.”

“There’s always a lot that can go wrong,” I answered.

“You’ll have to get out quickly once the winged beast arrives,” Major Valentine added. “The most dangerous part will be when you infiltrate their lines to take out Aleron and grab X. If anyone sees you do either of those things, you’ll be smack dab in the middle of their army.”

“I can do it,” I pressed. “The Titans have already lost enough. Let me do this.”

“Okay,” Major Valentine slowly nodded.

I turned to Cassie.

“Only if Laine and I provide support,” Cassie insisted. “I’m not that bad with a Artemis 3000 either.”

“Agreed,” I answered. “Let’s get some rest then find the place where we’ll funnel them in. This is going to work.”

After more hydrating and a few protein packs, we slept in shifts. My slumber came quickly, unhindered by dreams of any kind. When I woke, I went scouting with Cassie and Laine for the section of the city we’d use to funnel in the Grimm Reapers.

Major Valentine gave Cassie access to the overhead satellite, allowing us to make an educated guess where the Grimm Reapers would enter the city and also where we would need to limit their options of travel.

The sun was high overhead. The ruined city place looked so much different during the day. The mist that ruled the night now lapped and licked at our feet and ankles. The sun beat down on us in a cloudless sky. The stone streets were slick with lichen and moss covered what stone buildings did still stand on either side of the street.

“Eyes open for Croc men, winged monsters, and whatever else is out here,” I warned as we moved block after block away from our own base. “How’re we looking, Cassie?”

“Great. Aleron should be here tonight, in about eight maybe ten hours,” Cassie answered. “They’ll be coming in from the northwest. We should block off a few streets ensuring they only come down the one we want them to.”

“But how do we block off entire streets?” Laine voiced the question on all our minds. “Barricades? Caltrops of some kind?”

“It has to look natural or it’ll put them more on edge than they already are,” I thought out loud. “If we make it too obvious, they may think it’s worth going hours out of their way just to skirt the area.”

“What if we collapsed some of the buildings on the streets we don’t want them to go down?” Cassie suggested. “It’ll look like old building just fell. In the darkness and mist, they won’t be able to tell that all the buildings just recently came down.”

“Good idea.” I nodded along with Cassie’s suggestion. “I bet the Titans have some magnetic explosives we can use.”

“The sounds of the explosions will bring unwanted attention from the locals,” Laine pointed out. “We’ll have to use remote detonations and set them to go off at once when we’re far enough away.”

“Look at us.” I smiled at the two woman. “Just a Cyber Hunter, Cantz, and experimented-on human working together to ambush a madman and his gang.”

“It sounds crazy when you say it out loud like that.” Laine grinned.

We spent the next few hours scouting out which street we wanted to funnel the Grimm Reapers into and which streets would need to be blocked. Lucky for us, a few of the streets we needed to make impassable were already ruined. Buildings had given way to the weight of time and fallen across the street.

Cassie took copious notes on her map on which streets required explosives and which streets we would want Aleron and company to travel down.

We chose a rather narrow and bumpy road to make our stand. A two-story building at the end of the street would provide a perfect perch for Laine to use her Artemis 3000 while Cassie and I ran through the buildings on either side of the road, causing havoc.

We returned to our base, relaying the news to Sergeant Toy and Major Valentine. Cassie gave them her map showing where we planned to make our stand as well as the roads that would need to be blocked off.

Sergeant Toy wore a scar just below his hairline on his forehead where a Croc had tried to take his head off the night before. Thanks to the healing tech Doc had at his disposal, a Heal Aid squirted antibacterial foam in a wound while skin spray developed a kind of synthetic bandage until the user’s body could heal on its own.

I saw him and a few of the other Titans eyeing my right arm since the battle with the Crocs. The armor on my arms was punctured in a dozen places. It hung together by a few metal pieces still connected.

I’m sure they were amazed how I healed without aid. Right now, since Sergeant Toy and Major Valentine were going over our plan, story time would have to wait.

“We can do it.” Sergeant Toy nodded. “Doc has patched us up pretty good. My seven Titans that are left can place the charges. I only ask that we be involved in the offensive tonight when the Grimm Reapers come. We didn’t come this far to sit out.”

I traded looks with Major Valentine.

“Please, ma’am,” Sergeant Toy requested. “We searched for our two Titans that monster took last night in the mist. They’re gone. Let us avenge them, make their deaths count now.”

“If that’s what you feel your Shadow Praetorians need,” Major Valentine relented. “I’m sure Daniel would appreciate the help.”

“We’d be honored to fight by your side again,” I told the sergeant. “There’s always a chance Aleron could take his Grimm Reapers on a different route. If that’s the case, we’ll have to provide him with a brief fire fight then persuade him to follow.”

“We can do that.” Sergeant Toy nodded his gratitude in my direction.

“If not, we can use your team on either side of the street. We’ll create a kill box until our winged friend arrives,” Cassie added. “One of the most important things to remember is that when that creature comes, we stop firing and hunker down. The only time we come out of cover is if we need to provide Daniel a hand.”

“Roger that.” Sergeant Toy actually looked relived. I imagined he thought there was a high likelihood we’d leave him out of the fight.

“We’ll get those charges placed and get far enough away before they detonate in case that flying monster comes back to check things out,” Sergeant Toy said, already turning to go. “We’re on it. Those sons of brums won’t know what hit them.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

The sun was setting. The mist began its rule of the sky, rising from the ground into the air. True to his word, Sergeant Toy and his Titans had the charges set and detonated within two hours’ time.

I stood on the half crumpled roof of our home base when the sounds of the explosions echoed through the dead city street.

The sound was deafening. Outside, the swamp sounds I was beginning to recognize as insects, birds, and small lizards nothing had disturbed our day, until now.

I stood, nervously excited. If our play was correct, the winged serpent would be moments away. The sounds of the explosions would send it toward the direction of the blasts.

Cassie joined me on the roof, climbing through the same hole in the corner where the Crocs had broken through the night before.

“What are you doing up here?” Cassie asked with an arched brow. “Sightseeing?”

“Wait for it,” I said, holding up a finger. “That beast, it’ll be drawn to the sound.”

“Right, but that creature could be coming from anywhere right now,” Cassie reminded me. “The odds that it would fly right over us, let alone low enough for us to see, at the moment have to be…”

Cassie’s voice trailed off as the rhythmic beating of wings forced the mist back.

The creature was as long as a dropship from head to tail although not as wide. Green scales started at its snout up to the crown of its horned head then fell down the creature’s body, wings, and tail.

The beast held four powerful limbs close to its body as it flew toward the sounds. The two wings that acted independently from the arms were at least as long as its body.

As soon as the beast passed over us, it was gone.

“Sergeant Toy,” I said into my earpiece. “You have incoming.”

“We’re out of the way,” Sergeant Toy added grimly. The death of at least two of his own at the hands of the monster was still fresh on his mind. What wore on him worse was the fact that he couldn’t do anything to retaliate against the creature.

“Dragon,” Cassie whispered, still coming out of the shock of seeing the animal. “What kind of experiments were done here by Genius Industries to create a dragon?”

“Dragons don’t exist,” I told her.

“Then what do you call that thing that just flew by?” Cassie insisted. “A flying snake? A winged lizard? You can call it whatever you want, but it’s a dragon. How are you not shocked right now?”

“I don’t know of anything that shocks me anymore,” I answered. “I think I’m just numb to it all at this point. Croc people-humanoid-things, dragons, Knights of the Way? Sure, why not.”

“You think there’s more dragons out there?” Cassie asked.

“Who knows,” I answered. “The last thing I want to do is go looking into what Genius Industries was up to out here. If they’re responsible for creating the dragons and the Crocs, I don’t even want to know what else they cooked up. The Earth turned into a giant experiment lab when it fell with corporations using it as their testing ground.”

“It feels like that,” Cassie agreed.

“But Phoenix has a different path for the Earth,” I thought out loud. “They’ll use the super seed to get it back on course. I just wonder what lives out here now.”

“Well, there’s moss and lichen on the stones,” Cassie pointed out. “Maybe life is finding a way back, even without the super seed.”

“Maybe,” I answered. “Or maybe it’s getting a hand from whatever Genius Industries did out here.”

We both stood quiet for a moment, each lost to his or her own thoughts.

“We have eyes on the creature and it—it looks like a dragon,” Sergeant Toy said over the shared channel.

“A dragon?” Major Valentine repeated.

“Yes, ma’am, we’re far enough back to avoid it. Crip, this thing is huge. As soon as it’s done, we’ll double check to make sure all the streets we wanted blocked off are impassable,” Sergeant Toy said. “Though initial reports are that we have completed the objective.”

“Good; keep your head down and out of sight,” Major Valentine ordered. “Satellite shows Aleron and the Grimm Reapers will arrive just after midnight.

The rest of the night was spent ensuring that the explosions blocked the street we needed them to, which they did, and getting as much rest as we could. We needed to be alert and ready when Aleron arrived.

The hours passed and I was able to spend most of them sleeping. When I woke, fleeting memories of a large man with some kind of hammer or axe in his hands filled my mind.

I wasn’t afraid of this man or image, but neither was I sure it was a friend.

“We should take up our positions soon.” Laine eyed me, seeing that I was awake. “I was going to rouse you, but you looked like you could use the rest.”

“Thanks, I think,” I said, rising to my feet and stretching. I began to remove my armor. “If I’m going to sneak in amongst Aleron’s forces when the shooting starts and the dragon comes, I’m going to have to be able to pass for a Grimm Reaper.”

“Some dirt on your face will help, along with messing up your hair, and these,” Cassie handed me a worn pair of goggles and a dirty cloak. “I found them amongst a pile of Ramil’s belongings. “I don’t think he’d mind you using them, even if he did have a say in the matter now.”

“Thanks,” I said, removing my chest plate and throwing the tattered brown cloak over my shoulders. The thing smelled rancid.

Cassie and Laine took it upon themselves to smear dirt on my face and ruffling my hair like I was a dog. I think Laine even slapped me a few times under the guise of ensuring the dirt stained my face. I think they might have even enjoyed it.

I let the goggles hang around my neck. With the help of the cloak and the night fog, I’d fit right in with the confused Grimm Reapers.

Major Valentine remained behind along with Rival, who had spent the majority of his day under his sensory dampening helmet. I could tell the major wanted nothing more than to join us, but also understood her responsibility of not allowing another convict to escape.

Along with Cassie, Laine, and I came Sergeant Toy and his remaining six Titans.

We jogged through the fog toward our predesignated ambush locations.

Laine jogged beside me with her Artemis 3000 on her shoulder.

“Maybe I should be the one to go in and get X,” Laine said. “I can transform into one of them.”

“No way,” I answered, thinking of the little boy she had back at Dragon Hold. I knew if I used this as a reason, she’d just argue. Instead, I tried a different approach. “I can heal if anything goes wrong, plus if you change in front of anyone or they even suspect that you’re an alien of some kind, we’ll have the GG to worry about. Our list of enemies is long enough.”

Laine looked as though she would argue but instead bit her tongue and nodded.

“Thank you,” was all she said.

Two blocks from our own home base, our defensive corridor began. The idea was to ambush them, blowing up both the lead and rear vehicle to box them in. I’d give the go-ahead, taking out the rear vehicle as soon as I had eyes on Aleron.

Sergeant Toy would take out the lead car as soon as I made my move. Everyone else would take shots of opportunity where needed until the dragon arrived.

I carried a pair of magnetic explosives shaped like hand-sized cylinders. They’d stick to anything metal once I activated the timer.

We dropped Laine at the two-story sniper building at the far end of the street. Sergeant Toy and his Titans spread out, flanking the street and taking up their positions.

The darkness was total now and the fog made it worse. The only things that cut through the night were the lights on our rifles and those on the helmets. Without any kind of headwear, my hair was damp with mist.

Soon Cassie and I were the only ones jogging down the street. I kept a wary eye out for Crocs or anything else that might be living in the mist. We reached the opposite end of the street, where the vehicles would first arrive.

Cassie looked over to me, checking the display on the top of her left vambrace.

“Still forty minutes out,” she confirmed. “Keep your heads down. I kind of like you now and it would be a shame if anything happened to you.”

“Just kinda?” I asked.

“Don’t push your luck,” she smiled.

I knew it was only a short time I had known the woman, but the experiences we shared together bonded us like two souls who had walked together for years.

“Remember.” I reached out and gave her hand a squeeze. “I’m the one that heals. You don’t. Don’t take any unnecessary risks.”

She stepped in closer wrapping her fingers around mine.

“I won’t,” Cassie promised. “I’m looking forward to that second date once we get back.”

“Are you going to take off your helmet so I can kiss you or what?” I asked, releasing her hand so she could perform the action. “We’ve got a small army to ambush.”

Cassie removed her helmet, pressing her lips to my own so fiercely, it made my head swim. Chemicals released into my system with the action. A weightless feeling overcame me.

I held her tight, wishing in that moment, not the kissing, although that was great as well, but the closeness we shared could last for a lifetime.

We pulled away at the same time.

“Come back safe and there’s more where that came from,” Cassie said, replacing her helmet and walking into the mist.

I stood there in the middle of the misty street. The woman had taken my breath away. I knew that I was going to get through the events of the night, but now I had even more incentive to do so.

I crossed over to my end of the street, finding the one-story building on the corner I marked out before. Most of the walls were intact with a wide window that looked out into the street. Inside the building, a pile of rubble lay in the corner. The pile of rubble was the same height as the window.

With a little bit of preparation, I’d be able to dig into the rubble then cover myself with the debris, both camouflaging me and offering me a view into the street.

I worked quickly and quietly. By the time I settled in, Cassie was giving the twenty-minute mark warning.

I lay in my hiding spot for the next twenty minutes, thinking about what I had to do. I saw myself performing the actions before they would take place.

Spot Aleron, take out the rear vehicle, wait for all hell to break loose, go in, and get X, I repeated to myself over and over again.

I checked to make sure my axe and knife were snug in their holsters and that my MK II was loaded and ready for the dozenth time.

“Here we go,” Cassie said into the channel. “We’re five minute out. We should be able to hear vehicles and see lights soon.”

“Roger,” Sergeant Toy answered. “We’re ready.”

“Ready,” Laine answered.

“In position,” I said.

Despite taking slow and even breaths, my heart pounded out of my chest.

“I’m coming, X,” I whispered to myself. “I’m coming.”


Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

As soon as the first few Grimm Reaper vehicles rolled onto our street, I knew our plan was never going to work. The night was too dark, the mist too dense. From my hiding spot in the rubble deep in the house, all I could make out through the window facing the street were lights and the occasional Grimm Reaper walking beside the vehicles.

The Grimm Reapers entered the street with their foot soldiers marching on either side of the vehicles protecting their flanks. Through the mist, I could hear the throaty roars of the engines. Beams of light both from the headlights on the vehicles and from high-powered torches in the soldiers’ hands cut through the mist and darkness.

Where my plan fell apart was that I would never be able to make out Aleron in a vehicle. I couldn’t even see the face of those men walking with the vehicles.

“I need to get closer,” I said in a low tone. “I can’t see anything by hiding in a house. I need to get among them.”

“Be careful,” Cassie answered.

“Let us know if you need a distraction,” Sergeant Toy said. “We’re good at distractions.”

“Not yet,” I said, rolling out from under my cover. “I need to locate Aleron first.”

Slowly, I removed myself from my hiding space, keeping low and below the sill of the window that opened out into the street.

I was so close, I could hear the enemy talking, mostly complaining about having to walk in the darkness. I peeked over the sill. The soldiers came spaced a few dozen meters apart, guarding the flanks of the vehicles that rumbled down the street.

I saw my chance, a break in the line where a Grimm Reaper passed by while the one behind him was still far enough away he shouldn’t notice me slip out from inside the building.

Heart pounding like a war drum, I leaped over the sill and onto the street. I placed the goggles on my eyes and hugged my cloak close.

“Hey, you there!” a voice cut through the mist.

I shield my eyes as I looked over to my right. A Grimm Reaper with missing teeth and hood of his own walked over to me. He shone the light full in my face. My hand went to the hilt of the knife inside my cloak.

“We told you lot not to be going into the houses for looting, didn’t we?” the man growled. “There’ll be plenty of time for looting and ransacking when we arrive. That order comes straight from the top.”

“Oh,” I said, releasing the hold on my hilt. This man’s stupidity just saved his life. “You think I was looting that place and just jumped out the window?”

“I ain’t stupid.” The man shoved another high-powered torch in my hand. “Here, you stay here and make sure the line keeps moving. I see you going through these buildings again, I’ll string you up like a white-tailed mutie boar and skin you alive. You understand me, boy?”

“Oh yes,” I said, playing the part of a scared soldier. I frantically nodded. “You can count on me.”

“All right, then,” the Grimm Reaper huffed. “Make sure the convoy keeps moving and follow along with the rear guard when they come along.”

With that, the man was off. Not only had he provided me with a light, but he’d also given me the go-ahead to stand my ground and watch as the convoy passed. In a course of events that had not worked to my favor, finally, things were looking up.

I moved my torch up and down the street searching the vehicles. When a soldier would walk by, I would give them a “hurry along” or “no looting” just to make sure I fit the part.

On their end, they said nothing. As far as they knew, I was someone with rank or status in the Grimm Reaper gang.

The vehicles passed two at a time and slow. There were dune buggies, hover bikes, open trucks carrying soldiers, and even larger vehicles with flat beds that hauled dozens of grizzly-looking fighters.

Major Valentine was right; Aleron had been recruiting on his way.

Vehicle after vehicle passed. As the seconds ticked by, I knew we were running out of time. The plan was to box them in the street by destroying the front and last vehicles. With so many vehicles, the Grimm Reaper convoy would be through our kill box before I set the rear charges. That meant a force would be in front and behind our kill box.

I did my best not to shine my light in the drivers’ faces as I searched for Aleron. Panic was close by when I came up with an idea.

I grabbed the next soldier that passed, and in my best disguised voice, asked him, “Yar there, matey, where be Alron in this convoyer? I’ve gotem an important message for ‘um.”

“Why are you talking like that?” The Grimm Reaper pulled away from me. “You weirdo.”

“Aleron?” I insisted.

“In the lifted truck with heavy wheels.” The man grimaced at me, moving into the mist. He shook his head, muttering to himself as he went. “Where do they find these guys?”

“They’re Grimm Reapers, not pirates,” Cassie said in my ear.

I ignored her for the moment, searching the street to my right, where more vehicles poured through. That was when I saw it. A rusted truck with tires as tall as I was rolled by. It was so wide, no other vehicle drove beside it. On the door, it carried the symbol of the Grimm Reapers, a skeleton-like figure with a hood holding a scythe.

I shone my flashlight by catching the left side of Aleron’s bald head.

“Here we go,” I whispered into my earpiece. With my right hand, I reached inside my pocket. My fingers wrapped around the cold cylinder piece of metal.

Sergeant Toy had provided me with two magnetic grenades. The vehicle coming up behind Aleron’s was a small four-wheeled car that looked like it was more rust than metal.

As casually as I could, I moved to walk beside it. I pressed the five-second delay on the magnetic grenades and slapped it on the left fender of the vehicle.

Without looking back to see if the driver understood what just happened. I made a beeline for the left side of the street, forcing myself not to run.


The explosion rocked the relative silence of the night. Where the occasional shout or low rumbled of the vehicles filled the night, now the sounds of weapons being fired dominated the still.

Sergeant Toy, Laine and Cassie opened fire on the Grimm Reapers. Their orders were simple. No more than two to three shots from any location before moving to the next. If the Grimm Reapers with their superior numbers and fire power were able to track where the weapon fire came from, it would be over.

Screams echoed in the night as another explosion went off. Sergeant Toy had detonated a vehicle at the front of our kill box. Those inside were trapped now.

I had minutes, maybe less to get X and get the heck out of there before our winged friend came to see what all the racket was about.

I sprinted toward Aleron’s truck, disregarding the idea that anyone would see me taking out their leader. There were so many shouts of panic and pain in the air, I doubted anyone even noticed me.

Aleron made it even easier. He opened the door of his lifted truck yelling orders.

“Get the convoy moving!” he shouted into the night. “We can’t stay here. Skirmishers on foot get into those buildings and find out who’s firing at us. Kill them all.”

I climbed up the giant rear tire using the treads as footholds. I vaulted over the side, landing in the back of the truck in the middle of six armed men.

From my vantage point on the ground, I couldn’t see Aleron’s personal unit in the bed of the vehicle.

We stood there staring at each other for a moment.

“Arrr, mateys?” I asked.

They went for their weapons and I followed suit. Slashing out with my axe and knife, I skewered two in the skull and kicked a third off before they had their weapons pointed at me.

Pain exploded in my left shoulder as I took a round before closing the distance. I stabbed one Grimm Reaper in the gut with my knife and decapitated the other with my axe.

The final soldier looked at me wide-eyed then did himself a favor and jumped out the back of the truck.

“Why won’t you just die!” Aleron said, swinging up from the seat and landing in the rear of the truck. “I’ll kill you myself.”

Aleron rushed me with a thick blade; one side sharp, the other serrated. I deflected the first few strikes from the weapon. Aleron landed a fist to my face with his free hand.

I tasted blood as we struggled on the back of the truck. All around us, hell broke loose and then things got worse.

That deep monstrous roar I had come to know filled the night sky. Sounds of massive beating wings joined the cacophony of weapon fire permeating the night sky.

Focus, I told myself in the split second Aleron’s attention was taken. As much as you want to, you’re not trying to kill Aleron. You’re trying to save X.

I shoved my axe and blade into my belt and tackled the large man. We went down awkwardly as I searched the area behind either of his ears. No X.

I ignored the pain as Aleron stabbed up, taking a slice out of my side. His knife buried then caught in my cloak.

I searched Aleron’s own long jacket pocket, feeling something square and hard in my hands.

“Daniel, you have to get out of there!” Cassie yelled in my ear.

I ripped the item out of Aleron’s jacket. It was a small black box. Opening it, I saw the circular chip. X.

The pain I experienced in my stomach was numbing. I felt like I couldn’t move. In the time I had taken to locate X, Aleron freed his weapon and climbed to his feet. The blade he wielded as a weapon stuck through my gut and out the back end.

“I know what you are,” Aleron said, twisting the knife deeper. “I know this probably won’t kill you, so that’s why I’m going to take your head.”

Aleron ripped the knife free, sending me down on my hands and knees in a pool of my own blood. I shook but managed to hold on to X in my right hand.

X was saying something from her external speaker, but I couldn’t hear her. Aleron lifted the blade over his head, ready to bring it down on my exposed neck.

There was so much noise vying for my attention, I just barely heard someone over the comms shout, “Fire! It breathes fire!”

Before Aleron could bring the knife down, we were engulfed in a jet of flames that lit the entire vehicle on fire. An explosion rocked from somewhere below and sent us flying.

All I could think was not to let go of X. So many shades of pain laced my body, but none more than slamming into one of the stone houses on the street. Fire ate my cloak with hungry red tongues as a good portion of my body was burned.

I could only see from one eye.

The only positive thing about the scenario was that no one was looking for me. All the Grimm Reapers were either running if they were smart or standing and trying to fight the dragon if they were stupid.

My hearing was gone; only a high-pitched tone filled my head and the space around me.

I looked down at my closed right hand. The skin was burned off my knuckles, showing blood and burned flesh underneath. Shaking, I opened my palm.

X’s chip sat in my hand, safe and whole.

“Oh, Daniel,” X said through her external speakers. “What did you do? Look at you.”

“You got to get out of there!” Cassie’s scream cut through the din. “That dragon is on a rampage!”

I slammed X’s chip into the right side of my neck behind my ear. Attached to her data chip was a long needle that linked us as one.

The pain of the needle was nothing compared to the discomfort I felt all over my body. Although my healing ability was at work, I had done a number on my body this time.

My stomach wound was closed, the burns over the majority of the left side of my body were healing as well but slowly as my ability fought to keep me together.

“We’ll give you what cover we can, but you pull back to base,” Sergeant Toy ordered. “Titans, Cassie, Laine, pop up only when you’re sure you’re out of sight of the dragon and have a clear shot.”

I started my run down the street that was more of a stumble at best. It was only my mind telling my legs to move that propelled me forward. All around, the mist separated from the street. The dragon’s powerful wings gave Laine and the rest of the group clear shots.

The lights and fires from the vehicles further aided me on my run. All the yells and screams were just white noise to me as I fought to finish our mission. I just had to make it back to the safety of the structure where Major Valentine waited. I just had to go a little further.

A Grimm Reaper popped up next to me. It was the same one who had voluntarily thrown himself out the back of Aleron’s truck. He knew who I was.

I was too slow as he brought his blaster up to my head. His skull exploded in a shower of red mist and bone.

“Got him,” Laine said over the comms. “Hurry, Daniel, you’re almost there.”

“Daniel?” X asked in my head. “What’s going on? Is that—is that a dragon?”

It felt good to hear her in my head again. It felt great to have my old friend back.

“Tell you—all about it—soon,” I wheezed. Finally, I made it past the battle and traveled the two extra blocks to safety.

We’d done it. We saved X against all odds and kept Aleron from creating his immortal army.

Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller


I arrived at the corner lot to see nothing but a pile of rubble. Where once stone walls had stood firm and the roof only partially caved in, there was nothing but destruction.

My heart sank. I was just beginning to feel the pain lessen and now this.

“Hurry! Hurry, it’s Major Valentine she’s bleeding out!” Rival’s voice said from somewhere in the wreckage.

Without thinking, I acted. I ran onto the pile of rubble just in time to see Rival Mercer take a knife and cut Major Valentine’s throat.

The major’s left arm and most of her body were trapped under a pile of rock. She was unconscious. A steady line of blood gushed from her throat.

“Hurry, you can still save her if you stop the bleeding,” Rival encouraged me.

How he had gotten out of his restraints or what had happened to the house were questions I didn’t have time to answer. I ran to my injured friend and used my own hands to close the wound around her neck. Her blood was hot against my cold hands.

“Zoe, Zoe,” I said to the unconscious woman. “You hold on. You hold on, do you hear me? If you’re not strong enough to fight for yourself, then you fight for that little girl of yours. You’re strong enough to fight for her.”

“I’m not a doctor, but I know enough that if you release your hold on her wound, she’ll bleed out,” Rival said out loud as if he were talking to himself. “How lucky is that? When your dragon friend soared by, its tail or wing or body or something struck this very building.”

“You—I’m going to see you pay,” I growled at Rival. Half of me wanted to pull the MK II from my hip and let him have it, but he was right. My hands were stopping the bleeding. If I let go, Zoe might lose the blood she so desperately needed to survive.

“Promises, promises,” Rival said, clicking at a cracked data pad. “X, the Knights of the Way will herald in a new world. The gate must hold fast.”

“No!” I yelled too late.

“Entry, Immortal Chalice,” X said in a robotic tone not her own.

“X, don’t tell him,” I pleaded with her. But it wasn’t her at all. The coding imbedded in her made her speak now. I knew that.

“Coordinates, 3.4653 degrees south by 62.2159 degrees west,” X continued in her robotic voice. “Beware the Knights of the Way and even more so the gate.”

“Gracias, X,” Rival said, pressing a few buttons on the data pad. He looked over at me as if he were debating something. “I have a feeling our story is just beginning, my friend. Toodles for now.”

Rival ran out into the mist and disappeared a moment later.

“Help, I need help,” I screamed into my comm line. Frustration built up in my heart. I lifted my head to the sky, roaring my useless anger. I looked back down to Zoe, whose breath came shallow and labored. “Hold on, you have to hold on.”

Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

Daniel Hunt will be back in the next Forsaken Mercenary book, Rivals. Until then, stay informed by joining our Pack in the “Jonathan’s Reading Wolves” Facebook group and get the latest news on the project.

Stay Informed

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

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


Enjoying the series? Help others discover the Forsaken Mercenary Series by sharing with a friend.

Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller

Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe








Rivals (Coming soon!)

home | my bookshelf | | Nemesis: A Near Future Thriller |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения

Оцените эту книгу