Book: The Pandora Experiment: Box Set of Books 1 - 3

The Pandora Experiment: Box Set of Books 1 - 3

Copyright © 2014 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.

The Pandora Experiment Box Set

Books 1-3

Jonathan Yanez





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

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76


A Special Note For You



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

A Note For You



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

A Special Note For You

Preview: Into the Breach

Thrive Book 1 of the Pandora Experiment


If you think this book is awesome at all it’s only because I have a pack of rabid ARC Wolves, a wonderful editor and a talented cover artist. Thank you for your help.




Eagle Eyes


Editor - Kimberly

Cover Illustrator - Steve

For my sister Elaine. It’s the least I can do for all the years you have been there for me.


The wasteland opened in front of them. The warriors moved forward.

As the days increased so too did the doubt in Rhun’s mind. Had he made the right decision to leave? He had in a sense banished himself and the men and women willing to follow him into an unknown world.

So far the only thing they could be assured of was the god forsaken sun and the machines that dogged their every move.

Their pursuers were unrelenting and hounded them daily. For every one of the mechanical enemies they lay to rest in the sand two more took its spot. Always with the same ticking noise as they came.

Rhun led his company from the front, as so he was among the first to see the building that sprung up out of the desert sand. It was as he crested a dune that the image came into view. It was still far off. So far that Rhun could barely make out its massive shape.

He lifted a hand to shade his eyes. His second in command, a bearded man with a bald head named Ward stopped by his side.

“What—what is it?” he asked with bated breath. There was no fear in his voice but awe and wonder. “There’s so many of them. They look like ants.”

Rhun examined the area around the impossible structure. Ward was right. The machines were so numerous it was impossible to make an accurate count. Still beyond their impressive number his eyes were drawn back to the colossal structure.

The silver pyramid rose from the sand as finite and confident as a tombstone from the ground.

Chapter One

“But I just barely missed my goals! What are you talking about? No, no, this can’t be right. What have you done?”

Jordan set her jaw. She forced sympathy from her mind, knowing this was the way things had to happen. Robert Greyson, her boss, had been given every opportunity, every warning. Despite this, he’d still fallen short of meeting his designated quota, three months in a row.

“Robert. Robert, please don’t make a scene. We gave you every chance to be a productive member of this society, but you’ve chosen to neglect your duties as head of the physical education department.” The man sitting behind the desk cleared his throat. “This cannot be tolerated.”

Robert looked confused, while he was on the verge of what seemed like anger and tears. The large man sat behind a steel grey desk in the review room. His shoulders quaked gently as his new reality sunk in. “I… I don’t know if I’m going to survive out there. Please, please, director, just give me one more chance. I can turn things around. I know I can.”

Saul Patterson, the director of the city, adjusted the glasses on his nose. He set down the manila folder he’d been reading. Leaning back in his chair, he placed pasty white hands into his long, white lab coat. “I’m sorry, Robert. I truly am but you know the rules of our society. To survive, we cannot afford this kind of failure.”

Robert looked defeated. Still dressed in his physical education uniform, his clean, professional appearance did anything but reflect his demeanor.

There was a brief moment where Robert lowered his head into his hands and began to cry. Jordan stood at attention behind her recently demoted superior, in shock.

Robert Greyson had always been positive with a quick smile and a joke to match. She’d never seen him like this. It disturbed her to think one meeting could reduce a man in his physical peak to a sniveling child.

The director looked up from his seat. Clearly disgusted with Robert’s reaction to the news, he made no attempt to hide the scowl that ran past his sharp features. Director Patterson made eye contact with Jordan who stood across the room. He rolled his eyes behind his steel-rimmed glasses before opening his mouth. “Well, Mr. Greyson. That will be all. The guards will escort you to the gates. May fortune favor you along the road you have chosen to travel.”

Robert looked up through tear-streaked eyes. He started to open his mouth, but the director motioned for the two guards standing sentry to move forward. An unspoken question passed between Robert and the guards. He could either walk beside them obediently, or stun batons would be used. A wild look crossed Robert’s face as he glanced behind him to the door and Jordan standing beside it.

Jordan tensed. She knew if he tried to run, she’d have to stop him. It would be her duty as a member of the city to uphold the law. Adrenaline ready to flow, Jordan was set to move into action at a moment’s notice.

Robert locked eyes with her. His look could only be described in one word: defeat. Robert turned back to the director and eyed the two men beside his chair.

Without a word, he slowly rose. Flanked by the two silent guards, Robert shuffled toward the door.

Robert’s adam’s apple bobbed as he nodded a good-bye to Jordan. Jordan knew she should feel more—maybe she even wanted to feel more—but she just didn’t. This was the way of their world. Robert had known the rules. He’d known what was expected. Despite this, he’d still failed.

Jordan was wondering if her lack of emotion was the correct response, or if there were any other emotions she should be feeling as Robert and his escorts left the room.

“It’s sad to see a grown man cry,” the director said from his seat.

Jordan snapped back from her internal debate about emotion, nodding toward the city’s director. “He was a good supervisor, but he knew what was expected of him. He failed.”

The director nodded in approval of her response. He motioned Jordan to walk forward and take the seat previously occupied by Robert.

Jordan’s long legs crossed the bare room in seconds, and she sat down in the rigid chair in front of the city’s leader.

“You must be wondering why you were asked to this meeting,” he said. “I know it is anything but protocol to have anyone present except for the party at fault during a review.”

Jordan nodded. She’d been summoned from her morning training class to attend the meeting. She could only guess why she’d been included in Robert’s meeting.

The director picked up another manila folder from the table and rifled through the papers inside. “Jordan Shepherd, you have been with the physical education department for eight years now. Is that correct?”

Jordan nodded again. She now had an idea why she’d been summoned to the usual private review room. Hope sprang in her heart.

“In that time, you have never failed to meet your goals. You have always risen to the task. As a result, you have climbed the ranks rather quickly.”

Jordan hid a smile at the praise from the director. “Yes, sir. I’ve been able to meet the goals the city has set for me. I want to make sure we have a long future together as a community. It has always been a priority of mine that I pull my own weight as we work toward that goal as a society.”

The director lowered the folder. He nodded his approval a second time, once again sliding his pasty hands inside his coat. For the hundredth time, Jordan tried to guess the man’s age, but it was impossible. His thinning hair and the wrinkles around his mouth and eyes told her one thing, while his slender shoulders and wit told her something entirely different.

“Jordan, if you haven’t guessed it yet, you were invited to attend this meeting because you have been chosen as the new head of the physical education department.”

This time, Jordan couldn’t help smiling. It was a title she’d been working hard toward for years now. She almost felt guilty at her good fortune when Robert had been dismissed just moments before. But she deserved this. “Thank you, director, I… I don’t know what to say. I’ll make sure the department hits its goals. You can count on me.”

“I know I can, Jordan. That’s why you were chosen. You understand the importance hard work and dedication bring to our city.”

Jordan was tingling with excitement. She’d done it. She had to physically restrain herself from jumping out of her chair. She could feel the heat in her face as she tried to stop herself from smiling.

The director must have noticed all of this, because he smiled as he rose from his chair. “Well, I’m sure you’ll want to start right away. You’ll have a new office, and you’ll need to meet with your staff, of course.”

Jordan jumped to her feet. “Oh, yes, sir.” She turned to go, sensing their meeting had come to an end.

“Oh, and Jordan?”

She stopped mid-twist to look back at the director. He was standing now, a full foot shorter than she was, with his glasses sliding down his large nose. The director pushed up his spectacles with a pudgy finger as he squinted at her. “I would like you to accompany me and the crew who will be releasing Robert past the city walls tonight.”

Jordan’s eyebrows shot up. No one besides the director and a small group of soldiers accompanied anyone who was going to be released outside the city walls.


“Oh, it’s something we thought should start being done with all of the new heads of the departments. If you’re going to lead a group of men and women, we feel it’s best you know what you’re leading them away from.”

Chapter Two

Jordan was still too enthusiastic about her turn of events to give the invitation too much thought. “Yes, sir. I’ll be there.”

The director nodded. “Good, I’ll send a vehicle to pick you up from your housing facility at say, six o’clock, after work?”

Jordan was stunned, but could feel herself nodding. Vehicles were only used by high-ranking officials or as a means to travel from the city to the surrounding wall. If anyone else in the city needed to go anywhere, they’d walk.

Jordan left the review room. Outside, she passed the guards she didn’t know with a wave. Their rigid stance and stern demeanors didn’t change, but nothing was going to ruin Jordan’s day.

You did it! You really did it! All those years of hard work.

Jordan continued to walk to the massive building with the words “Physical Education Department” written on top. The joy of the promotion was overwhelming, and ideas for how she could enhance the way the department was run sped through her mind.

She had the autonomy now to implement her own ideas. For years, she’d seen ways to promote production in the department, but her suggestions were always met with, “Thank you’s” and “We’ll take it under advisement” instead of action.

Now, she was going to be the one running the department. The responsibility would have been daunting to anyone else, but Jordan was ready for the challenge.

The day was warm, and Jordan soon found herself jogging past the open green parks and tall buildings. She was too excited to walk. Coming straight from work, she was still in her exercise clothes—black tank top, long athletic pants that hugged her body, and running shoes.

Ponytail bobbing behind her, Jordan arrived at her building a few minutes later. Only when she reached to open the large, glass door was she reminded of the events preceding her own good news.

There was a group of grey-suited men and women at the front counter, checking in with the receptionist. The suits, plus the lack of smiles throughout the group, made them easily recognizable as transition counselors.

Transition counselors were the men and women the city used to meet with employees after someone had been relieved of his or her duties. It was mandatory for each and every employee in the department to sit through an hour-long meeting with a counselor. The consultation was to ensure they were aware of why the employee at fault had been let go, and to make sure they supported the removal of that individual from the city.

Jordan took in a deep breath, slowly letting it out as she wiped perspiration from her face. It wouldn’t be a great first impression if the new head of the physical education department entered the office drenched in sweat.

Examining her reflection in the glass door for a split second before she entered, Jordan was happy with her appearance.

She walked in, greeted by the cool fans of the air conditioning units that ran diligently throughout the day. Every eye in the room turned toward her, both men and women looking her up and down.

The looks they gave her reminded Jordan of when she poured liquid into a measuring cup and examined the fluid to see if she’d poured too much or too little. Jordan wasn’t sure if her skin was prickling from the cool air or the gazes of the transition counselors.

“Oh, Jordan,” Kelly, the receptionist, said around her headset. “Let me be the first to congratulate you on your new position. You definitely deserve it, sweetie.”

Jordan stopped eyeing the group of counselors and turned to Kelly. “Thanks, Kelly. It was a surprise, but couldn’t have been a better one.”

Kelly smiled again and nodded toward the counselors. “I’m arranging meetings between them and the rest of the staff now. Counselor Carter herself just checked in. She personally requested to meet with you. She’s waiting in Rober—in your office now.”

Jordan’s mouth went dry. She’d been through her fair share of meetings with transition counselors, more than she wanted to remember. But it wasn’t the thought of another meeting that made her hesitate now. It was the woman she’d be meeting with.

Holly Carter was the head of the transitioning department. As head of the counselors, she had a reputation of being a no-nonsense, firm woman without personality. Stories about her meetings were practically legendary.

The head of the transition counselors mostly managed those who reported to her. It was only out of great necessity, or when there was a particularly troubled employee, that Counselor Carter made an appearance.

“Okay, thanks, Kelly,” Jordan said.

Jordan walked past the group of transition counselors, who still eyed her like children looking at an animal at the zoo.

Why would Holly Carter come out now? What does she want? More importantly, how does it involve me? I didn’t do anything wrong… did I?

These thoughts and more ran through Jordan’s mind as she jogged up the long flights of stairs leading to her new office.

Jordan passed other fitness educators on the way up and down the stairs, along with some city citizens in for training. Jordan nodded and smiled as they passed. The fitness educators were all in matching black exercise clothes; the city’s population wore a similar outfit, except light blue instead of black.

Physical fitness had been a mandated practice in the city since its inception hundreds of years before. It was discovered that in order to sustain a populace able to meet deadlines and fulfill goals, things like sickness and injury needed to be avoided at all costs.

As a result, the department of physical education had been established. It was mandatory that all citizens attend hour-long training sessions with physical educators five days a week. It was also strongly encouraged they come the other two days out of the week on their own.

Jordan passed them without a second thought as she reached the fifth floor of the building. Wishing she’d worn something more professional, she made her way to the corner office that belonged to Robert Greyson earlier that morning.

She shouldn’t have been surprised to see a short man in grey overalls scraping off Robert Greyson’s name from the glass door, but she was. Robert was a man who’d served diligently for years. Now, he was nothing more than a name being chipped off a door.

An idea surfaced, enticing her to the possibility that she should feel sad, that nagging feeling that always came when someone was released to the land outside the walls of their city. But this is how it was; this is how it’d always been. For the betterment of society, this is what had to happen.

The small man scraping away at the glass door must have heard her approach. He turned around with a smile. “Oh, hello, ma’am. Would you be Mrs. Jordan Shepherd?”

“Miss, but yes I am.”

“My apologies, Miss Shepherd. I just want to make sure I have the proper spelling of your name.” The little man stopped himself with a hand over an open mouth. “Oh, and to say ‘congratulations’ on your new position. I have nothing but respect for what you and yours do on a daily basis. Why, if it weren’t for you and the other physical educators, I know I would be in bad shape.”

Jordan smiled, despite the meeting she knew was about to take place. “Thank you. You don’t have to worry about putting a ‘Miss’ in the title just ‘Jordan Shepherd’ is fine. It’s spelled just like it sounds.”

The man bobbed his head and opened the door for Jordan. He motioned her inside.

“Thanks,” Jordan said as she stepped inside the plainly decorated room. The corner office was designed with glass windows on two sides and a large desk in the center. Uncomfortable-looking chairs provided seating for the people sitting behind and in front of the desk. A woman stood with her back to Jordan, her posture perfect. She didn’t bother to turn around when Jordan entered. “Hello, Miss Shepherd. Do you need water after your run? Maybe freshen up before we start?”

Jordan’s mouth moved to ask how the woman had known she’d run, but she stopped any words from coming out of her mouth just in time. The counselor, from her vantage point at the window, must have seen her jogging. She’d seen Jordan run, as well as straighten herself up before entering the building.

Jordan wasn’t sure how to feel with someone practically spying on her, but she cleared her throat and responded, “No, thank you.”

The woman at the window slowly turned. She was in her late fifties with a short haircut and eyes that said they knew what you were going to say before you did. She motioned Jordan to sit as she took the seat behind the desk.

For the second time that day, Jordan found herself in a meeting she hadn’t anticipated.

Jordan sat straight, with her shoulders back and her palms on her knees, unable to shake the feeling of inferiority as she looked at the transition counselor. Holly Carter wore a perfectly fitted grey suit with an emblem that looked like an upside down triangle pinned on her right shoulder. Jordan’s own exercise outfit seemed more and more out of place by the minute.

“Jordan, I was told the director has already informed you of your new position. I wanted to be among the first to congratulate you on your promotion.”

Shock must have been clear on Jordan’s face, because Holly gave a quick smile before she continued, “You are now head of one of the most important departments of our city. Without you and what you do, who knows how many of our citizens would be unable to fulfill their goals everyday. I wanted to meet you personally. You can only tell so much about a person from their file.”

Jordan wiped the perspiration gathering on her palms across her pants. Everything the counselor was saying was positive, but Jordan sensed she was being examined, as though some kind of psychological test was being administered and Jordan didn’t know the rules. “Thank you. It’s a position that I have been working toward for a while now. One I know I will be able to fulfill for the good of our community.”

The counselor pursed her lips, nodding at the response as though she’d expected nothing less. “Jordan, you are well aware that after an employee is relieved of his or her duties, each of the other employees in the department is required to meet with a transition counselor.”


“Very good. I understand you were at Robert Greyson’s review when he was dismissed. How did the conversation make you feel?”

Jordan had to stop and think for a moment before she blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

There was a pause in the room as Jordan shook off the feeling she was being stalked like prey in the wild. Fixing the counselor with resolve in her eyes, Jordan answered, “I didn’t feel anything. Robert Greyson was a good man and a good boss…” Jordan noticed Holly’s eyes narrow the slightest bit as she started to speak, but before the counselor could open her mouth again, Jordan continued, “But he failed our society by not meeting his goals, not once, but three times. Our rules are here for a reason; order has to be maintained.”

Counselor Carter’s expression changed as she slowly nodded. “And you seem fine with Robert Greyson being released outside the walls despite your long history under his leadership.”

“I am. It’s what had to be done.”


Jordan furrowed her brow, looking for meaning.

“Oh, of course I know why, but I would like to hear it from you, Miss Shepherd. Why did Robert have to be relieved from duty and released outside the city limits?”

Jordan reached back to the foggy memories of her early days growing up and being educated by the city’s teachers. “We all have a job. Every member of society is raised to perform a task. If we fail to meet our goals, then we have failed ourselves and our community. A healthy, prosperous society cannot survive like this. To be strong, we must all pull our own weight. If we are unable to do so, we are sent out from the city. This is the way things have always been; it’s what has kept us strong all of these years since the forming of our society.”

Jordan stopped, hoping she’d said enough. Hoping whatever the counselor had wanted to get out of her, Jordan had provided.

Holly looked Jordan up and down, tapping a metal pen against the tabletop like a metronome. “Very good. I’m sorry if I seem a bit harsh, Miss Shepherd, but there have been rumors, whispers if you will, of employees becoming discontent with our society. As the new head of the physical education department, I wanted to make sure you were confident in the way things are established here within the city walls.”

Jordan licked her lips. Rumors? People becoming discontent with the law? This was the first Jordan had heard of anything of the kind.

“Good, I just wanted to confirm you didn’t know anything of the rumors. It will be dealt with quickly and efficiently, as is the way of our city.”

The counselor rose to leave, collecting her pen and folders from the table. Jordan found herself rising from her seat as the events of the day continued to become more confusing.

“Well, Miss Shepherd, we are glad to have you on board. The director told me you will be accompanying us to the city walls tonight as Robert is released.”

“Yes, I’ll be there.”

“Good. Well, I’ll leave you to it. I’m sure you’re already feeling the pressure your new title brings. I know I would be.”

Chapter Three

“Should I cancel your appointment this afternoon Jor—ummm… Miss Shepherd?”

“It’s okay, Kelly,” Jordan said over the intercom in her office. “You can still call me Jordan. And no, I only have one client scheduled this afternoon. I can still see him.”

“Okay, I’ll buzz you when he arrives.”

“Thank you.”

The intercom clicked off. Jordan sat in the chair behind the desk, wondering how anyone could be comfortable sitting in that seat for more than a few minutes.

In front of her, the computer hummed barely above a whisper. Her fingers flew across the keys, answering emails and reviewing her new goals. One email, sent from the director himself, showing her what was expected of her for the month, was daunting. But Jordan had faith she could surpass her quota.

Nothing you haven’t done before. You’ve been preparing for this your entire life.

Jordan closed the email that laid out her goals, and clicked back to the files containing the department’s previous numbers, trends, and projections. It seemed as though there was a report for everything. Jordan’s eyes scanned page after page of graphs, pie charts, and diagrams all supposedly color-coordinated to make it easier for someone to read.

Jordan zoned out on the different screens flickering across the computer monitor. Her brain was firing synapses at a dizzying rate as she determined where the department could make improvements and how she would not only meet her goals for the month, but also exceed them.

Oblivious to the time, Jordan practically jumped out of her seat as the intercom on her desk buzzed again. Kelly’s voice came over the speaker. “Jordan. Your four o’clock is here.”

Jordan struggled to understand how time could have flown by so quickly. She tore her eyes away from the screen. “Thank you. You can send him up to the cardio room. I’ll meet him there.”

“Will do.”

The intercom clicked off again. Jordan stood, stretching from the torture rack her previous boss had called a seat.

Massaging a kink in her lower back, Jordan walked across the bare room to the door.

The maintenance man had finished scraping off Robert’s name, now her own stood out on the glass in white lettering. Jordan knew she should be proud of this moment, knew she deserved to pat herself on the back, but there was something there, a reason why she couldn’t. It was Robert’s face. His tear-filled eyes looking at her for help.

Jordan shook her head as she released a breath she didn’t know she was holding. No. This wasn’t her fault. Robert had made his own bed. She had no reason to feel guilty or worry about him. She hadn’t done anything wrong. On the contrary, she had done everything right.

Grabbing the cold metal handle, she let herself through the door and walked down to the cardio room, one floor below.

“So should I start calling you boss now? Or is ‘ma’am’ the appropriate title?”

Jordan could feel a smile already spreading across her lips even before she turned to look at her friend behind her. Jerrick Jones was the perfect specimen of male anatomy. His dark-toned skin and energetic, friendly personality made him the most-requested physical educator from the female citizens in the city.

Despite his female allure, a male client stood behind him now, dripping sweat, his once light blue exercise clothes giving way to a darker, soggier tint as perspiration poured from his face and underarms.

“Jerrick, please, don’t be silly. We’ve known each other for years now. You can just call me ‘sir.’”

Jerrick’s grin broke even wider as he made an extravagant salute. “Yes, sir.”

Jordan’s gaze moved past the large man to the citizen behind him. “How are you holding up, Chester? You look good. Lose a few pounds?”

Chester was still trying to catch his breath. “Yeah, Jerrick’s killing me.”

“Every session, I try,” Jerrick said, “but you keep on coming back. You just won’t stay down. Speaking of exercise, a few laps in the pool next?”

Chester rolled his eyes as he followed Jerrick. “If you never see me again, you know what happened.”

Jordan laughed out loud. “I’ll send a search party for you. Make sure to get plenty of fluids and stretch when you’re done.”

In seconds, the two men were gone. Jordan continued down to the cardio room, greeted with smiles and waves by other physical educators. Those who’d already heard the news of her promotion expressed their congratulations, not a single person mentioning what had happened to Robert, despite his tenure as their supervisor over the past five years.

Jordan was starting to get irritated with herself for thinking so much about Robert’s review and his impending release outside the city. She entered the cardio room with a resolve to move on and have a great session with her favorite client.

The cardio room was separated into two sections. One side was a large, open space filled with dark blue mats and stretching equipment. The other side was a huge area sporting every kind of machine imaginable to raise one’s heart rate. There were treadmills by the dozens, row machines standing in lines like soldiers at attention, and an army of stair-climbers that rounded out the section.

Citizens were dispersed throughout the room, accompanied by their physical educators. Every brow was slick with sweat, and every educator engaged with his or her citizen.

Jordan searched the area, hands on her hips. This was her responsibility now. As thoughts of her new job and the pressure it brought began to make their way to the forefront of her mind, again she spotted her client. In a few long strides, she was beside her four o’clock appointment as he stretched on one of the large mats.

“Mr. Lee. How are you doing today?”

“Jordan, how many times do I have to tell you? You can call me Buie. I think you’ve earned that much after all these years of putting up with me,” said the elderly Asian man with a tilt of his head.

“Sorry, Buie, it’s a bad habit I’m trying to break.”

“It shouldn’t be that hard; I hardly act my own age. Here.” Buie extended his right hand forward with a closed fist. “Pound it.”

Jordan burst out laughing. “What are you talking about? What is that?”

Buie scowled in mock indignation. “It’s what the kids used to do, to be cool. Hit my fist with yours.”

Jordan shook her head but followed the elderly man’s instructions. Buie was the head of the city’s historical branch. As a result, he was always discovering new things about the past.

Clenching her right hand, she punched Buie’s outstretched fist with hers. Their fists collided, bringing a dull thud to their ears. A look of shock crossed Buie’s dark eyes.

“Owwww! What are you doing?” Buie brought his hand back to his chest, wincing as he shook his wrist from side to side.

Jordan opened both of her palms in a sign of surrender. “What? You told me to hit you.”

Buie examined his right hand as he massaged it with his left. “You were supposed to bump me in a sign of friendship, not hit me like a MMA fighter.”

“Like a who?”

“Oh, never mind—an athlete from our past. I see now why that trend had dissolved into the passages of history.”

“How’s your hand?”

“I’ll live.” Buie opened his eyes wide in a moment of clarity. “Maybe I am getting old.”

Chapter Four

The historian and physical educator spent the rest of the hour acting more like two friends spending time together than a trainer and trainee performing a required function. Jordan ran him through their stretching routine, cardio circuit, and breathing exercises. It was while they were holding a stretch for their lower backs that Buie explained to her what a MMA fighter was.

“And they got into a cage and beat each other up?”

“Yep.” The aged historian nodded. “There were rules, of course, but not many.”

“Wow, it’s so different from our society today. I don’t even know what I would do if there was a fight. I can’t even begin to imagine the disciplinary action I’d have to take if two of my physical educators got into a confrontation.”

Buie released his stretch and sat up on the mat. “Your ‘physical educators’?”

Jordan mentally kicked herself for not sharing the news of the morning with her friend. But it’d been good to shy away from the responsibility, even if it was only for an hour. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Buie. I forgot to tell you. I got promoted today!”

Jordan didn’t expect Buie to get up and start shouting in glee, or give her a hug, or offer her another fist pound, but she did expect more than what was offered.

Buie’s face grew dark as he cleared his throat. “Oh.”

“Oh? Come on, Buie, don’t sound too excited for me. I mean, it’s not every day a girl gets promoted to the head of the physical education department.”

“Oh yes, I’m sorry, Jordan. I mean, congrats, but—well, are you prepared for the position?”

Jordan fought down her pride at the question. Buie was the first person, besides Counselor Carter, to seem anything but happy for her. She’d expected something more than doubt out of someone she’d call a friend.

Buie must have guessed her thoughts. He placed his hand on top of hers in a fatherly manner. “Jordan, don’t think that I’m not happy for you, or realize that this is a huge moment in your life. I—there’s—did Robert say anything to you before he was relieved of his position?”

Pride began to recede as Jordan saw something more than doubt in her friend’s eyes. “No, like what? What are you talking about, Buie?”

Buie looked around before lowering his voice. “Jordan, you’re playing a very dangerous game now. Robert came to me in confidence only a few days before with—concerns on how the city was founded, on how it’s being run.”

Jordan couldn’t believe her ears. Now it was her turn to look around the cardio room, ensuring no one was within hearing distance. “Buie, you need to stop. You need to stop talking like this, before someone hears.”

Jordan was having trouble processing the turn of events. Buie had always been a bit eccentric, but that was part of his personality. He was the little old man who took care of the city records. One expected him to be a bit off. But what he was talking about now went far beyond the charm of a mentor. What Buie was referring to now could get them both thrown out of the city.

“Jordan, you know me. I love you like a daughter. I wouldn’t be telling you this, putting you in this position, unless it was absolutely important. They got rid of Robert because he was on to something. The past they would have us believe, the very history of our city and the world before, is all a lie.”

Jordan could feel heat rising to her face. Her palms began to sweat. Her head was on a swivel looking from side to side to see if anyone was listening to their conversation.

“Buie, I’m sorry, but this is too much.”


“Please, Buie, stop. Not just for me, but for you, too. Maybe you’ve had a long day, or you’re confused, or… I don’t know, but please, just stop.”

Buie licked his lips, slowly nodding. “Okay, Jordan. But when you’re ready to know, I’m here for you.”

Jordan had heard enough. Rising to her feet, she looked at the far wall and the digital clock that read five pm. “Looks like we’re done with our session today. It’s the weekend, so make sure to follow your diet plan. You’ve been doing great. If you can, try to get in some kind of cardio over the weekend, even if it’s a short walk.”

Buie rose, giving Jordan a sad look. A look she hated. A look that said he was sorry for her. “I will, Jordan. Thank you. I’ll see you on Monday. Be safe.”

Buie left nothing but frustration and questions in his wake. Jordan stood in the cardio room, watching him go, arms crossed over her rising chest. No, stop it, Jordan. No questions. No doubts. Buie is a nice old man who’s telling you stories about fist pounds and athletes fighting in cages. That’s all. You don’t need to indulge him further by listening to stories that’ll get you both thrown outside the city walls.

Chapter Five

“So what do you think? She’s good, right?”

“I think she’s young.”

The director frowned. “That’s what I just said. She’s good. She’s young, full of work ethic, doesn’t ask questions, and won’t second-guess authority.”

Holly gave the director a dismissive nod, focusing her attention past the slow-moving vehicle to the city outside. The sun was just setting, caressing the tops of the buildings as the darkness made its descent on the city.

“I think time will tell. How has Robert’s interrogation gone? How much does he know, and did he tell anyone else?”

The director pursed his lips. “He knew a lot more than we first thought, along with some other insane theories I’ve never heard, things about aliens and mind wipes. I had Solomon interrogate him, but we still don’t know how he knew what he did, or if he talked to anyone else. I’m not worried about it, though. If he did tell anyone else, or if there’s information floating around, we’ll find it. If anyone else decides to start talking, we’ll see that they are released outside the city, as well.”

Holly raised an eyebrow at the director’s carefree attitude.

“Oh, don’t think I don’t see the judging look, Holly. I’m not brushing this under the rug. We’ll find the leak. I have our agents in every department with their ears and eyes open. Sooner or later, we’ll find the book, tape, video, or whatever it was that tipped Robert off to what he knows, or what he thinks he knows. We’ll stop it. We always do.”

Holly relaxed her raised eyebrow with a nod. “And you think it’s good for our young, new head of the physical education department to see him go? No one is allowed to the city walls besides us, the person being released, and the guards releasing him.”

The director stretched as the vehicle came to a stop outside of a tall housing unit. “I think it will be good. I plan on doing it from now on with all of the new heads of the departments. It’ll serve as a reminder that no one’s safe unless they fall in line and hit their required quotas. Fear is a powerful motivator, counselor, but you know that well. I’ve seen how you run your department.”

The director paused to remove his glasses and clean them on his white coat. “Speaking of your department, any word on the rumors or discontent of citizens?”

Holly bit her lower lip as her eyes made their way to the ceiling of the vehicle. “Yes. Reports have shown that there’s a nine percent increase in citizens who are confused or wish there was another way to punish failure to meet goals instead of being released outside the city.”

“That’s disturbing.”

“I know. I’m having those citizens who are starting to ‘question’ the city’s policies monitored.”

“Good.” Director Patterson’s face turned from a look of concentration to a smile as he caught sight of Jordan approaching the waiting vehicle. “Oh, here she comes now. No more doom and gloom, counselor, try to smile.”

Chapter Six

Jordan smoothed down her long, black slacks as she approached the waiting vehicle. She’d only ever seen the transportation machine from the outside. Citizens were required to walk wherever they went to promote health and wellness. The vehicle was reserved for high-ranking officials like Director Patterson or to transport the city’s security team to and from the wall when there was a release.

Jordan tingled with excitement as she brushed a strand of dark hair behind her ear. The vehicle was long and black with blacked-out windows all around so those inside could see out, but those outside couldn’t see past the glass.

The city’s inhabitants walked by on the sidewalk, most either stopping to admire the hovering machine, or turning their heads as they passed to wonder who was on the other side of the window.

Oh, maybe I should have asked to be assigned a new dress or suit. Should I have worn a dress? Am I too formal?

But it was too late. Jordan was approaching the dark vehicle that hummed as it hovered inches off the ground. She caught a reflection of herself in the glass. The dark suit she was wearing hugged her body without a single wrinkle or a piece of rogue lint to ruin her appearance. She’d worn the slightest bit of makeup and wrestled her hair straight.

Before she had a chance to second-guess herself for the hundredth time, the door to the vehicle opened and a smiling Director Patterson extended a hand. “Miss Shepherd, you look very nice. Please come in.”

Jordan shook the offered hand, stepping inside the vehicle’s dark interior, which was larger than it looked from the street. Black leather seats were on every side, with a small bar and food area set in the middle. Dim lights lining overhead offered the slightest glow. Jordan stooped as she entered the vehicle and took a seat, sinking into one of the comfortable couches.

“Jordan, it’s good to see you again,” Holly said with a smile.

Jordan was shocked not only to see the counselor there, but also to see a smile on her face. “Oh, counselor, so good to see you again, as well. I didn’t know you were coming, but I’m glad you’re here.”

Holly nodded with another smile as the director pushed a small button near his seat and spoke into the intercom. “We’re ready to go.”

There was no answer, but the vehicle slowly rose a few inches from the ground. Next, it moved forward, sending a feeling in the pit of Jordan’s stomach that told her she probably shouldn’t have eaten dinner so close to her departure time.

“Don’t worry,” the director said, “you’ll get used to it. As head of the physical education department, you’ll have the authority to use a vehicle whenever you deem fit. Perks of the job.”

Jordan smiled, although she wasn’t sure if she would want to ride in the moving piece of metal again. It was smooth, but to her having never been in a moving object before, it felt anything but safe.

The director and counselor chatted away, politely including Jordan in their conversation, although she expected they could have had the same conversation without her.

Jordan was having trouble listening to them talk as the city began to fall away behind them and the vehicle picked up speed. It was only a matter of minutes before tall buildings and green parks gave way to an open landscape bare of any life.

The city was built on a perfect square of ground, six miles by six miles. The housing units for all of the citizens were located directly in the center of the city, ensuring that whatever a citizen needed or wanted could be found within a three-mile walk.

Everything outside the city was plain and flat. Dark brown dirt extended in all directions on either side of the lonely road as far as the eye could see.

“Isn’t that right, Jordan? Jordan?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. What was that?”

“Ahhh… I forget,” the director said. “It’s your first time outside the city limits, correct?”

Jordan nodded.

“I still remember my first trip,” Holly told her. “Don’t worry, they’ll become easier.”

“Drink?” the director asked.

“Please,” Holly said.

“Yes, thank you,” Jordan said. She watched as the director poured into drinking glasses a few varying shades of liquid from expensive-looking glass bottles.

The director handed one to each woman, and held his up for a toast. “To Jordan’s hard work paying off in the form of a promotion, and to the bright future that lies ahead of her and our city.”

Jordan blushed and clinked glasses with Holly and the director. As she brought the cup to her lips, the strong smell of alcohol stung her nostrils. “Is this? Is this alcohol?”

Holly looked at her as if she were from another planet, not offering an answer.

“Why yes, Jordan,” the director said as he sipped on his own drink. “What else would it be?”

Under Holly’s and the director’s careful gaze, Jordan took a tentative sip. It was far and away the worst thing she’d ever put in her mouth. The liquid stung her taste buds and burned as it made its way down her throat and into her already queasy stomach.

“How is it?” the director asked.

“Oh, great,” Jordan lied. “I think my stomach is just a bit touchy from the ride. I thought alcohol was banned?”

“Oh Jordan, you have a lot to learn,” Holly said as she put down her nearly empty glass and reached under the small bar that was stationed in the vehicle. Her hand disappeared for a moment, then came back with another banned item: a cigarette.

As a physical educator, Jordan knew better than most what items, both food and other, had been banned. Alcohol and cigarettes fell into this category. It’d been decided long before that for citizens to meet their goals, they’d have to stay as healthy as possible. Thus, things like alcohol and cigarettes were forbidden for consumption.

Holly put the cigarette to her lips and, producing a lighter from her suit jacket pocket, lit the opposite end. A thin line of smoke rose as Holly inhaled. The dull ember on the cigarette’s lit end flared to life. An exhale produced a plume of smoke that drifted through the vehicle’s interior and rose to the ceiling.

The director gave Holly a disapproving look as he lowered a window and let the thick smoke escape. “I know it’s a lot to take in, Jordan, but think of it as a reward for getting to this level. We have served our city loyally and now, as long as we moderate ourselves, we’re able to indulge a little in our vices.”

Jordan produced a smile that she hoped looked real enough. It was too soon to form a decision on what she thought of the city leaders’ actions, but it certainly wasn’t what she’d expected.

Before anymore banned items could be flaunted in front of her, white lights made themselves visible in the distance. The sun had made its final descent, leaving the world outside the hovering vehicle void and bleak. The only illumination came from the vehicle’s dim headlights and the dull road lights that were placed on either side of the street every few yards.

The dark night made the approaching lights seem that much brighter. A structure soon loomed out of the darkness in front of a wall that made Jordan’s heart stop.

Chapter Seven

The wall was gigantic. Reaching to the heavens, the monolithic structure had to be twice as tall as any building in the city. It spread out on either side as far as the eye could see before it was enveloped by the night. Lights were placed on the top of the wall. The distance was so far that they seemed no brighter than the ember from the end of Holly’s cigarette.

“Ahhh, here we are. The wall,” the director said.

The vehicle slowed to a stop, letting them out at the entrance to the only structure in sight. It was a large, two-story building that grew from the wall itself. Guards in dark green uniforms and helmets greeted the trio with salutes as they opened the doors for the three department heads.

The inside of the building was brightly lit, with clean, white floors and walls. Jordan was past trying to figure out what she thought about the night’s events. Instead, she followed the director and the counselor down long halls and open rooms.

“This is the only building that gives access to and from the wall. I’m sure you already know all of this, but it’s something else entirely to actually see it. The wall spans twenty stories high and surrounds our city in a perfect circle. It goes a quarter of a mile under the earth, and the outside is laced with electrical currents so no one would be able to climb up or down,” the director explained.

Jordan nodded, speechless, as her guides made their way to a small room. Like the rest of the facility, the room was well-lit. On one wall, a huge window looked into another room. This room was also brightly lit and empty. Two large metallic doors stood on one end, with another door set into a side wall.

Jordan was so engrossed by the large, metallic sliding doors in the opposite room, she missed seeing the person who stood in the corner of their own room.

“Jordan?” the director said, “I’d like you to meet the head of security, both in the city and the wall—Mr. Solomon Archer.”

Jordan tore her eyes away from the view into the other room and grasped Solomon’s extended hand. His grip was firm, and enveloped her own. Solomon was a huge man, even rivaling Robert and Jerrick for size. He wore a suit, the same green color as his men, with an insignia of a hammer on his left shoulder showing his rank.

“It’s a great pleasure to meet you,” he said with piercing eyes and a crooked smile.

“Mr. Archer, it’s a pleasure to meet you as well.”

Jordan broke the handshake as Director Patterson carried on the conversation. “Is everything ready, Solomon?”

“Yes, sir. We are only waiting for you to give the order.”

“Very good, you may proceed.”

Solomon touched a panel along the wall and spoke into the intercom. “You may bring him in.”

“Yes, sir,” a voice spoke from the opposite end.

The director took the moment of pause to lean over to Jordan. “I wanted you here for this so you could see firsthand the justice we, as department leaders, are sworn to uphold. How we cannot afford to indulge weakness, but at the same time are willing to give those who’ve failed our city a fighting chance.”

The queasy feeling Jordan had started to feel during the ride to the wall hadn’t left. If anything, the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach was growing. What had she agreed to? What had she thought she was getting herself into?

Before she could respond to the director, the side door to the room in front of them opened. Robert came into view, escorted by two security guards supporting him by his elbows.

Jordan’s jaw dropped. Robert had always been clean-cut with a smile and a physique that made him the envy of most of his staff. None of that remained now. Robert slumped between the two security guards. His face was a mass of bruises, his hair was disheveled, and blood poured from his nose. A trail of vomit leading from his mouth stained the upper half of his black shirt.

“Solomon?” the director asked with a raised eyebrow.

“I’m sorry, sir. We did our best not to hurt him, but he fought us every step of the way; even took out two of my staff in an attempt to escape.”

Jordan looked at both men, trying to make sense of the information being related. Robert was a proud but fair man. If he’d failed the city, if he’d missed his goals, then Jordan knew he would have left the city with his head held high.

Jordan placed a hand on the glass. She didn’t know what the people on her side of the glass were thinking; she didn’t care.

“He can’t see or hear you,” Holly said, examining Jordan’s response to Robert’s state.

Jordan let her hand fall to her side. Shock was beginning to set in. This was not at all what she’d imagined. When someone was “released” due to failure to meet expectations, they were supposed to be treated in a humane manner, even given provisions for their journey outside the city. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

The director motioned toward Solomon with a wave of his hand. Solomon pressed and held a button on the intercom. The director stood next to Jordan, his hands behind his back as he stared into the next room. “Robert Greyson, you have failed this city. You have neglected to follow the rules that allow our society not only to survive, but also to thrive. You have become a hindrance more than a help. As a result, you have chosen to be released outside the city. Do you have anything to say before you are sent out?”

Robert struggled to stand on his own. Wobbling on his feet, he pushed away the security guards on either side of him. “I don’t know who’s with you on the other side of that glass. I don’t care. You got to me before I figured it all out—the brainwashing, our real past—but I promise you that one day someone just like me is going to come along and bring all of this down on top of you. You’ll be buried with your lies, along with the false gods you serve like you have—”

“Well, well, I’d hoped for a better parting, but I imagine you’re placing all of the blame on the city and none on yourself for lack of performance. It’s always easier to shift the blame onto someone else rather than accept responsibility for your actions,” the director said.

“This has nothing to do with me! I met my quota every month!” Spittle began to run down Robert’s face as he lost composure and screamed at his own reflection in the glass. “You falsified my report because I knew the truth about the city! About them! You know I started to remember! I knew that—”

Solomon removed his finger from the intercom button, and Robert’s voice silenced. Jordan could still see his mouth moving, his veins popping from under his skin as he shouted.

“Clearly the delusions of a scared man,” the director said, shaking his head. “Solomon?”

With a large finger, Solomon hit another button on the intercom panel. Red lights started to flash in the room where Robert and his two guards stood. The large, metallic doors began to slide open. Steam rose from the machine moving the doors apart.

Robert turned to run back through the door he’d been dragged through by his guards, but he was too weak. He made it no more than a few clumsy steps before his captors were on top of him, dragging him kicking and screaming to the opened doors and the unknown world that waited for him outside the city.

Chapter Eight

It was dark and cold, or maybe that was just how he felt. The metal doors closed behind him. He was helpless to do anything but watch. The last thing he saw of the world he once knew was himself—his reflection on the two-way glass shielding those who knew the truth.

Even more than the director, and whoever was on the other side of the glass wall with him, Robert hated the reflection of himself. He hated how weak he looked, how pathetic they’d made him before they threw him out.

With a hiss, the doors touched. A gentle sizzling sound permeated the air as the wall’s electric grid was once again started.

Robert knew there was no trying to go back. Climbing or hammering on the wall was out of the question; enough electricity ran over the wall’s exterior to fry any living thing, twice over. Digging under the barrier was also impossible; the structure ran a quarter mile underneath the ground to dissuade any would-be human gophers.

No, there’s no going back once you’ve stepped outside the city. All there is, is forward.

Robert lifted himself off of the hard, dirt ground. He wobbled as a grunt escaped his lips. They’d worked him over good. His core felt like a rib or two had been bruised or broken, and his face throbbed with every motion.

But he hadn’t given them anything. For that, he was proud.

They didn’t get anything out of you, but look how far that got you. Thrown outside the wall. There’s still hope. Maybe someone will read the same books you did; maybe he’ll find the note and understand.

Robert took a step forward, and then another. Everything was pitch-black on this side of the wall. Clouds hid the moon and stars. Robert gave his eyes a moment to adjust before he walked any farther. Even with his pupils adjusted to the dark around him, Robert could see no more than a few yards in every direction.

As he moved forward, the hum of the electrified wall behind him lessened. With every step, the only world he knew fell away. Within a few minutes, the hum was lost altogether. Silence settled in with the darkness.

Robert moved along at a steady pace. His body was already exhausted from the interrogation. Every few minutes, Robert would stop to try to scan the darkness for any kind of tree patch or outcropping. Something, anything that would provide shelter for the night. There was nothing.

Only the starless night and the dirt ground spread out in every direction. Robert took a deep breath, immediately regretting the decision as his ribs reminded him of their current injured state.

Fear of the unknown began to overpower his rational, take-charge attitude. No one inside the city had any idea what was beyond the wall. Nobody who left the city ever came back.

Hushed speculations had always been talked about when someone was released beyond the wall. Everything from monsters, to toxic gases, to the possibility that there was a society of outcasts who’d somehow made their own civilization. No one knew for certain. All of the speculation was exactly that: speculation.

Robert could practically feel fear’s coldness ink through his veins. The night was far from freezing, but it was still cool enough to make him wish he had a jacket.

Arms crossed over his bruised midsection, Robert forced himself to keep moving. With every step, he said a silent prayer that some kind of shelter would make its presence known through the night’s darkness. Every step brought disappointment.

Robert looked behind him. The wall was gone, lost to sight amongst the ebony darkness. All that remained now was the desert-like landscape of the unknown world beyond the city limits.

Head held high, he pressed on. To what, he didn’t know. What he did know now was that he wasn’t alone. A metal clicking began to penetrate the air, a noise that reminded Robert of a pen being tapped on a desk.

Robert stopped mid-step. Squinting, he willed his eyes to see past the darkness around him. It was useless; however, the noise was coming closer. Robert bit his lip, debating whether or not to call out to the noise, the noise that could mean his salvation, or his death.

Directly in front of him, he saw a single, red light slowly drifting toward him. A light, rhythmic tapping of steel-on-steel humming from it.

Robert took a hesitant step back. “Hello?”

The red light didn’t offer a response. It was close enough now that Robert could make out its shape in the darkness. It wasn’t a human; it was a machine. Dark steel plating covered its large, square body. The machine hovered a few feet above the ground and stopped only a yard from him.

Nothing except for the humming and steel ticking could be heard over Robert’s beating heart. Blood pumped through his veins at dangerous speeds as adrenaline flowed to every part of his bruised body.

Robert felt his muscles tense, ready to run or fight.

Steam hissed as compartments from each side of the machine’s square body opened, and long, circular cylinders sprouted forth, crackling energy that resembled far too closely the shock batons the city guards used and the technology that protected the city wall.

Robert had seen enough. Muscles tingling and ready for flight, he turned to run. He could hear the machine hum to life behind him, just like the electrical wall had when he was released outside the city. Robert only made it a few awkward feet. His previous wounds made it nearly impossible to weave or zig-zag through the darkness. Before he was cut down by the beam of energy shot forward by the machine, Robert’s last thoughts were pity, not hope, for whoever found the truth, the same truth that had led him to his death.

Chapter Nine

Jordan sat up in her bed. Sweat had gathered on her brow, and her entire body felt hot and sticky. She didn’t know what her nightmare had been about, but she had a good idea what had brought it on.

She glanced over to her bedside, to the steel table that supported a lamp next to a glass of water and a digital clock. The blue numbers read five thirty. Jordan sat motionless for a moment, taking in long deep breaths as she looked out her window. The sun hadn’t started to rise and clouds covered most of the sky.

Jordan hesitated for the briefest second. Her alarm wasn’t set to go off for another hour. A short internal debate decided that instead of risking a journey back into her nightmare, she would start her day early.

Her toes sank into the soft carpet as she made her way to the bathroom, hoping that washing up and beginning her day would make her feel better.

Each citizen in the city was assigned a living space equal to their rank and family size. Only individuals who’d shown themselves capable of meeting their quotas on a consistent basis were allowed to marry. After two citizens were married, they’d again have to prove themselves capable of hitting goals before they were allowed to procreate.

Jordan had no interest in dating or marriage despite her spotless record, although it seemed like there was always some male “friend” who wanted to get to know her better. Jordan saw right through their ploys. She knew she could be a better-contributing member of society if she chose not to be distracted by the male gender. This had proven true throughout her career, and most recently as she was promoted to head of the physical education department.

Jordan washed her face, combed her long hair into a ponytail, and brushed her teeth. It was while she was looking in the mirror, toothbrush scrubbing away, that she noticed a few white suds foaming from her mouth. Before she could stop herself, even as she was wiping the excess toothpaste away, she thought of Robert and the events of the night before.

Robert had had a similar problem just hours ago, during his release. However, Robert didn’t have toothpaste falling out of his mouth; it’d been blood and vomit that had oozed off of his lips and onto his chest.

Jordan squeezed her eyelids shut, trying to forget the image. The look on his face as he was thrown outside the city, the grin on the director’s mouth and, most of all, the black world to which Robert had been abandoned.

Jordan opened her eyes and rinsed her mouth. She knew exactly what she needed to feel better, to gain some clarity on the situation that had ultimately led to Robert’s demise and to her promotion to head of her department: she needed to go for a run and clear her mind.

Throwing on her matching black pants, tank top, and running shoes, Jordan sipped on a steaming cup of coffee.

With no family, her living space was small, but the director had already informed her a penthouse would be provided shortly. When she’d protested that her one-bedroom apartment was sufficient, the director had insisted, reminding her it was important now that she held a status to which others would aspire.

Jordan walked from her kitchen, through her small living room, and gathered her work clothes. She placed them neatly inside a small backpack. Coffee almost depleted, Jordan drained the rest of the brown liquid in one long draught that made her skin tingle.

With things like alcohol and cigarettes banned, most of the city’s population had turned to caffeine as a vice. Caffeinated drinks were supported by the city, and their consumption by the working population was encouraged.

Her coffee cup was soon empty and in the sink. With her backpack tightened around her sturdy shoulders, Jordan exited her living space. The outside door led to a hall with other apartment doors standing side by side. Since the entire city sat on only a twelve-mile square plot of land, most of the buildings were built tall to maximize space.

Jordan passed door after door of apartments on the way to the stairs. Each door was painted the same white color, with gold numbers the only way to tell one from the next. Lights were placed every few feet in the ceiling, and the same carpet that furnished her apartment covered the building’s hallway.

Jordan made her way to the stairwell despite her residence being on the fortieth floor. Most people would have called her insane to make the long climb up and down every day; Jordan saw it as an opportunity for exercise.

More importantly, however, was that the stairs were usually empty. Only a few members of the society chose to walk the steps when given the option of an elevator.

Jordan jogged lightly down the cement steps and was now forced to concentrate on where she placed each foot, instead of the events that had occurred over the past twenty-four hours.

Step by step, she made her way down, falling into a practiced rhythm that told her everything would be all right.

Given the early hour and the fact that no one particularly wanted to walk the stairs, Jordan passed only a few individuals, most either coming from or going to work.

Familiar faces smiled or nodded a greeting. It seemed they all knew she was in a hurry and didn’t want to be the one to stop her downward progress. Jordan appreciated the courtesy and returned smiles as she continued to skip her way down the stairs.

When she finally reached the bottom of the stairwell, she was glistening with sweat for the second time that morning.

After exiting the stairwell, Jordan quickly walked through the large lobby and out through the tall, glass doors. A handful of people traveled across the cement sidewalks. Jordan fell into a light jog as she made her way to the tall physical education department building located two miles from her housing unit.

She ran along the sidewalk, her shoes making contact with the ground for only the briefest second before she propelled herself forward, letting her alternate foot hit the ground. There was something to the simplicity of running. The soft, rhythmic motion soothed her and brought an easy flow to ease her troubled mind. The air was cold but not freezing. The coolness of the morning even helped to soothe her perspiring forehead.

Her journey to the city’s physical education department building took her along a path of tall buildings interspersed with neatly trimmed parks and recreation areas. Studies had shown that the best work happened when citizens were given an allotted time every week to enjoy themselves, free from deadlines. Thus, parks and hiking trails had been positioned throughout the city as a way for citizens to get away from the everyday grind as well as to promote health and physical fitness.

Jordan was passing by one of the parks now. It spanned out on her right side, across the street. The tall trees offered shade in the summer months and colors you could only see in the park as the leaves changed and fell away in the fall.

Jordan caught herself smiling at the lush green display of colors for only a moment before the colors reminded her of the dark green guard uniforms. Again, an image of Robert flashed through her mind. He’d clearly been beaten. Maybe interrogated, maybe not. One thing was for certain: Jordan could easily see through the paper-thin excuse the head of security had used, saying Robert tried to escape.

Jordan worked with the man long enough to know that Robert would have accepted his sentence if he was, in fact, at fault. Something out of the ordinary had happened during Robert’s release outside the city. She’d seen him bruised and bloodied.

If they’d interrogated him, what were they trying to find?

Jordan gritted her teeth, her lips twisting into a frown as she realized she was thinking about the events of the previous night yet again. Even subconsciously, she couldn’t get away from what had happened.

“You look pissed.”

Jordan turned her attention from the park and the memories the scene conjured. Jerrick was stretching on the steps that led to the entrance of the physical education department building. Even through his shirt, Jordan could see the curves and shapes of his muscles. The sweat gathering on his clothes only helped to add visual awareness to his peak physical state.

“Oh, sorry. I’m not. Just thinking.”

“Thinking about what? Something that’s pissing you off?”

Jordan looked into Jerrick’s dark eyes. She wanted to tell her friend about what had happened, about the questions haunting her, but the conversation would be dangerous. She wanted to entrust Jerrick with her secret, even if he did understand and agree with her, she’d be putting him in danger.

“Nothing, just the responsibility of running the department now. It’s a lot of pressure.”

Jerrick nodded, not saying anything, although his stare said he could see right through her lies. “I know. I mean, not firsthand. I saw how worried and stressed out Robert was, especially over the last few weeks. But you don’t have to worry about that.”

Something in Jerrick’s tone made Jordan feel better. In the few moments their conversation had gone on, Jordan already seemed to relax. “Oh really? I don’t have to worry, huh? And why not?”

Jerrick grinned, showcasing his wide smile. “Because, first: I’ve never known you to fail at anything. You’re going to do great. Second, you have me.”

Jordan smiled, finding herself grateful to call Jerrick a friend. He’d been one out of only a few male trainers who’d never asked her out on a date or had never been caught staring at her while she was doing squats.

“Thanks, Jer. How does your day look?”

“Busy,” Jerrick said as he stopped stretching and followed Jordan up the steps to the large glass door that led into the building. “I have citizens scheduled from eight to five. I figured I’d get here early, get my own workout in before then.”

Jordan reached for the door handle. With a practiced smile, Jerrick beat her to it. “Please, sir, allow me. As the new head of the department, you shouldn’t have to worry about trivial things like opening doors; we minions will handle that from now on.”

Jordan laughed out loud. “Well, thank you.”

Stepping into the lobby, Jordan greeted Jeff, the male receptionist who filled in when Kelly wasn’t around.

“Hey, Jeff, how are you?”

“Great, and I’m sure you’re getting this from everyone, still congratulations on your promotion, Jordan. I know you’re going to raise this department to new heights!”

Somehow, Jeff had managed to say it all in one breath.

Before Jordan could respond, Jeff waved a note with his left hand. “Oh, and I almost forgot: your client, Buie Lee, has already left two messages for you. He says he needs you to please call him right away. It’s important. He stressed the importance like someone’s life depended on it.”

Chapter Ten

“And he said nothing? Really? The way he looked before we threw him out… I mean, my God, what did you do to him?”

Solomon Archer gave the director a look with raised eyebrows. “Do you really want to know? How graphic do you want me to be?”

The director nodded from his seat, fingers interlaced behind his head as he stared at the white ceiling.

“You’re right. I don’t want to know. But nothing, huh?”


“What does your intuition tell you?”

Solomon stood at attention in front of the director, back straight, hands cupped behind him. The captain of the city guard looked every bit the part of a trained soldier.

“Robert Greyson knew something. What and how he knew it, I can’t be sure. If I’d had a few more hours with him, I could have gotten to the truth.”

The director waved dismissively. “Please, Solomon, it couldn’t be helped. I know you’re a man who sees everything through to the end, but let this one go. Trust me, he’s better out of our hair and outside the wall, than inside—even if he was being interrogated.”

“Yes, sir. If you say so.”

“People like him are a cancer to our society. People who start asking questions and snooping around are only a hindrance to our cause. He got what he deserved. Counselor Carter’s team will find out exactly what he knew and how, and if anyone else knows.”

“Her team? You mean her spies?” Solomon said with disgust. “Threats should be met head-on, sir, with brute force and justice, not with lies and shadow games.”

The director chuckled. “If I could, Solomon, you know I’d prefer to let you do things your way. But everything is moving along steadily, and besides a few minor setbacks, our society is progressing extremely well. We’re not only on schedule, we’re a few years ahead. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, right?”

The captain looked down at his dark green suit and flicked a piece of lint to the floor. “As you wish, sir.”

The director nodded slowly, thinking on whether there was anything else he needed to tell the captain while he had him. “What did you think of Jordan’s response when she saw Robert?”

Solomon’s face tightened as he thought back to the young woman’s actions the night before. “She was shocked and scared for him. What can you expect? It was her first time seeing someone released from the city. On top of that, it was someone she knew well. Overall, I think she handled herself accordingly.”

“I agree with you, yet Counselor Carter has her misgivings.”

Solomon puffed out his cheeks. “I’m sorry, sir, but Holly Carter has her misgivings about everyone. She probably has both me and you being followed by one of her spies.”

The director shrugged at the thought of being watched. “I have nothing to hide. And between your hands-on approach and Counselor Carter’s spies, I have pity on anyone who does.”

Chapter Eleven

“Buie, it’s—”

“Jordan,” the voice on the other end practically shouted. “I have to see you right away. Are you at work?”

“Yeah, I just got in. The receptionist said you already left two messages. Buie, it’s seven in the morning.”

“Yes, well, early bird gets the worm, right?”


“Oh sorry, another lost idiom faded in the annals of history. So I’ll be right down.”

“We can just talk over the phone if you want. You don’t have another session scheduled until Monday.”

“Nope, nope, got to work out. Want to stay fit and strong, you know. So I’ll be right there.”

“Buie, what is—” The dial tone buzzed in her ear, cutting off any further communication with the city’s historian.

Jordan hung up, shaking her head in wonder at what was running through his mind. He sounded tense, almost scared, over the phone.

Don’t kid yourself. You know what he wants to talk about. Heck, you even want to talk to him to find out if he has any answers. After last night…

Jordan busied herself with firing up her computer and sifting through the previous day’s reports.

It was while she was looking over her employees’ hourly logs that her intercom beeped. It was Jeff. “Jordan, I have Mr. Lee here. He says he had a session with you today. I’m afraid I don’t see, well, anyone on your schedule. Are you even supposed to be working today?”

Jordan clicked the firm, black button on the phone and leaned down to the receiver. “No, I had today off but wanted to come in and get some work done. You can send Mr. Lee up to my office.”


In record time, Jordan saw Buie approaching her glass door.

He must have run up the stairs to make it here so fast.

Her suspicions were confirmed when an out-of-breath Buie Lee opened her door.

“Buie? Are you okay? Your messages sounded urgent.”

Buie nodded, looking all around the office as though he were searching for some kind of invisible person. His thinning black hair was disheveled, and he looked as though he’d missed a night’s sleep. Large bags hung under his eyes.

“Oh yes, of course. I was thinking we should take our training exercises outside today. Maybe go to the park across the street?”

Jordan looked at her friend sideways. Obviously, something was going on. Not only did Buie not have an appointment that day, but he also hated exercising outside. The poor man had allergies that plagued him on a weekly basis.

Jordan was about to ask him what was going on, when she caught the look in his eyes. More than anything else, they spoke the word: Please. It was then that Jordan decided to play along.

“Okay. We’ll take your appointment—that you had scheduled today—and go work out outside, since that’s your favorite place to exercise.”

Jordan looked for any realization of her sarcasm from the old man, but he gave none. Instead of scowling, he nodded vigorously.

Jordan followed Buie down the stairs, outside, and across the street to the park. She found herself even having to hurry to run after the elderly man. Buie was dressed in his designated exercise clothes, and the light blue pants, shirt, and jacket that fit his small frame showed how slender the aging historian really was.

It was only after Jordan and Buie had made it to the heart of the park that Buie stopped, examining his surroundings like an animal being hunted. Jordan looked around, as well. Besides citizens walking by, far out of hearing distance, they were alone.

“Well, Buie, do I even want to know what’s going on?”

“Probably not, Jordan,” Buie answered honestly. “But you have to know.”

Jordan crossed her arms, and for the briefest second, she wished she hadn’t followed Buie outside. “Okay, let’s start with why we’re talking out in the park, that you hate, rather than inside.”

As if on cue, Buie sneezed and wrinkled his nose. “They might be listening to us inside. I’m not sure how they found out about Robert. Maybe they have his phone tapped or listening devices planted inside. Whatever the reason, I thought it prudent to speak where no one else could listen.”

Jordan nodded slowly, taking in their surroundings. They were standing in a secluded section of the park, a group of tall trees to their right and a hedge of bushes to their left.

“Okay, Buie. I’ll bite. Who do you think is listening to us?”

Hope sprang in Buie’s eyes. So far, Jordan had been resistant to having the conversation the historian had all but insisted on. Now she was willing to listen.

“Jordan, I think Robert was on to something. Something that was serious enough for him to be released from the city for knowing.”

“What was it? What did he know?”

Buie shook his head. “I don’t know.”

Jordan took a step back as skepticism pushed its way to the forefront of her thoughts. “Then how do you know he knew something?”

“A few weeks ago, Robert showed up at the city library. At first, he resisted any help. After a few visits of walking up and down the aisles and not checking anything out, he came to me. He asked if I could help him look for books on a specific subject.”

Jordan nodded, trying to follow along.

“He wanted to know about the origin of our society; about how we all came to be; how the city was founded. He checked out all the books I recommended. I thought that would be it. I was wrong. The next week, he was back in a near-panicked state for more. After a few conversations, he seemed to lower his guard, and I could tell something was bothering him. He never openly admitted to anything. Still, I knew something was going on.”

Buie stopped talking, even stopped looking at Jordan. He stared past her like he was remembering Robert Greyson’s face.

“He was scared, Jordan. He was terrified of something. Yesterday, he stopped by the library when I was out for lunch, left me a message in a sealed envelope. I just opened it last night after our training session.”

Had Jordan been sitting, she would have been on the edge of her seat. The wind picked up, and goosebumps prickled at her exposed arms and shoulders. “And?”

Buie looked around for what seemed like the hundredth time since they entered the park. Even though there was no one around, Buie still lowered his voice as though prying ears were right beside him. He placed a shaking hand into his jacket pocket and produced a small, white envelope.

“Jordan, I wouldn’t be sharing this with you if you hadn’t been promoted to his position. Now I feel it’s better if you know, instead of being left in the dark.”

More than anticipation, even more than fear, a sense of dread came over her. Jordan reached for the envelope. Her fingers made contact with the rigid paper, and Buie held onto his end for a second longer, then placed his free hand on top of hers.

“Jordan, I’m sorry to burden you with this. You know how much I care for you and your parents.”

Jordan nodded. Buie released the envelope and her hand. Even though she knew the paper couldn’t weigh more than a few ounces, the weight of the note’s contents felt like a ton.

Jordan noticed her hands shake the tiniest bit before she bit her lip. She forced herself to remain still. Carefully, she opened and examined the envelope.

It wasn’t anything special. A basic, white envelope with Buie’s name scratched on one side in Robert Greyson’s familiar strong hand.

Jordan opened the flap and took out a piece of plain, white paper that had been carefully folded into an odd shape that looked like a triangle. Jordan smoothed out the paper and read the short note to herself:

Dear Mr. Lee,

I am truly sorry for having to include you in the knowledge I now wish I hadn’t come across. From our limited interaction, I know you’re a good man who’ll do the right thing. I fear that I may not be allowed in the city much longer. Even now, I think I’m being watched. Somehow, I’m starting to remember a past I can’t explain. It started off as dreams, but it’s so real now—too real. The truth I have found cannot be allowed to die with me. Look through the books you directed me to borrow from the library. The truth is masked, but it’s still there. I know you’ll be able to find it. If I can, I know you can, as well.

Trust no one,


Jordan read through the entire note twice before she allowed herself to look up and make eye contact with Buie. A shiver ran down her spine. Buie was looking at her, nodding. They stood, staring at each other for a long minute, neither willing to break the silence and start the conversation that could lead to both of them being released outside the city.

“I’m sorry, Jordan. If he found out whatever he did by having your position, then you had to know, too.”

Jordan just nodded. Robert’s note was playing on a loop in her mind.

“I’d better take the note. If someone were to find you with it…”

Buie’s voice trailed off, but Jordan knew what would be waiting for the person who was found with the letter. They’d be released beyond the wall to join Robert.

Jordan numbly handed the envelope and paper back to Buie, which the historian took while examining their surroundings once again.

“Now you know why I couldn’t talk to you over the phone or in your office. If they were on to Robert or following him, then they could have everyone bugged.”

Jordan finally found her voice. “I see. Buie, you need to destroy that paper. Whoever was on to Robert, could be on to you, too.”

Buie nodded. “I will.”

So many thoughts ran through Jordan’s mind, she didn’t know which one to give precedence to, until something in Robert’s note reminded her to ask Buie about the books.

“Buie, Robert said he was remembering; he said the truth was masked, but still in the books he’d checked out. Do you have them?”

Buie swallowed hard as he placed the envelope back into his pocket. “I… I should have thought to look there first. You can imagine I was quite shaken after I read the note. All I could think about was you and your safety.” Buie paused for a moment, then squinted. “Jordan, I’ve been through those books before. There isn’t anything in them.”

Jordan frowned. “I believe you. But maybe a fresh pair of eyes will help. We still need to find those books and read though them again. There’s something hidden in them, something powerful enough to have gotten Robert sentenced to a life beyond the wall.”

Chapter Twelve

It was decided they should run through a mock exercise routine to throw off suspicion from anyone who saw them talking in the park. As they performed a series of crunches and push-ups, Jordan gave voice to her thoughts.

“I believe everything you’ve said to me, Buie. I do. I do believe that something’s going on. But are we being a little irrational to think we’re being followed, or that people are trying to listen to our conversation?”

Buie sneezed. “Maybe. Still, I’d rather be safe than anything else. We’re both involved now in whatever it is Robert found, whether we like it or not.”

“Is it wrong if I hope that this is some wild goose chase? I mean, I just got the promotion of a lifetime, and now—all this. I know it sounds selfish.”

Buie took a long breath, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “No, no, it doesn’t. You’ve worked hard to get where you are. And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry that this is happening. Have you told your parents about your promotion yet?”

Jordan shook her head. “No, we don’t talk much anymore, maybe once every month or two. I’m sure you know that. You probably see them more than I do.”

“At the cost of giving you advice you didn’t ask for, it may do you some good to see them. They always ask for you. There’s a lot going on right now. Now, more than ever, you have a lot to deal with.”

Jordan nodded.

Buie sneezed again, then wiped at his eyes as his allergies brought on another flood of tears.

“I think we can stop now,” Jordan said. “That should be enough to satisfy anyone if we’re being watched.”

There was no argument from Buie as he rose to his feet. “As a precaution, I think we should wait a few hours and then meet at the library—”

“No, I can go.”

Buie looked at her with a questioning eyebrow.

“If you’re right and someone is on to you, then I should be the one to go to the library. Let me know what books he checked out and I’ll find them.”

“Jordan, it could be dangerous.”

“It’s going to be far more dangerous for you than for me. I won’t check out the books, to avoid suspicion. I’ll just see if I can find anything. I’ll be careful.”

Buie nodded reluctantly. “Okay. I’ll let you go, but you have to promise to talk to your parents in exchange. Whatever happened in the past, they still care about you.”

Jordan took a deep breath and nodded.

Chapter Thirteen

Jordan stood outside her parents’ door. The time it had taken her to go back to her apartment, change, and make the mile walk to their living quarters had been filled with memories of the past. Her childhood had been anything but normal.

Jordan was an only child. Her father and mother, who both worked in the construction department of the city, raised her. By all accounts, she was brought up in a loving household, and somewhere in the back of her mind Jordan knew her parents always had the best intentions in mind.

They’d cared for her in every physical way; never struck her in anger or verbally abused her. Still, there was no denying the Shepherd household was run with structure and order. Strict discipline was instilled into her at an early age. Homework was to be done a certain way, by a certain time. Chores were to be maintained diligently. As she grew up, rules on what time she was expected to be home, who she chose to hang out with, even the limited options the city gave her for clothes, were all decided for her. Jordan wondered now if her lack of interest in dating stemmed back to her mother’s strict preaching that she needed to stay focused and didn’t have time for boys.

Jordan was constantly reminded that if she ever had any issues with the rules of the house, there was always the wall. If she didn’t like how things were run, then she could leave any time she wanted.

She was brought back to present day as her fist hovered over the closed door.

Do you really want to do this? You know you’re going to regret it, minutes into your visit. But they are your family. However they raised you, they still took care of you.

Jordan started the timer on the watch she wore on her left wrist. Pushing one of the black buttons on the clock’s glass face brought a tiny beep and started the timer.

Jordan’s knuckles made contact with the wood door. Two sharp taps echoed down the hall. She stepped back, making sure a smile was on her lips before the door even budged.

The apartment door swung open a few seconds later. Her mother peered out first with a look of surprise, and then joy.

“Jordan! I didn’t know you were stopping by. It’s so good to see you.” Mrs. Shepherd wrapped Jordan into a hug and ushered her inside. “Oh, your father is going to be so happy you decided to stop by.”

Jordan smiled and walked into her parents’ plainly decorated living area. The space was adorned much like her own—everything in black and white. The city had a list of pre-approved items one could place around his or her living space. Jordan saw a few of these around the room: a black vase deliberately set, a white picture frame slanted just so.

“Sweetheart, look who came to visit.”

Mr. Shepherd was Jordan’s height and sported a smile that said he was more than happy to see his daughter. “Jordan, I’m so glad to see you.”

Jordan hugged her father, still not saying a word. Instead, she smiled that practiced grin she’d perfected over the years. She knew it was coming; it always came, hidden among hugs and smiles.

“So, how’s work?” her father asked.

“Oh, I actually have some news. I just got promoted to head of the department.” Her parents’ faces broke into wider grins. Then, what Jordan knew was coming, came.

“That’s great, Jordan,” her father said. “So what does that mean? Does that give you a bigger living space?”

“Oh, and you must have access to vehicles now, as well,” her mother chimed in. “Why, to think my daughter zipping around the city on important business. Wait until I tell everyone.”

“Yeah, it’s great. I’ll be moving to a larger space soon and, yes, I’ll have access to travel using the vehicles, as well. How is everything at work for you two?”

Jordan knew it was a feeble attempt to change the subject, but she had to try something. It was only going to go downhill from here.

“Work is fine. Everything down at the plant is running smoothly.” Mrs. Shepherd motioned for her daughter to sit on one of the couches placed around the living area. “Let’s hear more about you. Have you been seeing anyone?”

Jordan took a long breath, then slowly and quietly released the air in her lungs as she sank into the soft, white couch. “No. No, time for that now. It’s been all about work lately.”

“Oh, that’s a shame. Well, hopefully the right man will come along, sooner than later.”


Jordan’s father seemed to miss this interaction as he jumped back to Jordan’s promotion. “Say, what happened to Robert Greyson? Every time I saw him, he looked like he was on top of his game and everything was running smoothly.”

Jordan hesitated. They could sniff out a lie a mile away; it seemed like a parental gift her father and mother had developed as soon as she was born.

“Robert was released. Apparently, he missed his quota three months in a row.”

“Shame,” her father said. “Oh well, more opportunity for you. So what’s the next step in your career?”

“The next step? I just got this one.”

“I know, but I mean you should always be looking toward what’s next.”

Jordan knew it was her imagination; still, she couldn’t help tasting bile in her mouth. “I’m not really sure, Dad.”

“Well, probably getting a husband would be next,” her mother chimed in. “I mean, with your work record, you’re more than qualified for a spouse, and I’m sure if we got you some new clothes, men would be lining up to date the head of the physical education department.”

Jordan would have been shocked had she not been expecting every word that came out of her parents’ mouths. She looked down at the clothes the city had provided for her. Even off work, all of her garments were black, distinguishing Jordan as a member of the Fitness Department.

She looked over at her mother and father, who were both dressed in light and dark browns, the color decided on by the city for construction workers and builders.

“I like my clothes, and even if I didn’t, it’s not like I’m going on a shopping spree.”

“Well, of course not, but you can put in a request to the city for some more lady-like clothing. Especially now with your new position,” her mother said, using a hint of the same parental tone with which Jordan had been raised.

“I’m not sure I could just ask—”

“Don’t argue with your mother,” Mrs. Shepherd said, somehow making her playful comment serious.

That was Jordan’s cue to leave.

“Well,” she said as she rose to her feet, “this has been great, but I should really get going.”

“So soon?” her father asked, also making his way to a standing position.

“Yeah, you know how it is. I have to go plan out my future and put in a request for more suitable clothing.”

Her father and mother either missed the sarcasm or accepted it, because they nodded and walked Jordan to the door.

“Well, we need to see you again soon,” her mother said with a squeeze. “You’d think we lived a world apart with how often we get to visit with you.”

Her father embraced her. Jordan felt his aging frame as she hugged him back. He was old, but still a firm testament to his many years as a construction worker.

“We’re proud of you Jordan,” he said.

Jordan gave both her mother and father a smile as she opened the door, then closed it behind her. She knew they were both proud of her, and they both loved her in their own way.

As the door clicked closed, Jordan raised her watch to get a look at the time spent with her family. “Hey, well, that’s some improvement.”

Chapter Fourteen

The city library was one of the few buildings provided for citizen use. Reading and learning were promoted by the city officials as much as physical fitness. The library was a huge building packed with approved reading material for any citizen meeting their monthly work goals.

Jordan walked along the sidewalk to the library. It was afternoon on a weekend, and that meant more citizens walked to and from their weekend activities. The city’s many parks and library were favorite places for people to gather.

Jordan walked with her hands inside her thin, black jacket. Lost in her own thoughts, she smiled absently at people she knew.

What are you expecting to find in the library? What are in those books that Robert read? How did he know to look into the city’s past in the first place? What tipped him off?

As more and more questions piled up with no answers in sight, Jordan shook her head. She could sense a migraine coming on at any moment and decided to stop and wait until she got to the library for answers.

Jordan rounded the last corner of the city block and stopped in her tracks. The library doors were only a few yards away, but it wasn’t the high, arching entrance or elaborate steps leading up to the building that had caught her eye. It was the vehicle parked out front.

Only city officials or the city’s security team were allowed to use vehicles, and then only on city business. Jordan closed her mouth and licked her lips. Worry invaded her consciousness as the possibility of Buie being questioned crossed her mind.

Jordan calmed herself and walked the remaining half block to the entrance. Citizens wearing their off-duty work clothes left and entered through the large, glass doors of the library every few seconds.

Jordan steeled herself, falling into the flow of human traffic that would take her into the library. She was prepared to see Buie being handcuffed and dragged away, just like Robert, by green-uniformed city guards.

Bright lights made her squint for the briefest moment as her hands made contact with the cold, steel bar on the library door. Stepping into the large hall, Jordan forced one foot in front of the other. She didn’t even want to go in anymore, but she knew this feeling was silly. If Buie was being taken away for questioning, then it was happening, whether Jordan saw it or not.

Somehow, she knew it would be worse not knowing. Slowly, her black training sneakers ate the white-tiled floor as she moved forward.

Along with exercising, Jordan loved to read. This passion had led her to the city library many times. However, the historical department and its books hadn’t been interesting to Jordan, until now.

Previous trips were made to the library’s fiction section. Jordan read nearly every piece of literature she could get her hands on. Each book was sanctioned and approved by the city, so that meant nothing vulgar, violent, or sexual. Still, while growing up, Jordan found joy in reading about fictional people and animals. The city was sure that each book was stacked with underlying themes of loyalty and respect to officials, something Jordan had recognized early on.

It was a fact she’d accepted many years ago: every book and story would be pro-government. Jordan learned to ignore the city’s propaganda and instead enjoy the adventures of the characters in the book.

She passed by clear, glass walls leading into the children’s area. A few small adolescents read side by side with their parents. Tiny hands turned pages and stared wide-eyed at the colors on every page.

While she looked through the glass walls, she caught a reflection of herself, her posture straight, hair in a ponytail again. It was an adult, looking back at her. A grown woman with more than her share of problems to deal with, problems that now included government secrets and the possibility of being released beyond the wall.

Jordan turned her attention back to where she was walking. The city’s historical department was a large room veering off to her right. Jordan made the turn, then felt her mouth drop open.

Chapter Fifteen

The good news was, Buie was nowhere to be found. The bad news was, Holly Carter, accompanied by a team of transition counselors, were dispersed around the room, picking out volumes, gathering them onto a table.

Jordan’s hand crinkled the triangular piece of paper in her pocket that held the names of the books Buie had told her to read. She’d scribbled the names down, planning to destroy the paper as soon as the books were located and examined.

Jordan was standing, deciding whether to go forward into the room or retreat before anyone saw her, when the decision was made for her.

Holly fixed her with a quizzical look before waving her over. Jordan gulped as she felt her legs carrying her closer to the head counselor.

“Well, didn’t expect to see you here, Miss Shepherd.”

It wasn’t a question, yet Jordan knew it was meant to be one. Holly looked at her, waiting for a response. The older woman was wearing an expensive-looking grey suit. Her short hair was caught behind her ears. The same triangle insignia pinned on her jacket reminded Jordon of the shape Robert Greyson’s note had been folded in.

“I was just visiting the library to check out a fitness manual for work. I noticed you in here and thought I’d say hello,” Jordan lied.

Holly crossed her slender arms over her chest. “Oh, really? Interesting.”

Jordan didn’t think it was interesting at all. In fact, she found herself now wishing her lie had sounded better. “What brings you to the library on a weekend?” She hoped changing the subject would help. It did.

“It seems there may be some reading material not suitable for the general public. My team and I are taking a few books back with us to read through them and make sure they are safe for our city’s citizens to enjoy.”

Holly’s answer was simple, and unlike Jordan’s, seemed like the truth. Angst wrapped itself around Jordan’s stomach as she was faced with the possibility that she may never find the real reason Robert was released beyond the wall.

Jordan’s eyes strayed over to Holly’s subordinates. Not one of them missed a beat as they scanned rows of books, finding their titles and placing them onto a steel table beside Holly and Jordan.

Jordan was close enough to see the individual titles. She recognized most of them. They were the books she needed; the same books on Buie’s list.

“Safe for the public?” she asked.

Holly followed her gaze. “Yes, it seems there may be ideas, or whispers of ideas, that would lead our valued citizens along false paths. People are really rather impressionable, you see. We wouldn’t want anything they read to give them false hopes of anything untrue, now would we?”

Holly gave Jordan a dangerous smile. Jordan took this as a cue to leave. There was no way she’d get to the books now. The best thing she could do was to act like she didn’t care and just be on her way. “Of course not, Counselor Carter. Well, it was nice running into you.” Jordan lied again. “I better let you get back to work.”

“Yes, well—”

A beeping from inside the counselor’s suit jacket went off. Apparently, silencing all cellphones in the library didn’t apply to people in her role of authority. Holly didn’t excuse herself from the conversation or even give an appropriate grimace of excuse. Instead, she reached into her pocket and took out her phone.

Her eyebrows went up. Head tilted, she looked at Jordan. “It’s the director.”

Before Jordan could get a word out, even before she decided how she felt about the call, besides indifferent, Holly pressed a button and placed the phone by her ear. “Yes, Director?”

A few seconds of silence passed. Jordan was wondering if it was rude to stay and listen, or if she should go. Holly’s stance was rigid, her eyebrows slowly rising at the news from the voice on the other end. “Yes, I understand. Oh, you won’t have to worry about telling Miss Shepherd. I’m here with her now… Ran into her at the library… I’ll bring her along.”

Jordan’s mouth went dry. She found herself less and less enthusiastic with her new job. Holly removed the phone from her ear, placing it back into her pocket. “Well,” she said with a deep breath, “it seems I saved the director a phone call. He was going to notify you next that there’s been a meeting called for the heads of the city departments. We’re to meet at the director’s office.”

All the thoughts of finding what Robert had known in the books, were gone. Now, Jordan was trying to decipher her feelings on being called to a last-minute meeting, one that, by Holly’s reaction, was anything other than ordinary.

“Oh, okay. Well, I should probably get home and change before—”

“There’ll be no time. The meeting is taking place immediately, and the director does hate to wait. You can ride with me.”

Chapter Sixteen

The director walked back and forth in his office. Tonight would be a night to remember. He had to prepare himself for the questions that were sure to arise. Questions he knew, for the sake of the society, he could not answer.

They’d be taken off guard at being called to a last minute meeting, but that’s what he’d intended. Better to have them come with no expectations and questions, than to know about the meeting days in advance and to speculate as to why one was being called so late in the evening.

The expansive office provided for the director was located on the top floor of a housing unit. The office, as well as his personal living space, took up the entire top floor. He walked to the window overlooking his city.

Lights spread out before him until they were stopped by the empty space between the city and the wall. The director took off his glasses and cleaned them on his white coat.

Without the spectacles on, everything blurred. Everything was unclear, just like the city’s past and the city’s future. It was his duty to keep things on track.

Director Patterson slid the soft cloth of his jacket back and forth over the lenses of his glasses. He ran over in his mind what he expected the department heads’ reactions would be. Most would be eager to agree. A few, like Holly, would nod along, but question this course of action. Still others, like Jordan Shepherd, were unknown entities.

Director Patterson returned his glasses to their normal place on the bridge of his nose and squinted into the darkness beyond the city. He couldn’t see the wall, but he knew it was there. It was out there, massive and large, a symbol of both protection and fear.

That’s what he had to instill in his department heads tonight. He had to make sure they felt safe and at the same time, cautious. The director thought back to his own meeting with the former head of the physical education department and shook his head. He now knew what not to say.

Robert had been a trial run. He’d given the director an opportunity to practice the same speech he’d give tonight. The director learned what words to avoid and how to phrase other words. It’d cost Robert his job and life within the city, but it had been needed. It had been necessary.

The director felt the slightest twinge of guilt, the smallest hint of regret that was soon dismissed. Things were done for the good of the city and everyone in the city. Along the way there would be sacrifices made, but only for the benefit of the society as a whole.

Besides, he was only a piece being used in a much larger game. He wasn’t so vain to think he was the ruler of the city. He was only the middleman, relaying information given to him by his superiors.

They’d decided the next chapter in the city’s history would start now. Who was he to deviate from a plan that had been set in motion for generations?

He pulled his eyes from the view and crossed his lavishly decorated office to a large, black bookcase that stood filled with volumes of books. Each series was complete and all matching. Just like his city, his books were orderly and neat.

Director Patterson reached forward and slid a volume out halfway. The book was on the third of six shelves. The director’s hand quickly traveled to all six shelves, pulling one book from each section, careful to only allow the book to slide out halfway.

Although he’d repeated the same process countless times over the years, he was still no closer to finding a pattern for which books had to be pulled. On the top shelf, where he had to stand on his tiptoes to reach, he pulled out a book almost all the way to the right of the row. The next shelf, the book he targeted was toward but not exactly in the middle, with the next row’s book the last on the left, and so on.

Once all six books had been gently pulled from their shelves only halfway, their binding barely showing over the edge of each shelf, the entire bookcase slowly began to swing open. It was noiseless. The giant combination of wood and books inched its way forward, revealing a steel door with a number key and digital scanner.

The director’s right forefinger made contact with six numbers on the key code before he pressed it on a small, glass surface that read his print. Once again there was no noise; the large, steel door simply swung open.

The door itself was massive. Easily a foot thick, the grey-colored steel door swung open gracefully like its wooden counterpart.

Inside, the area was lit with bright lights stretching across the small, square room. The walls were steel like the door, and the only thing in the room was a metal stand, with a book, enclosed by a glass case.

Director Patterson stepped inside the room and stared in awe at the ancient book. Every single time he saw it, he was met with foggy, half-hidden memories of the first time it was introduced to him by the previous director, a man he’d come to respect and admire.

The Pandora Experiment: Box Set of Books 1 - 3

Thirty Years Before

“Why do you think we’re here?”

Saul Patterson sensed the weight of the question, even though the director had asked it as casually as asking him what he thought about the weather.


Director Williams’ smile, always sincere and easily available, spread over his mouth and clean-shaven face. Although past the prime of his life, Director Williams still held a twinkle in his eyes that spoke of a youthful personality.

“You heard me, Saul. Don’t read into it. I’m not trying to trap you. Just answer me honestly. Why do you think we’re here?”

Saul opened his mouth to speak, and then stopped himself again.

The director’s smile only broadened, and he actually chuckled. “And that’s why you’re here, Saul. That’s why I have chosen you among the thousands of others. It’s because of the same cautiousness that’s holding you back from answering this question.”

Saul was more confused than ever. By not answering the question, had he done something right? Was this a test?

Before he could hesitate or overanalyze the question any more, he looked at the man he called a mentor and opened his mouth. “We are here to serve the city. To perform our designated tasks and create a society that thrives in every area.”

The director sitting across from him slowly nodded. “That’s right, Saul. I couldn’t have said it any better. Our society and its survival comes first above all else. I won’t be able to hold my position as director forever, and it’s high time for me to choose a successor. I want that man to be you, Saul.”

Saul Patterson could feel his fingers tighten on the arms of his chair. A smile was suppressed as the weight of the moment struck him, the city responsibilities that would now be his to bear.

“It would be an honor, sir. Thank you for believing in me. I won’t let you or the city down.”

“I know you won’t, Saul. I’ll take the next few years training you, and then stay on a few more years only in an advisory role.”

Saul nodded. The excitement of the moment was engulfing him. Tingles ran throughout his body. His head felt as light as it ever had. It was only the frown on the director’s face that brought Saul back to reality.

Director Williams sat across from him, licking his lips. For the first time since Saul had known the director, he saw worry, even doubt, etched on the man’s face.

“Is there something wrong, Director Williams?”

The leader of the city snapped back from whatever had captured his thoughts and shook his head furiously. “No. Well, there may be, and that’s entirely up to you. I’ve been wrestling with the best way to tell you the truth. The director before me beat around the bush. It seemed like it took hours for him to make himself clear, so I’ll be as straight to the point as I can, to spare us both that discomfort.”

All the joy and excitement in Saul’s chest seemed to fade into worry and gather in the pit of his stomach. He’d only heard the director speak this way when he was releasing someone outside the city wall.

The seconds ticked by as Saul waited for Director Williams to begin. To Saul’s dismay, his mentor started with yet another question. “Saul, tell me. What do you know of our society’s inception? Why are we all here inside the wall?”

Saul’s cautious nature made him think twice before he opened his mouth. There was something in the director’s tone, something that told him this would be no ordinary conversation.

“Centuries ago, the world was plagued by war and violence brought on by mankind’s darkest side. Humanity turned on one another and all but destroyed itself. The survivors gathered here and built a wall to protect them from the wasteland they’d created. Over the years, they built and reinforced the wall until it became what it is now. Rules for our society to follow and ensure our survival were also established.”

Saul paused to swallow, He tried in vain to get a read on Director Williams. Is this what the director had wanted?

“Good, go on,” the current director of the city spoke slowly. “What does everyone think is beyond the wall?”

Saul did a double take. He noticed how carefully the director had chosen his words. He’d specifically chosen the word “think” to include in his question. “What we all think? There’s nothing except a torn, empty world. A wasteland created by man-made weapons. We can’t be too sure of what the world looks like now; no one who’s ever been released outside the wall has returned.”

Again silence. Director Williams rose from his desk. He wasn’t a tall man, but he was capable of using every inch of his height if he so chose. “I think it’ll be better if I were to show you rather than tell you, Saul. Beyond this point, there is no turning back. You have the makings of a great leader; however, if you choose another path, do so now. After what I’m about to tell you, there can be no turning back.”

Chapter Seventeen

Director Patterson looked down through the glass case to the opened Codex whose cracked binding and worn pages spoke of its age. Thoughts of the first time he’d ever seen the Codex fled his mind now as he lifted the square, glass container shielding the book from the elements and placed it on the ground beside him.

As gentle as a doctor holding a newborn, Director Patterson ran the tips of his fingers across the thin sheets of paper. The Codex was his compass. Without this book he, all the directors before him, and the society inside the wall, would be lost. It was more valuable than anything else. Human life included.

The director carefully turned the pages to the section where the city had progressed by following the Codex thus far, the chapter toward the end of the book, where so many directors before him had labored and sacrificed to arrive.

There were only a few pages of instructions left. Director Patterson soaked in the information on the sheets of parchment in front of him. It was information he knew by heart; still, he had to be sure. The Codex had never led any director astray. Each city leader had followed the instructions since the beginning of the city. He would not be the one to ruin things now.

Director Saul Patterson started at the beginning of the chapter that would be introduced to the city’s department heads that night. The chapter was handwritten like the rest of the book. The chapter that, in big bold letters, read: “War.

Chapter Eighteen

Jordan stared longingly at the door leading to the stairwell when they entered the large building. Holly either didn’t notice or didn’t care to notice as she marched confidently to the elevator.

The two rode in silence as the metal container carried them to the top floor. The elevator was a spacious, steel-sided room, but in Holly’s presence, it felt small. The transition counselor had been quiet for most of the ride to the director’s building. Something Jordan found strange and unnerving.

The silence was too much for Jordan to bear as the lights signaling they were only halfway up illumined. “I’m guessing that meetings like this aren’t common?”

Holly flinched at the sound of Jordan’s voice, so far lost in her own thoughts. “No, no, they aren’t.”

Jordan waited for more; it didn’t come. It seemed like Holly was in anything but a talkative mood. Not soon enough, the elevator doors dinged open. The two women walked into a large reception area. Guards in dark green uniforms nodded in their direction. A young female secretary smiled at them from behind a desk.

“Miss Carter. Miss Shepherd. So glad to see you.”

Although the young girl said one thing, Jordan knew no one could be glad to work at such a late hour during a weekend.

Holly acted as though the secretary was an obstacle to get around rather than an actual living, breathing person. Ignoring the pleasantries, she looked past the receptionist toward the hall leading to the director’s office. “The director is expecting us. Have the others arrived?”

The receptionist bobbed her head, clearly used to people like Holly Carter. “Yes, Counselor Carter. Feel free to go on in. They’re waiting for you in the conference room.”

Holly once again acted as though the receptionist wasn’t there and stalked down the hall, Her high-heeled shoes made firm indentions in the rich, white carpet wherever her feet fell.

Jordan smiled at the girl behind the desk. “Thank you.”

At first, the girl looked startled at being addressed. She quickly recovered and gave Jordan a genuine smile.

Jordan traveled down the hall in Holly’s wake. She’d never visited the director’s office before. It was nothing like she imagined. Like everything else in the city, it was ornamented using sanctioned décor with only black and white colors being used. Large vases here and picture frames there, which were all deemed safe for use by the city. Unlike other offices and living quarters Jordan had seen, the director’s office space was huge and open.

Jordan did a quick estimation and came to the conclusion that the hall they walked down was half the size of her own living quarters.

Soon, voices could be heard though a cracked-open door at the end of the hall. Jordan caught sight of people inside, all sitting in leather seats down a long, steel table. She half-expected Holly to knock. Instead, the transition counselor grabbed the steel handle of the large door and swung it open.

The chatter stopped as every eye in the room focused on Holly and Jordan—ten pairs of eyes, to be exact. They were the most powerful and influential people in the city. Heads of every department, from Leroy Burner, the head of the IT department, to Doctor Nero Shaver, who oversaw a team that monitored the health and wellness of every citizen in the city.

In that moment, Jordan wished she’d had time to change before the meeting. Still dressed in the casual clothes she’d chosen to wear to see her parents, Jordan scanned the attendees’ own attire. Suits, lab coats, even clothing designed for social events rather than a meeting seemed more appropriate than what Jordan was wearing.

For the first time, Jordan was grateful for Holly’s company. As the silence bordered on awkward, Holly’s voice filled the still air, “So does anyone know what this is about?”

Headshakes and indifferent looks passed over every face. “No,” a deep voice said from the rear of the room. “I’m sure the director has a good reason. Hello, Jordan, good to see you again.”

Jordan followed the location of the voice to Solomon Archer, the man in charge of the city guards who’d released Robert outside the wall. His wide shoulders overlapped each side of the chair in which he sat.

“Hello, Mr. Archer.”

“So this is the new head of the physical education department?” Leroy said. “Well, congratulations, Miss Shepherd. I have only heard great things about you.”

Chatter started up amongst the city leaders as Jordan moved to take an empty seat near Leroy. “Thank you.”

Holly moved to sit near Solomon, and the two started talking in a tone just low enough for any prying ear not to hear. That was fine with Jordan. She didn’t want her first introduction to the city leaders to be in Holly’s shadow.

The seat Jordan chose was in between Leroy and a short, scowling woman who looked anything but the part of a city leader. Jordan made eye contact with the woman for the briefest of seconds before looking away.

“Oh, don’t mind her,” Leroy said, leaning in from his seat and making sure his voice was loud enough to be heard by the woman sitting beside Jordan. “Margaret is just upset she’s not getting her beauty rest.”

The woman turned her head, and Jordan thought lasers were going to come out of her eyes to incinerate the head of the IT department. “Leroy Burner, you know good and well why I am in such a mood.” Her voice reminded Jordan of a small child. “I have to get up in only a few hours to make sure the food you and everyone else in our city consumes is on schedule.”

Leroy raised both his hands in the air in a sign of surrender. The woman softened her gaze a bit and looked at Jordan like she was seeing her for the first time. “Oh, I’m sorry, dear. I’m not usually this grumpy. I was already asleep when I got the director’s call for a meeting.”

The woman extended a firm hand. “My name is Margaret Mercer. I oversee the food production and distribution in the city.”

Jordan took her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. And don’t worry, I wouldn’t be the happiest person either if I was called to a meeting while I was asleep.”

Margaret smiled, but before she could get another word out, a hush fell over the conference room. Jordan looked to the front, where the director now stood, a grin twisting only one side of his lips.

Turning to make sure the door to the conference room was closed behind him, he allowed the silence to settle. Director Patterson was wearing his usual white lab coat with a dark-colored shirt showing underneath and glasses perched on his nose as if they hadn’t moved since Jordan last saw him.

The director surveyed the room, looking each city member in the eye. When he came to Jordan, he gave a slight nod before moving on.

Just when Jordan couldn’t take the silence any longer, Holly’s voice was heard from her seat next to Solomon. “Oh, come now, Director Patterson. With all due respect, you’re killing us with the same anticipation you’re clearly enjoying.”

A nervous laugh erupted from a few members, while others stayed quiet and waited.

The director of the city ignored Holly’s remark, and instead, started to speak. “Thank you all for coming despite the late hour and short notice. I will assure you, this will not become a normal habit. Before we begin, I want to introduce you all to our newest member.” The director motioned with an open arm to Jordan.

Jordan felt the blood rush to her face as she fought the urge to slouch. All of the members at the table looked at her like she was supposed to do something.

Am I supposed to stand? Does he want me to give a speech? I hate speeches.

Before Jordan could move to do anything, she was saved by the director who continued talking in his quick, to-the-point manner. “Jordan has been a wonderful addition to the team. We’re looking forward to her being able to settle in and really bring her department to the next level.”

Silence again.

“Now, I know you’re all eager to hear the reason for our meeting. So, to the point: Our city has grown and evolved into a place where people are truly benefiting society both individually and as a whole. You all know the heritage from which we hail. Our ancestors brought our species to the brink of extinction. We have brought it back from that brink and created something truly beautiful.”

Jordan had no idea where the director was going with the conversation, but she couldn’t help feeling the weight of the moment. Goosebumps prickled across her arms and neck. A glance around the room showed the others in attendance were all aware of the importance of the moment, as well.

Some of the department leaders literally sat on the edge of their seats. More reserved people, like Holly, sat erect in their chairs. Nonetheless, her eyes were glued to the director, clearly intent on catching every word.

“We, and those before us, the last humans on the Earth, have been responsible for saving our future as a race. Now, a new chapter in our existence is about to begin. It is time to prepare ourselves to venture outside the wall.”

Chapter Nineteen

Jordan wasn’t sure if she actually heard a sharp inhale echo throughout the room, or just imagined it. Regardless, there was a sense of shock. A calm before the storm Jordan knew was inevitably coming. Then the storm came.

Everyone, excluding herself, spoke at once. Some stood from their seats, some raised their voices; everyone seemed to have an opinion that needed to be heard.

Jordan stayed seated and considered what the director had said. The only ones to ever go beyond the wall were those who were not deemed as productive members of their society. Life outside the wall had swallowed them. No one ever returned. Now, the director was suggesting they were to actually go where society had, for centuries, banished people. She couldn’t help her thoughts straying back to Robert and the secret he’d uncovered.

“Please, please, quiet, and I will explain.” The director held his hands out, face calm, voice strong and firm.

The conference room’s hubbub died, but angered and shocked expressions remained in place.

“To what end, Director?” Margaret Mercer asked. The small woman beside Jordan had lost her look of disapproval, and now confusion crinkled her short brow.

“Sooner, rather than later, our resources inside the wall will be depleted. Now, I know that may not be in our lifetime; however, that is not the goal for which we should strive. We should be looking toward the future of our society as a whole. We need to not only ensure our own survival, but also the survival of the generations to come.”

The director paused to take a breath, adjusting the glasses that hadn’t seemed to move in the slightest since he last maneuvered them around the bridge of his nose. “I’m not saying we leave on an exploration trip tomorrow. By all means, we prepare, we train, we plan. Still, I feel strongly that our future lies past the wall. Doctor Shaver, you know better than most. How many years can we continue to grow at this pace before there’s no more room inside the city walls?”

All eyes turned to the elderly doctor. Nero Shaver leaned forward in his chair, squinting into the ceiling. “If we continue to grow at our current rate, we’ll reach a breaking point in the next few centuries. So much can happen in that time though, Director.”

“I agree, a lot can happen,” the director said with a nod. “But we can prepare for a lot, as well. We are not here to pass on our problems to our successors. We are here to ensure their survival. It may not be in our lifetimes that we are forced to look outside the wall for answers; still, it will happen, and I say we begin to prepare now.”

Everyone ran through the pros and cons on what the director was suggesting. Jordan knew it was beyond dangerous. Whoever was sent outside the wall, no matter how well they were prepared, stood little to no chance of surviving. Whatever was left of the world, it was not something that promoted or encouraged life.

“The advancements my department has been making in robotics and artificial intelligence could be used,” Leroy Burner spoke up. “With enough time, we could design an unmanned robot with cameras to be sent outside the wall.”

There was a harsh grunt from Solomon Archer. “I’m sorry, Leroy, but machines will never have the training and mentality of a soldier. If we’re going to venture outside the wall, then I would ask to be allowed to put a small team together. I’m confident that my trained men will succeed where others have failed.”

“They’d need to be trained better than anyone ever has; prepared for anything, both mentally and physically,” the director said. His eyes turned to Jordan. “What do you think, Miss Shepherd?”

Jordan swallowed hard. She could feel her muscles tense. Everything was happening so fast, it had afforded her little to no time to process it all. Smack dab in the middle of a conversation about something that had never been tried before, everyone in the room was looking at her.

“If it is decided that we need to train a group to meet whatever is on the other side of the wall, then with enough time, I can do it. I’ll make sure they’re ready—for anything.”

Slowly, heads began to nod. At first, the idea sounded insane, but now, as structure was woven into a plan, people began to entertain the thought.

“We’ll need more than a few men to be prepared, however,” the director said in a low tone. “We’ll need to be prepared for anything and everything we may find. Therefore, I’d also ask that a standing army be added to the city defenses. Who knows what’s out there, so we’ll need to be ready for—“ The director paused and looked at Jordan. “As Miss Shepherd said, ‘We need to be ready for anything.’”

Chapter Twenty

The director clicked through screens on the computer monitor in his office. Graphs and charts danced from behind the glass, but the director saw none of it. He was thinking of the previous night and how the city’s leaders had taken to his suggestion.

Everything had worked out as it should. There was some hesitancy, some resistance; that was to be expected. What the director suggested was an undertaking the likes of which the city had never seen.

What the director had anticipated, what had swayed the argument in his favor, was humankind’s urge to answer the unknown. Whether it was a cure to a disease or finding the truth to an equation, mankind was cursed with a perpetual lust for knowledge.

The director had played to the unknown. What was beyond the wall? Of course, the director knew. The Codex was full of the real beginning of the city, what was outside the wall, and even maps; the others had no idea this information existed.

Certainly some like Holly, and perhaps even Dr. Shaver, expected something else was going on beneath the surface, but with their peers eager to discover, they followed along. Before the meeting had ended, everyone had agreed to the beginning preparations for a journey into the unknown.

In his years of service to the city, the director had learned many things. The most important was always knowing more than everyone else, and the Codex saw to that.

The director jumped as the intercom on his desk beeped. “Sir, they’re here now. Should I send them to the conference room or to your office?”

Director Patterson knew that he’d closed the steel door and bookshelf leading into the secret room containing the Codex, force of habit made him check again anyway. Every book was in place, every shelf neat and orderly. The director pushed the black button on the intercom and leaned into the speaker, “Yes, you can send them to my office.”

“Yes, sir.”

It’d been a long night. The director had stayed up for most of it, poring over the pages of the Codex after the meeting was over. He wanted to be sure everything was going according to plan. The Codex stated that at this stage, things had to progress quickly; thus, Director Patterson had sent messages to Solomon, Leroy, and Jordan for a morning meeting.

The director shrugged his shoulders and did his best to loosen the knots in his back. This next meeting would require even more finesse than the first; the Codex had been clear on that much.

Right hand massaging a lump on his left shoulder, the director heard a knock on his door.

“Please, come in. It’s open.”

Solomon held the door for Jordan and Leroy before entering, himself. Director Patterson smiled as he rose from his desk. The sun was just over the tall buildings. His plainly decorated office was warm and inviting, just what he’d need for this conversation.

“Thank you all for coming once again on such short notice. I wanted to meet with you three to go over plans for the undertaking.”

He could read them all before they even opened their mouths to answer. Solomon, already in his dark green suit, had been up for hours, no doubt used to early rising. He wouldn’t question orders; he was a good soldier.

Leroy had bags under his eyes. He’d also been up well past the meeting. He wore the same clothes as the previous night, which meant he was either up late working or thinking. Regardless, Leroy had volunteered the idea for a robot sent beyond the wall, which meant his thirst for knowledge would force him to go along with the plan.

Lastly, Jordan. No bags under her eyes. She’d slept. She was aware and alert. The director found himself wishing he had more time to get to know her, but with Robert’s prior digging, there’d been no choice. He had to go, and a new department head had to be set in place. The director was banking on Jordan’s youth and willingness to impress to smear any doubts she might have.

“It’s our duty to the city,” Leroy said with a smile, as he took a seat in one of the three chairs set in front of the director’s desk.

“Indeed, I’ve already been up for a few hours,” Solomon added.

Jordan just smiled.

“Does anyone care for coffee? Tea? I’m not sure if you all have had a chance to eat. I can arrange for breakfast, as well,” the director said.

Solomon waved away the offer, as did Leroy.

“No, thank you,” Jordan said.

“Great. Well then, to the point.” The director took a seat in his own chair before continuing. “Since the meeting last night will impact your three departments right away, I wanted to meet with you. Although our meetings are held in confidence, I sense news as big as this will leak out sooner rather than later. I want the ball to already be moving when the citizens of our city find out. They will be more apt to agree with us and fall in line if they see a structured plan in place and one that’s already progressing with no negative impact on their own lives or our city.”

“That’s a great idea, sir,” Solomon said. “Where do we start? I’ve already been thinking of men who’d be excellent choices to send in our first engagement beyond the wall.”

The director smiled at Solomon’s eagerness and take-charge approach to things. “Wonderful. Send me a list with their names. I’d like a standing unit of men ready to go out, and/or defend our city. I was thinking a few thousand.”

Leroy coughed. The director noticed Jordan shift uncomfortably in her seat. The only one of the three the news seemed not to affect was Solomon. “Even with the guards already in the city and the sentries at the wall, I’ll still need more men.”

“I realize that, Mr. Archer. You’ll get more men. We’ll go over the details soon. With that said, I’d still like you to begin to prepare the guards you already have.”

Solomon nodded with a grin. He was clearly happy at the prospect of gaining more men to lead.

“Leroy,” the director said softening his voice. “Once trained, Solomon’s men will need the tools to protect us and this city if they have to. I’d like you to develop a new line of weapons. It’ll have to be top secret; only the leaders of the city and your staff developing the technology will know.”

“Uh, yes—of course. But what about the Laws? The only weapons sanctioned for use have been the shock batons the guards carry,” Leroy said.

“As director, I retain the right to arm our city if I see a need. Well, I do not think there is any greater need than the assurance of our survival. If you’d put your best and brightest on the assignment as soon as possible, we can discuss designs at a later meeting.”

Leroy bobbed his head.

Not one hundred percent invested yet, but he’ll come around. Leroy is a good man. He’s not a leader; he’s a follower.

The director turned his eyes to Jordan. She sat tense. Dressed in the same black business suit she wore when they’d released Robert Greyson from the wall. Her hair was down, jaw set.

“And, Miss Shepherd. Our soldiers, even combat-trained by Mr. Archer and equipped with the very best technology our city has to offer by Mr. Burner, will be of no use unless they are physically ready to meet the challenges lying beyond our wall. I’ll need you to develop a training program specifically geared to surviving anything.”

Jordan was looking at the director. She let a pause fall over the room before she spoke. In the interim, Solomon and Leroy joined the director’s gaze. This was something Director Patterson had not anticipated.

“Yes, sir. I’ll make sure the men you send past the wall are in the best physical condition possible.”

Solomon and Leroy let out soft sighs, content with her response. The director, however, saw something that sent a chill up his spine. It wasn’t the pause that had disturbed him. It was her tone, it was something in her dark eyes that looked into his, the way she chose the word “you” instead of “we.”

Her tone, the look… he hoped he was wrong, but it all reminded him of Robert Greyson.

“Well, then,” the director said, clearing his throat. “We all have jobs to do. Let’s carry them out quickly and discreetly. There’ll be plenty of meetings soon to come to go over details.”

The three department heads rose with nods and good-byes. The director watched as they left the office.

Could it be that you’re being paranoid? With all that was happening, with the plans being laid out, maybe Jordan was having a bad day. Maybe it wasn’t defiance in her eyes; maybe it was confusion, or fear.

The director reached for the small, cellular phone inside the pocket of his white coat. Things like this should be watched, though he hoped beyond hope he was wrong. He liked Jordan; she was strong and determined. But over the years as the city leader, he’d become too well versed at reading others. The look she gave him told him she knew something.

Director Patterson punched a few numbers into the phone, and a voice answered on the other end.


“It’s me,” the director said softly. “No need for alarm, but Jordan Shepherd needs to be watched. She knows something.”

Chapter Twenty-One

Something was happening—something big. Jordan wasn’t sure what it was; still, she knew things were connected. There was no way this was all a coincidence. First, her mentor, Robert, found something about the city; some dark secret he didn’t have time to share before being thrown outside the wall. Next, Director Patterson called a meeting with the heads of every department and outlined a plan to venture beyond the wall, an undertaking that was forbidden for anyone to even discuss in public. Lastly, he called her into a meeting with Leroy Burner and Solomon Archer, the heads of the science and military departments. He told them not only are they going to venture outside the wall, but they’re also to recruit, train, and equip a standing army.

Jordan didn’t like any of this. Things were in motion now that would affect the entire city. Unbeknownst to them, every single person was having their future decided for them. Jordan felt like a balloon filled with too much air. She needed to talk to someone—someone she could trust.

Jordan quickened her pace as she headed to the physical education building. Her long strides brought her to a near run as she powered up the steps and opened the familiar glass door.

Kelly was sitting behind the front desk, her normal smile in place as she spoke with a young citizen scheduling his next appointment. Jordan waved a hello and hurried up the steps leading to her new office.

The sounds of physical exertion and the smell of sweat that normally comforted and welcomed her dulled in comparison to the turmoil that now weighed on her shoulders. Jordan made it to her office. Harder than she’d intended, she closed the door behind her. There was only one person she could think to call; one person who knew almost as much as she did. He would know what to do, or at least she hoped he would. Jordan dialed his number. Placing the phone to her left ear, she bit her lip as she waited. The phone’s cold plastic pressed against her skin as the phone rang.


“Buie, it’s Jordan. I was just confirming your exercise time today.”

Jordan could imagine Buie’s face over the brief pause: confusion, before realization struck.

“Oh, yes, of course.”

“Great, well, I’ll see you in a few minutes. I think the fresh air has been a nice change. I’ll meet you outside in the park.”

There was no more hesitation as Buie caught on to Jordan’s code. “Certainly. That’s a wonderful idea. My favorite place to exercise, the park. I’ll see you soon.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

Jordan stood rocking on her heels and toes. So many ideas, so many different scenarios were running through her mind, she didn’t know which one to give precedence to. Realizing she was the only one in the park at that time of day, she found herself grateful for the brief respite from prying ears.

The morning was cool. Jordan wrapped her arms around her body. Her black hoodie in place to fend off the breeze did little to calm the intense chill she felt emanating from somewhere deep within. Trepidation seized her heart and told her something life-altering was happening.

Then she saw him. There was no mistaking the elderly gait that came with age. A smile turned her lips despite the situation. As Buie approached, Jordan felt a sense of relief. Things were far from being resolved, but Jordan was sure Buie would be able to help in some capacity. At the very least, she wasn’t alone anymore.

Buie approached her, his own eyes huge, watering from his allergies as he surveyed the area. “Hello, Jordan.” Buie had to stop as his eyes squeezed shut, and he raised his head in the universal sign of an impending sneeze. The sneeze didn’t come. Buie took a few quick breaths. “Oh, I hate when that happens. I feel like I have to sneeze, but can’t.”

Jordan nodded in agreement. “Well, you’re going to wish that was your only problem after we’re finished talking.”

“What? What’s happened?”

“Here, I don’t think anyone’s watching us but, just in case, follow me in some stretching.”

Buie nodded as he took a position by Jordan, crossed one leg over the other and bent forward at his waist. “Did you find what Robert discovered? What he was searching for in the books?”

Jordan sighed. “No, Holly Carter and a team of her transition counselors beat me to that. By the time I arrived at the library, they were already there going through books.”

Buie sneezed.

“What I wanted to talk to you about is a meeting that I was called to last night, followed by another one this morning.”

Buie mimicked Jordan’s movements as she stood and folded one arm behind her head while holding the stretch. “Last night, the heads of every department were gathered, and Director Patterson proposed we venture beyond the wall. This morning, during the second meeting, he instructed the assembly of weapons and ordered Solomon Archer to prepare a standing army to protect the city.”

At the disturbing news, Buie forgot he was in the middle of fake stretching. Arms falling to his sides, he stared at her, mouth open.

Jordan tossed her dark ponytail over her shoulder and took a long breath as she released her position. “Buie, are you understanding all of this?”

The aging historian nodded. “Perhaps Robert was on to something. Perhaps his discovery had forced their hand. Maybe what’s transpiring now is due to how much of the truth he uncovered.”

Jordan moved into a lunge position; Buie followed a few seconds behind. “What’s going on, Buie? They want me to condition a group of soldiers to travel outside the wall. All of this information is being kept secret from the city’s population. What’s happening?”

Buie sneezed again. “I wish I knew, Jordan, but people have to be made aware.”

Jordan stood up and stared at him as if he was out of his mind. “What?”

Buie nodded. “I can be the one to tell them. I don’t want to put you in harm’s way. People have to know, Jordan. If the city leaders are planning to train and equip an army with weapons for a journey outside the wall—well, that goes against more laws than I can count. We can’t afford to withhold the truth. What if…”

Buie’s voice trailed off, yet Jordan knew what he was going to say. She finished his thought for him. “What if something happens to us? What if we’re released outside the wall like Robert? The truth would die with us.”

Buie nodded slowly.

“I’m not going to let you take the sole blame for this. If we need to tell people, we should both choose a few people we trust and share the news,” Jordan said.

“We have to create our own hidden militia.”


Buie blinked, looking up into Jordan’s confused stare. “Yes, an idea from many stories of our past. We have to start by telling a few. Keep it secret. Keep it a whisper hidden inside the city, until it’s time to act.” Jordan could feel her heart quicken by the unaccustomed tone in Buie’s voice. There was an unfamiliar edge that came with what he said, an edge that spoke of violence.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Holly Carter looked out the glass window, down to the park below. Although the building was nearly half a block away from the park, it offered the perfect view of Jordan and Buie as they made the façade to stretch and exercise.

Her right hand held a pair of binoculars, a listening device regularly used in her department poised in her left. She examined the small yet powerful tool. The cold metal pressed against her hand as she inspected the object. Handle on one end and a cone with an antenna on the other. It was so simple an instrument, yet one that could be used to permanently change lives.

Holly put down her binoculars. She reached inside her spotless, grey suit jacket for her phone. “Yes, Director? It’s me.”

“Holly.” Director Patterson’s response came back quick and concerned. “You’ve already found something?”

“Yes, it seems you were correct to be concerned. She does know something. I have her and Buie Lee both in the park outside of the physical education building discussing what they plan to do with their newfound information.”

There was silence on the other end of the line. “Holly, there’s no way this could have been misunderstood, or—”

“No, sir. I heard them talking, myself. They plan to tell others what was discussed at the meeting. They’ve been on to us since Robert visited the library and started looking into the city’s past.”

There was another pause. Holly knew what had to be done. She knew what the director would inevitably tell her, whether he himself knew it or not. Director Patterson was a soft man when it came to releasing those he liked. Jordan was someone for whom the director had high hopes.

Holly let the pause lengthen. She gave the director time to come to grips with what he already knew he had to do. In her line of work, she found that it was easier to allow someone to come to the decision themselves, even if she had to hold their hand and lead them part of the way. The general population was much more inclined to make moves if they thought they were the ones who were deciding. “Sir, are you still there? What would you like me to do?”

“What? Ummm… yes. Well, you know what to do, counselor. Thank you for the report. Contact Solomon immediately and have him bring them into custody. We cannot afford a wrench to be thrown into our plan now. Not at this time. Not when we are so very close.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

“If we’re going to stage a coup, we’ll need the support of the city.” Jordan stood with her arms crossed, all thought of exercise gone with the daunting subject of rebellion. “I think we should take this one step at a time, Buie.”

Buie nodded. “Okay, you’re right. First—”

Jordan cleared her throat and gave a slight nod. Her eyes fixed on something past Buie’s left shoulder.

Buie casually looked back, masking his motion with a stretch of his neck. “How long has he been there?”

Jordan shook her head. “Not long, I would have noticed. I think we’ve had enough stretching. Let’s table our current conversation and go inside.”

“I agree.”

Jordan fell in step with the small historian. They both took a path leading straight to the doors of the physical fitness building. The guard, in his dark green uniform, stood on their side of the street. He wasn’t looking at them at the moment. He seemed more interested in the conversation he was engaged in, speaking muffled words into his earpiece.

Easy, easy, girl. He was too far away to hear anything. He’s probably out for a walk himself, or maybe even on his usual patrol route. Not everyone is out to get you.

Jordan felt these hopes diminish by the second. Two additional city security guards approached from the left, and another group turned the corner on her right. For a brief moment, she thought they had a chance. Then as more and more security guards came within eyesight, her fate seemed all but certain.

Heart picking up speed, Jordan could literally feel the adrenaline coursing through her body. Fight or flight instinct commanded her senses. Jordan was jittery with the feeling. The guard closest to them stopped talking into his com as they approached and extended an innocent smile in their direction. Everything in Jordan told her to run. The entrance to the physical fitness building was yards away; only the width of a street and the opposite sidewalk now separated her from safety.

“Miss Shepherd? Mr. Lee?” the man in the green uniform asked.

To Jordan’s surprise, Buie stopped with a smile. If he was scared at all, he was doing a great job of masking his emotions. “Yes, sir, that’s us. How can we help you?” The guard was young and inexperienced. This was evident as he stumbled over his words.

“I just need a moment of your time. If… uh… if you would stay here for just a minute, we just have some questions to ask you.”

Jordan knew the young man was delaying for a few moments until his backup joined him. The two groups of security guards heading in their direction were now only seconds away. Jordan could feel sweat prickle her skin. She knew they’d been discovered. Not once during her lifetime in the city had a security guard ever stopped her. This was no coincidence.

“Certainly,” Buie said with the same nonchalant tone with which he’d offer assistance to someone at the library. “Jordan?”

Jordan’s mouth was dry. She looked at Buie with confusion written across her face.

“Jordan, I need you to run. As fast as you can.”

The young security guard made a grab for the long, black shock baton at his side. Even as his fingers wrapped around the handle, Buie balled his right fist and struck the guard in the groin with all of his force. The guard groaned and crumpled.

Jordan felt an involuntary tremor cross her body. Shouts filled the air as the city security guards came at a run. In shock from the events unfolding before her eyes, Jordan was torn from her near paralytic state as Buie grabbed her arm. “Jordan, run!” Jordan looked in awe at Buie, even as her legs propelled her forward. Her time for admiration was short-lived as her feet struck the concrete at a pace Jordan didn’t know she possessed. The door to the physical fitness building loomed in front of her.

More shouts and yells to stop filled the air behind her. Jordan wanted to look back; she knew Buie was sacrificing himself for her. Above all, she wanted to stop and run in the other direction to help her friend. If she did, she’d be throwing away the very reason Buie sacrificed himself.

Arms pumping at her sides, Jordan flew up the stairs and threw open the glass door to the building’s lobby. “Kelly!” Jordan screamed, gulping in large breaths of cool air. “Lock the building down! Lock the door!” Kelly’s mouth was open as she sat behind her reception desk, her hand on a phone with a forgotten conversation.

Jordan moved her gaze from the stunned receptionist to the scene outside. A group of security officers surrounded Buie across the street, ready to pounce.

Another group of guards were running up the stairs toward the glass door—the only thing that separated Jordan from a life of exile beyond the wall. There was no more time to think. Jordan braced the door with both hands. One foot in front of the other, she prepared herself for a game of tug of war she was sure to lose.

Chapter Twenty-Five

“Great job. I think that’s the longest you’ve held the plank position yet. We should go ov—”

Jerrick was torn from the conversation with his client as Jordan’s familiar voice could be heard yelling from the front of the building.

“Is everything okay?” his client asked, as she reached for her towel and water bottle.

Jerrick couldn’t remember the last time he heard Jordan yell. He couldn’t make out her words, but there was definitely panic in her voice. Jerrick turned to his client with the smile that made him a favorite among the female population of the city. “I’m sure everything’s fine. Take a break, I’ll be right back.” His client nodded. Other physical educators and clients were looking at one another in alarm at having also heard the yells.

“Was that Jordan? It sounded like Jordan.” Jerrick turned to see Owen Kirk running to catch up with him. Owen was one of the senior trainers. His graying hair and goatee held testament to the length of his tenure spent in the building mentoring clients as well as younger physical educators. A five-pound weight was still clutched in his left hand, a forgotten tool for an abandoned exercise, when he heard Jordan’s shouts.

“I think so. I’m going to check now.”

Both men jogged out of the large training room and turned the corner. As they were running down the stairs to the lobby, Jerrick heard more cries and harsh banging coming from outside. Jerrick didn’t know what to expect. As his eyes relayed information to his brain, he found himself unprepared for what he saw.

Jordan was straining to keep the front door to the lobby closed. Her feet fought wildly on the slick floor, searching in vain for a hold. Both of her hands were wrapped around the steel door handle, her knuckles white with effort.

On the other side of the glass door, a group of dark green clad city security guards tore at the building’s access point. Two men were slowly forcing the door open, as others beat on the glass with crackling shock batons. They were trying to bring down the entire panel.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jerrick saw Kelly standing by her receptionist desk. Her face was as pale as Jordan’s knuckles. To Jerrick, there was no choice here. All he knew was his friend needed his help. Jerrick ran as fast as he could and skidded to a stop beside Jordan. Grasping the door handle with both hands, he pulled with every ounce of his being. Feet slipping across the tile, he strained. Large arms quivered as blood pumped through his veins and heat rose to his face. Jordan didn’t have the breath to say anything. Instead, she grunted in his direction as they both pulled against the growing number of guards outside.

When Jerrick had arrived, the door was inching open; the two-inch gap between the door and the doorframe had since disappeared. But Jerrick and Jordan both knew they were stuck on the losing side of a very serious problem.

“Kelly!” Jordan managed to gasp. “Lock the door! Lock the door!”

Jerrick’s chest heaved as muscles grew taut. Air escaped in and out of clenched teeth. The pressure coming from the opposite side of the glass door was increasing by the second. More hands were added to the outside door rail to help tear the entrance open.

Kelly came out of her paralytic state only a moment later. Jerrick saw her out of the corner of his eye as she looked down at the control desk and pressed buttons. “I can’t! I can’t! They’ve overridden the system! It won’t close!”

Jerrick felt his heart sink. Even as Kelly relayed the news, more security guards were swarming the door. Five men now pulled at the entrance, while a dozen others beat at the glass.

Out of nowhere, Owen appeared next to Kelly. “Which one is it!” he yelled.

Kelly’s mouth dropped open as she looked at Owen with sheer terror. “Which one is what?”

“Get it together, woman! The controls! Which are the controls for the door?”

Kelly pointed a quivering finger at a section of the desk next to Owen.

Without hesitation, Owen brought the five-pound weight in his left hand down onto the panel. Jerrick heard the hammering as steel met steel. Over and over again, he beat on the desk, until sparks flew and smoke rose from the console.

This guy is nuts! Jerrick thought, but he had other more pressing matters to deal with. His muscles were burning, Jordan was straining along with him, but they were losing. The door was once again inching open.

Chapter Twenty-Six

They were going to get in. She was going to be released outside the wall. She’d failed Buie. She’d failed the city. Jordan’s arms and back screamed at her as she held onto the steel door handle, quite literally, for her life.

Jerrick was next to her. His arrival and immediate help meant the world to her. For a moment, she thought she had a chance, as additional security guards arrived, her hopes faded.

Kelly’s attempt to lock the door had failed. Now, Owen was hammering the desk like a madman, demolishing the control panel. To what end, Jordan didn’t know. It didn’t matter, after all. She was losing her grip. She was done. As Jordan felt her fingers slip off the cool metal of the door handle, she witnessed a miracle. With a loud click that could be heard above the guards’ yelling and her and Jerrick’s own grunts, the door locked. Jordan took a step back, stunned. Her whole body quivered. Jerrick fell to his knees, breathing hard.

“There!” Owen said from behind the desk. “That’ll hold them for at least a while. The glass is paneled to withstand nearly anything. They won’t be breaking it down with batons. Now, what’s this all about?”

Jordan looked up at Owen through wild eyes. She didn’t know where to start. She moved her gaze out the window. Past the army of security guards beating at the glass doors and yelling threats, she could see Buie’s limp form on the street.

He was curled up in the fetal position, arms covering his head and face as blows from the surrounding guards found their mark. Even from this distance, she knew the crimson splattering around her friend was blood. He’d sacrificed himself for her. She refused to allow his sacrifice to be in vain.

“Owen, Jerrick, Kelly”—she looked at all of them in turn—“thank you. I’ll explain everything, I promise. I need to gather everyone first.”

Jerrick was on his feet. “What do you need me to do?”

“I’ll make an announcement over the com to gather in the cardio room. Can you and Owen make sure everyone’s there?” Jordan looked outside. She had time; how much time was anyone’s guess. Solomon Archer would be there soon. He’d find a way inside.

Jerrick and Owen were off at a sprint. Their loyalty and friendship brought tears to Jordan’s eyes, but she refused to cry. Whatever happened, there’d be plenty of time to cry later.

Jordan ran behind the smoking receptionist’s desk. Kelly stood shaking. Her mouth was moving, but no words came out. “Kelly? Kelly, I need you to show me how the com works, if it still works. I need to make an announcement.” Kelly stared at her with a blank face. She looked at Jordan as if she were speaking an entirely different language. Jordan didn’t have time for this. Grabbing Kelly by both arms, Jordan took her firmly and looked straight into her terrified eyes. “Listen, I know you’re scared. I’m scared, too, but I need your help. Kelly, I need you right now.”

Kelly half-nodded. “There.” She pointed to a portion of the control panel where a black button stood next to the phone. “Press it and speak into the receiver. Let it go when you’re done.” Jordan did her best to smile. She didn’t have to imagine how terrifying this was for Kelly; Jordan felt the same fear.

“Thank you.” Jordan pressed the button and put the receiver to her mouth. “Everyone, this is Jordan Shepherd. Please meet me in the cardio room right away. This is an emergency.”

Since Owen and Jerrick’s disappearance up the stairs, a steady trickle of both physical educators and the city’s citizens were making their way into the lobby. Curiosity regarding the banging and yells had brought them. Confusion and fear kept them rooted to the floor, unsure of how to react.

“What’s going on, Jordan?” someone from the group asked. Shocked faces and panicked eyes fixed upon her for answers.

“Please, I know how this must look, but I need a chance to explain to everyone. There’s no need to panic. I just need a moment of your time.” A few people nodded, mostly her co-workers who knew her reputation. Other people she didn’t recognize were harder to persuade. A few of the citizens in for training even ran to the doors to try to open them for the guards outside.

“It won’t work,” Jordan told them in a somber tone. “The control panel is smashed. Nobody can open it now. I’m sure city security will bring something to break it down soon. Until then, please just listen to what I have to say.”

She knew she had their attention. Even those who were already labeling her as an enemy of the city were curious. They were interested enough now to at least hear what she had to say.

With a gentle squeeze to Kelly’s hand, she made her way through the sea of inquisitive eyes. Jordan headed toward the speech that so desperately needed to happen, if not for her own sake, then for Buie’s sacrifice.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Jordan stood in front of a crowd of open frowns and perplexed expressions. The cardio room was full of people waiting for her to explain herself. Jordan could see the worry and fear written on their faces. She estimated a hundred or more now packed the room. Whispers and mutters passed back and forth in the large group. The noise inside was mixed with the dull shouts and pounds still coming from outside the building.

Hurry, she told herself. Who knows how much time you have left.

An empty exercise bench stood beside Jordan. Its black-cushioned frame would need to serve a different purpose today.

Anxiety took hold of Jordan as her running shoes made contact with the top of the bench. Silence spread through the crowd as they looked to her for answers.

Jordan steadied herself on the bench, her shoes sinking into the soft pad beneath her. Her mouth was dry as she looked into the expectant faces. She had no idea where to start.

The silence continued. You can do this. If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for Robert. Do it for Buie.

“I know you are all afraid. I’m just going to be honest with you: I’m afraid, too. The security guards outside banging on the door are trying to keep me from telling you something. They’ll get in sooner rather than later to take me away. Before they do, I want to tell you the truth about our city. We are pawns in a game, working with our eyes down while a select few who hold power decide our future.”

Jordan took a moment to gauge her audience. Everyone was still quiet. Nervous looks passed from person to person. It was clear they were all uncomfortable, but no one tried to stop her. That had to count for something.

“Robert Greyson knew the truth about the founding of our city, what future we’re all headed toward. For this reason, he was released outside the wall. Not for lack of performance, as those in power would have us believe.” Now there were murmurs. Jordan could see head nods from those physical educators who’d worked with Robert and knew his work ethic. Others still stood with arms crossed, lips pursed.

Before anyone could interrupt her, Jordan went on. “Robert is the only one I’m aware of who they did this to, but you can be certain there have been others throughout the years. I suspected Robert was on to something. When I was called in for a meeting last night, my suspicions were confirmed. Last night, I entered a meeting and this morning, another. Each head of the city was called in and we discussed a plan to prepare and equip an army with the purpose of exploring outside the wall.” That did it. The room erupted like a volcano. Shock and disbelief seemed to dominate most of the shouts. Jordan put her hands in the air, waving the noise down as if she could physically adjust the volume of the voices in the room. “Please! Please! Listen!”

Those gathered paused long enough for Jordan to continue. “I know this is a lot to handle at once, but at least you know now. I can’t make you believe me. They’ll come for me soon, and I’ll be released outside the wall. All I can hope is that you consider what I shared today to be true. Wrestle with the knowledge, instead of having their truth spoon-fed to you. They have a system in place where anyone who impedes their plan is then released under pretense of not contributing to the society. And there’s an end game, as frightening as it may sound. I don’t know what it is. What I do know is that it involves the production of weapons, an army, and a trip into what they led us to believe our entire lives is an unsafe world.”

Jordan was finished. Her lips were dry. Whatever happened next she could endure. If they laughed at her or didn’t believe, she knew she’d done all she could. Either way, the city guards would be coming for her. Very soon, she’d have an entirely different set of problems.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

“She what?” The director sat bolt upright in his chair, staring at the closed doors to his office in front of him. He could feel his eyes narrow.

“She locked herself in the physical education department, sir.”

Director Patterson was hearing the information Solomon Archer was sharing with him over the phone, while still not believing. “Can’t you just break down the doors or override the building’s security system?”

“We tried that, sir. They seem to have destroyed the control panel, locking the doors in place. The glass is shatterproof. As a result, my men are staged outside the building. No one is getting in or out.”

The director took a deep breath, thinking past the situation and to the repercussions that could impact his plan. “How many citizens are inside the building, Solomon?”

There was hesitation on the opposite end. The director could hear papers rustling. “Estimated reports are just over a hundred, sir. That includes both the building staff and those who were inside for their scheduled physical education appointments.”

A hundred people. Even if Jordan was foolish enough to try to tell those inside what she thought she knew, only half of them, at best, would believe her. Take half of that for those who may actually decide to take a stand with her. This incident will no doubt have collateral damage, but all things considered, it could be worse.

“What about the librarian? Was he apprehended?”

“Yes, sir. We have him in custody.”

“Good. And you have a plan to enter the building?”

“Yes, sir. There’s a rooftop access point that’s locked; however, it’s not made of the same material the doors are. We can break it down. We’ll be inside within the hour.”

The director leaned back in his chair. He could feel the tightness in his muscles subside as a plan and, more importantly, order were brought to the chaotic situation. “It’s a shame; I had such high hopes for her.”

“I know, sir. I’m sorry, but she must be dealt with—with severe consequences. She has not only betrayed us, but she has also betrayed her city.”

“Well, it sounds like you have everything under control, Solomon. I appreciate your tenacity and fervor, but let me remind you of something when you and your men enter. Most of the citizens will stand down. The last thing we need is to go in with tempers flaring and make enemies where we had none.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I would also like Holly and her team of transition counselors present. In the aftermath, there’ll no doubt be questions and confusion. I’ll call her now and have her ready when you enter.”

Solomon’s dislike for Holly was apparent on the phone. “As you wish, sir. I’m hesitant to agree to the need of Holly and her team. If they get in the wa—”

“I’ll instruct her to allow you to do your job. She’ll only be there for damage control after you apprehend Miss Shepherd. Keep me briefed if anything changes.”

“Yes, sir.”

Director Patterson removed the phone from his ear. Pushing his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose, he dialed Holly Carter’s number.

“Yes, Director?”

“Holly, thank you again for the information about Miss Shepherd and her move to betray our city. You are aware of the situation?”

“You mean, am I aware that Solomon let her escape and now she’s locked herself in a building where she is undoubtedly corrupting the minds of dozens of our city’s inhabitants? Yes, sir, I am.”

The director chuckled to himself. He rose from his leather-bound chair and walked to the large window behind him that overlooked the city. There was no sense of loyalty between his head of security and the head of the counseling department. “Yes, well, Solomon is overseeing the capture of Miss Shepherd. I would like you and your team also present to meet with the citizens inside. We can be certain they’ll be confused.”

“I understand. I’ll prepare a statement for my counselors to present right away.” There was an uncharacteristic pause from Holly. “Sir, what is our exposure on this? What repercussions are we going to have to deal with?”

The director tilted his head as he stared at his city below. “I think we’ll be able to contain the situation. We’ll release any who chose to stand with Miss Shepherd, either physically or vocally. And we’ll closely monitor those your team finds as threats after their individual meetings.”

“Of course, but how do we keep this from happening again?”

“This all started with Robert and what he found in those books, what he thinks he remembers. Since you and your team silenced that outlet of whispers, this should be an isolated event. Mr. Greyson is gone. Miss Shepherd, as well as any who support her, will be released outside the wall by the end of the day.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

It seemed confusion was spreading as the crowd gathered in front of her, trying to make sense of her speech. One voice rang out from the rest, sarcasm dripping with every word. “So let me get this straight. The city leaders are hiding a secret. If anyone learns this secret, they’re released outside the city. They explain this by saying that the person was not meeting quota. Furthermore, they’re planning to construct weapons and mobilize an army to go beyond the wall?”

Jordan searched for the familiar voice. Her eyes locked onto Tina Lockwood. Tina was about her same age and known among the staff to complain whenever the chance arose. At her request, she’d been transferred from one staff member to the next, always finding a reason to be dissatisfied with her exercise instructor.

“Yes,” Jordan said, making sure her voice was intentionally firm.

“Well, what secret did Robert find? What was this earth-shattering piece of information that cost him his life?”

Heads swung from Tina to Jordan. Jordan could feel a knot in her stomach. She gulped and braced herself for the crowd’s reaction. “I don’t know.”

More mutters and head shakes, but above all, Tina’s voice could be heard. “Oh, so you want us to believe everything you’ve said, while you don’t even know why this is all happening?”

Anxiety turned to anger. Jordan could feel heat gather in her face. “Believe what you want. This is the truth. Those of you who were familiar with Robert know he was a man of integrity. He was a hard worker, so it should come as no surprise that he could have met his goals every month and something entirely different had sent him outside the wall. Even more than that, you know me. I wouldn’t lie to you about anything, much less about a subject this severe. Think about it. What do I have to gain by lying?”

“Oh, I don’t think you’re lying,” Tina scoffed. “I just think you’re crazy.”

Before Jordan could respond, Jerrick stood up beside her. “Listen, everyone who works here realizes something suspicious happened to Robert. Whether we choose to admit it or not, anyone who worked with him for any length of time would be certain there’s no way Robert would miss his quota, much less miss it three months in a row, warranting a release outside the wall.” The crowd silenced again. Even Tina remained quiet, her fists balled up on either side of her waist.

“Come on, we all know something’s going on. Most of us ignore it, some of us are scared, others choose to look away as long as it doesn’t have to do with them. How much longer are we going to pretend nothing’s wrong?” Jerrick continued.

“I agree.” The voice was female. Alice, a physical educator Jordan didn’t always see eye-to-eye with, walked to the front of the crowd. “Jordan is a lot of things, but she’s not a liar.”

Heads nodded as people familiar with Jordan were reminded of her character.

“So, what now?” a male voice in the crowd asked.

Jordan was still caught up in the moment, looking at her friends with pride. It was one thing to know you had someone’s support, but it was an entirely different feeling when people actually stood by your side in the face of a potentially dangerous crowd.

The question that was asked seemed simple, yet Jordan had no response. She knew she couldn’t let anyone suffer for her decisions. “Now, nothing,” she said. “You all know what’s happening. The city security guards will be in to escort me out, and that’ll be it. But you all know the truth now. I won’t be responsible for more of you being released outside the—”

“I say we confront the city guards, here and now. Solomon Archer will be with them. I say we get some answers.”

Jordan scanned the room and found Owen standing toward the front. His arms were crossed in a defiant stance. The older educator was getting on in years, but he was still an imposing figure.

“No,” Jordan said, “I won’t be responsible for you being taken by the city guards. This was my choice to tell you. This is my responsibility.”

“No, he’s right, Jordan,” Alice said. “This is our city. It’s all our responsibility. We all have to decide for ourselves what we do next.”

Jordan shook her head. All she wanted from this speech was to tell people the truth, not just for her sake, but for Robert’s and Buie’s and everyone else who’d been released for knowing too much. Everything had happened so fast, it didn’t give Jordan time to consider there’d be citizens bold enough to stand up to the city. An internal tug-of-war was ripping Jordan apart. On one side, she feared for the safety of her friends; on the other, she was grateful for the support.

“I say, when they come, we demand answers,” Owen said. This was met with nods accompanied by grunts of affirmation from others.

Jordan felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. She turned to look into Jerrick’s reassuring face. “Everything’s going to be all right. We’ll get some answers, and figure this thing out together.”

Jordan found herself smiling back. She did her best to quiet the little voice in her head that told her everything was and would continue to be very far from all right.

Chapter Thirty

“Everyone remain calm when they come down the stairwell. Let me do the talking,” Owen said with a steady tone. “This could escalate very quickly, so just take it easy.”

Jordan nodded along with the small group of individuals who decided to confront the guards when they broke through the rooftop entrance. The hammering coming from the upper levels was getting louder.

Jordan licked her dry lips as she looked around those gathered who insisted they stand with her. It was humbling for Jordan to realize she had so many friends. She did her best to tell herself that if the tables were turned, she’d do the same for any of them. But a nagging voice in the back of her mind begged to differ.

The few dozen people who remained with her were mostly educators with whom she worked. A few citizens she knew were also present; their appearance by her side made her feel unworthy of such trust.

Everyone else who’d opted to stay out of the confrontation gathered at the level below, near the front doors. They were informing the city guards outside as to what was happening, making sure to tell them they wanted no part of what was going to transpire next.

“It’s going to be fine, Jordan,” Alice said with her best attempt at a smile. “Nobody wants trouble. We’re just going to sort this all out.”

Jordan could feel her optimism fading faster than darkness in the presence of new light. “This is wrong. I should give myself up. They won’t reason with any of us.”

“Wrong or not, this is our decision, Jordan,” Jerrick reminded her. “Like Alice said, this is our city, too. If illegal things are happening, like you say, then we have just as much of a right as you do to ask questions.”

Jordan was about to argue again, when the hammering coming from the upper levels ceased. A loud crash reverberated down the stairwell. Shouts and feet pounding down the steps echoed to the group waiting below.

Jordan’s heart rate doubled. Everyone in the group around her tensed. All attention was glued to the entrance of the cardio room, where they all remained. They didn’t have to wait long.

Soon, dark green uniformed security guards poured into the room. Jordan quickly lost count as they rushed in like water out of a burst pipe. Not only was the sheer number of guards disconcerting, the way they were dressed was intimidating, as well. Each city guard wore full riot gear. Jordan had only seen guards dressed like this once before, when a small demonstration had broken out in the construction zone. She cringed as she remembered the outcome. The rioters had been beaten and released outside the wall within hours. Solomon Archer was widely known as having a zero tolerance policy when it came to anyone he deemed a nuisance to the city.

A wall of city guards stopped fifteen feet from Jordan and her group. Each guard was equipped with a torso-length, high-impact plastic shield, a helmet with a visor, and a crackling shock baton.

Mixed with fear, anger rose in Jordan’s heart as she was reminded what the guards had done to Buie. The sizzling blue energy that wavered at the ends of the guards’ shock batons served as a reminder of what her friend had endured.

A tense moment passed. Owen took a step forward from the crowd. How he remained so calm, Jordan had no idea. The older educator moved forward with his arms spread wide and hands open. “I know this is a delicate situation. I’m not here to resist or cause any problems. I would like to speak to Mr. Archer, or whoever is in charge. Above all, I want this to end peacefully.” Nothing happened. Seconds ticked, feeling more like minutes. Sweat was threatening to form on Jordan’s forehead. The tiny prickling sensation that came before perspiration was itching her whole body.

Finally, the city guards made a move. The front line of shields opened to make room for Solomon Archer. The large man stepped forward. Unlike his men, he was not dressed in riot gear. Instead, he wore his normal green suit with the insignia for the city guard: a hammer, decorating the right side of his chest. As quickly as the line opened to allow their leader to enter, it closed behind him. Solomon looked past Owen, and instead, fixed Jordan with a scowl. “Jordan Shepherd. You are under arrest for spreading lies that would damage city officials and lead your fellow citizens on a course to be released outside the wall.”

Jordan met Solomon’s gaze with a defiant glare of her own. She moved to take a step forward. Jerrick grabbed her arm. “Just give Owen a chance, please.”

Jordan trembled under Jerrick’s grasp. She knew she could rip her arm free if she chose. Anger at Solomon’s accusations was boiling inside her. The man who’d been with her at the meetings both the night before and in Director Patterson’s office that morning, hearing the same truth, was now accusing her of lies.

Before she could decide to confront Solomon or not, Owen’s voice broke the stressed silence. “Mr. Archer, please. Jordan, has brought to our attention some very troubling matters. All we ask is that we can sit down and talk about the concerns we have regarding our city.”

Solomon looked away from Jordan and stared at Owen as if seeing the man for the first time. Piercing eyes looked Owen up and down. “The city’s word is final. Stand down. Jordan Shepherd is an enemy of our society. That’s all you need to know, old man. Now stand down.”

Owen remained calm, with his arms wide and hands open. “This doesn’t have to be a confrontation. If you ask the director to come down, we can clear this all up. I’m sure if we keep level heads we ca—”

“Stand down, or we will take you into custody, as well.” Solomon’s hands balled into fists. A large vein popped out of his neck as his patience wore thin. “You and everyone else here will be considered an accessory to the crime if you do not stand back. Jordan Shepherd is an enemy of the city. We have already taken into custody one of her co-conspirators, Buie Lee, who has validated as much. Buie Lee is a liar and manipulator who—”

It was Jordan’s turn to interrupt. Ripping her arm free of Jerrick’s grasp, she stalked forward. “You can say whatever you want about me, but you don’t talk about Buie.”

Solomon looked like he was about to lunge forward and grab Jordan as she took a spot next to Owen. He thought better of his idea as Jordan clenched her own fists. “You make me sick. How long have you known what’s really going on in this city? How long have you played the puppet to the director’s master plan? How many people have you arrested and released outside the wall because they were on to you?”

Solomon was shaking with anger. Spittle sprayed from his mouth. “You are a disgrace and everything that is wrong with our society. We are trying to lead this city to a brighter future! A future where we thrive in an environment we create and control!”

“And who do you mean by ‘we,’ Solomon? You’re fighting for a city where a few control the many through lies, manipulation, and fear.”

“Enough!” Solomon shouted. “If you will not come willingly, I’ll drag you, and anyone who stands with you, to the wall.” He tilted his head and yelled orders to his men behind him. “I want them all! Take them all into custody!”

Before Jordan could beg her friends to let her go, and before she could tell Solomon to take her alone and leave the others out of it, Solomon raised an open hand and brought it violently down by his side. Waves of city guards ran forward. Jordan stood horrified as she turned back to her friends to tell them to stand down. Dozens of her colleagues rushed forward. It was too late.

What have you done, Jordan? What have you done?

Chapter Thirty-One

Jordan knew all attempts to end the confrontation peacefully were over. All she could do now was join the fray and hope the tide would turn in their favor. However unlikely it was, Jordan had to hope they could prevail. What came next would have to be figured out later.

The front line of riot-geared city guards swarmed past Solomon. They approached at a jog, one solid shield wall. If they thought they were going to intimidate the physical educators who worked inside this building, they were wrong.

These were men and women Jordan had known throughout her professional career. They were chosen for this career path because they were motivated, they were driven, and they were physically, as well as mentally, relentless.

Jordan found herself running along with the others as they slammed into the wall of dense, plastic riot shields. Jordan could hear grunts and yells as her comrades threw their bodies against shields. It was clear the city guards had never encountered opponents this large or strong. Prior engagements pitted them against the normal, everyday citizen. Today, men and women who trained themselves and others in strength and endurance engaged in a test of power and speed.

Where a shield wall would have worked in the past, the line nearly deteriorated in the first crash. Shields slammed their holders backwards, kicks found knees, and some of the larger physical educators were able to completely bulldoze the guards in front of them.

Jordan watched, firsthand, as Jerrick tore a shield free from a guard in the front line. The guard’s eyes were huge as Jerrick lifted him off the ground in the process and threw him across the room.

Alice, Owen, and others were grabbing shields and dodging shock batons. Jordan soon found herself face-to-face with a guard. Shield held firmly in place, the guard reached over with his right arm to catch Jordan in the face with his baton. For physical educators, along with knowledge of dieting and exercise, came an in-depth understanding of the human anatomy. Jordan sidestepped the sizzling baton and struck out just below the shield to the guard’s exposed kneecap. Twisting her hips and throwing the weight of her entire body into the kick rewarded her with a crunch. The sound of tearing ligaments and shattered bone was audible above the noise of the confrontation. Pain flashed across the guard’s face, agony apparent behind his clear helmet. He fell to the ground, howling in pain. Jordan felt a twinge of guilt as she reached down for his baton.

Focus, stay focused. You didn’t ask for this fight.

Adrenaline flowed freely as Jordan examined the scene. It was clear that the building’s staff had surprised the guards. Where once a perfect line of shields dared them to approach, chaos now reigned.

The fight was spreading to every corner of the gym. If the numbers were even, Jordan had no doubt in her mind they’d win; however, this wasn’t the case. It seemed for every educator or citizen who’d sided with her, there were two to three city guards.

Jordan gripped the shock baton firmly in her right hand and moved forward to a large group of city guards near the room’s entrance. Behind the shields and wall of bodies, she could just make out Solomon Archer. It seemed the leader of city security was loud and firm when an army of his own men backed him. When it came down to the fighting, he was anything but aggressive. Before Jordan could take more than a few steps in his direction, she was stopped in her tracks by a series of electric zaps and moans to her left. Ripping her eyes away from her prey, she looked to see where the noises were coming from. Her teeth snapped shut, and her feet began to move in that direction prior to reasoning out any plan of attack.

A group of city guards surrounded Owen. He was down on his hands and knees, blood dripping from multiple cuts across his face. Despite his age, and the fact he was already helpless, the guards around him continued to poke and prod with electric strikes and stabs. In a second, Jordan was at a run. With all the thoughts of Solomon Archer behind her, Jordan ran to help Owen. There were four city guards. As she got closer, she could tell they were not only degrading him physically, but also verbally.

“Come on, old man. Not so tough anymore.”

“Is that all you got, grandpa? Get up!”

So enthralled in their moment of bullying, not one of them noticed Jordan had approached until it was too late. The first guard she took down with a strike to the back of his head. Their helmets protected them only as far as their hairline. This would have been enough had the guard not been looking down, tilting the helmet forward and revealing the base of his skull. Jordan struck the man as hard as she could. The baton reverberated in her hands as his body went limp. The remaining three guards gathered themselves quickly and attacked at once. Two of them were on her immediately; the third took a step toward her, then fell. Owen’s arms wrapped around his legs.

The two guards in front of her pushed her back. With shields firmly in place and knees covered by a crouching stance, they forced her to retreat, foot-by-foot. Jordan swung wildly, beating with her own baton the clear shields that forced her back. Sparks flew as they traded blows. Jordan managed to dodge most of their strikes. Those she couldn’t, she either parried with her own weapon, or was forced to absorb.

The first electric wave that rocked her body sent her nerves screaming in pain. A burning tingling sensation coursed through every limb. The second baton shock was the same. Too late she realized what they were doing. The two men in front of her were forcing her toward Solomon Archer and the group of city guards he held in reserve. Yells and screams floated in the air; the smell of burning hair and flesh stung her nostrils. Jordan knew she was in trouble. Chancing a quick look behind her confirmed her suspicions. Solomon Archer was in the process of pointing her way as he sent his remaining wave of guards into the fight.

In seconds, she was surrounded. Crouched low, Jordan swung at knees and feet. She’d never give up, even if she was encircled by a group of eight soldiers. Her arms ached as she swung wildly in all directions. Her equilibrium was even working against her as she sought in vain to look in every direction at the same time.

Then, as if given some silent command, the guards around her pounced. The last thing Jordan remembered was searing pain in her thigh, abdomen, and shoulder, and then nothing.

Chapter Thirty-Two

“She’s waking up, sir.”

“Good. You may leave us.”

Jordan’s body throbbed, and every inch of her being ached from the inside out. As consciousness made itself available, so did the burning sensation across her limbs. Jordan didn’t have to look down to know her body was scorched in a dozen different places. Her nerves screamed where the shock batons had made contact with her skin.

“Are you sure, sir?”

Director Patterson’s voice was clear. “Yes, she’s beaten and chained. I think I can handle her myself.”

“Yes, sir.” There was the familiar noise of someone opening a door and walking away, closing it behind them.

Jordan opened her eyes, squinting in the room’s bright light. More pain stabbed at her. Jordan tried to lift a hand to block the light, but it traveled only a few inches from her side before it was jerked back. Jordan forced herself to focus. Her vision cleared as she took in her surroundings. She was sitting in a steel chair with her arms and legs bound by handcuffs. The room was small—to her right side, a long, glass mirror; across from her, a table and a chair with Director Patterson sitting, arms over his chest.

“I never wanted this for you, Miss Shepherd.”

His genuine tone caught her off guard. Jordan licked her lips, tasting blood. Brown hair strewn across her face, she responded, “Really? You sound like you actually believe what you’re saying. What happened to everyone? What have you done with the others?” The director took a deep breath. He removed his glasses and polished them with his white lab coat. “Your comrades are in a similar state as yourself. They will share in your same fate.” The director replaced his glasses and leaned forward. “Why did you throw it all away? The promotion, the title, the benefits. Why?”

There was no hesitation as Jordan tested the strength of her bonds. Steel cut into her skin. “Because it was all a lie. What this city was founded on. What this city will become in the future.”

The director grimaced. “You have so much faith, while knowing so little of our past. How do you know what this city was founded on?”

“I know Robert Greyson was on to you. I know you use the excuse of missed work quotas to throw innocent people out of your city when they are close to finding the truth. I know you’re making decisions while telling half-truths to the people of this city; an army, weapons, a journey beyond the wall. It’s all against the Law, you hypocrite.”

The director pursed his lips and shook his head. “I take no joy in telling you that you are correct, Miss Shepherd. Believe me when I express to you that it’s all necessary. If you only knew the scope of the game we’re in, if you only knew what’s at stake…”

“Then tell me! Tell me the truth!”

The director frowned. Silence filled the small room. Jordan bit back another outburst. There was something in the director’s expression that told her shouting again would only drive the man away; something in the way he looked at her said he did, in fact, want to tell her the truth.

The director slowly began to nod. “Okay, Miss Shepherd. You want to know the truth? All right, one moment.” He stood from his chair and exited the room.

Chapter Thirty-Three

The director closed the door behind him. He scanned the outside room, ensuring no prying eyes were watching the conversation on the other side of the two-way glass window.

As per his instructions, the adjacent room was empty. The director made his way to the digital control panel along the wall, red and blue lights beeped on and off, oblivious to the importance of the next few minutes. His finger hovered over the panel as he stopped and thought about what he was about to do.

You know what the Codex says. No one besides the leader of the city is to know the truth.

The need to tell someone, the burden he bore, had been eating away at him for years. Solomon Archer and Holly Carter were the only two he trusted enough to even tell a portion of the truth. No one besides himself was privy to the entirety of the facts.

She’ll be released outside the wall in minutes. No one will believe a thing she says while she’s released. She wants the truth. For your own sanity, you need to tell someone.

More and more reasons to have the conversation he so desperately dreamed of piled ever higher. The pointer finger on the director’s right hand made contact with the cool buttons on the control panel. Entering his unique override code, the director disabled the sound and recording equipment in the adjacent room. He also dimmed the two-way window option. The window into the next room faded before his eyes. Jordan disappeared and the panel was only a mirror once again.

The director smiled to himself. He was actually looking forward to sharing the truth with an intelligent person. Although Jordan had chosen the wrong side in this confrontation, the director did not call into question her intellect. Perhaps a few of the decisions she’d made along the way he’d disagree with, but she was smart. There was no denying that.

Director Patterson walked back into the small holding room. Closing the door behind him, he could feel Jordan’s stare on his back.

Oh, the things she could have been capable of achieving. She would have made a wonderful leader; maybe even director, had things turned out differently.

He pushed these notions from his mind as he once again took a seat across from Jordan. His watch told him he had only a short time left. Precious few moments remained before the guards were instructed to come back into the room and escort Miss Shepherd to her destiny beyond the wall.

He moistened his lips, searching for how he should start. He’d fantasized over having a conversation about the truth with someone—anyone—else, but every time he thought the scenario through, it ended differently. Sometimes, the scenario ended in having a confidant who believed him. More often than not, it ended with his imaginary partner laughing in disbelief.

“Well?” The director started with a jolt at Jordan’s harsh interruption. “We don’t have all day. Apparently I’m going on a permanent vacation outside the wall very soon.”

“Yes, I’m sorry, Miss Shepherd. I mean, I’m sorry for taking so long in gathering my thoughts. You see, this is a conversation I’ve always wanted to have. I guess I should start at the beginning. We’re taught we’re the last surviving lineage of a race that destroyed itself in war. Outside the wall is what we guess to be a barren wasteland.”

“Yes, yes, yes.” Jordan’s impatience had brought an extra edge to her voice. “I know all of this; we all know all of this. The truth, director. The truth.”

“The truth, Miss Shepherd, is that we are not alone. The truth is that we are very much in company of others beyond the wall.”

Jordan was quiet. Director Patterson tilted his head. Not only was he enjoying the interaction, but in a way, it was also an experiment for him. It was a way to gauge how others would take the truth if he ever had the opportunity to tell them.

“How?” she asked. “Who? Who’s out there?”

“Well, there is, of course, an extremely lengthy response to your question; however, for the sake of time, I’ll give you the truncated version. We are all a part of an experiment set in place by the survivors of the old world. Six societies were established, modeled after six different political and social structures. The first leaders were all told the master plan and given a Codex to follow, a book that would be the guide to each city’s survival.”

Jordan’s eyes were huge, her mouth slowly falling open. Director Patterson could almost see the change behind her pupils as everything she thought she knew evaporated into thin air.

“This Codex,” the director continued, “gives us all of the instruction we need as city leaders. The goal is for every city to progress in political, social, and eventually, military strength until we’re able to go beyond our own walls and destroy the rival cities. Only one city can survive. The city left standing and its social and political archetypes will shape the future of our entire race. The ones who set this experiment in motion so many years ago will come down and welcome the victor, ushering in a new era.”

The director paused to check his watch one more time. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if he was interrupted in the middle of telling Jordan the truth only he knew.

Almost too low for the director to hear, he caught Jordan whisper, “This is… this has all been a lie?”

“Yes, Miss Shepherd, but a necessary lie. Even you must agree with that. You can imagine what would happen if people knew the truth. There would be chaos, hysteria, anarchy. My guess is that most people would not want to fight. We would be slaughtered by one of the other cities. This is also why we release people outside the wall. People like Robert who dug too deep, who stumbled on the shadow of the truth. Some people won’t leave well enough alone. Sure, the majority of the citizens we release are actually a physical detriment to our society. But there’s always the occasional one who doesn’t know when to stop asking questions, or speaks hysterically of having dreams that feel so real of the world outside.”

“This is an arms race?”

The director enjoyed witnessing someone else ponder the questions he’d asked himself so many times. He was proud of Jordan in that moment. She was not only believing, she was also moving forward in her own thought process, working out questions for herself.

“I think that’s a crude way to put the situation. It’s a race to survive, Miss Shepherd. We have no way of gauging how advanced the other five cities are. We could be very far ahead or, a more frightening truth, we could be behind.”

“These people who created this sick experiment, who are they? Why does no one ever come back after they’re released beyond the wall? What does the Codex say abou—”

A sharp knock on the door interrupted Jordan.

“I’m sorry, Miss Shepherd. It seems our time is at an end.”

Chapter Thirty-Four

“No, no, please, just listen. You don’t know what’s really going on. You’ve been lied to, just like me.”

The four guards who’d come in to escort Jordan to the wall didn’t respond. Instead, they worked on her handcuffs. With firm hands, they began dragging her out of the room.

Jordan hated the way she sounded; the pleading she heard in her own ears was filled with weakness. What else did she have? “Please, just one minute. One minute, I can tell you the truth. We aren’t alone out there.”

When words failed her, Jordan turned to force. Already weakened by the previous fight, she was no match for the four large men who dragged her out of the room, but Jordan’s spirit wouldn’t let her go without a fight, no matter what the odds. She struck out with her fists until they were pinned against her back. A kick to the groin brought a small sense of satisfaction as she watched one of the guards crumble to the floor. Her victory was short-lived, though, as a fist slammed into her left temple. Stars exploded across her vision. With two guards pinning her arms, a third carrying her feet, and the forth limping along, Jordan and her escorts exited the room.

It was a quick walk that found them in a long hall. The guard who was still struggling to walk straight after the shot to his manhood, cursed under his breath as he approached a keypad next to a silver door. A series of digital beeps echoed down the brightly lit hall. The door hissed open, and Jordan was thrown inside.

Jordan wasn’t sure what part of her body hurt the most. She struggled to her knees as the door slid closed.

“Jordan, is that you?”

Hands reached to help her to her feet. Jordan cringed as she straightened. They were all there. Everyone who’d been a part of the short-lived insurrection in the physical education building, was present,everyone, except for Buie.

Cuts, scrapes, and bruises marred almost every face. It was Jerrick’s voice that she’d recognized. He was standing next to her, with Owen and Alice at his side.

“Yeah, it’s me,” she said. “I’m fine. How is everyone? Have you seen Buie?”

Owen smiled around a split lip. “Oh, you know, we look like we’ve just been in a riot. I’m sorry, Jordan, we haven’t seen Buie.”

Concern must have shown on Jordan’s face, because Jerrick interrupted Owen before he could continue. “We’re fine. Owen’s giving you a hard time. There are a few bruised ribs and concussions. All things considered, though, we got off lucky. We’ll find Buie. Who knows—maybe he got away.”

Jordan nodded, relieved to hear her friends hadn’t suffered a fate worse than her own. Hope that Buie somehow escaped gave her respite for the briefest moment. The moment passed as she realized how unlikely that scenario actually was. Above all, there was still a voice in her head that screamed this was her fault.

There will be plenty of time to blame yourself later, Jordan. Help them now. Help who you can now, and hope that Buie’s all right.

“Where are we?”

Alice pointed a swollen finger past Jerrick’s and Owen’s large frames. Jordan’s eyes followed. Her heart sank a few inches inside her chest. She knew that they were going to be released outside the wall. Still, actually seeing the gigantic steel doors that led to the unknown was terrifying in its own right.

Images of Robert Greyson appeared inside her head without invitation. His screams reverberated through her mind as he was thrown toward the same fate they all faced now.

Before Jordan could shake her head clear of the images, a familiar voice filled the room. “You all know why you’re gathered here. You have broken multiple laws; you have chosen not to be productive assets to our society. You have turned your back on the city. And for all of this, you are sentenced to be released.”

Jordan’s head turned along with everyone’s in the room. The large wall opposite the steel doors had faded from a dark grey to a see-through window into the adjoining room.

Director Patterson released the intercom button with a click. Holly Carter and Solomon Archer flanked the director, along with several security guards.

Both sides of the glass were silent as they glared at one another. Jordan wanted to say something. She wished she could intimidate her enemies or inspire her own people. Nothing came to mind in that moment. Instead, the conversation the director shared with her only minutes before replayed itself in her head.

Jordan turned her back on the director and, with resolve, faced the steel doors leading outside the city. If she couldn’t find the words to inspire, at least she could find the action. A wide range of expressions stared back at her. Most were either angry or scared. A few looked resentful, and some even confused.

Hands by her side, Jordan set her jaw. Shoulders squared, she stared down the steel doors in front of her as if she could bore holes in them just by looking at them. Then, she felt a warm hand slide into her own, with large fingers interlacing themselves between hers.

“You owe me one for this,” Jerrick teased. “Wait—are you still my boss when we get outside the wall?”

Alice joined Jordan to her left and also reached for her hand. “You did the right thing. I don’t think anyone doubts you. I mean, not after they’d beaten and arrested us for asking questions.”

Owen reached down and grabbed Alice’s other hand.

Jordan smiled at her friends. She was too angry for tears, too resolved for what was going to come next, for words. Her heart regained those few inches it’d dropped, as one by one she witnessed everyone in the room silently turn their backs on the director and those behind the window.

Hands were firmly held both by those with anger in their eyes, and those with fear. For what came next, they knew they’d only have each other. Hands clasped, backs to the leaders of the city, they waited.

The intercom beeped again. “Very well. In case any of you were planning to stay when the doors open, we want to inform you that a poisonous gas will be filling the room shortly. You will have ten seconds to walk outside the wall before the gas is released. Any who wish to stay will suffer an extremely slow and excruciating death.”

Jordan felt Alice’s hand flinch on her left. Jerrick squeezed her hand on the right. The room dimmed as red flashing lights blinked across the shadows. Steam hissed. The large metal doors to the unknown beyond the wall slowly tore themselves apart.

Jordan felt her hands trembling from anticipation. If the director was telling her the truth, and she had a sinking feeling he was, they weren’t going to be alone out there.

Entire cities full of enemies would be outside. The doors continued to edge open, steam billowing from the powerful machines that moved them open and closed.

Jordan was the first to step forward, releasing her hold on her friends’ hands. It was dark outside, the only light coming from a clouded sky. Stars struggled to be seen. She couldn’t get a clear sense of the moon as it, too, fought the layers of clouds.

You can do this, Jordan said to herself. If you can’t give them a speech to encourage them, lead them with your actions.

Jordan walked around the group of people who stared out into the darkness. Smoothing her long, brown hair behind her head, she straightened her back. Chin high, Jordan took her first step into the unknown.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Jerrick watched as Jordan was the first to move forward. Pride to call this woman his friend swelled in his bruised and aching chest. He already knew she was a leader. Her actions now only served to strengthen his resolve.

He knew he’d follow wherever she went—they all would. Jordan wasn’t one for long-winded speeches; she was a woman of action. Jerrick looked at Alice and Owen, then motioned with his head to follow.

One step, and then the next led him to the doors. Each of the sliding metal gates leading outside had stopped on their tracks. Red lights still blinked and steam still spouted. Other than that, it was dark and quiet.

Jerrick made eye contact with as many as he could, and motioned them forward with a jerk of his neck. For some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to break the silence. For some reason, the silence was comforting; it spread out like a thin blanket, covering the moment.

He could hear others follow behind him. Their light footsteps, each sound moving forward, told a story about their owners, heavy footsteps with determination in their gait; shuffling footsteps full of fear and dread. Still, they all moved forward as one.

Jordan was alone, standing in the middle of a dirt path. The lighting was dim at best, the air cool, not cold. Jerrick took in the scene around him. A scene he’d only ever been able to imagine. Nightmares of this exact moment reminded him of where he’d imagined this before.

It was a desert. The path they were on stretched out in front of them as far as the eye could see, until it was lost to the dark. Flat ground did the same on either side of the trail.

Hissing reminded Jerrick of the director’s promise. One look behind him, and what he suspected was confirmed. The director was filling the chamber with gas as the steel doors moved to close.

The gas had been a recent development, as far as Jerrick knew. With a smirk, he was reminded of how little he actually knew. Not only had the city never mentioned the use of gas to release a large amount of citizens, but they’d also said when a release did occur, they equipped the unlucky person with supplies for survival before they left.

Jerrick didn’t even have to examine his companions to know, no one had been given a sack lunch. Far from a fighting chance, they were sent out to die. No trial; only violence and judgment preceded their release.

“So, what now?”

Jerrick turned to smile at Owen, despite the harsh environment and bleak future. Before he could respond to his mentor, the steel doors clamped shut behind them. A buzzing sound filled the air as the wall’s electric grid was set in place.

“Well,” Jerrick said, “going back to knock on the door and apologize is out of the question.”

Owen scratched at his grey goatee. “Can’t argue with you there.”


Owen nodded. “Shelter for the night and safety should be our first priority. We’ll need to look for water and food come first light.”

Jerrick listened to Owen’s voice as he gazed past his shoulder and at Jordan’s strong frame. She stood apart from the group, staring into the darkness like she was looking for something.

“Are you even listening to me?”

“What? Um, yeah, shelter and safety first, water and food tomorrow.”

Owen turned to see what Jerrick was looking at. “Oh, right. Jerrick, I’ve told you, I’m sure she’d go ou—”

“Hey,” Alice interrupted, approaching the two men. “Some of us were wondering what’s next. What needs to be done? What’s the plan?”

Jerrick was grateful to be saved from the topic of conversation. Turning to the small gathering of faces, he raised his voice just under a shout. “I think we can all agree that we need to find shelter for the night. Owen has pointed out that we need to search for water and food as soon as the sun comes up.”

Nods and murmurs of agreement came from the group. Men and women accustomed to the struggle of exercise were eager to help. Fear still filled their eyes, but Jerrick knew most of them well. These people were doers, and there was nothing better to inhibit fear’s grip than to give them a task on which to focus.

“Let’s get going,” Owen said. “Stay close together, and speak up if you see anywhere to hunker down for the night.”

Chapter Thirty-Six

She could hear the group talking behind her. Jerrick’s and Owen’s voices traveled to her ears. She wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying; she was struggling with what to tell them.

Still in the back of her mind, and pushing its way to the front, was her friend. She’d seen Buie being beaten just outside the physical education building. Where had they taken him? Had they kept him for questioning? Had they already released him outside the wall?

The director’s voice tore through Jordan’s thoughts for her friend. The information he’d given her, his eyes; he wasn’t lying. This was some kind of cruel test to see who was the apex society. She had a responsibility to share the truth with the people who now shared her same fate. But was now the time?

As these thoughts traveled through her mind her eyes picked up on something strange. The clouds in the dark sky had hidden most of the night’s stars and moon. Still something seemed wrong with the picture of the night in front of her.

She had seen the night sky thousands of times before. She wasn’t an astronomer but she knew how it should look with constellations set and a moon. The stars she could see through the clouds were strange, foreign to her in a way she didn’t understand.

Jordan’s heart stopped in her chest as a large cloud moved and not one but two moons, no, two planets filled the space in the sky above her. Her mind couldn’t comprehend what she was seeing. Everything she thought was real was deteriorating in front of her own eyes.

Something large passed in front of the planets too quickly to say for sure what it might have been. A ship, her imagination, something else?

Jerrick’s voice faded somewhere in the background. She could hear the shuffle of feet approaching. Jerrick appeared by her side a moment later. “Ready to get moving? We have a plan, Jordan, don’t worry.”

When Jordan didn’t answer he followed her gaze to the night sky. The two stood silent trying to make sense of the impossible view in front of them.

From behind them Jordan could hear excited chatter and yells of awe as the rest of the group discovered the sky they stood under was not their own.

“How is this possible?” Jerrick breathed barely above a whisper. “I’ve seen the night sky in the city a million times. We have constellations, one moon, we’re on Earth for crying out loud.”

“Are we?” Jordan asked shaking her head as more questions piled on top of the ones she already had. “I don’t know what to believe is real anymore.”

The two stood in another round of silence before Jordan decided to tell Jerrick what the director had said to her before she was sent from the city.

“There’s more, Jer. Before I was taken into the room with the rest of you, the director told me things. He filled in some of the gaps about where our city had originated, and where we’re headed.”

Jerrick remained silent. The steady buzzing of the wall’s electric grid fading in the background as the two began to walk forward was the only thing that could be heard over their steady footfalls.

“He said that we aren’t the only city. He said we aren’t alone.”

Jerrick stopped mid-step, turning to Jordan, one of a hundred questions on the edge of his lips.

“Stop!” Owen’s voice yelled from the front of the line. The wall’s grid was silent now. Darkness was the only thing that filled the air around them. “Whoever you are, stop now!”

Jordan tore her eyes away from Jerrick and pushed to the front of the human convoy. She leaned forward and peered into the night. A small figure was falling more than running in their direction.

Hope once again formed in Jordan’s heart. The figure stumbled closer. Owen tensed beside her and leaned down to pick up a rock. Jordan instinctively caught his arm. “It’s okay, I think—I think it’s Buie.”

Seconds passed as the figure came closer. Soon, Jordan could make out her friend’s short frame, and even hear the sound of sneezing as he came closer.

Throwing caution to the wind, Jordan took off at a run. She could hear footsteps behind her as the others, too, ran to keep up. With or without them, she was going. A smile cracked her lips as she received the first good piece of news all day. Buie was alive.

Every step took her closer. Buie was only yards away. As Jordan neared, her smile faded. Something was wrong; there was a noise, a ticking noise. She shrugged it off as her imagination as she reached Buie.

Buie Lee collapsed in front of his friend. A combination of wheezes and gasps for air fought to be heard over the sneezes.

“Buie? Buie, it’s me. It’s Jordan. It’s okay.”

“No,” Buie gasped as he clawed his way to his hands and knees. Jordan knelt down to reassure her friend that he was safe, but the ticking made her bite back her planned reassurance. More ticking was getting closer; a tapping noise that seemed to come from every direction at once. The noise reminded her of the harsh biting sound of teeth on teeth when a jaw clamps shut.

“Jordan, run. They’re everywhere.”

Jordan shook her head, hearing but not believing her friend. “Buie, who? What are you talking about?”

Everyone had picked up on the noise now. “What is that?” someone asked.

“Do you hear it, too?”

“It sounds like clicking.”

Buie forced himself to his feet, sheer terror in his eyes. “Jordan, run—now!” Buie’s look alone was enough to chill her to the bone. Before she could regain her thought process and form a plan, red lights appeared all around her. They bit through the darkness, coming closer with every metallic tick.

“Oh, God help us all,” Buie gasped. “I’m too late.”

Dark shapes soon emerged from around the red, hovering lights. A dozen or more black cubes with bright lights set dead center hovered toward the group. Jordan stood terrified, not knowing what to expect. Most of the group around her did the same. Some people, like Owen, looked for rocks big enough to throw or to use as weapons.

“Run?” Jordan heard herself ask more than tell. A sixth sense was begging her to flee. I told her these creations could be nothing good.

Jordan bottled her fear. She took a deep breath as the hovering, red-eyed cubes stopped, trapping them in a perfect circle. Jordan had seen enough. “Everyone! Run!”

Jordan took off in a sprint, one hand grabbing Buie’s exhausted form by the arm. In one second, complete stillness became havoc. No one needed to be told twice. The group of released travelers scattered in every direction.

Jordan headed straight for a gap between two of the cubes in front of her. The machines came to life as one. Compartments on either side of their cubed bodies opened. Cylinder-like arms crackled with an energy that reminded Jordan of the wall’s electric grid.

Jordan flew across the desert floor, practically dragging Buie along. Then, when things couldn’t get any crazier, they did. Screams filled the night air as each dark cube opened fire.

Blue laser blasts lit the night sky. Jordan ducked under one volley, pulling Buie down with her. She caught the slightest scent of burned hair as she continued forward. She maintained her course, heading for a gap between two of the firing machines.

The world was a dark blur around her, highlighted by streaking blue lights of pure energy that meant death for those it touched. Figures screamed in pain and evaporated right in front of her eyes.

She caught a glimpse of Owen running to her left. A large rock clutched in his hands, he weaved back and forth as he ran toward one of their red-eyed attackers.

Owen hesitated for a brief second to raise the rock over his head. His arm arched back, ready to send the missile through the air. Jordan’s heart stopped. The black cube fired two sizzling laser beams that hit Owen in the chest.

One second he was there, alive, breathing, fighting; the next, he was gone. Owen had evaporated into nothing more than a handful of dust.

Jordan felt like she was going to vomit. Her mind was catching up to the event that had unfolded only yards away from her. Before she could scream, she felt a hard shove hit her in the chest.

Her brief hesitation as she witnessed her friend die before her eyes, cost her. Another cube sent a bolt of energy in her direction, and it would have hit her, had Buie not shoved her out of the way. The energy burst meant to incinerate Jordan exploded into the ground right in front of them, sending a shock wave of power through the air.

Jordan was propelled off her feet, reeling into the night. A pitched, flat line was all she could hear. Her hair was in her face, dirt in her mouth. Her body was refusing to move in any speed other than slow motion. Jordan got to her hands and knees, looking all around her. Buie was nowhere to be seen.

The will to survive got her to her feet. Adrenaline pushed her forward. Shoes digging into the hard, dirt ground, Jordan ran.

She flew across the desert floor again. Breathing in and out of her mouth, she zigzagged around laser beams. The cubes were relentless, firing shot after inaccurate shot. It seemed like an eternity before she reached the gap between two of the large, deadly cubes. Energy blasts crackled through the air, and dirt was tossed against her in every direction as dirt was kicked up by powerful blasts that missed her by inches.

Then, she was past; she was out of the circle of death. Jordan didn’t dare stop running or take a break to look behind her. Lungs sucking in large gulps of air, she ran into the night.

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Jordan didn’t stop running for what seemed like an eternity. The sounds of confrontation were long behind her now. Her lungs were burning, and air came in painful gasps.

She allowed herself a break next to an outcropping. It was the biggest change in terrain she’d seen since being outside the wall. Most of the rocks were small, but two boulders offered her some safety and security from being seen.

Jordan rested here as her mind processed what she’d just experienced. Her sky was not her own. Killer robots were hunting them down. Owen was dead, along with countless others. Buie, Jerrick, and Alice were either lost or dead, as well.

Jordan leaned against the cool rock and cried. It felt good; it felt great. The tears weren’t for herself. No self-pity was to be found in her heart. The tears were for Owen; for all those she’d lost.

She got it out. She got it all out. Wiping her eyes dry on the back of her long, hooded shirt, Jordan took a deep quivering breath, then released it slowly.

You had your time to be sad. Now you need to act. You’re not alone out here. Someone else had to make it out alive. Jerrick, Buie, or the others; someone is still alive. You need to find them.

Jordan thought again about the information the director had shared. How their city was not the only one, and how he’d conveniently left out the part about the killer robots outside the wall and the alien sky. What else had he chosen to exclude from their conversation?

As Jordan was grasping at a plan, the sky began to change color. Darkness receded as the sun’s first rays peeked over the horizon.

Jordan had witnessed plenty of sunrises before, but this one was somehow different. Perhaps it was the adrenaline that still ebbed in her veins, or maybe it was the fact that the world now spread out around her in every direction instead of being blocked by walls or that this sun was not Earth’s sun. Whatever it was, it was beautiful. Orange, yellow, and reds in varying shades painted themselves across the sky. With the light, came hope.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

“There are some survivors from City One.”

“Interesting. They were able to escape the cubes?”


“An escape at night, very impressive. Most can’t even get away during the day. How many are still alive?”

“Scouts reported seeing four, maybe five.”

“Good. We’ll need every one of them. Round them up. It’s been a long time since we’ve spoken to anyone from City One. I’m eager to hear what they have to say. I wonder how much they actually know.”

Chapter Thirty-Nine

It was the most horrifying thing he ever witnessed. Not just some people, but his co-workers, his friends, those he knew and respected, were there one minute and gone the next. Horrific blue light filled the night sky. Screams and cries from those he knew by name were forever silenced. Jerrick watched firsthand as living human beings evaporated into dust that fell to the ground and vanished in the dirt.

“Run! Jerrick, run!”

Jerrick pried his eyes from the dazzling scene of death all around him. He forced himself to focus on Alice’s voice. She was standing only yards away, trying to both look at him and where the next blast of energy might land.

Jerrick felt himself half nod as his feet began to move. Fear drove him as he ducked and weaved around the bolts that brought an end to existence. In seconds, he was beside Alice as she, too, turned to run.

Together, they flew through the minefield of death. At any moment, Jerrick imagined it would be over. Everything he was would come to an end. He wondered how death by energy blast would feel; if it would feel like anything at all. To Jerrick’s relief, he didn’t have to find out.

Time moved slower than he thought possible. It felt like a lifetime before he and Alice were past the circle of red-lighted death robots. Jerrick knew he should be happy; however, the presence of fear was still much too real. In fact, the terror he felt was so real, it seemed nearly tangible. His lungs burned in search of more air, legs quivering with exertion.

Jerrick was one of the fastest physical educators in the city. Alice was still faster. She kept his pace even though he was sure she could widen the distance between the two of them if she chose.

In minutes that seemed like hours, the noises of death and destruction were behind them. No more ticking, only silence, only the darkness that surrounded them and the strange sky overhead.

Alice began to slow to a trot. “I think—” She took in a large breath of the now disturbingly calm night air. “I think we’re safe, at least for now. What… what were those things?”

Jerrick slowed his pace to match hers. He shook his head, even as the numbing truth seeped deeper into his brain. “I don’t know, Alice, but they killed them—they killed them all. Did you see anyone else get away?”

Even in the dark, Jerrick knew she was struggling with the unforgiving truth. A harsh swallow that usually preceded tears broke the silence. “No, I didn’t see anyone else make it out. Still, that doesn’t mean they’re all dead. What’s happening? Why are there two moons in the sky? Where did those things come from, Jerrick? Do you think our city sent them after us?”

Jerrick shook his head, forgetting Alice wouldn’t be able to see the motion in the dark. “I don’t think so. I—I don’t know about the sky. Before those things attacked, Jordan said we aren’t the only city out here, that we aren’t alone.”

“What?” Alice asked.

“I don’t know anything more than that. It’s all she had time to say before we saw Buie running toward us. Then those machines attacked.”

The two were walking now, deeper into the desert that seemed to stretch out forever in the darkness. “So what now?”

Jerrick took a moment to think about the question. “Now, we keep moving. We try to find someone, anyone. We stay alive.”

Alice walked quietly beside him, the two lost in their own thoughts. Darkness slowly receded as a pinkish-red hue filled the sky. For Jerrick, the sunrise went unnoticed. Jordan, Owen; they have to be alive. They’re survivors. We’ll find them.

“Well, if there was ever any doubt that we’re in a huge desert, doubt no more.”

Jerrick looked at Alice, and then at the landscape in every direction. She was right. The wall was long-forgotten in the distance. No mountains or hills broke the level ground, only dirt and sand in every direction. “We’ll need to find water and food as soon as we can. That was Owen’s idea.”

Chapter Forty

The sun fought back the darkness with each step she took. Her shoes, which were made specifically for running on hard surfaces, sunk into the mixture of dirt and sand that blanketed the foreign landscape. Jordan chose a steady pace. You can do this. Keep going. This desert can’t last forever.

After a few more hours of walking, Jordan was beginning to rethink her previous statement. Hunger, and above all, thirst, demanded a resolution. The urgency of these feelings was worsening with each step. Every foot placed seemed harder and harder to pick up once again and move forward. The sun’s rays she once welcomed now beat down on her with unrelenting force seemingly intent on cooking her alive.

Jordan kept moving forward. She ignored the voice in her head. The voice that argued that she’d only escaped the robots to die of thirst in the desert wasteland outside the wall.

More hours passed with no sign of any life or even the slightest change of landscape. Sweat beaded down her forehead, neck, and armpits, soaking her long, black hoodie. With a sports bra underneath, Jordan weighed the pros and cons of removing her shirt altogether. She eventually decided that the brief relief from the heat would only serve to burn her exposed skin.

The strange star constellations disappeared with the night sky. The sun that rose seemed a bit brighter a bit closer to her than she remembered but she couldn’t be sure.

What she could be certain of was that the two planets that hung in the sky were definitely not there before. One smaller red one and a much larger bluish green one had not been there at any point while she had lived in the city.

How is the city masking this? Jordan asked herself. Are we in some kind of dome? Are they projecting the sky they want us to see somehow? If this isn’t Earth where are we? No, that’s crazy. This has to be Earth, doesn’t it?

Jordan’s vision was blurring. Sweat fell into her eyes like a tiny stream. She dragged a dirty forearm across her brow and it came back drenched in perspiration. Her vision didn’t clear. Jordan stopped mid-stride and squinted. She pushed her neck forward, trying to make out the image in the distance through blurred heat waves.

Green patches, maybe grass and water beyond them. Jordan broke into a staggered run. No thought of whether this could be a trap or a trick crossed her dehydrated mind. All she knew was that there was life. There was water.

A smile crossed her cracked lips. She was right, bushes took shape as she traveled closer, foreign vegetation welcomed her. The water was unlike anything she’d ever seen while living in the city. It stretched as far as her eyes could see. Like the desert, the body of water seemed endless.

Jordan paused in awe for only a moment before she began to run again. Forty, thirty, twenty, ten yards was all that separated her from the water’s cool embrace. Jordan reached the water’s edge and didn’t stop. Clothes and all, she threw herself into the water, smiling and laughing.

The water consumed her; the frigid liquid enveloped her. It was one of the most gratifying sensations Jordan could remember experiencing. Waist deep, she stood up. Cupping her hands in a tiny bowl, Jordan scooped the water and drank. It was bitter, salty. She couldn’t care less, it was water. In her mind, it meant life. It meant a chance to make things right.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. You’re going to get sick.”

Jordan spat mid-gulp, twisting around in the water. She was so eager and happy, she’d lowered her guard, sacrificing her own safety. Jordan’s wet hair whipped across her face as she took in the group of men who surrounded her in a half-circle on the bank. Anger at herself for being so careless exploded inside. The possibility of a fight heightened her heart rate.

Jordan and the group of men stood staring at one another. It was clear they were as surprised to see her, as she was to see them. Inquisitive eyes looked her up and down. She met each man’s stare, head-on. There were six of them, all red and brown skinned with lean frames. Most wore an assortment of strange clothes; a few, bare chested. They all carried different types of weapons.

Before Jordan could gather more information or decide whether or not they were friendly, the same man spoke. “You are one of the ones who escaped last night from City One, is that correct?”

Jordan focused on the speaker, whom she guessed was the leader of the group. He was of an average height, with a bald head and bushy, black beard. “City One?”

“Yes,” he said in a slow, concise way of talking. “You were sent out of your city with others. The tickers attacked you.”

Before Jordan could ask him how he knew all of that, she began to nod. “Yes, yes, that’s correct. Who… who are you?”

“My name’s Ward. You must come with us.”

Jordan took a hesitant step back, deeper into the water. “Come with you? Why?”

“We were instructed to bring you in. Please don’t struggle. This can be as hard or as easy as you want it to be.”

Jordan eased another step back. Six against one; it didn’t look like she had much of an option. Still, who knew what they planned to do with her once they had her. “I think I’m fine here, thank you, Ward. But who are you? How long have you lived out here? Where—”

Ward raised dark eyebrows at her choice. He shrugged as he motioned with his right hand. One of the men to his right brought out a leather strap and a small stone.

Jordan looked around for anything to use as a weapon. In the water, it didn’t seem likely she’d find something that would even the odds. All she knew was she wasn’t going down without a fight. As she shifted in the water, her foot hit something hard. Without delaying, she reached down and groped for whatever it was.

Jordan took her eyes off her opponents for the shortest moment to grip a rock in her right hand. As she turned back to face her attackers, she caught the briefest glimpse of the man to Ward’s right twirling the piece of leather in the air. The wheel spun faster than her eyes could track. Then the wheel stopped. Excruciating pain exploded in Jordan’s head as nerve endings screamed in agony. Darkness came over her.

Chapter Forty-One

“The sun’s starting to set. How much longer do you think we can go without food or water? What if there is no food or water out here?”

Jerrick knew what she was thinking. They hadn’t seen any signs of life the entire day. Jerrick wasn’t even sure if life existed in the wasteland. As far as he knew, it was only them and the machines that had attacked. “There is something. Jordan said she knew there were…” His voice faltered as he attempted to believe his next words. “Other cities.”

“Listen, I know you and Jordan were good friends. I don’t think she would ever lie, or that she’s crazy, but could she have been wrong? I mean she didn’t know about the other two freaking planets hanging out in the sky.”

“What do you mean? Wrong about what? About there being life outside the wall?”


“No, I think those machines proved that last night. They didn’t just make themselves. Someone out here built them. Someone made them to hunt down and kill people sent outside the wall. That’s why no one ever comes back, Alice.”

Alice walked alongside Jerrick, quiet once again, honey-blonde hair falling beside her face to curtain her expression. “I guess you have a point. Something is out here, but what? Entire cities?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

The two walked for hours, their breath saved from conversation for the chore of moving across the desert. Throughout the day, the sun was a relentless enemy. It felt hotter than he remembered as if the star had somehow moved closer.

By the time sunset did approach, Jerrick knew they desperately needed water. Alice wouldn’t complain; it wasn’t in her nature. Still, he knew she was hurting for water as much as he was. “It just keeps going,” she said, looking from the pinkish red sky to the desert all around them.

Jerrick nodded. “We’ll find something. Something has to give, sooner or later.”

“Well, let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later. I can’t get enough spit in my mouth to swallow.”

“Hmmm… very ladylike of you,” Jerrick teased.

“Don’t make me smile; my lips are cracked already.”

Slowly, strange stars began to form in the sky. The pair of planets overhead darkened until they looked like one small and one much larger moon behind it. Jerrick could feel his skin prickle and tingle as the air shifted from miserable to manageable. The planets and stars provided enough light for the two travelers to see for quite a long distance in every direction, so when Jerrick heard the ticking, he was surprised he didn’t see them first.

Both physical educators stopped in unison at the first faint sounds of deadly tapping. Jerrick looked to his companion, trying to mask the fear he felt. Alice’s expression of dread mirrored what he guessed his own resembled. “Jerrick, do you hear that?”

The metallic clicking was getting closer. “Run, Alice. Don’t wait for me if I can’t keep up. Run as fast as you can, no matter what, and don’t look back.”

Alice grabbed his forearm as she took off at a sprint, practically dragging him behind her. “If you think I’m leaving you, you’re crazy. We have to stick together. We could be the only ones left.”

Jerrick fell into step with his friend. Feet falling in rhythm, they ran across the desert sand. Jerrick knew neither one of them would be able to keep up the pace for long. Lack of water and food had already taken its toll. They’d have a mile, maybe more, before their own bodies would stop them.

Jerrick’s whole being ached from the inside out. His lower body screamed in protest. It seemed the muscle group staging the largest protest were his calves. Dehydration caused muscle cramps. He knew if either one of them suffered a cramp, their run from the robot—or, robots—chasing them would be over.

The ticking continued, the sound neither gaining volume nor fading as they did their best to put distance between themselves and the horrible noise. Jerrick strained to see any sign of red light through the night. His senses were working overtime: first, struggling to catch any sign of their enemy; and second, searching for a place to hide.

Chancing a quick look behind him, Jerrick witnessed their pursuer approach. A red, floating light was barely visible still a hundred yards behind them.

“Jerrick,” Alice’s voice came in a rasping huff.

Jerrick swung his head forward, wheezing as air came in and out of his parched throat. He followed her line of eyesight as she motioned with her chin to something in the distance, off to their right.

As Jerrick struggled to make sense of what he was seeing, something else caught his attention. There was a dark form off to the right, no bigger than a small mound at the moment. Jerrick and Alice changed their course, and the black shape grew in size with each step.

Two shadows matching stride for stride, Jerrick pushed his pace even harder. His heart drummed in his chest. Hope tempted him to believe salvation waited within distance. Jerrick urged his body to move forward, not daring to look away from the unknown form that might provide sanctuary from their pursuer.

Every second brought new information. They were keeping ahead of the machine, but just barely. The dark form ahead grew larger and larger, until Jerrick knew what they were racing toward. His heart threatened to stop. Alice nearly tripped beside him as she, too, realized what the large shape was. It was a wall. A wall that did not belong to their city.

Chapter Forty-Two

Jordan gasped, waking from a sleep void of any dream. Pain was all that made itself available in the first seconds as consciousness returned. Searing agony drilled through her left temple.

She reached up to touch the area that throbbed so horribly, both hands attempting to make the trip to her head. They were forced still with a quick tug. She realized she was tied at the wrists with a thick piece of rope as her fingertips made contact with sticky blood on the side of her head.

Forcing herself to concentrate past the pain, Jordan examined her surroundings. She was alone in a small, metal room. Heavy rust covered the floor and the walls, while water dripped diligently from pipes overhead. The only entrance or exit to the cell was to her right: a steel door with a glass peephole.

Jordan winced as she rose to her feet. Memories of the events leading up to her imprisonment came back. Finding the water, then the men who captured her. It was confirmed. There were people outside of her own city. They were not alone.

Come on, girl. If they wanted you dead, you’d be dead, Jordan told herself as she rose to unsteady feet and walked to the door. The door was closed tight, a wheel-shaped handle placed in the center. Jordan gripped the cold, steel latch in both hands and grunted as she strained against the door. It came as no real surprise when the door failed to budge.

Next, she leaned forward and peered through the filthy glass. Before she could make out what was on the other side, the door’s handle began to turn. Slowly at first, then picking up speed.

Jordan took a few steps back. Her immediate response was to look for something with which to defend herself. Déjà vu, along with the throbbing in her head, reminded her of how well that had worked last time. Instead, Jordan squared her shoulders and faced the door.

She didn’t have to wait long for answers. The door swung open slowly, and two men walked through the entrance. One, Jordan already knew as the man named Ward. The second was not amongst the group of men who’d captured her. He was tall, with wild dark hair and leathery bronze skin tempered by the desert sun.

“So this is her?” the tall man asked.

“Yes,” Ward replied.

“All the way from City One.” The first man eyed her up and down. “I thought I told you to bring her in, unharmed.”

“Uh, yes, you did. She wouldn’t have any of it. We had to knock her out.”

“I can see that.” The tall man tilted his head, fixing Ward with a disapproving frown. “Now you made our job harder. She’s going to be less inclined to tell us what we want to know.”

Thus far, Jordan remained quiet. She was content to wait and listen. She needed to know as much about these people as she could before she could form a plan to escape.

“You’ve already met Ward,” the man said with an open hand in his companion’s direction. “My name is Rhun. I’m sorry we had to meet in this manner. I can assure you, we mean you no harm.”

Despite her situation, Jordan trusted him. His dark blue eyes were sincere. The way Ward expressed his disappointment across his face when he was rebuked said Rhun was a man he admired and respected.

Jordan found herself ready to talk with Rhun. However, the throbbing and the blood still coming from the left side of her head wouldn’t let her forget the sins already committed. “You have a funny way of not meaning people harm. I was knocked unconscious, bound, and thrown into a cell.”

Rhun slowly nodded. “Yes, you were. It wasn’t my intention, and I am truly sorry. Still, you must also understand our position. Not very many people are excommunicated from the cities. Much fewer escape the tickers. When we’re able to confront survivors, most of them are terrified, unwilling to cooperate, some are even dangerous.”

Jordan thought this information over for a moment. She was still getting used to people referring to multiple cities. “How many… how many cities are there?”

Rhun crossed large arms over his chest. “Let’s start by removing those ropes from your wrists and taking care of the wound on your head.” Rhun took a step forward, producing a small blade from somewhere near his hip.

Jordan took a step back as the man came closer with the knife. Fear was still too recently experienced to let Jordan trust a stranger.

Rhun gave her a look that said he understood as he flipped the knife over in his hand and offered it to her, hilt first. “I’ll make you a deal: the knife for your name.”

Jordan slowly reached out with both hands without removing her gaze from his own. “Jordan. My name is Jordan Shepherd.” As she took the knife from her captor’s hand, she could see Ward shift uneasily behind his leader.

“Well, Jordan Shepherd, you have nothing to fear from us. We need each other more than we need to be enemies. Just as a reminder, do not mistake one thing while you are here.”

Jordan caught the edge in his voice. She stopped sawing through the ropes at her wrist mid-stroke to give him her full attention. “What’s that?”

Rhun’s expression was firm. “Do not mistake kindness for weakness.”

Chapter Forty-Three

Dozens of questions and scenarios on how these events could be transpiring tore at Jerrick’s grasp on reality, even apart from the dual planets in the heavens.

In that moment, two thoughts pushed to the front of the pack: First, that Jordan was right, and they were not alone; second, these walls, whomever they might belong to, meant safety. Jerrick was sure that whatever lay on the other side would be more conducive to his well-being than what was on his side, ticking behind him.

Legs burning, chest heaving, Jerrick kept pace with Alice. The time it took for them to reach the wall seemed an eternity, and with each step the same question was asked again: Would they make it?

The two physical educators didn’t have to wait long for an answer. With the machine’s ticking threatening ever-louder, Jerrick and Alice made it to the wall. The fortification was massive, extending into the night sky until it was lost to the darkness. Remembering their own city’s electric grid, Jerrick paused his panting.

“I don’t hear anything,” Alice said. Before Jerrick could stop her, Alice raised a tentative hand and placed it onto the wall. Nothing, nothing except for the approach of the constant ticking.

There was no time for words as Jerrick mimicked Alice’s movements, and they both began to frantically search the wall for an entrance. The fortification was made of cement rather than metal. Jerrick’s hands scraped against the still-warm surface previously heated by the sun.

“Ready to run again?”

Jerrick was still catching his breath from their last sprint across the desert. As much as he hated to admit it, he knew Alice was right. “We’re going to have to run around the perimeter and pray we find an entrance. We need to get inside before the machine catches us. I’m ready.”

“Good,” Alice said. “Let’s go.”

Jerrick looked over his shoulder again as Alice took off at a jog. His heart sank. Where before there’d been only one red light in the darkness, three glowing lights promising death hovered above the desert ground.

This was all the motivation Jerrick needed. He took off at a run, with Alice and the wall on his right. His feet kicked up sand behind him. If the city was as big as theirs, Jerrick knew they could run all night without finding a way inside. Not to mention, whether anyone would let them in if an entrance was found.

Alice continued at a steady pace. Her head constantly turned to the right and then ahead, struggling in vain to see though the darkness. Ignoring the pain running in the sand brought to fatigued muscles, the two moved forward.

As seconds turned into minutes, and minutes began to add weight to one another, Jerrick wondered what death would feel like. No matter how hard his mind and heart would push him, the lack of food and water had taken its toll on his body. It would happen soon. His body would shut down.

“Alice,” he spoke in short, labored gasps, “I’m not going to make it. Keep running. I’ll try to lead them away. Give you more time to—” Jerrick stopped mid-sentence. The wall ended. An entrance with two monstrous doors stood wide open. No light or sound came from within the city.

Given any other option, Jerrick would have avoided the tomb-like entrance to the quiet city. Tonight, however, his only other option was to stay outside with the ever-approaching death machines.

Alice read his hesitation. “Come on. Hurry.”

Jerrick found respect building for the woman beside him as they ran through the city entrance. No complaining, crying, or weakness came from her; only stride after stride. The two physical educators ran through the gates and into a world that resembled nothing of their own. The city was a war zone of broken homes and torched buildings. An image flashed across Jerrick’s mind, reflecting what the city must have resembled before it was destroyed. Once, long ago, stone buildings in various shades of greys and sunbaked reds, with tall pillars and expertly crafted masonry work, covered the landscape.

The planets, one a dull red and the other a bright bluish green coupled with the stars provided enough light to know that something horrifying had happened here. Other senses started to confirm the same notion as new information was relayed to Jerrick and Alice. No sound came from anywhere except their own heavy breathing, the pounding of their feet on the stone pavement, and the ticking behind them. Along with the eerie silence was the smell.

A stench rose from the city that reminded Jerrick of rot and decay. Answers as to what had happened to the city would have to wait, though. Jerrick was already searching for a place to hide. It wasn’t the lack of options that made the decision difficult; instead, it was the numerous places that offered a questionable haven.

“There,” Jerrick said, pointing to a building with an army of fallen stone pillars crisscrossing the entrance. Alice nodded.

Jerrick led the way, carefully picking where he placed each foot amidst the rubble. Alice followed as Jerrick vaulted over the first series of fallen pillars and crouched in the darkness. Alice hunkered down next to him, taking in long, even breaths.

Sweat matted Jerrick’s hair. He tried to slow his breathing despite the pace his heart was pumping. The ticking continued to grow closer. Jerrick froze and waited. Then, from somewhere much too close, an unfamiliar voice broke the tender silence. “Stupid, people. Bringing the clickers to my home.”

Jerrick nearly jumped from his hiding spot. Alice’s whole body tensed beside him. Her head whipped around as she looked for the indignant voice through the dark.

“Shhhhhh…” the voice came through the shadows again. “Stop moving. The clickers will find you. Stupid people.”

Chapter Forty-Four

Jordan followed Rhun and Ward through the hatch of her cell. Rhun didn’t ask for the return of his knife. Jordan wasn’t about to offer it back. It was silly, she knew, but the knife gave her a tiny sense of safety.

As Jordan stepped out of her cell, she nearly dropped the knife as the world opened out in front of her. The first thing she realized was that it was night. The second was that they were dangerously high off the ground. Third, they were on some kind of island made of rusted metal, and water stretched out in every direction as far as she could see.

“Take your time adjusting. It can be a lot when you see it for the first time,” Ward said.

Jordan looked to the man who ignored her glare and instead stared off into the calm body of water. “Where are we?” she asked.

Rhun also stopped, his hands gripping a steel railing that ran the perimeter of the building. “Do you want answers first? Most people in your condition would ask for food or medical treatment.”

Jordan’s mouth hung open as she looked at the exposed alien sky above and the water below. No matter how hungry she felt or how badly her head pounded, Jordan wouldn’t wait another second for the knowledge she so desperately desired. “Answers. Everything else can wait.”

Rhun turned his gaze from the water. He didn’t say a word, but a small smile that spoke of respect played across his lips. “Certainly. Ward, please ready food and a place for Jordan to stay tonight. Tell Grizla she’ll have a patient soon, as well.”

Ward nodded in reply and left at a quick trot down the metal plank and out of sight.

“We’re about a mile from land,” Rhun said. “We live here on this platform.” Before Jordan could ask, Rhun answered her question. “By ‘we’ I mean those who have been thrown out of the six cities and survived until either we found them, or they found us.”

“Six,” Jordan breathed. “There are six entire cities?”

Rhun gave a grim nod. “Six cities that don’t know life exists outside their own walls until their leaders deem it fit. By then, it’ll be too late. By then, all the city will want is war. We only know bits and pieces, only what survivors are able to share about their own experiences inside their own cities.”

Jordan let a long pause elapse before she realized Rhun was staring at her. Her face felt warm as she avoided his gaze, and she licked her dry, cracked lips. Jordan knew the question had to be asked, although she was sure she didn’t want the answer that would follow. “Did you find anyone else? Were there any other survivors from… from my city?”

“Initially, yes. I have scouts who patrol the desert. After the tickers ambushed your group, there was yourself and at least two, maybe up to three, others who’d survived. At the moment, we’re having trouble locating the others.”

“Do you think they’re still alive?”

“It’s hard to say. The desert can be an unforgiving place on its own. When you add in the tickers as a factor, only a few survive.”

“How about the sky? Where are we? This can’t be Earth,” Jordan paused to reflect on her words. “Can it?”

“Everyone has had the same experience,” Rhun took a moment to think. “They see a single moon and stars in their city then when they are banished the truth is revealed to them. The most our scholars can agree on is that we are not on a planet any of us know. By the star constellations neither are we in a galaxy any of us are familiar with.”

“Great,” Jordan said shaking her head. A twinge of pain reminded her not to do that. “I thought you were going to have answers not more questions.”

Jordan ignored the question of where they were for the moment and redirected her attention on her friends who may still be alive in the desert. She refused to imagine any one of those who’d initially escaped from the attacking machines, dead. There was no way she’d accept their deaths without proof. “I need to go after them. My friends are somewhere out there. I need to find them.”

Rhun took a deep breath, tilting his head. He was reading her, weighing what she was capable of accomplishing, and what she was not. Jordan knew the look well. It was a gaze she’d endured many times in her own profession as a female climbing the social ladder. “I have no doubt you would go after them,” he said. “You may even find them on your own. However, you have to trust that my men are already searching; men who know this land, inside and out. In a day, I will know. Give me that much.”

Jordan wanted to protest. She wanted to refuse his offer and leave now to find whoever it was from her group who still could be alive. She hated admitting Rhun was right. She didn’t know the land. If his men were already out searching, they’d know something soon. She could wait, if she knew she could trust him. “Why should I trust you? I don’t know you. You don’t owe me anything. Why are you trying to help me?”

Rhun pursed his lips. A hard stare came over his face as he looked past Jordan and ancient memories were revisited. “Because I’m not like them. I’m choosing the opposite of everything they want us to be. They want us to distrust one another. They want us to lie, cheat, steal, and slaughter, until there’s only one city left. You can trust me, Jordan Shepherd, because if people like us decide not to put faith in one another, then we’re already dead.”

“If you betray my trust, I’ll kill you with your own knife,” Jordan said. She was shocked by her words. Despite this, somewhere deep down, she knew she meant every word. She was done being used as a pawn in some kind of sick experiment.

“Fair enough,” Rhun said. “We need to help each other, Jordan. I need to know what you know. Likewise, our gathered knowledge here should fill in some of the gaps of the many questions I’m sure you still have.”

“All right,” Jordan said, sensing the tension in her shoulders ebb for the first time since she was released from her city. “Where do we start?”

Chapter Forty-Five

Something shifted in the deep shadows, behind and to his right. The voice was quiet. Jerrick was torn between looking at the machines passing along the broken pavement only yards from his hiding spot and toward the direction of the strange voice behind him.

He could hear Alice suck in a long breath, then hold it. The machines passed them, ticking along as their red lights swept back and forth across the ruined city. Only when they were gone and the clicking was nearly inaudible did Alice release her breath.

Jerrick slumped to the hard pavement with his back to the fallen pillar. He angled his head forward as he stared into the darkness and searched for the origin of the strange voice. “Alice, I’m not crazy, right? You heard that, too?”

Alice nodded. “Yeah, we aren’t alone in here.”

“No, no, not alone, stupid people. We might be, if you keep breathing so loud.”

Jerrick pushed himself to a crouched position as a small figure materialized out of the shadows. It was a hunched over, raggedly clothed, filthy man. His exact age was too hard to tell due to the amount of dirt and grime in his long beard and nappy hair. The same stench that filled the city also wafted off the man as he shuffled closer. “You’re not from around here, are you? Let me guess. You’re here on vacation. No, no—honeymoon? You’re on a honeymoon, right?”

Jerrick wasn’t sure whether to laugh or run. The unkempt man was only a few feet in front of him. Although he didn’t seem dangerous, Jerrick didn’t want to take a chance. “Who are you?”

The little man looked over his shoulder, searching for whomever Jerrick might have been talking to. Not finding anyone, he looked back at the pair of weary travelers. “Who, me?”

“Yes,” Alice said. “Who are you? Where are we?”

“My name is Leopold Bernharf Fazbender, and you are in my city.”

“Your city?” Jerrick said.

“Is there an echo in here, boy? Yes, my city. Now, who are you? Where are you from? You’re much too alive and breathing to be from this city.”

“My name’s Jerrick.” He motioned a thumb beside him. “And this is Alice. We were released from our own city. We’ve been running from those machines all night.”

“Please,” Alice said, “do you have any water or food?”

Leopold looked sideways at them. A frown crossed his grimy face. “If it were up to me, I’d say yes. However, we have a way of doing things in this city. The council must be informed of your arrival. They have to make the final decision.”

Jerrick’s throat was beyond dry, and his stomach felt as though it was eating itself. Still, what choice did they have? He looked to Alice, who gave a nod. “Okay, Leopold Bernharf Fazbender, you have a deal. Take us to this council.”

“Okay! Oh boy, all right!” Leopold jumped in the air with surprising agility. “I’ve never been a guide before. Follow me and stay quiet. The clickers still roam about.”

Jerrick helped Alice to her feet, and the two physical educators made their way through the dark remains of the city. Alien buildings so similar yet different from those in their own city loomed tall overhead. Beautiful yet broken structures hinted at a great society that had once been. Leopold took the lead, still muttering and talking to himself just low enough not to be heard.

“Do you think we can trust him?” Alice asked Jerrick in a whisper.

Jerrick frowned, thinking over the answer before he responded. “I don’t know. If he has food and water, dealing with his craziness will be worth the wait. He did hide along with us while those machines passed.”

“You’re right. I guess crazy doesn’t necessarily mean dangerous.”

The three walking companions snaked their way through the quiet city for more than a quarter-mile. Out of nowhere, Leopold stopped his muttering and turned to his fellow travelers. “You must forgive them if they seem rude. It’s been a very long time since any of us have had visitors of the walking, talking, living kind.”

Before Jerrick could ask what he meant, Leopold turned to his left with a flare of his tattered clothing, and stalked off into a dark alley.

With a shrug to Alice, Jerrick followed. The alley was located between two walls that seemed to have escaped whatever calamity had befallen the city. Through the narrow hall, Jerrick could see grass, and Leopold’s voice was making introductions to someone or something as he entered.

The alley emptied into a small, enclosed garden full of statues. White marble faces and strong bodies stood in a circle. Leopold was standing in the middle of the group, carrying on a conversation on his own. “Yes, they must be from a different city. No, I don’t think they’re dangerous, yet how can we really know for sure? I agree they do smell funny, but who are we to judge?”

Jerrick could feel his skin prickle while Leopold held council in the light of the fading night with a group of statues. He heard Alice walk up and stand next to him. “Wow, just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder.” Jerrick stood silent, trying to listen to the madman debate with himself whether or not to offer them food and shelter.

Leopold was a flurry of hand motions and head nods as he continued what seemed to be an intense argument. “Yes, but what use could they be to us? If we help them, they should help, too. Well, you won’t be lonely anymore, and…” Leopold whirled in their direction with a skeptical look, a smudged fingernail tapping his beard-covered chin. “And maybe they can help us with our things.”

Jerrick saw Leopold eye them suspiciously. “Have you—has the council come to a decision?” he asked.

“Perhaps, yes. Perhaps, no. How strong are you? Are you good at carrying things?”

Chapter Forty-Six

“Ouch!” Jordan winced as the old woman pressed the cloth with salve against her head.

“Oh, I’m sorry, dear, but it was a nasty cut. We can’t risk it getting infected. Here, have another piece of fish to take your mind off the pain.” Grizla handed Jordan another serving of the white meat before going back to work on her wound.

Jordan accepted the food as she did her best to sit still and ignore the burning pain coming from the side of her head. She chewed the piece of meat slowly, wondering how much she’d already consumed.

“There,” Grizla said, stepping back and admiring her work. “As good as new. Now, keep the salve in the wound until it dries on its own. It’ll keep it clean and speed the healing process.”

Jordan smiled around a mouthful of food. “I will. Thank you, Grizla.”

“Of course, Jordan. That’s what we do here. We have to take care of each other.” Grizla turned her motherly smile on Jordan, wrinkles creasing her aged skin. “I know you don’t know me. You don’t have any reason to trust me, but try to keep an open mind. We aren’t here to hurt you.”

A voice in Jordan’s head was beginning to tell her she could let her guard down. Maybe they were telling the truth. Perhaps the nightmare of secrets and lies she’d endured were somehow kept out of this place. It was too soon to make that decision, she reminded herself, much too soon. “Thank you, Grizla. I want to believe that.”

Grizla looked slowly around the room. “Well, I know this doesn’t seem like much, but it’s what we’ve made into our home. Rhun has taken us in and made a safe place for us outside of the catastrophe that’s happening to this world, wherever this world is.”

Jordan looked around the small cubicle of a room. A bed and a dresser with a washbasin were the only things distinguishing the area as living quarters. “What is happening to this world, Grizla?”

With a frown, the old woman gathered up her tattered medical bag. “Somewhere along the way, humanity lost a fight, maybe we traveled the stars to get here or were enslaved. I’m sure Rhun will go over everything we’ve been able to piece together in greater detail very soon.”

As if on cue, Ward cleared his throat near the rusted steel door that worked as an entrance to Jordan’s newly appointed room. “If you’ve drank and eaten your fill and Grizla’s done with you, Rhun needs to have that meeting as soon as possible.”

Jordan witnessed Grizla’s smile wither. Her head turned to scold the large man. “Ward, where have your manners gone? Would it kill you to say please or excuse me? Just because you look like a savage, doesn’t mean you get to behave like one. Certainly, not when I’m around.”

The skin around Ward’s thick beard reddened as he ran a thick hand over his bald head and the hair he didn’t have. “Uh, well, excuse me, then. But—”

“No buts,” Grizla continued as Jordan stifled a laugh.

Ward shifted his eyes from the scowling woman. “Well, Rhun needs to see her, now—please.”

“Better,” Grizla said, turning to Jordan. “Be honest, and remember we have nothing if we don’t have each other.”

Jordan gave the elderly woman a smile and walked out of her room. Ward gave a brief grunt of satisfaction as he turned to lead her to Rhun.

The inside of the steel settlement was a labyrinth of long narrow halls and twisting staircases. After only a few minutes of traveling, Jordan knew two things: there was no way she’d be able to find her way back to her room on her own, and the structure they were in was in dire need of repair. Everywhere Jordan looked, more rust than metal showed on the walls, ceiling, and floor. They avoided entire sections due to caved-in halls or holes in the flooring large enough for a grown man to fall through.

Ward, for his part, was silent. He led a steady pace deeper into the maze. It was only as the pair turned yet another corner that Ward slowed his strides. Jordan looked over the top of his right shoulder to see an open steel door leading into a large room.

He turned to address Jordan for the first time since leaving Grizla. “I’ll need that knife back. The one Rhun gave you.”

Jordan’s awareness peaked. Her hand instinctively traveled to her right side, where the small knife was tucked in her waistband. “Why? He said I could carry it.”

Ward blocked her way inside the room, massive arms crossed over his barrel chest. “Rhun wants to believe the best in people. Sometimes, that trust leads him to make security compromises. I won’t chance him being stabbed in the neck speaking with you, no matter how willing to cooperate you may seem.”

Jordan’s first reaction was to tell Ward exactly where he could stick the knife. The concern in his eyes made her rethink her initial instinct. “All right.” Jordan handed over the knife, placing it in Ward’s outstretched hand.

Ward grunted something like a thank you. Without further delay, he stepped aside and motioned Jordan through the door.

The room was lit with lanterns and candles on a variety of desks and dressers. Maps were spread out on the walls; notepads and books had been stacked at odd angles throughout the room. Rhun sat at the head of a large table placed directly in the middle of the chamber. With a smile, he looked up from an open pad of paper. Rising from his chair, he motioned Jordan forward. “It’s good to see you patched up and with food in your stomach. You’re already looking much better.”

“Thanks,” Jordan said. “I think.”

Rhun continued without skipping a beat. “How many people are in your city?”

Jordan paused as her eyes adjusted to the room’s lighting. A better look at the maps on the walls revealed they were diagrams of what she guessed the world now resembled. Jordan felt as if she were in a trance. She could hear Rhun asking other questions, but all Jordan could focus on was a large map to her right. The specific map showed six numbered circles all arranged around a large triangle, no it was more like a pyramid.

It was never a triangle, Jordan’s mind hurt as her synapsis fired at a dizzying rate. Lines were connected. Not all but a few puzzle pieces fit into place. The letter Robert Greyson gave you was a pyramid not a triangle. The pin on Holly Carter’s suit was that a pyramid too?

“Jordan.” Rhun’s voice broke through the force holding her attention. “Jordan, are you all right?”

Without turning, Jordan asked, “The six circles on this map represent the six cities, don’t they?”


“This triangle or pyramid, here, in the middle.” Jordan’s finger traced the outline of the symbol. “What is it?”

Rhun’s voice was loud and clear. “That’s them, Jordan. That’s where whoever or whatever they are, are hiding. The more and more I know, the less and less I think they may be human at all.”

Chapter Forty-Seven

“This is where you live?” Alice asked.

“Oh, yes. I mean this is one of the places I work.” Leopold motioned to the floor, a skeletal hand emerging from a pile of debris. “Do be careful. The previous tenants don’t care much for guests.”

With a start, Alice jumped back from the human remains. “Are you the only one left, Leopold? What happen here?” Jerrick asked.

They were in a tall building that barely stood. With each step placed, Jerrick thought for certain the building would collapse. He was looking out from a slanted balcony over the city rooftops, or what was left of them. The destruction was total; not one section of the city had escaped the wrath of the calamity.

Leopold returned from his hustling about the vast, open room, with water, dried fruit, and soft vegetables. “Here, as promised: refreshments, for you agreeing to carry my things. I’m the only one left alive that I know of…” Leopold tilted his head, and then shook it furiously. “Unless you count the dead. Maybe I should. They still have voices, you know. I can hear them in my head.”

Alice and Jerrick exchanged looks with raised eyebrows as Leopold went back to work. He ran around the gigantic room, gathering books and odd contraptions. Small gadgets that looked like toys were collected quickly.

Alice took a seat, and Jerrick followed as they rested weary muscles, and ate. The water was the best he’d ever tasted. The food was a few days from going completely stale, but to Jerrick, it might as well have been manna from heaven. In between bites of a questionably overripe apple, Jerrick reminded Leopold of his second question. “This city. What happened here? It looks like a war zone.”

Leopold was shoving his books and contraptions into large canvas bags. He looked over his shoulder with a wild gleam in his eye. “A few years ago, the majority of the city’s populace wanted out. We couldn’t stop them. We tried, but they insisted that they explore the rest of the world. We weren’t ready. We told them we knew best, but it wasn’t enough. They rebelled and overran us; they opened the gates before we were ready. They opened the gates…” Leopold’s voice trailed off painfully as if he were reliving the past.

“And then what, Leopold?” Alice prompted. “After they opened the gates, what happened?”

“Then the clickers came, just a few at first, then dozens, hundreds. The city was destroyed in days. Life was gone because we did not follow the book.”

“What book?” Jerrick and Alice asked at the same time.

Leopold stopped his packing. He turned to point at a seemingly ordinary bookcase along one of the far walls. “The Codex. I hid in the room with it when the clickers came. It’s the only reason I’m alive. I tried to get others to come with me, but they wouldn’t come. They said I was crazy. Here, look.”

Leopold ran to the dark-stained wooden bookcase still jammed with hardcover books. In a specific order, Leopold visited each row. He chose one volume per row, taking care to only partially pull the spine of the book toward him. The entire bookcase slid to the side, revealing an intimidating metal door. Leopold punched a few numbers on the digital keypad that rested in the center of the steel door.

Jerrick forgot how tired he was. Hunger was lost mid-bite as he stopped chewing. The steel door stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the city’s architecture. It was clear that not only did it not belong in this world, but that someone had also gone to great lengths to conceal its existence.

“There we are,” Leopold said. The steel door slid open just as the bookcase had moments before. Inside the room and bathed in white light were the remains of food containers and a pile of blankets. A horrible odor flowed out of the chamber. The only other thing in the small compartment was a stand holding an ancient book.

His peripheral vision told him Alice was by his side. “What is this room? What’s in the book?” Jerrick heard himself ask.

Leopold waved a dismissive hand at the scene. “It was supposed to be our salvation. Rules to follow, so we would eventually be the last city standing.” Leopold shrugged as if he were discussing the weather instead of the fate of an entire society. “Well, you see how far that got us.”

Leopold went back to gathering his belongings, while Jerrick and Alice were left gawking. Alice was the first to find her voice. “I want to figure this thing out, all of it. What planet we’re on. Who’s behind all of this. What exactly happened here. But I’m too exhausted to think right now. This is beyond crazy.”

“Sleep,” Jerrick said as he made his way to the stand holding the volume that he hoped contained an end to all of the mysteries. “I’ll take the first watch.”

Chapter Forty-Eight

“We only have bits and pieces of the entire story. When we’re able to get to someone before the tickers, we bring them here and ask for their cooperation. The first step in stopping this experiment from continuing, is understanding how it all started.”

Jordan nodded, still staring at the map. Six circles represented the six cities. A pyramid in the middle of the six circles showed where the ones with the real power manipulated everyone from the shadows. To the left of the cities was a coastline. Just off the coast was a square representing where she was standing. “That’s why you’re so eager to help me. You want to know what I know.”

“Yes, any knowledge you may have might help. Please.” Rhun motioned Jordan to take a seat at the large table. “Don’t leave out a single detail, no matter how insignificant you may think it is.”

Jordan nodded and allowed herself to be guided to the chair. Rhun took a seat next to her and opened a book to a blank page. Pen in hand, he encouraged her to begin. “I know it’s not easy to relive your past; however, this will help us and others in the future.”

Jordan took a deep breath. The candlelight in the room played across the walls as she recounted the past days’ events. As she spoke, her imagination morphed the shadows into shapes of the wall surrounding her city and the deadly robots. She told him everything. Rhun scribbled in his book at a hand-cramping pace to keep up with the information she divulged. When she was done, Jordan asked, “Does that help? Is there any new information in what I had to say?”

“Some. It filled in a few of the gaps. We knew most of the main points. We’d underestimated how far your society was able to advance.”

Jordan bobbed her head as her thoughts wandered back to her friends. “Is there any word from the scouts you have out searching for the other survivors from my city?”

Rhun dropped the pen onto the table and stretched his hand. “Not yet. I’m expecting word any time now. I know you’re eager. Please, only a few more moments. Are you sure you didn’t leave anything out?”

Jordan crinkled her forehead, willing her mind to search for any forgotten detail. “No, that’s it.” Then an idea struck her, and she mentally kicked herself for not thinking of it sooner. “Rhun, have you found anyone else from my city? There was a man released only a few days before I was.”

“I wish I had better news for you Jordan, but unfortunately not. We haven’t been able to rescue anyone from your city for quite a few years. The tickers have almost always reached them before we were able. If you’d like, I think we may have people here from your city, those who were found and saved years back—”

“No,” Jordan said. Besides Robert, she didn’t know anyone else who’d been released. “No, that’s fine.”

Rhun nodded slowly. “I am sorry. The odds of survival once someone has been thrown out of a city are slim. The ones controlling this experiment constructed the tickers to patrol the desert day and night.”

“Why? What are the tickers, exactly?”

Rhun shrugged. “Our best guess is that the tickers are mindless patrol robots that seek out and kill anyone who’s cast out from their city. It would be hard for the experiment to continue if you had people freely traveling from one city to the next. I think they’re also used as some kind of test to see if a city is indeed strong enough to advance from their own walls to destroy another once they open their gates to the world beyond.”

“Has a city been able to go outside of their walls yet?” Jordan asked. “How far have the other cities progressed?”

“Two.” Rhun leaned back in his chair, his body language conveying he was tired, yet his eyes were alive and awake with memories. “Two cities have traveled outside of their own walls. One was not yet ready and was destroyed by the tickers within days. The other was my own city. We were more than ready.” Rhun paused, licking his lips, searching for the right words. “We marched outside of our city walls, fed with the same lies you were. Our leaders told us that they had no idea what was in the desert. When the tickers came, they acted surprised. They had us destroy them. When we found the next city, we were ordered to level it to the ground. I refused.”

Jordan could feel her eyes widen as she realized what Rhun was trying to say. His halting speech was dredging up the depths of his emotional past. “And they threw you into the desert?” she said.

Rhun laughed and gave her a smile that reminded her of Jerrick. “Oh, well, they certainly tried. I was in charge of the army for our city. When I refused to lay siege to the strange, walled city we’d found, half of my men stood with me. It was a dark time for our capitol. A civil war soon erupted despite my best efforts for peace. I signed up as a loyal soldier to protect and defend my city. I didn’t enlist to conquer the unknown world and slaughter innocent people.”

“So, what happened? Did you win?”

Rhun shrugged. “I guess that’s a matter of opinion. After weeks of fighting and butchering my own countrymen, I decided to leave. Anything, even the unfamiliar desert, was a better option than staying and massacring my brothers-in-arms. Some of my men came with me. We traveled across the desert, hounded by tickers every step of the way.” A hard stare came across Rhun’s face as he continued in a grim tone, “I lost many loyal men. We traveled until we reached the sea. The tickers can’t travel over water. We found this abandoned location and decided to call it home. Since then, we’ve been gathering information and providing a shelter for anyone else who’s been abandoned by their city.”

“You traveled across the desert?”

“Yes. We were the farthest of the six cities from the coast. It took a while, to say the least.”

“So, you saw the other cities? That’s how you drew the map. And… and you saw them? The ones controlling this experiment?”

“The map was drawn from what we remembered. Yes, from far off, we saw the pyramid in which they live. Tickers were so thick in that area, we had to move on quickly. At the time, we weren’t sure what it was, but as more survivors found our haven, the pieces all began to fit. We know where they are.”

Jordan bit her lower lip. If they knew where the ones were who had started this psychotic experiment, then they could go there. They could bring a stop to the madness. Before Jordan could ask why they weren’t marching on the location now, Ward stepped into the room.

Rhun turned inquisitive blue eyes to his colleague. “Yes, Ward? Have you found something?”

“Yes, the scouts are back. They found two more survivors heading to City Six. They didn’t follow them further, since you requested them to return as soon as they had any information.”

Jordan’s thoughts of marching on the pyramid faded at the report of survivors from her city. With a smile, she looked over at Rhun. His face was anything but joyful. “What? What’s wrong? That’s good news, right?” Jordan’s head turned from Rhun to Ward. “Right?”

“City Six was destroyed by the tickers,” Rhun said. “It’s a graveyard that the robots now patrol night and day.”

“Not to mention the spirit,” Ward said under his breath.

“The spirit?” Jordan repeated, once again looking back and forth between the two men for answers.

“Yes,” Rhun said reluctantly. “Our scouts have only ventured into the city a handful of times. Alongside the reports of roaming tickers and mass gravesites, there’s something else. Everyone who’s gone in has reported an uneasy feeling of being watched.”

Ward nodded along with Rhun’s words. “A mad spirit that lives in the rubble of the city that once was.”

Chapter Forty-Nine

Let’s see, yes, and this and that. Can’t forget anything now. You won’t be back. Off to see the world, you know. No more conversations with the dead for you. Now you have real people to talk with. Leopold smiled as he closed the last large canvas bag full of his books and most prized inventions. It was amazing how much work one could get done when you were the only one left alive.

With a content nod, he stood from his pile of luggage, looking for his guests. Alice was sleeping in the corner of the secret vault. Jerrick was sitting, eyes red with fatigue, silently reading the Codex beside her.

Leopold walked noiselessly over to Jerrick. He motioned to Alice. “The poor young lady must have been exhausted. How about you? Do you need sleep before we’re off?”

Jerrick put the Codex on the floor next to him and rubbed at tired eyes. “Leopold, do you know what’s in this book?”

Leopold looked at Jerrick sideways. “No I have no idea. I don’t know how to read. I just look for pretty books filled with pictures to amuse my addled mind—of course I do! I’ve read the entire thing front to back a dozen times since I was appointed as leader of the city.”

A look of disdain came across his new friend’s face. “How could you lie to an entire population? How could you prepare them for a war and eventually to kill other innocent people?”

Leopold crossed his scrawny arms over his chest. “I was the leader. It was my job. I was going to keep my people safe inside our city. They wanted to go out. We—I couldn’t keep them inside.”

“But even if you could keep them inside the city, you were still lying to them. What was going to happen when it was time to build an army? What if another city came knocking at your gates?”

“It doesn’t matter now. I’ll tell you what I was going to do. I don’t care if you believe me or not, but it’s the truth. I was going to tell them. I was going to tell all the cities what was really happening. I was, but I didn’t do it.” Leopold blinked as pools of water filled his eyes. “I wasn’t brave enough. I was scared to think what might happen if I strayed from the Codex. I was a coward. Is that what you want to hear from me? I failed my city.”

Alice muttered something under her breath, still fast asleep. Leopold lowered his voice. “I was a coward then, not now. I’ve learned from my mistakes. I have a plan to tell the other cities what’s really happening before it’s too late. I’ve invented these—”

Jerrick threw both hands up in a sign for Leopold to stop. Even though his voice was a whisper, Leopold could still catch the disdain. “Listen, I feel like I’m about to pass out from exhaustion. Can I trust you not to do anything weird to us while we sleep?”

Leopold was almost offended by the question, until he remembered what these two had endured at the hands of their own city. “Yes, yes, of course. Rest. You’ll need your strength to travel when you wake.”

Jerrick placed the Codex gently beside him as he searched for a comfortable position on the floor. “Where are we going, anyway? Is there anywhere safe?”

Leopold was wrestling free a filthy, white robe from a corpse half-covered in rubble. “There are others free out there. They’ve come to my city a few times. I wasn’t sure if I should reach out to them, until now. The only way I can atone for my sins is with my inventions. I’ll need help with them.” Leopold finished struggling with the dead body. He finally pulled the cloak free. He turned to offer it as a pillow to his new friend.

But Jerrick was already fast asleep. Leopold stood, staring at his two new companions. He knew he would win them over. He would set things right. He already had the means.

Leopold placed the filthy robe over Jerrick like a father tucking in his huge muscular son. He took a seat on a rock a few yards away watching over them as they slept.

Chapter Fifty

Through the darkness, Jordan saw the beach approaching. The dark brown jacket provided for her scratched at her skin. Jordan moved a hand to rub at the back of her neck. Even that tiny motion swayed the flat boat on which the small group rode.

“Steady,” Ward warned as he dipped the long wooden oar into the still water. “I know it itches something fierce, but you’ll be glad you have it when the tickers come and we blend in with the landscape.”

Jordan remained quiet as she searched the shoreline for any sign of movement. She was one of only five who’d been chosen for the mission. Rhun and a fierce-looking, redheaded woman, introduced as Lierna, sat to her left. Ward and the last member of their party, Argo, a muscular, bronzed warrior with piercing eyes and a strong jaw, rowed softly through the water.

“When we hit the beach,” Rhun whispered, “keep talking to a minimum, and keep moving. We can make it to City Six in a day if we hurry.”

Jordan caught Lierna looking at her out of the side of her vision. “Think you can keep up?” the woman asked in a curious tone.

“I think I’ll be okay. If I’m going too fast, let me know, and I can always slow down.”

Lierna smiled with bright white teeth. “I like you. I hope the tickers don’t turn you to ash before we make it into the city.”

Before Jordan could respond, Rhun raised a hand. The boat was only feet from the shoreline. “Ready? The tickers patrol the area regularly in an attempt to cut anyone off from either leaving or arriving at our home. Remember: flee at all cost. We aren’t looking for a fight or attention.”

Ward and Argo slowed the craft’s forward momentum as it bumped gently into the shoreline. Rhun and Lierna were off at a run before Jordan could stand. Ward and Argo were already driving stakes into the soft sand to tie down the boat.

Seeing that Rhun and Lierna were almost lost in the night, Jordan took off at a sprint. In addition to her normal black physical educator clothing, Jordan wore a brown cloak that fell to her knees and a small backpack of the same color. She could feel her water and rations jostling on her back as she silently moved across the desert floor.

The sky was clear, which would help in navigating the desert. At the same time, they’d be easier to see if any of the tickers were close. Jordan caught sight of Rhun and Lierna in the distance. They were shadows on the desert ground, shifting in and out of eyesight. The cloaks did more than she’d realized. Close up, they seemed like any other brown coat. From a distance, however, they made the wearer vanish into the desert landscape.

Jordan found a steady pace that would bring her alongside the two front runners without sprinting or exhausting herself. Legs pumping underneath, Jordan rocked her arms back and forth and concentrated on taking even breaths.

“They’re fast, right?”

Jordan practically tripped as Argo appeared out of the darkness by her right elbow. “Yeah. And they’re going to keep this pace for a full day?”

“Maybe. We’ll take breaks when it’s safe, but no one wants to be out in the open when the tickers come. I heard you and your people already had a run-in with them.”

Jordan shivered at the memory. So many lives ended. She could see the defiant gleam in Owen’s eyes before he died. She could still feel Buie pushing her out of harm’s way as energy beams perforated the desert floor around them.

Jordan’s silence was enough for Argo to realize he’d brought up a tender subject. “We’ve all lost, or have been lost to, people we love,” he said. “Whoever is still out there from your city, we’ll get them back.”

Chapter Fifty-One

Leopold did his best to arrange on the plate the fruit and vegetables from his garden. The carrots were still dirty, the grapes nearly raisins, and the plate chipped, but it was the best he had.

The sun had already risen high in the day and was beginning to set before either Jerrick or Alice showed any signs of life. Leopold sat on a rock with his gift of food staring at them, almost willing them to wake up so he’d have someone to talk with again.

Alice blinked her eyes open, stunned for a moment while she examined her surroundings. Leopold could practically see the fear, then the recognition in her eyes as the past days’ events reminded her of her current situation.

Leopold did his best to smile as Alice re-secured her blonde hair behind her and looked at him. “Good morning, Alice,” Leopold said as he rose from his seat and approached with the offering of food. “Break—er, lunch, or maybe dinner by now. How did you sleep?”

Alice looked down at the floor of the vault, and then back to Leopold before she answered, “It was rough, but I could have slept anywhere.” Alice’s eyes drifted over to Jerrick’s still form, his chest rising and falling. “How long has he been out?”

Leopold handed Alice the platter and took a step back. His forefinger tapped on his chin as he tried to remember. “I’d say an hour or two after you fell asleep.”

Alice grunted and took a handful of the shriveled grapes. “Thanks—for the food, I mean.”

“And”—Jerrick rose to a sitting position as he stretched—“for not killing us in our sleep.”

Leopold let a large smile split his dirty beard. “Oh, of course, friends. Anytime. Well, eat up. We have a long trip to make.”

Leopold witnessed Alice exchange a questioning stare with Jerrick. Before Jerrick could say anything, Leopold jumped in. “We have to find the others, Alice. There are survivors out there. I’ve seen them come into this city. I hid before. Now I realize we have to find them and enlist their help.”

Alice raised her eyebrows. “Their help? Their help with what?”

Leopold looked at her like she was asking the most basic of questions. “Why, their help in telling the other cities, of course. We have to spread the news of what’s really happening.”

Alice again looked at Jerrick, who handed her the Codex. “It’s all in there. You can read as we walk.” Jerrick turned to Leopold with a questioning stare. “How can you be so sure that whoever you saw will help us?”

Leopold grinned. “They have to. If any of us have any hope of survival, they have to. Now come along, my friends. We have some traveling to do.” Leopold turned his back to Jerrick and Alice and walked over to the large canvas bags he’d been packing. “All right, I’ve managed to narrow it down to three bags.”

Jerrick and Alice joined Leopold, peeking over his shoulder. Two smaller canvas sacks and one large one bursting at its seams lay on the floor. “This one is for me, and this one is for Alice,” Leopold said as he lifted the two smaller sacks and handed one to Alice.

“Let me guess,” Jerrick said as he moved toward the largest bag, “this one’s mine?”

Leopold nodded as Jerrick strained and struggled with the bag. “What’s in here? Bricks?”

Leopold pointed to his own bag and to Alice’s. “We’re carrying food and water. You’re carrying the inventions and supplies we’ll need to free the cities of men.”

Chapter Fifty-Two

Tick, tick, tick, tick…

Jordan peered over the sand dune. Two tickers were hovering next to the enormous open city gates. The sun was setting behind Jordan and her group, making it harder to see them.

Jordan’s mind was still getting over the fact that they were yards away from another city, a city once much like her own. The large walls raised high off the ground. Once, people would have been inside laughing, crying, living. Now, according to Rhun, it was a graveyard. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of voices were silenced forever. All she could do was pray that her friends were somewhere safe inside.

Rhun slowly crawled back from his vantage point on the peak of the dune. “Well, we’ve been here for two hours already. It doesn’t look like they’re going to be moving any time soon.”

“Then we go through them?” Jordan was shocked to hear the excitement in Lierna’s voice.

“We go through them,” Rhun quietly echoed. “Ward, Argo, take the one on the left. Lierna and I will take the one on the right.”

Jordan found herself nodding along with the crazy plan until she realized she wasn’t included. As much as she thought the idea of attacking the machines was crazy, she refused to be the only one left hiding in safety. “Wait, what about me? I can help.”

Rhun shook his head. “It’s too dangerous for someone who hasn’t encountered a ticker before. Stay here and keep watch. If any others approach, let us know.”

Jordan knew Rhun was trying to placate her with a bogus task. “No way. I’m going with you. You’re doing all of this to locate my friends. There’s no way I’m staying back.”

Rhun paused for a moment, looking at the other three members in their party. He was quiet. Jordan knew he was weighing the decision in his mind, looking at the plan from every angle.

“Oh, let her come, Rhun,” Lierna said. She looked from Rhun to Jordan, skewering her with a sardonic grin. “I like you, Jordan. You’re crazy, but I like you.”

Rhun ignored Lierna’s outburst and looked to Ward and Argo. Both men nodded and grunted in affirmation of Lierna’s previous statement. “All right then,” Rhun said, taking in the entire team. “Jordan, you’re in. Speed and stealth are our greatest allies.”

Jordan nodded along, grateful for the opportunity to prove herself amongst her new comrades. “Right. Speed and stealth,” she repeated. It was only as the others turned to go that Jordan realized she didn’t have the slightest clue how to kill the machines.

Chapter Fifty-Three

“Perfect. The sun is setting. It’ll be much harder for the clickers to find us in the dark,” Leopold said as he shifted the light sack on his shoulder. “Come along now. There’s no time to waste.”

Alice matched his gait, stride for stride. Jerrick, however, was having trouble finding a comfortable way to carry his load. Leopold gave him a smile of encouragement. “There you go. You got it. Put all of those muscles to use, big boy.”

Jerrick gave him a stare that made Leopold quiver.

“Well then, anywho, we should stick to the perimeter of the city wall until we reach the entrance. Then we’ll move as fast as we can over the desert and to the survivors outside the wall.”

“Right,” Alice said, “the survivors. Tell me again how we plan on finding them in the desert?”

Leopold cleared his throat, as the sky darkened with the approaching night. “Well, that’s the easiest part, isn’t it? People cannot survive without water. The Codex shows a map of what the world used to look like. We head for the nearest water mass. That’s were they’ll be. Water means life in the desert.”

That seemed enough for his guests, as they followed him forward to the gates. The large city wall accompanied them on their right, with the remains of the city on their left.

Leopold soon found himself lost in his own thoughts as he said a silent good-bye to the only place he’d ever known as home. The broken buildings and shattered masonry reminded him of all of the lives lost. I’ll set things right. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to do it before. But I am now. I’ll bring this thing to an end. I promise.

Leopold fought back tears as vivid memories came back, of his friends and family before the city gates had been forced open. He felt a firm hand on his shoulder. It was Alice. “You okay?”

Leopold smiled as tears streamed down his filthy cheeks. “I will be. I will be very soon when I set things right.”

Alice was opening her mouth to say more, when a harsh whisper from Jerrick made them both stop in their tracks. Jerrick was walking just a few feet ahead of them. The city gates were within sight, now only yards away.

“Do you hear that?” Jerrick whispered as he crouched to the ground.

Leopold did the same. His eyes darted in every direction. He held his breath as he listened. At first, there was nothing, only the sounds of his heart in his throat. Then he heard the familiar clicking; the noise that brought death in its wake.

Leopold and his two friends all exchanged glances. Jerrick was the first to act. He placed a finger to his lips and motioned forward. Slowly, the three travelers moved toward the gigantic city gates.

Both gates at the city entrance were wide open. Torn pockets of cement and missing sections of the wall were all signs of laser blasts from the attacking clickers so many years before. Leopold put the memories out of his head. If he was going to live to see retribution, then he would need to be cautious.

Leopold moved to take the lead, gently pushing Jerrick to the side. He wasn’t going to lose these friends, as well. If anything was going to happen, it was going to happen to him. It was something he’d promised himself as he watched over Jerrick and Alice while they slept. No more death, not if he had anything to say about it.

Leopold reached the edge of the gate. The clicking was growing in intensity with every step. The clicker sounded as though it were only feet away. Leopold steeled his nerves and peeked around the gate.

What he saw, he couldn’t believe. At first, all he noticed was two large cubicle shapes floating over the desert floor. The sight of the machines was nothing new to him; he’d had seen them countless times over the years as they swept his city, ever vigilant for survivors.

The pair of clickers wasn’t what caused him to blink and readjust his eyesight. Five cloaked figures nearly invisible in the fading light had emerged from the sandy floor and moved to attack the machines.

Chapter Fifty-Four

Jordan gripped the short spear with both hands. It was crazy to think that such a simple act would destroy the machine. One deep thrust into the center of the robot’s red eye, and it would be nothing more than a pile of scrap metal. The only problem now was getting close enough to try the technique.

“Easy, girl,” Ward whispered as they crawled across the hot desert sand toward their waiting prey. “No need to let them know we’re here until the last moment. You remember what to do?”

Jordan gave Ward a thumbs-up before she had time to wonder if the sign translated in his culture. Apparently it did; Ward gave her a smile and looked past her to Argo. The younger warrior on Jordan’s left also gave the thumbs-up sign, accompanied by a large grin.

Jordan could barely make out Rhun and Lierna. Both were crawling toward their target fifty yards away, their cloaks perfectly camouflaging them into the desert sand.

The growing ticking sound coming from the machines interrupted Jordan. They were no more than thirty yards away from the mechanical beasts. This close, Jordan was able to get a better look. They were huge, black cubes that hovered over the desert floor. The ticking sound came from the bottom of the robot. Some kind of propulsion technology kept the android off the desert ground. Jordan could see tiny granules of sand being buffeted back and forth under the robot.

The single red eye of the machine was still. It focused far out into the desert, searching for any life form.

Ward gently nudged her elbow. That was the cue. Jordan’s heart rate doubled as she gave herself one final internal pep-talk. You are going to survive. You didn’t make it all this way to die now. Your friends need you. The truth still has to be shared.

Without hesitation, Ward and Argo broke from their hiding spots. From the corner of her eye, Jordan could see Rhun and Lierna do the same. She gripped the shaft of the short spear until her hands hurt. She was terrified, but in that fear was courage. Previously, she’d only run from the tickers. Now, as she found herself racing toward one, a sense of empowerment had mixed with her trepidation.

The ticker directly in front of them came to life. The robot rotated toward them. The red light flashed, striking Jordan in the face. She squinted as it passed over her. She didn’t dare lessen her pace. They were close—twenty yards from their target.

Argo fell a half-step behind Ward and Jordan as he began to twirl a leather sling. Jordan had a flashback to the beach, when she was knocked unconscious by the same weapon.

Hissing shot out from the black cube as compartments opened on either side of its frame. Crackling, blue cylinder arms sprouted as energy beams cut through the space between themselves and the attacking humans.

Ducking and weaving in an attempt to dodge the beams, Jordan replayed the plan in her head. Distract the machine long enough for Argo to get a clean shot. Don’t stop moving. They can’t shoot you at point-blank range. If Argo misses, it’s up to you and Ward to shove your spears into the red eye.

Fizzing energy blasts disrupted the otherwise peaceful twilight sky. Jordan jumped and feinted as she moved along her imaginary obstacle course on the way to her target. Ten yards was now all that separated her from the robot. Ward, Argo, and the others fell from her mind as she focused on her objective. The ticker’s red eye pulsed hate at Jordan as she approached.

In seconds, she would reach her target. Something whizzed by her head, and a loud crack followed a split second later. Jordan witnessed the ticker’s red light explode. Tiny pieces of red glass sprayed in every direction. Electricity shivered around the exposed eye of the machine. The entire ticker quivered and convulsed before it crashed to the desert floor, motionless.

Jordan had a front row seat to it all. She skidded to a stop only feet away from where the beast now lay. Jordan’s chest heaved up and down. Adrenaline was flowing to every extremity, begging for an outlet. In a weird kind of way, she was almost disappointed she wasn’t the one to bring down the ticker.

Jordan was ripped from these thoughts as another loud crack and thud found her ears. She looked to her right, witnessing Lierna pull her short spear free from her own ticker’s unmoving frame.

Rhun jogged over to the rest of the group, looking everyone over. Jordan noticed his eyes were directed toward her as he asked, “Is everybody all right? Is anyone injured?”

“Nope,” Ward answered. “Argo’s done it again. Ruined all of our fun before we got a chance. I thought for sure Jordan was going to reach the ticker before Argo got off a shot.”

Argo ran toward the group with a grin. “I thought so, too. Did you see how fast she ran at that thing? I’ve never seen anyone do less zigging and zagging. She might as well have run in a straight line.”

“Fearless,” Lierna said, as she, too, joined the group.

Jordan made a motion to open her mouth to tell them she actually was trying to duck and weave as much as possible. At the last moment she thought better of it, and instead, accepted their praise with humble silence.

“Have you seen one up close before?” Rhun asked as he led the group over toward the ticker Argo had slain.

“No,” Jordan admitted. “Last time I was around one, I was running as fast as I could in the opposite direction.”

“There’s no shame in that. We all did the exact same thing when we came face-to-face with them for the first time.”

“But now you don’t have to run anymore,” Lierna said, crossing her arms beside Jordan. “Wait till I teach you how to throw that spear. You’ll be taking down tickers faster than Argo can reload that toy slingshot of his.”

Argo puffed out his chest in mock indignation. Jordan thought he was even going to verbally protest, but Rhun cut in before he could, “Let’s get inside the city. More will be by shortly. They always are. I think—” Rhun’s voice cut off as he looked toward the open city gates. Every muscle in his body tensed. Jordan followed his gaze, her grip instantly tightening on her spear. A slender, filthy, old man came bustling out from within the city walls. Jordan could smell his stench better than she could see him in the fading light. He carried something on his shoulder as he progressed toward them.

“Halt! Stop where you are!” Ward shouted. Automatically, Ward, Argo, and Lierna made a half-circle around Rhun.

Jordan wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do. Her instincts told her to also protect Rhun, but somewhere in the back of her mind, she doubted the man trudging toward them was hostile.

The elderly man placed his sack onto the ground, then raised both hands in the air. “I surrender. You got me. Have no fear, I’m not your enemy, friends.”

At first sight, Jordan thought the man might be one of the people who’d been released from her city. Upon closer inspection, she knew she’d never seen him before. As the silence lengthened, two more figures materialized. Hope burned inside Jordan’s chest. She so desperately wanted to see a familiar face, she had to do a double take before she allowed herself to drop her spear and run forward. Jerrick and Alice were alive!

Ward shouted a warning as Jordan ran toward her friends. “It’s okay,” Jordan called over her shoulder. “It’s them!”

Chapter Fifty-Five

“As fate would have it, you arrived at the exact time we were departing to find you and your people,” Leopold said with an awkward gesture of his hands and arms that, in his mind, translated to the word “fate.”

Rhun stood across from him. He bit his lower lip as he stared from the ruined balcony to the destroyed city sprawling out below them. Jordan, Jerrick, and Alice were talking in excited whispers. Ward, Argo, and Lierna seemed polite enough, but Leopold had no doubt they’d be by their leader’s side at a moment’s notice.

“You’ve lived here by yourself for how long?” Rhun asked.

Leopold shrugged narrow shoulders. “I wish I could give you an exact answer. I’m not sure. Five, ten, fifteen years? I’ve been so busy, I’ve lost track of time. We could go ask the council. They may know.”

“No—” Jerrick called out from his seat next to Jordan and Alice. “Sorry for listening in, but I don’t think the council will have much to say on the subject, Leopold.”

Leopold slowly nodded in agreement. Rhun exchanged an amused expression with Jerrick before his eyes drifted back to the ruined city. “Can the gates be shut?”

Leopold followed his gaze and pursed his lips. “You want to stay?”

The room silenced. Any talk or quiet chatter was instantly dismissed. Everyone waited to hear Rhun’s next words. “Our people, those banished from their cities, have made a home of rusted metal in the middle of nowhere. Every day, we wonder if that’ll be the day the tickers find a way to reach us over the water. Or maybe they never reach us, but in the next few years, rust instead of machines becomes our greatest enemy, and we sink. Plus, if we had a closer base of operation, we could save more people as they are sent to die by their own cities.”

The room was still while everyone thought on Rhun’s words, everyone, except Leopold. “I think you mean clickers.”


“You called them tickers. I guess in light of things, that’s a small detail. You want to bring your people here and find a way to close the gates?”

“That’s right.”

“A mass exodus,” Leopold mused. “It could work. It would certainly make spreading the truth easier. I need as much help as I can get. First to assemble, then distribute the news…” Leopold rambled on under his breath.

Rhun turned to the rest of the group. “This decision is too great for one man to make on his own. It was the decision of single minds that got our kind into this mess in the first place. We have members of three different cities here now. I say we take a vote.”

Leopold started at the idea. “Oh, a vote? How wonderful. Yes, a vote, like our very own democracy. How quaint. I agree. Bring your people to my city. I’ll find a way to close the gates.”

Rhun nodded and looked to the rest of the group. “I’m with you,” Lierna said.

“So am I,” Argo added.

Jordan looked to her friends, who both nodded. “You have our support. Whatever you think’s best for your people, we’re behind you all the way.”

Rhun’s gaze shifted to Ward. The large man cleared his throat. “I don’t want to be the negative one here, but if we move that many people at one time across the desert, the tickers will be on us. There’s no doubt about it. We’ll lose lives in the process of finding them a better home.”

“I agree with you,” Rhun said. “It’s a choice that shouldn’t be made lightly. If we decide to move them, their lives will be in danger. The men and women we have who can fight will provide an escort. Still, it will be treacherous.”

“But for those who did make the journey,” Leopold argued, “wouldn’t it be worth it? Imagine, a city founded on truth. It won’t be easy. The way will be perilous, and even when they arrive, the city is in dire need of repair. But imagine: a free city! Dare to imagine the future of a free people.”

The room was quiet again. “Well, when you put it like that,” Ward finally spoke, “how can I say no?”

Leopold surprised everyone by jumping into the air and tapping his heels together. “Oh, this has been just the best time. Real friends are so much better than imaginary friends. Now what?”

“Now, we get our people safely inside the city walls,” Rhun said.

“We find a way to close the gates,” Jordan said. “And we find a way to tell the other cities the truth—if we can find a way.”

“Of course there’s a way,” Leopold shouted with delight. “What do you think I’ve been talking about? What do you think is in the bag Jerrick’s carrying?”

“Bricks?” Jerrick guessed.

“No, silly,” Leopold said as he reached into Jerrick’s bag and brought out a strange, metallic gadget. “This. This is how we get the truth to them—to all of them.”

Chapter Fifty-Six

The rusted platform in the vast sea of still water was buzzing with eager chatter. Rhun moved about his people, helping to pack belongings and offering words of encouragement. Most were excited, some hesitant. Rhun knew they were all fearful of the journey to come.

It was a gamble, yet one that would pay off a thousandfold if they were to reach the city and close the gates behind them. Rhun, Ward, Argo, and Lierna had just made their way back home. Already they were preparing their people for the trip across the dangerous desert. “Do you require any assistance preparing for the journey?” Rhun asked, sticking his head into a narrow room.

Grizla’s voice came back, steady and light. “I may be old, but I’m capable of packing my own belongings. How about you? Are you ready for the trip? You just arrived yesterday. Already we’re making plans to leave tomorrow.”

It was true, Rhun’s body was feeling the effects of long travel and short rest. His back was knotted, and his legs felt like rubber. Still, there was no time for weakness. Not now, when hope for a better life was so real. “I’ll be fine, Grizla. Thank you for the concern.”

“I’m sure you will,” Grizla said with a knowing smile. “How about your conscience? Is that, too, in need of rest?”

Rhun narrowed his eyes to slits, searching for the meaning in the elderly woman’s words. “My conscience is sound. This needs to be done.”

“Does it? The trip will be dangerous. Many might fall to the tickers roaming the desert. Is it worth it?”

Anger was Rhun’s first reaction. Grizla, however, was a friend. No one had been so bold as to question his plans, although he suspected whispers were being shared.

As his anger withdrew, Rhun found words. “There is no future for us here. Sooner or later, the tickers will find a way across the water, and we’ll be defenseless. If not the tickers, then time is forever our enemy. Rust will eventually corrode this place, making it fall into the water. There’s no long-term life here. Our life and our destiny belong inside walls. I will not force anyone to follow; it’s been a choice for all, as free men and women.”

Grizla stopped packing and approached Rhun. Her slow gait came to a halt only a short distance from where he stood. Grizla placed a weathered hand onto his left shoulder. “As long as you know and believe what you’re doing is right. Life’s too short to live with regrets. Please, don’t mistake my words for negativity. I agree with your choice; however, you must be prepared for the sacrifices that may have to be made along the journey.”

Rhun knew what she was getting at. “When the tickers come—and they will come—we will be ready. I’ll be leading the defense on the front line. I’ll die for the future of our people if I have to.”

Grizla’s hand fell from his shoulder as a sad smile crossed her lips. “I know you will, Rhun. That’s why I worry.”

Chapter Fifty-Seven

Leopold was humming the same tune again. The same one he’d hummed the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that. When Rhun and his people departed, Leopold and the survivors from City One were left with only one task: fixing the gates.

The survivors from the platform would be returning quickly. If the gates were not able to close, their plan would fail. The city and all those in it would be open for attack against the deadly machines.

Now, with Jerrick and Alice on the lookout for any roaming robots, Jordan and Leopold were inside the small guardhouse containing the city gates’ controls. The room was stuffy, and Leopold’s humming reverberated off the walls, echoing into the stillness.

Jordan looked over the small man’s back as her nose crinkled on reflex upon meeting his stench. “Leopold? What are you looking for? Maybe if you told me, I can help.”

Leopold straightened and shot a finger into the air. “Oh, right! My apologies. Two heads are better than one and three make you Cerberus. Well, the gates are controlled by a system of pulleys that connect here.” Leopold pointed to a large piece of wood, waist-high, running parallel with the floor. The piece of wood was thicker than Jordan’s torso and spanned nearly eight feet in length. “You see, this wooden beam was turned by a group of large men. The pulley system accounted for the weight distribution, and the doors were able to swing open.”

“How many large men were needed to open the gates?” Jordan asked.

“If my memory serves right, six to eight.”

Jordan could already see two main problems. First, who knew if the pulley system would still work after years of deterioration and being subjected to the elements. Second, there were four of them—three tired and malnourished physical educators, and a small, possibly insane, former city leader. A far cry from the strength they’d need to rotate the large piece of wood. “Oh, six to eight,” Jordan said out loud. “Is that all?”

Leopold either chose to ignore or did not catch the sarcasm in her voice. “No, that’s not all. I’ll have to make sure the pulleys that are attached now are in working order. Perhaps I can add more to distribute the weight. Jerrick looks robust. Maybe he can account for two men’s strength.” Leopold looked to Jordan and examined her up and down before shaking his head and muttering to himself.

“Hey,” Jordan said, “I’m right here, you know. I’m stronger than I look.”

Leopold shrugged. “No doubt; however, we still won’t have the manpower. Even if you and Alice each could account for more than one person, I know my physical limits. I’ll try, of course, but I’ll be of little real use.”

Jordan racked her brain, searching for an answer. “There has to be a way,” she said. Her eyes drifted from inside the small gatehouse, to the large city gates, and then down to the two corpses of the tickers that still lay motionless outside. The memory of encountering the two mechanical beasts when they’d entered the city, faded as a plan began to form. “Leopold, I think I have an idea.”

Chapter Fifty-Eight

“How many?” Rhun asked.

“Eighty-nine noncombatants, with twenty-seven warriors willing to defend the caravan,” Ward said.

Rhun shaded his blue eyes against the glare from the setting sun. He gazed up and down the beach, as simple, flat rafts docked and his people both physically and mentally readied themselves for the journey. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and grandparents all followed him. Not one person opted to stay behind when Rhun told them about his plan. He was responsible for all of them, and this responsibility weighed on his shoulders as though the weight from a ticker itself drove him to the ground. “We have to keep them moving, no matter what.”

Ward grunted in agreement. “I have scouts ahead in all directions. The tickers won’t catch us unawares. Still, if they come in force, we’ll be overwhelmed.”

“Well then, brother, let’s hope they don’t come in force. Get them moving. Those capable of fighting, who are not out scouting, will travel with the rest of the group. Instruct them that no one is to be left behind.”

Ward nodded and hurried off. Rhun watched as the sun faded against the horizon. Darkness would cover them tonight, yet one night would not see them to the safety of the city walls. The people would travel slowly. Two days, Rhun had estimated. Two days of hoping, praying they’d go unnoticed.

“Let’s get moving.”

Rhun recognized the voice before he turned to see Argo motioning to a family. The youngest family member, a small girl of no more than four years old, reached out toward Argo with extended arms. The grinning warrior picked up the child and gently placed her onto his shoulders.

Rhun smiled to himself. This was how it should be. This was how people should treat one another, different cities or not. This was an idea worth fighting for. This was an idea worth dying for.

Chapter Fifty-Nine

Leopold crouched over the once-terrifying piece of machinery as he tinkered with the robot’s inner wirings. Jordan once again found herself looking on, eager to be asked to do something, anything. Thus far, Leopold had only requested his toolkit from the city.

“How’s everything coming?” Jordan turned to see Jerrick approach from within the city. Smile intact, he shaded his eyes against the sun’s final rays. “Any progress on closing the gates?”

Jordan returned the smile. “Well, we think we may have a plan. The gates are held open by a chain-link pulley system. It would take more power than we currently have to close the gates, so—”

“There.” Leopold fell backwards onto the desert sand, holding one of the cylindrical arms of the deceased robot. The part of the machine that once crackled energy and delivered death was no more than a piece of metal in Leopold’s hands.

Jerrick’s eyebrows rose. “Wait, how is this going to help us close the gates?”

Jordan opened her mouth to continue, when Leopold cut her off. “Well, my friend. We cannot close the city entrance due to lack of strength, even though the pulley system does look as if it’s still functional. Jordan had the wonderful idea of waiting for our friends to return. They’ll bring the manpower we need to close the gates.”

“And if they’re being chased by the tickers and there’s no time for us to explain what needs to be done? What if the tickers get into the city?”

Jordan procured the large, mechanical laser from Leopold’s grip. It was made of the same dark metal as the robot. The steel’s sleek innocence spoke nothing of the death and the end to life it brought with it. “Meet plan B,” Jordan said, holding up the piece of machinery.

“So, this might just be the heat talking,” Jerrick said, frowning at the object, “but I’m not following, here.”

Leopold broke into the conversation with a tone similar to a professor giving a lecture. “Well, you see, if we can’t close the gates until they get here, maybe we can buy them some time. I think I may be able to get these laser beams working again, perhaps make four crude weapons to hold off the tickers while our friends reach the city and close the gates.”

Jordan could practically see realization cross Jerrick’s face. “What? Is that possible? You can provide us with the same weapons as the robots?”

Leopold dipped his head. “I believe I can. I need to dislocate the other three weapons and then take them back to my workshop, but things are looking positive.”

Jordan let Jerrick think about the possibilities the weapons would bring and watched Leopold begin working on removing the next piece. His stench was once again winning the fight over any other scent in the surrounding area. “Leopold, when was the last time you bathed?”

Wrench mid-twist Leopold turned to her with an expression of deep concentration. “You know what? I’m not even sure. What year is it?”

Chapter Sixty

Rhun adjusted the pieces of steel protection he wore as he walked across the desert ground. Heat and the necessity for speed made anything but the most essential pieces of armor irrelevant. Rhun’s choice of armor was simple. For weapons he carried a large shield, to cover his body and a spear one and a half times his own height. For armor he wore dark steel vambraces, shin guards and a piece of iron armor that protected his torso both front and back.

His city had discovered that the ticker’s energy blasts were specifically geared toward evaporating flesh, while also destroying brick and mortar masonry. Scientists in his previous city had found a combination of metals that would withstand an energy blast from a ticker. Rhun now only wished he had more shields to go around; thirteen would not be nearly enough.

Lierna’s sleek form came into view only seconds later. The woman stopped short of Rhun with an easy smile. “Well, would you like the good news, or the bad news first ?”

Without hesitation Rhun answered, “The bad news first.”

“We’ve spotted tickers in the area. They’re in great number roaming the desert. More than I’ve ever seen.”

Rhun didn’t flinch. This was what he’d expected. “And the good news?”

Lierna nodded. “For whatever reason, the tickers seem content to stay out of our way. Even when one of our scouting parties was spotted, the tickers let them be and moved along. They’ve never acted like that in the past. What do you believe they’re planning?”

“I think they’re doing the same thing I would. Whether someone’s controlling them directly or whether they’re capable of this on their own is no matter. They’re waiting for us.”

Despite the lighting, Rhun could see Lierna’s face distort in confusion. “Waiting for us? Where? How do you know this?”

“They’ll converge and wait for us at the city gates, in force. I know this, because that’s what I would do. Gather your numbers and let the enemy come to you.”

Chapter Sixty-One

“This is ridiculous. We should be out practicing with the items I fabricated, not worrying about soap and bubbles.”

Jordan smiled as she examined the weapons that promised an equal playing field next time they encountered the machines. She rested her back against a wall and stretched her sore neck. “Leopold, trust me, you needed it. Ten minutes of cleaning won’t kill you.”

“It might!”

Jordan smiled to herself. She’d decided Leopold was crazy. Despite this, she was growing to like him. Against his pleas, Jordan insisted he take a bath. Using water from the city’s reserves and a chipped drum from a different house, they fashioned a makeshift tub in the once-secret room reserved for the Codex.

“There, I feel like a soaked sponge.” Leopold came out from within the vault with damp hair and the new clothes Jordan found for him. His hair and beard were still much too long, but he was clean. The stench was gone, and Jordan was actually able to see the color of his skin.

Jerrick and Alice were walking through the door as Leopold made his début appearance. “Wow,” Alice said, stopping in her tracks. “Is that you, Leopold? You look like a different man.”

“Yeah,” Jerrick said. “With a haircut and a shave, you’ll be the best-looking bachelor in the city.”

Jordan witnessed Leopold’s frustration melt. His eyes transitioned from irritation to shyness as he grinned like a bashful child. “Oh, well thanks, guys. It was Jordan’s idea—I guess I do feel better.”

Jordan smiled at her friends as she hefted the recently created energy weapon. “Ready to show us how these things work?”

Leopold reverted back to his normal eccentric self with a head twitch and nod. “Certainly. Jerrick, Alice.” Leopold motioned to a worn bookshelf holding the three other weapons. He took one in his own hands, watching carefully as Jerrick and Alice moved to do the same. “Caution, now. The triggers are sensitive, and the kickback after the shot is something I haven’t been able to fine-tune as of yet.”

Jordan followed Leopold, along with Alice and Jerrick, to the balcony overlooking the city. The sun was in its highest point, allowing for a clear view of the destroyed metropolis below.

“Has he tested these things yet?” Alice asked under her breath.

Jordan tensed at the question before shaking her head. “Nope, this is our first trial run. Keep your fingers crossed and get ready to duck.”

The trio reached the mad scientist on the balcony. The invention he held was nearly half the size of his body. Jordan had to chuckle. Leopold resembled a child playing with the weapon of a giant. He hoisted the firearm, chest level and displayed it for all to see. “I was trying to think of a clever acronym to spell out ‘BLASTER,’ but nothing was coming to mind, so let’s all just agree to call it that and I’ll continue to work on the appropriate wording.” Leopold directed his right finger across the weapon as he called out various sections. “The stock and trigger should be held firm against your shoulder. The barrel of the blaster needs to be pointed at the enemy, of course. It should be accurate in close to medium range. The only unknown is how many shots it’s capable of firing before running dry. The power source was a tricky thing to maneuver. Yet if I can stabilize it in small amounts, it could be used as a power source to propel other invent—”

“Leopold!” Jerrick yelled as the small man, caught up in his scientific explanation, pointed the blaster at his friends, muzzle-first.

Leopold took a step back in shock at the outburst, confusion drawing lines across his face. “What? Is it the smell? I know it’s disconcerting. I haven’t smelled this good since—”

“No,” Jordan interrupted, leaning away from the route of the muzzle. “You’re pointing the blaster in our direction.”

“Oh, right. Apologies, friends.” Leopold redirected the barrel of his bulky blaster away from his companions. “Now, where was I?”

“Reloading,” Alice said.

“Right. We can’t be sure when the energy source will run its course. Rounds should be chosen specifically and energy conserved. Let’s try to keep our practice shots to a minimum. Now, if you’ll all step back, I’ll perform the first volley. If anything goes wrong, it should happen to me as the inventor.”

Jordan and her friends took a few steps back. Jordan could feel her lips recede from her mouth and her teeth clench as she looked on in anticipation. Leopold hoisted the blaster to his right shoulder. Right hand on the trigger, left hand supporting the fat barrel, Leopold took aim at the empty city below.

Jordan wasn’t sure whether she should cover her ears, or prepare to wince at the sound. Before she had time to decide on either, Leopold pulled the trigger. With a sizzling crack, a blue energy beam shot forward. The blast collided with masonry down below as the sound of falling brick and mortar filled the air. That wasn’t all. The recoil from the weapon lifted Leopold completely off his feet and threw him backwards, across the room and into a wooden bookcase.

Despite the scene’s comical appearance, Jordan worried first for Leopold’s safety. She and the other two members of her city rushed to see if Leopold was injured. Even as they ran up to the broken bookcase, a hand reached out from deep within a pile of fallen books. “I’m all right. I’m all right. We did it!”

Chapter Sixty-Two

The end of the second day saw them within a single mile from the city. Only one obstacle remained, and it was the only one that mattered. Rhun looked over a sand dune to the last stretch of desert that separated them from safety. An army of tickers stood in rows, sinister red lights brilliant against the darkness.

“How many do you think?” Ward asked, standing beside Argo and Lierna. “Fifty? Sixty?”

“More,” Rhun said.

Ward stood silent. Rhun was in no mood to talk. The conversation with Grizla days before still echoed in his thoughts. He knew he was making the right decision. He’d have to live with the cost that came with their freedom. If they could make it to the city, people would die in the process, there was no doubt.

“Strategy?” Argo asked.

“I’m afraid, my friend, the element of surprise will not be with us this time. They know we’re coming. That’s why they’ve gathered here in such numbers.”

The night was nearing daybreak; still, the gates were too far off to see. Only the dark outline of the wall stood out from the desert’s familiar flat landscape. “Scouts have reported that the gates are still open. Shouldn’t they be closed by now if Jordan and the others had succeeded in their task? Shouldn’t the city doors be shut and only opened for us as we approach?” Lierna asked.

The same thought had crossed Rhun’s mind. Still, he refused to believe Jordan Shepherd had failed. Remembering the fire in the young woman’s eyes was all he needed to calm his fears. “Jordan will not fail.”

“You sound so sure,” Argo said. “I respect her, as we all do, but how can you be certain?”

For the first time, Rhun turned his gaze from the red beams of light and the metallic clicking in the distance. Ward and Lierna shifted their gazes elsewhere as he fixed Argo with an intense stare. “I’m certain, because I’ve known women like her, just as I’ve known men like you, Argo. I can be sure that when the fighting starts, you’ll be among the first to charge.”

Argo swallowed hard as he nodded under Rhun’s stare. “Ready the warriors. I will not have us sit and let fear spread, while our enemy’s number grows. We’ll hit them hard, and we’ll hit them now.”

Argo clenched his right fist and struck it against his chest in his own city’s sign of respect. The young warrior turned to fulfill his order. “Lierna, give word to those leading the noncombatants that if we fall, they’re to run as hard and as fast as they can back to the coast.” A shake of red hair followed his words, and she was gone.

Ward stood next, eagerly awaiting his own orders. “Argo’s preparing the warriors now,” Rhun said. “Select twelve of the strongest and most battle-hardened soldiers. Give them the shields. Also, choose thirteen of those best versed in projectile weapons.”

Ward seized on Rhun’s plan as soon as the words were spoken. “And the other soldiers? Those not numbered among these?”

Rhun looked at his oldest friend with a grin. “They’ll be yours to lead. When the tickers are concentrated on us, you’ll be our people’s last hope.”

Ward opened his mouth to protest, but Rhun placed a firm hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Do not argue with me. I’ll win anyway.”

Ward closed his mouth, only to open it again. “This is suicide.”

“Against numbers of these kind with their superior weaponry, this is the only choice. Trust me, I don’t wish to die a martyr. This is our best chance. Now go. Do as I ask.”

Rhun knew Ward would like nothing more than to object again; the obedient soldier in Ward was battling with the friendship they shared.

“Go,” Rhun said again, this time with a firm tone.

Ward slowly backed away from his friend. He turned to go, leaving Rhun by himself to think. There was only one thing going through Rhun’s mind at the moment, one thought on which the future of a free people depended. Jordan Shepherd, I hope I’m right about you.

Chapter Sixty-Three

Jordan found herself enjoying the feel of the blaster in her hands. The sense of safety and power the weapon brought was freeing. They stood a chance now. Jordan pressed the stock of the blaster against her right shoulder again. She closed her left eye, aiming down the barrel. Her target was a lone stone pillar thirty yards away.

She calmed her breathing. Her finger tightened on the trigger. Nothing else mattered, nothing else worried her. All that existed was her, the blaster, and the target. Life was made simple once again.

Her finger gently squeezed the trigger. Rocking her shoulder roughly back, the blaster sent a beam of energy forward, destroying her target. Jordan smiled despite the pain she felt on the right side of her body. The blaster’s kickback was harsh. The first few times she’d fired the weapon, it nearly sent her stumbling backwards. With practice, she was better prepared for the recoil. At the same time, Jordan could hit anything she wanted to within reasonable range.

She took a deep breath as she lowered the blaster. The energy should be conserved. Leopold didn’t know how many rounds each blaster would provide before the source was tapped.

The sun was about to rise. Rhun and his people should be back any day now, Jordan thought. Rhun’s people. Were they now her own people? She was no longer alone. Jerrick and Alice had been found. Leopold had already established a special place in her heart in just a few short days.

“There you are,” Jerrick’s voice broke Jordan’s wandering thoughts.

Jordan placed her weapon against a disintegrating brick wall. She chose a section of stairs leading to a crumbling building to take a seat. “Sorry, just wanted to get in a few more practice rounds before it’s the real thing. Where are Alice and Leopold?”

“Alice is on watch at the gates. Leopold said something about preparing his inventions to spread truth.” Jerrick shrugged. “Do you have any idea what he’s talking about?”

“I think I do,” Jordan said. “It’s just hard for me to concentrate on that now, when so much still hangs in the balance.”

Jerrick placed his blaster next to hers and took a seat beside her on the steps. “I know what you mean. But look how far we’ve come, Jordan. We’re outside our own city, we know the truth, we’ve found allies, we’re surviving. And if that’s not enough, I don’t have to call you ‘boss’ anymore.”

Jordan brushed her brown hair behind her ears, shocked by her friend’s comment. She wasn’t sure if she’d heard correctly, but his playful grin confirmed his words. Jordan threw her head back and laughed—it felt great to laugh again—Jordan chuckled so long, Jerrick even joined in.

The two friends sat on the steps in a decaying city and shared the simple joy of unfiltered laughter. “Ahhh, I can’t believe you’re still cracking jokes,” Jordan said.

“We have to. I mean, we’re about to use a wild man’s invention on killer robots. And don’t forget that wherever we are, we’re not on Earth.”

Jordan couldn’t argue. When he put it like that, it did sound rather comical. “We’ll be okay, Jerrick. We didn’t come this far for it all to end now. You’re someone whom I’ve always been able to count on. I owe you—”

Jerrick placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. Jordan tensed at first, then relaxed under his touch. “You don’t owe me anything, Jordan Shepherd.”

The sun was only just touching the sky. Red hues played all around them as Jordan met Jerrick’s intense stare. Before she knew it, she felt her lips gravitating toward his own.

“Jordan! Jerrick!” Leopold’s voice shattered their perfect moment. “Clickers! Clickers at the gates!”

Chapter Sixty-Four

Morning was coming. Rhun stood on the sand dune, his feet sinking into the soft desert floor, back facing the army of tickers that could be heard lightly clicking in the distance. Shield supported by his left arm, spear in his right hand, he prepared himself for the most important speech of his life. Every eye was on him. His soldiers were assembled—the twenty-seven gathered warriors waiting only on his command. “Today we claim a city of our own. Today is the day that free men shout out against those who would control through lies and manipulation. We have all lost and sacrificed much to this point. But, brothers and sisters, we have not given everything. While there is still breath in our lungs, we have more to give.”

Resolved eyes met his. Clenched jaws of men and women gave him heart. Heads slowly nodded in agreement. “This, here and now, is what our future should be. This is what our people’s future will be: members of six entirely different societies working together as one, toward one goal. If they thought they would break us by massing machines at our new home, they were wrong. Dear friends, today we show them the folly in their perfect design.”

Tears moistened Rhun’s eyes as intensity and passion surged within him. He could tell his people were ready. They needed no more motivation or words. Rhun lifted his spear into the air. “Today, we fight for not only our future, but also for all of those still naive to the truth. Today we take our city; tomorrow we spread truth.”

A thunderous shout more befitting an army of a thousand erupted from the chests of his twenty-seven. “Shield line!” Rhun roared.

Twelve shields moved to accompany his own; six to his right, six to his left. Lierna positioned herself directly to his right. Argo was behind him with the group of warriors equipped with slings and javelins. The formation would provide a solid, impenetrable wall to the tickers, while Argo and the others behind them would have the opportunity to send projectiles at the red-lighted machines.

Rhun paused for a moment to catch Ward’s eye. His friend was left with the remainder of their force. Ward’s expression was grim as they exchanged nods. Rhun looked forward over his shield, removing from his mind any thoughts besides war and strategy. The tickers would not be within firing range for a few more yards. Their numbers had grown to nearly three times their own. Rhun knew the shields would hold, but under the pressure of so many energy beams, would his men be able to keep advancing?

“Forward!” Rhun yelled. Shield pressed against shield, heads low and legs crouched, they advanced alongside the rising sun. Thirteen shields closed the distance between themselves and the tickers. Rhun marched beside his men, his head raised just enough to see over the top of his own shield.

The tickers were moving into formation, as well. Instead of rows of the deadly machines, the robots now moved to form one single line. This way, they would maximize their power and perhaps even flank either side of the shield wall.

“Edges,” Rhun yelled, and the two shields at either end of the line rotated to the side. Their bearers would have to traverse the desert ground sideways now, but at least their flanks would not be exposed.

With each second, the city walls loomed ever nearer, the clicking in the air ever louder. Sweat poured into Rhun’s eyes. Lierna moved at his left, adjusting her shield for a better grip. The woman’s fearlessness gave even Rhun strength. No pause in her steps, no hesitation as she moved forward.

Another few seconds would see them within firing range of the ticker’s energy cannons. “Second line ready!” Rhun said with a tilt of his head. Slings were loaded and began to slowly twirl. Javelins were poised and readied.

Rhun counted the seconds in his head. Just before they were in range, he shouted one last encouragement to those around him. “No matter what, we move forward! We move forward for each other; we move forward for a free future!”

Just as Rhun finished his words, chaos erupted across the desert floor. Blue streaks of energy violently collided against shields. Rhun lowered his head and remained in a crouch as he moved forward. Every second felt as if a battering ram was being thrown not only against his shield, but also the entire left side of his body. Despite the amount of energy it took to advance, Rhun still found the words to encourage his men. “Forward!”

Chapter Sixty-Five

Jordan, Jerrick, and Leopold came to a skidding halt beside Alice at the front gates. Alice was already pointing across the desert, arm outstretched. “There’s so many of them. I don’t know how we couldn’t have heard the clicking during the night.”

Jordan followed Alice’s gaze as hope sank within her heart. Across the desert now made visible by the rising sun, was an army of robots. Alice was right. A faint ticking could be heard, even at this distance.

“What do we do?” Leopold asked in a quivering voice.

“Nothing yet,” Jordan said. “We wait until we see signs of Rhu—” Her voice trailed off as she squinted in hopes of confirming what her vision told her was present. Past the army of machines, an almost invisible group headed toward them.

“What is that?” Jerrick asked, craning his neck forward.

“Is that Rhun?” Alice asked.

“I don’t know,” Jordan said. “It looks like—It looks like a short wall.”

Before anything could be deciphered from the scene playing out in front of them, the tickers moved. Instead of a solid mass of machines, the robots spread out in single file, forming a line that spread directly in front of the advancing wall.

“It’s not a wall,” Leopold yelled in disbelief. “Those are shields.”

Jordan raised a hand to protect her eyes from the bright morning sun. Leopold was right, a small group of people behind shields were advancing toward the mass of tickers.

“There’s too many of them,” Jerrick said. “They won’t make it.”

“Yes, they will,” Jordan said. “We’re going to make sure they do.”

Three pairs of questioning eyes swung in her direction. “I’m all for helping,” Leopold squeaked, “but what are we going to do against so many of them?”

Jordan started to move forward. “They don’t know we’ve been able to turn their own weapons against them. They aren’t even looking our way. We’ll surprise them from behind, and when we do, we’ll shoot like our lives depend on it.” Jordan wasn’t much for words. She felt like she’d said enough. Her friends hurried to catch up to her as she exited the city gates in a light jog.

Alice on her left with Leopold and Jerrick on her right, Jordan’s group advanced. At the pace Jordan set, they’d be close enough to open fire soon. Jordan’s shoes sank into the soft desert floor. With each step, it became harder to move forward. She knew it wasn’t the sand sucking her down; it was the weight of her own fear giving her an excuse to stop.

“You know,” Leopold said as he huffed with the rest of the group, “the desert sand is soft. It wouldn’t be too hard or take very long to dig holes.”

Just as Jordan was preparing to ignore yet another seemingly crazy remark from the short inventor, his meaning sunk in. Jordan slowed her pace and nodded at the grinning man. “How many more yards till you think we’re in range? Where should we start digging?”

Jordan watched as Jerrick and Alice exchanged confused expressions. Leopold only grinned wider. “Well, I think a few more yards and we’ll be safe. I’ll inevitably get dirty again, digging. I’ll need another bath.”

Chapter Sixty-Six

Words were beyond him now. With every step, a new meaning of pain was discovered. Rhun dropped his spear in favor of placing both hands on his shield. The parts of his body that weren’t numb from the constant battering were alive with a fiery tingling sensation.

Rhun had led men against the machines before, when fighting for his own city, but there’d never been so many against so few. The tickers were able to concentrate their firepower against the thirteen targets in a constant stream of energy beams that would push against them. As they approached, the intensity of the blasts only heightened. An acrid smell of melting steel permeated the open air. The shields were holding under the intense barrage, but for how long?

A sprinkling of dust washed over Rhun, tickling his ears and falling into his eyes. A quick look to his right confirmed the worst. The man beside him was gone. His shield was lying on the desert ground. There would be nothing to remember him by; only dust in the wind marked his passing. Screams reminded Rhun of his command as the tickers took advantage of the break in the shield wall. They concentrated their firepower on the unprotected second rank.

More shouts and explosions of dust heralded the passing of men and women. “Close the wall! Close the shield wall!”

Lierna and those to his left, along with the men and women to his right shifted, toward the open gap. The chink in their armor was closed once again. Rhun struggled to place one foot in front of the other; the very sand itself was working against him as each step was placed on questionable footing and then forced back.

Those behind the shields were loosing stones and javelins at a mad rate into the line of tickers. Sling after sling was twirled and fired. Javelins by the dozens were sent flying at the mechanical beasts. How many hit their mark, Rhun couldn’t tell; it was a gamble of one’s own life to peek over the shields. It was his responsibility as the leader. “Heads down! Forward,” he yelled again.

As the words came from his mouth, he moved his head above the edge of his shield to see how much progress had been made. A quick jerk up and down, no longer than a second, and Rhun knew all he needed. They were within yards of the machines. Ten, maybe twelve feet and they’d be pressing against the tickers themselves. Their plan was working. Breaks in the enemy line were already showing from well-placed stones and javelins, just a few more feet. The only thing that kept Rhun moving forward was raw determination. His body was exhausted, muscles spent and cramping. Rhun, more than anyone else, knew that your body would do what your mind pushed it to. He called on that belief now as he made the journey of a few feet, which seemed more like a mile.

Three, three more feet. Two, one more! Move! One more, Rhun said to himself. His teeth shook from the constant blow on the opposite side of his shield. The metal itself was beginning to grow warm. More dust sprayed around his shoulders, marking the passing of yet another brave warrior.

“Circle!” Rhun roared over the onslaught of energy beams. Men and women moved to action as soon as the words escaped his mouth.

Lierna was beside him as she angled her shield to the side. Every soldier followed suit, turning the shield wall into a complete circle. Argo and his group crouched in the middle, still sending volleys of stones and javelins out toward the tickers.

Rhun took quick stock of their situation, with both arms, his left shoulder, and even his head pressed against his shield for support. Two shields were down, along with four of Argo’s group. As expected, the tickers were surrounding them. Hurry Ward, Rhun thought. Hurry.

Chapter Sixty-Seven

Jordan dug through the sand like a dog. Legs spread, she bent over and shoveled armfuls of the desert terrain behind her as though life itself depended on it. The tickers were oblivious to their presence, too intent on firing on the advancing line of shields.

Thirty yards to their rear, Jordan, Leopold, Jerrick, and Alice dug holes for cover. Waist deep. It only needs to be waist deep, so you can crouch down when they start to return fire.

Perspiration reminded Jordan of simple days only a week past, days when she’d be at the physical education building inside her own city, performing her personal exercise routine. How different things had become in such a short space of time.

“There, done,” Jordan said to her friends over the incessant sound of clicking and buzzing of energy beams. She looked to her left, where the other three members of her party were also finished with their holes. Before she could jump into her newly formed defensive structure and open fire on the tickers, Leopold yelled something and pointed behind her.

Jordan instinctively reached for her blaster and twisted to her side, ready to fire. However, Leopold wasn’t pointing at a robot. Instead, his attention was directed at a group of people headed around the conflict in front of them. A second later, Jordan was able to pick out Ward’s large frame leading the group. The stocky man ran across the desert as though the devil himself was lashing him with Hades’ whip.

Jordan didn’t have time to think of a new plan before Ward and a company from the main group was in front of her. Ward’s chest heaved up and down at a furious pace. A small child held on tightly to his back, eyes wide with fear. “The city… the city gates,” Ward wheezed. “Can we secure them?”

Jordan nodded. “Yes, when everyone’s inside, we’ll need a group of eight to close them.”

Ward placed the child onto the desert ground as more men and women caught up with him. “Inside, all of you.” Ward motioned with a large arm for the steady stream of people to continue on.

As civilians ran past the confrontation to the safety of the city, those able to fight surrounded Ward, waiting for his next order. “To Rhun and the shield wall,” he said as he unstrapped a heavy stone axe by his side.

“Wait,” Jordan said, hefting her blaster that had yet to be noticed by the group. “We can help. I have a plan.” Ward’s pause as his eyes drifted toward the blaster was all the permission Jordan needed to continue.

Chapter Sixty-Eight

Rhun refused to let his life end while taking shelter behind a shield. Since the move to the defensive posture of a circle, two more shield barriers had fallen prey to the unrelenting force of the energy cannons. Their circle was growing smaller with each passing minute.

“Rhun,” Argo shouted over the clamor of clicking, but Rhun saved his breath for shouting commands and encouragements. Instead of a verbal acknowledgment, he turned his head to Argo and motioned with his chin. “We’re out of stones and javelins. Our men can’t hold the position much longer. What are our orders?”

Rhun could see two things in the young man’s eyes. A glance to his right where Lierna clenched her jaw confirmed what all of his warriors were feeling. Fear of their inevitable end against the machines was undeniable, but a firm resolve in the need for their sacrifice pushed them forward. The heat that emanated off Rhun’s shield was growing. A few more minutes, and either they’d need to abandon the shields from the intense warmth, or more of them would buckle under the constant pressure of the energy beams. Either way, they had one move left to make.

Rhun was beyond exhausted. His body was numb. With defeat eminent, he forced his voice to ring out loud and strong. “Hear me! When I give the command, we charge. They will not take us crouching behind shields and steel. Our sacrifice has already guaranteed the future of a free city. Now, let’s show these machines how firm our resolve truly is!”

Rhun was seconds away from ordering the attack, when the barrage of battering energy suddenly stopped. The consistent, relentless hammering of energy against steel since the beginning of the engagement, ceased. Rhun still couldn’t feel his arm, but the pressure against his body subsided.

Roars not from the throats of those around him filled the void. Blue energy beams struck the tickers from behind their own lines.

Chapter Sixty-Nine

Pain echoed inside Jordan’s right shoulder as she fired blast after blast into the mass of swirling black cubes. The only time she hesitated was when she took a moment to aim.

Her shoulder was jarred roughly time and time again, yet the pain dulled in comparison to the emotion she felt. Here were men and women from every different city, together, sacrificing for one another. Jordan couldn’t comprehend the extent of their selflessness at the moment, but she promised herself she’d never forget the feeling.

When Jordan, Jerrick, Alice and Leopold opened fire, Ward led the remaining escort of warriors to help. At the same time, Rhun had also charged forward with his group, and it seemed as though they had a chance. Now, as the machines adjusted to meet the new assault, the odds skewed back in their favor. Jordan, along with Leopold, Jerrick, and Alice kept up a steady rate of fire. Struck by their own weapons now in their enemy’s hands, the dark cubes crashed to the desert ground, never to move again.

Even at this range, and while firing her blaster, Jordan was in awe of the warriors on the battlefield. Men and women jumped, twisted, and slid from in between bolts of crackling blue energy. Swords, axes, clubs, and other weapons from different cities were wielded expertly, each branded like a tool with one purpose: to find the red eye on each ticker.

A blast directed from one of the tickers to her hole woke Jordan from her trance. The tickers had finally realized they were being fired on amidst the chaos of the battle, and were now seeking out the origin of the enemy barrage.

Soon, tickers by the dozens were leaving the battle with the humans on the ground to concentrate on finding the enemy decimating their superior numbers. Good, the plan’s working, Jordan thought. Now run.

Everything so far had been anything but anticipated. The battle on the ground, and now even the tickers moving toward their hiding spots in the desert terrain. Everything depended on how fast Ward and Rhun could lead their men through the city gates.

As Jordan fired what seemed like the hundredth round into an approaching ticker, her heart jumped in her chest. The warriors were coming. Only yards in front of the approaching robots, but they were coming. Led by Rhun, warriors dashed along the sandy ground, toward the city gates. In seconds, they’d reach Jordan and her friends, and a few more seconds after that, the tickers would be on top of them.

“Out! Get back,” Jordan yelled to her friends. She jumped out of her hole, still firing at the oncoming machines. Her blast struck a dark cube on one of its own energy cannons, sending it spinning into a second, with both exploding as they crashed to the desert floor.

Warriors were passing between herself and the other three members of her party, who were now walking backwards, continuing to fire into the oncoming horde of robots. Jordan knew they’d been successful in downing dozens of the machines; still, it somehow seemed as if for every one blasted or put to rest by a blow to their red eye, two moved in to take its place.

Jordan caught movement to her right. Leopold was retreating with her, keeping a steady line, but his size and lack of strength sent him flying backwards every time he fired his blaster. The little man would send a blue energy beam into the mass of advancing cubes, only to be thrown off his feet each time. He’d then quickly regain his footing, run to catch up to the line again, and send another blast forward, making him repeat the process.

Jordan couldn’t afford to smile, not now. Jogging backwards while firing into the oncoming robots, and dodging their own return shots was all she could handle. Dancing side-to-side, Jordan slowly made her way back to the city gates. They were close; safety was within a fifty-yard run. Almost there, you can do this.

Chapter Seventy

Against all odds, their plan was working. For the first time that day, Rhun found himself running away from the tickers instead of toward them. Shoulder to shoulder with the rest of his men, his warm shield still held firmly in hand, he ran. Blue laser beams sizzled and crackled all around him.

Rhun chanced a glance behind him. As fast as he was, there were simply too many of the machines.

More than one fleeing warrior beside Rhun was turned to dust as bolt met flesh. Rhun would never get used to the idea of life being ended so quickly, so mindlessly. But honoring their memory meant living and finding safety for the others inside the city wall. He silenced the selfish voice that said to take vengeance for those who’d been slain. He pushed aside the idea of turning and aiding the stranger. He needed to get to the gates. He needed to ensure the safety of the surviving group of people already inside the walls. This wasn’t only about him; he needed to do what was best for his people.

Leopold was the first member of the four whom Rhun saw, firing blue energy beams into the tickers. The small man was battered backwards when he fired his weapon. Still, every time a shot pummeled him back, he rose to his feet and fired again. All questions of how Leopold and the others had turned the robots’ weapons against them would have to be answered later. Rhun’s blue eyes took in their situation. Jordan, Leopold, Jerrick, and Alice were covering the retreat. Most of the warriors were already behind them now, making their way inside the gates.

Rhun’s shield practically screamed to be of assistance as he saw Jordan and the others twisting side-to-side to avoid the incoming blasts. He had to protect them; they were his people now, too. Rhun forced burning muscles to move as he raced forward and finally skidded to a stop beside Jordan.

Chapter Seventy-One

Sweat poured down her face and back as she took her eyes off her targets for only a second to give Rhun a nod. Before words were exchanged, Rhun placed his shield in front of the two of them. “Jordan, we need to get back. Tell your people to get inside the city and close the gates.”

Without looking at him, Jordan replied, “We need help closing the gates. The levers are too heavy.”

“Right,” Rhun said, placing his shoulder against the shield as more bolts collided with steel. “Let’s go.”

They were minutes away from complete safety. All they had to do now was run back inside the city and close the gates. Jordan lifted her head over Rhun’s shield to yell to her friends who still held the line. “Back to the city! Everyone’s inside, run!”

Leopold was gathering himself from the ground when he heard Jordan’s voice. Sand cascaded off him as he nodded and ran to the gates. Jerrick did the same, firing one last shot into the approaching enemy ranks. Jordan’s eyes locked with Alice’s next. The young woman nodded at her from across the battlefield, hearing her words and turning to run. One moment, she was there, blonde hair waving through the air, determined eyes locked on Jordan’s; the next moment, she vanished.

Jordan’s mind told her what had happened. Somewhere deep down, Jordan knew her friend was gone. Still, she refused to believe that. In a second, someone who she’d known for so many years had been taken. “Alice!” Jordan screamed. “Alice! No!”

Jordan broke from the cover of Rhun’s shield and started running in the direction her friend had once been. All reason was lost. Shock and anger were the only things Jordan felt. Laser beams flashed out in every direction, yet Jordan saw none of it. She was halfway to where Alice had been standing, when she felt rough hands grab her from behind. “She’s gone,” Rhun said, already beginning to drag her to the city gates. “She’s gone. Mourn later, honor her sacrifice by living, now.”

His words were short; still, it was all she’d needed to hear. Jordan wanted to pull free. With every fiber in her being she felt compelled to continue to fight. But Alice was gone, and nothing she did now would bring her back.

Jordan stopped struggling with Rhun. Instead, she calmed herself. As the wave of anger left her, Rhun released his hold. The wall was only yards away now, as the last two humans outside of the wall approached.

Rhun beside her, Jordan sprinted to the gates before stopping. Ward was just inside the city arches, forming another line of protection with the remaining warriors and shields. Blood dripped from the bald man’s brow as he motioned her forward. “Hurry, get inside. We need to close the gates.”

“Jerrick and Leopold?” Jordan gasped as she entered.

“Report?” Rhun said at the same time.

Ward motioned to the city behind them. “Everyone has taken refuge in the city, but none of that will matter if we can’t close the gates.” Ward shifted his gaze from Rhun to Jordan. “Jerrick and Leopold are in the gatehouse with Lierna and Argo and a few others, trying to close the city gates.”

Rhun was about to say something, when Ward cut him off. “Go, close the gates. Do whatever it takes. Don’t wait for me; I’ll hold the line here.” In one quick motion, Ward grabbed both Jordan’s blaster and Rhun’s shield. He gave Rhun one last look before turning his back and sprinting toward the gates.

Chapter Seventy-Two

“Pull! Pull! Pull!” Leopold was covered in a mixture of sand and sweat. No doubt Jordan would require he take another bath very soon. Those around him, including Jerrick, Argo, Lierna, and a handful of other faces he didn’t recognize, strained against the levers that held the gates open.

“It’s—it’s not budging,” Lierna said. Her face was as bright red as her hair. She strained yet again against the wooden beam.

“It’ll work,” Leopold said. “I checked the chains and pulleys myself a dozen times. We just have to get it moving. Rust has frozen the leverage system to a standstill, but with enough force, we can change that. We need to pull as one body, not as individuals.”

Understanding struck those around him, and Leopold could see they were catching on. “Let’s pause and try this all together,” Jerrick said, arching his back and stretching his tight muscles. All those around him nodded.

“Everyone get a firm grip on the wheel and handles,” Leopold instructed as he worked his small frame in between Jerrick and Argo. If this was going to work, they’d need every ounce of strength available. Even what little help his own muscles could provide, could mean all the difference.

Leopold waited for the others to gain their grip. The wood was solid under his grasp, the large beam itself all but daring Leopold to try to move it. “You are not going to be the reason we fail today,” Leopold said to the stubborn piece of wood. “You will not be our undoing.”

Those still unfamiliar with the small inventor exchanged puzzled looks. “Sorry, he does that from time to time,” Jerrick said, then looked at his friend. “Leopold, are we ready?”

Leopold flinched at the sound of his name. He broke his intense stare at the obstacle before him as he looked around at the men and women all huddled together in the small room housing the gate controls. “Yes, as one. A quick jerk, over and over again, until it starts moving. Don’t stop. Ready? As one!”

Muscles around him bulged. Grunts and gasps escaped out of clenched teeth. Arms quivered and legs fought to find footing on the smooth gatehouse surface. Leopold could feel heat rising to his face. No doubt everyone was putting one hundred percent behind the effort. The wooden beam still refused to rotate. “Again, as one!” Leopold yelled.

Again, the group strained. Over and over again they threw every ounce of their strength behind the wooden beam in an effort to save their newfound city. Nothing was happening, but those trying to close the gates refused to give in to defeat. Perspiration was forming across the group. Leopold could feel his arms begin to shake against the exertion released from his struggling muscles. “Don’t give in!” he said again. “It’s either we fail, or we move this gate!”

As the words escaped his lips, Leopold thought he felt a budge. Too small of a movement to be sure, he put off celebration until the next jerk on the wooden beam. There it was again, the slightest give, accompanied now by a screech of rusty chains. The gates were closing.

Everyone in the room was beginning to realize they were succeeding. Fear and doubt had moments ago been alive amongst the group. Now, joy and hope were beginning to turn the tide of battle.

“As one!” Leopold said. The wheel moved a full foot this time. Their fight was far from over; still, the end was within grasp.

Chapter Seventy-Three

Now the roles were reversed. Jordan found herself holding Rhun back as Ward rushed to a position just outside the gates. Rhun didn’t give her a second glance, his eyes fixated on his friend as Ward drove his shield into the desert sand and crouched behind the cover it provided. “He knows what he’s doing,” Jordan yelled into Rhun’s ear. “We have to get the gates closed, or else we’ve all failed.”

Jordan could feel Rhun’s frame tense under her hold. She knew before he did that he wasn’t going to the gatehouse. He was going to help his friend. Jordan tightened her hold and dug her feet into the ground, bracing herself against the inevitable. Then, with a groan, the gates shuddered. The huge doors that marked the entrance to the city drifted a few inches forward.

A cheer rose from the remaining warriors who stood as the last line of defense just inside the city. Rhun snapped from his trance-like state and yelled to his friend, “Ward! Ward, the gates are closing! Come back!”

Ward was crouched behind his shield, sending blast after blast against the wave of tickers. It was clear, whoever the man was, he was tiring. More blue beams were directed towards Ward. The tickers were close enough now to begin aiming at those inside the open city gates.

The gates began to close faster. Within seconds, the city would be safe. Rhun moved to shake off Jordan’s grip, while more energy blasts came within feet of where they stood. “Let him try to make it on his own,” Jordan said. Tears pooled in her eyes, but she refused to cry. “You can’t honor his sacrifice by dying yourself.”

The tickers were so close now, they practically paralleled Ward and his defensive position.

The gates were more than halfway closed. Ward was bellowing war cries as he crouched on the desert floor, blindly firing the blaster in front of him against the army of robots. “Get inside!” Jordan heard Ward yell. “You’ve done enough. Now it’s my turn.”

The tickers overran Ward’s position.

Rhun sank to his knees, still in Jordan’s firm embrace.

The gates closed.

Chapter Seventy-Four

The hour was late. Torches were lit in a large room. Rhun sat at a last-minute meeting called out of necessity. Tears for all of those who’d lain down their lives that day, streaked his face. Faint lines marking the tear’s passing were left behind, forgotten in the shadow of the unknown. Rhun had bigger things on his mind than whether or not someone knew he cried. He felt no shame for the tears he shed for Ward and the rest of his brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

Now, they were safe for the time being. They had a city they could call their own. How long before they were attacked had yet to be seen. Sooner or later, other cities, even those who’d put this grand experiment into play would come. The room was silent. The sun had set, heralding the coolness of the air.

Rhun sat straight in his chair. Every muscle in his body groaned with fatigue. Yet rest could not be taken now, not when so many had sacrificed so much for the future now entrusted to them. The circular table was full of familiar faces. Surviving representatives from each of the six cities were present, among them sat Jordan, Jerrick, Leopold, Grizla, Lierna, and Argo.

Rhun slowly stood. All eyes in the room fixed on him. The weight of responsibility felt as though a physical pressure lay across his shoulders. “I have no words for the responsibility and privilege we all have as a city, the responsibility to live a life worthy of those who sacrificed themselves for our freedom. We should never take for granted what was done this day. We should never forget at what cost our future was bought.”

The room remained silent while more than one eye shed a tear as memories of those who’d not made it inside the wall pushed to the forefront of thought.

“The best way we can honor our friends and loved ones is through action—action as one people, moving forward toward one purpose,” Rhun said. “We’ve won this battle at great cost, but there’s no doubt, dear friends, that we’re in a very real war. A war started by lies and deception, one that now continues through violence and destruction. In the coming days, we’ll need to focus on shelter and rebuilding the city, as well as obtaining food, and a watchful eye must be kept on the city walls. We also have a plan in place to spread the truth to the remaining cities.”

Rhun noticed Jordan’s jaw open and then close as if she was struggling with whether or not to speak. “This is not a city ruled by one man or woman. If anyone has something to say, please, speak freely.”

Jordan slowly rose from her seat. No tears or lingering signs of their passing showed on her face. “You’re not alone, Rhun. None of us are alone anymore. We’ll rebuild, we’ll survive, and we will take the truth to those still kept in darkness. I want to volunteer to start the process of sharing the truth. I want to start tonight.”

Leopold jumped up from his seat, a grin spreading across the filthy man’s face. “A grand idea! I’ll help.”

“We can start rebuilding and find shelter for those in the city,” Lierna said, motioning to herself and Argo.

“I’ll see to the food,” Grizla volunteered.

“The wall will need to be guarded,” Jerrick said. “I can coordinate a watch around the clock.”

More voices from the others at the table joined the chorus of volunteers. Chairs were slid back as people rose to their feet and offered assistance in whatever way they could. Rhun took a deep breath, looking out across the room as individual conversations broke out. A foundation was being laid that night, one that brought unity to six very unique groups of people. No doubt a very long and harsh road lay in front of them; still, with people willing to work side by side, they stood more than a chance.

Chapter Seventy-Five

Exhaustion wasn’t a strong enough word to describe how Jordan felt. The sun was just beginning to rise. The previous day’s events replayed themselves in her head as her hands worked mechanically. The defense of the city, Alice’s sacrifice, the mountain of questions she still had, and now the most important job she’d ever held.

Jordan and Leopold worked through the night. They stood at the same table the meeting had taken place at hours before. Instead of a council, now only the two of them remained, silent and intent on their work. On the assembly line of two, Jordan’s fingers flew over her task: small metal rotors placed onto an even smaller metallic body that Leopold passed to her. He’d already informed her of how it was all supposed to play out; however, lack of sleep now muddled the details. “I know you’ve explained this to me, Leopold, but how exactly is this going to work?”

Leopold turned, handing her yet another small metallic structure. If the man was weary, he showed no sign of fatigue at all. “Well, the section I’m making will hold the note. You’re holding the rotors that will propel our invention into the air. The energy source in the clicker’s weapons are so much more powerful than I thought. I was able to divide and share the energy across our designs. With Rhun’s map of where the other cities lie, we have the correct coordinates.”

Jordan forced her mind to wrap around this information. “How will these things know when to drop the notes?”

“Upon closer inspection I have a much better understanding of the clicker’s power source now. If I’m correct with my calculations, I’ve timed each device to drop its note when it’s over its specific city.” Leopold reached across the table and spread out a large piece of paper—the same map of the surrounding landscape Jordan had seen when she first sat down to speak with Rhun. Now, mathematical equations, lines, and graphs had also been drawn on the map. Leopold traced a skinny finger along certain paths as he began to explain. “You see, if we take the distance that each city is—”

Jordan raised both hands. “Actually, it’s okay. As long as you know how it works, that’s all that matters.”

Leopold nodded, content to fulfill her request. “We’re about finished here. Our little guys are ready to fly and spread the news. We’re only missing one thing.”

“What’s that?” Jordan asked.

“I thought you should be the one to write the note. The letter to be sent to the cities is a job better suited for you. I’d probably bore them with scientific talk and reasoning. If you write the first draft, we can employ the help of others to copy your note until we have enough.” Before Jordan could speak, Leopold raised a finger. “Oh, and I have the perfect companion to accompany your note. If there’s any doubt that our message is anything but the truth, this should help.” Leopold ran around the table to rummage through a stack of his belongings. In a few moments, he returned with a large book. “The Codex that they gave us to follow. It holds all of the truth they’ll ever need to know. We can send a page with every note dropped. And have no fear, I’ve read the book a dozen times, myself. I have all of its knowledge.”

Jordan smiled through her weariness. “I like the idea. We’ll use the very thing they wrote to keep us in line as a tool against them.”

Chapter Seventy-Six

Another day passed, and now they were ready. Jordan stood on the top of the wall alongside every member of their new city. All who were gathered held small, steel machines in each hand. Specific instructions for each person were passed along beforehand, on which direction to release their machine when it was time. Hundreds of Leopold’s flying contraptions, equipped with both a copy of the letter Jordan had written and pages from the original Codex, were ready to be released.

Jordan’s gaze turned from the small children eagerly waiting to release their tiny flying machines, to the elderly eyes full of hope for what their actions might bring. The sun was just beginning to crest the horizon as Jordan stared out across the vast desert. Tiny roving figures crisscrossed the landscape; tickers unable to cause harm now roamed mindlessly.

She hadn’t planned on saying anything. Now that the moment was upon her, Jordan felt compelled to say a few words. Each hand clutching one of Leopold’s machines, she turned to address the gathered group. “You all know why we’re here. In seconds, we’ll release the truth to the remaining cities. Soon, the air will be filled with hundreds of letters timed to be dropped above each of the other five cities as these machines pass over them.”

Jordan paused as memories of her own city flashed through her thoughts. Her mother and father would know the truth. Everyone she knew would be forced to make a decision. It would put them in danger’s way, but they all deserved to know, no matter what the cost. “Our fight is not over; our battle is just beginning. But for the first time, a group of free people has stood up and refused to be led blindly. We will not remain silent as cities are destroyed and lives are ended. Together, we will stand firm in the truth and live in its freedom.”

Jordan turned her back to the crowd as a cheer erupted. The rising sun warmed her face as she lifted her hands into the air. Facing forward, she released her machines. Free of her grip, the tiny mechanical messengers whirred to life and took flight toward their destination. Within seconds, the silence ended with the noise of small propellers batting against the air. Hundreds of machines were released.

Jordan wrapped her arms across her chest, looking from side to side. Her friends were all grinning; congratulatory hugs and high-fives were mixed with the release of more and more notes. It was impossible to tell what the future held, yet whatever was in store for their new city, Jordan was confident that united as one people free of lies, they would thrive.


Dear Fellow Citizen and Friend,

I am writing to you now from a very real and safe place outside of your own walls. You and those before you have been manipulated and kept from the truth.

You are not alone. Six cities have been established, each led by one man or woman who knows the reality of our situation. We are all part of an experiment to see what social and political structure is the strongest. This experiment was set in place by an unknown faction we believe resides in a pyramid in the center of our cities.

This next part I know is impossible to hear but the very planet we believe we reside on is nothing more than a complicated fallacy. Once you step outside of your city gates you will see the truth in the sky above us.

If you have not been instructed to do so already, your city leader will soon suggest that an army be raised and venture outside of your own walls. They will lead you in a war against the remaining cities until only one survives.

Through lies and deception, you and your loved ones will be forced to kill, all of this under a false pretense of safety and civic duty. I am here to tell you there is another way. Break free of the bonds ignorance brings and ask questions. Challenge what you are told to believe.

This letter alone should be proof enough of the lies you are fed. If you require more evidence, look to the papers that are dropped with each note. These are pages from a book given to each city leader to instruct them on how events should progress.

I know how you feel. I know how this must sound. Not long ago, I was in your same position. If this letter makes you think twice about how your city is run, then that is enough. If you are thrown from your city, or manage to leave on your own, follow the setting sun to the sea. We will find you

The way is dangerous, but there is sanctuary for all in our Free City. Be brave enough to take the first step.

Hope exists,

Jordan Shepherd

Member of the Free City

A Special Note For You

I know. I know. There’s still so much of this story to be explored. I feel you. I didn’t want to stop writing book one either. Trust me though, this is a good stopping point until we pick up the story in the second book.

Thank you for taking the time out of your day to read my work and now read the personalized letter at the end. I’m grateful for fellow book lovers like you.

I know this may seem strange but I don’t outline when I write. It’s not how my mind works and it takes away the fun of writing for me if I know what’s going to happen in the book.

I like to discover what the storyline has in store as I type the words. It’s like I’m on the adventure with Rhun and Jordan as I write the book. I know, crazy right? But I never said I was sane.

As soon as I finish writing you this letter I’m going to start on writing book two in the Pandora Experiment, Survive. I can’t wait to see what kind of people the other cities hold and what’s happened to them. Oh, and see who’s in the pyramid. I want to do that in the next book too! And explain where they are and how they got there. Book two is going to be a blast!

I have plans for this series to be at least three novels with the possibility open to expand to six if the demand is there from readers like you.

I’m sure you get asked this a lot but if you have a moment to spare would you please leave an honest review for Thrive? Even if it’s a short sentence just saying you enjoyed the read, it really adds credibility to my work.

Well that’s it from me. If you’ve read any of my other books you know I always end with a personal invitation to stay in touch. I have two options for you below.

1) I have a private group on Facebook I created for all of us to hang out. There are over two hundred likeminded readers who enjoy everything you do. We’re there just sharing cool new books, movies and the occasional meme. Join The Pack here

2) I know some readers don’t like using Facebook and/or would rather just receive an email with info when new books are out. I totally get that. If you’d like to be part of The Pack via our newsletter, you can go to and join the ranks.

As always you are the very best. Know that you’re valued and your pack is with you,


The Pandora Experiment: Box Set of Books 1 - 3

The Pandora Experiment: Box Set of Books 1 - 3

The Pandora Experiment: Box Set of Books 1 - 3

Survive Book 2 of the Pandora Experiment


If you think this book is awesome at all it’s only because I have a pack of rabid ARC Wolves, a wonderful editor and a talented cover artist. Thank you for your help.




Eagle Eyes


Editor - Kimberly

Cover Illustrator - Steve

To Ruby and Meagan, Happy Birthday!

- Jonathan

Chapter One

Life is a series of obstacles. Rhun understood this better than most. The key to survival, especially out here on an alien world, was to take comfort in the struggle.

Rhun embraced the challenges life brought better than most. Not everyone was like him. Leopold was one of these other people.

“There’s just so much to do, so much to do.” The crazed former leader of his own city scratched at his grey and white beard. “We need to make a list, and at the top of that list should be a visit to the council. They’ll know what order to put all this mess in.”

Rhun looked over at Jordan. She shrugged with the pull of a smile at her lips. It was the morning after they had sent out Leopold’s flying messengers to deliver Jordan’s notes to the remaining five cities.

The hot sun was just beginning to beat back the darkness, the twin planets overhead a consistent reminder they had no idea where they were. It was as if they poked and prodded Rhun with their very existence, reminding him he was playing a game at which he was still learning the rules.

The three stood in Leopold’s crumbling quarters overlooking the broken city below.

“If you need to talk to the council, you do that.” Jordan moved over to gaze out from the balcony at the city below. The stench on the wind from the dead in the city made her nose wrinkle, not for the first time. “For the sake of controlling disease in our own walls, we need to do something about the corpses. As much as I would like to get answers about where we are and who did all of this to us, if we can’t stay healthy, we’ll all face more serious problems.”

“I agree.” Rhun joined Jordan looking out at the city. He folded his muscular arms over his chest. “The gates are sound. I’ve placed a watch on them around the clock. We’ll need food next. There is plenty of water in the city wells.”

Leopold joined the two city leaders. He stood between them and placed a hand on each of their backs as if he were giving them a group hug. “I’m so glad I’m not alone anymore. I’d like to take a closer look at the clickers. Not only can I fashion more blasters from them, but the more I know about their origin, the better off we’ll all be.”

The plan made sense to Rhun. Although Leopold’s mind was broken, there was no doubt he was a brilliant man. He might even be able to figure out what metals Rhun’s own shield was made from. If he could construct more shields and maybe even armor, then they would be that much better off the next time they faced the tickers.

“I’ll need some help to lug around the clickers.” Leopold moved his hands from the backs of his friends. He screwed up his face in thought. “Jerrick’s a strong kid. Maybe he can help me salvage a clicker or two from the front gates.”

“I’m sure he’d love that,” Jordan said with a playfully sarcastic smile.

“When you open the gates, you should have an escort with you and do not stray far.” Rhun made his way to leave the room and begin the day’s work. “Tickers move quickly. If they know our gates are open, they can send more.”

“Understood, understood, General Leonidus,” Leopold said with a fake salute. It sounded as if the madman were trying to be funny, but there was no smile on his face. He was serious. “We just took this city back from them. I’m not going to hand it over again.”

Rhun had no idea who this Leonidus was, but it seemed to be a compliment, so he didn’t read too far into it. He knew he shouldn’t, but he couldn’t help ask the question. “Leopold, who do you think ‘them’ is? Who do you think is behind all of this?”

Rhun’s last words caught Jordan’s attention. She looked first to Rhun and then to Leopold to see what he would say.

A shadow came over the elderly man’s face. The normal cheerful insanity Leopold was known for disappeared under the weight of that question.

“I’ve thought about that for a long time.” Leopold’s voice grew deeper, thick with emotion. “I’ve been alone for a long time, so I’ve had time to look at that question from all angles. The Codex calls them ‘The Founders’ but doesn’t say more. Whoever they are, I’d bet my best wooden nickel they’re not human. But conjecture might be unneeded. We’ll see them soon for ourselves.”

Rhun had to do a double take to make sure he had heard Leopold correctly. “We’ll what? Why would you think that?”

“They’re the constructors of this grand game they’ve set in place.” Leopold screwed Rhun with a look that asked him if he was stupid. “We’ve gone off script by taking a city for ourselves with members from five different cities. This isn’t in their plan. We’ve broken the rules. I don’t think they’re going to like that.”

Leopold waved at the sky over the city showing the pair of alien planets. It was true within the walls of the other cities the sky would have been normal, one sun during the day, one moon at night. It was as if someone had flipped a switch, turning off the lie that had been projected on their new city. What was the point anyway? Anyone inside of Leopold’s city now knew the truth.

Rhun looked over to Jordan as he considered Leopold’s words.

An expression of raw determination crossed her eyes. She caught him looking at her and gave him a nod. “It’s something else we’ll have to watch for now, but honestly, I wouldn’t mind getting a visit from these Founders. I’m going to ask them where the heck we are in the universe. That still bothers me.”

“Let’s hope if they come, we’ll be in a position to defend ourselves if talks go the other way.” Rhun looked at Leopold with a questioning glance. “What is it?”

Leopold looked like he was ready to burst with laughter. His right hand was on his stomach while his left covered his mouth.

“Oh, oh, it’s just that if the Founders do come, you have to imagine they’ll eviscerate us. I mean, the technology at their disposal to have created all of this would make the clicker technology we’re stealing from them seem like a child’s drawing compared to a master painter’s most famous work.” Leopold continued to chuckle, grabbing his stomach. “They’d smash us like a bug.”

Jordan shook her head as Rhun moved to open his mouth and ask what was wrong with the man. He decided to save his breath. Instead, Rhun turned and walked down the broken stone steps to the ground floor.

There was work to be done. They had a very serious problem, the same problem that had plagued mankind since the beginning of time. They needed food. For the time being, they could take shelter in the skeleton of Leopold’s broken city. That would have to be addressed soon as well. But with Jordan removing the dead bodies, that was a start.

Rhun wove his way down streets still confusing to him towards the wall where the rest of their community decided to take up residence. Grizla poked her head out of an empty window. She smiled. Her smile was not only out of place in the ruined city; it was completely uncalled for. That was one of the many things Rhun loved about the older woman. She had one of the most optimistic attitudes of anyone he knew.

“You look like you’ve just gotten more bad news.” Grizla leaned out of her window. Her elbows propped her up as she weighed the expression on Rhun’s face. “We’re alive. We made it to our very own city. Things will happen, and happen again. Either way, we’re going to deal with them with a smile or a tear, so let’s smile as much as we can. Now what can I do to help?”

Not for the first time, Rhun found himself marveling at the woman’s demeanor. The idea that she harbored no ill will towards him was also present. Grizla belonged to city five, the same city Rhun was ordered to march on before refusing to slaughter innocent lives, before the civil war with his own city began.

Grizla had never brought up the subject. Rhun was sure she knew. The ebony-skinned woman was the wisest outcast from any city he had come across. Ward’s death still so fresh in his mind, Rhun took the opportunity to apologize to the woman for his actions against her city. If his death day was coming soon, he wanted to make sure she knew how he felt.

“Grizla.” Rhun cleared his throat. “I want you to know that the actions of my city against your own—what we—what I was going to do against your people—”

Grizla gave him a harsh look before disappearing from her window. A moment later, she traveled through the open door of the house. She stood in front of Rhun. Her short greying hair and slender frame contrasted with the intensity in her eyes.

“Rhun Tarhound,” Grizla lifted an eyebrow, “you let that go. You’ve been through enough and still you will be through more. You didn’t attack my city. You turned on your own before they had a chance. If anything, I should be thanking you for what you did. I’ve not brought it up because I don’t want you to have to revisit that moment in your life, although I see that you have done that to yourself plenty of times already.”

“I would have.” Rhun paused as memories he had buried so deep in his psyche struggled to the surface. “I would have marched on your city. I would have led my warriors against your gates like a tidal wave if it had not been for the words of my wife. I don’t deserve your credit or thanks. She does.”

Grizla lifted Rhun’s chin. “Then I thank her. She sounds like an amazing woman. And I thank her for crafting you into the man you are today. Is she resting with her ancestors now?”

“I don’t know.” Rhun thought back to yet another question that plagued his waking dreams. “I’m a wanted man in my city. If she is alive, I cannot imagine those in power looked kindly on her. But she’s a survivor. More than anything, I want to go back for her. It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, leaving her. There was no other choice. I had hundreds of warriors following me into the desert. I couldn’t abandon them, so I abandoned her.”

“If you take responsibility for everything, the weight of this alien world will crush you,” Grizla chided the large man. “I’m sure she’s proud of the decision you made by the man you’ve become. You’ll see her again one day. Love has a way of working things out.”

“Right.” Rhun cleared his throat again, remembering what he was on his way to do in the first place. “We need to start thinking about food. Leopold mentioned there being wells here while I was speaking with him yesterday. That will solve our water issue. Food is another problem altogether.”

“I’ve seen a few gardens and small fruit orchards that need to be tended to, but you’re right; that is a long-term solution.” Grizla cocked her head to the side. “What we need right now is a short-term solution. Fish were plentiful enough in the sea, but we no longer have that option.”

“Our option may have to be to make runs to the sea until we can find a better solution,” Rhun mused out loud.

“Don’t forget the scouting parties to the other cities.” Grizla reminded Rhun of the pairs of scouts he was used to sending to spy on the other cities’ gates and try to rescue anyone that was released from their own walls. “With the letters we sent to the other five cities, there are sure to be questions raised and perhaps more citizens released from their own walls to swell our numbers.”

Rhun felt the vanguard of a headache coming on. It appeared it was one battle to take a city and an entirely different one to maintain it.

Chapter Two

Rhun Tarhound The Last Day He Saw His Wife

Rhun sat at the edge of his bed. Elbows on his knees, fingers laced together. It was the morning he would lead his centurions into battle with the bulk of the city’s army.

Until now, only scouting parties had been out past the wall. They’d encountered and defeated the machines before, but never like this. Always, one or two of the clicking black cubes traveled together. This time, there was a horde of the cubes at their gates, waiting patiently for them to appear.

“Allow me to lead my men well,” Rhun whispered in a prayer. “If I die, then let it be in the name of my city, beside my brothers and with my spear in the heart of an enemy.”

“Amen.” His wife’s voice finished his prayer for him. “Oh—and forget all the things he just said about death. Please bring my darling husband home safe to me.”

Rhun turned to look over at his wife. There was a smile already on his lips. She lay in a thin tank top and underwear beneath a white sheet. The sun hadn’t quite risen yet to do her beauty justice.

“You know that’s what I want more than anything,” Rhun told her, brushing a curly strand of dark brown hair from her eyes.

“Then pray for that,” she said, rising to a seated position. She cupped his chin in both her hands, leaning in to plant a firm, hungry kiss on his lips. “You will come back. I’ll see you again soon.”

Rhun nodded, refusing to tell his wife about the feeling of unease that had descended on him. It had grown over the last few weeks. There was a strange new world outside the gates of their city, a world where two planets hung in the sky and no one had answers.

Scientists tried to explain it one way, theologians another, and scholars another still. The truth of the matter was that it remained a mystery as to why a sun and moon rose and fell over the sky of their city while, outside of the wall, a much hotter sun burned and two planets hung in the sky.

The civilian populace had not been told the news. Neither had most of the city army. The only ones that knew were those scouts that had ventured outside of the wall.

“You have the look on your face again,” Rhun’s wife teased him. “The same one you had when I told you my parents were going to stay with us while their dwelling was repaired. That unease grew on you in the days leading up to their arrival.”

“You know me too well,” Rhun gave her a kiss on her nose before rising from his bed and dressing in his sandals and tunic. “You seem calm.”

“Because I know the great Rhun Tarhound, leader of the elite centurion fighting force, will come back to me.” Rhun’s wife rose from her bed, joining her husband by the mirror. “You go soldiering and do what you do second best in this world. Then come back to me and do what you do best and be my husband.”

Rhun turned around to embrace his wife and press his lips against hers once more. If he’d known it would be the last time he would hold her, he wouldn’t have left.

“I love you,” Rhun told his wife as their embrace came to an end. “I’ll be back.”

“I love you more,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.”

Rhun clenched his jaw and left their house. He didn’t trust himself to stay longer. He had to go now or staying longer might turn into a bad idea. The voice in his head that warned him of trouble coming was growing louder and louder.

The streets were buzzing with activity as word spread that the army was gathering at the front gates of the city. Rhun walked quickly to where his men would be stationed at the front of the force preparing to leave.

Those citizens that recognized him looked at his broad shoulders and wide chest in awe. Some nodded, others waved. Rhun tried to return as many of their hellos as he could. His mind was already transitioning to cheerful and friendly, how he needed to be to see his men arrive safely back home. An intense focus was setting in as his mind ran scenarios. A list of things that needed to be done before they left played in his mind over and over again.

When Rhun finally reached the city wall and the large steel gates at the front of the city, he noticed two things at once. First, the sounds the machines made, that low ticking, barely penetrated through the wall. If he stopped and listened closely, he could still hear it.

Second, soldiers were already beginning to arrive. A thousand men and women strong, led by his own elite unit of centurions made up of one hundred of the strongest, fastest, and most skilled warriors he had handpicked. They would lead the charge, with Rhun at the front.

“There he is.” Rhun’s second in command Ward came up to him carrying his breastplate, vambraces, and greaves. The armor had been created and tested to turn a blast from the machines on the other side of the wall. “Into the belly of the beast this morning. The men are a bit nervous but more so eager to begin.”

Rhun found himself grateful to have Ward as his second. Ward was a stout warrior and a loyal soldier. He wouldn’t buckle or fold under pressure. Rhun knew he could count on him until the end.

“Any word from our friends?” Rhun asked as he secured his breastplate. Ward worked his greaves onto his shins. “They seemed eager to send one of their own on this mission.”

“Funny you should mention that,” Ward said in a tone that said what he was about to say wasn’t funny at all. “Claudius Shire arrived a few minutes before you did with a retinue of House soldiers. He said the House asked him to accompany the excursion.”

Rhun used the last leather buckle to pull his armor tight over his chest. He moved on to his vambraces next while Ward brought his helmet, spear, and shield.

“More Like Claudius Shire will be watching from the back shouting orders,” Rhun growled. “We have enough to worry about taking on these machines outside of our gates without worrying what games the House has in store.”

“Oh, you mean like electing not to tell the army that there are two planets overhead and a hotter sun as soon as we exit the city?” Ward smiled, handing him first his helmet and then his shield. “What could go wrong as we crush everything our soldiers thought they knew regarding where we are in the universe?”

Rhun shook his head, exhaling a large swell of air. His dark red armor fit over his black tunic perfectly. The helmet he wore had a T-shaped opening from his eyes, nose, and mouth. The shield he carried was oval-shaped, and if he hunched, capable of providing his entire body with cover. Lastly, Rhun accepted his spear from Ward. The strong wood and metal tip stretched a full two feet over his six-two frame.

“We’ll need to be prepared to fight back their fear once we destroy the machines.” Rhun looked to Ward for consensus. “Men do strange things when they realize their government has lied to them.”

“Just give them one of your epic speeches and calm their hearts.” Ward grinned past his dark beard. “Your men love you because you lead from the front. They’d follow you into hell itself.”

“General Tarhound, General Tarhound.” Claudius Shire’s annoying nasally voice filled the air between them. “I need a word with you.”

“Save yourself,” Rhun said, rolling his eyes at Ward.

“I said hell itself, and this is as close as I’ve gotten so far,” Ward said with a wink as he remained at his friend’s side. “I may regret this.”

“Oh good, General Tarhound, Colonel Remus, you’re both here.” Claudius smoothed down his white tunic under the grey armor that had never seen wear. “The House requests that I warn you again not to mention the status of the world beyond our gates until we defeat the machines. I will speak to the men on behalf of the House and give them understanding about the world outside our walls once the threat is dealt with.”

“We serve the people.” Rhun nodded, placing a closed fist across his chest. “Once we defeat the machines, you are free to address the army.”

“The people and the House, lest you forget your place.” Claudius also placed his right hand into a fist and placed it across his chest. “Well, let’s get a move on. We have a battle to begin.”

“And I’m sure you’ll be watching from the back?” Rhun couldn’t help himself. “I wouldn’t want the best senator the House has to offer to fall wounded or come into any harm.”

Claudius narrowed his eyes as if he were trying to figure out if Rhun was toying with him or being serious. “I will be supervising your efforts from a safe distance. I am not here as combatant, but as the eyes and ears of the House and democracy itself.”

Without another word, Claudius turned on his heel. His retinue of a dozen guards joined him as he retreated to the rear of the army.

“You shouldn’t push like that,” Ward reminded Rhun as the two soldiers turned back to the gates. “You know there are those in the House that would see you removed and one of their puppets put in your place. It’s only because your centurions will follow, no other, that you retain the title.”

“That and because the Alpha Centaury has always led his army from the front,” Rhun reminded his friend as they walked among the ranks of the gathered army, nodding and bolstering morale just by being there. “There’s not a House senator that exists that would make it in an engagement leading the front line.”

Ward nodded along with Rhun’s words. As they made their way to the front gate, the manic clicking of the machines on the other side of the barrier grew in intensity. Rhun felt it necessary to speak over the noise to hearten his soldiers. Left to their own devices amongst the incessant chatter, fear might grow in the hearts of his soldiers.

The city army was already armored and beginning to form their ranks of a hundred across and ten deep. Rhun cleared his throat to make sure his voice carried as he searched the army for familiar faces.

“Hold that shield close, Aeneas,” Rhun roared with a smile on his lips. “It will serve you well before the day is gone.”

“Yes, Alpha Centaury!”

“Don’t look so gloom!” Rhun roared to a group of soldiers he didn’t know who spoke in hushed whispers. “Today we make history. Do not let the noise of machines still your hearts. We are about to roar back to them!”

“Alpha Centaury!”

The shouts filled the air as Rhun continued to bolster their morale. He walked as tall as he could, wishing he were taller still to give men a symbol of immortality to rally behind. Yes, he was a man, but if he could inspire others who imagined him as something more, well then, he was fine with that.

Soon Rhun and Ward made it to the front gate, where the one hundred Centurions waited. They were set apart from the rest of the unit with their black tunics and blood red armor compared to the black tunics and brown armor the rest of the army wore.

“It’s a great day, centurions!” Rhun took his place at the head of their number. “Now who’s tired of hearing this mindless chatter of a question? I say we give them our answer!”

Chapter Three


Leopold rolled his eyes at Jerrick as the two men stood in the gatehouse along with the other five members of their new city Leopold had convinced to help them.

“No, I’m not talking about opening the gates all the way. I just need these doors to open long enough to slip out and grab a clicker or two or three or as many as we can get, really.” Leopold’s mind wandered for a moment in the brief silence. “Hey, have you ever had a milkshake? I really miss milkshakes. We should put someone on that right away.”

“Leopold, focus.” Jerrick brought the old man back. “I’ll help you, but we have to be quick and get word from the wall that there are no tickers in sight. Did you clear this with Jordan or Rhun?”

“Yes, yes, and even if I hadn’t, they’re not the boss of me.” Leopold spat on his hands and rubbed them together as he went toward the massive wheel that opened and closed the doors. “All right. Let’s do this, boys. Give it the old heave-ho. The old college try a crank or two should do it.”

Jerrick took up his spot near Leopold, grabbing on to the circular log that acted as the main cog to open and close the gates.

“On three,” Jerrick coached the other men who fell in line beside them. “We’ve got it lubed and some of the rust off since we worked it last. It shouldn’t be as difficult as before. “One, two…”

Leopold couldn’t stop chuckling to himself.

Jerrick stopped his countdown. “What is it, Leopold?”

“You said ‘lubed.’” Leopold cracked a toothy grin. “That’s a funny word.”

“And you were your city’s leader.” Jerrick said the words as if he were still coming to grips with the idea.

“City leader and lead scientist.” Leopold shook his head. “Enough of me and my exploits. I’m sorry for the interruption. Let’s start the countdown once more.”

“Three, two, one, pull!” Jerrick said to the others as they heaved upward on the gigantic gate wheel. True to his word, the gate pulley system obeyed their command. Very slowly, the wheel turned, opening the gates.

“That should do it,” Leopold said. He left his position at the gatehouse wheel. He ran to the window in the building to look at the gate. “We don’t want to open it too much and give Rhun and Jordan a conniption.”

“Right, a conn—a what?” Jerrick asked, joining the elderly man.

Leopold ignored the question, looking back at the group of men who had helped them turn the wheel. If he wanted to get as many of the clickers as he could into the city to take them apart and learn how they worked, he would need as much help as he could get.

“All right, you motley crew of beauties.” Leopold waved for them to follow. “We’re going to get all the downed clickers and bring them inside the wall. I need to get a closer look at how they were built. I’ll be able to fashion more blasters and who knows what else.”

The group of men nodded to one another once Leopold mentioned being able to make more weapons. They joined him and Jerrick as they jogged to the open gates. The massive gates leading into the city were twenty feet tall. The wall itself dwarfed the gate rising up more than twice the gates’ height.

A woman on lookout duty waved down. “All clear as far as I can see.”

Leopold heard the woman and gave her a wild wave. He was so eager to get outside and claim more alien technology, he barely stopped to acknowledge the woman. Thus far, he had been able to take a close look at the two clickers he had fashioned the first four blasters from. More of the machines gave him a wider ability to test without fear of running out of the energy the machines contained.

The sun blinded Leopold for a moment as he ran through the open crack in the gate doors. The clickers lay sprawled out in disarray from the battle that had taken place only days before.

No deceased humans remained from the fight. Their clothes and bodies had been turned to ash as soon as a clicker beam of blue energy struck them. What did remain were the armor and shields they had used. It seemed Rhun’s city had found a mix of metals that protected the users from the clicker blasts. This was yet another thing Leopold wanted to look into.

So much to do, so much to do, so little time, Leopold thought to himself. Doesn’t look like there’s going to be much time for sleep or bathing in my future. I need to make more blasters, see if I can craft armor, dissect these machines, and figure out how to make a milkshake without milk.

“Right,” Leopold said, running to the closest motionless machine. The black cube was smooth. It came up to his chest. Leopold ran a hand along a single side of its body. It was warm to the touch. “Let’s get these inside the city gates.”

Leopold heaved against the machine. It didn’t move at all. He bent his back and lifted. A grunt escaped his lips. Pressure and heat built in his face as he released a lungful of air. Still nothing happened.

“This thing has to weigh a ton.” Leopold stood back as Jerrick came to help. “I may be able to construct some kind of sled or—”

Leopold stopped talking as Jerrick sized up the cube. He squatted down on the far side, working his hands between the dead machine and the sandy floor. Back straight, with a heave, he lifted the cube and tossed it end over end.

“Or we can just do that too.” Leopold grinned. “Come on then; start rolling them. Let’s go. We’re burning daylight.”

“We’ll get them inside,” Jerrick said, tossing the cube end over end again. “It’s like flipping a tire.”

All around them, cubes were being sent one rotation at a time toward the city gate. Leopold felt useless as men younger and much stronger than he made use of their youth and did the heavy lifting.

“I can still help,” Leopold yelled to no one and everyone at once. Without prompting, he began running to each of the men taking in the clickers, offering them water from the canteen he had clipped on his hip. They all had to do their part, and for the moment, if that meant Leopold played the part of an overactive water boy, so be it.

In a world where they were fighting for their very survival, ego had no place. Leopold knew that better than most. He had seen his entire city crumbled in front of his eyes as the populace revolted and opened the gates to the wall much too soon.

When the clickers had come in, it was a massacre. Leopold still woke at night screaming at the memories of his loved ones being eviscerated in front of his eyes.

The morning turned into afternoon before the group of weary men rolled the last clicker inside the wall. While they had been outside the gates, there had been no cry from their lookout of danger whatsoever.

This was curious to Leopold as he worked tired muscles helping to close the gates once more. The Founders were allowing them to do all of this, that he was sure of. They kept tabs on everything and everyone that was involved in this game. Why they weren’t stopping them from collecting their own tech was something Leopold could only guess at. He arrived again and again at the horrifying thought that the Founders possessed technology so advanced, they didn’t care if Leopold and the others had the knowledge the clickers possessed.

When the gate finally closed, Leopold was left with a pile of motionless clickers just inside the wall. They were all damaged to one extent or the other. Some of them downed by blasters had holes in them while others taken out by Rhun’s men had their glass lenses destroyed.

“Well, good going, everyone; that was a solid team effort but there’s no ‘rest’ in team. We need to get these clickers through the city and to my workshop. Well, it’s more of a blown-up workshop now, but either way, we need to get moving. Who’s with me?” Leopold asked as he wiped a sheet of sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his sweat-stained tunic. “Anyone?”

Jerrick’s black t-shirt he wore from his own city was also drenched in sweat. He talked briefly with the rest of the men, then moved to speak with Leopold.

“We’re with you. We are. They just need a moment to rest and get some food before we press on.” Jerrick motioned to the fatigued men as they went in search of food. “You understand, right? I mean, you should probably get some food in you too.”

“Oh, right,” Leopold said sheepishly. “Sometimes I’m not that great with living, breathing people. I’ve been around the dead for so long, I forget the still-living need things like food and rest.”

“You should get some of those things too,” Jerrick told the aged city leader. “Your body needs fuel to run on. It’ll take care of you if you take care of it.”

“Right, right.” Leopold moved to examine and count the clickers beside him. “Eat, rest, and a fuel sleep.”

“Fuel sleep? I’ve lost you, haven’t I?” Jerrick asked, half frustrated, half smiling.

“We brought in fifteen clickers.” Leopold counted his fingers ending at the number ten. “If I can salvage their blasters, added to the other four, we already have, then we’ll have thirty-four blasters all together. Then I need to study the armor Rhun brought. If I can replicate that, we’ll be able to defend and equip our own soldiers.”

“More weapons, more ways to kill one another,” Jerrick said with a heavy sigh. “I mean, I get it. I’m willing to die to defend this place. It’s the last beacon of hope that exists on this planet. At least as far as we know, but when does the killing stop? When do we stop having to defend ourselves from robots and the humans and who knows what aliens that set this all in place? I can’t believe I just said the word ‘aliens’ seriously.”

“We have to be prepared as long as we draw breath,” Leopold said in a rare moment of clarity. “We have to be ready not to take life but to defend it from those who would. That’s a calling that will never end.”

Leopold took a long sigh as memories from his past, his family, and friends invaded his mind. He shook his head to clear his thoughts to witness a wide-mouthed Jerrick staring at him.

“What? I’m not always crazy. The voices that speak to me let me say some smart things every once in a while too.” Leopold turned back to the clickers. “Go rest and eat. I’m going to do some inventory.”

Jerrick might have left then if the shouting from the top of the wall hadn’t interrupted the moment. Leopold looked up, shading his eyes against the rays of the bright sun.

Chapter Four

Jordan paused a moment to gather herself as she found her first pair of bodies. The entire new populace of the city had been asked to pitch in to clear their new homes of the remains of their last tenants.

To Jordan’s surprise, there were far fewer bodies than she had expected. When Leopold’s city had opened its gates and the tickers invaded, the machine’s blasts had vaporized most of the citizens. Only the few who had been killed by other means such as being trampled on, crushed by masonry, or starved to death remained.

It was taking the city’s new tenants longer to comb the city for any bodies than actually loading them and taking them to a site to be buried. Jordan had only found two bodies so far. They were the bones and remaining flesh of what Jordan guessed by the tattered clothing was a woman and her small son.

The woman’s legs had been crushed under a fallen stone pillar and the boy’s tiny skull cracked by some object Jordan could only guess at. Even past the handkerchief Jordan had tight around her lower face, the sickness came for her. Sickness and sadness for this woman and her child Jordan didn’t know.

The fear this woman must have felt. The pain she and her son endured. Just thinking about it brought tears of anger to Jordan’s eyes. These were living, breathing people once and now everything had been taken from them by not just the mindless tickers, but the ones controlling them.

“So there’s not as many bodies as we first thought.” Argo’s familiar voice reached Jordan as he entered the house she was inside of. “We’re only finding a handful every city block or so. It looks like the clickers got ninety-nine percent of them. Jordan?”

Argo couldn’t be out of his twenties. He was one of the soldiers under Rhun’s command that Jordan had first met. His ready smile and good nature disappeared as he entered the house to see why Jordan was so quiet.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Argo’s tone changed. “Do you need help carrying them out?”

“I think she loved him,” Jordan found herself saying. “I think this was the boy’s mother and I think she loved him. I hope she did.”

“They died together, so I hope she did as well.” Argo sidled next to Jordan looking down on the pair of bodies. His own blue handkerchief masked anything past his nose. Still, he sounded like he was grimacing. “Don’t think about it too much.”

“It’s too late for that.” Jordan knelt down to pry something out of the woman’s hand. A rock the size of a baseball rolled free. “Maybe she loved her son so much she killed him so the monsters wouldn’t get him.”

Argo’s eyes traveled from the rock to the cracked skull of the child.

“Maybe it was mercy in his mother’s eyes.” Jordan set her jaw, shaking her head. “If I had any more tears to give, I’d give them to them. I just feel anger now.”

“Our time will come,” Argo consoled Jordan as he moved to lift the woman’s dead husk from the ground. “We have to secure this city first, but our time to strike will come.”

Jordan didn’t say a word. Instead, she leaned down. She wrapped her arms around the child’s body as if it were the most precious thing she possessed in this world and cradled him to her chest.

Don’t worry, little guy, Jordan said in her own mind to the child. You’re safe now. I’ve got you. I’m going to make sure those responsible for what happened to you pay. I don’t know how. I don’t know when, but I will. If that means practicing with a blaster or journeying to the pyramid for a fight, well then, so be it.

Jordan followed Argo outside. The two placed the bodies on a wooden cart with two large wheels. There were other bodies there, the sum total of what had been found in the city so far.

“If you need a moment,” Argo said, unslinging a canteen from his shoulder. “Heck, even if you don’t, you should take a drink.”

“I already had some water.” Jordan waved away the offered canister.

“Who said it’s water?” Argo asked with a mischievous upturned eyebrow.

Jordan lowered the handkerchief from her face. She accepted the canteen, taking a whiff of the liquid inside. It smelt horrible, like fermented fruit or honey.

“How did you get this?” Jordan asked, still debating whether she wanted a swig or not. “Where did you get this?”

“Oh, you know.” Argo shrugged. His eyes spoke of a rascally grin under his blue handkerchief. “I have my ways of scrounging across a new city.”

Jordan was still debating whether to drink the putrid liquid or not when they both heard yells from the wall.

Without a word, Jordan handed Argo back his canteen and sprinted for the gates. A hundred different scenarios ran through her mind.

Are the tickers back? What is the lookout yelling? I should always carry a blaster with me.

Jordan put her cardio training to use to race over the stone roads that made up Leopold’s city. After a few blocks, she could see the lookout on the wall as the woman shouted something again. It sounded like she was saying, Flying?

Jordan pumped her legs, refusing to acknowledge the way her lungs burned.

A moment later, she was panting at the gates joining a confused Leopold and Jerrick.

“What—what’s going on?” Jordan asked, placing her hands on her hips and trying to catch a breath. “Are the tickers back?”

“No.” Jerrick shook his head. “She said it’s some kind of flying object. A drone?”

“Quickly; we have to see for ourselves.” Leopold began scrambling up the eight flights of zigzagging stairs that led to the top of the wall. “It could be the Founders.”

Jordan didn’t need any prodding to follow the older man up the stone steps. Neither did she have any regret about leaving Leopold behind. She and Jerrick made it to the top in record time. Their calves and quads burned almost as much as their lungs, but they made quick work of the eight flights of crisscrossing steps.

The sun was just beginning to lower on the other side of the horizon as Jordan joined the woman watching the wall. Her fiery red hair quickly set her apart from anyone else as Lierna, another of the soldiers who had served under Rhun in his city.

The walkway on top of the wall extended a full fifty yards. It was wide enough for four people to walk side by side without fear of falling into the city or over the wall.

Lierna hoisted the blaster assigned to whoever was on watch to her shoulder. With an outstretched finger, she pointed to a spot directly in front of the gate. It was impossible to tell how far she was pointing since there was nothing there.

Jordan squinted, then shaded her eyes, hoping that would work. There was nothing except empty sky above and never-ending sand below. Lines in the soft sand where tickers had been rolled into the city were all that was there now.

“I don’t see anything,” Jerrick said, leaning forward against the chest-high wall that acted as a safety barrier to make sure no one fell from the wall. “Where is it?”

“It shimmers when it moves,” Lierna said, looking down the barrel of her blaster. “Look exactly where my weapon is pointed. Don’t blink.”

Jordan squinted even harder, willing her eyes to see something, anything. Then she caught movement, more like a glossy figure using the sky around it to mirror itself into the surrounding sky. It hovered there, barely moving at all. It was hard to figure out how large or even what it was, given its camouflaged technology.

“I could shoot it down,” Lierna said with an easy relaxed tone. “I’m not well versed in these new weapons, but I’m sure I could hit it from here.”

Jordan realized Lierna wasn’t asking for permission. Jordan had no authority to give it to her or tell her otherwise. Lierna just wanted her thoughts on the matter.

“I don’t think it’s anything good,” Jordan said, losing then seeing the glimmering figure once more. “If it’s something positive that’s a machine, it would be a first.”

“Point taken,” Lierna said with a hard grin. “Eat this.”


A single blue round from Lierna’s repurposed weapon streaked through the sky. Her limited training with the weapon showed as her shot went wide right. It did, however, get a reaction from the item floating in the air.

At once, the shimmering camouflage the drone wore disappeared. The flying object looked like a small orb or ball no larger than a kitchen chair. It held something small and square beneath it. Like the black clickers, it was made of an ebony metal.

As far as Jordan could see, there were no weapons mounted on the drone. Instead of attacking or even trying to evade another shot, the drone lowered to the ground, dropped the square package, and disappeared into the late day sky.

“Did we just get a pizza delivered by an alien drone?” Jerrick asked, turning to Jordan and Lierna. “Tell me you just saw that too.”

“What’s pizza?” Lierna asked with a raised eyebrow. “Is that a word for a mystery item in your city?”

“No, no,” Jordan said, already moving to make a run down the stairs. Whatever had been dropped would hopefully have their answers.

Leopold reached the top of the stairs, huffing. His face was drained and he looked like he was about to pass out.

“I—I made it up the death march of stairs.” Leopold half walked, half fell forward to lean against the wall overlooking the desert. “What—what is it? I heard a shot.”

Jerrick was already moving down the steps with Jordan close behind.

“Some kind of alien drone dropped something for us,” Jordan said over her shoulder. “We’re headed down to get it now.”

“For the love of pickles,” Leopold gasped. “I just got here. I’ll—I’ll cover you from here. You know, keep a lookout.”

Jordan skipped down the stairs, jumping down the last few at every landing. Rhun was at the bottom of the steps about to make his way up when Jerrick and Jordan came down.

“What is it?” the large man asked. He carried a spear in his right hand and a look on his face that spoke of violence. “I heard a shot fired from one of the blasters. Is it more clickers?”

“No, something else,” Jordan said as Jerrick started to round up help to open the front gates of the city. “An alien drone dropped something for us. Something small and square.”

“It could be a trap,” Rhun cautioned.

“By whom?” Jordan mused, not discounting his warning. “You think another city has created and sent drones? And more than that, they have the knowledge of where other cities lie in the desert?”

“No, no, more than likely it’s from them,” Rhun said, looking over to the gatehouse where Jerrick and the other men waited. “Open it only as far as you need to let us out.”

Rhun shouted up to the wall. “Is it clear?”

“As far as the eye can see, Alpha Centaury,” Lierna’s voice shouted back.

Jordan kicked herself again for not carrying a blaster with her. She would have to remedy that soon. In the meantime, she gave Rhun a hard nod.

“You and I should go out there.” Jordan searched the large man’s eyes for agreement. “If it is a trap, I don’t want to send anyone else.”

“Agreed.” Rhun gave her an approving grin. He looked over to the gatehouse. “Open the gates!”

Chapter Five

Rhun watched as the gates opened ever so slightly to allow them passage to the desert beyond. Whatever this flying machine had dropped could be nothing more than a trick, or it could be something to help them along their way.

There was only one answer to the question of who could have sent it. Those Leopold called the Founders were of course aware of their fight with the tickers and their retaking of city six.

In Rhun’s mind, there was no doubt as to if they were watching. His only hope was that they gave Rhun and the people of his city time to prepare before the next wave of tickers or the next city who emerged from behind their own walls.

Rhun narrowed his eyes as he stepped out into the heat of the day. The sun’s warm rays touched his weathered skin like an old friend. Slowly, Rhun stepped through the thick gates. Each gate door had to be three feet thick on its own. It was a miracle of innovation that a group of six men could move such a structure via a method of pulleys and chains.

Wary now, stay alert, Rhun reminded himself as he gripped the shaft of his spear tighter in his hands. Just because you don’t think it’s an ambush doesn’t mean it’s not one.

Rhun carried his spear tip down. He could raise the weapon and send it propelling through the air fast enough to impale any man or machine at a moment’s notice.

“I don’t see anything,” Jordan said, walking just behind him on his left. “Maybe for once, it’s something to help us instead of harm us.”

“Maybe,” Rhun said as his sandaled feet slowly ate up the distance between himself and his target. “Be cautious.”

The warrior and the physical instructor walked forward past the lines in the sand where the deceased tickers had been taken into the city under Leopold’s cheerleading.

Rhun felt tiny trickles of sweat bead his brow and the back of his neck. He turned side-to-side, listening not only with his ears but with his instinct. Honed from years of combat, Rhun learned to pay attention to what his gut told him as much as his own senses. Right about now, it told him all was clear.

The two soon arrived at the item deposited on the sandy floor by the flying machine. It was square and thick like a large brick. The item was covered by a black cloth with an emblem on the center Rhun knew well.

The black cloth carried a simple map of the six cities and the pyramid in the middle. The six cities were arranged in a circle with small ovals designating their location. A triangle sitting in the middle of these circles represented the pyramid.

“Whatever it is, it was sent by them,” Rhun said to Jordan as he bent down to pick up the item. He took the opportunity to scan the desert around them. Still nothing. “Let’s take it inside behind our own walls.”

“You think it could still be an ambush?” Jordan asked, lifting the covered item from the ground.

“No, I think they would have attacked by now if it was a trap. I do think they’re watching us,” Rhun said as calm as ever. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. “Let’s go.”

Rhun followed Jordan inside the city gates. He didn’t allow himself to let down his guard until the massive doors boomed shut behind them.

“What is it?” Jerrick asked, coming over from his spot in the gatehouse. A group of citizens who had gathered near the gate when they heard Lierna’s shout and the discharge of her weapon also huddled nearby.

“I guess we’re about to find out. It feels like a—like a…” Jordan removed the black cloth from the item and produced a tome of a book. “A book.”

Rhun leaned on his spear, examining the item and leaving no detail uninspected. The book was dark brown lined with gold words and edges. On the front, there was no title explaining what the book could be.

“Another—another codex?” Leopold’s wheezing voice drifted down to them as the aged man descended the last flight of stairs. “They sent us another codex?”

Rhun shook his head, trying to figure out why the Founders would do something like that. Only a single choice seemed to make sense to him at the moment.

“They want us to continue to play through their experiment,” Rhun said, feeling a sickness in the pit of his stomach. “They’re telling us nothing has changed.”

Leopold sidled up next to Jordan as the two opened the book. A slim piece of parchment fell to the ground. Leopold leaned down to pick it up. All the gathered citizens collected around the book trying to get a look at what the codex said and the piece of paper that had fallen from it.

“Well, this is new,” Leopold said, holding the paper in his hands. It was folded in the shape of a triangle. “Pages weren’t falling out of the codex I inherited. Let’s see here.”

Leopold carefully unfolded the piece of paper looking down at the parchment with wide eyes.

Rhun glanced over his shoulder. It was a map. The map was hastily drawn, showing the same image of six circles around a triangle. Between city six and the triangle representing the pyramid was an X. Below the image was a simple message.

If you are allies like I suspect, meet me at the hatch two nights from now. From your city, travel in a straight line to the pyramid. Stop at the outcropping of rocks that looks like a skull. I will come to you.

“Wonderful,” Jerrick said, shaking his head in frustration. “More questions.”

“The foremost being do we trust the note,” Rhun mused out loud. “If they wanted to ambush us, they could have already. We need to take strategic and decisive action. Above all, we should have a city meeting. We are in this mess because a few decided the fate of the many. We need this city, our new city to be built on truth and freedom.”

There were quick nods as everyone gathered understood and agreed with Rhun’s suggestion.

“And it’s far too soon to tell, but as far as I can see, it looks like an exact replica of the codex we sent to the other five cities with the note Jordan wrote,” Leopold said, thumbing through the book. “Those nerds just sent us another copy because we tore up their old one. What a bunch of losers.”

“If everyone could go out and gather those from the city and tell them to meet us here right away,” Rhun said to all those in attendance. “We have serious matters to discuss.”

With a shuffle of feet, everyone dispersed to go and gather the rest of the community. It wouldn’t take long. Since the action at the gate, it seemed like half the city was already there waiting to hear the news.

“If you three would wait,” Rhun said to Jordan, Leopold, and Jerrick, “I’d discuss something with you before the rest of the city arrives.”

Two pairs of eyes gave him their full attention. Leopold nodded and waved Rhun to go on as he further examined the book in his hands.

“I’m going to suggest we send our scouts out tonight to monitor the other cities. They’ll be able to deliver anyone from the tickers who read our notes and were thrown from their own cities.” Rhun started with the first and easiest topic on the table.

“Right.” Jordan nodded. “I was going to ask about that.”

“What about food?” Jerrick placed a hand on his flat stomach. “The rations we could find here and the stock brought over from the platform over the water are nearly depleted. We have another few days at the very most.”

“Grizla has agreed to be in charge of our food stock as well as reviving the orchards and gardens here in the city. That will take time.” Rhun rubbed his right hand over the grizzle on his chin. I am going to suggest I go to the ocean with a small group. We’ll bring back as much fish as we can and continue to make runs until another option presents itself.”

“But the note?” Jordan interrupted. “The map that was sent with the directions to meet someone from the pyramid. It says to meet them in two days’ time. We’d have to leave soon if we were going to make the appointed time.”

“Not just soon,” Rhun said, staring into Jordan’s eyes. He sensed this would be an issue they would not see eye to eye on. “If someone were to go, they’d have to leave tonight. Right now, food is more important than a possible trap.”

“You said you didn’t think it was a trap,” Leopold looked up from the book for the first time in their conversation. “Right?”

“I don’t, but I’ve been wrong once or twice in my life before,” Rhun said without a smile. “Whether it’s a trap or not, I made a commitment to this city. I’m going to go out and bring them food. That’s an easy decision for me.”

“I’ll go.” Jordan said the words Rhun already knew she would. Jordan didn’t have the same kind of training as his warriors, but she was a warrior nevertheless. “I can go alone if I need to.”

“Jordan,” Jerrick said. “You know you don’t have to go alone. I’ll come with you.”

“Or maybe someone who’s used to traveling the desert,” Argo said as he joined the group. He was chomping on a bruised apple. “I can show her the way if it meets your approval, Alpha Centaury.”

Rhun looked at his man sideways. Not only was he eating a piece of fruit that he seemed to have conjured from midair, he used the same term Lierna had for him earlier that day. They were using it now because he had a city to defend. When they left their home, Rhun had ordered them to stop calling him that. There, the term was used as a title for the leader of the defenders of a city. Well, it seemed they had a city again.

“I know I’m not going to keep Jordan from going even if I told her no,” Rhun said with a twinkle in his eyes. “Argo, if you volunteer and she agrees, you can show her the way.”

“Oh goody, that means Jerrick can help me with the clickers,” Leopold said, passing the tome off to Jordan. “Here, I’ve read this thing a million times before.”

“Where did you get the apple?” Jerrick asked, eyeing the piece of overripe fruit in Argo’s hand.

“Oh, you know,” Argo shrugged, tossing Jerrick the other half. “I did some exploring, some bartering, and here we go.”

“No, that doesn’t make any sense, but I’ll take it,” Jerrick said, chomping into the piece of fruit with a smile.

Rhun looked out to the many faces that filled the courtyard in front of the gates. To the right, the long gatehouse stood, and to the left, the pile of tickers Leopold had rolled into the city. Rhun moved to take a stance on one of the downed black cubes and addressed the city.

“Be careful with those,” Leopold said as Rhun stood on one of the tickers. “I have plans for them.”

Rhun nodded before looking out to the city to address his people. He needed to tell them everything that transpired and reveal to them the plan in place.

As he stood there, memories of the last time he gave a speech in front of a city gate tore at him from the inside out.

Chapter Six

The Last Day Rhun Tarhound Saw His City

“You can hear them now beyond the wall,” Rhun said, walking up and down his line of warriors. The centurions stood in front of him in a double line of fifty soldiers. The rest of the army lined up behind them. “Some of you have seen them; for others, it will be your first time. I tell you they are nothing more than metal and energy. They’re not monsters or demons. They will break and they will fall under our metal. We possess something they never will: a fighting spirit that cannot be tempered!”


The shout from the army drowned out every sound from the machines on the other side of the wall. Rhun could see in their eyes they were ready. An eager excitement raced up and down his own spine. To the rear and right of the army, Claudius Shire and his personal House guards looked on with indifference.

“When the gates open, I will lead from the front!” Rhun shouted again, this time taking his place in the very front line with the rest of his centurions. “Trust your training, trust your brother beside you. There is no way but the way forward.”


Rhun placed his shield in front of him. He braced his left arm and the left side of his body against the oval barrier. His right hand holding his spear arched up to point his weapon over the shield.

“Let them hear you roar!” Rhun screamed, looking over to the dozen men who waited on his order to open the gates. Rhun nodded to them. “Let the unknown beyond the wall understand who comes for them. Let them know who they face in this city!”


Those in charge of lifting the giant beam from the city gates did so in haste. Large arms and stout backs moved in sync to heave the massive piece of timber from its resting place across the iron-laced wooden doors of the city.

Two more large men ran forward to swing the doors open. Rhun tensed, ready for the onslaught. He had told his centurions what they could expect when the doors opened. A few of them had even been the scouts sent out before the initial engagement. Any of his centurions who had questions on what would happen next, Rhun was sure to sit them down and speak with them.

There was no room for error now. Rhun looked to his right, where Ward pressed the left side of his body against his own shield.

“Only forward!” Ward roared so loud, Rhun thought next time he should be the one giving the speech.

Rhun felt the gates open more than saw them. Blows of pressure began beating at his shield as if someone were on the opposite side, striking it with a war hammer. Rhun gritted his teeth, pressing the entire weight of his body behind his shield. His sandals fought for traction on the stone ground of the courtyard.

The sound of the machines’ clicking was lost to the thunderous volley of their weapons firing into their lines. Blue bolts struck Rhun’s shield wall over and over again to no avail.

“Javelins!” Rhun tried to yell over the sounds of the booming coming from the machines shooting their weapons. The entire centurion line around him picked up the order as they all yelled the command down the line.


The whistling sound the javelins made as they careened over the centurion lines were lost amongst the sounds of the booming. They were just as effective. Rhun chanced a peek over his shield for the first time. What he saw both warmed his heart and tested his resolve.

There were already machines on the ground, sparking and twitching with javelins sticking out of them like porcupines. The bad news was that there were hundreds more of the machines fighting to maneuver around their dead brethren and access a clear line of fire.

For the next few dogged hours, the bulk of the army hurled thousands of javelins over the centurion wall and into the ranks of the machines. Rhun’s left arm was already numb, his force of will the only thing keeping him planted. The shields became warm, even hot at times from the constant rounds of enemy fire striking them from the opposite side. At intervals, Rhun would call a change in the first line of the centurion wall.

This was accomplished by the second line maneuvering between the soldier on the first line and placing their own shields over those of their counterparts. This allowed those in the first line to pull back for a moment of respite.

Sweat stung at Rhun’s eyes as he felt the hammer blows of the weapons the machines used lessen with each passing volley. As much as he would like to stay here and have the army hurl their weapons at the machines until every last one of them was down, he understood their javelins were finite.

After what felt an eternity, Rhun looked over his shield to take stock of the situation. There were so many javelins both in the ground and the machines, it looked like it had rained, the weapons taking place of the water. The machines that were capable of still firing in a straight line into the centurion shield wall were few. Most of the enemies that remained were behind a wall of unmoving black cubes.

“Centurions!” Rhun ordered over the now diminished booming of the enemy weapons. “Forward!”

As one, the front line of the shield wall began to advance. This was the part Rhun hated the most. This is where the dying would happen as the army broke ranks to kill the remaining machines. Still, it was what had to happen. There was no other way.

Rhun and the centurions moved forward with the army close behind. As soon as he felt his shield hit the first downed body of a machine, Rhun knew they were at the front lines.

The javelins sailing overhead came fewer and more sparingly now as the army rationed out the weapons.

“Move quickly when we break the lines and charge them without hesitation!” Rhun yelled to his centurions that would act as the first wave of soldiers hitting the machines in close combat. “Aim for the red light in the center of their bodies. Do not look to the sky. Focus on what you need to do right now and you will live to fight another day. Forward!”

Rhun lifted his shield free. He jumped on one of the dead machines in front of him, for the first time getting a clear view of the field of battle. From his vantage point on the downed machine, he could see it all.

Javelins littered the sand outside of the gate. More and more of the dead machines lay out in every direction. To Rhun’s great delight, the army had slain more than half of the machines’ number.

The city army led by the centurions made quick work of those machines that were unlucky enough to survive. At the end of the day, they had killed hundreds of the robots while only having lost a few dozen of their own.

Rhun wrenched his spear free from one of the last machines still moving. It hissed, letting out a puff of smoke and a crackle as if that were its death throes.

Ward was looking up at the sky, the strange hot sun and the two planets that hung ever vigilant.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to get used to seeing that,” Ward said, finally bringing his eyes level with Rhun’s. “There’s excited chatter already rippling through the ranks. This battle will go down as a major victory and you the strategist who led the attack as a hero.”

“A hero who lost two dozen men,” Rhun said, joining Ward to look at the planets overhead. “We should assemble the men. Care for the wounded. Get a detail to comb this machine graveyard and make sure they are all dead.”

Ward was about to nod and turn to obey his orders when a wince came over his face. He was looking over Rhun’s left shoulder at someone or something. By the pained expression he was making, Rhun could guess who it was.

“Well, I guess congratulations will be in order once we return to the city.” Claudius, along with his retinue of House guards, joined Rhun and Ward. “The casualties were acceptable.”

“No casualties are acceptable,” Rhun said, leaning on his spear. His body was working on adrenaline and the understanding he led by example. His muscles were sore, his back aching, and legs cramped. He didn’t show any of this. “We’ll care for the wounded and ensure the machines that are down stay that way. Next I owe my men an explanation I don’t have as to why their sky is different outside of their walls.”

“Well, I can save you that much.” Claudius’ hand rested on a hilt to a sword Rhun doubted he had ever used. “Your orders have changed. You are to march our city army to the next city. The House has plans to lay siege to it and invade.”

“March to the next city? A siege?” Ward leaned in, forgetting he wasn’t addressed in the conversation.

“Is there an echo in here?” Claudius scowled at Ward. “That’s what I said. Now perform your duty. We need to get this army on the move.”

Rhun drove his spear into the ground point first. He removed the hot helmet on his head and whipped his hand over his face while he cleared his mind. More than anything, he wanted to strangle Claudius right there. It was his understanding of what would happen if he did so that stayed his hand.

“I wasn’t made aware of any of this.” Rhun shook his head, trying to hide an irritated chuckle. “My orders were to defend our own city. To wipe out the alien threat that gathered at our doors, not to go looking for war from another city we know nothing about.”

“And orders change.” Claudius reached inside his breastplate and handed Rhun a scroll with a smirk on his lips. “You’re a soldier; you should be used to being told what to do. Your orders are as follows.”

Rhun opened the scroll, his heartbeat skipping a beat. A hollow feeling filled his stomach as he read the instructions. Claudius was right; it was signed by the city leader himself. Rhun was to march the army to the next city and look for a way to attack. If no way was to be found besides the front gates, they were to lay siege to it. War machines and battering rams would be built and provided for him by the engineering corps.

Rhun thought about his wife for a moment. He thought about her waiting for him after a conflict that should have taken a single day. He thought about what she would say, what she would tell him to do.

“The army needs rest and what answers we can give them,” Rhun said, taking in the men around him who were fatigued and looking up at the sky with wonder in their eyes.

Claudius wiped a smudge off his shiny new armor. He sucked his teeth, then sneered at Rhun. “Are you disobeying a direct order from the House? From the city leader himself?”

Ward took a step forward as if he were going to kill Claudius right there.

“No, I’m just asking for time,” Rhun said, fighting back the anger he felt and staying Ward with his own words. “I need clarification on my orders. The men need rest before a two-day march into the desert to go fight another battle.”

Chapter Seven


Leopold had transitioned the blown-out bottom section of his home as a kind of workshop to deconstruct the clickers. His workspace wasn’t large or extravagant, but it would do. One of the walls in the house was crumbling due to the damage it had taken when the clickers came into his own city. It was a reminder of what had happened, of what he had not been able to stop when the people of his city opened their own gates unprepared.

It was late as Jerrick rolled in the last clicker with the rest of the men who were helping. He stayed behind, maneuvering the clicker just outside the blown-out far wall that opened up to the outside city like a second door.

“That’s the final one.” Jerrick sighed. He was drenched in sweat, his short dark hair matted to his head. “What are you going to do with all of them?”

“Well, I’m going to teach you how to dismantle their weapons and construct blasters from them. Then I’m going to figure out how to replicate Rhun’s shields and armor,” Leopold said as if this were the most obvious answer.

“Oh, of course.” Jerrick shook his head as he entered the house. He sidled up next to Leopold. “Well, if we’re going to work through the night, some light might be nice.”

Leopold looked up from his work on a clicker in the center of the open room. It had been his family room once when he had lived there with his son. To make room for his work now, he had cleared everything else besides a large worktable, his tools, and a painting.

“Light, right.” Leopold ran through a box of mismatched goods to produce a pair of candles and a small lantern. “That’s why I was squinting.”

Leopold lit the candles and his lantern with a small box of matches. He placed them on the long wooden worktable.

Need to stay sane for a little longer; there’s so much to do. Right, Jack? Leopold said to himself as he looked at the painting in the corner of the room. We’re going to set things straight, my son. I promise you I’m going to set things straight.

“Is that someone you knew?” Jerrick asked as he noticed Leopold looking at the picture of the boy. “Your son?”

Leopold nodded as memories came to mind of his little boy. Memories of the way he would asked to be picked up, not so much to be held but so he could get a better vantage point of what there was to see in his incredible new world. Of how he wanted Leopold to lie down next to him when he slept and how he loved to eat his pickles.

The old man allowed his eyes to see once again the boy in the painting. He was slender with brown hair and dark eyes. A playful grin was placed on his face as if he held the special smile just for the painting. Leopold knew better. He was always smiling.

“It is.” Leopold smiled at the painting as if his son could see him smiling back from somewhere beyond. “Jack was killed when the clickers broke down the gates. He evaporated in my very arms. My boy, my baby boy, what did they do to my baby boy?”

Leopold shook away the thought as the first wave of tears hit his eyes. He refused to break down. Things needed to be done.

“I’m sorry,” Jerrick said so quietly it was almost a whisper.

“Me too, but there’s nothing we can do about that.” Leopold motioned to Jerrick to watch him as he worked. “What we can do is save the rest of the people in this god forsaken experiment. “Now watch closely. I’m going to show you how to remove the weapons that come out on either side of the clickers.”

Leopold slowly demonstrated for Jerrick how the clickers’ weapons that opened from slots on either side of their cubed bodies could be removed with the power supply intact. He showed him how the crude trigger could be placed on the bottom of the new blaster and how to watch for any sparks or the smell of burning, both indicators that the blue power supply was not stable.

Jerrick was a quick learner, much faster than Leopold could hope. It was soon clear the reason Leopold felt drawn to the young man. He had a heart for technology and he would have been the same age as Jack if his son were still living.

“You sure you were one of those mystical educators in your city and not a scientist or technician?” Leopold asked as he watched Jerrick remove one of the weapons from a clicker by himself. “You learn quickly.”

“It’s physical educator.” Jerrick grinned, holding the first blaster he had removed by himself from a downed clicker. “My father worked in construction in our city. He taught me things like welding and electronics when I was small.”

“Very good. Well, one down and about another forty to go.” Leopold waved at the mound of black cubes stocked outside of his house. “Have fun.”

Chapter Eight

Jordan hated saying goodbye, not that she didn’t want to see Jerrick. It was the exact opposite. She did want to see him more than she wanted to admit to herself. They had shared a friendship in their own city that had turned into something more when they were separated and then met again in the city Leopold called home.

Ugh, maybe it’s just your imagination, Jordan chided herself as she waited in the dark outside of Leopold’s home. Maybe you didn’t share anything and you’re just being creepy. You and Jerrick are just friends.

Jordan didn’t mean to eavesdrop on Leopold and Jerrick. She was just debating on what to say to Jerrick as she waited outside, when she heard the two men laugh about something. Their laughter rang together for a moment, creating something this world needed very desperately.

There was still hope in a shattered alien city. That idea put a smile on Jordan’s lips. She looked on at the broken wall and the pile of black cubes outside of the house. If they could repurpose the blasters from the cubes, then they had a chance. They had a great chance.

“Why are you standing in the dark by yourself being weird?” Jerrick asked from the passage in the cracked wall next to the clickers. “Jordan, are you all right?”

“Ummm—yeah—yeah, I’m fine,” Jordan panicked, saying the first thing that came to mind. “I—I just had to pee. I was zipping up my pants.”

“You peed there, on the street?” Jerrick grimaced then smiled.

“I pee on the street all the time,” Leopold shouted from inside his home. “I don’t judge you, Jordan.”

“Thanks, Leopold,” Jordan said, taking the opportunity to change the subject. “Anyway, Argo and I were headed out.”

Jordan cleared her throat awkwardly as she adjusted the long coat that blended in with the sandy color of the terrain and the strap holding her own blaster on her back.

“I can still go with you,” Jerrick said, coming to her now. “We don’t know what you’ll find following the map that was in the codex. It could still be to capture you or something. I don’t know.”

“Argo knows the terrain better than almost anyone here,” Jordan said, patting the pocket in her coat where the map was placed. “He says he’s seen the skull outcropping before. You need to stay. The city needs as many people to protect it as we can spare. I’ll be back soon.”

Jerrick slowly nodded as her words sank in. His dark eyes searched her own as if he too wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words.

“Jordan, I—” Jerrick stopped.

Oh good, maybe if he says it, I won’t have to, Jordan thought.

“What is it?” she actually asked out loud. “Go ahead; you can tell me.”

“I guess I just want to tell you to be safe, that I care about you more than a friend.” Jerrick said the words so fast it almost looked like he surprised himself.

“Just kiss!” Leopold said, his voice much closer this time.

Jordan and Jerrick turned back to see the old man in the broken doorway to his house. He smiled a toothy grin that showed dark teeth.

“Tomorrow is promised to no one,” Leopold said as if it were the mantra of his life. “No regrets. Kiss.”

“I’m not going to kiss her with you staring at us like that.” Jerrick shooed Leopold away. “We need some privacy here.”

“All right, all right,” Leopold waved them off as if he were pushing himself away from a table. “Just kiss, though.”

Jordan and Jerrick shared a small laugh. They turned back to look at one another.

“Well, I guess he really wants us to kiss,” Jordan said, gazing up at Jerrick.

“We don’t want to upset him,” Jerrick said, leaning in.

Jordan closed her eyes as their lips touched. A tingling sensation traveled from the point of contact through her entire body. A lightheaded feeling descended on her. They broke apart from one another much too soon.

“You’ll be back and we’ll have time to figure all of this out,” Jerrick told her. He gently brushed a strand of her brown hair back over her left ear. “I’ll see you again soon.”

“I’ll see you soon,” Jordan said, remembering why she hated goodbyes. She burned an image of Jerrick into her mind before turning to go one last time. His muscular frame, tan skin, the way his eyes caught the stars overhead and twinkled.

Jordan made her way through the dark city. She knew the broken city was just as gloomy and ruined as before. It was just her outlook on life at the moment, but things didn’t seem as bad as they had.

You’re going to get answers, Jordan told herself as she traveled over the stone steps of the city street. You’re going to get your answers. Things are going to start to make sense again.

Jordan was lost in her own thoughts by the time she reached the city gates. Argo was already there waiting for her. He shouldered his own pack and long coat. In his right hand, he carried a short javelin; tied to his belt on his left side was his sling and a pouch of stones and a knife.

“You know they’re making more blasters as we speak,” Jordan said, looking over the grinning Argo. “You don’t have to ride into battle with rocks anymore.”

“But I haven’t trained both day and night with blasters,” Argo said, patting his sling and pouch. “I’d rather bet on the sure thing. Besides, if we do our job right, we won’t be needing any weapons.”

“Right,” Jordan agreed.

Argo handed her a pair of canteens he wore across his chest.

“There’s water in here, right?” Jordan double-checked as she maneuvered the straps over her shoulders. “You didn’t barter for any more alcohol?”

“Of course,” Argo said with a playful grin. He pointed to Jordan’s two canteens, then to the two he wore. “Water in yours, alcohol in mine.”

“All right.” Jordan shook her head with her own smile. “Let’s get going.”

Jordan and Argo left the city once more, the night sky changing as soon as they stepped out of the walls. The gates to the city shut behind them.

“One of my first questions I’m going to ask the Founders is how the sky changes for those cities that still don’t know the truth,” Argo breathed, looking up at the strange constellations. “The second is where in the universe this planet is.”

“I just want to know how we got here and why,” Jordan said, adding more questions to the list they were compiling. “Maybe who else is out there and why this was all started in the first place.”

Jordan and Argo moved through the darkness at a steady pace. The constellations and planets overhead provided enough light to travel by. With the city behind them, in all other directions, the desert spread out in a series of dunes and flat spaces. No red lights dotted the horizon, no ominous sounds of ticking heralding their would-be executioners.

Argo took the lead with his sandals sinking into the sand every time he moved just for a moment before coming up once more.

Jordan wasn’t usually the chatty type, but she found herself in a position now to learn more about Argo, Rhun, and the city which they came from.

“So how long has it been since you left your own city?” Jordan paused, making sure she got the city number correct that had been assigned to their own city. “City four, right?”

“City four,” Argo repeated without looking back. “It sounds like something so foreign now when we put a number to it. Yes, city four. We’ve been gone for close to five years. Five years away from everything we knew and into this god forsaken wasteland.”

“When you left, you crossed the desert to the platform you found in the water?” Jordan asked, thinking back on all she knew of Rhun’s journey from his city. “You saw the pyramid on the way, didn’t you?”

“Yes, it was something I’ll never forget if I live to be a hundred and one.” Argo slowed his pace for Jordan to catch up. He looked at her with a rogue grin on his lips. “I’m taking it you want story time.”

“We have a long way to go,” Jordan returned. “I want to learn as much about this new world we’re in as I can.”

“We left our city because we were ordered to attack another we knew nothing about,” Argo said with a shrug as if it were the simplest decision in the world. “We’re soldiers who were trained to listen to orders and obey, but those orders usually came from the Alpha Centaury, Rhun. This time, the House went over his head and ordered us directly. Rhun wouldn’t order us to invade another city and slaughter its inhabitants.”

“What’s the House? And what’s an Alpha Centaury?” Jordan asked.

“Our city was divided into two systems, overseen by our city leader,” Argo said to Jordan. “The House were the politicians. Rhun was the Alpha Centaury, the general of our army. When he refused to attack the city without further explanation from the House, they ordered the army to chain him and press on. Well, you can imagine how that went.”

“His men sided with him.” Jordan could imagine Rhun standing tall, beloved by the men under his command. He inspired leadership in their new city. She could imagine the living symbol he had become in his own. “I’m surprised anyone would try and stop him.”

“Only a few guards loyal to the House and those in the army who had been bribed by the House to stand with them should anything occur did so.” Argo’s voice went quiet now, his normal jovial, carefree way of talking changing in a dark way Jordan didn’t like. “We slaughtered our own countrymen. The House lied to the city, telling them we had betrayed them. They armed citizens. We would have killed them to the last man if Rhun hadn’t ordered us to stop. He chose exile instead of leading a war against his own people and us with him.”

“I can’t even imagine what that felt like.” Jordan let out a heavy breath that whistled through her lips. “Then you traveled across the desert.”

“We did. Without water or provisions, we went into the unknown.” Argo continued his story. “We encountered more and more patrols of tickers until we came within view of the pyramid. It’s massive, Jordan, larger than a city and four times as tall as any outside wall I’ve ever seen. It’s silver with so many tickers at its base, they block out the sand itself. We gave that place a wide berth and traveled on until we reached the sea. We saw the platform from the shore and made it our home. While we traveled, we came across tickers we killed and a handful of others who had been cast out by their own cities for asking too many questions.”

“That’s when Rhun started to send out scouting parties to try and save others who had been cast out by their cities,” Jordan finished the story. “How much of the desert have you seen in those five years? How much have you been able to map?”

“Most of it,” Argo answered. “To the north above cities two and three is a mountain range. I have not been over that range, but I hope to one day. To the east, the desert extends as far as I can tell. To the south—”

Argo paused here, searching for the right word. Jordan didn’t sense fear from the young warrior, but there was some hesitation.

“To the south, is a land of fog and mist. We do not stray far into it. There are things that live in that fog, things I cannot explain that take people,” Argo said, shaking his head as if he were again trying to answer an impossible question he had asked of himself before. “I don’t know how to describe it.”

“Outside of the cities, have you ever found anyone, anything else?” Jordan asked, intrigued by what his answer might be.

“Only the sea creatures we eat and the occasional mammals who live at the foot of the mountains to the north. Oh, and these Founders we’re about to speak with when we reach the rendezvous. We shouldn’t forget about them.”

Right, Jordan thought as the possibility of actually seeing one of the beings responsible for all of this crossed her mind. We shouldn’t forget about that at all.

Chapter Nine

Rhun raised his hand in the darkness. Something moved to the right of his position fifty yards ahead. Lierna and the other four survivors tasked with traveling to the ocean and gathering food for the new city crouched. No one made a sound.

Rhun held his breath, willing his eyes to see past the darkness and to the figure he thought he had witnessed duck behind the dune. There it was again. A head, maybe a pair of shoulders poked from the dune in the night and disappeared just as quickly.

“Alpha Centaury?” Lierna whispered.

“Contact, on the dune to our one o’clock.” Rhun turned his head to whisper back at Lierna. Right now, she wasn’t just another survivor in his city; she was a soldier in his army. She had made the trip with him across the desert. The woman was as tough as they came. “I’m going to circle around. Stay here with the others and advance when I give the order.”

“Understood,” Lierna said through the night.

At this close a range to the red-headed woman, Rhun could see the excited look on her face as she was teased with the hint of a fight.

Rhun wasted no time in making his move from the rest of the group. He left Lierna and the four others there sprinting over the sand to his right. He would make a giant loop and flank who or whatever was on the other side of the dune.

His chances of being successful now depended on speed. The sand masked his movements. His feet, although stepping quickly, moved quietly in the soft sand. Noise would not give him away this night, but if they were able to pick up his movement as he repositioned his attack, they would be able to form their own ambush for him.

Rhun opted to take his spear with him on the run. It was a gamble, as it would be more of him to be seen, but it could pay off. He needed a long-range projectile. The only weapons he carried with him were his spear and the serrated knife sheathed by his side. The six-inch blade was sharp enough to cut through a spear shaft and serrated on the other side if he needed to saw through anything.

In seconds, Rhun paralleled his target. Within a minute of sprinting as quickly as his legs could carry him, he was behind the dune. The illumination from the stars was just bright enough for him to pick up a small black figure dressed in some kind of cloak.

The cool breeze of the desert night caressed Rhun’s brow as he debated what to do next. It was clear whatever or whoever the thing was on the dune was not a ticker. Neither was it one of his own. More than likely it was yet another citizen cast from his or her own city left abandoned to the wasteland.

These thoughts ran through Rhun’s mind as he witnessed the small dark figure produce something from its cloak. It was long and picked up the shine from the stars and planets overhead.

If it was a weapon, Rhun couldn’t chance it being used on Lierna or the others. Making up his mind, Rhun crossed the desert behind the figure once more. Powerful legs forged from runs on the desert itself propelled him forward at a sprint.

His cloak, which camouflaged him with the desert, flapped behind him, making only the slightest rustle. Rhun was on his objective before the figure was able to use its weapon.

“Friend, if you are a friend, heed my words,” Rhun said as he placed his left arm around the chest of his target. His right hand held his spear close to the blade. He pressed it against his mark's throat. “I do not wish to take your life, but if you struggle, I will soak the sand in your blood.”

The figure went rigid. Whatever it was holding in its hands, it dropped to the floor.

Rhun realized as soon as he grabbed the figure how short it really was. A full head shorter than he was it could pass for an adolescent if it weren’t for its bulk. Its chest, arms, and legs were wider than his own. Muscle wrapped around the figure like cords of rope.

“Who are you?” a ragged male voice asked. “Are you one of them or someone who sent the letter?”

“Are you alone?” Rhun ignored the man’s questions for the moment. “Who else is with you?”

“I am alone,” the gruff voice answered.

Rhun walked the figure forward. He removed the blade from its throat and raised his spear high into the air signaling Lierna to advance.

“I’m going to let you go,” Rhun told the short man in front of him. “If you try anything. I won’t hesitate to kill you.”

“I’m gathering that,” the small man said.

Rhun released his hold, taking a step back to use his spear if the moment called for it.

He got his first good look at his target as the light of the planets in the dark sky washed his face in illumination. He was bearded with a heavy set of hair. Short and stocky, he wore boots, pants, and a brown shirt under his black cloak. As far as Rhun could see, he didn’t carry a weapon. The silver item he had caught sight of before was a canteen, empty by the look of it, that rested in the sand at their feet.

“Who are you? Where do you come from?” Rhun asked.

“My name is Balon Longoak. I come from a city I thought to be the only one on a planet I seem to know nothing of,” Balon marveled as he looked up at Rhun. “Are you one of the ones the letter spoke of or one of the ones who sent the letter?”

“We sent the letter,” Rhun said as Lierna and the others joined them at the top of the sand dune. He examined the stocky man again. He had seen a handful like him before from city two. The people from that city were shorter and wider; not necessarily fat but built solid. “You’re from city two. You received our message.”

“I received your message, and between you and me…” Balon looked around at the others dusting his coat. “Well, between you and me, I almost wished I hadn’t. Since the notes came over our wall, our city had been in an uproar. I was among the loudest demanding to know the truth. My city’s king was forced to make an example of me and release me outside of our wall to the wasteland beyond.”

“No others were released with you?” Lierna asked, eyeing Balon with suspicion. “You made it this far by yourself?”

“I was the first, but you can rest assured I won’t be the last.” Balon shook his head. Sand fell from his beard and hair as he did so. “My city is on the verge of an uprising. Long have we wondered why we’ve been stockpiling so many weapons and the people are getting restless. All we do is construct Mecha day and night with no reason as to why. Well, for me, the reason appears pretty clear now.”

“Mecha?” Rhun asked, intrigued by the sound of the word. “Are they weapons?”

“The greatest weapons.” Balon nodded. “Metal structures that look like a man ten feet tall. A pilot rides inside equipped with every kind of weapon you can imagine, from war hammers to machine guns.”

“You didn’t answer the second part of the question.” Lierna brought Balon back to the line of questioning. “How did you make it this far? Tickers roam this land in droves.”

“I’m easy to miss and I’ve used—”

“Wait.” Rhun lifted a hand to silence the group. Ever so faintly, as if it were their imaginations at first, the familiar sound of metal tapping metal drifted through the night. “Get down.”

No one hesitated. At once, seven stomachs were pressed against the cool sand. Rhun took a moment to get his bearings. He closed his eyes to concentrate on his hearing. The noise came again and this time not just one.


Rhun opened his eyes, glancing to their right. He breathed slowly; even the sound of his lungs sucking in air could mask the noise of the machines. He needed to hear them clearly.

A pair of dots appeared in the night. They were so far away the black cubes blended in with the darkness. The only reason Rhun was able to see them at all was because of the crimson light stuck at their center.

They weren’t making a beeline for Rhun and the group, but they were headed in their direction. They would be on them in the space of a few moments.

Lierna is the only battle-hardened warrior with you, Rhun thought to himself. No need to put the others in danger. You and she will be enough.

“How’s your throwing arm?” Rhun looked over to his left, where Lierna lay on the other side of Balon. “Think you can hit them at this range?”

“Yes, Alpha Centaury.” Lierna nodded, gripping her own spear tighter. “In my sleep.”

“You’re going to fight them?” Balon looked on in awe. “I’ve only ever run from them so far.”

“Yes, our people aren’t exactly the running type,” Lierna explained to the surprised man.

Rhun crouched from his position on the ground. He slowly stood with his own spear poised to throw in his right hand. The slight breeze wouldn’t play a factor. His target was bright like a bullseye flashing on and off, practically inviting a spear through its center.

“You take the one on the right,” Rhun told Lierna.

“Yes, Alpha Centaury,” Lierna breathed.

Rhun stilled his breathing. It would be an impressive throw in the day, much less the night. But that didn’t matter much with the red light shining as bright as ever in the center of the ticker’s black-cubed body.

“Two.” Rhun tensed seeing the throw in his mind’s eye before he let it loose from his hand.

“One,” Lierna answered as both warriors hurled their weapons through the dark air toward their targets.

Rhun whipped his arm forward, using the torque his body created to send the hurling object through the air at a speed that would skewer any living man.

Then the impossible.

Both spears hit true, that Rhun was sure of. He saw the spears strike each of their targets a split second from one another. The cubes shuddered and were even pushed back a brief moment on impact. The small glass domes shielding the red lights held firm. The spears bounced off them.

The cubes began scanning the area, looking this way and that for their attackers.

“I hit mine.” Lierna looked to Rhun for understanding.

“We both did.” Rhun’s mind took a moment to register what had happened. “It seems the Founders have decided to further alter this experiment and make their tickers that much harder to kill.”

The hissing sound that came from the cubes as they opened compartments on either side of the body to release their weapons reached Rhun’s and Lierna’s ears.

“Down!” Rhun shouted as he threw himself to the ground alongside Lierna.


Blue bolts of energy sizzled through the air. After the first volley, it was clear the cubes had not pinpointed their exact position, rather understood where the spears had come from and began targeting the general area.

“Back,” Rhun ordered over the sounds of the blasts coming from the cubes. “Back!”

As much as Rhun hated to retreat, there was no point in further endangering his men in a fight that they couldn’t win. It was clear changes had been made to the tickers, changes that could spell the end for him and his new city. If the tickers could not be put down, then they had a very serious problem.

Chapter Ten

Rhun led his party along with their latest addition of Balon Longoak away from the tickers. He pushed them to a run for two miles before he allowed them to decrease their speed to a fast trot. Lierna brought up the rear with a huffing Balon. The stout man wasn’t used to running in the desert or nearly as conditioned as the rest of the survivors who had made the unforgiving desert their home.

Rhun was left to his own thoughts as he led his company toward the sea.

The city has to know. They have to be made aware of the fact the tickers do not go down as easily as they have before. And what about the scouting parties? If they ran into the tickers, they might have to find this out the hard way for themselves.

Rhun’s mind, so used to studying tactics and strategy, examined the problem from every angle. We have to take down another ticker. We have to find a way and use that same method to defeat any others. Every breathing or man-made item has a weakness. We just have to find the flaw for this improved version of the ticker.

Rhun pushed the company through the night. Now more than ever he wanted to get to the ocean and the promise of food it held, then back to the city.

The hot sun was just beginning to fight back night’s darkness when Lierna jogged up to Rhun.

“I’ve pushed him all night, but the simple fact is that if we insist on going further right now, we’re going to be carrying our new friend the rest of the way.” Lierna motioned over her shoulder with a thumb. “He’s had it. I’m surprised he’s made it this far.”

Rhun stopped, looking behind him. Past the other four members of their new city, Balon Longoak trudged on a quarter mile behind. His head down each step he took, he wobbled like that of a man half drunk, trying to find his way home.

“Station lookouts,” Rhun told Lierna. “We need to finish this mission, then get back to the city as soon as possible to warn the others of the changes our enemies have made.”

“Understood.” Lierna hurried to obey her Alpha Centaury’s orders.

Rhun took a small sip from the canteen he carried on his hip opposite his blade. It was not lost on him that now, along with his hands, the blade was the only thing he possessed as a weapon. If they did meet more tickers either at the ocean or on their way back, things would get messy.

Rhun waited for Balon as he trudged through the sand, one dogged step after the other.

“Here.” Rhun handed the small man the canteen. “Easy with it. We’ll have to make it last until we return.”

Balon accepted the canteen gratefully. He fell more than sat on the sand next to Rhun and took a single draught. Sweat dampened his entire body despite the coolness of the desert night. His lips were cracked both top and bottom.

“Tell me more of the state of affairs in your city,” Rhun asked the stranger. “Tell me more of your involvement.”

“It’s trying times indeed,” Balon said as he handed back Rhun’s canteen. “Our king is being pulled both ways at the moment. He’s a good man and a fair one at that. I know how much he hated to send me out of the wall, but he had no choice. His council, more so than he, wanted to make it so. Maybe I was too vocal, but I saw that he desired to make a change as well. He’s close to wanting to know who else is out here. He saw the letters and the pages of the codex just like I did. If the note is true, and after seeing you, I have no reason to fear that it isn’t, he as our city leader has read the codex in its entirety.”

“You seem close with the king.” Rhun sensed something that Balon had yet to tell him. “You were part of his council?”

“No not quite.” Balon used the ends of his cloak to dry his brow. “I was chief of the forge. That meant I was the one stockpiling all his weapons and the Mecha. I’m dull but not stupid. I know there’s no reason to stockpile weapons and ammunition the way we have been doing if we don’t plan to use it. I’ve obeyed for years under the king’s orders, but even he didn’t seem enthusiastic when I would give him my reports of our weapons cache. It was like he was doing something, obeying someone else’s rules begrudgingly.”

A thought popped into Rhun’s mind so wild he knew he had to ask. “Your king, do you think he could be swayed?”

“Swayed from what exactly?” Balon raised a brow, looking up at Rhun as if he were seeing him for the first time. “You haven’t exactly been forth-giving of information. I’m still in the dark here. When I tried to question the woman warrior between huffs and puffs, she ignored me with a scowl. I half thought she was going to slit my throat.”

“Right,” Rhun said, trying to think of the quickest way to get the man up to speed. “There are six cities, all established by whom we call the Founders. Each city leader is given a codex containing instructions. The instructions end with each city building an army to go out to the desert and destroy the other five cities.”

Balon looked at Rhun, blinking as if he were trying to wake himself from the very worst kind of nightmare. “I imagined something like this, but never that there would be others putting this on. Did you call them the Founders?”

“It’s the term we have come to know them as.” Rhun explained the little he understood. “They are responsible for starting all of this, for the change in the sky and the leading of all of us to slaughter one another. It’s like we’re pawns in a game to be experimented on and tested.”

Balon nodded along with Rhun’s words. His fatigued mind was beginning to draw lines and connections of a life he had lived following this plan.

“If my king could see other warriors like you standing up and fighting these Founders, I think he would join you. Like I said, he’s a good man. The council of the others has him chained to following this codex.” Balon tugged at his beard in thought. “How many warriors do you have in your city, a thousand? Ten thousand?”

“At the moment we are just over a hundred, most of that number noncombatants,” Rhun said, seeing Balon’s eyes fall. “But others just like you who have read the letters we sent will come. That I am sure of. It’s my belief that as the codex reaches the final chapter and more and more cities weaponize for war, the people will begin to question. How sure are you that your king would be willing to stray from the codex and go to war with the Founders?”

“I know he would.” Balon stood up, excited. “I know he would.”

Lierna arrived where the two men spoke to catch the last passes between them. She was about to say something then bit her tongue and settled for a signature scowl.

“Speak your mind,” Rhun told her, already guessing and part of him agreeing with what she would say.

“Alpha Centaury, we can’t believe what this man has to say; he’s barely tall enough to see over the battlements on a wall.” Lierna ignored Balon as she pleaded her case. “You can’t be considering going to his city to make our case. He’s apt to be a lying traitor as much as a master forge worker and friend of the king.”

“I’m right here,” Balon said with a scowl of his own at Lierna. He placed meaty hands on the sides of his waist. “I can hear everything you’re saying about me.”

“Perhaps, but it may be time to take risks like this,” Rhun said, undecided. For a man who was usually decisive and took action, this was a new position he found himself in. “Our allies are few and the enemy is growing stronger. Worst-case scenario, they refuse to listen to us. Best-case scenario, we gain a powerful friend.”

“If they are as powerful as the short man says,” Lierna added.

“Still, I’m right here.” Balon eyed Lierna with a crooked smile. “And I’ll have you know I’m one of the tallest in my city.”

“Wonderful.” Lierna threw her hands up in the air. “We’ll have midgets as allies.”

Rhun heard the two go back and forth, weighing the option in his mind as he did so.

Jordan is taking a risk of her own right now, going to try and meet with whoever made the map, whether it be the Founders or something else. What are you risking for freedom? What are you risking to see your wife again? These thoughts weighed on Rhun as he made up his mind.

“Lierna, you and I will go back with Balon to his city and scout the area,” Rhun decided. “The rest of our party will continue on to the sea to gather food and then take word back to our city about the enhanced tickers. We have to try.”

Lierna’s face almost turned into the same color as her hair. The soldier in her knew better than to question. Her loyalty was unwavering as she nodded along with Rhun’s words. “I’ll inform the rest of the party.”

“I don’t think she likes me very much,” Balon said, looking at Lierna as the woman moved on to dole out the orders. “But you’re making the right decision. The king will side with us when he sees the notes are true. When he sees the kind of warriors that will rally with us.”

“For your sake, I hope you’re right.” Rhun gave Balon a hard stare. “If anything you say is less than true, I’ll be sure to rip you apart with my hands before I go down.”

“So violent.” Balon tried to swallow, but there was no spit in his mouth.

Preparations were soon made and the three unlikely travelers departed from the rest of the group to head to city two. The road to Balon’s city would take them a few days if Balon was able to match their pace.

Rhun took just enough water and food to make it to the city. If things did not go as planned, they would be out of luck and forced to try and return to their own city gates before dehydration won over.

The sun rose as Rhun, Lierna, and Balon shared a meager meal of rations they had brought with them from the city. It consisted of seaweed, some dried fruit Argo had found for them, and water. It wasn’t much, but that was what this new world had to offer at the moment.

I’m coming, Rhun addressed his wife, whom he had not seen in five years. I’m closer than ever to seeing you again my darling. I’m coming.

Chapter Eleven

“For someone who has not been conditioned by the desert for long, you move quickly,” Argo told Jordan as the two made their way across the desert. “Most we find outside of their walls take months to traverse the desert as fast as you. City life makes them soft.”

Jordan and Argo had made great time, traveling through the night, sleeping during the day, and once again making a push while the stars were overhead. Whether it was luck or something else, they had only come across two ticker patrols, and both times, they had managed to evade the machines in their path.

The more and more Jordan got to know Argo, the more she found herself liking the good-natured warrior. He was younger than she was, and despite her never having a brother, she imagined it would be something like this.

“I think—I think I’ll take that as a compliment,” Jordan said, maneuvering the hood around her head to block out the rays of the newly rising sun.

“We made it an entire day early,” Argo said, pointing with an outstretched finger to a form on the horizon.

Jordan craned her neck forward, shading her eyes. There was something there, something dark against the sandy floor of the desert, a dark brown rock outcropping.

Thus far in her travels across the god forsaken wasteland, there were few dead bushes or rocks to break up the terrain. This was the first sizable rock outcropping she had seen to date.

As they drew closer, she could see why the person who had drawn the map referred to it as the place of the skull. The rock outcropping was the size of a small house with a forward-facing rock with two gaping holes at its center and a rigid line underneath as if it were trying to smile.

“Maybe we were too fast,” Argo said with a heavy sigh. “Now we have to wait for the sun to set again for this meeting to take place and it’s barely only rising now. I guess we can take shade in the skull and—”


Jordan looked to Argo at the same time he looked to her. The sound, though barely audible, was very clearly made up by not one clicker but by many of the machines.

Argo sprinted up the outcropping of rocks, turning in all directions to search for the machines. Jordan followed his lead, grabbing on to handholds of the rock to pull herself up. Strange… the rock wasn’t just cool; it was cold to the touch.

Jordan didn’t have time to wonder why the rock was cold when it had no right to be. She had larger problems on her hands.

“There.” Argo pointed to the east.” A line of them; ten, maybe twenty.”

“No, they’re coming from the west,” Jordan corrected him, already taking her blaster from the place it rested on her back. “And—and the north.”

Jordan did a full circle, realizing they were both right. Not only was a ticker army coming for them, they were surrounded. Suddenly, the blaster in her hands didn’t feel as comforting as it once had before.

“It was a trap all along,” Argo breathed as he took out his sling and reached for a rock. “They knew someone would come to investigate and now we’re going to pay the price.”

Jordan bit back fear as she dropped to a knee and drew a line on the tickers arriving from the north. How much longer until the machines opened fire she had no idea, but she wasn’t going to wait for them to take the opening shots.


Blue energy from her weapon shot forward, taking a clicker in its body just below its red light. The machine stumbled in the sand. Another of her rounds went high, the next striking a clicker, exploding the red light in its center body mass. Despite the red light shattering, it continued to move forward.

“Well, that’s new,” Argo said, swirling his sling so fast in his hand it was invisible to the naked eye. “Jordan Shepherd, it was an honor meeting you. It will be an honor dying with you.”

“We’re not dead yet,” Jordan said, refusing to give in to defeat. The blaster kicked like a mule as she unloaded on the tickers in front of her.


The clickers ignored the damage done to them by both blaster and stones as they came within range of Argo’s sling. When they were still fifty yards away, they stopped and opened the compartments at their sides with a hiss.

The machines had made a complete circle around the stone skull. There had to be over a hundred of the machines all staring up at Jordan and Argo with their diabolical red lights.

Then the strangest thing happened. They didn’t fire.

Something like the sound of an elevator reached Jordan’s ears. A door latch opened below them, then an alien figure stepped from a hidden compartment inside the skull rock.

Jordan wasn’t sure if her lack of caffeine was finally kicking in and making her see things or if she was really witnessing what her eyes were telling her. She looked down at the figure, who did not turn around at first.

The being was tall, perhaps six and a half feet. Slender with a touch of a muscular build, its skin was a light shade of blue. Long white hair was gathered at the back of its head in a snug bun. It wore a tight-fitting bodysuit made of a material that shone in the light of the newly rising sun. Three fingers on an outstretched hand rose up as if it were rebuking the machines.

Like obedient dogs obeying their master, the machines drew in their blasters. Next, they began to move backwards the way they came.

Jordan looked over to Argo. The young man’s mouth was open; he noticed Jordan looking at him.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Argo asked.

“If you’re seeing a blue alien come to our rescue and send off that army of tickers from a rock shaped like a skull, then yes,” Jordan answered. Not willing to trust the alien yet, she leveled her blaster at its back. In her best commanding voice, she asked, “Who are you?”

“One moment, please,” the alien responded, still not turning around, but with its other three-fingered hand, it raised a single finger. “I must ensure they are sent away and the last few minutes of their data stream erased. If it makes you feel safer, please continue to point your weapons at me.”

The male alien spoke in perfect English. If anything, he over-pronounced his words slightly. Seconds ticked by as the tickers retreated back into the desert as if obeying wordless commands of the alien in front of Jordan and Argo.

“There, now we can speak undisturbed.” The alien turned to look around at his guests. “My name is Eldar. My species is the Arulion from the planet Prometheus. I am what you would refer to as one of the Founders.”

“Wow, you’re just giving it all to us.” Jordan aimed down the barrel of her rifle. “How do we know any of what you’re saying is true?”

Eldar crossed slender arms over his torso, raising a white eyebrow. His facial features were human enough. Sharp points to his nose and jawline added to his long face. Slightly pointed ears stuck up on either side of his head. His eyes were a bright bluish-yellow. Give him five-fingered hands and a different skin tone and he could almost pass for human.

“I guess you will have to decide to trust me until I can prove to you over time that I am not your enemy,” Eldar said with a shrug as if he knew this question were coming and this was the best he could do. “Much like your own cities, there are good and bad among you, different factions warring for power and influence. I belong to a small faction within the Founders that sees this grand experiment as an act of cruelty. We have wanted to help you for a long time now, but we needed to make sure there were enough of you able to survive long enough to stand a chance at overthrowing the Foundation.”

Argo still twirled his sling as he eyed the tall alien. “Half of me still wants to get lazy and send this stone into your skull for everything your kind has done to mine.”

“I understand,” Eldar said with a nod as if he too expected the rock to fly. “I wouldn’t blame you either.”

“Why don’t we just start from the beginning?” Jordan said, still getting over the shock that she was speaking with a real-life alien. “Argo, put the sling down. He saved us from the tickers. That buys him a few minutes to speak.”

Argo didn’t look like he liked the idea, but he agreed. The leather string in his hand slowly decelerated until the rock hung from the sling.

“Perhaps we should speak inside and out of the sun,” Eldar said with a motion to the rock Jordan and Argo stood on top of. “We have much to discuss.”

Jordan lowered her own weapon. Her eyes scanned Eldar’s body. As far as she could tell, he had no weapon. In his hands, a piece of metal sat on each of his palms, held there by a clasp on his wrist and metal caps that covered his fingertips.

Argo looked over at Jordan for consensus. “The blue alien says we have much to discuss.”

Argo’s humor was not lost on Jordan.

How crazy has your world gotten when you’re accepting sit downs with alien species in secret bunkers? Jordan heaved a heavy sigh. You really stepped into it this time.

“Why don’t we follow you inside?” Jordan said to Eldar. “And you won’t mind if we bring our weapons, do you?”

“Of course not,” Eldar said. Moving forward, he disappeared beneath them into the secret rock passage. “I realize this first meeting will be stressful. The more you get to know what I’ve gone through to make this happen, I think the more you will begin to trust me. I could have been killed if they found out I added the map to the codex that was sent to you.”

Eldar was gone a moment later, his voice echoing back to them from the cave.

Jordan leapt off the rocks, her feet landing in the soft sand below. She turned to see the cave entrance behind her. The rock face had opened up like elevator doors to reveal a narrow hall passage that sloped down. Eldar was already gone from view. Lighting from the corners of the floor and ceiling gave off bright white light.

Argo jumped down beside her. He moved to take the lead. Jordan shot out a hand to stop him.

“What?” Argo said with a raised eyebrow. “Listen, if this is one of those gender issue things, I’m not going first because I’m the man; I’m going first because I have training as a warrior and—”

“Wow, slow down with the whole gender equality talk.” Jordan rolled her eyes then lifted her blaster. “I’m going first because I have the weapon that’ll work best in a tight hall. Let’s go.”

Jordan took the lead, not waiting for her friend. She kept her finger on the blaster’s trigger as she entered the sloping hall. Her heart rate doubled in speed as she prepared herself for whatever came next.

The hall sloped down for only a short distance before leveling out into an octagon-shaped room. The room was plain white with the same white lights set into the corners of it. Seven other halls led to where Jordan could only guess, one down each of the octagon-shaped room’s sides.

In the center of the room was a command station of monitors and screens. Eldar sat in the single chair below these monitors, his three fingers on each hand waving through the air as if he were conducting some kind of magical spell.

Jordan realized the metal gadgets in his palms were controlling the monitors as he moved from one image to the next. Each monitor showed a different view. The walls in Jordan’s mouth dried as she realized what the monitors showed. They held pictures of cities, of walls, of a life that she knew and had made sense to her once before. The screens showed various views of life within her own city.

Chapter Twelve

“You’ve been watching us this entire time?” Argo asked the question that was on Jordan’s lips. “Every city? You’ve seen everything?”

“We have.” Eldar turned to address the pair. “We should start from the beginning. You are all part of an experiment that has been going on for over a thousand years. You are the lucky ones that happened to be present when the end game is being enacted. The second to final phase of this project. The end of the codex when cities weaponize their forces and try to move outside of their own walls.”

“How—why did it all start?” Jordan tried sifting through the dozens of questions. She had to ask the ones that would mean the most. “Where are we?”

“We are on a planet called Pandora in the Andromeda Galaxy.” Eldar studied both of them to make sure they were following along. “You are all part of an experiment—I should correct myself here. I believe WE are all part of an experiment set up by my race, the Arulion to see what species of alien hybrids are the best suited to act as soldiers in our army.”

“Alien hybrids?” Jordan repeated the words. The blaster barrel she held pointed at Eldar lowered to the ground slowly as the weight of the words’ meaning hit her like a wrecking ball. She felt numb inside, almost sick. “We’re not human?”

“My race is a patient one. They have plans to rule this universe and the technology to do so, but they lack the perfect warrior. This project was to create six different alien species from the DNA of humans and six other species and see which would be the ultimate warrior, the ultimate survivor that will fill the Arulion ranks.”

“I’m not fully human?” Argo looked down at his tan hands as if he were seeing them for the first time. “But I’ve seen survivors of the other cities. They look just like I do.”

“Just like you do?” Eldar lifted a brow.

Jordan and Argo examined one another as if they were seeing each other for the first time. Argo’s skin was darker, his features more square, his ears a bit pointier, but nothing that would call him out as an alien.

“We chose human DNA as a starting point because your DNA acts as a mask for the other alien DNA that lives beneath the surface,” Eldar explained. “You may seem alike from the outside, but I promise you, you come from two very different lineages of aliens. Appearance-wise you two look the most alike. Think, Argo; you’ve seen survivors from nearly every city.”

Argo stood quiet as he racked his mind for images of what other citizen members looked like. “City six’s only survivor is Leopold. We really only have him to tell us what his population looked like. City two’s citizens are much shorter than we are. They’re stocky and built sturdier.”

“What you call city five and city three are also made up of similar-featured hybrids.” Eldar paused as if he had remembered something disturbing. “Although there have been issues with city three.”

“Why are the skies different within our walls and outside of them?” Argo asked. “Why even make the cities think they were on Earth at all? Why not from the beginning just explain to them where they really are?”

“As you will begin to see, everything is done for a reason, everything is a test. Never forget that.” Eldar placed his fingertips together in front of him as if he were going to say a prayer. “We project a false sky over each city that reminds the inhabitants of Earth. When they leave their walls, a psychological test begins where we see how citizens respond to having everything they thought they knew stripped from them in a single instant.”

“We were like freaking lab rats.” Jordan tried to contain her anger. She found the act more difficult than she would have liked. “So let’s talk about why you’re helping us.”

“Like I said, there is a faction within the Founders that realizes this is nothing but cruelty. We have waited a long time to begin to make our moves. We needed strong allies in you before we could rebel against the rest of our kind.” Eldar paused for the first time in his succinct matter-of-fact way of speaking. The pause was short-lived, barely a blip on the radar, but Jordan guessed he was keeping something from them. “Our time to give guidance and begin to plan is here. If my party were to wait any longer to work against our own, it would be too late. The machines we use, what you call tickers, are beginning their evolution.”

“That’s why they weren’t going down when they attacked just now,” Argo added, filling in the missing information. “What’s being done to them?”

“They are learning and being made more and more threatening to challenge the cities that are breaking free from their own walls. Remember, we are seeking only the strongest of the alien hybrids to survive. To do this, we must create and attack with ever changing, ever deadlier machines,” Eldar said as if it were a simple enough fact. “I’m here to provide as much information as I can and guidance for you to unite the cities that are willing and overthrow the Founders. We will strike from within when the time is right. For now, they are too many.”

“You want us to unite the cities to attack the pyramid?” Argo asked incredulously. “I’ve seen the army of tickers there and you said they’re evolving into even deadlier machines? How are we going to do that?”

“With patience and knowledge,” Eldar responded. “The first step in this task has to be to unite the cities that are willing. Only then can we hope to have enough of a force to overthrow the Foundation.”

“And you’re just more than willing to strike against your own kind?” Jordan asked, wanting to believe the alien but remembering his hesitation from before. “How many of you are there in your faction versus the whole of the Founders?”

“Yes, as the years pass and more and more of us realize what is being done to you, what part we are playing in forcing you to slaughter one another, we realize we are on the wrong side of this.” Eldar’s voice was firm and his eye contact held their own as he said every word. “Perhaps this is even a test from the leaders on our own world to see if we go through with this experiment or not.”

“You didn’t answer the second question,” Jordan reminded him. “How many of you are there?”

“There are two thousand Arulion who man the Foundation located in the center of the six cities.” Eldar paused for the second time. “And five of my own kind that stand with me to do what is right.”

Chapter Thirteen

Argo roared with laughter before shaking his head and throwing up his arms. He walked in a tight circle as if he needed to take some kind of action at the news before taking a seat on the floor.

“Well, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills right about now.” Argo rested his back against one of the walls in the octagon-shaped room that did not lead down a long hall. “You want us to rally the six cities and attack the pyramid—or the Foundation, whatever you want to call it. Then you and your five friends are going to help us from the inside and attack the other what? The other one thousand nine hundred and ninety-four members of your race? Wonderful.”

“That is mostly accurate, although there are five of us all together willing to help you, not six. I included myself in the five already,” Eldar said, ignoring Argo’s sarcastic attitude. He turned to Jordan to try and convince her. It was obvious how Argo felt. “The five of us willing to help all hold key positions within the Foundation that will be important to our overthrowing the Founders. We hold positions in the engineering branch, the weapons bay, and the medical unit.”

“And what is it that you do?” Jordan asked.

“I oversee our intelligence department as we monitor each city. I can provide valuable resources that will aid you in convincing most of the other cities to join your cause.” Eldar motioned to the display of screens behind him that, until this point, had gone on mostly unnoticed as they monitored sections of Jordan’s city. “This is only one of such stations that exists beneath the surface of the desert. Others hold weapons, supplies, and of course, stations for monitoring the progress of each city.”

Jordan’s eyes played across the army of screens as she searched the views of her own city for anyone she recognized. She knew it was an act of futility, but she couldn’t help herself. At this point, she wasn’t sure if seeing her parents would be a good thing or a bad thing. She found herself missing them more and more as she spiraled down this rabbit hole.

Her parents weren’t perfect, but who was? One thing she did know was that they loved her without question. Perhaps they showed their love in a different way than she would have liked, but they did what they could.

Jordan’s eyes played over scenes of buildings she recognized, the park where she had taken Buie Lee to pretend to exercise as they first spoke of realizing something was wrong with their city, and to her own block, where she saw the building she had once lived.

People paced across the screen as well. Citizens that had no idea their city was preparing for war. City leaders ignorant to the fact they were on an alien planet, being strung along like puppets.

“We’d need food to sustain our own city and information on what cities to contact first,” Jordan said as her mind worked on overdrive. “Weapons and armor too.”

“Jordan, you can’t be serious,” Argo said, shaking his head. He didn’t wait for an answer. “But I guess I’m never serious either. All right, let’s get to work. Where do we start?”

Eldar smiled for the first time. It wasn’t something Jordan would have called a warm grin, but it was a twitch of his thin blue lips in an upward motion.

“I knew you’d come around,” Eldar said to Argo. “Your race are the top contenders for physical specimen out of the six cities.”

“Wonderful, so glad to hear it,” Argo mumbled.

“So food and supplies?” Jordan redirected Eldar’s attention. “If we’re going to wage a war, we’ll need plenty of both.”

“Right you are.” Eldar turned back to his screens. He moved his finger around in the empty space in front of him. A moment later, all the screens showed the single image of a spaceship poking up from the desert floor. The hull was old and rusted. Most of the ship was hidden beneath the surface of the desert. A black window and the ship’s long neck were the only things that poked through. “And here is your answer.”

“A spaceship?” Jordan said, looking to Argo to see if she had missed something. “I mean, that’s crazy, but how is that going to help us?”

“Not the spacecraft itself, rather what is stored inside,” Eldar explained. “The craft has been here for years. It was one of my jobs to cloak it when this site was first picked for the Pandora Experiment. Since then, I’ve placed enough food and supplies in the craft to feed an army.”

“Wait a minute, back up,” Jordan said, eyeing Eldar with a hard look as she searched him for the truth. “You said that ship has been here since this experiment began and you cloaked it?”

“That’s right.” Eldar nodded.

“You also said this experiment began over a thousand years ago,” Argo added, catching on to Jordan’s train of thought.

“It did,” Eldar agreed. “I am much older than you would think. My body does not age like yours. I’ve seen many come and go in the cities and with each generation a new hope they would be the ones to start the uprising. Now that you are finally here, you can see why I am so eager to help. I’ve waited a very, very long time to meet you.”

Jordan found herself wishing she could believe everything Eldar said was the truth. He was starting to grow on her. She had to remind herself to stay vigilant since she had nothing to go on besides his word at the moment.

“The first step must be to the ship for the supplies you will need to wage the war,” Eldar said, once more pointing to the craft. “We will help as much as we can from here. After you secure the supplies, you must travel to city five.”

“Why city five?” Argo asked, biting his lower lip. “That’s where Grizla is from, if I’m not mistaken.”

“City five more so than any other city will be receptive of the truth.” Eldar waved his hands in front of the screens. In a moment, they transitioned from the view of the downed spacecraft to the image of stone city gates that glimmered with a kind of light green shield.

The gates were wide open. Tall dark-skinned city inhabitants stood at the outside of their gates marveling up at the sky. They were dressed in colorful robes and decorated with jewels and feathers.

“There is a small faction that worships the codex here, but the bulk of the city’s citizenship received your notes. They demanded the gates be open.” Eldar looked at Jordan with another of his rare smiles. “You did well, Jordan Shepherd. Sending those letters has sparked the revolution. Now it is up to us to take that flame and turn it into a roaring fire.”

The room silenced for the first time since Jordan and Argo had entered the underground bunker. The three alien species stared at one another as a plan was hatched that would topple the Founders themselves if followed all the way through to the end.

“And the other cities?” Jordan asked. “How did they receive the letters?”

“Your own city, Jordan, is confused more than anything. The director that resides in your walls is a master manipulator. I’m afraid there has been no real change.” Eldar moved through images of the cities as he ran down the list. “City two is on the brink with the king himself debating if following the codex is the right thing to do. They may be the next city we reach out to. City five is where you will be sent next and city four is rebuilding their militia to send out once more.”

“I knew the House wouldn’t give up,” Argo spat as images of his own city filled the screens in front of him. The landscape reminded Jordan of the one in their current city had it not been destroyed. It was elegant and clean with stone roads and marble buildings. “They’ll be out to attack soon enough.”

“Yes, that is another reason why you must get to city five as soon as possible to warn them and bring them into the alliance.” Eldar moved to a view of city six where Jordan called her home now. There were only a few people about the large destroyed city. It looked pitiful.

“You skipped city three,” Jordan informed Eldar, realizing at the same time she said it that he had not skipped it at all, but rather passed over it. “Or did you?”

“City three has had its issues.” Eldar did not scroll to the screens showing a view of the city. “It’s best we hope and pray that city’s doors never open.”

“Well, now I just want to know more,” Argo said, cocking his head to the side. “What’s in city three?”

“The alien DNA spliced with the human DNA did not take as well as in the other cities.” Eldar cleared his throat as he chose his words. “A madness ruled the town. Animals more than men live within its walls now. That capital will be of no help to us. It’s better that we leave those doors closed for all of our sakes.”

It was clear Eldar did not want to show them images of the city. His tone was so foreboding, so intense, she decided against asking him to look at what he described.

You have enough on your plate as it is; evolving robots, alien overlords, and now hunting for a wrecked spaceship full of supplies, Jordan told herself. Don’t make life any harder than it already is.

“Time is forever trying to outdo us.” Eldar removed the metal pieces from his hands that controlled the screens behind him and the tickers in the desert before that. He handed them to Jordan. “They will work on this evolution of the tickers. But they will not work on the next. The engineering department is producing the next round of machines as we speak.”

Jordan accepted the cool pieces of metal. They began with a silver latch for her wrist; a metal wire ran to a small silver circle meant to rest on her palm. Three more wires ran from the circle in her palm to fingertip-shaped metal ends that would attach to the tips of her fingers.

“The controllers will do just that,” Elder explained. “They have the ability to control anything my kind have created. Simply think what you would have them do and they will send a signal to be obeyed.”

Eldar cocked his head to the side as if he were hearing something. “It’s time that you go. We’ve pushed our luck far enough during this meeting. I will contact you when it’s safe through the controllers. Don’t expect me to do so often. Every time we communicate in any way, we risk exposing ourselves to the Founders. Good luck.”

Chapter Fourteen

Jerrick had forgotten how much he had enjoyed building and creating. Leopold showed him how to dismantle the tickers. He was familiar with their power source, how to remove pieces from their structure, and how to turn one of the blasters that came off on either side of their frames into weapons.

He still went back to Leopold to ask questions from the man every so often, but with every hour that passed, he became more and more familiar with the task. The tickers weren’t complicated machines once they weren’t trying to kill you. A propulsion system below the cubes kept them afloat. A lens with a camera was set behind the red lights on the side of the cube facing forward. A pair of weapons sat inside the cube, ready to be extended once the cube found a threat.

What was most interesting to Jerrick was what the machine used for fuel. Its power source was a bright blue liquid. A small amount housed in each of the blasters allowed them to fire while a larger amount sat in containers in the heart of the tickers.

While Jerrick toiled in the workshop removing the blasters from the tickers, turning them into weapons for the city members, Leopold worked alongside him like a surgeon examining and reexamining the kind of metal Rhun and his people’s armor was made from. If Leopold could discover its properties, he might be able to create more.

“Questions, questions, and always more questions.” Leopold stood over the vambrace Rhun had left him, a magnifying glass in one hand. With the other, he tugged at his beard. “Always more to learn in this wonderful terrifying world.”

“Did you figure it out?” Jerrick looked up from his work on the opposite side of the table. He had been carefully removing the weapons from the cubes as well as the liquid blue power source that propelled the tickers forward. “You’ve been studying it now for a full day.”

“I think so, I think so, maybe I have, and maybe I have.” Leopold drummed the bony fingers of his right hand on the table in front of him. “I need to clear my head for a moment. You know, concentrate on something else to let my subconscious do the work on this for me and put the last pieces of this puzzle together. You know what I mean, chili bean?”

“I think so,” Jerrick said honestly. “Need to go for a walk or something to clear your head?”

“Right you are, young man, and not just any walk.” Leopold sauntered over to Jerrick and picked up one of the glass tubes of the blue liquid Jerrick was removing and storing. “I’ve been wanting to test this for a while now. Let’s go, Jerrick. Time waits for no man. Bring one of those blasters you’ve been working on.”

Jerrick grabbed a blaster and followed the inventor without question. To be honest, he was grateful to get out of the workshop. They had been at it for a full day and a half. While Jerrick enjoyed the work, he also didn’t mind stretching his legs.

The two men traveled deeper into the city opposite the gates where the rest of the survivors had taken up residence. As they journeyed farther into Leopold’s broken city, Jerrick realized it was the furthest he had ever come.

Homes were destroyed like the rest with blown-out sections of walls, caved in roofs, and an overly eerie quiet. They were too far away to hear any of the survivors on the other side of the city; no animals made sounds and not even the wind dared to disturb the silence.

“I wanted to get nice and far from anyone we might hurt while we do the testing,” Leopold explained to Jerrick. “We should be fine now. Let’s see what this stuff can do.”

Leopold stopped in the middle of the stone street. The glass cylinder of blue liquid was as wide as his hand and a full foot in length. A metal-like stopper ensured the liquid was kept in the cylinder.

Leopold scrunched his eyes, examining the bright blue liquid as if he were trying to decide what it tasted like. Gently, he pulled the metal top loose.

“You might want to step back for this. I’m not sure how it’s going to react,” Leopold said. He looked over his shoulder. “If anything bad happens, it should happen to me. I’ve lived longer than I should have already.”

“You need to live as long as you can,” Jerrick reminded him, only taking a few steps back. “We all do if we’re going to see the end of this.”

Jerrick looked on wide-eyed as the insane old man in front of him sniffed at the blue liquid that powered the tickers.

“Ugh, pungent.” Leopold cringed as he jerked his head back from the odor. He leaned in for another sniff. “Mmmm, actually, I like it.”

“Are you getting high off machine fuel?” Jerrick asked, half laughing. “Leopold, we need to keep all those brain cells you have for work.”

Leopold sniffed one more time, closing his eyes as he did so. “Right, right. Time to focus. Well, it smells highly of chemicals. Now for the next test.”

If Jerrick thought Leopold was ridiculous for huffing the liquid, he didn’t know how to describe how he felt as he watched on as the man dipped a finger in the cylinder and then brought it to his lips.

“Leopold!” Jerrick couldn’t stand where he was any longer. He ran up to the aged scientist, shaking his head. “What are you doing?” You don’t know what’s in there.”

“Well, it doesn’t taste like blueberries, that’s for sure,” Leopold spat on the ground next to him over and over again. “Yuck, well, at least test two is done.”

“What’s test three?” Jerrick asked, wondering if he would regret asking the question in the first place.

“Let’s see how combustible it is.” Leopold nodded to Jerrick’s blaster. “I’ll set up the target and you find some cover. “Make sure you’re far away. Who knows what the blast radius of this stuff could be.”

Leopold ran to the right side of the street where a building with a broken gate sat. A portion of the gate had been demolished, leaving only the left side of the gate standing. Leopold chose a pillar that stood chest high to place the cylinder.

Jerrick took up a position on the opposite side of the street. He chose a house on the street to the left of Leopold. There was a section of a white marble home that had fallen forward, creating a barrier of rubble waist high. If Jerrick knelt, he knew he would be able to find cover behind it.

“Okey dokey poky smoky,” Leopold said as he finished placing the cylinder on the broken columns. He turned to run back to Jerrick across the street. “Let’s see if we can blow this thing up. At the least, get it to smolder or fizzle or someth—”

“Leopold!” Jerrick screamed, seeing what the man could not. “Run!”

Jerrick watched on, powerless to do anything. A light gust of wind caressed the cylinder, causing it to lose its balance and wobble unsteadily. Jerrick was too far away to offer assistance, but he vaulted over his cover and ran to Leopold to do… what, he wasn’t sure.

“What? No need to worry I’m fine. I mean, it didn’t taste like a milkshake, but I don’t think I’m going to get poisoned or anything.” Leopold trotted over to Jerrick, misreading his concern.

Another gust of wind buffeted the cylinder, this time sending it crashing down. Leopold was only halfway across the street. Jerrick was still five yards from grabbing the elderly chemical sniffer and dragging him to safety.


Jerrick felt a wave of heat hit him in the chest like a charging ticker. He was lifted off his feet and thrown backward. His head cracked off the stone floor. Stars exploded across his vision. Suddenly, it was difficult to breathe. A ringing took over all sense of hearing.

Leopold, Jerrick thought to himself past any well-being for himself. Leopold was closer to the blast.

Jerrick forced himself to a sitting position. He reached a hand to the back of his head. It came back sticky with blood. In front of him, a magnificent blue fire fed from where the liquid remained splattered across columns and the road in front of him. The heat came off the inferno in waves.

Jerrick looked behind him. His heart stopped. Leopold had been thrown over Jerrick, coming to rest in a dirt courtyard of a house on the opposite side of the street. Jerrick forced himself to his feet.

“No, no, no, no,” Jerrick repeated out loud. At least he thought he was saying it out loud. He couldn’t hear anything coming out of his own lips. For the moment, any of the pain he was feeling was pushed down to be dealt with at a later time.

Leopold was in a heap, half his hair singed, his clothes blackened from the blast. He wasn’t moving. Jerrick skidded to his knees beside Leopold’s body, gently shaking the man.

“Leopold! Leopold!” Jerrick screamed so loud, he could hear his own voice past the ringing in his ears, albeit it sounded like a whisper. “Help! Someone help!”

Leopold’s face was a mess of singed beard hair and blood dripping from his nose and a cut above his left eye. His eyes fluttered for a moment. He looked confused staring up at Jerrick. He said something about his son Jerrick couldn’t understand. He pushed himself up out of Jerrick’s arms and looked at the blue blaze in front of them.

He looked back at Jerrick with a crazed smile. He was missing a front tooth now. Blood smeared across the teeth that had made it out of the accident like a bad paint job. He said something else, giving Jerrick a thumbs-up.

Jerrick heaved a sigh of relief at his friend’s health. He was almost embarrassed for thinking the worst so soon. Leopold was saying more; his mouth didn’t stop moving. His words sounded muffled with the ringing in Jerrick’s ears.

Jerrick pointed to his right ear. He shook his head, signaling he wasn’t getting anything from the man.

Leopold moved his mouth so close to Jerrick’s right ear, he could feel his breath. He screamed, “It came to me while I was unconscious. I know what Rhun’s armor is made of.”

Jerrick looked at Leopold incredulously. The man had almost been blown up, knocked unconscious, his hair was singed and his clothes ripped, yet here he was moving past it like nothing had happened.

Survivors within the city, having seen and heard the blast, came running to investigate. Grizla was in the lead, her face full of concern at the two men’s appearance.

“What happened? Are you two all right?” she asked as Jerrick lifted himself off the ground. “Are we under attack?”

“No, no sorry.” Jerrick winced at the pain in his body. The buzzing in his ears had dulled enough to be able to hear Grizla and himself speak. “We were testing.”

“Well, you two should be more careful—”

“Grizla! Grizla!” Leopold came over to them screaming. He had no idea exactly how loud he was being. His hearing clearly had not come back yet. “We’ll refine all that liquid so it makes a bigger one time blast. I’ll send it out with the scouts. But that’s not important, what is important is that I know what metals I need to make the armor! We have to go to the city catacombs!”

Grizla looked at the pair of men with a motherly scowl.

Jerrick shrugged. “Sorry, and—uh, and I guess we’re going to the catacombs next.”

Chapter Fifteen

“I don’t really want to go to the catacombs. I just want to be on record to say that,” Jerrick chimed in as he followed a bandaged Leopold through the wreckage of the city. “I mean, I will go. I am going, but let it be noted.”

After Grizla had patched the two men up, she had insisted on coming with them. Jerrick felt like he was being chaperoned by a parent figure while he and his friend were off to play.

“It’s where the ore is. I think it’s what Rhun’s city must have found, that or something very similar. We’ll have to lug it out, melt it down, and fashion it. Too bad we don’t have an iron worker amongst us, but you have some big muscles. We’ll put those to work.” Leopold glanced over his shoulder at Grizla. “Really, Grizwald, we’re fine. I’m sure you have things you’d rather be doing in the city besides making sure we don’t blow ourselves up…again.”

“Oh no, really, its fine,” Grizla waved his words away with an outstretched hand. She didn’t correct him about her name either. “The city has been swept for any remaining bodies. They’ve been laid to rest. We’re tending the vegetables and orchards inside the walls now, but I could use a break from that.”

“Okay, Grizwald. Well, just keep your eyes open once we reach the catacombs. The rat people don’t take nicely to strangers,” Leopold said with a shrug. “They like me because I look like one of them.”

“Did you just say rat people?” Jerrick stopped in his tracks. The blaster he held in his hands didn’t seem like enough fire power all of a sudden if they were going to be taking on rat people.

“Naw, I’m just kidding.” Leopold burst into a mad chuckle. “But there’s a ton of skeletons down there. Sometimes they talk to me, no joking there.”

Jerrick exchanged a concerned look with Grizla but moved on.

Leopold was taking them to a section of the city now where a small cemetery sat fenced in with wrought-iron railings. Jerrick found himself grateful the sun was still up and high overhead.

The cemetery wasn’t necessarily large or gaudy. Lines of tombstones rose from the ground etched with names and dates of those who had passed. Dirt and overgrown weeds covered the grounds. A few trees here and there dotted the landscape.

The only actual building was what Leopold seemed to be taking them towards at the moment, a square building longer than it was wide, no larger than a small home. Two high doors with brass knockers stood closed. An intricate design of bronze and copper wove over the twin doors that stood sentry. Six circles on the door surrounded a triangle set in the middle.

A short flight of stone steps led up to the doors. Leopold bounded up them without hesitation as if he were about to knock on the door of an old friend. He grabbed the brass knocker on the right and heaved. His thin arms trembled with exertion.

Nothing happened.

He heaved again, this time letting out a puff of air and a squeal that sounded like a small constipated child. Still nothing. Jerrick was already on his way up to help when Grizla extended a hand and touched his arm. Her hand was gentle yet commanding as she held him still.

Jerrick looked into the woman’s dark eyes for understanding. There was a firm resolve that lurked there. In the short time he had known the woman from city five, he had grown to like and respect her. He could have pulled free from her grip, but he chose to remain there with her.

“What exactly is in the catacombs?” Grizla asked. “Joking aside and I know you said ore and skeletons. What else lives in there?”

A cold breeze picked up, stroking the trees overhead. A shiver not from the weather raced down Jerrick’s spine. Suddenly, he felt as if someone were watching him. He turned to his left and right. No one was there.

Leopold halted his struggling with the door to tap his skull with his right finger. “I don’t really know. I mean I’ve only been down here once when the last city leader was put to rest. This is the catacomb where all the past city leaders lie. This is where I was going to sleep when I died.”

“What is it?” Jerrick finally asked Grizla. The woman’s hand tightened on his right forearm now as if she were using him to steady herself. “Do you know what’s in there?”

Grizla closed her eyes. Her short greying hair rustled in the cool breeze. She was still as if she were deep in thought trying to remember something. Finally, she opened them.

“A feeling of regret and heaviness,” Grizla said, trying to push words past her lips she was only just beginning to understand. “These city leaders lived and died under the secrecy the codex held. They were crushed by it.”

“Is it safe to go in?” Jerrick asked after Grizla didn’t volunteer to offer more information. “Do you think we’d be better off going back?”

“No, no, we can’t go back.” Leopold looked at his two traveling companions as if they were the crazy ones. “We need the ore. I get it, this place creeps me out too. I’m getting the heebie jeebies just thinking about all the dead guys in there, but we need armor able to withstand the blasts from the clickers and it’s inside.”

“We’ll go,” Grizla finally let go of Jerrick’s arm. “But we must be cautious. The dead when they are this restless have a tendency to reach beyond the grave.”

“We have to deal with an alien wasteland, killer robots, and now zombies?” Jerrick shook his head as he placed his hands on the brass knocker on the door to the left and heaved. “I’m about to lose my sh—”

The door groaned like a man in his death throes, then burst open with a hot wave of air that smelt like death itself.

Jerrick turned his head, coughing at the reek coming from the catacomb. Darkness began to take shape in front of him as his eyes grew accustomed to the ill-lit room within. Jerrick kept his left arm up and his mouth and nose in the crook of his elbow. His right hand was still on his blaster, ready to disperse the ghosts sure to live inside.

Maybe it was because Grizla had said it before or maybe he actually did feel heaviness, a sense of loss in the air. A deep burden of sadness descended on his shoulders with an icy touch.

The room was long with rows and rows of coffins that rested in slots set into the walls. The openings were stacked on one another, six in each row. Every one of the openings filled with a coffin. The only light came from the opposite wall, where a panel of dirty windows half let in the midday sun.

Jerrick was about to move into the room, when Grizla stepped in front of him. The woman’s eyes were closed again. Her arms came out from her dust-colored robe as if she were speaking to the room itself.

“We are not your enemies,” Grizla said softly. “We are survivors just like you were. We are trying to find our place on this planet just like you were. We harbor no hate toward you. Know we serve the light of freedom. We don’t judge you for decisions long past. We only need materials of this god forsaken world to hope to survive another day.”

Jerrick half expected the coffins to open and the past city leaders to come out of their final resting spots. Nothing happened for the next handful of seconds, then Leopold brushed past the pair. For one of the few times Jerrick knew him, there was honest anger in his face.

“Why would we judge them?” Leopold scowled at Grizla as he stepped into the room. “It’s not their fault. They were just doing what they thought they should, what the codex instructed them and the city leader before them told them was right. They didn’t know. They didn’t know the other cities were full of people doing the same thing.”

Grizla didn’t say a word as Leopold continued to rant. The man threw his arms up in the air, shouting. He walked back and forth, shaking his head as tears welled in his eyes.

Jerrick didn’t move.

“I didn’t know there would be an army of machines at our gates when they insisted to go out.” Leopold’s voice cracked as he pounded a closed fist on the stone coffin closest to him. The thin skin covering his knuckles burst open with a spray of blood. “I didn’t know they would kill all of my people. I didn’t know they would kill my son! How was I supposed to know? He was there one minute and gone the next. He vanished, turned to dust in my arms. How was I supposed to know following the codex would lead me to this point? I didn’t know!”

Leopold struck the coffin in front of him again and again. Blood smeared across the dusty stone box. He would have continued to hit the coffin over and over again until his fist was a bloody mess if Grizla hadn’t stopped him.

“You’re going to have to forgive yourself to move on.” Grizla embraced the shorter man. Her chin rested on the top of his head. “You’re going to have to let go of your guilt just like they will have to let go of theirs to move on.”

“What if I can’t?” Leopold’s voice cracked. He didn’t try to remove himself from Grizla’s embrace. His thin arms dangled by his sides as she held on to him. Blood from his ruined fist dripped to the floor below. “What if I can’t let go? What if I don’t want to let go of my boy, of my Jack?”

“Oh, you darling man.” Grizla held him tighter. “Forgiving yourself and letting go of regret doesn’t mean you have to lose the memory of the ones you love. It means you’re giving yourself permission to remember them without guilt and love others. That includes yourself.”

Jerrick still wasn’t sure what to do as Leopold’s sobs filled the catacomb. It was the single saddest thing he had heard in his life. He understood he had to do something. He wasn’t just going to stand there as his friend struggled to let go of his grief.

Jerrick moved across the room. He placed his hand on Leopold’s left shoulder as Grizla gently rocked him back and forth.

“You forgive yourself now.” Grizla looked at Jerrick with an approving nod as she continued to speak to Leopold. “You be the father Jack knew you were. You be the man he loved. You take all that emotion and you put it to work. If truth stands a chance of survival, it will be because people like you rose up.”

Jerrick wasn’t sure how long the trio stood there. Grizla rocking Leopold, Leopold sobbing, and Jerrick doing what he could to console his friend.

Finally, the quivering under Jerrick’s hand stopped. Leopold stood upright, Grizla allowing him to take a step back and dry his tears. Jerrick’s hand fell from the man’s bony back.

“Thank you.” Leopold cleared his throat, looking at Grizla and Jerrick sheepishly. “Thank you. I don’t have many friends and it’s been a long time since I’ve opened up to anyone like that.”

“You don’t have to thank us.” Grizla smiled at Leopold. “That’s what friends do for one another. When the very darkest times come, we stand together.”

“Right, right.” Leopold let out a heavy shaky breath that comes after one does a fair amount of crying. “So what do you say we dump a few bodies and rob a few graves?”

“Say what now?” Jerrick looked from Grizla to Leopold. “You said there was ore here you needed to fashion the armor.”

“Right. The coffins are made out of the ore that was mined here. Our histories say it fell from the sky like a meteor.” Leopold grabbed one of the coffins from its resting place in the wall and tried to lift off the cover. “Come on now. I can’t do this all by myself. I’m exhausted from Grizwald over there making me do all that crying.”

Chapter Sixteen

They ran, they walked when they had to, and then they ran some more. Balon had heart Rhun would give him that much. The shorter-legged member of city two never complained despite the sweat that drenched his brow or the blisters Rhun knew must have been festering at his feet.

It was another reason for the Alpha Centaury to believe the man’s words. If he were lying, why would he be so adamant about keeping up with the two survivors and returning to his own city to prove to them the truth beyond their walls.

Rhun knew he could make a detour to travel back to their own city to resupply and possibly bring more of his fighters with him, but what was the point? This was supposed to be a peaceful talk about truth. Besides, even if he did bring what was left of his force, it would be nothing against an entire army.

This mission would have to be won or lost on the tip of a tongue, not a sword. Rhun knew Lierna disagreed with his decision. The soldier in her kept her from arguing.

When the trio of unlikely travelers heard the ominous ticking in the wasteland, they would stop, locate the threat, and reposition to miss the machines. Before the tickers had whatever upgrade done to them, Rhun would have killed them for practice. Now it was better to avoid them altogether.

One day while the sun set and the hotness of the desert began to turn with a chill in the night, the noise of the roving tickers came again.

Lierna put up a hand.

Rhun motioned them to follow him to a high dune to their left. They had done it enough times now that no words needed to pass between the three. As one, they moved to the dune in a crouched run.

Rhun lay flat on his stomach; Lierna on his right and Balon on his left. Rhun squinted out into the waving rise and tide of the sandy dunes that made up the desert. With the creamy red color of the sand, it was easy to spot the black tickers.

Rhun squinted harder, picking up two figures passing a few hundred yards away on their left. The tickers were not headed toward them per se. They were traveling at a steady pace across their own path by coincidence on their normal patrol route.

Confusion, then fear bit at Rhun’s mind. The shapes he had become so used to seeing, the tickers that had always been black cubes of death were different now. Still black, still a red light at the forefront; the body of the ticker had changed. Instead of a square unit hovering from the sandy ground, there now stood a kind of insect-like body.

The ticker was longer now and lay closer to the ground. Tiny feet carried it along the desert floor like a centipede. The body was more like a scorpion, wide at the front where the red light stood out and more narrow at the rear. The final change was a long arching tail like that of a scorpion that ended in a sharp blade.

“God have mercy on us,” Balon whispered to Rhun. “What—what is that?”

“I don’t know,” Rhun said as the pair of insect-like machines made their way past their hiding spot. “Perhaps the tickers are changing. Perhaps their enhanced armor is not the only upgrades they are getting.”

“Or maybe they are introducing more and more machines to this sick game,” Lierna suggested. “Maybe it’s going to get a lot worse.”

The three travelers watched the new models of tickers depart in quiet, each one of them lost in his or her own thoughts.

The game is always changing, Rhun thought to himself. Survival of the fittest is getting a lot harder. Maybe that’s to weed others out. Allies now more than ever could mean the difference between life and death.

“Let’s get moving,” Rhun said as soon as the tickers were out of hearing and seeing range. “The sooner we get to the city the better.”

There was no questioning the order from Lierna. Balon looked like he’d rather eat a mouthful of sand then get back on his feet, but with a grunt, he did so as well and fell in line with his traveling companions.

“Do you think it’s strange we haven’t seen any of the other scouting parties that were sent to watch for those cast out of their own cities?” Lierna asked Rhun. “Perhaps not. The only pair we would have come across were the two you sent to watch Balon’s city.”

“The desert is a big place,” Rhun said out loud. Inwardly, he was hoping his scouts were either shepherding survivors to their own gates or had perhaps taken up a watchful position on the city gates after Balon had already been thrown out.

The night grew until stars came out twinkling overhead. The bright blue and bright red planet above also became dark and shadowed in the sky.

“There,” Lierna said, throwing out a finger. She was the first to see the wall. “Now I wonder how we plan to gain entry.”

“Let me do the talking.” Balon was hobbling now as he repositioned weight between his sore feet. “I’ll be able to get us in.”

“You didn’t already try that when you were thrown out the first time?” Rhun asked.

“Yes, but the first time I was released from my city, I didn’t have proof that there were survivors from the outside world.” Balon wiggled a sausage-like finger in the dark. “Now I have proof the notes dropped into our city are the truth, and what will mean more to the king is that there are strong allies willing to stand with us.”

“Let’s hope that’s enough,” Lierna said as she moved her head from side to side, examining the landscape.

Balon’s city walls were made from stone. It was as if one impossibly huge rock had been carved out to form the barrier. The travelers had to skirt the side of the wall until they found the door. Interestingly enough, the gates to the city were the smallest of any of the six cities Rhun had seen.

Instead of gigantic towering doors leading into the city, there were twin gates no wider than ten feet across and twenty feet high. The doors were made of the same stone, no markings etched into them.

Balon went up to the stone door, hammering on it with his right hand. “Open your gates in the name of the king. Balon Longoak has returned with allies from the world beyond. In the name of the king, open this door!”


Rhun and Lierna kept a watchful eye on the dark desert behind them in case a marauding pair of the new tickers scrambled by eager to test their new bodies in combat.

Motion from the left. A pair of shadows separated themselves from the darkness. Two scouts Rhun soon recognized as Eos and Cleon. Their sand-colored cloaks flew behind them as they trotted forward. The men were as thick as Rhun and slightly taller. They were part of his centurion regiment when he still led his army.

“Alpha Centaury,” Eos said with a tilt of his head toward Rhun. He nodded to Lierna, then studied Balon as if he wasn’t sure what to make of the much shorter man.

Cleon stood rigid and pounded his right fist against his chest.

“Brothers, it’s good to see you well,” Rhun said, nodding over to Balon. “We came across this one as he left his walls in search of our city. He says there’s a strong chance his king will side with us once he sees there are allies outside of his own wall.”

“We’ve seen a few of his kind already,” Eos answered in a voice so deep it nearly made Rhun’s bones vibrate. “We just came back from a run escorting a dozen or so that were cast out of these walls. We must have just missed this one.”

Cleon tapped Eos on the shoulder to get the man’s attention. He maneuvered his hands in front of him, speaking sign language. Cleon had been mute from birth. He never let that stop him. He was one of the most ferocious and capable warriors Rhun had ever seen.

“Cleon wants to know how you plan to get inside,” Eos asked for his friend. “No one has ever seen the gates reopened for one they have cast outside, no matter how much the person has begged or pleaded.”

“If I can just convince the guards on duty to look at the proof that there are survivors past the wall, then I know they will take it to the king,” Balon said with fervor. “He will listen. He’s a good man.”

Cleon shrugged. He reached inside his cloak and offered Rhun a large blue cylinder of liquid with a metal top.

Rhun was confused as to what the bright blue substance was, but even more so by where his man would have gotten it.

“Be careful with that,” Eos said as the canister was handed over. “When we left our new city after dropping off the last group of survivors, that crazy inventor gave us this to use. He says there wasn’t enough to refine more. He says it will cause an explosion like an earthquake if it is thrown and the glass is broken.”

Cleon moved his hands, demonstrating a throw then pointing to Balon and giving the thumbs-down sign.

“If Balon’s plan doesn’t work, then maybe this will,” Rhun said out loud, interpreting for the entire group. “Thank you.”

“Do we stand with you, Alpha Centaury?” Eos asked with an eager grin. “I would look on another city. I wonder if everything is smaller in their town.”

Balon glared at Eos but bit his tongue.

“No, as much as I would feel a comfort entering the city with a larger group, you should remain outside to guide those who are displaced and to take the news of what happened to us back to our city if we don’t return. Keep a wary eye; we’ve seen tickers the likes of which we never have before. The machines are changing.”

Eos and Cleon exchanged looks before nodding along with Rhun’s words.

“We’ve seen them too,” Eos said with a hard stare.

“Their armor is strong. Blows to the red light in their center no longer ends them,” Lierna added as a caution. “Be careful.”

“You as well, and if it is our time to die, let us die well,” Eos said as he and Cleon drifted back into the night.

“Nice friends you got there,” Balon said, turning back to the stone door in front of them and hammering on the gate. “Just take a look at who is at your gates! Allies wish to help you and your king! At the very least inform him of what is happening here!”

Still nothing.

Balon kicked and screamed then pounded again. He taught Rhun a few new curse words, including something called a “Peruvian Dung Beetle and a Spineless Turd Hopper.”

Lierna took a seat with her back toward him, laughing quietly as she kept watch on the desert.

After the second hour came and left with no change, Balon’s throat was hoarse.

“I think you’ve done everything you can for the moment,” Rhun said, examining the blue liquid in the container Cleon provided. “Perhaps it’s time to give Leopold’s invention a try.”

Lierna and Balon joined Rhun studying the object.

“We just have to throw it at the door.” Lierna shrugged. “How is this going to open a door?”

Chapter Seventeen

“An explosion, he said.” Rhun tossed the cylinder up and down in his hand, still trying to understand how a liquid would create such an explosion to crack through rock and wake the ground itself.

“Careful,” Balon warned a safe distance away with Lierna. “If it’s anything like gunpowder, it will only take a slight activation to erupt completely.”

“What’s gunpowder?” Lierna asked.

“Oh right, you don’t have weapons like that in your city,” Balon said, going on to explain in great detail and using words Rhun didn’t understand to explain what this gunpowder was.

Rhun, for his part, turned back to the door. He saw the throw in his mind’s eye. Mentally, he went through the process. The door was fifty yards away. It was a hard throw but not an impossible one.

Let’s hope this does the job or we’re going to be sitting ducks for every ticker in a five-mile radius, Rhun thought to himself. Here we go.

Balon was still explaining the ins and outs of gunpowder, ranged weapons, and something he called a minigun when Rhun decided to loose his new weapon. Arching his right arm back, Rhun hurled the glass cylinder with every ounce of strength he could muster. His aim was true.

The cylinder sailed end over end, spinning in a light blue glow of liquid wonder.


Rhun staggered back at the intensity of the blow. He lifted an arm to shield his eyes. The cylinder struck the gates of Balon’s city dead center. Blue flames licked at the rock as azure smoke cleared from the scene. Rhun got a better look at the damage done to the gates.

“Where did Leopold get that wonderful blue liquid from?” Lierna breathed as she joined Rhun. “We could use a lot more of that in the days to come.”

Past the blue liquid that still burned in splatters across the rock, the gates stood intact. The only sign of damage was that instead of whole slabs of rocks, spider web cracks showed across the barrier.

The explosion hadn’t succeeded in completely tearing down the gate, but maybe it didn’t have to.

Rhun walked forward channeling the strong commanding voice he had come to value while leading men into battle.

“Hear me now, you city of forgers and warriors. Your allies knock on your door showing you the power we possess since you will not open otherwise.” Rhun took a deep breath. Roaring up into the night, he continued. “If you insist, I will hurl the fist of the gods against your doors again and again until they crumble beneath you. Will you not speak with those who would be your friends? Would you rather I tear down your walls to get your attention, because I will.”

Rhun’s chest heaved with the exertion of roaring his challenge. He looked for any sign he had been heard both up to the top of the impossibly tall wall or to the city gates themselves.

Now it’s time to hope they don’t call your bluff, Rhun thought to himself. Now it’s time to pray for a miracle.


“So be it!” Rhun yelled again with one last blind attempt. “Your gate falls now!”

“Wait!” a voice shouted from the opposite side of the wall.

Rhun looked upward to the top of the wall with the others. From their vantage point, it was impossible to know for sure, but what might be the tops of watchtowers poked just beyond the top of the wall.

“Hold, stranger from the wasteland. Hold your hand,” the baritone voice commanded. “Drop your weapons.”

“Vondal, is that you?” Balon asked with a hint of hope in his voice. “It is you, isn’t it!?”

“Balon, what have you done, you fool!?” Vondal asked from the opposite side of the wall. “I have orders to chain you and take you in. Why did you do it? Why did you return with an enemy to our gates?”

“Not an enemy, a friend,” Balon shouted back through the wall. “Allies and the truth with them. I—”


Rhun and Lierna exchanged glances as the two clansmen shouted to one another on opposite side of the cracked wall.

The machines were still too far away to see. Rhun raised a fist into the air, turning to signal Cleon and Eos to hold their position and remain out of danger.

“We have dropped our weapons,” Rhun said, signaling Lierna to do the same. He unsheathed and allowed the blade at his side to fall to the sandy ground. “Open your gates and let’s get this over with.”

Balon was about to protest when he too picked up on the noise.

“When the gates open, you are to march in and allow yourselves to be blindfolded and chained,” Vondal ordered. “Any attempt to stop this from happening and we will kill you where you stand.”

Every fiber in Rhun’s body hated the idea of being bound and blinded, but what other choice was there? It was the devil you knew or the devil who might end up being an ally at this point.

“Understood.” Rhun barely got the word out of his mouth before the gates slid open. Each door moved back, then to the side in a recess in the wall. The sight in front of Rhun took his breath away.

He, Lierna, and Balon walked through the gates, the sounds of the tickers growing ever closer. The damaged gates slid closed behind them. There was so much to see, so much foreign wonder, Rhun wasn’t sure what to allow his eyes to feast on first.

There were two dozen, maybe more heavily armed and armored guards. They were roughly the same height and build as Balon. Each came a head shorter than Rhun and were sturdily built. They wore armor, the likes of which Rhun had never seen. Clad from head to toe, their armor was the color of midnight blue and ebony black.

The weapons they carried were also strange in Rhun’s eyes, although that should come as no surprise to him at this point. Their shields were shaped with an indention in the top center where they pointed long barrels of some kind that looked the same, yet very different from the blasters Leopold had fashioned from the tickers. On the underside of each of these barrels was a wicked-looking axe head.

Past the heavily armored guards was a city that did not rise to reach the heavens as his own did but fell into the very ground itself. Structures were spread out in front of him on the same level as the gates but then began to descend into the earth like steadily sloping road.

Before Rhun could see more, heavy hands grabbed his own and roughly forced them to his back. His legs were kicked out from under him. A scratchy black bag was placed over his eyes. As difficult as it was for him to allow this to happen, he understood it would be even worse for Lierna. The woman had a fiery temper he was half surprised thus far she was able to keep in check.

“Really, really, is all this necessary?” Balon asked.

Rhun couldn’t see past his black blindfold. It was as if he had his own eyes closed at the moment. Heavy chains were placed across his wrists that pinched his skin. It was already getting hot in the bag that covered his face.

“I don’t need a blindfold, you swine. I’ve lived here my whole life. Unless you’ve remolded the entire city while I’ve been gone these last few days, what’s the purpose?” Balon growled. “This is not necessary. I’m bringing you allies not enemies.”

“We’ll let King Orsik be deciding that,” Vondal answered without hesitation. “Leave his cover off.”

Rhun was pushed to his feet and prodded forward at a trot. Jogging in complete darkness was harder than he expected. As the cover over his face grew hotter and their trip longer, he had more and more time to second-guess himself.

If you’re wrong, you’re already dead, Rhun said to himself. But if they wanted to kill you, you could be dead already. That means they are at some level interested in seeing what you have to say.

With his eyesight gone, Rhun leaned on his other senses to tell him anything about his surroundings. The road he jogged on wasn’t soft like the sand outside or even like dirt beneath his feet. It was hard rock.

He tried smelling past the hood covering his face, but all he could get were heavy scents of earth and moisture like a day after the rain.

The sense he could use the most was his hearing. There was the heavy clomping of armored boots, the heavy breathing he made inside the hood, but chatter as well. Distant murmurs and whispers not from the soldier marching beside him but perhaps from civilians or those watching as he passed.

This would be the first time any of them had seen a being not from within their own walls. Already, he was shattering everything they thought they knew. He hadn’t even opened his mouth yet.

After what felt like an eternity in the hoods but was more likely twenty minutes of jogging, Rhun was stopped. Words he couldn’t hear were traded between Vondal and someone else.

He was shoved forward again, reminding himself to keep his temper in check. There would be a time to use all of this aggression building inside of him, but not yet.

The floor beneath his feet moved from uneven and hard to smooth but still solid. Rhun was stopped and started again. He assumed they were moving through certain checkpoints.

Finally, they were halted. The sounds of chatter were gone now. The same earthy and wet tones filled his nose in a pleasant way. It was nice to have something pleasant at the moment.

Rhun was forced to his knees again. Pain shot up through his legs as they hit the hard ground. The bag over his eyes was yanked away in one quick motion. Rhun blinked over and over, trying to focus on what he was seeing and where he was at the moment. Sweat from the hot hood poured into his eyes.

Lierna knelt on his right and Balon on the side opposite of her. There was a slight inhale as those Rhun had yet to focus on were faced with the final truth that there were people beyond their own wall. Of course the king would already know this, having followed the codex, but everyone else would still be in shock.

Rhun was finally able to focus. They were in front of a raised platform with steps leading to an iron throne. A young king with red hair and fierce red beard sat in black and blue armor. A crest of some kind of ferocious animal was emblazoned on his chest.

Next to him was a smaller chair with an older man beside him who wore a black robe. He stared at Rhun with a mixture of horror and awe.

The rest of the room was made up of another dozen guards. The chamber itself was a wonder. Smooth stone floors with stalactites hanging from the ceilings told Rhun they were somewhere underground. Brilliant braziers lit with fire gave light to the room and shone off sparkling giant jewels.

“My king.” Balon lowered his head to the ground. “I come with allies and truth from beyond our walls.”

“Hold your tongue, deceiver!” The man sitting beside the king jumped to his feet. His black cloak swirled behind him. His hair and beard were grey, his belly protruding from his cloak as if it too wanted to have its say. “You were cast out of the clan for a reason. It is only because you brought the enemy to destroy our gates that you stand here. If I had it my way, you’d be bled dry.”

Chapter Eighteen

The room quieted after the outburst from the older man. He sneered at Balon as if he were thinking of all the horrible things he would do to him given the chance.

“Councilor Delg, King Orsik, this is all the evidence you need.” Balon stared right back into the old man’s eyes before shifting to the king. “Are you so blind you can’t see hope staring you right in the face? My king, please just listen to what he has to say.”

“I see a saboteur who tried to bring down our walls and you aiding him.” Delg rubbed at his bulbous nose. “It’s a wonder the king even gives you a chance to speak instead of crushing your bones and feeding you to the beasts below.”

“King Orsik.” Rhun had had enough of the squabbling he had come here to convince the city to help, not stand on the sidelines and watch the pissing contest taking place in front of him. “There was no attack on your walls, only a desperate attempt to gain this audience with you. If you will hear what I have to say for only a few moments, I promise you it will be worth your time. Perhaps even answer some questions you have about the codex.”

At the mention of the codex, the young king perked up. His eyes widened as he looked around the room to see if the others were catching on to what he was saying.

“Codex?” Delg shook his head before throwing his hands into the air. “There is no codex; what are you speaking of, wild man? Be plain with your words.”

Rhun had seen the start the king got when he mentioned the word. He saw the king’s eyes widen as the secret he had kept so long and rulers of his city before him about to be thrown out for all to see.

“Perhaps the king would prefer we speak in private.” Rhun held the king’s gaze. “I know I would.”

“I bet you would like that, wouldn’t you?” Delg said with a cough that was more of a laugh. “I bet you would love for us to leave the room so you can assassinate our king.”

“Leave us.” King Orsik spoke for the first time. He sounded like he could be in his mid-thirties, not that much older. His red beard made him look more mature than he actually was.

“You can’t be serious, my king.” Delg turned his massive body on a heel to gawk at his leader. “It’s too dangerous.”

“I have to agree with the counselor,” Vondal said from his place behind the three prisoners. “It’s much too dangerous, even with them chained.”

“Then chain them to the floor if it makes you feel better and wait right outside the door.” King Orsik stood from his throne. His eyes had transitioned from surprised to borderline excited. “I must speak with them now. That’s not a request, councilor, general. That’s an order.”

General Vondal hesitated for a moment before doling out orders to his men to drive U-shaped anchors to the ground that would secure the chains Rhun and the two others wore round their wrists.

Councilor Delg wasn’t as easily swayed.

“My king, with all due respect. Who knows what they are capable of?” Delg pleaded with his king. “We have no idea what technology or magic they have on the other side of the wall. Up until now, we didn’t even know for sure there were others out there. The notes were a hint ,of course, but—”

“That’s enough, Delg,” King Orsik said in a tone far from commanding. “Wait outside.”

Delg sputtered again but turned to go.

General Vondal spoke quickly to one of his soldiers, who raced out of the room. Within minutes, he was back, sweating and sucking in air. He held three anchors and a sledge hammer the size of Rhun’s head. One by one, Rhun, Lierna, and Balon placed their hands on the ground. A U-shaped anchor was hammered into the floor, pinning the middle of the manacles the prisoners wore securely in place.

“I should warn you that if you try anything, my axe will be through your spine faster than you will be able to regret your decision.” General Vondal squatted to look both Rhun and Lierna in the eyes.

“Thank you,” King Orsik said to his general when the last anchor was set in place. “If I need you, I know you’re only a shout away.”

“Two seconds and I’ll have them both cut down,” General Vondal said, rising from his squatting position and staring at Rhun and Lierna. He ignored Balon through this intimidation phase as if he didn’t think the man capable of much in terms of harm. “I’ll be right outside the doors.”

With that, the room was cleared and the general, true to his word, shut the doors, leaving the three travelers and King Orsik alone.

Rhun’s shoulders cramped; the stone he was forced to kneel on to assume the secure position bit into his knees. All of this was secondary to what needed to happen now. He had no idea how long he had to convince the king. Everything could hinge on the next few minutes.

“How do you know of the codex?” King Orsik asked, moving down the steps to speak in front of Rhun. “Where do you come from? Did you send the notes that fell from the sky with pages of the other codex? How many codices are there? Is it true what the book says?”

The words fell out of the king’s mouth like a fountain that had sprung a leak.

“We did send the notes that fell from the sky.” Rhun decided to answer all the questions he was given as quickly as he could. “I know of the codex because I have seen it myself. There are six of them all together. One for each city that lies in the desert, but you already knew that, didn’t you?”

King Orsik licked at dry lips. The indecisiveness that came with youth showed clear on his face.

“You can trust them,” Balon said, urging his king to take the risk. “They saved me and braved the desert once again to bring you the truth.”

King Orsik sat heavily on the steps. He looked as though a burden had been lifted off his shoulders as he was finally able to speak with someone else who knew the secrets of the heavy weight he carried.

“I’m supposed to march to war and raze the other cities to the ground,” the king said in a quiet voice. “I’m supposed to take my people and tell them I’ve been lying to them, that I’ve stockpiled more weapons than we’ll ever need and march them to battle.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Lierna said for the first time speaking up. “It doesn’t have to end with slaughtering other cities in some kind of last man standing battle royal. We’ve taken a city where survivors are gathering and uniting.”

“But the codex?” King Orsik looked to Lierna not for the first time. Rhun had seen him eye her before. “What the kings in my lineage have obeyed and followed for centuries, how am I supposed to abandon that now?”

“Maybe you already have,” Balon said in a respectful tone. “My king, as chief forge officer, I’ve seen how we have created and stored weapons. You had enough weaponry and gear months ago if you were serious about laying siege to the other cities.”

The room quieted as the king drummed the fingers of his right hand on the stone steps beside him. “If I did not follow what the codex would have me do, what then?”

“Then you side with us,” Rhun told him, willing his own decisive attitude on the young man. “You take the truth to as many cities that will have it. Then we take this fight to the ones who started this sick experiment to begin with.”

“The ones who put this plan into motion?” The king looked at the three prisoners, confused. “You know them?”

“They’re out there,” Rhun answered. “In a giant structure in the middle of our six cities. They are out there watching us tear one another apart for their own amusement.”

“There’s more, there’s so much more,” Lierna added, skipping over the details about the planets in the sky and the killer robots. For now, the king had enough to decide. “But the biggest question you have right now is are you willing to do what needs to be done. Lead your people away from war with other cities in your same position. Lead them to finding the truth.”

“That’s so much easier said than done.” King Orsik ran a thick hand through his red hair. “I can only imagine what a commotion you’ve already made. I mean, strangers from the outside? They have been raised to think the earth is a barren wasteland.”

“Tell them they are allies here to help,” Balon urged.

“You know better than anyone how proud our people are, the extent of our army and technology.” King Orsik stood from his seat and began to pace. “How am I going to convince others that these are the allies we need?”

Rhun sensed an opening. The king was now considering the alliance, having moved on to how he would tell his people.

“Our new city doesn’t have a standing army or even supplies to last more than a few days, but we’re survivors and worth two of any other soldiers in any city.” Rhun decided to push his luck. If blood-letting was the only way this was going to be decided, then he was ready to give whatever was required. “Let me show your soldier and your people that the allies that have come knocking on your door are allies worthy of your support.”

Lierna gave Rhun a hard stare. He ignored her. He had seen the type of soldier this city favored. They were stout, hard men that would hold fighters in high regard.

“That may work.” King Orsik looked at Rhun as if he were seeing him for the first time. “Are you sure you could fight two? You’re taller than we are but not larger. You can be sure General Vondal will choose a pair of our most ferocious fighters. If you lost, I don’t think it would go well for you.”

“Size and numbers aren’t the only things that win fights.” Rhun set his jaw, already mentally preparing himself for what had to be done. “Let me show you.”

Chapter Nineteen

“Why do you think he had to leave so quickly?” Argo asked Jordan for the dozenth time over the course of the last day. The two were making their way to the location where Eldar had promised them there would be supplies. “Why didn’t he give you more instruction on using those weird glove things? Do you even think we can trust him?”

“You’re just made of questions right now.” Jordan shook her head, looking down on the “controllers” on her hands. Eldar had used that term for them and if they did what he said, it was a fitting name indeed. She tried to remember all of Argo’s questions. “He probably had to go because he was going to be missed somewhere. I’m sure he wanted to give more instruction, but our time was limited. I guess we’ll see if we can trust him.”

“Is it weird that I really want some tickers to show up so we can see if those gloves of yours work?” Argo asked, taking another look at the alien technology. “Man, I really wish the others could have met him. They aren’t going to believe us. I mean, aliens? I—”

Argo stopped speaking as if the desert had all of a sudden stolen the words from his mouth. Jordan didn’t have to ask him what was wrong; she heard it herself.


“You had to say something, didn’t you?” Jordan growled.

Traveling as far as they could with minimal rest saw the two halfway to their destination. A day’s travel out of their course would have taken them to their own city walls once more. The pair had opted out of that idea in favor of getting to the supplies as quickly as possible and returning to the city.

They were a mere day’s journey from where Eldar told them the supplies would be when they heard their first sign of tickers in the desert.

“Well, we know we can’t fight them with our weapons so it’s either run or try out your fancy new gloves,” Argo said.

Jordan could only see the man’s eyes at the moment. He wore his hood low and a bandana that covered his face from his nose on down. Somehow, she could tell he was smiling.

Jordan scanned the desert landscape around them. They were in a section of flat terrain free of any dunes or mounds. That meant hiding was out of the question. Jordan’s blaster weighed on her back, reminding her of its presence, but Argo was right. Their weapons had proved useless before. There was even a chance the controllers on her hands wouldn’t work. Eldar had warned her of this before they left. He said the tickers were evolving, that the controllers would work on the current series of tickers but maybe not the next.

Her decision was made for her as she looked to the west and the setting sun. Two black shapes appeared, moving toward them, the red dots in the center of their black bodies unmistakable. The heat that rose from the ground gave off the illusion that the tickers were swimming toward them in shimmering air.

“Let’s see what these suckers can do.” Jordan threw back her own hood to give herself a better view. She pushed the sleeves of her desert cloak from her forearms. “He said the controllers would respond to my thoughts, interacting with the alien tech. Let’s hope he was right.”

“Yeah, or else we’re going to both turn into piles of sand and no one will know the truth about the aliens.” Argo caught Jordan’s glare. “But it’s going to be fine. You’re going to do great.”

Jordan ignored her friend. For the time being, she needed to concentrate on what had to be done next. She closed her eyes, feeling the ever present sun beating down on her exposed face.

Control the tickers with your thoughts, Jordan told herself as she stretched both hands out in front of her. The gloves felt strange, the finger caps slightly too big for her hands. Turn around. Go back the other way. Turn around.

Jordan repeated the mantra in her head over and over again. She willed the tickers to go the other direction. She saw it happen in her head. Like all the years she spent training her own body in the gym, she used the same technique of bending her will toward getting something accomplished.

More sweat fell down her face. Her hands began to quiver with the exertion she was putting behind the effort. This was just as mentally taxing as pushing herself to the limits while exercising. Anyone who truly tested themselves with physical activity understood that it was all mental. One’s body would only go as far as their minds pushed it to do so.

“Now I’ve seen it all.” Argo whistled through his teeth. “Planets in the sky, killer machines, aliens, and now magic gloves that can turn back tickers.”

Jordan opened her eyes. The tickers were close enough now to appear without the shimmering waves of heat in front of them. Still over a hundred yards away, they stood still. Jordan let her hands sag next to her shoulders. As if an afterthought, she moved one hand to her right and the other to her left. The tickers responded; the one on her right moved to the right, the other to the left.

“I really should have asked him if he had an extra pair of those magic gloves,” Argo said out loud, shaking his head from side to side. “I can’t believe this.”

“I don’t think it’s magic,” Jordan said, feeling elated as she moved the tickers back and forth and from side to side with gestures from her hands. “Just alien technology we don’t understand.”

“Well, until we understand it, I’m calling it magic,” Argo repeated. “I wonder if we could bring them along with us? Maybe use them in a fight if we were to encounter other tickers?”

“Maybe, but for right now, I think we just send these two on their way,” Jordan said, not wanting to push their luck any further. “We’re close to the supply ship. And if nothing else, we already know two more important things.”

“What’s that?” Argo asked.

“That the controllers work and Eldar can be trusted. He was telling us the truth,” Jordan replied. She told the tickers to turn around in her mind. Her hands made the motion to do so. Whether the hand motions were necessary or not, Jordan wasn’t sure. They just felt natural.

As if soldiers hearing commands from their general, the pair of tickers made sharp turns and traveled back into the desert the way they had come.

“We should work out some kind of system where we share those glove things.” Argo’s eyes twinkled under his hood. “On second thought, you just keep them. I don’t know where that aliens’ hands have been.”

Jordan bit back a laugh as they watched the tickers fade from sight.

“Come on; we’re almost there.” Argo started forward again. “We’ll reach the place by nightfall if you think you can jog some of the way.”

“Think I can jog?” Jordan responded as she left Argo in the dust. In all honesty, her legs were jelly, but she wasn’t going to tell the centurion from city four that. “Think you can keep up?”

Day moved to night and their forward pace finally slowed as the two gave in to fatigue. Neither traveler said anything to the other as they panted and moved their jog to a walk.

The planets overhead so clear were always a source of wonder to Jordan. Just where were they in the universe? Eldar had said something about the Andromeda galaxy, but where that was in relationship to Earth, Jordan had no idea. Even more disturbing was the fact she had pushed out of her mind since she found out. She wasn’t even fully human. None of them were.

Half of you are some alien species and you didn’t even know it, Jordan thought to herself as she and Argo trudged along through the night. What kind of alien you are doesn’t even have an answer yet. What if your alien half, the full-blooded version of it, has tentacles or gills or something like that. You could be related to an octopus species or some weird armadillo species. Maybe that’s why you have dry skin.

A sound so strange, so frightening reached Jordan’s ears, it ripped her from her thoughts in an instant. Jordan stared straight ahead at where she thought it was coming from. A wall of mist swirled around the terrain not more than a hundred yards from their current spot.

The sand beneath her feet was beginning to change as well. It was damp now. The terrain transitioned from sandy and coarse to mud and water, even grass, a swamp.

The sound came again. Something like a cross between a whale she had heard recordings of while at her city library and a human moan.

“The mist marsh and those things, whatever they are that live in it.” Argo shot out a hand to stay Jordan although she had no intention of walking into the marsh. “Eldar said the craft should be here before we reach the mist.”

Jordan tried ignoring the sad, almost imploring wails coming from the mist. Something large, impossibly large traveled across the mist wall, its bulky frame only almost visible before it vanished to leave imagination to wonder if it had been there at all.

“He lied to us,” Argo said, shaking his head. “He lied to us about the ship full of supplies being here, but why? Why would he do that and be honest about the tickers and the magic gloves?”

Jordan scanned the land to her right, then to her left. The darkness made it difficult to pick up anything, but to her left she noticed another dark shape sticking up from the mist wall. This one seemed to be in front of it and unmoving.

“He didn’t lie.” Jordan pointed a hand to the left. “There just in front of the mist. Do you see it?”

Argo squinted through the darkness, leaning in to see. “I—I think so.”

“Come on,” Jordan said, moving forward parallel to the wall of mist. The strange animal-like moaning quieted now as she traveled closer. Never was she within a fifty-yard range of the strange wall.

The way the mist took shape was macabre indeed. Jordan had seen mist like this descend on her own city before but never did it start and stop like this. This mist didn’t seem to gather or became more dense further in. It started as if it were a wall set in place by some alien force of nature.

“We used to go in,” Argo said, motioning with his chin. “There’s vegetables in there that can be taken from the swamp. But they always watched us, whatever they are. One day, four of us went in to gather and only three of us came out. We searched for her for days, but there was nothing. She was just gone. We never went back in.”

Jordan wanted to ask more questions, but she sensed a deep sadness in Argo. Perhaps the woman they had lost had been special to him in one way or another. Either way, there was no time to pursue the conversation further. The crashed alien spaceship was looming in front of them.

All that rose from the sand was the neck and front section of some kind of spacecraft. Jordan was no expert in anything having to do with sizes of such crafts, but she imagined that for the pilot section of the ship to be this big, they were looking at the entire ship being as large as a city block.

The neck of the ship was grey. It had once been painted with dark red highlights, but that day had been long ago. The desert had worn away the paint to the point where it was barely visible. The glass in the front of the ship was dark and pitted from the many years it had been abused by the desert sand and sun.

“Great, so he wasn’t lying to us, but how do we get in?” Argo asked as he and Jordan stood in front of the partly visible spacecraft.

Jordan was about to respond that she had no idea, when the thought of the controllers on her hands came to mind. It was worth a shot.

Jordan walked around the side of the massive craft, looking for any kind of hatch or opening. The section of the spaceship that stuck out of the sand was the size of a tall house. On the side of the resting behemoth, a square door rested in the ship’s neck.

Jordan chose this section to test the controller on.

Well, here goes nothing, Jordan thought to herself. She raised her hands toward the closed hatch.

Chapter Twenty

Jordan cleared her mind, already seeing what she had to do in her head. She visualized the door opening. She willed the controllers on her hands to perform the act of opening the metal door.

With a groan, the door obeyed. Squeaking metal hinges protested their interruption, giving way to Jordan’s command. The inside of the craft was a black hole. Jordan couldn’t make out anything past the threshold of the hatch. There could be a stack of supplies in there just as much as there could be an alien ambush waiting for her.

“All that magic technology at his disposal and he couldn’t have given us a light?” Argo asked, leaning forward to try and get a better look through the dark entrance of the ship. “What are the odds there are lights in there that work?”

“I’m guessing not very likely.” Jordan took a few steps forward. The night was cold, the wind tugging at her cloak as if it were playing with it. “I wonder if the controllers would turn on the lights in the ship if they still worked?”

“I’m not sure they function like that.” Argo paused to think a minute. “Actually, don’t listen to anything I just said. I’m not sure how those things work at all. I’m still calling them magic, remember?”

Jordan extended her hands to the open door, thinking, willing the lights to be on. Somewhere deep inside the ship, a light flickered, then turned on.

The source of illumination was so far into the ship it was nothing more than a faint glow to Jordan and Argo, but there was light.

Jordan approached the now not-so-dark entrance into the craft. The door was located on the neck of the ship, where it stuck out of the sand. It would be a short jump for her to get aboard, the bottom of the door level with her knees.

Jordan placed a tired right leg onto the sturdy shell of the ship and pulled herself in. The first thing she realized was the ship wasn’t as alien as she would have thought. There weren’t any strange symbols or alien architecture, no bio-organic frame or strange colors. As far as she could see, the ship was made from a light grey metal with open halls and normal-sized doors.

The second thing that struck her was the old musty smell the place held. Like some kind of unused room that hadn’t been opened in years. Jordan wrinkled her nose at the pungent odor.

The floor sloped down slightly in front of her due to the angle the ship rested in the sand. Jordan took a tentative step forward, careful of her footing. Despite the failing glow from somewhere below, the passage was still dark. It looked like a narrow hall emptied out to a much larger portion of the ship somewhere further down.

“What do you see?” Argo asked from his spot still outside of the ship. “Make room for me. It’s getting weird out here.”

Jordan obeyed, taking another careful step forward down the hall of the alien craft. She held on to the right side wall for support as she traversed the angled path.

“Ugh, it smells like a tomb in here,” Argo said behind her. “It’s not as alien-y as I thought it would be.”

“Weird, right?” Jordan asked as she moved deeper and deeper through the craft. “It’s like it was made for humans by humans.”

“Yeah, but right now, I’m thinking the further we go into this thing, the further and further we’re going to get underneath the sand,” Argo said as he followed behind her. “I mean, I’m not trying to be doom and gloom, but what if this thing finally gives in and either sinks deeper into the sand or gets crunched like some kind of—”

Movement in the dark. A shadow, something large scurried across the hall.

Jordan stopped. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. Suddenly, using the controllers on something that could scurry like an animal seemed silly. She reached for the blaster at her back.

Argo unsheathed his knife instead of his sling. He held the blade down close to his chest. He moved to stand beside Jordan instead of behind her.

The sound of something scurrying came again. Claws on the metal ground. The noise echoed through the craft.

“Trap?” Jordan tried to ignore the shaking in her voice. “Did Eldar set us up?”

“He had so many better options to do it before,” Argo whispered back. “We can just turn around right now and leave. It’s not like we’re trapped.”

“But the supplies?” Jordan reminded him.

“I’m not saying I’m leaving. I’m just saying it’s not really a trap,” Argo reminded her. “I agree we need those supplies for the city.”

Jordan and Argo traversed the hall toward the sounds of the claws against metal. As they got closer, a new sound was added. Heavy breathing, maybe even pants were also coming from deep into the ship.

They were nearing a portion of the craft where the hall opened into a large room. The light was brighter here, originating from a source inside this room Jordan couldn’t see yet.

The scraping of claws stopped. The panting continued.

Cold sweat gathered on Jordan’s brow as she and Argo now stood feet away from entering this room. Her mouth was dry. Fear wove ice cold fingers around her stomach and spine.

She looked over to Argo, who gave her a nod. “If we die, we die together.”

“That’s not very encouraging.” Jordan breathed a heavy sigh. “But let’s do it anyway.”

The two members from two very different cities entered the larger chamber together. Jordan aimed down her barrel, doing a sweep of the room. She wasn’t sure if this was the most efficient way to clear a room, but it made sense to her.

The room the wall emptied out into was extraordinarily wide. Crates were lined up in neat rows like they were in some kind of grocery store. Row after row of crates stacked three high lined both sides of the room. Each crate had to be at least three feet high and just as wide.

Golden light came from lights placed alongside the corners of the room. At the far end of the impromptu warehouse, three crates had been knocked over and lay on the ground. The lids had been torn off. There was a variety of foodstuffs and supplies scattered along the ground.

Jordan tensed as she caught movement near these ravaged containers. A dark-colored blanket of some kind was being dragged backward behind a row of crates. More sounds of claws on the steel floor before it all quieted again. The row in which the blanket was being dragged back into was a good twenty yards to her left.

Jordan set her jaw and moved forward. Her finger on the trigger, she was ready to meet anything besides what was ready to meet her. A fat scaly head peered around the corner at her. Jordan almost blew its brains out right there if it hadn’t been for those eyes.

The alien creature had the eyes of an Earth animal she had only seen pictures of before. They looked like big brown dog eyes. Jordan had never seen a dog, but growing up, she had imagined she had had one through pictures and books.

This creature was stocky with a muscular back and a face like a dog with one large exception. There was no fur across its body. Smooth scales and slick skin covered it from its head to its webbed and clawed feet.

“What are you waiting for? It’s going to attack at any moment,” Argo whispered to Jordan in a rush. “Shoot it!”

The creature looked at Argo around the corner of its row. It lowered its head, taking a healthy amount of the blanket in its teeth. It disappeared down its row of crates.

“Are you crazy?” Argo asked, not bothering to whisper this time. “Why didn’t you kill that ugly thing?”

“He didn’t attack us,” Jordan said, lowering the barrel of her weapon a quarter inch. “How did he get in here?”

“What, you’re just going to let that nightmare live, then?” Argo shook his head, placing both hands on his hips. “It doesn’t matter how he got in here. What matters is that we kill it and then figure a way to get this stuff back to the city.”

Heavy sniffing reached Jordan and Argo’s ears. Jordan continued to move forward until she could see down the row of crates to her left where the creature had disappeared.

There he was again. The alien animal was lying on his blanket with opened packages of foodstuff around him. When he caught sight of Jordan, his lips parted in a smile.

For the first time, Jordan could see its entire body. It had to weigh a hundred pounds, with four legs and a ragged nub for a tail that moved violently from side to side when it saw Jordan. She knew she couldn’t kill it. It reminded her too much of the dog she’d never had.

“There’s something seriously wrong with you if you think that thing’s cute.” Argo lowered his knife to his side. “I guess there’s no point in me trying to talk you into handing over the blaster so I can kill it?”

“If he’s not trying to attack us, then no, I’m not going to kill him,” Jordan said, lowing her blaster the rest of the way until the barrel pointed to the ground. “Besides, like you said, we have bigger problems on how to get all of this stuff back to the city.”

“Right.” Argo sheathed his knife for the moment. “If that thing tries to attack me, I’m going to take it down. I just want you to know that.”

“Fair enough,” Jordan said, looking at the animal again. She couldn’t imagine the creature trying to suddenly take a bite out of them. Not the way its tail wagged or the happy smile on its face. “Well, where do we start?”

“We need to take inventory and then figure out what we take with us on the first trek back to the city.” Argo headed back to the first row of supplies. “The city has water in the wells, but we’re dangerously low on food.”

“I won’t let him kill you,” Jordan whispered to the alien animal before turning to go and help Argo. “He was just kidding. You’re cute.”

The alien creature wagged its nub even harder and made as if it were going to get up and come to Jordan for a hug. It thought better of the action at the last moment and remained lying on its blanket.

With a watchful eye on the creature, who remained content to lie in his bed, Jordan and Argo took stock of their supplies. Most of the cases were stocked with dried foodstuffs in plastic air tight containers and metal cans. There were also toiletry items, clothes, and water. Although there were no weapons, there were items such as canteens, binoculars, and medical supplies.

Halfway through their inspection of the crates, Argo discovered the answer to their main question. A handful of carts were piled on their sides near one of the corners of the room. The flat square units looked as though they were made for the crates to be stacked upon.

An electronic control panel was set into each one of the cart’s square sides with a display screen. A thought came to Jordan. Instead of trying to use the buttons on the display screen, she reached out with her right hand. Immediately, the first flat square came to life. It flipped over on its side and hovered in place.

Jordan exchanged a wide-eyed glance with Argo. Even the alien dog poked his ugly head around the corner.

“I guess we know how we’re getting these crates back to the city,” Argo breathed as his mind worked out the details. “Let’s just hope that mutant puppy doesn’t follow us home.”

Chapter Twenty-One

The roar in the air made Rhun’s chest tremble. Apparently, Balon’s people loved to see fights. Rhun was at the bottom of a circular sand pit. The arena was massive with stadium seating ascending from the first row overlooking the edge of the pit all the way up to the surface of the town.

Rhun had to guess he was a quarter mile in the ground. Thousands of people had come to watch the stranger from the wasteland take on not one but two of their best warriors in a “friendly” competition of strength.

Shouts echoed through the air with the white noise of thousands of mouths chattering away.

“Twenty to one odds! Twenty to one odds our boys will take the stranger from beyond the wall!” Rhun picked out a voice at random. “Feeling lucky!? Who’s feeling lucky!?”

Rhun shut out the voices from the outside world. If he was going to win, he needed to be focused and of one mind. A special platform interrupted the rows of benches around the pit for King Orsik and his company. Both Counselor Delg and General Vondal, along with other faces Rhun didn’t recognize, looked on expectantly.

“We can still stop this,” Lierna told Rhun. Her voice made it sound like she didn’t actually think Rhun would let this go. “I should be the one in there. You’re too important.”

“What kind of Alpha Centaury would I be if I didn’t lead from the front?” Rhun asked her with a grin that didn’t touch his eyes. “We’ve slayed machines, survived the wasteland, and all on an alien planet. This will not be my end, sister.”

Rhun could see how much Lierna hated not being the one fighting, but she nodded obediently.

Lierna and Balon stood behind a metal gate ringing the interior of the pit. A wall rose up behind them, then ascended with the stadium seating for the crowd.

Rhun didn’t see his opponents yet. He imagined they would come out at the last minute. There was no point letting Rhun see them early and providing him time to strategize.

“They’ll be powerhouses and the best we have,” Balon shouted over the noise of the crowd, trying to give Rhun any advantage he could. “They’re built for strength. Depending on what game is chosen, it’ll be your speed and strategy that wins out.”

“Game?” Rhun asked over his shoulder as he stretched his arms and legs.

“It’s usually chosen at random from a chalice. The king will select the name of the contest before the game begins,” Balon informed Rhun. “Don’t worry; it’ll be a fight all right, just one with an extra twist added in.”

“Wonderful, you couldn’t tell us this before?” Lierna growled.

“Would it have changed your mind?” Balon returned. “This is the fastest way to ally with my people. This is the only way.”

“It’s fine.” Rhun slowed his breathing, reminding himself he had been in similar positions numerous times before. “We’ll find a way to get it done.”

As if on a cue, the entire arena suddenly quieted. Rhun looked up toward the king. King Orsik rose from his seat on the opposite side of the pit on his raised platform.

“Members of Clan Ironhammer,” King Orsik started in a deep booming voice. “Today, everything we thought we knew about the land beyond our walls has changed. Not only are there other clans living outside of our walls, but they are thriving. Members of a clan that would be our allies have come to us in friendship.”

The entire coliseum was quiet. For so many throats to be still at once was a miracle in and of itself. Even Rhun was captivated by how the king spoke. Past his youth, Rhun was getting a firsthand look of what made the young king a great leader.

“They have offered to show us in a friendly test of skill and strength why they deserve to be our allies.” King Orsik motioned to Rhun with an open palm. “Their warriors have offered to test their best against two of our own.”

The king paused here, letting the crowd have their say. To Rhun’s surprise, it was a mixed bag. Half of those in attendance seemed to respect his decision to test his skill and clapped and cheered for him. The other half roared out their boos and jeers.

“I give you the wasteland’s greatest warrior, Rhun Tarhound the Alpha Centaury!” King Orsik yelled with emphasis, using the agreed upon name.

More boos now than applause filled the packed coliseum. It was standing room only as Clan Ironhammer packed themselves into the seats. The sound was deafening. Rhun stood still, focusing on his breathing.

“From Clan Ironhammer, our own General Vondal has selected his two finest warriors,” King Orsik continued. He swept his hand toward the opposite side of the pit, where two hulking men made their way to the entrance. “Kildrack, the hero of last year’s games, and the legendary Harbeck, who has racked up more wins in the pit than any other before!”

If Rhun thought the crowd had gone hysterical before, he didn’t know how to quantify the volume now. Clan Ironhammer roared for their champions, beat their breasts, and stomped heavy boots.

The two men that walked into the pit were hulks. Neither one of them could have been much over five feet in height, but their arms were the size of Rhun’s legs. Heavy beards and long braided hair covered their faces and heads.

Tattoos roped around their arms. They were shirtless with boots and thick black shorts. Rhun wasn’t sure if it was Kildrack or Harbeck, but one of them stared daggers at Rhun while the other just smirked and shook his head.

“Maybe this was a bad idea,” Balon said loud enough for Rhun to hear as the cheering of the crowd quieted. “Perhaps we should throw in the towel now.”

“Nobody is stopping anything,” Rhun said with so much finality in his voice he surprised himself. “We’re seeing this through to the end.”

“As is our custom, an event will be chosen at random,” King Orsik said as a massive golden goblet was brought to him by an attendant.

The coliseum quieted as the king reached inside the golden goblet to select the event the contestants would be participating in. King Orsik pulled out a black stone. He looked at it, and for a moment, Rhun saw regret in his eyes. It was gone a moment later as he held the stone up for all to see.

There was a white marking on it that Rhun was unfamiliar with. He and Lierna seemed to be the only ones in the city that were not sure what it meant. Everyone else erupted in applause at the strange white emblem.

“The contest will be the blood sled!” King Orsik shouted.

“I don’t know who you are,” one of the men to be his opponents said, crossing the pit to be within shouting distance of Rhun. “I have no desire to kill you here. I’d much rather speak with you and find out what is beyond our walls. You should quit now. My friend Kildrack behind me won’t be so generous.”

Rhun studied the brown-haired man in front of him and decided he was being genuine. He didn’t seem to be lying about his friend either. Kildrack’s dark hair matched his personality. The behemoth of a clansmen was flexing his massive muscles and snarling at Rhun.

“Is that what you would want in an ally?” Rhun asked Harbeck. “I don’t think I’d be doing you justice if I quit.”

“No, I guess you’re right.” Harbeck walked back to his end of the pit with a shrug. “But you’ll do no good to us as a dead ally either.”

Attendants ran into the pit carrying rope, flags, and some kind of harness contraption Rhun couldn’t make out.

“What’s the blood sled?” Lierna asked Balon with concern clear in her voice.

“Contestants will be harnessed together in the center of the ring.” Balon licked his lips as he looked on with regret. “Each side will have a pole with a flag planted in the ground. A loose rope will connect the two flags. Teams will have to try and get to their flag using any means necessary dragging their opponent to the opposite side to win. This is the worst contest that could have been chosen. Pure brute force is required here. I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for yet.” Rhun eyed his opponents, who were already getting harnessed at the center of the ring. “Nothing’s happened.”

“But it’s already over,” Balon said, looking confused at Rhun and then Lierna. “It’s over.”

“Nothing’s over.” Lierna looked to Rhun with pure determination in her eyes. “Not while the Alpha Centaury still stands.”

Rhun nodded to her as he made his way to the center of the ring. Two attendants waited to harness him into the contraption. One looked at him with eager anticipation as if he couldn’t wait to see the event for himself.

“Please, remove your jacket and shirt to be harnessed in,” the attendant asked, pointing to the two clansmen on the other side who were also shirtless. “It’s our custom for the games.”

Rhun nodded, removing first the sand-colored cloak he wore in the desert to keep him camouflaged from the tickers and then the light tunic underneath.

There was an audible gasp from the gathered crowd. Rhun’s tan, muscular body was crisscrossed with scars both from his time in his own city training the centurions to his time in the wasteland surviving.

The attendants wasted no time in strapping the leather harness over Rhun’s torso, a line connected the back of his harness to the rear of Harbeck and Kildrack’s harness. His two opponents were whispering to one another, forming a tactic.

Break their spirit, sow doubt in their minds, and their bodies will follow, Rhun reminded himself. How many times before have you attempted the impossible and still you stand? Break their spirits.

Adrenaline was coursing through Rhun’s body. The anxious, almost nervous energy touched him from the pit of his stomach to the ends of his toes and fingers.

A man wearing white pants and shirt came to address the combatants as the attendants made last-minute preparations, ensuring the line was secure. The man looked at the contestants to make sure he had their full attention before beginning.

“You all know the rules of the blood sled, but I’ll go over it again for the sake of our new—ally.” The man smirked at Rhun. “You’ll walk to your respective sides until the line grows taut. You’ll wait there for my command to begin. As soon as I give the go ahead, you’ll do whatever you can to reach your end of the pit, dragging your opponent behind you. The rope on the ground connected to the two flags is there to help you if you wish. Any questions?”

Harbeck and Kildrack shook their heads. Rhun shook his head.

“Then walk to your end of the pit and stop when your line grows taut and may the strongest win!” The referee raised both hands into the air as if that was the signal for the crowd to cheer.

They obeyed, screaming their approval.

Rhun shrugged his shoulders in the harness. It was tight. The leather straps already bit into his skin. One foot in front of the other, he made his way to his flag. When he felt the line behind him pull, he stood still.

He was a good fifty yards from his own flag with about ten yards of thick rope connecting him to his opponents. A sharp tug he wasn’t expecting from behind nearly sent him toppling over. The crowd roared with laughter.

Rhun looked behind him at Harbeck, who shrugged.

“Sorry, rookie, it’s a bit of an initiation.” Harbeck smiled. “Good luck; you’re going to need it.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

“Begin!” the referee yelled, lowering his arms.

Rhun’s strategy was simple. He had to weather the storm before he was going to make his own attempt at his flag. He was out-muscled, but large muscles needed that much more oxygen to work. They also tired more easily.

Rhun threw himself to the ground, grabbing the white rope in front of him with both hands. At the same time, he planted his feet deep in the sand. There was no time to get a decent foothold as the two warriors on the other side charged for their own flag.

The harness bit into Rhun’s skin so deep he wanted to yell in pain. His hands were already being dragged down the rope, causing blistering and bleeding. Cuts opened on his palms. The crowd was going crazy.

Rhun had to ignore them as he was pulled first ten, then twenty yards in the opposite direction.

Get your feet planted soon or it’s going to be over, Rhun, he yelled in his head as he was carried down the rope. Get your feet anchored!

Rhun didn’t dare look back at his opponents, but he could imagine what they looked like. Kildrack would be leaning forward, one step in front of the other with a sneer on his face. Harbeck was possibly waving to the crowd, shrugging as if it were nothing.

Rhun needed all of this to happen. He needed to take them by surprise. He needed all the help the element of surprise could give him. Without warning, he back crawled down another ten yards of rope, giving the line slack. Like a madman, he dug footholds in the sand.

They were more powerful than his arms; together, they would be able to drag him, even with the help of his legs anchoring him, but if Rhun could just hold his ground using both his hands and footholds for his legs, his entire body acting as an anchor, he stood a chance.

Rhun dragged deep indentations on either side of the rope for each of his feet. He had seconds to make all of this happen before the rope went taut again. Rhun slammed his feet into the holes in the sand he had made and gripped the rope as tight as he could.

He wasn’t a second too soon; the rope went taut again. Rhun’s leg muscles braced in his foothold. His hands clenched the rope as if his very life depended on it. The line when taut, and for the first time, his opponents faltered.

There was a deep in hail from the crowd.

Kildrack let out a beast of a roar. The line went taut again.

Rhun lay as flat against the sand surface as he could. Every muscle in his body quivered against the strain. His hands shook with the intensity.

“Pull! Pull! Pull! Pull!” the crowd started to chant to their champions.

The strain on Rhun’s hands grew more intense as his legs burned with the effort to hold himself in place. The leather harness felt like it was cutting through his skin and into his flesh and bone.

Rhun Tarhound, the leader of the centurions in city four and the Alpha Centaury, held against all odds.

Sweat poured into his eyes. He didn’t need his eyes. His will was firm. His mind traveled not to the pain his body was undergoing but what had to be done. He thought of his wife, of why he was doing this in the first place, of the free city he had helped found with a ragtag group of survivors.

Behind him, the line went slack for a moment. Then an incredible pull from the rope behind him nearly wrenched him from his hold. His back felt like it was going to snap in half. The air was pulled from his lungs.

He could hear both Kildrack and Harbeck grunting now as they took turns throwing themselves against the line. Kildrack’s roars were like some ancient animal of long ago, Harbeck’s deep and menacing.

The rope bit into Rhun’s hands until blood began to soak the line. Rhun’s torso was numb where the harness dug into him now. It was beyond difficult to even breathe. Rhun gasped for air, but still he held. They could do what they wanted to his body, but only he gave them the ability to break his spirit or not. He controlled that and he was not about to let them have it.

How long Rhun lay anchored to his spot he wasn’t sure. What felt like hours was in reality probably no more than fifteen to twenty minutes. Time had a strange way of adding weight when one was in an excruciating amount of pain.

Not today; one day you may fail, but that day is not today! Rhun screamed in his own head. You have more to give. You can take it!

Finally, the attacks on his line began to come less and less frequent. Each tug was still as brutal as the rest, but his opponents were taking longer in attempting their attacks.

A mixture of sweat and blood fell from Rhun as he looked up to Balon and Lierna for the first time, where they stood on the opposite side of his flag. Balon’s mouth was so large it formed a wide O shape as he looked on.

Lierna pounded a fist on the gate, shouting something to him he couldn’t quite make out. She pointed behind him and over the fence. At the same time, Rhun realized there hadn’t been a tug on this line recently.

Rhun looked back to see that his opponents had changed tactics. Harbeck was still in the same spot to anchor his team’s place along the rope, but Kildrack was approaching Rhun no doubt to wrestle his hands free from the rope and drag him to the opposite end of the pit.

Kildrack was heaving, his chest glistening with sweat. There was a madness of anger and disbelief in his eyes as he reached down to grab at Rhun’s right leg. Rhun took the opportunity to spring the desperate attempt at his attack.

Rhun leapt from his position on wobbly feet. Grabbing the line behind him, he used his longer reach and height to wrap it around Kildrack’s neck. Two things happened at once. First, Kildrack was too quick to give Rhun a free shot. He managed to punch Rhun in the face with one hand while raising his right arm into the loop around his neck with the other.

The second thing that happened was Harbeck felt the line go slack and began moving forward again.

Rhun fell to the sand once more as blood oozed from his split lip. Kildrack sank to his knees, wildly grabbing at the rope that now looped around his neck and his right arm. On his back, Rhun dug his feet into the sand again. He anchored his feet once more and gripped the rope between his feet.

Kildrack’s face was going purple along with his right arm as his attempts to loosen the rope became more and more feeble. Rhun still had to work hard but not as hard as before. There was only Harbeck to contend with and now Harbeck had to not only drag Rhun but an incapacitated Kildrack as well.

The crowd was in awe. Their manic chants and shouts of “Pull! Pull!” for their champions silenced as they witnessed one of their heroes choking the life out of the other.

Rhun took the time of confusion to rest his arms as much as he could. Harbeck was not only gassed, but he had no desire to choke to death his brother in arms either.

Kildrack went limp a moment later on the doorstep of death. His head was a dark purple. The arm stuck in the rope not faring that well either. Rhun knew he had moments to be freed or suffer permanent injury or death.

“Harbeck!” Rhun shouted.

The crowd went still.

“Stranger!” Harbeck shouted back. He wasn’t pulling on his line anymore. It was slack if not a bit loose.

“What do you say we let this hero live to see another day?” Rhun asked, still panting from exertion. “You and I can finish this match. I won’t pull on my end until we get him out.”

“I’d say you know how to make friends,” Harbeck said, allowing his line now to go completely slack. “Truce until he’s free.”

A stunned cheer rose from those in attendance as they witnessed Rhun not only spare their hero’s life but sit back and agree not to push his advantage for the time being.

The clansman acting as the referee hurried forward with a retinue of attendees to free Kildrack from the line and carry him out of the arena. It took all of them in a combined effort to drag the big man out. He was still breathing when he left. Unconscious, but at least he was alive.

“This doesn’t mean I’m going to let you win,” Harbeck shouted across the pit for all to hear. “It just means you have my respect.”

“No, I don’t think you’d let me win.” Rhun readied himself for the next round and to do what he knew he had to. “And you can have my respect when this is all over. For now, prepare yourself!”

At Rhun’s challenge, the stadium erupted once more. It was something Rhun was starting to get used to. He found himself even enjoying the lust for sport and games Clan Ironhammer shared at the heart of their culture.

“Ready!?” the referee shouted, lifting his arms again.

Rhun and Harbeck each walked to their flag until the line was taut again. Rhun was much further away from his flag at this point. Harbeck was a mere ten yards from ending the contest.


Rhun changed his tactic, now straining against the harness. He anticipated Harbeck would expect him to do the same thing he did before and wait out the storm. He didn’t. This time, Rhun was the storm.

Harness biting into his skin, Rhun grabbed the rope hand over hand, and foot by foot, began dragging Harbeck with him. There was no stopping. Rhun was going to use the time-tested philosophy that objects in motion tended to stay in motion.

Muscles burning, air pressed out of his lungs by the harness, Rhun searched deep within himself and gave everything he had toward reaching his flag.

It was his turn to roar now as his effort required some vocal outlet. Hand over hand dragging the exhausted Harbeck behind him, he made his way toward his end of the pit. Although Harbeck had given his best at the initial burst and then again while Kildrack was tied up, he refused to go down without a fight.

Rhun’s bloody palms painted the white rope in front of him a crimson red.

“Raw! Raw! Raw!” Rhun gave in to the most primal part of his being, the force inside of him that refused to die. The survivor pushed on.

A chant was beginning to grow, started by Lierna and then picked up more and more by the clan members in the coliseum. “Alpha Centaury! Alpha Centaury! Alpha Centaury!”

Rhun’s generosity, his fighting spirit, and his force of will was beginning to win over the hearts and minds of those in attendance. Painfully slow, Rhun made it to his flag. A final lunge forward sent him to his knees as he grabbed the pole in front of him and swung his banner in the air.

The sound echoing through the coliseum played in the background to the pain Rhun felt in his body. He slumped on his knees, looking down on bloody hands. His torso was red and burned where the harness dug into his body. Every inch of him was wet with sweat.

None of this mattered as Clan Ironhammer chanted his name over and over again. “Alpha Centaury! Alpha Centaury! Alpha Centaury!”

Chapter Twenty-Three

“So this is how the little creature from my worst nightmare must have gotten inside the ship,” Argo said as he and Jordan looked on at the rent in the right corner of the supply room inside the craft. “It must have given under the pressure of the sand.”

In front of them, a panel of the ship had buckled inward, allowing a substantial pile of sand and swamp like water to spill inside. The muck was almost like mud. The dog-like creature inside the ship must have come from the mist land, burrowing his way through the swamp and attacking the ship. Between age, his scraping, and the pressure from the swamp itself, the ship had finally given way.

Upon further exploration of the hold, Jordan and Argo found that the one door leading deeper into the ship was shut tight. No control panel could be found to open the door. Neither did Jordan’s controllers work to do so.

The two were content to link the hover carriers together and stack two crates on each one. There were six of the hover carriers all together, thus allowing them to take twelve crates back with them to the city. They decided on eight crates of food, two of clothing, and one of medical supplies, and the last an assortment of the survival supplies like canteens and binoculars.

While they were preparing their convoy, the alien creature decided to leave his nest and inspect their process. He sniffed around their work, coming so close to Jordan she could have reached out and touched him.

She wasn’t yet sure how her hand would be received. This was put to rest after Jordan and Argo finished loading their hover carriers. The six hover carriers were linked to one another like a train. They sat ready to go in the center of the aisles.

“We should probably get some sleep before we start again.” Argo yawned and stretched. “When we push for the city this time, we’ll have to be quick. We can’t get stuck out in the open with the supplies.”

“Right,” Jordan said, looking down at the alien animal, who sniffed at her right hand. He was so close she could feel the air from his nose tickle her fingers.

Jordan threw caution to the wind and knelt down in front of the animal. She extended an open palm for him to sniff then stroked his head.

“Jordan,” Argo warned with a grimace on his face. “If he takes your hand and you can’t use your controllers anymore, I should get them next.”

“Oh, he’s not taking anyone’s hand,” Jordan said, petting the animal’s scaly head. A thick purple tongue lolled out of the side of the creature’s mouth as it closed its eyes and enjoyed the scratches. “He’s probably just lonely.”

Argo shook his head going to one of the containers of food and opening a clear, dried bag of something that looked like food. He opened the seal and popped some of the strange orange dried food into his mouth. He nodded with downturned lips as if he approved.

“Want some?” Argo asked, taking the bag to Jordan. “It tastes like fruit.”

Jordan and Argo shared a meal of the dried food some kind of canned meat and water. After the meal, Jordan grabbed a blanket and chose a place just inside of the hall that led down to the supply room. The light was dimmer there and it would be easier for her to sleep.

Argo also took a blanket and traveled further up the hall to where they first entered the ship. It was even darker there. Jordan suspected he was also keeping a lookout on the entrance to the ship.

Jordan settled down, finally giving in to her body’s call for slumber. It felt wonderful to rest her aching back and tired muscles against the hard ship’s floor. Heavy sniffing a moment later brought Jordan back from her dazing.

The alien animal was dragging his own blanket closer to Jordan. There was a silly grin on his face. His yellow eyes were almost asking her if it was okay.

“Yeah, you can sleep here too.” Jordan gave the creature another pat along his sturdy right flank. “We need a name for you. We can’t keep calling you ‘alien animal thing.’”

That was the last thing Jordan remembered thinking before her eyes shut and her nightmares began.

In her dream, Jordan was standing on her own city wall. Wind whipped around her, threatening to topple her so many stories to the ground below. Embers caught her eye along with smoke. Her gut twisted. Her eyes watered as she looked on to see her city in flames.

The gates were broken open and bodies strewn across the path from the wall to the rest of the city. It was clear an invading city had sacked her home, but which one was still a mystery.

Screams so distant they were barely carried on the wind reached her ears as the scene below her evolved. Shadows of people came down the road toward her, burned and bloody. They were corpses more than actual living breathing people. Some of them were missing half their faces, others various limbs.

Jordan tried to swallow, but there was nothing there as panic seized her. She recognized the corpses walking down the road toward her. They were her mother and father, trainers and citizens she recognized from the exercise department, even Counselor Carter and Captain Solomon Archer.

Their eyes were unseeing, their gaits steady and stiff. Jordan tried to cry out, but she couldn’t. She wanted to run to her mother and father, but only the ledge of the wall and a steep drop-off to the ground below lay in front of her.

Everything she had known up until the last few weeks burned in front of her. The figure of Director Saul Patterson emerged into view. He walked along with the others. His glasses were broken, his white lab coat smeared with blood and smoke stains. His left arm was missing from the elbow down. He was the only one that seemed to see Jordan on the wall. He started screaming something to her she couldn’t hear at first.

Jordan leaned in closer to the edge to try and hear his words.

“Do not open the gates to city three!” he screamed. “Don’t open the gates to city three! They will kill us all!”

“Who!?” Jordan leaned even closer, the wind buffeting her cloak and threatening to topple her over the edge. “Who is in city three?”

Before Jordan could get an answer, the ground beneath her feet crumbled. She was falling along with the section of the wall. In real life, the fall would have killed her. In this dream world, she landed below in a pile of broken masonry. The dead around her hedged her in. They neither made to grab her nor threatened her in any way. It was almost as if they were trying to protect her from what was in the city.

The crowd of dead parted for Saul Patterson.

Jordan pushed herself to her feet amongst the pile of debris.

The director of her city looked down at her with an expression of shock. “They came, they came in the night. We should never have opened their gates. Don’t open their gates, Jordan. Don’t let anyone open their gates.”

“Who came? Who’s in city three?” Jordan’s mind did cartwheels trying to remember what she knew of the city. What had Eldar told her? City three was black on the screens in his viewing room. They had descended into darkness.

“Not who. What.” Director Patterson turned to the side and pointed down the road toward their own homes that raged with fire. “Monsters.”

The mob of dead around the director moved to the side to give Jordan a clear view of the street leading to the city. For a moment, all she could see were the distant buildings on fire, the flames and smoke as the city burned.

Then figures began to emerge from the city, small at first but growing every second as they strode forward. They had to be impossibly large for Jordan to be able to see them at this distance, both in height and girth.

“Some things are better left untouched.” Saul Patterson grabbed Jordan’s left arm with his one good one. “Don’t let them open the gates, Jordan, don’t let them open the gates to city three!”

Jordan heard everything he was saying, but her attention was on the approaching alien beings. She craned her neck from side to side, trying to get a better look at them.

Jordan woke to the whining of the alien dog beside her. It was making faint panicked noises. It had the right sleeve of her cloak in its jaws as it shook her, trying to wake her from her dreams.

It took a moment for Jordan to remember where she was and then another moment to recall her nightmare and save it for another time.

“What? What is it?” Jordan asked the animal.

The dog dropped her sleeve, looking over at the far corner of the room where the hull had been breached. The alien animal started to growl, a low deep sound that came from somewhere in his deep chest.

Jordan looked over at the far corner of the room. The aisles of crates hid the breach where the sand seeped through. A sifting noise came from it like sand in an hourglass as it fell to the next level.

Rising to her feet, Jordan reached for her blaster. The cold metal of the weapon gave her a sense of comfort.

The alien animal beside her began to growl louder and louder until his annoyance at the sound turned into a full bark.

Footsteps behind Jordan told her Argo was up.

He appeared by her side a moment later.

“What’s—what’s going on?” Argo asked, his right hand on the handle of his knife, which was still sheathed for the moment. “I was having this weird dream about my city falling to monsters and then the mutt started barking.”

Jordan recognized the similarities in their dreams, but for the moment, she decided to table that conversation for another time.

“A sound is coming from the sand where the swamp punched through the ship,” Jordan told Argo. “It could be nothing.”

“Is it ever nothing?” Argo arched an eyebrow and pulled his knife from his holder. “I wish it was nothing.”

Jordan and Argo, along with the alien animal still growling, made their way down the aisle of crates, to the back right corner of the room. The chamber was still brightly lit. The hole in the ship was about five feet across and just as high. Deep cream-colored sand mixed with just a touch of water sloped into the room, creating a kind of ramp from the wall of sand to the inside of the craft floor.

More and more sand was being agitated by something. It trickled in, adding to the mess already in the ship.

Jordan lifted her weapon and sighted down the barrel of her blaster. There was something just on the other side of the sand wall. A black shape glided through the sand for only an instant then disappeared again.

The alien animal beside Jordan began barking ferociously. A short spine of barbs rose across his back as it let whatever was on the opposite side of the sand know it was not welcome here.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Jordan’s heart was pounding out of her chest.

You could run; maybe you should run, Jordan thought to herself. But you can’t just leave the supplies behind. You can’t do that to your city.

The decision to flee or stand her ground was made for her a moment later when something long and black with dozens of small legs slithered across the surface of the sand once more.

With a burst of sand and water, a ticker unlike Jordan had ever seen surged forward from the wall of sand. It was longer with a body like an insect, its single red eye still glaring at the front of its head. No longer did it hover like the others had. It rode on dozens of small mechanical legs that raced for Jordan and Argo. A wicked tail with a blade for an end arched up over its back like some kind of scorpion.


Jordan squeezed the trigger, letting off a blue beam of energy that caught the machine in its left shoulder. Like the others, this was not enough to stop it now. Eldar had warned them the tickers were changing, evolving to become more deadly. This must be the newest model.

Argo lunged forward, slashing with his blade.

The alien animal beside Jordan was going crazy barking and lowering into a crouch as if he too were preparing to pounce.

Jordan couldn’t get a shot off as Argo and the machine wove back and forth, Argo slashing at its red eye while the machine’s tail swung out, trying to catch him with its own blade.

The controllers, Jordan told herself as she lowered the weapon in her hands and stretched out her right palm. Focus on the machine, stop!

Nothing happened. Unlike the other tickers and the ship itself, the controllers on Jordan’s hands had no effect on this new threat.

With a thud that echoed through the ship, the machine’s tail made contact with Argo, catching him across his torso. It launched him into the aisle of crates on Jordan’s right.

Argo slumped in the pile of crates he had been thrown into. He didn’t move.

Jordan was concerned for her friend, but she would be of no use to him if she died in the next few moments. The evolved ticker came at her with its greedy red eye. The tail behind it swayed from side to side as it chose its opening.

Jordan let off another bolt that kicked at her right shoulder. The bolt hit the target again but did nothing more than provide Jordan with a moment of respite. The machine stuttered then began its forward momentum once more.

It was close enough to her now to use its blade. Arching its tail back, it drove the knifepoint forward toward her chest.

The alien animal next to Jordan dove forward, clamping its jaws around the machine’s tail and not letting go. The sheer weight of the brutish animal sent both itself and the machine sideways.

A slick underbelly to the new machine showed as it tried to right itself with the alien animal still attached to its tail.


Jordan recognized her opening and unleashed on the mechanical enemy. Blast after blast of the blue energy pumped into the machine over and over again. The weapon heated in her hands to the point it was becoming uncomfortable to handle. Jordan ignored the burning sensation as she kept a steady stream of blasts focused on the machines’ underbelly.

Its tiny legs scrambled and clawed as it tried to free itself from the animal’s jaws and stand upright once more.

The sounds of the weapon being discharged filled the room to the point Jordan wondered if her hearing would be permanently damaged. It sounded like a thunderstorm was taking place beside her.

Jordan pushed her luck. Stalking forward, she unloaded on the beast squeezing the trigger over and over and over again. She had lost track of time and of how many rounds she had unloaded on the beast when her weapon stopped firing altogether.

It was only that realization that took Jordan’s attention away from what she was doing and back to the smoking corpse of the machine. The evolved ticker was still scrambling, but its legs were twitching more than actually doing anything productive to get back up on its feet.

The blaster in Jordan’s hands was so hot now, she dropped it on the floor.

The alien animal was still growling, holding on to the ticker’s tail as if he didn’t trust that the machine was dead.

A deep cavity where Jordan had blasted the machine permitted a view to the interior of its mechanical body. It quivered once more, then its red light went out.

How close she had come to death yet again told Jordan she was something other than lucky. She understood a moment like this deserved more time of reflection, but Argo needed her now.

Jordan pivoted to where her friend was just coming to. She helped him from the wreckage of the crates. The back of his head was soaked with blood where his skull had made contact with the crates.

“Okay, maybe-maybe I don’t hate that ugly god forsaken mutt that much,” Argo said to Jordan as he nodded over to the animal.

Jordan looked over to see their protector still growling. His jaw hadn’t moved. He was latched on to the ticker’s tail more fiercely than ever. It was as if he would never let go of his enemy.

“We need to get the back of your head cleaned up,” Jordan said to Argo. She looked over at the breach in the cargo room where the wall of sand still spilled forward at uneven intervals. “We should barricade that entry point as well.”

“Let’s get some crates in front of the sand,” Argo said, eyeing the new ticker model with interest. “Did you notice it didn’t make any sounds this time?”

It took a moment for Jordan to realize what Argo was saying. Her ears were still ringing from the sounds of the blaster in the supply room. The skin on her palms were burned from the crude first-generation blaster Leopold had constructed from the original ticker corpses.

Jordan moved along with Argo to push a wall of crates against the open rent in the ship’s wall. The more she thought about it, the more it didn’t make sense at all for the ship to have suddenly buckled and the wall to have given in. The tickers had punched a hole in it before. Why, she wasn’t sure.

The centurion and the physical educator from city one made short work of the crates. In no time, they managed to secure a wall of crates in front of the breach. Argo waved off Jordan’s help to aid him with bandaging the back of his head. He pointed over to where the alien animal still held on to the insect machine’s leg, growling as he did so.

“Trust me, I can clean and bandage my head,” Argo said, eyeing the alien animal. “You need to get Ugly off the machine before he stabs himself with the end of that thing’s tail.”

Jordan looked over as the dog creature held his bite on the tail. He looked up at Jordan as if it say, “Don’t worry; I got him.”

“Hey, buddy, you can let go now,” Jordan said as she knelt next to the creature who had just saved her life. She placed a reassuring hand on his head. “He’s dead. You can let him go.”

The animal finally stopped growling. He let the machine’s tail drop from his mouth. He licked his own bleeding lips before going over to Jordan and nuzzling her so hard with his wet nose he almost pushed her over.

“Wow, easy there, easy there, boy.” Jordan laughed as the creature tried to lick her across the face. “We’re okay. We’re okay; you did a great job.”

“Well, I’m not going back to sleep,” Argo said as he wove a bandage around his head. “Shall we make the push to the city?”

Jordan arched her back, standing up to nod. “I think so. I don’t know what time it is, but I feel rested enough.”

The talk about their sleep made Jordan remember her dream and Argo’s passing comment that he too had been woken by a nightmare.

“Argo, do you remember the dream you had before we were attacked by the killer insect ticker thing?” Jordan searched his eyes for recognition. “You said your city was burning?”

“Maybe? Kind of, I mean.” Argo pursed his lips in thought, looking up to the ceiling of the room. “I remember I did have a nightmare, but the concussion I just received scrambled everything. Why?”

“It’s nothing,” Jordan lied. It was a dream. She had no solid evidence of anything, really. “Let’s get these crates back to the city.”

The two went to work again, making sure the convoy of carriers was ready for the move. Jordan slung the empty blaster across her shoulders again just in case Leopold would be able to refill its energy supply somehow. She activated the controllers on her hands, thinking the thought of the mechanical carriers following her as she walked back to the entrance of the craft. On her wordless command, they followed.

“What are we going to do about Ugly?” Argo asked as the alien beast stood ready to leave with them. His nub of a tail wagged furiously. In his bloody mouth, he carried his blanket. “We can’t leave him here. I mean, now that we blocked his entrance and escape.”

“I guess we show him the front door and let him go home.” Jordan paused to kneel by the animal again and give him a firm scratch behind his scaly ears. “Don’t listen to Argo. You’re a cute boy.”

“And how do you know he’s a boy?” Argo asked with raised eyebrows. “I mean, he’s an alien animal. Who’s to say their privates work the same way.”

“He looks like a boy to me,” Jordan said, thinking about checking the animal for male parts then deciding against it. “Yeah, let’s just go with that.”

Jordan stood again, taking a position at the front of the line of the six carriers. Argo stood at the rear to make sure none of the crates fell and to watch their backs.

Jordan motioned with her left hand and began to walk up the slightly sloping hall back to the entrance they had boarded the craft on. The door opened on her command. Outside, the familiar desert was just being touched by the morning light. If Jordan had to guess, they were working on no more than five to six hours of sleep. It would be enough. It had to be enough.

The carriers followed her through the hall and to her delight made the short fall to the sandy ground below without dropping their crates. Argo came next as the last carrier made the jump with the alien animal bringing up the rear.

“I think we have ourselves a third traveling companion,” Argo said with a smile as the creature moved to catch up to Jordan.

Jordan shrugged, inwardly grateful for the friendship of so loyal a creature. If they were going to survive, they could use all the help they could get, even if it did come from a four-legged friend.

She turned now to close the door of the craft. In the light of the sun, it looked different. Not so bleak and forlorn. If she used her imagination, she could see it had once been a proud ship. The red line drawn down its side broke just past the door to spell out words. Time had corroded the letters, but it was still just barely recognizable.

Jordan swallowed hard as her mind struggled to comprehend the name of the ship. The U.S.S. Reagan had once been proudly displayed on the ship’s side. Now it was barely legible.

“Does that mean something to you?” Argo asked, moving from his position at the rear of the convoy to see what had stopped Jordan in her tracks.

“He was a president, a leader from our past.” Jordan’s mind hurt as she tried drawing the lines of how this was all tied together. “From a past the real Earth shared, not this god forsaken planet.”

“What does it mean?” Argo asked. His tone told her he really wasn’t expecting an answer.

“It means there’s still a lot going on here we don’t understand,” Jordan answered as the wailing of the creatures in the mist marsh met their ears again. “I think we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg on all of this.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

To say Rhun was in pain would have been an insult to what his body was going through at the moment. Angry welts rose from his skin over his chest and arms where the harness had dug into his flesh with unrelenting force. His hands were a bloody mess from gripping the rope so tightly. A split lip reminded Rhun of the blow Kildrack had gotten in on him while he looped the rope around the stocky man’s neck and arm.

Still, he had done it. Despite his body feeling like it had been sent through the meat grinder, he had won the contest of the blood sled, and in doing so, won the hearts and trust of Clan Ironhammer.

Right now, Rhun stood alongside Lierna and Balon in the same chamber where they had first met the king. They were alone for the moment besides a retinue of guards who watched them from afar. Balon hadn’t stopped talking since the contest ended.

“In all the years I’ve been watching the games, I’ve never seen anything like that.” Balon shook his head in wonder. He rocked back and forth on his toes and heels, barely able to contain his excitement. “They’ll have to ally with you now. You heard how the people cheered for you. They were even chanting your name! I’ll be two hundred years old on my death bed before I forget what I saw this day.”

Balon went on and on. Rhun managed a smile to the shorter man, but that was all he could afford at the moment. Past the pain he felt in his body was the importance of the conversation that had to take place now.

Did you do enough to convince King Orsik and his entire clan to spill blood alongside you and your new city? Rhun sucked in a deep lungful of air. It hurt. Was that it?

A ripping sound came from his right as Lierna tore two strips from the end of her desert cloak. She went to work on Rhun’s hands, gently wrapping them at first, then tightening them with a knot at the end to be secure.

“You did well in there, Alpha Centaury,” Lierna said without lifting her eyes to his. “The centurions would be proud.”

Before Rhun could form a response, the doors to the palace meeting room opened. King Orsik entered the hall beaming. Along with him followed Counselor Delg and General Vondal with a squad of soldiers. Behind them and to Rhun’s surprise, in walked a still shirtless Kildrack and Harbeck.

Kildrack glared at Rhun as if he were going to try and kill him at any moment. Harbeck had the same smile on his face. Red marks across their wide chests showed where the harness had left its mark.

“What you did was beyond impressive.” King Orsik beamed at Rhun. “Kildrack and Harbeck asked to speak with you.”

Rhun nodded, looking over to the two men. Kildrack approached first. Although the top of the barrel-chested man’s head only came to the bottom of Rhun’s chin, he was more than intimidating.

Rhun was about to raise his hands to fight when the warrior clutched him in a fierce hug. The act was so aggressive, Lierna even flinched.

“I was told what you did for me,” Kildrack said in a rough voice as he squeezed the air out of Rhun’s battered body. “I owe you a life debt. I’m your man until I can repay that.”

“You—you would have done the same for me,” Rhun gasped as he was finally allowed out of the embrace. “I’m—I’m sure you would have done the same for me.”

“No, no, I would have strangled you to death and watched the life leave your puny body,” Kildrack said with a shake of his head.

Rhun imagined there was a level of honesty in there he should have been admiring, but he couldn’t find it at the moment.

“I’m not going to go so far as owing you a life debt.” Harbeck extended a hand. “But I’d be proud to fight alongside you against any enemy in the wasteland.”

“And I you.” Rhun shook his hand, trying to keep from grimacing as his newly bandaged palm was shaken harder than necessary.

Harbeck grinned at Rhun, giving him one final squeeze that said, “I’m going to get you one more time.”

“Thank you,” General Vondal said to his men, signaling that it was their time to go. “I’m sure the king wishes to speak to our visitors as well.”

Kildrack and Harbeck took their leave with a bow to their king. As soon as they were out of the doors, the king took over the conversation.

“I know our people will follow my lead if I tell them we are going to give this alliance a chance.” King Orsik grinned. “I’m told the merchants are already creating trinkets around your name.”

“My king.” Delg jumped into the conversation, looking sideways at Rhun. “I agree the people will follow you in your decision and the army has never been an issue, but the family heads of our clan? Do you think they will jump in alongside this plan? We are still only taking these strangers’ word as truth.”

Rhun looked over at the king to see how he would handle the matter. Would he tell his trusted counselor about the codex or would he remain silent in the matter?

“Trust must be built,” King Orsik agreed. He made no mention of the codex or its contents. “We’ll start by sending a scouting party beyond the wall to go with Rhun and see that everything is as they say. There are sure to be allies along with enemies as we expand our knowledge of the wasteland. Rhun can tell us more of that.”

Rhun was picking up on everything that was not being said. King Orsik was looking to him now letting him fill in the information of the danger outside of their walls. The king himself knew very well there were other cities the codex was instructing him to go and conquer.

“Yes.” Rhun decided to play along with the game. “There are machines roving the wasteland as well as other cities that will need to be defeated if they will not listen to reason and insist on war.”

Shouting echoed into the chamber. The guards at the door bristled their shields and axe-like weapons.

A moment later, a young man was let into the chamber, his face red with the exertion of running. He wore a military uniform a sword sheathed on his left hip. He ran over to General Vondal, bowing first to the king. He whispered in the general’s ear.

“Right now?” Vondal asked. “What is it?”

The scout shook his head and whispered something else.

“You can speak freely here,” King Orsik told the scout. Concern was etched clearly on his face. “What is it? It must be something dire to have disturbed us here.”

“My king,” the scout sputtered. “We only noticed as we tried to repair the gate into our city. We don’t normally post a guard on lookout to the outland, but tonight it was crucial. He saw something coming from the east. It traveled through the night like a stream and has only grown since then. There are thousands of them, maybe more.”

“Thousands of who? What?” King Orsik’s face went pale. “Speak clearer.”

“An army of a strength that cannot be quantified.” The scout shook his head as if he were trying to recollect the image in his mind. “Even now they pour past our walls as if they are headed to lay siege to another place altogether.”

Where would an army of that size come from? Could it be his own city on the warpath? No they would not run past this city in the night. Rhun felt his heart drop to his stomach. There’s only one city unaccounted for that could be responsible.

“My king, may we go see for ourselves?” Balon was the first to suggest the idea they were all thinking.

“Hurry, then.” King Orsik made for the door, everyone running to catch up.

All the pain in his body faded as Rhun ran with the others. There could be only one army he was familiar with that would be able to put together a legion of such size.

Vondal ordered the scout ahead, something about transportation to the city walls. Rhun saw the palace underground they had been inside for the first time while they exited through the main entrance. On his way to and from the pit, he had been directed out of a side passage.

The splendor of the palace under the ground was a true testament to the mining ingenuity of Clan Ironhammer. Rock was shaped so perfectly it looked like walls and ceilings. Everything was decorated with gems and stones, even entire pillars covered in gold.

“What city could be marching with such numbers?” Lierna asked as they ran through the palace. “Not our old home or our new. Jordan’s? Grizla’s?”

“Jordan said her people were just beginning to weaponize.” Rhun shook his head with a dark look across his face he couldn’t help. “Grizla’s people wouldn’t be in such great number, not the way she spoke about them. They didn’t seem to be ready to march on anyone either.”

“But it can’t be our home city; we wouldn’t attack like this.” Recognition crossed Lierna’s face. “That only leaves city three.”

There was no more time for talk as the group exited the palace through massive front doors hewn from what looked like single pieces of rock. A pair of vehicles the likes of which Rhun had never seen waited for them. What was more, the vehicles were pulled by massive beasts foreign to his eyes.

Two large wheels held an open platform large enough to hold four passengers and a driver who drew on reins of the lead beasts. Rhun, Balon, Lierna, and the scout took the second one while the king and the rest of his retinue loaded up on the first.

The driver urged the animals to motion. The cart jerked forward. In no time, they were racing through the city. The pair of beasts were large with short hair on their bodies, a long tail, and hair on their heads with hooves instead of feet.

They ran together as swiftly as any sprinting centurion Rhun had ever trained. In minutes, they were racing through the city to the front wall. The city itself was massive. A slight slope upward soon had them parallel with the flat ground once again. Smaller stone structures lined the roads that looked like houses and stores as they wove their way through the city streets. Concerned citizens looked on astonished as they passed.

“Can you tell us anything more?” Balon asked the scout. “The soldiers in the army, were they any form you recognized? Could you tell if they walked on two feet or four?”

“Most on two feet, varying in sizes larger than the stranger here,” the scout answered, motioning to Rhun. “As many as the sand in the desert as far as I could tell. I thought I was seeing things, but the repair crew at the wall confirmed it.”

The wind whipped through Rhun’s hair as the vehicle raced forward. Each member was lost to their own thoughts as the wall loomed closer and closer in front of them.

As soon as they arrived, Rhun felt the cold silence of fear from the other workers who had stopped their work on the front gate in favor of closing the barrier between them and whatever or whoever traveled through the darkness beyond.

Double watchtowers rose on either side of the entrance to the city. Simple but effective structures with winding stone stairs that led to small square rooms. King Orsik chose the watch tower on the right, where he mounted the steps without hesitation.

The night was dark against the wall. Torches lined the ground floor, and halfway up, the spiraling staircase then stopped. The cool night took them the rest of the way. Rhun followed close behind, careful to watch his footing, his battered body taking a back seat to what he feared he would see.

The group spilled into a small room they had to pack to get into. King Orsik looked out of the window that oversaw the desert as far as the night would allow. The scout stationed in the tower moved aside for the others to see.

“I had the torches—I had the torches extinguished as to not cause unwarranted attention, my king,” he stuttered, lowering his head in reverence to his leader. “They seem to be moving on to—to somewhere else.”

Rhun looked out the window with the others. At first, his eyes couldn’t adjust to seeing anything besides a wave of darkness covering the dark cream-colored sand. It was as if someone had unleashed a dam of thick black oil over the desert. A moment later, his eyes were able to focus on individual figures, dark shapes varying in sizes from some that had to be only slightly larger than himself to true monstrosities towering stories into the darkness.

Chapter Twenty-Six

“Man, these coffins smell like death.” Leopold coughed as he and Jerrick looked at the work that had taken them more than a few days to accomplish even with help.

The coffins made of the special ore from the star were now stacked outside of Leopold’s workshop. Trial and error told them they would need a full forge to turn the coffins into armor. Leopold had a group of survivors converting the house next to his own into a makeshift forge as they spoke.

For the time being, Jerrick and Leopold had been experimenting with the ticker blasters, how the blue energy source interacted with the ore and what it all meant. Interestingly enough, when the blue liquid powering the blasters touched the ore, it sparked and hissed. When Leopold tried to explain to Jerrick why that was, it was all speculation and words Jerrick didn’t understand.

“Explain to me again how we might be able to channel the blaster power through the ore to create a stronger weapon?” Jerrick asked as the two men finished their task for the night. “Use super small words and speak slowly.”

“Well, you see the explosive power that brings the blaster to life has an interesting effect with the ore the coffins were hued from,” Leopold answered, not speaking slowly at all. His hands flew through the air as if only by moving them wildly could he get his point across. “The ore changes the plasma, for a lack of a better term, and evolves into a more powerful force like a stream of lightning.”

“So we could create lightning guns that would be more powerful than the blasters?” Jerrick rubbed at his temples. It had been a long day.

“Maybe not even a blaster or weapon per se; maybe gloves would be more user-friendly or a vambrace of some kind,” Leopold was about to go on when yells reached their ears.

Jerrick exchanged confused looks with Leopold before rushing outside.

The dark sky didn’t make it easy for him to see what was going on down the road, but the shouting was coming from the gate. Jerrick and Leopold wasted no time in heading down to see if it was trouble or something else.

Scouting parties along with the outcasts from various cities were coming in by the day. Rhun’s own party sent out to gather food had returned with a king’s ransom of fish and the news Rhun and Lierna had gone on with a stranger in an attempt to make an ally.

The notes dropped in to each city had brought allies to them from every city except for city three. That place was cut off from the rest of the world. Jerrick had found out that none of the survivors making up their new city had ever called city three their home either.

Jerrick ran past occupied households. Grizla had proven to be a true leader. After rallying the survivors to plant crops and tend the city orchard, she had moved them on to repairing certain city blocks and houses so they would be livable once again.

All of this passed as Jerrick ran to the gate to see a group of people gathered around a single husk of a man. Jerrick recognized the person only by face. He was one of Rhun’s scouts, a scarred and sun-beaten warrior.

He was crumpled in Grizla’s arms at the moment as he raved about something Jerrick could only catch bits and pieces of.

“Monsters—so many—I ran all day and night,” he gasped.

Someone brought a container of water. Grizla pressed it against his lips.

“Shhh—drink first,” the older woman said as if she were talking to a small baby instead of a war-hardened soldier. “You did well. Drink; you’re safe. Drink and then tell us.”

It was enough for a panic to wash over the gathered group. Jerrick looked at the faces present. Representatives from near every city, from those he knew to those just escorted to their gates by Rhun’s scouts were present. Citizens from his own former city wearing shirts and pants to those dressed in colorful robes from Grizla’s home city.

They all had one thing in common at the moment: fear.

“Start from the beginning and be calm.” Grizla helped the weary man to his feet. “Tell us what you saw.”

“I was with—I was sent out with one of my brothers to watch the gates of city three,” the soldier began. “Rhun always sends scouts there despite there having never been a single soul cast out of that city. We didn’t expect anything until we witnessed the approach of our own army, the army from our own home whose ranks have been refilled. We hid ourselves among the sand dunes wrapped in our cloaks. We blended in and we watched. The army had to be a thousand strong with a new Alpha Centaury leading them into battle.”

The soldier paused here, taking a deep breath before he continued.

“They brought a battering ram with them, but there was no real need. The gates of the city crumbled in on themselves as if they were as old as worn clay ready to fall at a moment’s notice. The army charged through without question. We couldn’t see much, but we heard them.” The scout rubbed at the bottom of his chin. He swallowed hard. “We heard the screams, the yells of retreat. What sounded like popping bones and the tearing of flesh. I heard men screaming in fear and agony while others begged for their mothers.”

“What was it!?” Leopold jumped in, not able to take the anticipation any longer. “Spit it out, man, for heaven’s sake. What did you see? Rat people?”

“Demons.” The scout licked his lips, trying to find the words for the nightmares that would forever exist in his dreams. “Terrors from stories. They were large and green; many had horns coming from their heads or tusks from their teeth. They charged on two feet like men, but they are no men I have ever seen. A few of them even towered half as tall as our walls.”

Gasps and chatter rippled through those gathered.

“They tore through the centurion lines like a grown man through a line of children. The centurion army stiffened for only a moment, able to hold them at bay with their shield wall and lances, but the larger of the demons crashed through anyway. The demons poured out of the city like something I have never seen, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands.” The scout paused once more. “My brother and I ran all day and night to bring the news. He fell to a ticker on the way. Not a ticker we are used to seeing either. A silent beast made up of dozens of legs like an insect and a tail like a scorpion.”

A hush fell over the crowd as they drank in the man’s words. Their imaginations would soon take over and make the situation even worse if it were allowed. Panic was not far away.

“What are we going to do!” a voice asked.

“We can’t fight that many,” another voice answered.

“We’ve left one city of lies and come to another to die,” a last voice cried out.

“We’ll fight them,” Grizla said, trying to rein in the panic of the crowd.

“How? We don’t have enough soldiers or weapons,” Leopold said.

Jerrick elbowed him hard in the ribs.

“OUCH!” Leopold stared at Jerrick before recollection struck him. “But maybe we do. We have explosives now and maybe the ability to create a super weapon that will channel lightning.”

The crowd looked at one another, confused.

“We’ll find a way to survive.” Jerrick walked into the middle of the group, expanding on what Leopold had said. “That’s what we do. That’s why we’re here. Rhun will bring allies and Jordan as well. We have enough explosives to tear their numbers apart and the weapon Leopold is talking about will be enough to defend our walls.”

Jerrick wasn’t great at public speaking, but the hard look of determination and the nod Grizla gave him lent him the strength to continue.

“We haven’t made it this far to fail now.” Jerrick pointed with his right finger to the ground. “This is our city now. This is our new home. The darkness will come as it does every night and the light will fight it back as it does every morning. We’ll hold until help arrives. Together, we can hold this city.”

There were no cries of approval or encouragement, but he saw head nods and grunts. For the moment, that would have to do.

Rhun, Jordan, Jerrick thought to himself. Wherever you are, hurry.

The Pandora Experiment: Box Set of Books 1 - 3


A Note For You

Jonathan’s Note

Oh my, where do I even start with this one! How crazy is this story!? You might think this is weird coming from me since I wrote it, but I’m telling you I don’t outline, so I’m on the same adventure you are when you read.

I’ll give you a perfect example. I thought when Jordan and Argo first entered the ship, the sound they heard was going to be some kind of alien creature out to kill them. Instead, Ugly showed up and then the evolved tickers after him.

And what the heck is in the Mist Marsh? That place is so creepy, I didn’t even want to go in there. Well, enough about me tripping out about the story I just wrote. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Thank you for taking the time to not only read my work but the note at the end as well.

Things here are moving right along. For those who don’t know, I work as a personal trainer very part time. I have six training sessions a week where I meet clients and work out with them. It helps keep me healthy and it’s a nice change of pace to get outside. Left to my own devices, I’d probably just read and write all day.

The downside about lifting six times a week is my hands get abused nonstop. My left hand in particular is killing me between all the weight lifting and typing. I might have to go to dictating the book instead of typing. I tried it once before and didn’t like it, but I’m sure my hands would love it.

I have another series going called Gateway to the Galaxy that I’m writing the fifth book in next, but after that, be sure I’m going to be all over book three in the Pandora Experiment. I write pretty quick, usually two weeks to start and finish a book, so don’t worry. It won’t take long.

Well, that’s it from me. If you’ve read any of my other books, you know I always end with a personal invitation to stay in touch. I have two options for you below.

1) I have a private group on Facebook I created for all of us to hang out. There are over two hundred likeminded readers who enjoy everything you do. We’re there just sharing cool new books, movies, and the occasional meme. Join The Pack here

2) I know some readers don’t like using Facebook and/or would rather just receive an email with info when new books are out. I totally get that. If you’d like to be part of The Pack via our newsletter, you can go to and join the ranks.

As always you are the very best. Know that you’re valued and your pack is with you,


The Pandora Experiment: Box Set of Books 1 - 3

The Pandora Experiment: Box Set of Books 1 - 3

The Pandora Experiment: Box Set of Books 1 - 3

Alive Book 3 of the Pandora Experiment

The Dedication for Alive is written by Michael Burgoyne

My ex wife Kris Burgoyne. Son and his wife (Jon) Johnathan and Chelsea Wages Burgoyne . Lastly my wife Patty Witt Burgoyne


If you think this book is awesome at all it’s only because I have a pack of rabid ARC Wolves, a wonderful editor and a talented cover artist. Thank you for your help.




Eagle Eyes


Editor - Kimberly Grenfell

Cover Illustrator - Steve Beaulieu

Chapter One

The morning sun brought terror. Rhun felt fear grip at his heart, not due to the fact that there was an army outside the walls of city two, but because of who the army was.

He had never seen creatures like this before. This fact made where they came from easy to guess. Rhun had met survivors from all six cities, with the exception of city three. The view on the top of the wall gave him a good look at what had been festering inside the silent city for all of these years: monsters.

Great hulking beasts, seven to eight feet tall, made up the bulk of the force. Their skin was varying shades of dark green, and their armor and weapons were crude in every sense of the word.

They wore an assortment of metal vests and dented helmets; their weapons were notched blades, barbaric clubs, bows, and axes. Their weapons didn’t necessarily worry Rhun; it was the sheer size of their numbers and the giants that walked among them.

A dozen or so much larger enemy soldiers roamed the ranks of the opposing force. These beings stood shoulders and heads over their unholy brethren. It was difficult to place their exact height, but if Rhun had to guess, they were nine to ten feet tall.

The army surrounded the city, making sure to stay out of range of any of the weapons King Orsik and his men would be able to mount on the top of the wall. Their numbers were in the thousands.

“I don’t think they’re interested in talking,” Lierna said from Rhun’s right. The red-headed woman leaned against the battlements of the wall, biting her lower lip. “You don’t rally a force this large hoping for peace.”

“No, I don’t think you do.” Rhun pursed his lips as he listened to the low rumbling an army of this size made. “I think we’ll see bloodshed before this day is through.”

As soon as King Orsik had seen the force in the night, he had jumped to action. Rhun gave the young king credit. For as torn and undecided as he was about following the codex, he was decisive and a true leader when it came to protecting his city. Balon Longoak was reinstated as chief weapons smith and ordered to the forge to see that the weapons and Mecha they would need for the fight were ready.

Likewise, General Vondal was already organizing the city’s fighting force at the gates. Rhun’s body was in dire need of rest. After the events of the blood sled, he had been more fatigued than he could ever remember. A few hours of sleep during the night was all that could be afforded. There was a war at their doorstep.

Sounds below made Rhun turn his attention from the battlements to look down at the gathering force inside the city walls. General Vondal was there, leading a force of heavily armored soldiers. The colors of city two were midnight blue and black. A fierce animal Rhun had never seen was etched into their armor as their sigil. The creature had pointy furry ears with a long snout and sharp teeth. Its eyes were narrowed as if it had heard something that truly angered it.

“I want the Long Shot Corps on the wall!” General Vondal shouted to his men. “Infantry at the gates and the Mecha unit will fill in the rear.”

A chorus of “yes, sir” echoed down the line as the men under General Vondal jumped to obey.

The general looked up to see Rhun and Lierna on the wall. He motioned them down with an open hand. “If you’re going to fight, you’ll need armor as well.”

Rhun nodded. He and Lierna made their way down one of the two watchtowers. They traded nods with the men General Vondal had referred to as the Longshot Corps. These soldiers wore lighter armor and carried long-barreled weapons that seemed as though they would be just as tall as the soldiers if stood on end. With them, they also carried pieces of technology Rhun had never seen before. Something like multiple barreled weapons on a base that would act like a swivel.

Rhun and Lierna reached the bottom floor a few minutes later to feel the ground shake beneath their very feet.

“They attack so soon?” Lierna asked, looking over to Rhun for consensus.

You shouldn’t have wasted time getting your hands on a weapon, Rhun chided himself. It’s time.

The cheer that went up from the men assembled in front of the gates told Rhun the enemy wasn’t attacking just yet. Rather, there was a symbol of hope and inspiration approaching that he had not yet seen in the city.

The ground continued to tremble. Huge machines could be seen making their way down the main road toward the gates. Behind these metal giants, more men trotted, leading beasts that brought wagons full of supplies and armor.

Rhun could feel his jaw drop at the sight of the Mecha. The iron giants were a true marvel. He could understand why the infantry men would find a reason to chant the names of the pieces of war.

“Mecha! Mecha! Mecha!” they roared, stomping their feet and bashing their weapons against their shields.

The Mecha towered twelve feet into the air. They were shaped like armored soldiers. A heavy midsection in their chest was where Rhun guessed the pilot would be. They were painted the same kind of dark blue and black as the rest of the army. The same menacing creature was emblazoned on their chests, as if there were any question as to what army they represented.

The weapons these great machines bore varied from ones Rhun was familiar with, like sharp blades and axes, to others he had never seen. Long and short barrels were held in their massive hands.

When the six Mecha units stopped in front of Rhun and the infantry unit, steam hissed from their mid-sections. The giant machines went down to a single knee. A compartment opened in the middle of one of the Mecha’s mid-section, revealing a cockpit. A stocky man Rhun recognized jumped from the seat to the ground below. He wore a tight-fitting battle suit and thin armor.

“I’ll be glad to be fighting by your side instead of against you this time.” Harbeck extended a meaty hand to Rhun. “Although I wish we hadn’t tried so hard to murder each other back in the pit. Still, I suspect we have more than enough to deal with, fighting the army outside our walls.”

Rhun gripped the man’s hand with a smile on his lips.

“I didn’t know you served in your city’s military, but I guess I should have suspected,” Rhun said, looking over the man’s shoulder at the giant kneeling machine. “I’m glad we have those on our side.”

“You and I both,” Harbeck said, nodding over to Lierna. “We should get you two fitted with what gear you’ll need. We can’t have you wading into battle with nothing but your fists.”

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Balon Longoak, the newly reappointed chief city forge leader, said as he hopped off one of the wagons that followed behind the Mechas. “I’m here. I’m here.”

Rhun and Harbeck exchanged a grin as they looked over to the excited Balon. The man’s eyes were bloodshot. It was clear he had worked through the night to get both the Mecha unit ready and whatever it was he carried in the train of wagons behind them.

“Colonel,” General Vondal said, greeting Harbeck with a gloved hand. “A word to go over the plan of attack.”

“Certainly,” Harbeck said to the general. He looked over to Rhun and Lierna. “Excuse me.”

“Of course,” Rhun said as the two military leaders began discussing tactics.

“Okay, let’s get you two fitted and ready for battle.” Balon looked them up and down, a frown on his face. He started mumbling and making comments to himself as he did so. “Mmm hmmm. Mmm hmmm.”

“Oh for goodness sake, what is it?” Lierna asked, throwing her hands into the air. “Give me a spear and a shield and I’ll account for my fair share of enemy corpses.”

“Oh, it’s not that,” Balon said, waving the pair over to the lead wagon. A group of men were already unloading and dispersing the wagon’s contents around the open area. “We’ll just have to make a few adjustments to the armor. Even our largest suits will be too wide for you and not long enough.”

Rhun’s eyes widened as he witnessed Balon’s smiths take up a section of the square inside the city gates and begin to set up tables and workbenches. They moved like a well-oiled machine, first erecting their station before going to work honing blades and checking and rechecking armor pieces.

While most of the armor looked the same both in design and color, there was a wide range of weapons from spears and shields to long-barreled weapons Rhun could only guess at, and everything in between.

“If you two will stand over here.” Balon beckoned them to a spot between a pair of workbenches. “We’ll have the craftsmen fit you in no time.”

Rhun took up the position to which he was directed. Three stout men and a woman just as hardnosed as the others began looking him over and taking measurements. They were all a good head shorter than Rhun, but that didn’t seem to bother them. They ignored speaking to him altogether. Instead, they elected to talk amongst themselves, comparing notes and wonder of his stature. It was their first time being so close to a stranger from beyond their own walls.

“Tall drink of water he is,” one of the men said with a measuring tape he used along Rhun’s left leg. “We’ll need to add a few inches to the breastplate.”

“And take in the chest,” the female craftswoman said. “He’s tall but not as muscular. We’ll do a good job, but it may not look pretty, Forge Chief.”

“Do what you can,” Balon said with a nod in her direction. “Looks will have to wait for the time being. We need to focus on them being protected.”

As much as Rhun would have liked to pay attention to how they crafted his gear, his eyes were drawn to the military force gathering in front of the city gates. The army’s infantry was a few thousand strong already formed into lines. They filled the area inside the city gates that reminded him so much of his home city.

The Mecha units knelt behind them with their pilots going over last-minute checks both inside and outside of their units.

The Longshot Corps on the battlements were fastening a pair of the turret-like weapons on the wall. They wore cloaks with hoods to shield themselves from the sun above.

“King Orsik!” a voice Rhun didn’t recognize shouted.

Cheers went through the crowd as the city’s king appeared. He was pulled in a two-wheeled cart behind a pair of the beasts of burden. The king was clad in brilliant sparkling armor with a dark blue cape behind him. In his right hand, he carried a war hammer, and in his left, a shield nearly the size of his own body.

Not to Rhun’s surprise, Councilor Delg was nowhere to be seen. The politician who was so insistent that he insert himself in the goings-on of the city just the night before had vanished like smoke on the breeze.

King Orsik walked past the Mecha units, exchanging hellos with his men. He made his way over to General Vondal to go over the plan.

A strange noise soon silenced the group inside the city walls as thousands of monstrous throats began to roar outside of the gates. The enemy army was preparing their attack, Rhun was sure of it. They were working themselves into a frenzy at the moment. The noise reminded him of what he imagined actual monsters would sound like as a small child.

Rhun took the moment of calm before the storm to think of the wife he had left behind in his own city. If the six cities were in an all-out war now, it wouldn’t be long before he would be able to see her again. This would be the beginning of a domino effect, with the winning cities marching on to the next and the next, to bring an offering of either peace or war.

I’m coming, my love, Rhun thought to himself. My darling, I’m coming.

Chapter Two

The trek from the crashed USS Reagan to the walls of their new city was strangely free of tickers. Jordan wasn’t sure if Eldar had found a way to keep the latest evolved forms of the tickers away from them or something else had caught the machines’ attention.

No matter what it was, Jordan, Argo, and the beast called Ugly made it to the city gates with the supplies in record time. Jordan had fought Argo along the way, arguing that the creature deserved a better name, but Argo was insistent, even calling the four-legged scaly creature to him by using the name Ugly. The beast would run over to him with a lolling tongue.

Jordan had finally given in for the time being. She was too tired to argue further. As the walls of their own free city came closer, Jordan was acutely aware of the number of travelers flocking towards it.

Usually, the desert wasteland was a desolate piece of land free of anything except for the occasional ticker patrol. As Jordan crested a dune allowing her to see her city, still over a mile away, she was surprised to see men and women, even children dotting the landscape. Those who had enough energy ran while others stumbled for the gates.

“The note you sent out to the other cities must have really gotten people talking,” Argo said with a shrug. “Maybe they’re all starting to see the truth now.”

Jordan wanted to agree, but there was something wrong with the demeanor of the people making their way to the city. They didn’t seem happy or relieved; they seemed terrified. Some had wounds over their bodies or wore singed clothing.

Ugly lifted his snout to the air, sniffing the wind with a whine.

“I know, buddy,” Jordan said, reaching down to place a hand on his rough head. “There’s something wrong.”

Jordan made her way forward, getting a better look at the people who dotted the desert. There had to be a hundred of them coming from different directions, their clothing all different. Now that Jordan knew the truth given to them by Eldar, that this was all an experiment to see who the toughest hybrid was, Jordan looked at the people through a careful lens.

Minor changes in their stature and skin tone were the only things that really set them apart. Jordan’s train of thought stopped short as she saw a woman wearing the plain white civilian uniform from her own city stumble toward the city gates from the west.

Jordan was sure she didn’t know the woman. She was middle-aged with a bloody rip in her right shoulder. Her eyes were red, lips cracked.

“Are you from city one?” Jordan asked, immediately realizing city numbers probably meant nothing to the woman, who was still in the dark about the entire experiment. “I mean, the city where Director Patterson leads the population.”

The woman turned to Jordan, studying her face. Her expression went from confused to realization in a moment.

“You’re—you’re from my city?” The woman changed direction, stumbling toward Jordan as if she were a mirage not yet fully realized. “I—I was thrown out just—just before they came.”

Jordan caught the woman, who stared into the sky at the dual planets overhead. “How—how can this be our Earth?”

“Easy.” Jordan gently placed her in a seated position. She lent her canteen to the woman’s cracked lips and dry throat. Preemptively, she pointed out Ugly, who the woman had not seen yet. “No reason to be afraid of the animal. He’s with us.”

The woman’s bloodshot eyes grew wide, but she nodded. Her hands tightened on the canteen like a baby holding its bottle.

Argo gave Jordan space as she searched for the answers she so desperately needed. Memories of the nightmare she had had the night they stayed in the USS Reagan plagued her mind.

“My—our city,” Jordan asked with fear in her voice. “Does it still stand? Who was chasing you? You said you left our city just in time? Just in time for what?”

“Director Patterson is throwing out anyone who even whispers about the notes that fell from the sky.” The woman shook her head. “He’s having Captain Archer and the city guard round up anyone who thinks different than himself and throwing them out of the city. There were hundreds of us released beyond the wall since the notes dropped. I’m not sure how many of us made it this far. I was released just a few days ago. When I was sent outside of the wall, I saw an army approaching. An army of—of—I don’t know what they are. Some sort of creatures. The ones released with me were hunted down. I escaped through sheer luck. I ran into some kind of insect machine. The strange creatures following me decided to stop and fight the machine instead of continuing to chase me.”

Jordan was doing her best to keep up with the story, but there were still too many missing puzzle pieces. She started with the biggest questions first. “Do you know my parents? A Heidi and Michael Shepherd?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t.” The woman handed back the canteen to Jordan and stood on wobbly feet. “I do know that the last time I was in the city, Director Patterson was revealing a plan to the citizens to go outside of our own walls. There were rumors of a military unit being built and weapons being made. When the notes dropped from the sky, it seemed to worry the director. He accelerated the program, moving citizens from their everyday routine to building weapons. You can imagine this sparked a lot of controversy.”

Jordan nodded along with the woman’s words. She eyed the woman’s shoulder and the cut that looked angry and red. While the bleeding had stopped, it looked painful.

“Thank you for telling me all of this.” Jordan nodded to the city in front of them. “I’ve been selfish with your time. We need to get that cut looked at and food in your stomach.”

“A friendly face is never a waste of time.” The woman smiled wearily and extended a hand. “I’m Sara. Thank you for the water.”

Jordan accepted the hand for the first time, thinking she might have actually seen the woman in her own city before. With thousands of people working in her city, it would be possible she had come across Sara but not likely.

Together, the three survivors along with Ugly made the rest of the trek to the city gates. Other survivors gave Jordan and more so Ugly a wide berth. Their eyes widened when they saw the glove-type controllers on Jordan’s hand and the crates she guided with her.

At the tall gates into the city, a bottleneck started. It seemed like Leopold or Grizla, whoever was overseeing the process of allowing others to enter the city, had decided to set up a log as they entered. The city gates themselves were cracked open just enough to allow a narrow walkway through a pair of armed guards Jordan recognized as Rhun’s men from his own city.

“Please, please.” Grizla’s voice sounded from somewhere up ahead in between the city gates. “Everyone will get into the city. All we’re doing is keeping a log of your name, the city you come from, and what you did in your city so we can place you correctly. There is more than enough room and water for everyone.”

Although the throng of those gathered was too pressed in to give Jordan a view of the older woman, she recognized the strain in Grizla’s voice. How Grizla had decided to say there was plenty of room and water and neglected to mention the scarceness of food.

“We need to get inside the walls,” a panicked male voice said, whose owner Jordan couldn’t see. “I saw them. They’re spreading over the desert like a disease. They’ll be here soon!”

“Who!?” another voice asked.

“You don’t know?” a third voice chimed in.

“Please, we will get you all inside as soon as possible,” Grizla said to the group. She stood up on something Jordan couldn’t see. Her head popped up over the crowd, and for the first time, she saw Jordan. “Make way, make way; our scouts have returned with what looks like supplies for our city if I’m not mistaken.”

Bodies parted and all eyes turned to Jordan, Argo, and Ugly.

“Thanks.” Jordan nodded wearily to the gathered crowd. Her body felt like a balloon that had all the air emptied from it. She moved forward with the controllers, seeing for the first time what Grizla was standing on. It was a dead ticker, the first version of the machine that used a cube for a body.

Grizla’s dark eyes were full of wonder as she met Jordan at the gates and embraced her in a hug. Jordan was going to settle for a simple hello, but if she was honest with herself, feeling the love of another human being in a world so broken was what her soul needed.

“I’m glad you’re back.” Grizla released Jordan then embraced Argo. She looked over at Sara and Ugly. “And it seems you’re not alone. We’ll get you inside and settled.”

“We found supplies and food and—” Jordan stopped herself short before she revealed what she had found out about Eldar. There was no knowing how a mass of people would take the news. She needed to meet with Grizla, Leopold, and Jerrick alone. “Is Rhun back? We should all talk.”

“No, not yet.” Grizla’s eyes so full of hope a moment before were downcast now. “But he’ll be back soon. I’m sure of it. Come inside.”

Grizla gave orders to one of the guards at the gate and handed off a pad of paper and a writing instrument before waving Jordan and the others into the city. Her eyes traveled to the controllers on Jordan’s hands. She didn’t ask questions, not yet.

Grizla led them through the city to a large house on the left where stockpiles of foodstuffs and supplies were being taken and categorized. Eager eyes from the survivors working the warehouse traveled to Jordan and the crates that followed behind her like mindless zombies.

“You can leave the supplies here. They’ll be safe.” Grizla motioned to a worker who hurried forward with wary eyes on Ugly.

“I think I’d better part ways here too,” Sara said, grasping the situation of a very serious talk that needed to take place between the city leaders. “I’ll see you again soon.”

“Get someone to take a look at your shoulder,” Grizla told her, motioning to the workers inside the warehouse. “There are a few from my own city well-versed in medical arts that will help you. Ask for a healer.”

“Thank you,” Sara said, disappearing into the warehouse.

Something itched at the back of Jordan’s mind as to who the woman was. Once again, she was sure she knew her in the city or had at least seen her once before.

“Jerrick and Leopold have been laboring in his workshop up the street.” Grizla motioned Jordan and Argo forward. “They’ve been at it double time since we received the first warning of war in the wasteland. I think—”


All eyes turned to Leopold’s home-workshop combo up the street. Smoke and a red light; something like waves of energy wafted from the house.

Jordan and the others took off at a run.

Chapter Three

Leopold couldn’t believe his eyes. They had done it. Working through nights and in shifts, he and Jerrick had not only managed to improve the model of blasters the city would use, they had created something truly unique.

Past the smoke and the glowing red light coming from Jerrick’s hands, Leopold knew they had succeeded. Jerrick stood marveling at the invention he and Leopold had created: gauntlets that crackled and shined bright with the red energy the clickers once held. This was something more powerful altogether. Gauntlets forged with the meteor star that had crashed in his city long ago now held the power of Zeus himself.

The ticker power source that usually looked like blue liquid, when combined with the melted steel, changed color and substance altogether. This was a game changer; both he and the grinning Jerrick knew it.

“You okay?” Leopold coughed as he swatted at the smoke that drifted through the windows. “How do they feel?”

“I’m good.” Jerrick grinned as he whipped soot from his brow then pointed to Leopold’s face. “You have black streaks all over your face and beard. We’ve got to stop almost blowing ourselves up.”

Leopold looked over at the lightning-bolt-shaped burn in the far wall. Better the wall than either of them. It was a huge step in the right direction, but if Jerrick was going to be effective with the gauntlets, he would need hours of practice. How long they had until the monster army all the scouts were reporting arrived at their city was anyone’s guess.

“I should get some more practice with these things,” Jerrick said, marveling at the gauntlets. “If we’re going to train whoever it is that’s going to be using them, then we should know ourselves.”

“Train?” Leopold asked, tilting his head to the side like he had never heard the word before. “You only have to train yourself. You’re going to be wearing them.”

The look in Jerrick’s eyes was one part wonder, one part uncertainty. Leopold had seen the look before many times in the eyes of his own young son he had lost so many years before.

“Not me.” Jerrick shook his head. “I’m not a trained soldier. There have to be others better qualified. Maybe one of Rhun’s soldiers or maybe Rhun himself when he gets back.”

“We don’t know when he’s coming back.” Leopold stated the cold truth. “As far as the other soldiers, if the gauntlets malfunction, they won’t know how to fix them on the fly. It’s you, Jerrick. It’s always been you, kiddo.”

Motion from the blasted section of the far wall, an impromptu entrance from when the tickers had overrun his city so many years before, caught Leopold’s attention. Jordan, Argo, Grizla, and a creature that very closely resembled a dog, if dogs had green scales, walked inside.

“What were you guys doing in here?” Jordan waved a hand in front of her face to clear the rest of the smoke from the room. “Is everyone okay?”

Leopold walked over to the group, looking at Jerrick and then at himself. “Got all our fingers, nose, and toes. I think we’re good to go.”

Leopold smiled at Jordan and Argo but went straight to his knees, beckoning the mutated mutt forward. “Here you go. Come over here, boy. That’s a pretty boy.”

Ugly ambled forward to the old man, painting him in a series of sticky licks and nuzzles. It had been a long time since Leopold held an animal of any kind. When the tickers first reached his gates, they killed everything in their path. It didn’t matter if it ran on two or four feet. As much as Leopold was grateful to have the presence of people once more—real life people, not the imaginary ones he had to make up to keep himself sane—he missed animals. There was something about the innocent happiness a dog carried within itself that couldn’t be replaced.

Leopold ran a hand over the creature’s head and back, patting it. “You’re truly ugly, but you seem like a great beast. Who loves you? Who loves you?”

“Well, hi to you too,” Argo said, moving into the room. “You’re the first person who’s actually come up to Ugly instead of looking for something to hit him with.”

“Ah, not him. He’s a great boy,” Leopold said, smiling again as he let his hands run across the beast’s paws and jawline. “And a strong one at that.”

Jordan smiled before going over to Jerrick, who powered down the gauntlets on his hands. The two gave one another a quick awkward hug.

“I told you two to be careful in here.” Grizla put her hands on either side of her hips. “After what happened last time, I should really separate you.”

“What happened last time?” Jordan lifted an eyebrow at Jerrick, then Leopold.

“Nothing, nothing.” Leopold waved open hands in the air as he stood up from his kneeling position beside Ugly. He looked with an appraising eye at Jordan’s hands and the silver controllers she wore. “We made strides where we had to. Nothing risked, nothing gained. Now tell us about you. What are those glove thingamajiggers on your hands?”

“Better sit down for this one,” Argo said, finding a seat on a crate full of the newly modified pulse rifles. “It’s a doozy.”

Leopold’s mind went wild as Jordan and Argo told them the story of meeting Eldar, finding out the truth of what they were and discovering the crashed USS Reagan.

He looked over at Jerrick, whose mouth was open wider than his own. The young man seemed to be taking the news harder than Leopold. Leopold was about to find himself a seat in the room, when Jordan revealed the news that this entire thing was one massive experiment. When Jordan was done, the room stood quiet.

This doesn’t change anything. This doesn’t change what you have to do right now, Leopold told himself as he tried to come to grips with the impossible truth being related to him. Stay on track.

“We’re not even human,” Jerrick said to no one and everyone. “We’re not even human. But that ship you said you found. The USS Reagan that can’t be a coincidence. Not that name.”

“I know,” Jordan said, looking to Leopold and Grizla. “It was a past leader of Earth. One that we grew up believing was one of our own leaders before we found out we’re some kind of hybrid.”

“So they want us to kill each other, each city eliminating the others until there is only one left, to then be their super soldiers?” Grizla worked out the math in her head. “So what now? We try to band what cities are willing to fight the Founders together? But then, even if we win, won’t the Founders have more reinforcements coming? The pyramid is just a viewing installation, then, to watch over this experiment. They’ll come in force if we overthrow it.”

“One quandary at a time,” Leopold said, finally coming to himself. “Trust me, I have enough of my own machinations rolling around in my mind right now, but we have to stay on point. The plan stays the same. We try and unite the cities that are willing and we fight off the bad guys. That hasn’t changed.”

“No, that hasn’t changed,” Grizla agreed.

Leopold looked down on his old gnarled hands. The joints that seemed to pop out of his knuckles like old tree roots weren’t entirely human at all. None of them were purely human. That thought twisted his mind almost as much as the others.

“Do we have any more information on the army that seems to be traveling the desert?” Jordan asked. “How about word from any other cities?”

“The most updated reports are that city four, Argo’s city, was on the march and unleashed this monstrous army waiting in city three. No word from city two, where Rhun last went. City one seems to be preparing for war,” Grizla said, looking to Jordan and Jerrick as she mentioned their own home. “And my city, I think, may have decided to listen to the notes we sent them. I can’t be sure, but more and more survivors from my home city have come, saying that there is a change happening, starting at the very top of our leadership. We may be able to convince them to help us, especially if we now share a common foe.”

“We need to get people to those cities to convince them of the truth, then.” Leopold said what they were all thinking. “We should check with the scouts to track the movement of this dark army.”

“I have.” Grizla shook her head once again, looking to Jordan and Jerrick. “This army has surrounded your own city and city two, where Rhun was last seen. There’s been fighting in your city, Argo. We’re waiting for the most recent news to find out exactly how bad it is.”

Argo ran a scarred hand through his dark hair. Grit fell down from his head like sand in an hourglass. Leopold could see how tired the young man was; with that weariness came a strong sense of determination.

“We need to go. We should all go and gather all the information we can,” Argo said, his words laced with frustration. “Grizla, if your city is the only one not sieged by the army, then we need to get there quickly and tell them, convince them to help.”

“I agree,” Grizla said, putting a hand on Argo’s strong shoulder. “We will, but not now. Right now, you need food and rest. Your body can—”

“We should go now,” Argo said in a stern voice. He didn’t shake off Grizla’s hand. He had too much respect for her. He did, however, turn to face her, which made the older woman’s hand fall to her side. “If people are dying, then every minute counts.”

“Argo Elias!” Grizla said in a shout that stunned everyone in the room. “I’m not asking you. As a leader of this city and someone who considers herself your friend, I’m telling you. We will need you in the coming days. Rest only for a few hours if you insist, eat while you prepare to leave again, but your body will only give you what you put into it.”

“She’s right,” Leopold said, finding his voice after the stern words of Grizla passed through the room. “Look at our physical educators from city one over here. Even they know that. Jerrick would sleep a full eight hours if I let him and he eats less than he should. I mean, look at him: eyes all red, his muscles deflating like balloons.”

Jerrick rolled his eyes then looked down at his biceps. “I don’t look that bad, do I?”

“You’re skin and bones son,” Leopold said, shaking his head. “When this is all over, you need to get a milkshake or two in you.”

“All right,” Argo said, finally giving in. “I’ll get a few hours of rest, then I’m off to warn your city, Grizla.”

“Agreed,” Grizla said, tapping a finger on her chin. “There have been a handful of survivors from my city. They hail from the Warlock Order, and I’m sure they would go back with you.”

“Warlocks?” Leopold looked to Jerrick and Grizla. “You mean like magic? Oh heck, I don’t know why I sound so surprised. I’m an alien for crying out loud.”

Chapter Four

“Infantry in the center will hold just outside of our walls with the Mecha units flanking each side!” General Vondal roared from the front of the lines. He screamed over the guttural noises rumbling from the enemy army on the opposite side of the gate. “The Long Shot Corps can cover us if we stay and defend the wall!”

Rhun stood side-by-side with Lierna on the front lines of the Infantry unit. The armor and weapons provided for him even made Rhun blend into their lines. The only thing separating him and Lierna from the rest of the Ironhammer Clan was their height.

The armor hastily constructed for him would have even put the forge masters in his home city to shame and they were no jesters themselves. Rhun wore a breastplate of durable metal over his chest along with greaves and vambraces that fit comfortably on his forearms. Whatever alloy the metal was constructed from was not only comfortable to wear but light as well.

A helmet that they called a Skull was provided for him. His Skull was dark blue with a portion that came over his eyes and nose, then opened for his mouth and fell down either cheek. Despite the Skull, breathing was easy.

For weapons, Rhun was given his run of the stockpile. He chose those he was familiar with at the moment. The longest spear he could find, called a Dragon’s Tail, was still shorter than he was used to, but he would make do. Rhun also picked up the largest shield he could find, a dagger and a long sword. The dagger he wore around his midsection with the sword strapped to his back. The handle of the blade poked up over his right shoulder.

Lierna had also chosen a Dragon’s Tail and shield. Instead of a sword, she wore six short javelins on her back.

Déjà vu struck Rhun as he listened to the speech General Vondal now gave his men. So many years before, Rhun had given his Centurions and his city’s army the same talk before they went out to meet the tickers at their gates.

“I know you have questions. I know this is a lot for you to take in, as everything you thought you knew about the world outside of our walls falls into question, but let me reassure you, you will have your answers,” General Vondal shouted as he walked up and down the line of heavily armored infantry. “But answers must wait until the threat at our door is answered. Right now, an enemy force seeks to take your home, your family, and your very life! I say we welcome them to our city with our rifles and our steel!”

A shout rocked the air as the infantrymen yelled in agreement. They battered their rifle weapons with the axe blade on the end against their shields.

King Orsik stepped from the front lines of the infantry. He was a beacon of inspiration. His armor glinted in the sun and the cape he wore made him look like something out of a legendary book of heroes.

“Your king fights beside you today!” King Orsik lifted a heavy battle axe into the air above his head. One end of the weapon looked like a sledgehammer while the other was a sharp crescent moon. “Your king and our allies from the desert both! Whatever this army is outside of our walls. Wherever it came from. Today, we send them back!”

Another roar from the men.

King Orsik gave a nod to the guards at the gate. He moved back in line to take his position next to General Vondal at the front. Rhun and Lierna were on the far left side of the formation. Three Mecha on each end of the infantry unit protected their flanks.

The doors to the city slid open.

General Vondal wasted no time in marching his men forward. Lierna beside him, Rhun kept pace with the front line of infantrymen. He narrowed his eyes as he studied the enemy force in front of them. This would be no simple affair. They had to be outnumbered three, maybe even four to one. The great host in front of them dotted the sand, even blacking it out until all that could be seen were green bodies and the dark steel weapons of death they held.

As far as Rhun could see, there were no lines of formation to the enemy rank; just a horde of soldiers roaring and bellowing to the sky itself. Their crude armor and weapons added to the barbaric feel the creatures exuded. If they did have a leader, Rhun didn’t see him.

General Vondal brought his infantry unit to a stop right outside the front gates. The Mecha units followed next, three on either flank. The giant steel pieces of moving armor filed out of the city gates one at a time.

Rhun had just positioned himself with his own shield overlapping Lierna’s and hers overlapping the infantryman’s on her right when their macabre enemies came. One of the giants stepped forward carrying a blade so large it looked like it was bigger than Rhun. He roared something to the army around him. Like water let loose from a collapsing dam, they surged over the desert.

“Rifles first!” General Vondal yelled to his men.

The infantrymen on the front lines went down to a knee while others behind them leaned in with their rifles. Rhun and Lierna followed suit. Despite them not having rifles themselves, they could give the soldiers behind them the opportunity to fire.

Rhun marveled at the weapons the infantry carried. They held shields in their left hands shaped like a triangle with the flat side on top and the pointed end at the bottom. A groove was built into the top of the shield to hold the rifle.

The rifle itself was a work of beauty. An axe head mounted to the bottom of their rifle barrels provided an answer for when the fighting got close. Each infantryman also held a smaller rifle on their hip and a two-headed war axe on their backs.

Rhun crouched low, the hot sun overhead causing streaks of sweat to run down his head and back. The nervous tension that came with a fight flooded his body.

“Stay close!Rhun shouted to Lierna over the sound of the oncoming enemy. “If we get separated, if things get bad, I will meet you back at our new city!”

“Yes, Alpha Centaury!” Lierna’s eyes were alive with the fire of battle.

“Long Shot Corps!” General Vondal shouted over his head. He lifted a single closed fist into the air then brought it down to his side. “Fire!”



Sounds like thunder lit up the air as the Long Shot Corps let loose with their twin-mounted turrets on the wall and their own rifles. The turrets were made up of a dozen or more rifle barrels set in a tight circle. They rotated so quickly, it was impossible to see.

The metal rounds they spat out were so small and moved so fast, they were invisible to the eye. Rhun was used to seeing the blue lick of the tickers as they fired their rounds that disintegrated humans.

The ground shook under Rhun’s feet as the horde approached. Hearing anything further down the line past Lierna or maybe the soldiers beside her was difficult. Sand exploded in the air as the Long Shot Corps let loose on the quickly approaching enemy. The rival army moved swiftly. For every soldier that was cut down, two more took its place like an ancient beast Rhun remembered from childhood stories.

Rhun blinked the sweat from his eyes as he got a closer look at what he was about to sink his spear into. They were muscular brutes a head taller than himself with olive-green skin and yellow tusks that rose from their bottom lips. They varied a bit in facial features: some with sharp teeth, others with nearly human mouths, and still others with these tusks.

Rhun could hear the soldier on the other side of Lierna. He was shouting at the top of his lungs, his voice quaking with fear. They weren’t words he was yelling but grunts and roars of his own, trying to anchor his own courage in the face of these beasts.

A mechanical whine touched Rhun’s ears. The already shaking ground rolled even harder as the three Mecha on his side of the infantry flank moved to engage the enemy.

Harbeck was leading the trio of Mecha beside Rhun. His own machine held a turret on the back of his Mecha’s right forearm and a long blade in his left hand.

The signal must have been given for the giant metal machines to enter the fight because they cemented their defensive positions and opened fire on the oncoming host.

An order was passed down the line. Shouts to open fire from the infantrymen meant nothing to Rhun. With his own weapons, he would have to wait until they got closer.

More weapons fire exploded from the infantry on the front two lines as they chose their targets. Rhun’s ears were ringing. The sand in front of him was painted in blood and enemy bodies and still they came. Roaring like crazed lunatics, they rushed forward, those who had shields lifting them to avoid the hose of fire.

Faster than Rhun would have expected, the enemy army reached their own front lines. The cost to cross the distance was incredible. Rhun guessed the fanatic enemy army had to have lost a third, maybe even half of their number in their mad assault.

No matter; those that did make it through slammed into the front line of the infantry, who fired at them with their rifles like men possessed in their own right.

Rhun rose from his crouched position at the last moment, bringing his shield and spear up to meet the green beast that bore down on him. The enemy soldier carried a crude club with him, poorly constructed from some ancient tree long dead.

There was murder in those red eyes; nothing but hate and the need to kill. Rhun blocked the first blow. A tingle of pain rippled through his arm and body as he met the violent strike.

They’re too strong to meet head on, Rhun warned himself. Redirect their attack, be faster.

The green beast in front of him raged and lifted the club over his head once more, this time in a two-handed attack, to bring down on Rhun’s head.

Rhun struck forward with his spear, catching the soldier in his throat. The enemy gurgled as dark liquid poured from his wound. He opened his mouth wide, roaring at Rhun, showing his blood-stained teeth, which stood out like daggers in his mouth.

Against all odds, the green brute dropped his own club, wrapped both of his meaty hands around the shaft of Rhun’s spear, and broke it in two.

Rhun’s mind was trying to process what he was seeing. The blood was gushing down the front of his enemy’s chest. The liquid was such a dark hue of red, it was nearly black. The brute ignored the wound as if it were nothing more than a nuisance. He reached for Rhun battering away his shield and grabbing at his neck.

Rhun took a step back, unsheathing his sword. At the same time, he brought his weapon up in a tight arc that cut off one of the green hands grasping at his throat. Balon’s blade was a true testament to his city’s craft. The razor-honed long sword severed the beast’s right hand from the rest of his arm. It fell to the blood-soaked ground in a spray of yet more blood. The hand sat there and twitched in its own death throes.

While Rhun worked on removing his opponent’s limb, the beast used the opportunity to grab Rhun’s shield with his free hand and tear it from his grip.

With a roar, Rhun took his blade in both hands. He leapt into the air, bringing his weapon high over his head. He came down on the dome of the creature’s skull with a powerful swing. His blade cut through both skin and bone. It finally stopped, lodged in the middle of the creature’s head at least two inches deep.

The monster finally fell to his knees. Still, it grasped at Rhun with his one hand and the nub of his other, still trying to fight. Rhun was past being in awe of the creature’s ability to not feel pain. All he wanted to do now was kill the thing. Left hand still holding his sword, hilt wedged in his enemy’s skull, he reached for the short knife he carried on his belt.

Over and over again, he plunged his knife into the neck and head of his enemy until, with one final gurgle, his opponent sank to his sandy grave.

Rhun stood heaving as the battle raged around him. The effort, the sheer exertion he had to endure to take down a single beast was disheartening. He was covered in the creature’s gore, his hands drenched to the point it looked as though he had tried to wash them in the blood of his enemy.

“Move!” The warning shout came almost too late.

Rhun turned to see one of the enemy giants lifting his axe over his grizzled head. It came down on him a second later.

Chapter Five

Rhun was hit from behind so hard the wind he had managed to recover was knocked out of him. Kildrack, one of the two members of Clan Ironhammer he had faced in the pit during the blood sled trial, bowled him over. A split second later, the heavy axe the giant carried struck the sand where Rhun was standing. The barbaric blade cut deep, burying the better part of its bulk in the sandy floor.

The giant was massive, two stories tall with an assortment of furs and mismatched armor across his frame. A bald head and a wild beard added to the insane picture of the green creature.

“On your feet,” Kildrack said, already pushing himself to his own.

Rhun followed beside him, ready to fight no matter what the odds. How they were going to take down a creature of this size was beyond him, but Rhun wasn’t going down without a fight.

The sounds of war were like a cacophony of violent music. Shouts and explosions riddled the scene around Rhun. As much as he would like to get his bearings and check to see how Lierna was faring, he had much larger problems to solve at the moment.

“RAAAAWWW!” the giant screamed as it prepared to launch another attack.


Not a moment too soon, the Mecha piloted by Harbeck opened fire on the giant. Rounds struck the creature dead center. Its armor repelled a handful of the small projectiles, but a dark crimson stain washing over its chest showed more than a few rounds had found their mark.

Kildrack cheered as if they had won. Rhun, having already seen firsthand how difficult it was to kill the creatures, knew better. It was his turn to save the bulky warrior.

The giant looked down at its chest and bellowed again as it charged Harbeck’s Mecha.

Rhun was barely in time to push himself and Kildrack out of the way as the machine and the monster locked in deadly combat. More than anything, Rhun wanted to see what would happen as the giant fought the robot, but there were lives being lost on the right flank as the monsters tore through their lines.

Fighting was brutal up and down the front gates of the city. To Clan Ironhammer’s credit, they held their own, either taking the lives of their enemies in the process or giving their own for the hallowed ground they fought over.

Rhun caught sight of Lierna as she drove a javelin into the heart of an enemy who lay on his back. With one foot placed on his neck, she tore her weapon free, then plunged it over and over again into the creature’s face and chest.

Rhun would look back on that battle as a mixture of blood and terror. The monsters were either immune to pain or somehow were able to ignore it to the extent they fought with missing limbs and disemboweled.

Kildrack and Rhun battled their way to Lierna’s side and the three reformed the left flank, giving as good as they got. The fighting continued for hours until it was clear to Rhun there was no retreat or surrender in the enemy army. They were going to win or die to the last soldier.

Rhun’s arms burned. His movements were slow and weak by the time the last beast was slain. The ground was littered with the bodies from both sides, a sight Rhun would never forget as much as he would try later in his life. The sand was more of a clay or mud now as the blood from Clan Ironhammer and the monsters soaked through.

Three of the Mecha units were sparking or injured to the point they were unable to be piloted. One was down altogether, the victim of a pair of giants ripping its pilot from his cockpit and tearing him limb from limb.

Even as the final monster gave his last breath, there was no joy in the hearts of the victors. This kind of triumph called for a somber still in the air. An exhausted lull was born as the survivors looked to one another for answers.

Rhun bled from a laceration across his right temple and a shallow cut on his left arm. Lierna had a bloody nose. A sword had found its way to her right thigh, making her walk with a limp. Kildrack had fared the worst by far. The black-haired bulky warrior had been stabbed across the face, the cut slicing his left eye. A true testament to the soldier’s toughness, he had refused to go back into the city and instead wrapped a bandage around his head and fought on.

At least half of Clan Ironhammer’s forces were wounded or dead. Had it not been for their superior weapons, including the Mecha unit and the Long Shot Corps, who continued to fire from the top of the wall with pinpoint accuracy, there was no doubt in Rhun’s mind they would have all been dead.

“So this is the endgame the codex was talking about,” King Orsik said, walking over to the trio of fatigued warriors. His own armor was rent and soaked with blood. It did not appear that he was gravely injured. His red beard burned in the light of the setting sun. “This is what waits for us in the desert beyond our walls? What hope do we have against creatures like this?”

“We have hope of allies standing with us,” Rhun answered the king. “You have another city of survivors waiting to stand by your side and two more cities if we can only convince them.”

General Vondal had fallen in the battle with a serious head injury. The infantrymen of Clan Ironhammer looked to their king now for orders. This was not lost on King Orsik as he composed himself once more.

“Attend to the wounded, bury our dead, and burn theirs.” King Orsik doled out the orders, looking to Rhun with determination in his eyes. “I haven’t changed my mind. Now more than ever, allies are needed. We’ll stand by you until we defeat this nightmarish army.”

“Thank you,” Rhun said, finding the strength in himself somewhere to stand at attention. “Let us know how we can help.”

“Balon will need all the hands he can get preparing the Mecha and supplies for the march. It would be wise to send out scouts ahead now to see what we may encounter on the way to your own city.”

“If I may, I would better serve you being a scout,” Rhun said with dead eyes. He was as weary as he could ever remembering being. “Lierna and I both can scout ahead to the path where our own city lies.”

“Agreed,” King Orsik said with a nod. “I’ll have my army ready to move tomorrow to aid you and yours in ridding this planet from our enemy, whatever this planet may be.”

His words weren’t lost on Rhun as the Alpha Centaury looked to the sky and the planets that hung overhead. A hollow feeling, whispers of doubt and fear itched at the back of his mind. How had this army from the silent city come forth? That was even a guess to him. Was this really the army inside city three? Why now and who had let them out? Was this sinister army besieging all the cities? Did they have the numbers to do that? Had his own home city been besieged?

More and more questions piled to the front of Rhun’s mind with no answers. He moved robotically back toward the city to stop his own bleeding and gear himself for the trek through the desert.

“We saw more of this army moving past Clan Ironhammer’s city last night. They had to have divided their forces and now lay siege to Jordan and Jerrick’s own home,” Lierna said, walking with Rhun back through the gates. “You know they have and if they split their force to do that, perhaps they have split their forces five ways to attack each city.”

“Perhaps,” Rhun said, stopping by an injured infantryman with a bandaged foot. It seemed whoever had been caring for him had moved on down the line to help those in greater need.

The man was stocky like all the warriors in Clan Ironhammer. Sweat streaked his face with a layer of dirt and soot. A sadness hung in his eyes that spoke of the death of friends as close as family.

“Let’s get you back into the city,” Rhun said to the man, kneeling down to help him to his feet. On further inspection, Rhun saw that his right foot wasn’t actually bandaged; rather, he was missing his foot altogether.

“Why is this happening?” The man didn’t look to either Rhun or Lierna but instead at the sky overhead, the twin planets eviscerating everything he thought he knew about his universe. “Where are we? Why did the monsters come for us?”

“We’re among allies now and monsters will always come for us, in different forms throughout our lives, but it’s not less true,” Rhun said, motioning to Lierna to get the other side of the infantry man. Together, they gently lifted him from the ground and began carrying him into the city. “Let’s get you inside.”

The infantryman nodded dumbly as he allowed the two strangers from the world beyond his own to lift him. Rhun could see it wasn’t just sweat coming down the young man’s face; there were tears mixed in there as well.

He wanted to say more to the man, to give him heart and fuel his courage, but something told him this wasn’t the time. A numbness that comes after battle had taken the infantryman and there was nothing Rhun could do to help him now. He would have to fight this battle on his own.

Chapter Six

Argo was gone the next morning along with a pair of survivors from Grizla’s own home. Refugees from city five confirmed that the leadership in their own city was close to cracking. If they could get the city’s attention, then maybe they could convince them to stand with the rest of the survivors.

Scouting reports along with the influx of refugees coming in painted a horrific picture of a dark army loose in the desert laying siege to every city it encountered. There were confirmed reports that the enemy army had divided into three groups, each laying siege to a different city: Jordan’s, Argo’s and the city Rhun had gone to speak with.

The reports varied in how strong the enemy force exactly was, but there were a few things that were certain. They had come from the silent tomb of city three, unknowingly freed by Argo’s own city when they attacked them. They were huge beasts and they moved quickly.

Along with these reports were others of tickers being less prevalent in the desert. The scouts had said they had seen a few patrols of the newly evolved machines but always heading away from them in the direction of the pyramid as if they were being called back by someone or something.

More than anything, Jordan wanted more information, but to get said information, she knew it would require a day or two trek into the desert. She needed to see her own walls once more. If it was in fact under attack, she wasn’t sure how she was going to get into it, but she had to do something. Leopold had come up with the idea of her using the hover carriers she had led the supplies in as a means of transportation across the desert.

He was tinkering with the boards now, trying to increase their speed, as Jordan ate a meager meal of packaged food from the long downed USS Reagan. The food was lacking in any real sense of flavor, but it did its job in filling her growling stomach. She had spent the night in the house Jerrick had moved into. It was a small single-story building, half caved in from the attack of the clickers so long ago. The rubble had been removed, leaving a two-room and single bathroom house that was only a memory of what it had been once before.

Jordan slept on a large circular-shaped pillow in the main room. Memories that might have been dreams of the night before told her Jerrick came in late. He tiptoed in, placing a blanket over her before retiring to the rear room.

She could have slept for an eternity, but when Grizla stopped by with breakfast, Jordan knew it was time to hit the desert wasteland once more. She needed to get to her city. She knew this time she wouldn’t be going alone. Jerrick would go with her, even if she tried to talk him out of it. She found herself with an ironic smile at the idea of the pair traveling back to the very city that had cast them out.

Are you insane for wanting to go back with a demon army in the desert? Jordan asked herself a question she had no answer to. Probably; you have to be at least a little bit crazy after knowing everything you do.

Jordan was lost in these thoughts as a dull buzz washed over her hands. It felt like an insect was crawling over her palms, tiny feet running here and there across her fingers and thumb.

The controllers she still wore on her palms were vibrating. Jordan’s eyes widened and she turned them over to see what was happening. They glowed a dull silver, then Eldar’s voice came through.

“Jordan Shepherd, can you hear me?” Eldar asked.

“Uh—yes—yes, I can hear you.” Jordan wasn’t sure what piece of the controller to speak into. She settled on the circular device that rested in each of her palms. “What’s happening out there?”

“There’s been a change in our plans.” Eldar’s voice was strained so tight, it sounded like it would snap at any moment. “The horde coming out of city three was more brutal and lawless than any of the Founders could have foreseen. A kill order has been sent out to our machines roving the wasteland, but even they have not been able to defeat the army. The Founders fear that we’ve created something that we cannot control. They’ve destroyed cities one and four already. I’m sorry, Jordan. I know city one was your home.”

Jordan’s heart fell in the pit of her stomach. Images of her friends and parents raced through her mind. Her mouth went dry.

“City two was the only one able to fight off the attacks thus far, and with heavy losses to their own numbers. We are mobilizing in our own base to counter the enemy movements, but even we may not be strong enough. I’m trying to convince those in power to allow us to ally with the remaining cities and be done with this nightmare of an experiment.” Eldar paused. “Jordan—Jordan, are you there?”

“I’m—I’m here,” Jordan tore herself away from her own thoughts. “What do you need us to do?”

“I don’t have much time left on this transmission.” Eldar’s voice lowered to a whisper as other loud voices sounded in the background. “A meeting is about to take place, where I will push for an alliance to be made with the cities and the Foundation. Until then, I cannot risk exposing our plan. Stay close to your controllers. I’ll have an answer for you soon.”

“I will, but one question before you go,” Jordan said, remembering the name on the ship. “You haven’t told us everything. The ship you found and stocked with supplies for us. It was named the USS Reagan. That was a leader from a false history I followed in my city. Where did the ship come from?”

“It came from your Earth, the Earth you thought you were on,” Eldar said haltingly as if he were deciding what to tell her. “I—”

Shouts sounded on the opposite side of the channel before Eldar’s voice was gone.

“Eldar? Eldar?” Jordan asked into the controller. “Eldar, are you there?”

Whatever communication channel had been open a moment before was gone now.

“You okay in here?” Jerrick appeared in the doorway to his room, rubbing at tired eyes. “I thought I heard another voice.”

Jordan told him about everything Eldar had said, including the destruction of their own home.

They stared at one another in silence. Jerrick swallowed hard, shaking his head. Tears filled his eyes. He slammed a fist against the wall so hard, a dull thud sounded in the room.

“No, not like this.” Jerrick shook his head in anger. “There have to be some survivors. It couldn’t have been a complete annihilation. There have to be some who escaped or are hiding in the city somewhere.”

“Maybe,” Jordan said, rising to her feet. Tears ran down her cheeks. She placed a hand on Jerrick’s shoulder. “If there are, we’ll find them. We’ll find them together.”

The two members from city one embraced in the house that had once belonged to another family that also had everything taken from them. Jordan hugged Jerrick’s muscular frame tight, as if he too were going to be taken from her at any moment.

“You’re all I have now,” Jerrick said, hugging just as tightly back. His tears fell into her hair, mixing with the dirt and sweat from the desert. “We’re all each other has got.”

“I know,” Jordan said, making up her mind there and then to go and see for herself what had befallen her city. “We should still go back to our city. If Leopold can get those hover boards to move faster, we can make the trip in a day. We’ll skirt whatever force is left of the enemy army.”

“I’m with you,” Jerrick said, leaning in to kiss her forehead. “Let’s go.”

The house Jerrick had picked as his own was just a block to the west of the main city street where most of the survivors had chosen to take up residence. Jerrick wasn’t an introvert by nature, but he had chosen a place just removed from the rest of the city to call his home.

Jordan led the way up the deserted street toward Leopold’s workshop with the plan to turn right when she was parallel with her destination. Jerrick followed a step behind her.

“This is not the time or the place, I get that,” Jerrick said, halting as if his speech was being rationed to him. “But, Jordan, I want you to know that I care about you more than—”

There was a wet thud behind Jordan. Motion from the corner of her eye grabbed her attention as she was about to turn to look at Jerrick. The large physical educator from city one slumped to the ground like his legs had finally given out on him. A red splatter of blood on the right side of his head soaked his skin as he fell.

Sara, the woman Jordan had met from her own city, stood behind him. A rock the size of a baseball clenched in her fists. Her eyes were full of malice, and a dangerous panicked look glossed over her eyes.

“You—I remember you now,” Sara’s voice trembled with anger. “You were the one that was thrown out of the city, the new head of the physical educators. You did this to us.”

“What?” Jordan took a step back from the woman. The way Jerrick’s body lay, the pool of blood consuming the ground by his head meant she wasn’t going anywhere. “What are you talking about? You said you believed the letter, that you were sent out of the city wall yourself.”

“Shepherd,” Sara said to herself as if she had not heard anything Jordan had just explained. She licked a snake-like tongue over her dry lips. “I knew I recognized that name. You did this to us, to our entire city.”

Sara lifted an accusatory hand at Jordan. The rock in her other palm dripped a staccato beat of blood on the ground below her.

“He needs help,” Jordan said, taking a step forward toward Jerrick’s unmoving body. “Whatever issue you have with me, let me get him some help.”

“I should kill you both right now for what you’ve done,” Sara said, pure mania in her eyes. “I was up all night thinking about it. You deserve to die.”

Jerrick started to convulse on the ground below Sara, his body shuddering as if he were going into some kind of shock. All thought of talking down the crazed woman left Jordan’s mind. Jerrick needed her now.

“Help! Someone help!” Jordan screamed as she lunged forward.

Sara lifted the rock over her head to strike Jordan, but she was too slow. Jordan tackled her, both women tripping over Jerrick’s body and hitting the rock ground below.

The air was knocked out of Jordan as the two women wrestled for position on the hard ground. Cuts and bruises crossed Jordan’s hands and knees, but they were an afterthought to what she needed to do right now. Sara was impressively strong for a woman who had been traveling the desert by herself.

The two finally came to a stop with Sara assuming a mounted position on top of Jordan. Jordan was on her back wrestling the woman’s fingers free from her blood-stained rock.

A crazy howl sounded, and a moment later, Ugly slammed into Sara, sending them both toppling off Jordan. Jordan struggled to her feet in time to see Sara scream in pain as Ugly ripped at her left leg.

Jordan wasn’t sure where her scaly protector had been. The beast had been resting in the house with her during the night but was gone when she woke. An order had been given to those in the city that no harm should befall their new guest just in case they mistook him for another terror this world had to offer.

Now Ugly gripped Sara’s leg with his teeth thrashing and opening up the wound on her leg wider and deeper.

Sara screamed grabbing at something inside of her coat pocket. A slender piece of sharp glass with a rag tied around one end for a handle appeared in her fist. She sank the blade into the left side of Ugly’s neck.

“No!” Jordan said as Ugly let out a strangled scream of pain.

The beast let go of Sara’s leg, staggering back.

Jordan saw red.

How much more do you have to lose? Jordan thought as she threw herself on Sara once more. Your city’s gone, your family, and now your friends are about to be killed.

Sara struggled like a mad woman trying to turn her shiv on Jordan, but her glass blade had broken off in Ugly’s skin. All she held in her right hand now was a shard of glass wrapped in a rag.

“No! I’m not going to let you kill them!” Jordan said as she rained down blows on Sara. She wasn’t sure how many times she struck the woman, but by the time she was done, it wasn’t her that ended the conflict. Others in the city, having heard the conflict, raced over to help.

Grizla, Leopold, and a handful of other concerned survivors pulled Jordan off the broken and bloodied Sara.

“Jordan, Jordan!” Leopold yelled, trying to regain Jordan’s attention. “Stop, it’s over. “You need to stop.”

Jordan was breathing hard. The fight or flight syndrome had taken over, deciding on the former rather than the latter. Her hands were bathed in Sara’s blood, her vision tunneled. All she could see was the body of the woman who had injured Jerrick and Ugly.

“We need to get them both to my house, immediately,” Grizla said, bringing Jordan’s attention back to her wounded friends. “Hurry; they’ve both lost a lot of blood!”

Chapter Seven

Jordan waited in front of the house, pacing back and forth over the lawn. Grizla was inside taking care of both the injured, Jerrick and Ugly, with her staff of healers. Sara had also been carried inside to be treated.

Her friends’ health was her only concern, but another outcome from the fight she knew she would have to address stared her in the face every time she looked down at her hands. Whether it was when she struck Sara or some other time in the fight, the controllers on her hands had been ruined. The alien metal wasn’t just scraped or cracked either. Jordan had snapped the center piece of the controller on her right hand in half while the one on her left was broken in multiple pieces.

A small crowd had gathered at the front of the house to see if there was anything they could do. Leopold stood with Jordan, a deep frown on his face.

“I should have known, I should have remembered who she was,” Jordan said, shaking her head in disgust as she moved on from worrying about the broken controllers. “I thought I recognized Sara when I first saw her. She was a transition counselor in my city. They’re part of the teams that release people outside of our walls. She must have snapped or something to be thrown out herself. Maybe she was lying about that too. Maybe she was sent out here to find us and kill us after the notes were dropped in our city.”

“They’re in good hands.” Leopold rocked back and forth heel to toe. He wrapped skinny arms across his torso as if he were comforting himself just as much as Jordan. “Grizla knows what she’s doing. They’re going to be okay. They’re going to be okay.”

“I should have remembered. I should have known!” Jordan screamed in anger. “I was going to kill her, Leopold. I was going to kill her right there if you didn’t pull me off. What’s happening to us? What’s this world doing to us?”

“It’s pulling out the very darkest part of our being,” Leopold said, shaking his head as he stared off into the city. “It’s testing us and forcing us to give in or fight back.”

The door to the single-story house opened. Grizla walked out, cleaning her hands on a towel. The residue from her work tainted the cloth a dull red.

“He’s suffered a severe concussion, but he’s going to be fine,” Grizla told Jordan and Leopold. “The animal is going to pull through as well. His scales are so thick, it barely punctured the surface. It’s the woman I’m worried about.”

Jordan felt a sense of relief and guilt wash over her at once. She was grateful that her friends would be fine. A mixed bag of emotions was presented to her when she considered how she felt about Sara dying.

On one hand, she’d try to end her life again if it meant saving Jerrick; on the other, she had lost control of herself. It was a chilling thought to think that she was capable of killing someone with such savage abandon.

“We’ll know within the next few hours if she’ll make it,” Grizla said. “She’s unconscious now, but you can go in and see Jerrick and your animal if you’d like.”

Jordan nodded, about to walk through the door.

Grizla stopped her short. The elderly woman took Jordan’s right hand in her own, studying her bloody knuckles past the broken controllers that dangled from her palms. “You’ll need to get these cleaned and some salve on them.”

“I will.” Jordan nodded dumbly. “I—I just want to see them first.”

“Go ahead.” Grizla stood to the side. “Down the hall and first door on the right.”

Jordan entered the house. There were two other people there she didn’t recognize. Both wore the same bright clothing that Grizla did. Orange cloaks rested on their shoulders and fell behind them to the floor. Jordan assumed they were from Grizla’s city. They nodded to Jordan before lowering their gaze down to her hands.

On her part, Jordan nodded back. Following Grizla’s instructions, she walked through the front room to a hall on her left and entered the first door on her right.

The room itself was plain with a window looking out to the house next door and a closet on the far side of the room. Jerrick lay on a bed with a nightstand beside him. Ugly lounged on a large square pillow that had been brought in for him.

The animal smiled at Jordan when she walked in, at least that was what it looked like to her. His pink tongue lolled to the side and a salve covered the left side of his neck in a goopy mustard-yellow paste.

If he was in pain, he didn’t show it. He rose from his spot on the pillow and came over to Jordan, giving her hands wet, hungry licks.

“Good boy, good boy; what you lack in looks, you make up for in heart,” Jordan said, scratching at his head.

“He’s not going to win a beauty contest, but he’s up for nomination in the animal-of-the-year category,” Jerrick said as he propped himself up into a sitting position with a wince.

A white bandage was wrapped around the side of his head. He was flushed.

“Lie down,” Jordan said, making her way to his side. She pressed a firm but soft hand on his shoulder. “You need rest. You should—you should have seen how much blood you lost.”

“Naw, I’m good,” Jerrick said but allowed Jordan to lower him back into a lying position. “What happened? The last thing I remember was leaving the house with you. The next thing I know, Grizla is standing over me and she said—she said I was attacked?”

“A woman from our own city knocked you out with a rock,” Jordan said, still trying to make sense of Sara’s story. “I really don’t know what to believe. She said her name was Sara, but I don’t think that’s the truth either. I thought I recognized her before. But now I’m sure of it. She was one of Holly Carter’s transition counselors; that’s where I’ve seen her before.”

“So, she what?” Jerrick asked, looking up at the cracked stone ceiling for answers. “She was sent out here like an assassin to kill you or us?”

“I don’t know,” Jordan said, shaking her head. “I don’t think we’ll know for sure until she wakes up and she can tell us herself. Who knows if there are others in this city just waiting to make their move against us.”

“I want to say that’s crazy, but we’re way past crazy at this point,” Jerrick said, blowing air out of his lips. “Either she’s insane or you’re right. After our city received the notes we sent, maybe Director Patterson released a hit woman or two to hunt us down and silence the truth.”

“Or scarier yet, it could be a combination of the two,” Jordan mused out loud.

Jerrick lifted an arched brow in her direction.

“What if the original intent was for the assassin to be sent out, but somewhere along the way, she went crazy?” Jordan crossed her still bloody hands over her chest. “Maybe it was the truth of the world out here, or something else just snapped inside of her.”

“A crazy assassin,” Jerrick grunted as he turned his head to look at Jordan. “Wonderful. You’re not still going out there, are you? I mean, you can’t be going back to our city now. Not with the possibility of more killers hunting you.”

“I think I have to,” Jordan said as resolve seeped into her decision-making process. “I have to see for myself.”

“I’ll go with you,” Jerrick said, sitting up with another wince. “I’m fine; it was just a little concussion.”

“Yeah, right,” Jordan said, shaking her head from side to side. “You’re not going anywhere until—”

Blood-curdling screaming sounded from somewhere close by. It was a woman’s voice making the noises and Jordan could guess which woman that was.

Ugly moved to the door, giving off the same low, guttural growling from deep within his chest as he did when they fought the insect-like ticker in the USS Reagan.

“Stay here,” Jordan said, not waiting for an answer.

Jordan left the room, traveling toward the screams of rage and confusion. Grizla, her two helpers, and Leopold were all huddled in the room across from Jerrick’s.

The woman calling herself Sara strained against the bonds holding her to her bed. She struggled like a mad woman, an animal with its back against the wall. Sara immediately stopped screaming once Jordan entered the room.

Her face was a puzzle of cuts and bruises inflicted by Jordan. Her right leg was bandaged where Ugly had ripped into her skin. Grizla had stripped her down to her tank top and underwear to tend her wounds. Sara had wrestled off the sheet that covered her. The woman’s blonde hair fell into her face. She looked like she belonged in an asylum.

Jordan met the crazed woman’s stare as the room stood in an uncomfortable silence.

“I would have killed you if it hadn’t been for that mutt,” Sara said to Jordan. “I should have killed you when I first met you, but there were always too many people around.”

“So what?” Jordan asked, hoping to finally get her answers. “You were sent by Director Patterson to find me and kill me and then you went crazy somewhere along the way?”

“You doomed us all,” Sara said, ignoring Jordan’s questions. “You’ve brought death to our city.”

“And how in your warped mind did Jordan do that?” Leopold asked while crossing his arms. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, I know exactly what I’m talking about, old man.” Sara’s eyes never left Leopold. “Director Patterson showed me the codex, the endgame, everything. Jordan’s note sparked a fuse that would bring about the end of all of this much too soon. We needed more time to prepare. Our military was just being built. We weren’t ready.”

“So your city leader sent you out to find Jordan and kill her before she could tell more truth to those walking in darkness,” Grizla finished the story. “Young lady, sometimes the truth brings about consequences we’d rather not embrace but embrace them we must if we are to have a future worth living.”

“We’re not dead yet, no thanks to you,” Jordan said, still meeting Sara’s stare head on. “What’s your real name? It can’t be Sara; you wouldn’t have told me your real name because you’d be afraid I’d recognize you.”

“What does it matter?” Sara finally leaned back in her bed, the tension from her restraints slacking. “None of this matters now. The army that laid waste to our own city will come for this one next and then we’re all dead. I was just a soldier completing my mission.”

“We’re not dead yet.”

Everyone in the room turned to see a pale Jerrick supporting himself in the doorway of the room. His skin was damp with a sheen of sweat, but his eyes were alive with the fire of battle.

“No thanks to you, we’re not dead yet,” Jerrick repeated his words. “This fight is just starting.”

Chapter Eight

Eldar sat in the council chamber inside the Foundation. It was a giant square room with an oval table. In the center of the metal table was the symbol of the Pandora Experiment, a triangle encircled by six circles, one for each of the cities holding the alien hybrids.

Eldar was one of the six heads of the Foundation meeting now. The conference would decide the fate of the cities as a whole. Up until now, he had prepared his plan with those in his resistance, but there was a ray of hope that his carefully laid plans might not be needed at all. If he could only convince his people that the dark army of beasts emerging from city three were beyond control, then perhaps he could convince the Arulion to side with the survivors.

Bright white lights set into the ceiling overhead embraced every corner of the room. The firm, straight-back chairs they sat in mirrored their posture perfectly. Five of the six Arulion leaders were present, with the exception of their leader.

Eldar sat quietly as the other four present members spoke in quiet chatter of the goings on outside of their walls. Each of them wore their traditional green cloak to the meeting, a sign of their rank within the Foundation hierarchy. The four other Foundation leaders present were in charge of engineering liaisons between the Arulion leaders on their home planet, medical and supplies.

“You’re usually quiet, but not this quiet,” Farhorn said from Eldar’s right. “Thinking of the creatures from city three?”

Eldar looked over at his friend. Farhorn oversaw the supplies inside the Foundation, most importantly, the food stocks and their replenishment. He was a good and honest soul, as far as Eldar knew. Neither he nor any of the others present were privy to his plan to free the survivors and overthrow the Foundation, but he was honest nonetheless.

“We should have done more testing on city three,” Eldar said as the others in the room quieted to hear Eldar speak. “We knew how they were multiplying. We should have been more diligent in understanding their lack of pain and their predisposition to killing.”

“That would have been against the commands of the High Arulion Council’s orders.” Zumro arched a blue eyebrow and fixed Eldar with an accusatory stare.

More than anything, Eldar wanted to slap the look off of his stupid face. Zumro was the liaison between the Foundation and the High Arulion Council back on their home planet of Prometheus. He reported to them and then relayed their instructions.

“Of course and that is why we did not interfere.” Eldar forced a smile, that to everyone at the table would seem nothing short of agreeable. “But now we are faced with a vast horde that has not only eviscerated our own machines in the desert but had laid waste to two of the six cities.”

Before Zumro could counter, the head of the Foundation Council entered the room through a set of double doors on the far wall. Tracan arrived, his green cloak billowing behind him as he hurried to his seat. His blue brow was knit with concern. He offered neither an apology nor a reason as to why he was late.

“Let’s begin,” he said, taking his place at the head of the table. His voice was firm, his eyes unwavering. “Eldar, report. I want to know everything.”

“An army has broken free from city three, laying waste to the desert faster than we thought possible. Our own machine patrols, even the newly evolved version, have been unable to hinder or direct them in a path we would choose. They’re more violent than we could have ever expected. I do not think that if they are the hybrids that survive this experiment, we will be able to control them. I would suggest taking immediate action.”

“But isn’t that the whole point of the Pandora Experiment?” Zumro asked from his seat across the table. “I mean, that is why we’ve been on this godforsaken planet all of these years. We’ve been waiting for this very thing to happen, for one of the six to emerge and lay waste to the others.”

“Yes, we’ve been waiting for our perfect soldiers, and soldiers they may be, but what good is a killing machine if they don’t take orders?” Eldar asked, looking around the table for support.

“How do we know they won’t take orders?” Zumro asked defiantly. “You assume too much, Eldar.”

Tracan lifted a hand for silence. He looked over at one of the other Arulion leaders at the table yet to talk. “Yeslee, is what Eldar saying true? Our patrols are no match for this new force? We’re not able to heed or hinder their movements?”

Yeslee was one of the two females at the table. As head of the engineering department, she was in charge of how the machines that roamed the desert evolved with the times, fought, and interacted with the survivors.

“Eldar is speaking the truth,” Yeslee said with a frown. “I have my team working on a third evolution of our machines now, but I’m not positive even those will be enough to combat the horde that has been released from city three.”

“So we either let this play out, and for all intents and purposes, it looks as though the army from city three will kill the others. If that happens, then we’ve found our super soldiers, but the question remains, will we be able to control them?” Tracan said out loud. He drummed his three fingers on the table in front of him. “And option two? What is option two? We kill them all and start over from the beginning? We report in to the Arulion High Council that we have failed in this experiment that has taken place over thousands of years?”

Eldar prepared himself for this next part of the conversation. He had to play it just right. He had to let them come to the conclusion for themselves. They could never expect he had an ulterior motive. They could never know he and others had been planning for this very moment for so many years.

“Perhaps there is another way?” Eldar began doing his best to look confused and puzzled as he worked out an answer in real time. “Maybe we can still salvage this somehow?”

“And what way would that be?” Farhorn asked from his seat beside his friend. “I have no desire to scrap this experiment and start from the beginning, but if the winner of this test cannot be trusted when given orders, then perhaps there is no other choice.”

“Has anyone considered what would happen if this horde attacks the Foundation?”

The voice was from the last member at the table. All eyes turned to Lia. As chief medical officer, she oversaw the wellbeing of the Arulion at the Foundation. Her high cheekbones and pouty lips made her popular among the male members of Eldar’s race. Unluckily for them, Lia was all business. It had been no fluke that the woman had arrived as such a prized position in her short tenure. Lia came from a well-known military family and she planned to make her mark in the Arulion history books.

“If this horde was stupid enough to attack the Foundation, we would annihilate them.” Zumro waved away her words as if a child had spoken at the dinner table. “Our technology far surpasses their stone and steel weapons.”

“Yes, our technology does, but we’ve already agreed the horde is dispatching our machines with no trouble at all. If they came against the Foundation, it would be you and I bearing our weapons against them. Is that what you want?” Lia raised an eyebrow in Zumro’s direction. “Or, of course, there is always the clean slate option, but I don’t think any of us want to report back to the High Council that we have failed here.”

The room quieted again. All minds were thinking about a solution to the problem at hand. Eldar was caught weighing the pros and cons of pushing his agenda forward.

How far can I press without making it seem obvious what I want? Eldar thought of the many years he and others had planned for this time in their history, when the hybrids would exit their cities. You can press a bit further, if not for yourself, then for the hell you’ve been a part of putting them through.

“Maybe I can provide an alternate solution.” Eldar waved his right hand over the table. The metal controller he wore on his palm brought to life a hologram that appeared in a light blue shade. It was a video of the horde and their movement since they emerged from their city. “I’ve been tracking them and gathering all the data I can since they entered the desert.”

Eldar left it at that. Any more words and he would be revealing his cards. For now, he needed to show them and once again hope they would decide for themselves what manner of action to take.

Eldar moved through different viewpoints forward and backward in the timeline since the horde had exited their city. He showed them just how easily the large green soldiers had dispatched Yeslee’s machines, how brutal they were in slaughtering cities one and four. He moved to the fight with city two, the only city so far that had managed to fend off the attack. He showed them how much damage each green soldier was able to endure before finally dying.

All eyes were huge as they stared at the hologram, even Zumro’s.

When the images stopped playing in front of them, Eldar turned to his compatriots. “Is this really the hybrids we had in mind? Is this really the kind of optimal soldier that will fight for the Arulion?”

“City two was able to defeat them, albeit at heavy cost of their own,” Tracan said as if he were thinking to himself. “We’ll need to vote on a plan of action to take to the High Council for their permission. I see only one of two paths of action. We can let this play out. By the way, it looks like this horde will kill the other cities and we will be left with useless savage creatures we will have to deal with ourselves. Or we aid the survivors in neutralizing the threat and come away from the Pandora Experiment with real usable soldiers for the Arulion army.”

“Help them?” Farhorn asked from his seat next to Eldar. “If we help them, won’t that defeat the purpose of the experiment? Survival of the fittest?”

“If we don’t, we can trash this experiment altogether,” Lia answered. “At least if we step in, we can salvage the rest of the cities’ inhabitants. Maybe the answer to this experiment all along hasn’t been the survival of a single city, but the survival of the strongest banding together.”

“That’s how we vote and Zumro will take our recommendation to the High Council,” Tracan said to those in attendance. He lifted his own right hand. “All those in favor of aiding the survivors against this mutated horde?”

Eldar’s heart caught in his throat. So much planning and care had been taken to get to this point and now the plan was changing. If this vote went through and the High Council agreed, then he would not have to turn on his own people. Miraculously, they would go help Jordan, Argo, and their people of their own free will.

One by one, everyone lifted their own hands in support of aiding the survivors against the horde until only Eldar and Zumro remained. Eldar had to make sure he didn’t seem too eager. Slowly, he lifted his own right hand into the air.

“Oh, for all that is holy.” Zumro shook his head. “We don’t have to continue this any longer. I’ll go to the High Council with our recommendation and have an answer for us soon.”

Tracan nodded.

Eldar felt his heart pick up in tempo. He wanted to smile. He wanted to grin and shout and run to tell the others in his movement what had been accomplished. He knew he dare not do any of this, not yet, not right now while still so much remained undecided.

After all, the High Council could still disprove of their plan, ordering them to let the experiment play out, or worse yet, ordering the whole test scrapped and started from the beginning.

But we’re closer now than ever, Eldar thought to himself. Hold on, Jordan, hold on, Argo; help will come soon one way or the other.

Chapter Nine

Argo put pain and fatigue aside for the need to put one foot in front of the other. His muscles were beyond tired; even his thought process seemed slower. Focusing on the terrain around him put him even further at unease.

He expected to see this horde of an army breaking over the desert sand like a plague at any moment. Instead all he saw was blank open desert. That was almost worse. There were no signs of life, not even a roving ticker patrol; nothing.

The pair that traveled with him were unlike anyone Argo had ever met. Hailing from the same city as Grizla, these men were dark-skinned and wore bright robes with deep-set hoods that protected them from the bright sun overhead. They were tall and muscular with piercing eyes that spoke of secret knowledge. They weren’t unfriendly, but neither did they go out of their way to make conversation as the trio headed toward city five.

It was as the sun fell that Argo thought it would be important to come up with a plan once they reached the gates of city five. The trip would be short, with them reaching the city within two days of hard travel. City five lay directly east of city six, and in a straight line, traveling quickly, the way was clear.

Argo remembered the men’s names from when Grizla made the introductions. The older man with the purple robe was named Melrin. The younger man who traveled with him wore a bright yellow hood; his name was Lon. Argo thought about asking the two men to change from their brightly colored clothing to the desert cloaks he had become accustomed to wearing. The new cloaks would meld them with the desert landscape. Argo thought better of it. He didn’t want to come across rude, especially not now when tensions were so stressed and newly formed alliances were only beginning to take root.

“We’re going to be there tomorrow night if we keep up this pace,” Argo said, trudging forward in the lead. He looked behind him at the two men who followed close in his wake. “Do either of you have a plan on what we’re going to say?”

“The way will be provided for us,” Melrin said as if that answered everything. “We will know once we know.”

“Riiiiiiight.” Argo couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his tone. “So let’s just say we get there tomorrow night and we still don’t know. I’m not sure knocking on the gates is going to work if your city kicked you out.”

“If Master Melrin says we will know once we get there, then you can rest assured he’s telling the truth,” Lon said, clearly sticking up for the older man he held in such high esteem. “Master Melrin’s gifts over—”

“That’s quite all right, my apprentice,” Melrin said to Lon. The few words quieted the anxious Lon right away. “Argo isn’t familiar with our ways. If we’re going to have a future together, we’ll have to learn from one another and be willing to bend, or else we will be broken.”

“Yes, my master,” Lon said, lowering his eyes to the sandy ground.

“May I borrow your spear, Argo?” Melrin asked, motioning to the weapon Argo held in his right hand.

For a split second, Argo wondered if he should. How closely did he trust these men he had only just met early that morning? He really didn’t know anything about them besides that they came from Grizla’s city.

If Grizla trusts them, then you can too, Argo decided, handing over his weapon to the mysterious Melrin. You still have your sling and knife if things get bad.

“Thank you for trusting me with this,” Melrin said as if he could read Argo’s thoughts. He upended the spear, driving the sharp end into the soft sand under their feet.

Argo could barely see the man’s closed eyes deep under his hood. Melrin covered the end of the spear sticking up in front of him with both hands and began to whisper something. Argo didn’t understand the words. It sounded like a prayer, maybe a phrase said over and over again.

Illumous, venti naroon, illumous venti narron, illumous venti naroon,” Melrin said over and over again.

Argo looked to Lon for answers, but the younger man just stared at his master with expectant eyes.

“I’m not really sure what’s going on here, but—” Argo’s words died on his lips. A flickering light began to glow within Melrin’s cupped hands still over the butt of his spear.

The glow didn’t flicker like a flame or spark like steel on flint. The light just grew in intensity until it showed through Melrin’s hands as if he were holding a tiny sun in his palms.

Melrin opened his hands, revealing a glowing orb that sat at the end of Argo’s spear. Like a tiny sun, it didn’t seem to be taking energy from anywhere else. There were no words or explanations as to how it managed to remain lit.

Argo looked to Melrin, then Lon, and back again.

“How—what—how did you do that?” Argo asked, finding a new respect for Melrin with a dash of healthy fear and wonder. “What magic is this?”

“Yes, what magic is this?” Melrin agreed. He lifted the spear that was more like a torch and handed it to Argo. “Here, take it. It’s completely safe.”

Argo reached out a trembling hand and gripped the shaft of his spear. The weapon felt the same; neither heavier due to the light nor warmer.

“Would you agree there are things in this world that you do not completely understand, yet you accept them to be?” Melrin asked, cocking his head to the side. The beginnings of a smile across his lips as he took in Argo’s pure amazement. “Argo, would you?”

“I guess—I guess I’d have to say yes,” Argo answered, still marveling at the bright yellow light at the end of his spear.

“Then I’d ask that you trust me when I tell you an answer will be provided for us,” Melrin said as he moved past the marveling Argo and continued on to his city.

Lon sidled up to Argo with a wide grin on his face. His white teeth practically glowed in the presence of the magical light. “I remember the first time he showed me. I think my mouth hit the floor.”

“Why didn’t Grizla tell me?” Argo shook his head, trying to sift through the many questions he had. “Are all of your people able to do this?”

“Melrin is part of an elite class known as the Warlocks,” Lon said, motioning for Argo to follow him as they continued forward in the growing night. “Our city is built around magic users of all kinds. Some use their magic to heal, others to protect, and still others to harm.”

“Grizla.” Argo followed Lon as the two men picked up their pace in order to not lose Melrin in the gloom. “She can use magic to heal? Why didn’t she say anything all of these years?”

“I can only guess at that.” Lon shrugged. “Maybe she was afraid you’d hate what you didn’t understand? Maybe she was afraid people would try to use her gifts for something bad? I don’t know.”

“Can all of your people do this?” Argo asked, looking at the glowing sphere on his staff. “I mean, can you all use magic?”

“To varying degrees.” Lon nodded a yes. “It takes years, even decades of practice to get to the point Master Melrin has, but I’m dedicated to my craft. I’ve been his apprentice for the last five years and there is still so much to learn.”

“We can use this magic against the approaching horde,” Argo said, excited as hope shone a new light on the possibility of survival. “We can unite and turn this force against our enemies.”

“The Warlocks would give any enemy pause, that’s a guarantee.” Lon smiled again. He rubbed his hands together against the slight chill of the night. “That is, if we can get the Warlocks to unite and agree to stand as one. Master Melrin and I were thrown from our city for believing what the notes from the sky promised as truth. So were others. There are many in our city that were beginning to question when we were thrown out.”

Argo wanted to find out more. There were still so many questions on his lips. What quieted him altogether was the light going out on his staff. One moment he and Lon were bathed in the ethereal glow and the next they were immersed in darkness, the only light coming from the stars and planets overhead.

Melrin stood ten yards in front of them, his back straight and his head lifted to the sky as if he were searching the stars for an answer. Argo and Lon caught up to him a moment later.

“Master?” Lon asked.

“What is it?” Argo scanned the desert landscape in front of them. He reversed the grip on his staff now with the head of the spear pointing forward.

“An enemy comes in the night,” Melrin said as if it were a simple fact. “Be on your guard.”

Argo and Lon moved their backs to Melrin, making a circle. Argo winced through the night. There was nothing he could hear, whether ticking or footsteps, neither could he see anything. The desert was one massive landscape of sand and dunes and more sand on top of more sand.

Argo craned his neck forward, willing his eyes to see something in the night.

“There!” Lon yelled, ripping through the tense quiet like a sword would rip through a piece of paper.

Argo whirled around to see a brute of a beast explode through a dune in front of Lon no more than fifty yards in front of them. It was if the creature were waiting for them to come closer burying itself in the sand. It was only thanks to Melrin’s warning that the group had not walked right over the beast.

“RAWWW!” the creature roared into the night air as it lunged forward. It moved like something would on four legs, but it was only on two. Its speed was something truly remarkable as it closed the distance. In the dark, Argo couldn’t make out exact details, but he knew it was large. It held some kind of steel sword in its right hand that caught the light from the stars above.

Argo didn’t waste time. His military training kicked in as he measured the distance between them and their enemy. He reached back with his right arm. With his entire body, he flung the spear at his enemy. Argo’s aim was true. The spear flew through the air like a silent missile of death, striking the creature in its torso.

The beast’s forward movement halted for a moment as it took two steps back. Instead of falling dead, it ignored the spear altogether and continued to run forward, perhaps even faster than before.

Argo was dumbfounded. The strike would fell any man or beast he knew that existed in the desert. Argo fumbled for his sling, amazement more than fear slowing his actions.

“Lon, prepare yourself,” Melrin said, taking a step forward to meet their enemy. He extended his right hand in the dark. “Sablimucus illumous!

Melrin roared the words, shattering the image Argo had of the soft-spoken wise man.

As soon as the words were shouted, a bright yellow sword with a sturdy hilt appeared in his right hand. The sword’s blade shone the same color as the orb he created minutes before.

Lon, for his part, shouted something Argo either didn’t hear or couldn’t process. Yellow balls of fire appeared in his hands one moment, then flew through the air the next as he hurled them on the enemy that was now only yards from tackling Melrin.

Chapter Ten

Argo began twirling his sling, but at this point, he was more of a spectator than a combatant. His mind was filled with wonder as Lon hurled his fire bolts at the creature they all had a better view of now.

The beast had to be seven feet tall with green skin covering cords of muscle. It wore a leather skirt, and was bare-chested with a strange symbol painted on its chest. Dark hair covered a short, squat face. Evil intent lived in its eyes and two large tusks sprouted up from its lower lips.

Three of Lon’s fire bolts hit the beast, splashing burning fire across its right shoulder, left leg, and abdomen. Argo’s spear still in its body, it moved past all of the attacks as if it didn’t feel them in the slightest.

It was on top of Melrin a moment later. The notched sword it carried in its right hand rose high over its head before it brought it down on the eldest member of the group.

Melrin moved his sword through the air so quickly, Argo had trouble tracking the weapon. The burning yellow sword sparked as it struck the enemy’s weapon, then cut straight through the beast’s blade, severing it in two.

“Be gone, you creature of the dark!” Melrin grabbed the hilt of his weapon in both hands, taking advantage of the momentary wonder in the beast’s eyes. He brought it down sideways, severing the creature’s left leg from his body. The beast sank to a knee right before Melrin brought his sword sideways and removed its head from its body.

Blood that looked black in the night poured from both wounds. The creature lay still.

A moment later, Argo realized he was still spinning his sling and for no reason. He allowed his weapon to decelerate. Both Lon and Melrin released the holds on their magical weapons. The night went dark again as if the events that had just transpired over the last few seconds had never happened at all.

Melrin used his foot to kick over the corpse of the beast.

Argo leaned in to see a symbol etched into its chest, not with paint or even a tattoo, but with a brand. The symbol showed a bloody eye poorly etched into its green chest.

“This is what the survivors in the desert face,” Lon said, shaking his head. “An army of these will not be easy to defeat.”

“An easy life is not what we have been promised,” Melrin said, pushing back the hood from his head for the first time since Argo had known him.

Melrin was a handsome man, growing older in years with his long white hair tied in a tight braid behind his head. The beginnings of a beard covered his strong jaw and lower face. A glean of sweat glistened off his brow.

Argo reached down and tore his spear from the corpse of the dark green brute. His mind tried to comprehend what an army of these creatures would do to a single city.

“We should move quickly and bring the head with us as proof,” Melrin said as Lon moved to pick up the giant head by its dark, greasy hair. Blood dripped down from the base of the neck.

The trio of travelers moved on again, this time jogging as the memories of what just transpired chased them across the desert. Minutes turned into hours and their pace slowed to a walk.

Argo took the lead, his head on a swivel from side to side as to not miss another of these scouts that was sure to have moved ahead from the rest of his army. They could be anywhere. He thought of slowing down and asking Melrin how he had sensed the brute hiding in the sand but decided against it. He needed all the oxygen in his lungs to move forward, plus he could guess Merlin’s answer was going to be one he didn’t understand anyway.

It was as the early hours of the morning touched them and the sky begin to transition from darkness to grey that Argo thought about taking a moment to rest. A bite to eat now would be welcome before the desert landscape warmed up around them.

Argo rubbed at tired eyes. They still had a full day of travel ahead of them if they were to reach the city. As soon as he crested the next sloping dune and caught sight of the movement below, he dropped to his stomach, motioning for those behind him to do the same. A throng of bodies moved in their direction so massive that Argo had a hard time counting their number at a moment’s glance.

“Down, what are you doing? Get down.” Argo waved Melrin and Lon to go to their bellies behind him.

“That’s not a gathering of monsters,” Melrin said, standing beside Argo and pointing forward with an outstretched finger. “You asked how we would gain entrance to my city. I tell you now my city has come to you.”

Argo rose to his knees, looking over the dune. What his imagination had told him was the enemy army was in fact a long train of people walking forward in a mass of tired eyes and fearful faces. At their head, a band of colorfully cloaked Warlocks led the group. Shouts and magical yellow flames filled their own hands as they took notice of Argo and his two friends.

“Peace be with you, brothers and sisters.” Melrin took the lead on the conversation. “We are with you.”

A trio of Warlocks broke off from the rest. Argo couldn’t help but notice they were not robed in the same deep purple as Melrin. Two of them wore blue robes and the third a yellow like Lon.

“Master Melrin, is that you?” one of the Warlocks wearing the blue robe asked. She couldn’t yet be out of her teenage years. Her eyes were large and frightened. Unlike Melrin and Lon, she held a regular steel blade in her hands.

“Josephine, where are the others? What has happened?” Lon asked as he moved forward with Melrin and Argo in his wake. “Why are all these people leaving the city?”

Josephine blinked back a few tears. Shaking her head, she willed herself to remember the events that had brought her people from their homes.

“They broke through the wall. There were so many of them. We thought they’d assault the gates, but they have this creature with them. They have a world breaker like nothing I have ever seen before.” Josephine took a moment to steady herself. “They assaulted the north wall. When it broke, they entered the city in a frenzy. Fighting took place in homes, on the street, and even in the palace itself. The masters ordered an evacuation. They stayed behind with all of our warriors to cover our retreat but I don’t know how long they can last.”

“Let’s go,” Argo said, feeling his heart rate pick up in tempo at the promise of another fight. “We have to go help them.”

“They knew the sacrifice they were making to save these people,” Melrin spoke for the first time. His voice was hard, like two stones grinding against one another. “They fight and die now so these people can live. We must make sure their sacrifice is not in vain.”

Lon looked to Argo. He was about to open his mouth but thought better of it and pressed his lips closed once again.

Argo was torn on how he felt about the situation. On one hand, the warrior inside of him screamed at him to run toward where the fighting was the most brutal and throw himself at the enemy. On the other hand, he realized the wisdom in Melrin’s words. There were thousands of refugees in front of him, all scared and most still wondering why two planets hung in the early morning sky.

“We don’t know where we’re going,” Josephine said in the interim. She reached inside her blue cloak to pull out a piece of paper Argo recognized. It was the same note Jordan had written to the other five cities.

“Do you know the way?” Josephine asked, showing Argo the paper. “I’m following the directions as best I can. Are we going the right way?”

“Yes, yes, you are,” Argo said, making up his mind right there to get these people to safety as quickly as he could. “Follow us.”

Tear-streaked eyes from the citizens of city five dared to move closer and try to hear what was going on. Among them were children and the elderly too aged to take up weapons against the enemy.

There was a sadness and shock in their eyes Argo expected to see. What he did not expect was the level of hard determination that was also present. A woman older than Grizla carried a whimpering child almost half her own size. A man stooped low with a young girl on his back.

These people were survivors, doing their own part in protecting the next generation of citizens.

“We should be moving quickly,” Melrin said, nodding to Lon. “You know the way back. Keep them moving as fast as you can. “Argo and I will go to the rear to make sure no one is left behind.”

Lon couldn’t keep his mouth shut this time. “Master, Argo knows the way back even better than I. Let me come with you to the rear. If the enemy breaks through the defense set to cover the retreat, you’ll need my help.”

“I don’t expect you to understand, Lon,” Melrin said, looking at the young man with not unkind eyes. “But right now, you must trust me and obey. Now move and move quickly. We’ve already wasted too much time talking.”

Lon swallowed hard; he wanted to say more but didn’t.

“We’re moving again!” Melrin said, turning to the group of refugees closest to him that would be able to hear his words. “Move as quickly as you can. We have a full day of traveling ahead of us, but there is a city that holds our salvation. We have allies waiting for us there with food and water. Hold tight to your convictions, and if that is not enough, do it for the children you lead to safety.”

There were nods and murmurs from those gathered as they looked to Melrin with hearts full of respect for the man. It weighed on Argo again how important Melrin must have been in his city.

Melrin waved Argo to follow and they walked to the rear of the refugees as the long line of survivors began their walk again, now led by Lon. Melrin moved quickly to the rear of the throng, not quite at a run but a quick walk.

There were more people than Argo first thought. There had to be thousands of them, both the elderly and children. Cheers from throats both young and old sounded as they witnessed Melrin heading to the rear of the group with a determined stranger at his side.

“You must have been kind of a big deal back at your city,” Argo said, keeping pace with the Warlock. “I’m surprised they kicked you out in the first place.”

“That’s a long story better saved for another time.” Melrin brushed aside the topic.

Argo had to agree with the Warlock as they continued to head to the rear of the group that was now moving forward. Argo felt a swell of pity for the survivors made up of scared children and the elderly. He knew he would do whatever was required to see them to safety.

After what felt like a full half hour of traveling down the side of the escaping refugees, Melrin and Argo came to the very rear of the group, where the slowest had fallen behind.

Melrin walked to a dune, staring out in the direction the evacuees had come from. Argo joined him. He squinted into the desert landscape, seeing and hearing nothing. There was a light wind that ruffled their cloaks, and a feeling of dread that touched at Argo’s thoughts.

They’ll make it. There’s nothing out here now. Even if the demon army breaks through the defenses set in place, we have enough of a lead, Argo thought to himself as he considered the options. They’ll make it. But then what? The army will come for our new city next.

Chapter Eleven

Reports came in all through the night as scouts made their runs while fewer survivors stumbled across city two. Rhun rested more out of necessity than the fact that he actually wanted to. He was torn in half until he realized he needed to get back to his home city.

The story was clear now from both scouts and survivors that reached their gates. The leaders of his home city had taken it upon themselves to traverse the desert and attack the next closest city, following the rules of the codex. They had made the grave mistake of opening the gates to city three. The fighting had been brutal and quick. The monsters had then divided their force, attacking three cities next. City two was the only one able to hold them off and only just barely able to do so, thanks to the Mecha and technology city two possessed.

The word was Rhun’s city was destroyed and the horde of an army had moved on to city five to the south. Thoughts of his wife wouldn’t leave him. Duty told him to go with the Ironhammer Clan and bolster the defenses of the last city, the new city he had founded with Jordan Shepherd.

But there was another kind of duty that pulled even harder at Rhun; that was the job of being a husband. Fear told him his wife had been killed with the rest of his city, but there were still survivors coming into city two saying that a few escaped the attack while others hid.

She’s still alive, Rhun told himself over and over again. She’s still alive.

This undying love for his wife sent Rhun off alone to find his city. He gave Lierna orders to lead Clan Ironhammer to the new city while he traveled to find his wife.

Lierna had argued, so too had King Orsik, but Rhun was firm in his resolve. He had left his wife once to save thousands of lives in a bloody civil war. Now he needed to go back and find her.

Rhun spent the rest of the day running across the desert and into the night. His only gear was the food and water that hung on his back and the spear and knife he carried in case of conflict. The armor would weigh him down, as would any extra weaponry, such as a shield or sword.

The idea he might need to fight of course crossed his mind, but he knew how to deal with the enemy now. They were unresponsive to pain, but like any living thing, killing blows still took them down. When the time came, he could end them with single strikes of his weapons to vital organs.

Rhun raced across the desert, his hardened body pulling on years of experience. He ran where he could and walked where he had to, but he always moved forward, thoughts of his wife never leaving the recesses of his mind.

Night turned into day and night again. Rhun had to stop once for rest. Food and water he consumed on the way. The tickers had disappeared altogether. He came across only dead bodies in the desert: either people who had escaped from his own city and fell from their wounds or died as they were hunted down by the enemy.

Every time he examined a body, hate grew for his enemy. His stomach would twist in his gut as he rolled the bodies over to ensure none of them were his wife. They weren’t.

Rhun saw the smoke coming from his city before he actually saw the walls themselves. The day was turning to night once more when he returned to a home he had not seen for the last five years.

The crumbling walls and battered gate told a story all their own. His city had tried to hold, but with their army already destroyed, they had little hope. Rhun wiped sweat from his brow, lowering his hood in place as he kept to the shadows the city wall provided.

The army may have left a small group to either capture remaining survivors or hold this point. Rhun had to guess if they left behind any part of their army at all, it was for the former. They wanted to kill, not capture strategic points of interest.

A sound like something guttural being spoken touched his ears. Rhun pressed himself against the city wall on his left side. The stone was warm, still heated by the sun’s rays. All around him, the carnage of war littered the desert ground. The stench of the bodies that lay broken made him want to vomit. The enemy army didn’t bury their dead, much less the opposing force. Insects crawled in and out of wounds. Armor, supplies, and weapons of all kinds fell around the bodies in no specific order.

The sound Rhun heard came closer. Once more. He studied the dead bodies in front of him, trying to pick out where the breathing originated. A soldier wearing the colors of his city lay on his left. Rhun did not recognize him, but he crouched low, leaving the safety of the wall and went to the man.

It was a miracle the young soldier had survived for so many days wounded and on his own in the desert. The soldier was sunburned. His lips were past cracked and now openly bled. His eyes were sunken in, the skin around his skull wrinkled and worn.

“Water, water,” the soldier managed to breathe past his parched throat.

Rhun checked his surroundings, ensuring this wasn’t a trap. Nothing else moved from the area in front of the broken gates. Rhun knelt next to the young man, cradling his blood-stained head in his hands. He removed his canteen and pressed it to the young man’s lips.

The soldier drank slowly; his breathing became shallow and labored as he took down the liquid. Rhun studied the man’s body, looking for what had injured him. The reason he lay on the hot desert ground was immediately obvious. Both his legs were crushed under a giant green enemy soldier’s corpse. Weighed down with his own armor, the enemy soldier had to weigh over four hundred pounds.

Rhun removed the water from the soldier’s lips so he could breathe once more.

“Al—Alpha Centaury?” the soldier croaked, looking up at Rhun’s shaded face. “Is—is that you? We thought you—you died in the desert.”

“Easy, rest easy and choose your words,” Rhun said, hearing the young man’s voice and realizing he couldn’t be out of his twenties. “We need to get you out of here.”

“They’re just inside the gates.” The young man shook his head gently from side to side as it rested in Rhun’s hands. If he had tears to give, Rhun was sure he would do so now. “A small unit was left behind to kill any survivors that return. They have—they have prisoners they’ve been toying with for sport.”

Rhun wanted to ask more questions. He wanted to know their size and strength, how many prisoners still remained, if his wife could be one of them, but Rhun had seen death so many times before, he recognized it like an old friend.

The soldier in his arms was on the hangman’s doorstep now.

“I don’t want to die alone.” The young soldier swallowed hard. His eyes had moved from Rhun now to the sky above. “I’m so afraid to die alone.”

Rhun cradled the boy’s head in his lap. With his right hand, he clenched the soldier’s own. “You’re not alone; neither do you need to fear death. I’m with you. Go in peace, brother.”

The soldier took one last long breath then closed his eyes. Rhun wanted to scream. He wanted to mourn not only for the boy not even a man but for thousands of others slaughtered here on the battlefield and then again those in the city.

Shuffling feet brought Rhun’s attention back to the scene in front of him. His eyes darted to the city gates as a pair of olive-skinned brutes walked forward. Rhun immediately fell on his right side. His cloak would help camouflage him in the desert, and with the darkness approaching, he hoped that would be enough.

The brutes made throaty noses to one another looking over the dead. They poked and prodded a series of bodies with long wicked-looking spears hooked on the ends. Slowly they made their way toward Rhun, searching the bodies for anyone living.

This close to the dead bodies, the stench was horrific. Rhun dared not even breathe lest the pair of guards see him in the middle of the carnage. Rhun held his spear in his right hand under his body. With his left hand, he gripped the blade on his hip.

“Voices,” one of the green brutes said to the other.

Rhun was shocked that the beasts could speak. In the engagement in front of city two, he had only heard them roar their war cries and make their grating noises. These two creatures in front of him were actually carrying on a conversation.

“Nothing here,” the other soldier said in words barely understandable.

The pair of guards were only feet from Rhun now. He made up his mind to attack rather than wait for them to find him.

Rhun jumped from his hiding place. With his right hand, he drove his spear up and through the neck of the guard on his right. There was no time to see if the damage done would be enough to remove the creature from the fight. Rhun had already unsheathed his blade and leaped on the guard to his left. The creature stood stunned as Rhun rammed his blade over and over again into the enemy soldier’s throat. The two went down in a mix of hands and legs. Gurgling screams came from both creatures as they tried in vain to shout a warning.

Green hands clawed at Rhun as he shoved his blade over and over again into the neck and face of his enemy. What felt like an eternity but in reality was no more than a few seconds passed and both creatures were drowning in their own blood. The beast under Rhun had stopped moving. The other guard, impaled by his spear, clawed at the weapon, trying in vain to pull it from its neck. It went down a moment later, twitching on the ground.

Rhun wasted no time. Sooner rather than later, these guards would be missed and others sent out to search. He needed to get into the city and free the prisoners. The young soldier who had died in his arms said they were just inside the wall. Rhun had to act fast.

Hunched over, Rhun ran quickly back to the wall and the broken gates. One of the gates was gone altogether and the other hung precariously from a broken hinge.

More voices, these distant, reached his ears. Rhun leaned past the gates and into the city to see where the voice came from. To his left in the front courtyard of the city gates themselves, two more green-skinned guards sat around a fire. A cage had been erected so small those kept inside had to stand.

The former elegant and elite members of his city were bruised and bloody. Dirt covered their hair and faces, to the extent they didn’t even look human anymore.

Rhun’s heart caught in his chest. He wanted to run to her and kill those that had caged her at once. His wife stood in the center of the pen.

Chapter Twelve

Two at the fire, two already down, but how many more in the city? Rhun asked himself the impossible question. The truth was that there was no way for him to know. He had no idea how this army grouped its soldiers into squads or companies or something else altogether. What he did know was that there were two more obstacles on the way to his wife.

She was soot-streaked and filthy, yet she couldn’t look more beautiful in his eyes. There was a strength she held that could only be wielded by one oppressed. Rhun added that to the list of the many reasons he loved her.

Tears rushed to his eyes that he quickly blinked away. His work was not done yet. Two, perhaps even more of the enemy brutes had to be dispatched and quickly. Any moment now, they would realize they were missing two of their own.

A plan formed in Rhun’s mind that he quickly took action on. Retreating to the battlefield outside the gates, Rhun went from body to body, choosing javelins that had not been bent or broken. He also added two more knives to his belt.

Rhun returned to his position just outside the gate. He planted the javelins along with his spear into the soft dirt ground, driving them in with strength mined from the fact he was about to hold his wife once more.

Rhun removed his cloak for the task at hand. If he was going to succeed, he would need to be free of anything that could hinder his range of motion. Rhun cleared his head. He removed the sweat from his brow and counted the projectiles in front of him. There were four javelins and his spear in the sand. His three knives sat snugly on the belt he wore.

Clear your mind, Rhun coached himself with the same words he would tell his own soldiers as they prepared to train. See the actions in your head before they occur.

Rhun took a cleansing breath and grasped the first javelin from the sand in front of him.

The distance was over ninety meters. It would be difficult in the daytime, but hard now as the last rays of sun touched the desert sand.

Rhun plucked his first javelin from the ground, turning the corner. If the guards looked now in his direction, they would see him. Rhun ignored anything else except for his target. Rearing back, he readied his body to hurl the weapon through the air. Every part to his form would be needed to create as much torque as possible.

The missile sailed through the air, impaling the first of the green soldiers with enough force to send the soldier toppling forward into the fire he and his compatriot sat beside.

The javelin pierced the center of his chest and sprouted out the other end. He rolled in the fire now, screaming blood and vengeance.

The other soldier jumped to his feet. He grabbed a curved blade from the spot beside him, searching frantically for the enemy that ambushed them.

The prisoners in the cage were alive with wonder as they too searched the desiccated city around them for the source of hope.

Rhun couldn’t afford time for anything besides plucking the next javelin and once more sending it hurtling through the air. This time, Rhun’s aim was off. Instead of hitting his target’s center mass, the javelin impaled the creature in its left thigh.

The green soldier roared in frustration, not pain as it finally zeroed in on Rhun’s position.

Rhun chose the next javelin, readying himself to make this one count. The soldier had already begun a loping kind of run as it rushed Rhun with howls of anger. The first soldier rose from the fire pit. He was a thing of nightmares. The javelin stuck out of his chest. The coarse hair rising off his arms, chest, and legs was on fire. He didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he joined his counterpart, rushing toward Rhun in a blaze of orange and yellow flame.

Rhun sent the third javelin streaking through the air. He made a snap second decision to down the enemy on fire first. He would be the one to reach Rhun sooner. The other brute was hobbling along with a spear in his thigh.

The third spear rang true, entering the left eye of the guard aflame and sending him crashing down to the sand below. Whether adrenaline or something else more sinister kicked in, by the time Rhun plucked his fourth and final javelin from the ground, the hobbling guard was already on top of him.

Rhun used the weapon like a spear, plunging it into the creature’s chest as hard as he could. The dented breastplate the brute wore turned the blow. The curved sword came down on Rhun in a sideways hacking motion. Rhun avoided the first blow. He tried blocking the second, but his javelin shattered on impact.

Rhun sidestepped, trying to create distance between himself and his enemy. From his belt, he gripped a knife hilt in each of his hands. The green soldier roared through spiky gnarled teeth. He brought his weapon down on Rhun, who managed to avoid it again. The beast struck out with a unsuspecting backhand that battered Rhun’s face, splitting his lip. Rhun ignored the pain as the sword came down on him once more. Past the stars exploding against his vision, he brought his left blade up, impaling the creature’s own hands that held its sword in a two-handed grip.

One hand pierced by Rhun’s dagger into the hilt of his own sword, the creature hammered Rhun across the head with his free hand. Rhun hit the floor, fighting unconsciousness as it grabbed at his vision with dark blurry hands.

A jolt of agony exploded in his ribs as he was kicked by the creature.

Rhun roared in pain as the beast stepped on his left hand, making him lose his grip.

Screams from the prisoners entered his mind. Whether they were trying to cheer him on or distract the beast, Rhun didn’t know. One voice cut through the rest. It was his wife.

“Rhun Tarhound.” Her voice was neither panicked or heavy with emotion. Strength ebbed from her throat as her words reached Rhun’s ears. “Rhun Tarhound, get back up! You get back up!”

The enemy soldier plucked out the knife in his hand. It made a sucking noise as it exited his flesh. He threw it to the side as if it were nothing more than a small annoyance. His own sword fell to the ground with a dull thud. He leaned down to lift Rhun up by his throat.

Blood entered Rhun’s eyes from his brow, while another river of the red crimson substance ran down his lip. Oxygen came into his lungs labored and heavy. Aching laced every move.

Rhun’s feet dangled off the ground. The enemy soldier brought him eye level with the yellow orbs it called eyes. It screamed at him through two large tusks and a row of gnarled teeth.

Rhun grabbed at the third and last knife on his belt. His movements were slow as oxygen left his brain. The green soldier held Rhun by one hand while he swatted away the last blade and any hope of using the knife.

Rhun hung there for a moment, grabbing at the thick sausage-like fingers that squeezed the life out of him. It was no use. As Rhun stared at the hate-filled eyes of his enemy, he knew he was moments from death.

A rogue thought entered his mind so dangerous he wasn’t sure if he should try it at all. He had no other choice. The beast in front of him had never removed the javelin in his thigh. Rhun couldn’t look down to see it, neither could he reach it with a hand.

Rhun felt with his right foot until his sandal hit the hard wooden shaft of the weapon. His head swam as he tilted the shaft up by getting his foot under it and raising his knee. The end of the javelin’s shaft showed at the very edge of the peripheral vision.

If the soldier saw what Rhun was doing, he didn’t show it. The beast was too intent on his actions. With the promise of death so close, the rival soldier was infatuated with bloodlust previously unknown to this planet.

Rhun reached out with his right hand, grabbing the very end of the javelin. He yanked it out of the creature’s thigh. Rhun worked his hand down the shaft until he held the javelin close to the tip. With every ounce of strength he could manage, Rhun rammed the tip into the left eye of the creature. The bladed tip sank in deep, eviscerating the creature’s eyeball. The grip on his throat slackened enough for Rhun to let out a croak of a roar as he rammed the weapon in so far he was surprised it didn’t come out of the back of the creature’s head.

Finally, his enemy released him, clawing at his face and eyes. Rhun gasped, trying to clear his vision and get enough air into his lungs past the pain in his throat.

“GRAWWW!” the green monster in front of Rhun screamed as it gripped the shaft in its eye and began to pull.

“Alpha Centaury! Alpha Centaury! Alpha Centaury!” the prisoners cheered over and over again, willing him to get back up. Their voices rang true but none more clear or ferocious than his own wife’s.

Like a beat dog that didn’t know when to stay down, Rhun pushed himself back to his feet. He sprinted forward, gaining as much momentum as he could between himself and his opponent.

The soldier succeeded in finally ripping the javelin free from its eye. Its face was a mess of blood so dark it was almost black. It stumbled and wobbled on its feet.

Rhun hit the creature as hard as he could, taking them both to the ground. All sense had left him now. Rhun was more animal than man as he struck the creature’s bloody face with closed fists.

A rock the size of a heavy hammer head stuck up out of the sand to his right. Rhun grasped at the stone while the enemy below him tried once more to grab at his throat. Rhun lifted the rock high over his head and brought it down on the creature’s skull over and over again. Once, twice, three times before Rhun was sure the beast would not move again.

Rhun rolled off the carcass of his enemy while the prisoners in the pen screamed in joy. Their disregard for silence during the fight told Rhun there were no other enemies in the city.

Rhun rolled over to his stomach then pushed himself to his knees, breathing hard. Blood dripped from his wounds down to the sand beneath him. Rhun was in a haze, his body numb as he staggered forward, taking the stone with him.

He used the blood-stained rock to batter the crude padlock on the prisoners’ pen free.

A single blow was enough. The shabbily erected lock gave way. The door burst open and Rhun’s wife wrapped him in a hug he knew he would never forget. Rhun was too exhausted to even try and cry or use words to capture the moment. The best he could do was lift his own hands and wrap them around her slender frame.

Chapter Thirteen

How the people not used to traveling in the desert moved so quickly was a true miracle in Argo’s eyes. Never mind they were all in the twilight years of their lives, they moved as fast as any army Argo had ever seen. Spurred on by the children they carried, many not their own but descendants of friends or acquaintances in the city, the refugees consisting of the too old or too young crossed the desert like the whips of Hades itself were behind them.

There was no complaining from the elderly. When one of them collapsed, two more appeared by their side to pick them up and move forward. They ran through the night, but by daybreak, Argo knew that despite their heroic attempt to reach safety, they would fall short.

Melrin first noticed the vanguard of the army behind them as the sun lit the day sky and fought back the darkness. He and Argo moved at the rear of the party of fleeing exiles. At first, their pursuers were only a few black dots against the cream color of the desert, but as the hours passed, those dots grew in number and clarity.

By noon, it was clear that the exiles from city five would not make it before the vanguard of the army from city three overtook them.

Argo’s mind raced with possibilities. A heroic last stand would see them all slaughtered. If he and Melrin tried to hold them off, they would die. Argo could accept that, but not if their sacrifice was in vain.

Argo counted at least fifty of the soldiers behind them gaining ground. At their present speed, they would reach them in under an hour.

“Got any ideas?” Argo asked Melrin with a sidewise look at the Warlock.

Melrin’s face was as hard as stone. Before he even opened his mouth, Argo could guess what he was going to suggest.

“Go to the front of the columns and tell them to press on. I will stay behind and buy us the time we need.” Melrin said the words as though he were used to giving orders and having them obeyed. “Lon won’t want to obey; he’ll insist—”

“Lon’s not the only one,” Argo interrupted the Warlock. “I’m not going to let you stay behind by yourself. There has to be fifty of them behind us.”

“I do not make requests.” Melrin turned a dark look at Argo. “Obey me if you want to save these people.”

“No can do.” Argo shook his head with a shrug. “I didn’t come all this way to leave you behind while I run. Lon knows the way back to the city. So what’s the plan? How are we going to hold them off? Are you going to magic up my spear again?”

Melrin glared at Argo then shrugged as if he resolved himself to Argo’s disobedience. “I can tell it will be a waste of breath if I insist you go on.”

“You got that right,” Argo agreed.

“We’ll probably die here,” Melrin warned.

“I’ve got no plans for tomorrow,” Argo said with a shake of his head. “So how are we going to do this? You’re going to use magic, right?”

Melrin didn’t answer. Instead, he shuffled ahead to speak with one of the last escapees in line. An elderly woman with long white hair and dark skin listened to Melrin’s words with a nod. Argo was close enough he could hear everything.

“Pass the word up, tell the other apprentices and Lon they are to continue forward no matter what they hear behind them. You are to tell Josephine and the other apprentices first, as Lon will want to come back. They are not to allow this. Tell them that is a direct order from Master Melrin Leader of the Third Order of Warlocks and Savior of the fallen city. You tell them that, every word.”

The older woman nodded vigorously, already moving to obey. She hurried forward, choosing someone else in line and passing along the order word for word.

“What’s with the third order and savior of the fallen city and all that?” Argo asked Melrin as the Warlock rejoined him. The two men stopped walking forward and now stood staring at the back of the group of exiles.

“It’s another long story of my past,” Melrin said.

The two men stood staring one last moment at the rear of the refugees they were about to die for. Argo caught sight of a young girl not more than two or three years old being carried by a stooped old man. She may have been older in reality. Argo was bad at guessing these kinds of things. She had dark hair pulled back in pigtails. She smiled at him with a wave, her tiny hand fluttering in the growing heat of the desert. Her chubby cheeks dimpled as she said her good-bye.

Argo smiled back at the young girl with a wave of his own.

“We should choose a dune where we can make our stand, where they have to come uphill to us,” Argo said, turning to Melrin. He shaded his eyes against the desert and settled on a steep dune to their left. “I might be able to take a few down with my sling if I can connect with their skulls.”

Melrin nodded as he took the lead, heading for the dune. The enemy army must have noticed the two men break off from the rest of the group. The vanguard of the pursuing force shifted slightly to meet them.

Of all the ways Argo thought he might die, laying down his life for a city of strangers was not one of them. He wasn’t bitter at the idea; it was only unexpected. He always thought he’d die alongside his Alpha Centaury or other members of the centurion unit he considered himself fortunate enough to be a part of.

The image of the little girl waving with her chubby hand made him smile again. She had no idea the good or bad he had done. She didn’t know the broken person he was just trying to survive in the desert. She saw the best in him. He knew that when she looked at him and he loved her for that.

That was something he could die for. To protect that innocence held in the heart of that small girl whose name he didn’t know. He would die a hundred times for her and those like her if it meant giving them a future.

Melrin and Argo ascended the sloping dune. The Warlock removed his hood once more, taking in a deep cleansing breath. He lifted the wide sleeves on his robe until they rested on his elbows.

“When I begin, I will not be able to stop,” Melrin said, looking out over the desert at the approaching force. “I’ll need you to watch our flanks as long as you can. I’ll hold the barrier as long as I can.”

“Magic, right?” Argo couldn’t help but smile at the idea of being able to see what the Warlock would do. “I mean, you’re going to use magic again, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Argo.” Melrin gave in to amuse Argo. “I’m going to use magic.”

Argo’s eyes sparkled at the promise of seeing some new and wondrous sight. The forerunners of the chasing army had doubled their speed at the promise of battle. Raucous calls and war cries could be heard now as they made their run on Argo and Merlin’s location.

The dune they had chosen to make their last stand was a sloping two-story hike that would slow their enemy’s pace. If they decided to go around, it would be a half kilometer in each direction to flank them.

Melrin closed his eyes. His hands moved in front of him, creating shapes and symbols with his fingers. First he pressed his palms together as if in a prayer then made his fingers into a steeple. His finger then flowed from touching thumb to thumb and so on and so on in predesigned formations.

Argo took the time to prepare himself. He drove the head of his spear into the sand, counting the smooth stones for his sling. There were two dozen of the rocks, hand-picked for their size and weight. Even if every single one of them hit and managed to take down an enemy, which would be a miracle, they would still be outnumbered a dozen to one.

The creatures sprinting toward them were almost within range of Argo’s stones. He loaded a smooth grey rock into the leather thong he carried and slowly began twirling the weapon.

“We are all going to die someday,” Argo said under his breath, remembering a saying. He couldn’t place where he had first heard it, but the words seemed truer than ever at the moment. “It matters how we choose to leave this world, on our knees or on our feet.”

The sling in Argo’s hand twirled faster and faster until it was no more than a blur of motion. Melrin was still doing his strange hand gestures. The Warlock’s eyes were closed. He was beginning to mutter something Argo couldn’t understand.

Argo decided to err on releasing his first stone too soon. Better a miss than waiting too long and not being able to use all of his projectiles before the fight came close enough for hand to hand combat.

Argo twirled faster, focusing on the leader of the approaching force, a big brute with a shaved head and a sledgehammer in his right hand as large as Argo’s torso.

With a whipping motion, Argo sent the first rock forward. It sailed through the air, sticking the approaching figure in his torso instead of his skull. Argo was rewarded with a scream of defiance as the soldier stuttered. The victory was short lived as the green soldier regained his composure and continued forward.

Infernay barrtorria ignitious, infernay, barrtorria ignitious,” Melrin repeated now loud enough for Argo to hear. “Infernay barrtorria ignitious.”

Despite the Warlock’s words, nothing seemed to happen. There were no balls of light or bright yellow swords appearing in his hands. The Warlock was sweating as he made the gestures with his hands faster and faster. The rhythm he said the words in also picked up in tempo as he continued to chant the verses like a prayer.

Argo let the next stone fly; this time, he heard a sharp crack as the stone made contact with a soldier’s skull. The big beast went down in a heap with either a concussion or something more serious. Argo loaded again and sent stone after stone flying at the group.

The enemy was so close now they were beginning to ascend the slope up to Argo and Melrin. The Warlock was shouting his words now with a commanding rage Argo didn’t know he possessed. “Infernay barrtorria ignitious! Infernay, barrtottia ignitous!

The leaders in the enemy pack were halfway up the slope when a wall of flames erupted around them, consuming them in heat so scorching it melted their skin, armor, and weapons in an inferno of white heat.

Argo had to shy away as the warmth washed over him in a wave. Screams of anger filled the air as the enemy soldiers dropped to their knees then fell to the ground below them.

The wall of flames rose ten feet into the air and surrounded Argo and Melrin in a half circle. More and more enemy soldiers threw themselves into the fire thinking they could penetrate the wall of flames and continue on. They were wrong. They fell in screaming balls of melted flesh and bone, yelling because they were angry at not being able to get to their enemy instead of the pain they felt.

Argo stood in amazement, dumbstruck at the scene taking place in front of him.

“Argo! Argo, you idiot!” Melrin roared. Deep rivers of sweat ran from his bald head into his eyes and down his chin. “The flanks! Watch the flanks!”

Argo shook his head free of the wonder he saw in front of him to see how true Melrin’s words were. After the first dozen or so creatures attempted to brave the fires, the rest became smarter. Instead of surging forward, they divided their forces and began maneuvering around the wall of flames to try and gain access to Argo and Melrin.

Chapter Fourteen

The window of opportunity for Jordan to leave the freed city to travel to her old one had closed. The fight with Sara had taken more time than she expected. Once she was ready to leave again, the reports of the dark army closing in from the north and another group approaching from the east had reached her ears.

The scouts told a tale of refugees from city five heading for the safety of their own walls. The idea of still escaping her new home to try and get to her old city soon left her thoughts. These people, Jerrick, Leopold, Grizla, and everyone else were alive and needed her now. Going back to her own city to search for survivors would have to wait.

Ugly joined her at the main gates as daylight brightened the world once more. She had stayed the night for Jerrick more than anything else. She rested by his side watching his chest rise and fall with Ugly in a ball next to her. She couldn’t bear losing anyone else. Lucky for her, Jerrick was strong, and besides a concussion, there didn’t seem to be any other injuries.

Grizla had pushed for him to remain one more day in bed to his urgent protests. Jordan sided with the woman. She knew they would need everyone very soon. If he could get even one more day of rest before he was on the front lines with the rest of the city, then that was what he would get.

To Jordan’s surprise, Leopold was on the wall looking out into the desert when she arrived. There was a boyish grin on his face that didn’t match the events surrounding them. When he saw Jordan and Ugly crest the steps to the top of the wall, he ran over to them, clapping his hands.

“Have you heard the latest report?” Leopold didn’t wait for an answer. “Lierna and Rhun are alive. Lierna is coming now with reinforcements from city two! They have machines so big they are controlled by a pilot! Can you imagine that?”

Rhun and Lierna are alive? Jordan found a smile breaking across her own lips. Not only had they survived, but they had succeeded in bringing reinforcements?

Hope welled in Jordan’s chest the likes of which she so desperately needed at the time. The free city was filling with survivors from the other four but true soldiers were in short supply, as were weapons to combat the coming army.

If Leopold was right and city two was actually bringing an army to help them, including these massive machines, then maybe they’d live to see the end of this once and for all.

“There! To the northeast!” a lookout on the wall shouted to no one and everyone.

Jordan shaded her eyes against the sun and strained forward, looking out in the direction the sentry pointed. He was right. A large column moved forward. The easiest members to pick out of the group were four giant machines that looked like men. The machines carried weapons like swords and blasters as long as rifles.

“Well, come on, come on. Let’s go!” Leopold did a little jig on the wall and began making his way down the stairs two at a time.

His motions were so erratic, the places he chose to place his feet so carefree, Jordan thought he might fall. She joined him going down the stars with Ugly barking and following behind. The creature still wore a bandage around his neck, but he seemed even more energetic and ready to go than ever before.

Jordan could have pulled ahead of Leopold, but she held her pace to his own. Together, the unlikely trio of the inventor, creature and physical educator made it to the ground floor.

There were still survivors coming into the city from all parts of the desert. Order had been brought to the scene right outside of the gates. A long line held refugees in check of mass pandemonium.

Jordan followed Leopold with Ugly galloping beside her. The older man made his way through the checkpoint and raced across the desert sand faster than Jordan would have thought possible. Ugly bounded beside the two with his tongue lolling out of his horrific mouth.

As they approached the unit of troops, Jordan found herself more and more impressed not only with the huge robotic units of armor making their way toward her but with the level of restraint and practice the main bulk of the army showed.

The army marched quickly across the desert heat in a light jog. Their iron armor of blue and black had to weigh an extra one hundred pounds. The added obstacle of the blistering sun spoke volumes of their strength.

At the head of the unit, Lierna ran forward. The red-haired woman was easy to make out in the distance. To Jordan’s surprise, Rhun was nowhere to be seen, at least not yet. The idea the leader had fallen knotted Jordan’s stomach. She pushed away the nightmare of a thought, reassuring herself he was somewhere farther in the caravan.

Leopold reached Lierna first. He wrapped the woman in a huge embrace she was clearly not ready for. Lierna stood stock still as Leopold shed his love on her.

“I knew you’d come back to us,” Leopold said, hugging her tighter. “I knew you’d make it!”

Lierna looked angry at first, even annoyed, then amused as her eyes drifted to Jordan.

Jordan smiled at the woman with a shrug.

Lierna lifted an awkward right hand to clap Leopold a few times on the back. Puffs of dirt exploded every time her hand touched the old man’s thin frame.

“Leopold, when was the last time you took a bath?” Jordan asked, tilting her head to the side to add to her perplexity.

“Oh, there’s no time for sleep or baths when giant machines are walking our world,” Leopold said, finally releasing Lierna and focusing on the giant robots striding towards them. “Oh, what a wondrous time to be alive.”

It was hard for Jordan to disagree with the man. Jordan walked over to Lierna, extending her hand. “It’s great to see you again. Is Rhun all right?”

“For a second, I thought you were going to give me a hug as well.” Lierna accepted the hand with a firm shake of her own. “Rhun decided to go to his own city in search of his wife.”

Jordan set her jaw, expecting as much; reports from his city were much like her own. The dark army had marched through them, slaughtering everyone and everything in their way.

Although Jordan hoped Rhun found his wife alive and well, the odds said he would be bitterly disappointed.

“I’m glad the warriors from city two decided to stand with us,” Jordan said as she released Lierna’s hand and the two women turned to view the approaching army. “We’ll need all the help we can get.”

“They’re capable warriors. I just wish there were more of them for the fight that’s coming,” Lierna said. “Rightly so, they left some of their force behind to defend their own city. On the way here, we had scouts sent out on either side of the main column. The enemy is approaching from the north, that we have confirmed reports of. Although we have not seen it, we can guess they are also approaching from the east after destroying my own city and then city five.”

Lierna said the words with cold abandon as if they did not mean anything to her. Jordan knew different. The hard look in her eyes, the way her hand clenched and unclenched told Jordan she was ready to make the enemy pay when she saw them again.

“What’ve you found out about our enemy?” Jordan asked as she watched Leopold run to the approaching army with his hands high overhead. He was waving a semi-white flag in the air he had pulled from somewhere Jordan didn’t want to know. “Are they—demons like all the reports are saying?”

“They bleed and they can die, but they feel no pain,” Lierna said, shaking her head as memories flooded back to her of her own encounter with the monsters. “We’ll have to tell everyone to aim for their vital organs, their heads and neck, and maybe even the places in their chests where their hearts reside.”

Jordan realized then that Lierna didn’t have all the facts. She had not seen the woman since she and Argo had traveled to the skull-shaped rocks where they met Eldar and discovered the truth about their origin. It didn’t seem like the right place, but Lierna deserved to know the truth. There might not be another time as calm as this before the fighting began again.

Jordan told her everything, how they were part of an experiment, how they were not human and how Eldar was working now to put an end to all of this once and for all. She faltered when she spoke of the broken controllers and their inability to communicate with Eldar anymore.

Lierna eyed Ugly as the creature sniffed at her boots and legs. If she was shocked, she didn’t show it. Her hard sun-beaten face remained calm and cool as she soaked in the impossible news.

“Are you understanding everything I’m saying?” Jordan asked, worried that she had dumped more on the centurion more than she could handle at the moment. “Are you okay?”

Lierna threw back her head and roared laughter into the hot air around her. Her barks of laughter were devoid of any true joy. Even Ugly looked over at Jordan as if to ask, “Is she okay?”

Lierna finally stopped shaking her head from side to side as if she couldn’t believe it. “What’s next? Are witches and wizards real as well?”

Jordan didn’t have an answer for her. Instead of words, she let the soldier deal with the truth in her own way. It was something they would all have to do for themselves.

You haven’t told everyone yet, Jordan reminded herself. The people in the city, everyone deserves to know. If you don’t tell them, what makes you better than Director Patterson or the rulers of all the other cities? They withheld information too.

This was a question Jordan had been wrestling with. She wanted to scream the truth into the air, but now? Was now the right time as the deciding battle was about to take place?

Shouts from the army in front of her ripped her from these thoughts and demanded her attention. The army with its huge robotic machines was pivoting to the southeast. The infantry formed lines while the machines protected their flanks.

Jordan followed their line of sight to see what had caused the army to reposition. Puffs of sand filled the air over a column of people half jogging half staggering their way to the city.

They were too far off to make out for certain, but Jordan didn’t think that this was their enemy. The group was too disorganized, the figures too small to be the creatures Jordan had heard reported in the desert.

One of the robotic units who had the best viewpoint from their higher position reached out with a long armored arm. A hiss of smoke and steam erupted from a compartment in the center of the machine’s chest. The pilot sat there, a stocky man with dark hair and a ready smile.

“Survivors, it’s not the enemy!” he shouted to the men around him. Despite the distance separating them, he was just loud enough for Jordan to hear.

Chapter Fifteen

Rhun’s heart was full regardless of how battered and bloody his body remained. After he freed his people, they had assured him that there were only four Olg left to watch them. That was the name the enemy used to call one another by or at least that was what it sounded like in the survivors’ ears.

His wounds were attended to by his wife, who pressed her lips to his own and around his face multiple times as she washed and cleaned his wounds. Rhun wasn’t complaining. There were two dozen survivors altogether who had been captured by the small squad of Olg left behind to watch the city. In this number were a pair of soldiers Rhun didn’t recognize.

The group huddled around the fire now, the former prisoners half in shock at what had happened to their city, half in awe of how they had been rescued. The pair of soldiers scavenged food from the city as Rhun’s wife told him the story of what had befallen their city.

“After you left, there was hole in my heart the size of a shield,” Rhun’s wife, Cara, told him. “I know you had to go to avoid more bloodshed and a civil war that would have ripped our city apart. You did the right thing. I knew you’d return to me. In the years after you left, I was treated like a traitor’s wife. They gossiped and looked down on me, but none of that mattered. I kept my head held high and waited for your return.”

“There were many of us in the new army being assembled that pushed back when you left,” one of the two soldiers spoke up. She was tall with a tight braid down the back of her head. “The House and the senators called you a traitor, but we knew why you left. You had the support of many in the army.”

Rhun nodded along with the words. He had expected as much. Instead of interjecting, he let the story continue.

“They rebuilt the army over the next five years then insisted on marching out into the desert.” Cara picked up the tale once more. “The entire army left, including the new Alpha Centaury, his centurions, and the militia behind them. Not one of them came back. What did come back in their place were the legion of Olg. With only a skeleton unit of soldiers remaining behind, the walls fell quickly. They ravaged the city like a plague. The few of us you see here managed to hold out in a cellar, but it was only a matter of time before they broke in. When they caught us, we were thrown into the cages you freed us from.”

“I think they were keeping us for their own amusement, maybe even to experiment on in the future,” the other soldier said, a tall lanky man in his late thirties. “If it weren’t for you, we’d have suffered a fate worse than death. Thank you.”

Rhun nodded, taking the chance to tell them of his own story, of the founding of the new city, of allies in city two and their own battle against the Olg legion. Hushed whispers passed in the group as excited looks of hope touched their lips. Up until Rhun’s display against the Olg, they had thought the creatures nearly invincible.

“We need to make it back to city two. The Ironhammer Clan will welcome you there,” Rhun said with finality in his voice.

“But you’re not going to stay with us, are you?” Cara squeezed his left hand with her own. “You have that look in your eye right now, Rhun Tarhound.”

“What look?” Rhun asked, trying not to smile. The act brought pain to his split lip.

“The look that says you’re going back into the fight,” Cara said with a raised eyebrow.

“The final battle for a free world will be decided soon,” Rhun said, gently squeezing her hand in return. “I must be there.”

We must be there,” Cara said, correcting her husband. “I’m not allowing us to be separated again.”

There was a dangerous look in her eye Rhun had learned to both love and respect her for. Cara was not a soldier, but that didn’t mean she lacked the ferocity of one. At her own request, he had taught her to fight. She would be able to handle herself against any normal opposition, but the Olg were far from normal.

“We should move soon,” Rhun grunted. He lifted himself from his seat around the fire the dead Olg had started. “We don’t know if they’ll have reinforcements here soon.”

“You can barely walk,” Cara said. Despite her argument, she moved to follow her husband. She too recognized the truth in his words.

“I’ll find a way.” Rhun winked at his wife before kissing her again. “Can everyone travel?”

He searched the group gathered in front of him. They were all soot- and dirt-stained. Cuts, bruises, even a sling around one man’s arm, but they seemed as though they could make the trip.

Rhun looked over at the pair of soldiers and the rest of the survivors from his own city. “Gather what weapons you can from the dead at the gates. We’ll need food and water for two days, no more. The less we carry, the faster and easier this trip will be.”

Nods and excited chatter rippled through the gathered group. As one, they dispersed, spreading into the city to gather food and supplies while others ventured outside of their gates to arm themselves with spears, slings, and swords.

The group was quick yet efficient, meeting Rhun at the gates once again in less than an hour. The band of worn men and women from city three moved out into the desert. Rhun’s mind played back on how many trips he had made since he left Jordan, Leopold, and the others at their new city.

Rhun led the way with his wife beside him. His body ached; at every step, bruises reminded him of how battered he was, but that was exactly what Rhun concentrated on. One step at a time would see him to his destination.

They were barely out of view of the city behind them, the night wrapping them in a blanket of shadows. Overhead, the planets sat amongst the stars to the wonder of the group traveling with him.

“Rhun,” Cara said, shaking her head as she marveled at the heavens. “I heard reports of this from the soldiers and scouts, but I’ve never seen them for myself. How can this b-”

Cara’s words were cut short as the ground vibrated underneath their feet. A sound like low rumbling met their ears in the darkness. The noise came from the south.

Rhun lifted his right arm high then batted it down as if he were patting the air, signaling for everyone to get low. They took his meaning, pressing their bellies against the sun-warmed sand.

The sound came closer and closer until Rhun realized whatever it was wasn’t a random patrol of some kind. It was heading straight for them. Soon lights could be seen in the darkness. Bright red lights floated over the desert sand, reminding Rhun so very clearly of the tickers he had faced before.

Unlike the tickers, these machines didn’t make the same noises. With the light came a vast host of metal vehicles and soldiers, the likes of which Rhun had never seen before. Their armor, made up of green and yellow full suits and helmets that hid their faces, worried Rhun.

Well, they’re not Olg, Rhun thought to himself, preparing to give the order to run. So who or what are they?

The host was still a kilometer away when Rhun opened his mouth. “Hurry and follow m—”

“Rhun Tarhound!” An amplified voice aided by some technology Rhun did not understand crossed the distance between them. “We are not your enemy, but we share a common one.”

Rhun wasn’t sure what to think; not only did these strange beings know his name, but they were able to communicate across an incredible distance. Everyone in his group looked to their Alpha Centaury for direction. Rhun could practically feel their eyes on him through the darkness.

“My love?” Cara asked gently.

You’ve gambled so much to get to this point, Rhun thought to himself. Why stop now? They’d just attack you if they wanted to instead of using your name and claim friendship.

“To whom do I speak!?” Rhun squared his shoulders and shouted back into the night. There was no way for him to know if their technology could pick up his words from such a distance. “Who are you!?”

“My name is Tracan. I’d like to talk with you, if you are willing,” the voice came back loud and clear. The advancing army made up of red lights and a host too great to count in the darkness came to a standstill a half kilometer from Rhun’s own spot. “We share a common enemy. We are here to help. If I wanted you dead or captured, why would I even open my mouth?”

He was right. Rhun appreciated the man’s candor. In times like this when things were so confusing, it was nice to have a straightforward answer.

“Stay here,” Rhun said, looking to his wife and the others. The fire in Cara’s eyes told him she wasn’t going to obey. The others nodded to their leader.

Rhun started forward. The only weapons he carried now were the spear in his right hand and the dagger that rested in the sheath on his belt. Cara walked with him. She had chosen a short gladius from the dead bodies when they left the city. Although the blade was also sheathed, she rested her right hand on the handle.

“No point in broaching the subject of you staying back and waiting for me, is there?” Rhun asked with a sideways glance to his wife.

“None,” Cara said with a smile of her own.

“Just checking,” Rhun said.

Husband and wife crossed the distance to the mysterious militia, where two soldiers broke off from their own lines and walked forward. As far as Rhun could tell neither of the approaching figures carried a weapon. They were tall, even taller than he was, and slender. Capes fell behind their armor of dark green steel and golden trim. Each of them wore a helmet with a reflective visor masking their faces.

Past these two strangers were the lines of the army they had come with. Great hulking machines that did not look like any kind of ticker or evolution thereafter waited in the dark.

When the pair of representatives from each side finally met halfway, the strangers removed their helmets. Rhun wasn’t sure what to expect. In a world of Mecha, tickers, and Olg, anything could be waiting to greet him behind those helmets.

To his relief, when the pair of strangers took off their helmets, human-like faces greeted him. Their hair was long and white and their skin a shade of blue that clearly set them apart. Their hands missed a finger on each palm, but other than that, they seemed human enough.

The one in front of Rhun had the eyes of a leader, serious and strong. The other beside him was also strong, but in his eyes, there was a happiness, even joy for the moment.

“You know who we are; at least, you suspect as much,” the same voice who had spoken to him before said. “My name is Tracan and this is Eldar.”

Eldar nodded, even smiled as if he were seeing an old friend once again.

“We should start with clearing the table,” Tracan began. “I’m going to tell you a story you aren’t going to enjoy.”

Chapter Sixteen

Tracan was right. With stone cold eyes, he looked at Rhun and explained everything from the beginning. He told them of the Pandora Experiment taking place right now. He told them of the purpose of the experiment, that each city was a hybrid of human and an alien race. He told them the Olg were hellbent on killing everyone, that their High Council had given the order to eliminate the Olg and save the rest of the survivors.

Rhun was so physically tired at times, he wanted to fall to his knees under the weight of the news. Every single type of emotion he could fathom ran through his body from anger to joy, to wonder and hate.

At one point, while Tracan explained that the survivor of this experiment was going to act as the blueprint for the Arulion soldier, Rhun thought Cara was going to draw her blade and strike both the Arulion in front of him down.

When Tracan was done, he gave the pair a moment to process, but only a moment.

“I realize you have a host of questions left unanswered, but if we are going to save the rest of the survivors seeking shelter in city six, we must move now. Already the Olg host surrounds them. After everything you have heard, are you willing to put aside our differences for survival?” Tracan asked with hard eyes. “Speak honestly; I’m not interested in being stabbed in the back when the fighting begins.”

“Why did you bring your entire army to us?” Rhun asked after a moment of contemplation. “If you’re as eager to help as you say, why are you marching in the opposite direction of the battle?”

In all honesty, Rhun was still reeling from the information relayed to him. It was beyond difficult to comprehend and nearly impossible to trust. Half of him wanted to strike the aliens in front of him down, the other half wanted to sit and think about what he actually was if they were telling the truth. What was he exactly? A hybrid, half human and half something else altogether?

“It wasn’t my idea to come searching for you.” Tracan turned to Eldar. “Eldar convinced me to find you before going to war with the Olg.”

“You need a leader,” Cara said, for the first time speaking up. She said the words haltingly and low. Rhun could hear the barely bridled anger in every word. “You need my husband to lead your army.”

“We have leaders,” Eldar said with a shake of his blue head. “What we need going into the battle is a seasoned veteran. I’ve watched your husband for years as have I studied the other military leaders in the six cities. Trust me when I say Rhun is the only soldier capable of leading us to victory.”

“You’ve been watching us?” Rhun asked as pieces of the puzzle began to fit together. “You’re only here because you need me?”

“We observed every city,” Tracan said, interrupting Eldar. It was clear he was growing impatient. “And no, we don’t need you. We would like you to lead our army. If you say no, you can go about your way. It’ll have been nothing more than an inconvenience on our part and a poor judgment call of my own to listen to Eldar’s advice. He assured me you’d come.”

Rhun looked to Eldar, studying the alien in the dark. Eldar stood straight and tall; with a raised eyebrow, he tried to hide a grin from creeping over his face.

“You seem to know my husband as well as he knows himself,” Cara said, looking over to Rhun. “Go ahead, we all know what you’re going to say. You’ve never walked away from a fight when your friends needed you. It’s not in your nature.”

“If you say yes, you’ll be able to rest as we travel,” Eldar said, waving behind him to the line of vehicles that waited. “We have advanced technology to heal your wounds and get you rested in a quarter of the time.”

“What say you, Rhun Tarhound?” Tracan asked. “Does the Alpha Centaury of city four lead the Arulion people into battle against the Olg?”

Rhun paused one last moment. He already knew what he was going to say. The reason for the pause was not indecisiveness, but rather a last grasping ploy to embrace the moment of peace before they marched to war once more.

“You have yourself an Alpha Centaury,” Rhun said, thinking of his position and the need for control he would require to be a successful leader. “I have two conditions.”

Tracan audibly grunted as if he were about to say something then cut it off with a guttural noise from his throat. “What are they?”

“I need complete and utter obedience when it comes to the army. I’ve never seen a military unit blamed when they lost, but I’ve seen plenty of commanders demoted.” Rhun nodded past the men at the army waiting in the darkness. “I need you to divide the force if I say it needs to be divided. I need you not to question my tactics but to obey.”

Even in the dark, Rhun could see the effect of his words on Tracan. The Arulion leader’s jaw muscles twinged as he ground his teeth.

“He’s never lost a battle,” Eldar said in a hushed whisper to Tracan. “He’s beaten the tickers twice, survived the blood sled, fought off the Olg legion alongside Clan Ironhammer, and now defeated the Olg here to free his people.”

“We will follow your military orders when the time comes,” Tracan said through clenched teeth. “What is your second request?”

“I want freedom for the survivors once we win,” Rhun said, trying to hide the fact that even he knew this was a massive stretch. He wasn’t even sure the Arulion in front of him had the authority to grant such a request. “We’re done being a part of this experiment.”

Tracan and Eldar looked to one another. This time, the two conferred in such low tones, Rhun didn’t have a chance to hear anything.

Cara slipped her hand into Rhun’s and gave him a squeeze.

After far too long, the men turned to Rhun. This time, Eldar took the lead in the conversation.

“You’re right; in all honesty that request is above our ability to grant.” Eldar looked directly into Rhun’s eyes, even taking a half step closer so the two were only feet apart. “But, Rhun Tarhound, you have my word that I will do everything in my power to grant you your freedom. I wish I could promise you more, but that is the best I can do for now.”

Rhun nodded slowly.

Did you really think it was going to be that easy? Rhun thought to himself. Just ask for your freedom and they’d give it to you? Still, he seems sincere. And it’s not like you were ever going to stay out of this fight anyway. Worst case scenario, the Arulion refuse to grant you your freedom once the Olg are destroyed. In that case, you’ve gotten an inside look at their technology, their strengths and weaknesses.

Rhun squeezed his wife’s hand in return, looking over to her for her consensus. She tilted her head ever so slightly.

Rhun released the grip he held on her hand and extended his right hand to Tracan first. “Let’s go to war.”

Tracan looked at Rhun and then his hand. He didn’t move.

“He wants you to shake his hand,” Eldar said to his counterpart. “I’m sure you must have seen the gesture before on one of the feeds.”

“Oh, of course,” Tracan said, gripping Rhun’s hand in his own and squeezing firmly. “There’s no time to spare. Any noncombatants you have should stay here. We can leave them with weapons and supplies.”

“I’ve been apart from my people for too long,” Rhun said, releasing Tracan’s grip and shaking Eldar’s hand. “They come with me.”

Tracan stiffened at being talked to in such a direct manner but didn’t say a word.

Rhun turned to his wife. “Darling, will you go back to the others and tell them what’s happened? Let them know we leave right away.”

“Of course,” Cara said, already turning to leave. She thought better of her actions and turned to address the pair of aliens. “I’m not one for threats. So I’ll just tell you what will happen. If anything is not as you say it is and my husband comes to harm, you will cease to exist.”

Tracan took a half step back at the ferocity of her words. Eldar’s eyebrows rose. Cara saw none of this as she turned to the group of her people waiting to be told what had happened.

“She’s a strong woman.” Eldar broke the silence.

“You have no idea,” Rhun answered. “We should go over the number of units you have under your command, weapons, and other resources we might be able to use.”

“We’ve emptied the Foundation and brought every soldier we have,” Tracan answered. “Two thousand soldiers armed with pulse rifles. We have three hundred vehicles, mostly transports, but a few support vehicles as well.”

As Tracan explained their numbers, Eldar turned back to the line of red dots in the darkness marking their vehicles.

“Lights!” Eldar shouted to the front lines.

Immediately, hundreds of lights blinked to life from points mounted on the vehicles and on the Arulion soldiers themselves. Despite the dire hour, Rhun felt a surge of excitement rise in his chest.

He realized they would still be outnumbered, but the Arulion army in their dark green and golden armor was a truly impressive sight. Most of the soldiers were walking, but a few sat in nests on the tops of various vehicles behind long barrels.

There were two different types of vehicles. Neither of the vehicles had wheels. They floated above the sand and looked like a bulky rectangle. The metal it was made up of mirrored its counterpart, black steel that reminded Rhun of the material the tickers were constructed from. A single soldier stood poking up out of the center of the vehicle behind a long-barreled turret.

The second vehicle also used the same hovering technology. This one was slightly smaller but had multiple turrets and nests built into the top and both sides where Arulion soldiers sat behind weapons of varying degrees. The two on the sides looked like smaller faster rifles while the one large barrel on top reminded Rhun of a cannon he had seen on one of the Mechas.

“We can talk about whatever you need next, including weapons and armor for you on the way to city six,” Tracan suggested.

Rhun tried to suppress his grin but couldn’t and then just laughed out loud.

“Something funny?” Eldar asked.

“No, not funny really, just ironic,” Rhun explained to the men. “It’s the second time I’ll be outfitted in foreign armor to fight the Olg. I should just start carrying my own with me.”

Chapter Seventeen

The city was alive like some kind of hive of energy. Members from five cities banded together as one preparing for the inevitable attack. Jerrick watched as Clan Ironhammer marched into the city with their giant Mechas and heavily armored infantry. He looked on as the elderly and young from city four wearing their brightly colored cloaks and hoods entered dog-tired.

Everyone was doing his or her part, from securing the gates and fortifying the battlements to finding housing, food, and water for their newly arrived allies.

Truth be told, Jerrick still wasn’t feeling one hundred percent. He wasn’t about to admit that. He knew if he gave even a whisper to the pounding in his head or his fatigue Grizla, Jordan, and even Leopold would form a trinity to keep him in bed.

There was no time for that, especially when he was the one Leopold had created the gauntlets for. Right now, he was nodding along and doing his best at acting like he understood the terms the inventor and the Forge Chief from city two were using.

Leopold had brought Balon, back to the workshop to take a look at the gauntlets Jerrick would wear into battle. Right now, they crackled with their red energy as the two men spoke about the possibilities a find like this could mean for the future.

“I think I may have a weapon that can use the energy in these gauntlets you’ve created.” Balon tapped a finger on his chin in thought. He looked over to Jerrick. “You’re big like the other one, but I have something special. If you have your own armor, I’ll have a rifle for you that I’ve been working on. It will be able to stream an incredible amount of energy. I was going to use it on a Mecha, but I haven’t had a chance to create a model to scale for their incredible size. I call it a—”

Shouting and panic from outside took the men from their thoughts. Jerrick was the first to make it into the street. The sun was going down, but there was still enough light to see by. People were shouting and waving toward the gate.

Jordan emerged from a house across the street with Ugly at her heels.

“What’s going on?” Jerrick asked.

“The lookout on the wall’s seen something,” Jordan said, waving him forward. “The enemy’s arrived.”

Jerrick was about to take off with Jordan down the street when Leopold shoved something into his hands. It was the powered-down gauntlets.

“Here, better safe than sorry. Be careful, my boy.”

Jerrick accepted the gauntlets, nodding to the old inventor. “I will.” He sprinted down the street with the others, who were eager to see what the commotion was about. Just making his way to the city gates was a wake-up call. Not only was it difficult to move amongst the people, but they were all so different now.

This new city that was now alive with the survivors from the other four was a melting pot of short and tall, every skin color and accent. Jerrick wished he had more time to appreciate the moment, but the shouting from the lookout and the yells from those issuing orders pushed everything else from his mind.

Jerrick finally caught up with Jordan as a guard allowed the pair to race up the flight of stairs to the top of the wall. The wall was now manned with a group from city two that called themselves the Long Shot Corps. Jordan and Grizla had taken ownership of representing their new free city. As such, they met with Clan Ironhammer’s leader King Orsik and ironed out the details of the city’s defense.

Jerrick was present for the meeting, but his lack of military experience rendered him rather useless. Jordan was able to share what she learned from the Founders and Grizla had some surprising insight to how the defense of the city should be handled. Once there was more time, he would have to sit down with the woman to find out exactly what her past had entailed.

Right now, Jerrick stood on the wall with Jordan and the other members of Clan Ironhammer, looking off into the southeast. The light was tricky at this time of day as the sun set behind the desert landscape.

“There! Just there!” A bearded member of the Long Shot Corp pointed.

Jerrick shaded his eyes, leaning forward to try and get a better look. At first, all he saw was desert and more desert. He strained his eyes, willing them to see something, anything. Then Jerrick realized he wasn’t seeing the desert at all; it was a mass of moving bodies far out in the distance. What he had mistaken for the sand of the desert becoming dark due to the time of day was actually a massive body of legs and arms marching toward their own walls.

“There! I see two men!” another guard shouted.

Jerrick looked over to see how they were able to pick out such details. A few of the members of the Long Shot Corp had a single-lensed tool they looked out of.

“May I?” Jerrick asked, inquiring of the man closest to him.

The bearded member of Clan Ironhammer nodded and handed Jerrick his seeing device. Jerrick closed his left eye and used his right to peer through the glass.

It was clear now that the enemy numbered in the tens of thousands. They marched in no particular order. There were giants among their ranks that Jerrick would have spent more time gawking at had it not been for Jordan’s shouts next to him.

“It’s Argo, Argo and Melrin the Warlock that went out with him!” Jordan shouted excitedly. “They’re not going to make it!”

Jerrick followed his gaze through his seeing device. Jordan was right. There were two men moving much too slow. They leaned on one another, barely able to stand. Behind them, the approaching army was overtaking their position by the minute. Left on their own, they would not make it to the gates.

Jerrick looked over to his left shoulder as he heard something breathing, or rather wheezing hard. Balon stood on his tiptoes to see over the battlements. He held a large rifle in his right hand the likes of which Jerrick had never seen before. His face was flushed from the exertion of racing up the steps.

“I—I had the prototype in my stock near the wall. I picked it up on my way to see and good thing I did.” Balon handed the rifle to Jerrick. “You’ll need it.”

“We have to go help them!” Jordan yelled in panic. “Open the gates! I’m going out. They aren’t going to make it!”

Jerrick accepted the rifle with a nod. He had no idea how the weapon would work with his gauntlets, or even if the gauntlets would indeed lend their power to the rifle. There was no time for questions. Jordan was halfway down the stairs.

Jerrick maneuvered around soldiers as he raced after her. He knew how distraught she had been when Argo failed to return. He was like a brother to her, and in a world meant to kill you, family and friends were all they had.

Jerrick vaulted the last few steps to the ground floor, searching for Jordan. She wasn’t difficult to find. Jordan had liberated a city guard of his pulse rifle. One of the same rifles he and Leopold had created from the first generation of tickers.

“Open the gates!” Jordan yelled to the gatehouse. “Just enough for me to get out.”

“No!” A booming voice interrupted Jordan’s request. “Open it further and then close it behind us.”

Jerrick looked over to see who had spoken. A bulky man with a great brown beard and long hair ran for one of the giant kneeling machines Jerrick had heard the men from city two call “Mecha”.

“Colonel Harbeck?” All eyes in the courtyard turned to the king of their new allies. King Orsik stood alongside Grizla, a worried expression clear on his face.

“My king,” Harbeck said, turning from his place next to his steel war machine. “With your permission. We are all each other has. If the blood sled champion were here, he’d do the same as I.”

King Orsik looked to Grizla, who nodded.

“Just you. We can’t afford to lose more than one Mecha if this rescue attempt doesn’t work,” King Orsik said. “Be swift.”

“I’m going too!” another voice shouted. This time, it was a young man wearing a yellow robe. “That’s my master out there.”

“So am I!” Lierna shouted, shouldering a quiver of javelins on her back.

“Oh for goodness sake.” Grizla shook her head, looking over to the gate. “Just hurry. They can’t have much time.”

Jerrick was taking his time as volunteers came forth to examine the rifle in his hand. From the little he knew of pulse rifles, this one was a work of art. Solid wooden frame gave way to dark grey steel. Two handles provided a solid grip, one at the front of the weapon under the barrel and the other at the rear near the stock of the weapon. A fierce emblem was etched near the trigger, a snarling wolf.

How the weapon was going to channel the power from his gauntlets was still a mystery to him, but Jerrick was willing to take the chance.

If the rifle doesn’t work, then I can still use the gauntlets as weapons, Jerrick thought to himself as the gates opened in front of him. Here goes nothing.

The Mecha piloted by Colonel Harbeck was the first out of the gate. The giant machine moved as smooth as a man would walk. A Gatling gun was mounted on the top of his right shoulder. A pair of massive pistols held in each hand fed by ammunition belts connected to a supply pack on his back made the machine an imposing figure of firepower.

Jerrick joined the iron giant along with Jordan, Lierna, and the young man wearing the yellow cloak from city five who had insisted he come. Jerrick couldn’t help but notice the young man in question did not carry a weapon.

Jerrick was going to say something but decided to save his breath for running.

It was an act of insanity to charge forward along with the four other survivors. The horde chasing Argo and his companion were aware of the attempt to save their prey. They too sprinted across the desert.

Hideous faces shouted and roared as they ran. Jerrick did some quick calculations. As soon as they reached Argo and the cloaked figure he supported, the horde would be less than a quarter mile behind them.

I hope this rifle you gave me has a miracle in it, Jerrick said as he ignored the burning in his lungs. We’re going to need one.

Argo and the dark-skinned man from Grizla’s home city stumbled forward. As Jerrick got closer, he could tell they were both injured, but the older man more so. Blood dripped down his chin and from a slash in his clothing near his belly.

The Mecha unit kept pace with the rest of the group if just pulling slightly ahead. They reached Argo and his traveling companion a moment later.

“Master!” their yellow-cloaked companion shouted as he embraced the older man and threw an arm around him for support.

“No time for kisses and hugs, let’s go!” Lierna said, grabbing Argo.

“Those of us with long-ranged weapons will cover your retreat.” Harbeck’s voice came deep and distorted from within the Mecha. “Go!”

Jerrick’s heart was beating out of his chest. He was no coward, but even the most stalwart of warriors would feel some sense of dread as thousands of enemy soldiers bore down on their position.

“Keep moving back toward the city gates,” Harbeck told Jordan and Jerrick as the other two members of their rescue party aided their friends.

Ugly barked at the coming enemy, planting himself firmly between them and Jordan. The spines on his back rose in challenge.

Argo’s lips were cracked, a trail of blood following him down his right leg. He looked like he was going to say something. Lierna didn’t give him the chance and instead carried him back toward the gate.

“Let them have it!” Harbeck roared, bringing Jerrick’s attention back to the battle in front of them.

Jerrick activated his gauntlets, using the simple control button on the back of his hands. A red crackling energy popped to life. He lifted the rifle in his hands, hoping it would work.

Jordan and Harbeck opened fire beside him, the noises of their weapons discharging; Harbeck’s especially sounded like being in the middle of a thunderstorm.

Jerrick lifted the weapon, eyeing down the barrel. There was no way he could have anticipated what would happen next.

Chapter Eighteen

The only training Jerrick had firing a weapon was with the pulse rifles he and Leopold had liberated from the dead tickers. The only practice he had with the gauntlets were a few trial runs in sections of the city uninhabited by the general populace and he had nearly killed himself by accident twice.

Jerrick’s hands shook as he held the rifle to his eye and sighted down the barrel. The oncoming horde was less than a hundred yards from them now. Jerrick could see the pure insanity on their horrific faces. Mouths gaped at him with tusks full of crooked yellow teeth.


Harbeck opened fire with his Mecha, hosing the oncoming horde with all three of his weapons. The front line of the approaching army went down as bullets punctured their armor and pierced their skulls and hearts.

Jordan followed suit from the opposite side of Harbeck, sending a volley of blue laser fire into the enemy. Everyone in the city had been instructed by King Orsik and Clan Ironhammer to aim for their heads. It seemed this enemy didn’t react to pain like everyone else. The quickest way to put them down for good was efficient fatal damage.

“Fire your weapon!” Harbeck screamed from his Mecha.

Jerrick shook his head, clearing his mind from the sensory overload he was suffering at the moment.

Jerrick tried to swallow, but there was nothing there. The crackling red energy that lived on his gauntlets raced across his rifle. Jerrick aimed at the center of the approaching army and squeezed the trigger.


Not a single round but rather an explosive charge shot forward from his weapon in a red streak and detonated on impact. Jerrick felt little to no recoil, but the effect of his weapon spoke for itself.

Smoke and fire lathered the area where his round landed. Sand kicked up into the air, and a dark crater replaced the area where a dozen of the horde had once before. Body parts from the enemy ranks rained down all around the rest of the army. Jerrick looked down at his weapon with large eyes.

“Atta boy!” Harbeck bellowed as he walked backwards toward the gates. “Pour it on ‘em! Let them have it!”


Jerrick gritted his teeth. Like a man possessed, he pumped round after round into the oncoming force. Death and destruction followed every trigger pull of his weapon. As one, the three combatants providing covering fire moved backwards toward the supposed safety of the city gates.

For a moment, between their superior fire power, it almost looked as though they would make it back to the relative safety of the city gates. Then the horde wised up to their tactics and decided to send their own projectiles at the retreating trio.

Spears, arrows and rocks peppered the ground around their retreat. Jerrick chanced a look behind him to see that the others had nearly reached the gates.

A monstrous bellow made him look back toward the enemy that surged forward. It seemed for every soldier they managed to obliterate, three more took its place.

The roar came again. Jerrick looked to his left, where a giant hurled a spear too small for his hand. In slow motion, Jerrick saw the spear travel through the air and strike Jordan’s left leg.

“UGHHH!” she screamed in pain as she went down to the desert ground.

An arrow flashed in front of Jerrick, nearly taking off his head. He ignored the weapons burying themselves in the sand around him and ran to Jordan.

“I’ll shield you; get her up!” Harbeck said, positioning his Mecha in front of Jordan and Jerrick.

The primitive weapons glanced off Harbeck’s armor, making hard smacking noises.

Jerrick raced to Jordan, skidding to a halt beside her. He powered down his gloves, looking at her wound. She was fortunate the spear hadn’t impaled itself on her leg. There was a bad-looking graze ripping her pants open at the thigh. A few more inches to the left and it would have skewered her leg like a shish kabob.

“I got you,” Jerrick said. He lifted Jordan over his shoulder. “Let’s go!”

The enemy horde closed in around them. Without Jerrick’s and Jordan’s weapons to help, they had no chance of holding back the enemy army.

“Grrrr!” Jordan roared. “I’m better than that, I’m better than that! I can still fight! Give me my weapon!”

Jerrick wasn’t going to at first, but he knew arguing right now would be pointless. He knelt down with her over his right shoulder to let her scoop her weapon from the ground. As soon as she had, he sprinted for the gates, Jordan over his right shoulder, his own weapon in his left hand.

To her credit, Jordan somehow still fired her pulse rifle from her spot over Jerrick’s shoulder. Harbeck covered their retreat, but the enemy was about to overrun their position. It would come down to hand-to-hand combat at any moment.

We were so close, Jerrick thought to himself as he stared at the city gates no more than a hundred yards off. A group of soldiers stood just inside the entrances, waving them forward in a panic. We almost made it.

“Jordan, I think I love you!” Jerrick shouted as loud as he could over the sounds of war. “Not the best time. I know.”

Jordan stopped firing her weapon long enough to say, “I think I love you too! Don’t give up yet! Let’s fight for the chance to figure it all out!”

Jordan’s words gave him the determination he needed to continue forward. If he was going to be caught by the enemy army, it wasn’t going to be because he gave up.

His lungs and legs burned as he crossed the distance to safety. Something hit him in the left calf. It felt like an animal had jumped up and bitten him. Jerrick went down with Jordan on top of him.

The pain was dulled by the adrenaline pumping through his veins. Perspiration trickled into his eyes as he looked down at his left calf. The shaft of an arrow stuck out from the meaty part of his muscle.

Jerrick looked to his left where Jordan had landed. She was limping toward him, trying to recover from the fall. The sun was nearly down now. The horde of enemies had overrun Harbeck’s Mecha, tackling the giant steel soldier, hacking at him with swords and clubs.

An enemy soldier flanking them from the right came at Jordan on all fours. She didn’t see him coming. Before Jerrick could form a warning, Ugly came out of nowhere, a green streak across the cream-colored sand. He tackled the soldier, digging his fangs into the underside of its throat.

Good boy, Jerrick thought to himself. Good boy, we’re not out of this yet.

One particularly grotesque soldier with a scar down his right cheek ran for Jerrick. His eyes spoke violence; the blade in his right hand promised it. He swung upward.

Jerrick activated his gauntlets once more. The green-skinned beast in front of him brought down his weapon. Then, as if by some morbid magic trick, his head exploded. It was there one moment, snarling and glaring, and gone the next.

The enemy soldier sank to its knees. Its headless body slumped to the desert floor in a pool of blood.

The sky ripped itself apart with the sounds of thunder. Strong hands grabbed Jerrick and Jordan and lifted them to their feet. Jerrick looked behind him with an open mouth. King Orsik led a small group of infantry to herd them safely inside the gates.

The red-haired king was a true source of inspiration as he swung his war hammer in a tight circle, pulverizing the skull of one enemy then coming back to severe the head of another.

The sounds of thunder came from the top of the wall where the Long Shot Corps let loose with their long rifles. Everywhere Jerrick looked, the enemy was losing their heads as more and more shots from the snipers on the wall found their marks.

With the help of his comrades on the wall, Harbeck succeeded in freeing himself from the vanguard of the approaching army. Together they staggered back into the city gates. Jerrick and Jordan were aided with a stocky infantryman on either side as they were dragged inside. Ugly followed close, his maw dripping with gore. Harbeck came last, ducking under the city gates. His armor was dented and rent, but no attack seemed to have penetrated the outside of his armor.

The gates closed behind them with a definitive thud.

A cheer rose from those on the wall as the enemy army retreated out of firing range. Jerrick was carried through the courtyard to the first house in the city on the right. Grizla waited there with a handful of healers from her city. Argo, the older man in purple robes, and Jordan were already there.

Jerrick was placed on a cot next to Jordan as Grizla examined his calf.

“If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were doing this on purpose.” Grizla shook her head with a motherly grin. “I can get you something for the pain. We’ll need to break the arrow going through your leg and pull it out from the other side.”

Jerrick looked down at the black arrow puncturing his calf. It looked worse somehow now that his life wasn’t in immediate danger. The pain was starting to hit him harder and in waves. It felt like a white hot poker was being driven through his leg.

“Save the pain meds for soldiers who are going to need it in the coming days.” Jerrick pushed himself into a sitting position. “Just do it.”

Grizla moved quickly, as if she were expecting this answer. With swift, efficient movements, she snapped the head of the arrow from the shaft. The action sent a tremor of pain through Jerrick’s leg and up his entire body.

The head of the arrow was a wicked-looking piece of notched steel more than an inch in diameter.

A man with a white robe came to stand next to Grizla with a towel, a basin of water, and bandages. Grizla nodded to her counterpart.

“As soon as I remove the shaft, there will be a lot of bleeding. Be ready to apply pressure.” Grizla looked up at Jerrick now. She gripped the end of the arrow. “Are you sure you want to do this with no pain meds?”

“Actually, on second thought, I sh—ARGGG!” Jerrick roared in agony as Grizla ripped the shaft free. The man helping her moved in swiftly with the towel to stop the bleeding.

Jerrick pounded the bed with his fists. He wanted to squirm in pain, but he was afraid of moving his leg.

“What was up with that?” Jerrick was half mad at Grizla, half grateful it was over. “No countdown? No warning? Just rip it right out, huh?”

“Do you want me to put it back in?” Grizla asked with a thin smile. “You did well. You need rest now.”

Jerrick wanted to argue, but he knew she was right. A cold layer of sweat covered his body as he lay back in his bed. He looked over at Jordan, who was having her wound bathed in salve and wrapped. She was staring at him with concern in her eyes.

“I’m all right, I’m okay,” Jerrick said as Grizla worked on his leg. “But I’m eating my words now. Maybe I will take something for the pain.”

Grizla’s assistant came back a moment later with two pills and a glass of water. Jerrick accepted the medicine, grateful, and chugged the glass of cool water like it was the best thing he had ever tasted.

Sleep came for him faster than he would have liked. He wanted to check on Jordan to see how she was dealing with the pain. He wanted to talk to Argo and the man in the purple robe lying in the infirmary across from them. He needed to know what had happened to them. All of this would have to wait as his world turned to blackness.

Chapter Nineteen

Leopold stood in the infirmary looking down at Jerrick’s sleeping body. In times where they were all struggling for the right to live, Leopold understood they would all be called on to fight. Trying to protect Jack from this was pointless.

Not Jack, Jerrick, Jerrick, Leopold reminded himself. Your son’s gone. I wonder if he and Jerrick would have been friends?

Leopold stood with a sad smile on his face, thinking of the son he had lost so many years before. There wasn’t a day that passed he didn’t remember his Jack with fondness.

Leopold stood there for a long time. Those in the infirmary let him be. Even Jordan, who had said hello to him when he entered, realized the elderly inventor needed a moment with Jerrick.

The infirmary was longer than it was wide. At one point, it had been a store or a restaurant; Leopold couldn’t remember. It had since been repurposed by Grizla and her team to take care of the wounded sure to follow a war such as their own.

Beds lined either wall with cabinets stacked with supplies and medicines. Windows let in the cool night air. Noises from the city and the wall carried white noise into the room. Shouts and boots on pavement as soldiers and civilians alike ran to carry out their tasks peppered the calm inside the infirmary.

“Someone called for me?” King Orsik asked, entering the building. Leopold looked over at the well-built leader of Clan Ironhammer with no answer to his question.

“Yes,” Grizla said, quickly walking over from Argo’s side. “Argo and Melrin have news best heard behind closed doors.”

Leopold looked down the infirmary aisle. Besides their own group, there were only a handful of soldiers and civilians in for care. A skeleton crew of healers led by Grizla looked after them all.

King Orsik nodded to Grizla. He noticed Leopold for the first time and waved him over. “Something tells me you should hear this too. You might be able to shed light on what we face now.”

Leopold walked over wiping at red eyes brought on by thoughts of his son. The inventor joined Grizla and King Orsik beside Argo’s and Melrin’s beds. The former was sitting propped up, a bandage around his head and leg. The latter was still lying down, a thick bandage securing his torso. He was asleep or at least seemed like he was.

“Melrin used up too much of himself, and magic comes with a cost,” Grizla said as if it were a simple fact they all needed to embrace. “But Argo can speak for what happened to them.”

Leopold saw Jordan perk up from her own cot on the opposite side of the room. The stubborn physical educator from city one rose from her bed and hobbled over to hear what Argo was about to say.

“I know I shouldn’t be surprised at anything on this nightmare of a planet anymore.” Argo started licking at his cracked lips. The warrior shook his head looking at each of them in turn. “I don’t know how to explain what I saw coming for us.”

“Start from the beginning,” Grizla said, placing a tender hand on the young warrior’s shoulder. “What happened to you two?”

“Melrin and I stayed behind to protect the retreat of his—of your people,” Argo said, correcting himself. “We both thought we were going to die and we were okay with that. The children, the kids, they needed to live, and if that meant us dying, then so be it.”

Argo paused, shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe the events he was about to explain.

“The vanguard of the army caught up with us first. We’d be dead if it wasn’t for Melrin.” Argo paused to look at Grizla. “How come you never told us your people could perform magic? How come you never told us that’s why you can heal so well?”

All eyes in the room turned to Grizla. Leopold had always suspected there was something different about the woman who never spoke about her past. She was a leader in every sense of the word, always ready to lend a helping hand, and now it seemed she might be even more than this.

“Magic isn’t something everyone is so willing to accept,” Grizla explained. “People are afraid of what they don’t understand. People in my city are gifted with abilities to some extent or another, but very few are able to control and use it properly. I promised myself a long time ago I’d only use my ability to heal. There are enough killers in this brave new world of ours. I chose to keep my secret while I was with you, until now.”

“Then what happened?” King Orsik asked Argo, trying to get the narrative back on track. “What did you see coming for us?”

“We fought the vanguard back, sustaining injuries on top of injuries, but somehow, Melrin and I managed to survive,” Argo said, staring past the group he was speaking with. His eyes fought to put into words what they had seen hours before. “We killed them all, Melrin burned most of them, but I took down a few myself. We were a mess, bloody and broken, when he saw it.”

Argo swallowed hard, shaking his head again.

“I should say that we heard from the refugees that the enemy legion had some kind of giant monster.” Argo backtracked for a moment. “The horde took city five not through the main gates but by breaking down the wall. This animal they have did that for them. It’s huge, bigger than one of their giants or a Mecha. It’s nearly as tall as the wall itself.”

“But what is it?” Jordan asked. “A bigger giant? An animal?”

“I don’t—” Argo stopped to try and gather his words. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“I have an idea,” Leopold said, looking over to Grizla. “Do you have paper and a pen? Maybe he can draw it for us?”

“Good thinking,” Grizla said, heading for a cabinet. She returned a moment later with a clipboard of paper and a pen.

Leopold watched Argo as the young centurion hailing from city four took the paper and pen in tentative hands. Leopold had seen the man volunteer time and time again to go out in the desert wasteland with no sense of fear in his eyes. What disturbed Leopold the most wasn’t whatever image Argo now sketched on the paper but rather the sheer terror in his eyes as he did so.

“Hey, it’s okay.” Jordan must have seen the same thing as Leopold. She went over to Argo and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Whatever this is, whatever that army has in store for us next, we’ll face it together and get through it just like everything else.”

Argo ran a tongue over the inside of his mouth. He nodded, taking a deep breath, and went back to work sketching the image of the beast.

Leopold fought the need to go over and peek over his shoulder. As much as he wanted to, he knew Argo was going at his own speed and doing so would only serve to fluster the young warrior further.

The group waited in silence until Argo finally removed the pen from the paper. He looked at it sideways. “I’ve never claimed to be an artist, but you’ll get the general idea. It stands almost as tall as the city wall. It was chained when I saw it controlled by six of their giants.”

Argo revealed what he had been drawing on the piece of paper. Leopold leaned in, his heart catching in his throat as his mind studied the impossible. The drawing Argo had sketched was of some kind of massive lizard. It stood on two feet with a bulky body and long tail. Two much smaller forearms made its upper body seem disproportionate compared to the size of its lower body. Its colossal head was built around a pair of gigantic jaws with rows of sharp teeth embedded deep within.

“A dragon,” King Orsik whispered.

“A dinosaur?” Jordan said at the same time.

The two city leaders looked at one another for a consensus.

“I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this before.” Argo looked to the others to tell him that he wasn’t going crazy. “You know what it is?”

“We have a name for them in my city as well,” Leopold said, thinking back to a time when his young son was infatuated with the creatures. “We called them Thunder Lizards, but they were animals of myth, not fact.”

“I’ve never seen one before.” Grizla shook her head.

“This is what destroyed city five,” Argo said, looking down at his drawing. “When Melrin and I were at the back of the convoy heading here, we heard the refugees whispering of such an animal. I didn’t believe it until I saw it myself. The army will be able to attack us from any direction with a weapon like this. They don’t need to come through the front gates.”

A moment of silence passed over the group as they realized the sobering truth at once. Even with Clan Ironhammer swelling their fighting force, they were far too few to man every part of the giant wall circling the city around them.

Think you old fool, think. Leopold racked his mind for an answer. How are you going to protect these people? You can’t let history repeat itself. You won’t let your city fall twice.

“We open the gates.” Leopold decided to speak his mind as soon as he landed on the answer. Everything inside him told him this was madness. That this was the very way his city had fallen before. There didn’t seem to be another choice at the moment.

“Do you want to rethink that?” Argo asked incredulously. “The army we saw numbered at least ten thousand strong plus this Thunder Lizard or dragon or dinosaur or whatever you want to call it.”

“Not just that,” King Orsik added. “The army will grow in number when the force from the north that defeated Jordan’s city links up with the one outside of our walls. However, I think I understand what Leopold is getting at.”

“If we open our own gates, at least we get to choose the battlefield.” Jordan said what they were all now thinking. “But how can we be one hundred percent sure that they won’t attack the wall anywhere else and only come through the gates?”

“We can’t be sure,” Grizla answered. “We’ll still have to post sentries along the wall where we can, but I do agree this would be our best bet.”

“They attacked our gates head on when we marched our army to the front of our city,” King Orsik said. “I don’t think it would be in their nature to find another place on the wall to attack if the front doors were open.”

“We’ll need to defend the gates with alternate plans to retreat further into the city if we’re overrun,” Jordan said, shaking her head. “This is crazy, but what else did I expect?”

“We’ll find a way to endure this as well,” Grizla said as all eyes in the room turned to her. “We have survivors from each of the five cities with us. We have soldiers, Mecha, and Warlocks fighting with us. We’ll find a way.”

Leopold wished he felt so determined. He wished he had more words of inspiration to share. In that moment, it was all he could do to push back the memories of his past and move forward with a plan.

“Where do we start?” Leopold asked. “Unless I’m wrong, we have precious few hours to prepare.”

Chapter Twenty

Jordan stood on the wall with members of Clan Ironhammer’s Long Shot Corp. Ugly rested by her feet, looking up at her every so often as if imploring with his horrific face that he wanted a scratch. Jordan gave in on his second attempt. She rubbed at the spot on top of his scaly head right between his ears.

“I bet you’re rethinking your decision to follow me back, aren’t you?” Jordan shook her head with a smile as Ugly closed his eyes, his tongue lolling out the right side of his mouth, enjoying the moment. “You would have been safer out there in the desert.”

Jordan turned her eyes back to the rising sun and the vast army that gathered outside of their wall. During the night, scouts had reported that the two factions of the enemy army had linked up. Estimates numbered them somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand strong. Although Jordan could not see the nightmare beast Argo had drawn, she had no doubt that it too was out there.

They would be outnumbered more than five to one when the fighting started. Even now King Orsik and Grizla were going around the city, asking for volunteers to bolster their fighting force. Only the very young and very old were passed over. But even these free citizens played roles. They were given positions as runners, bringing ammunition and supplies where they were needed, or aiding in the infirmary.

If they could walk, then they were asked to help. A chance at victory did exist, but it only lived down the path where everyone did their part together.

The pain in her leg nagged at her more than anything else. The spear that had nearly impaled her thigh left a nice deep gash. Grizla had placed her hands on the wound, reciting words Jordan didn’t understand. When the older woman was done, her leg was far from healed, but a thick scab lay over her open flesh. A tight bandage was wrapped around that to keep it from bleeding again.

The trip up to the wall had been long and slow, one fraught with pain and many breaks, but Jordan knew she had to see for herself. She had to see the sunrise on what could be her last day.

Memories of a rising sun much like the one in front of her tickled the back of her mind. It was the morning she had first been cast out beyond her wall, an act that seemed like it had happened to someone long ago.

“Strangely beautiful, isn’t it?”

Jordan jolted at the sound of the voice beside her. The Warlock named Melrin from Grizla’s home city stood beside her. He was bandaged, his face haggard, but he was there.

“Yeah—yeah despite the odds, it is,” Jordan said, rolling her shoulders to adjust the strap over her right shoulder that held her pulse rifle on her back. “I’d ask how you’re feeling, but that seems like an obvious question.”

Melrin smiled a knowing grin that told her he knew exactly what she was talking about. He looked down to her bandaged leg. “I could say the same for you. As soon as I awoke, I was informed of the insanity of our plan to hold the city.”

“You don’t approve?” Jordan asked with a raised eyebrow.

“I didn’t say that.” Melrin shook his head, staring out into the army in front of him. “Sometimes the only sane plan lies down the path of insanity. King Orsik informed me of our strategy. We’re going to lure them into the gates and bottleneck them there. The Mecha and infantry will take up defensive positions just inside the gates. The entrance will fill with their own dead blocking the rest of them out. They’ll try to go over the walls then, and if that fails, they’ll use their creature. Sound about right?”

“Yeah, and when you put it like that, it sounds even crazier.” Jordan couldn’t help but grin. “Where are you going to be when the fighting starts?”

“I get the lucky job of dealing with the creature they’ve brought,” Melrin said, pursing his lips. “That will be my part.”

Jordan didn’t really know what to say. Any offer on her part to help seemed silly. She wasn’t going to be able to do anything against a dinosaur with a wounded leg and a pulse rifle. Still, it wasn’t in her nature not to offer.

“If you need it, you know I’ll help if I can. So will others,” Jordan said.

“Oh, I know and thank you.” Melrin heaved a huge cleansing sigh. “But that foe will be beyond any of you. I should go. I think there is someone who’d like to speak with you.”

Jordan looked past Melrin to see Jerrick limping up the last flight of stairs. He looked like he was about to pass out.

“What are you doing?” Jordan hobbled to him, shaking her head. “You stubborn, stubborn man. I guess I should have known.”

Jerrick let out a laugh as Jordan came to him. She helped him the rest of the way to the wall with an arm around his shoulder.

“What’s the joke?” Jordan asked the man who had come to mean so much to her in the last few days. “I feel like I’m missing out on a chance to laugh and I really need a laugh right now.”

“Nothing, just…” Jerrick stopped to chuckle again then winced. “We were hobbling to each other like we used to after a serious leg day back in the gym. I don’t know, it doesn’t seem that funny now when I say it out loud. Maybe I just really wanted something to laugh about.”

Jordan cracked a grin. “I wish the worst we had to worry about now were sore glutes, hamstrings, and quads, not some monster army with a dinosaur.”

“Yeah.” Jerrick lifted his head, laughing again. “I heard they had a freaking Tyrannosaurus Rex with them. What are the odds of that? I swear you couldn’t write this stuff.”

“Well, you seem to be taking it well,” Jordan observed. “I guess I’d rather go to my death with a smile than a tear.”

“We’re not going to die,” Jerrick said with so much finality it took Jordan by surprise.

“I’m not giving up,” Jordan said, touching the leather strap across her chest that held her rifle on her back. “I’m not saying that. I’m just saying this might be where we go down swinging.”

“I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one, boss,” Jerrick said, looking over at Jordan. “We can’t die yet. Not when you just told me you loved me.”

If Jordan was drinking something, she would have spit it out. That would have been less embarrassing than what really happened. She was swallowing her saliva, when Jerrick took her by surprise, and she choked on the action.

“Are you okay?” Jerrick asked as Jordan waved him away, coughing.

“I’m fine.” Jordan felt heat rush to her face. “And the way I remember it, you were telling me that you loved me while you carried me back to the gates when YOU thought we were going to die. Great timing, by the way.”

“Listen, listen,” Jerrick said, drawing Jordan in close with his muscular arms. “It doesn’t really matter if you told me first and then I told you—”

“You told me first and you know it.” Jordan laughed, allowing herself to be pulled into Jerrick.

“Tomato, tomawto,” Jerrick said, saying the same word and pronouncing it two different ways. “Whatever order it was said in doesn’t really matter. Despite my timing, I meant every word.”

Jordan paused for a moment. She wanted to make sure she was honest with Jerrick, that her words said in haste when they were on death’s doorstep were how she actually felt. They were.

“I love you too,” Jordan said. It was only as the words left her lips that she realized she had never told anyone outside of her parents these words before. “Okay, we can live through this, I guess.”

Instead of saying anything else, Jerrick pressed his lips to hers gently, then with a bit more pressure. Jordan closed her eyes, losing herself in the feeling of ecstasy. Her lips tingled, her head swam with endorphins.

Jordan felt like she could have stood there on the wall for the next few hours holding the man who had started as a friend and now ended as something entirely different. Duty and the hour separated the two.

“So are we officially boyfriend and girlfriend now?” Jerrick asked, cocking his head to the side. “I think we skipped that step.”

“Yeah, I guess so. I’ll have to tell all the other eligible bachelors from the various cities that I’m off the market. I—”

Roaring interrupted Jordan’s moment with Jerrick. So many throats yelling to the heavens, it melded into one sound neither human nor machine, but rather something from a nightmare.

Jordan looked over the wall. The enemy had set their lines a good mile from the city to be sure they were out of range of the Long Shot Corps that manned the walls.

Dead bodies of their own downed soldiers pocketed the desert in the open space between them and the city gates. It was difficult to pick up movement from their vantage point, but Jordan could guess why the army was working itself into a frenzy.

Past the open ground between the two factions, the enemy army stood in such great numbers, they blotted out the desert sand itself. They stood neither in rows or file, only one giant green maelstrom of snarling teeth and hate-filled eyes.

“I should go,” Jerrick said, pressing his lips to Jordan’s one last time. “Leopold and Balon said they have the armor ready for my suit. I’m not sure how well it’s going to work with my leg, but we’ll make it happen. I’ll see you soon.”

“You be careful too,” Jordan said, regretting she hadn’t pushed for Jerrick to be on the wall with her.

That was it. Jerrick limped his way down the stairs as the Long Shot Corps ran back and forth across the battlements preparing their own defenses. A pair of heavy turrets with rotating barrels had been erected on each side of the gate below them. The stocky men from city two lined the walls, checking and rechecking their gear.

Runners from the other cities climbed up and down the stairs, bringing items Jordan recognized like ammunition crates and water jugs.

Down below, King Orsik settled his men and Mecha. The four Mecha would stand shoulder to shoulder just inside the open city gates. The heavy infantry unit was split in half and stationed in vertical lines on either side of the Mecha. In this way, a crude crescent shape would greet the enemy army as they sprinted through the gates.

Barriers of stone and wood had been erected for the infantry. King Orsik stood in the middle of the square with his blue cape billowing behind him. He lifted his war hammer into the air, shouting over the crashes the enemy legion made.

“We are all going to die one day!” King Orsik roared in such a way it would have made Rhun himself proud. “There’s only one question. Will you die on your feet for your freedom!? Or will you do so on your knees!”

Not just the soldiers from city two, but everyone cheered in defiance of their enemy. Jordan pounded her chest alongside the others. She lifted her weapon from the sling on her back as she screamed.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re far away from here, Rhun. Jordan said a silent prayer for the military general as King Orsik’s speech brought the Alpha Centaury to her mind. I hope you found your wife and you’re far, far away from here.

Chapter Twenty-One

Rhun sat next to his wife as the vehicle traveled through the night. She was the only thing that seemed familiar to him in the alien means of transportation, and even she was a new addition to his side.

Rhun swayed with the hovering craft as it traveled up and down dunes as easily as he would be able to navigate them himself, only much quicker. He sat on a bench with a narrow aisle between him and another bench that faced him. The craft was longer than it was wide. There were seats for six soldiers on one side and six on the other. To Rhun’s right, a thick sheet of metal separated a driver and co-driver’s seat. A square window offered him a view into their quarters.

The last thing that caught Rhun’s interest was a spot in the center of the aisle with a circular opening. A soldier stood there now visible only from the waist down. The Arulion soldier manned what he had heard them call a “Seventy,” a long-range projectile weapon like the blaster Rhun had seen in action.

The vehicle in which they sat could have held more, but Rhun realized Tracan and Eldar desired privacy when they went over the strategy for their attack. Both of the aliens hunched over a holographic display of the city and the latest reports of the enemy movement.

The hologram was light blue and looked like magic to Rhun. He of course knew it was some kind of advanced technology, but that did not change the wonder he felt in his heart when he saw the display pop to life.

“These are the latest troop movements we have at this time. We will arrive at the scene of battle tomorrow sometime around midday,” Eldar explained as he maneuvered the hologram around and viewed it from different angles. To do this, he used a kind of metal glove he wore on either hand.

Rhun studied the map quietly, going over plans and alternate plans. He knew more than most that a battle rarely went as one expected. They would have to adjust and improvise on the move.

“Even when we join forces with the survivors in the city, we’ll be outnumbered,” Tracan said out loud. Unlike Eldar, he leaned back in his seat. His armor shone in the dull yellow light of the interior of their craft. “Our superior technology will counterbalance that. I’m not saying I expect an easy victory, but I feel it is well within our grasp.”

“Your technology will help immensely, but it will be far from easy,” Rhun said. His dark eyes never left the hologram. “How many engagements have you and your men been in?”

“I don’t see how that matters, when we have things like pulse rifles and weaponized vehicles like our Juggernauts and Raptors to use against them,” Tracan said with an air of disdain.

“We haven’t been in any,” Eldar answered Rhun’s question. “That’s why we have you.”

“We should stay back as far as possible and use your advanced weapons to take them out at a distance,” Rhun said, waiting for the question he knew was sure to come.

“Do you think us cowards?” Tracan asked.

“No, but I know you are untested, and even the hardest man pisses himself in his first engagement. I’d do the same if it was my first time in a battle against an enemy force of men, much less a force of these creatures.”

“These creatures that you have allowed to fester in city three,” Cara said from her husband’s side. “I won’t get into that now.”

A tense moment passed as the foursome thought on her words.

Rhun looked over to see the muscles in Tracan’s jawline bulge yet again as he clenched his teeth.

“We should take the time to flank them and hit them from the rear,” Rhun said, pointing a finger at the red dot on the map that represented the enemy horde. “We can bet by the time we arrive there, their two armies will have come together as one. We surprise them from the rear and unload everything you have on them. They’ll turn to attack us and then you can prove how courageous your soldiers are. You mentioned the terms Juggernaut and Raptor?”

“The two classes of vehicles we have with us.” Eldar looked around the interior of their craft. “This is a Juggernaut, built to carry troops more than for war but still equipped with a seventy long-range rifle on the roof. The Raptors carry less soldiers but come with a pair of the seventies as well as a plasma cannon that fires explosive rounds.”

“If we can catch them off guard, we should be able to do a tremendous amount of damage,” Rhun said, lifting an eyebrow. “Now what else aren’t you telling me?”

Tracan and Eldar exchanged glances with one another.

“We’ve been around enough politicians to know when the truth isn’t being fully revealed,” Cara said, rubbing at tired eyes. “Out with it.”

“They have a creature with them they used to conquer city five. It can crush walls with its tail and I’m afraid its outer scales may be invulnerable to anything but our plasma cannons,” Tracan said as Eldar transitioned the hologram from the scene of the battle to a predatory-looking animal with a massive head, short forearms, and sweeping lizard-like tail.

Rhun had never seen anything like it before. He could hear his wife next to him inhale, not in fear but in shock.

“You said it’s large enough to batter down city walls?” Cara asked.

“I’m afraid so,” Eldar responded.

“We do have one advantage,” Tracan added. “We still control the remaining tickers in the desert. They have proved unable to combat the army from city three, but perhaps we can use them as a distraction somewhere in our plans.”

“Perhaps we can,” Rhun agreed as his mind attacked the problem in front of him from different angles. Rhun was about to elaborate on the topic, when a hard knock came from the rear doors of their Juggernaut.

The soldier who manned the seventies in the center of the vehicle came down from his nest. His face was masked in the mirror helmet. He moved to the rear door where a control panel on the left opened the back hatch. The hatch split from the center with half the door lowering to the ground and the other half rising up.

Two more Arulion soldiers jogged next to the Juggernaut, exchanging words with the seventies gunner. They handed him three packages. The first two were armor and the last looked like a bag of food items.

The soldier then closed the door and returned, offering the armor and food to his superior officers. Eldar nodded, handing the items over to Rhun and Cara.

“I imagined you’d be requesting some of your own, so I took the liberty,” Eldar said, looking to Cara as he handed her the armor. “There’s also food and water. You’ll need it along with rest.”

Rhun and his wife accepted the light green and gold armor. The seventies gunner went back to his perch. Tracan and Eldar respectfully moved their eyes to the front of the vehicle while Rhun and Cara changed in the rear of the Juggernaut.

Rhun was in the process of exchanging the desert-colored cloak he wore for a thin breastplate made of interwoven metal strands when he decided to ask the question.

“What alien species am I a hybrid of?” Rhun couldn’t believe he was asking the question. A part of him didn’t even want to know. “Why did you choose that species?”

Rhun saw Tracan look to Eldar. The two Arulion did not say anything out loud, nevertheless, it was clear there was a decision being made. Whether Rhun was getting the truth or not he wasn’t sure.

“You are all half human; every city started off with that as a base,” Tracan said above the dull hum the Juggernaut made as it hovered over the desert sand. “Your species in particular are called the Sparicians. They belong to a planet in the Nova Prime Galaxy.”

“And this Pandora Experiment was set in place to find the perfect super soldier for your own Arulion army,” Cara said as she pushed her feet into the high-kneed boots. “So when this is all over, we’re what? Your slave soldiers?”

“Of course not,” Eldar said, shaking his head.

“You can turn around now,” Rhun instructed.

Tracan and Eldar sat back in their seats, looking to the husband and wife pair. They gave them both approving nods.

Rhun had to admit the craftsmanship of the armor wasn’t as painstakingly detailed as Balon’s, but it was much lighter and less bulky. He would be free to move in the defensive gear while still being protected.

“With your help in defeating the Olg, I will ask that the High Council reward your efforts with freedom,” Eldar said with a smile as he handed them silver cylinder containers of water and packaged food. “You have my word on this.”

“You’d see us freed, but your experiment will have been successful and still move forward,” Cara said with no hint of anything but calm in her voice. “You’ll still have your blueprint for your perfect soldier.”

“The Arulian High Council will have all the answers it needs when this war is finished. They do not answer to you,” Tracan said with just as much calm in his voice. “Eldar is right. We should be able to convince them to free you for your aid in defeating the Olg. That is a generous offer.”

Rhun was ready to jump into action. His wife was not usually as fiery as she had been since he rescued her from the Olg. He couldn’t blame her. She’d been through enough. If she did try anything now, he would be forced to follow her actions to whatever end they would travel.

Instead of a word, Rhun placed a hand on her left knee. He squeezed gently, just to let her know he was there, to let her know that he would follow her into the abyss if she led him in that direction.

Cara tensed under his hand then relaxed.

“I guess there’s no point of speculation and words to be said that cannot be unsaid while we have an enemy waiting to be defeated,” Rhun said to everyone in the Juggernaut. He noticed that even the soldier on the seventies stood tense, ready to leap down into action. “We should worry about the Olg now. Once they are defeated, we can work out our differences.”

“I agree,” Cara said, clearing her throat. She went back to opening up the food and water packages.

“Strange times will call for strange allies to be met,” Eldar said in a friendly tone as if he were repeating some kind of ancient proverb. “You’re right, Rhun Tarhound. Together we can defeat the Olg and together we will usher in a new age.”

Rhun let the cool water from the canteen he carried run down his lips. Right now, he needed to recharge with food and rest. This would be the last time he would be afforded either before the final fight began.

I’m coming, Rhun thought to himself as his mind wandered to the city under siege. Images of his friends—Argo, Lierna, Grizla, Jordan, Jerrick, Leopold and others— played across his mind. Hold the city. Help is on the way. Hold the city.

Chapter Twenty-Two

A battle on this scale was unlike anything Jordan had ever seen. When the horde came, they gushed over the desert like some kind of black tar that bubbled forth from hell itself.

There was still no sign of the dinosaur the enemy legion possessed. They came with their infantry and their giants.

Melrin had rejoined Jordan on the wall. The sounds of shouting from their own lines along with the screaming of the charging enemy mixed into some kind of insane cacophony of sound Jordan hoped she would never have to hear again.

She felt sick, excited, nervous, scared, and ready to fight all at once. The urge of having to go to the bathroom pulled at her gut, but that was just her nerves. It happened to her anytime an extreme wave of anxiety washed over her.

“Steady!” the commander of the Long Shot Corp yelled over the sounds of war. How his voice could carry so clear was a mystery to Jordan. “Wait for my order!”

Jordan stood at the center of the wall, Melrin on her right with the commander of the Long Shot Corp on her left. Ugly patrolled the battlements, sniffing and whining with anticipation.

“It’ll happen quickly,” Melrin shouted into her ear. “Trust your instincts. Don’t think; act.”

Jordan tried to swallow, but there was nothing in her mouth to help her perform the act. She settled for gripping her pulse rifle in her sweaty hands.

The wall shuddered as the desert ground shook under the pressure of the approaching horde. Jordan could make out individual soldiers now as they moved with the speed of creatures half their size.

With the exception of the giants, they were all a head taller than any human Jordan had ever seen. Varying shades of green skin wrapped bulking muscles. Their weapons were crude with most carrying axes and clubs. Their armor was even more of a joke as if they had thought of their breastplates and shields as an afterthought.

The giants had to be nine to ten feet tall, moving slower than their counterparts. They were true monsters of nightmares, their skin tone matching the infantry. Thick beards and long hair hid most of their faces. There was no denying the ill intent in their eyes.

“Hold!” the commander shouted.

Jordan saw Melrin begin motioning with his hands in practiced movements. Words were said under his breath that Jordan couldn’t catch. He maneuvered his palms and fingers into shapes and symbols. His voice grew in tempo and volume as he continued his chant.

Voltaro, inferni, powierm,” Melrin began to say louder and louder. The deep purple hood fell from his head as his hands moved faster and faster.

In that moment, Jordan thought she saw the Warlock for what he truly was. Not a feeble elderly man. He was a beacon of power, and in his power, there was hope for the city.

Voltaro, inferni, powierm!” he shouted again and again until Jordan’s ears rang with his words. She knew she would never forget them.

“Unleash hell!” the Long Shot Corp commander bellowed from his spot on the wall. “Let them have it!”

If Jordan thought the noise level had been numbing before, she wasn’t sure how to describe what was happening around her now. Booming, as if the heavens had descended to the planet and she was right in the middle of the most intense thunderstorm ever witnessed.

Jordan’s ears rang with the sounds of weapons expiring. Jordan took Melrin’s advice to heart. She didn’t think. She aimed and pressed the trigger on her own weapon.

The Long Shot Corp on the wall maintained a steady stream of fire on the enemy. The pair of turrets operated by soldiers with goggles hosed the front lines of the enemy horde as they sprinted over the desert ground.

There were so many weapons being fired, Jordan wasn’t sure if the enemies she was aiming at went down due to her blue rounds or those rounds of the clansmen around her. Either way, scores of enemy soldiers fell to the ground, never to rise again. The sand was soon drenched in their nearly black blood as they made their way to the open gates.

Out of her peripheral vision, Jordan witnessed yet another impossible sight, something that was becoming a normality in the desert wasteland. Melrin held a pair of flames in each hand. The white hot fire danced in his palms as he hurled them not at the enemy infantry, but at the slower giants who ran just behind them.

The fire exploded on the giants like some kind of Molotov cocktail. It rippled down their hairy faces and ignited their tattered clothing. The most disturbing thing was they still came. Screaming not with pain but vengeance, the giants made their way to the city gates.

“Pour it on them!” The Long Shot Commander walked up and down the lines slapping his men on the back, giving them courage with his words. “Fire, fire, fi—”

He was right behind Melrin when a black arrow appeared as if by magic in his right eye socket. The commander grasped at his eye like a madman for one brief second. He slumped on the wall, dead the next.

“Incoming!” Melrin shouted, not missing a beat. “Don’t stop firing!”

The Long Shot Corp didn’t hesitate; if anything, the death of their leader spurred them on to fight even harder.

Jordan clenched her jaw, ducking as more arrows and rocks were flung at the wall. Jordan had to do a double take to convince her mind what she was seeing was reality. The enemy warriors on the ground continued to move forward despite missing limbs. Even if they had to crawl, they made their way to the gates.

Unless they were killed by head shots or so much trauma to their bodies they were forced out of the fight, they continued forward. Hundreds lay dead on the battlefield, more than twice that number wounded; still they came.

They reached the gates despite the valor of the Long Shot Corp on the wall. As soon as the first wave of enemy infantry reached the gates, the Mecha and the Ironhammer infantry opened up on them with death in the form of barrels.

As much as Jordan wanted to look behind her to see how the fight just inside the gate was progressing, she couldn’t. The giants had reached the walls.

The behemoths were a sight to behold, especially now, as Melrin’s magical fire ate their skin to the bone. The white of their skulls showed through both skin and flesh. One giant in particular’s face was mostly just skull now as he still continued forward.

“AGGGGGGH,” Jordan screamed as she aimed her rifle on the giant closest to their wall. The pulse rifle in her hands grew hot, smoke rising from her barrel like some nostril of a dragon.

Her aim was true, striking the macabre behemoth in his massive skull. The giant still did not fall. Instead, it reached the wall and hammered at the stone defense, shaking the wall and those on it.

The giant was still a good body length away from being able to reach up to them. That problem was soon remedied as more giants reached the wall, some stooping low to help their brethren grasp those on the battlements.

“Their eyes, their eyes; concentrate on their eyes!” Melrin roared as he sent a projectile of flame at a giant reaching up for him. His missile struck the goliath soldier between its eyes, eviscerating skin and flesh. The giant’s entire face exploded in white-hot fire. It fell backwards, crushing a dozen of the smaller horde infantry below. It thrashed over and over, clawing at its eyes. A moment later, it stilled.

A roar from the battlements went up as the Long Shot Corp along with Jordan changed their tactics, and instead of just going for the giants’ heads or the spot over their hearts, aimed for their eyes.

Jordan peppered the enemy giants preparing to mount the walls. The stink of charred flesh, the moans of the dying filled the air in a way she would never forget.

Both the old and young from city five ran back and forth from the battlements in their brightly colored robes. They carried ammunition to the defenders as well as lifted the wounded back to the infirmary.

Jordan paused to wipe the thick layer of sweat from her brow. Behind her, she saw a young girl staring in shock, her eyes on the bodies of the Long Short Corp who had fallen victim to enemy rocks, arrows, and spears.

Her gaze was fixed on one soldier in particular who had been skewered with a javelin through the center of his chest. Her jaw worked up and down, but no words escaped her lips as the horrific scene was branded into her mind for the rest of her life.

An elderly man from her city took her by the hand. He held her close for a moment then led her away.

The heat beat down on Jordan as she returned to her task. The giants were far fewer than the infantry they accompanied to the wall. Still, it took a small miracle to bring each of them down. If the Mecha fought them, then perhaps they could do a quicker job, but as of now, the Mecha were needed at the gates as they piled the dead so high the corpses made a wall of their own in the archway to the city.

A pair of giants had succeeded in their ploy. One of them bent low, boosting the other high enough it was able to make a grasp at the defenders on the battlements. A meaty hand reached over, plucking a Long Shot Corp soldier from the barricade. He screamed as his body was crushed in one horrific move.

“Move!” Melrin ordered from Jordan’s right.

A hand descended on her from another giant. The palm was as large as her torso, each finger as thick as her entire body.

A yellowish-white sword appeared in Melrin’s hand out of nowhere. He cut the giant’s hand free from his arm. The heavy appendage fell beside Jordan with a sick thud. The fingers still wiggled and moved like some giant spider dying of poisoning. Black blood squirted in every direction, covering Jordan and Melrin both in grotesque gore.

No roar of pain came from the giant; only the retraction of his now handless arm showed he even realized what had happened.

Jordan wiped the blood from her eyes, reminding herself to keep it together.

All around her, their defenses were holding. The Mecha and infantry maintained a steady stream of fire into the main gate while the Long Shot Corp kept the giants at bay.

Jordan lifted her rifle to her shoulder again and went to work. Time moved incredibly slow while seeming to speed up. She was in constant movement, her arms and head on a swivel as she moved from one target to the next. She reacted instead of thought until minutes passed like seconds.

The enemy dead piled so high in the archway to the city, it was starting to form a kind of ramp the giants used to reach the battlements. Melrin’s act on the wall was something of legend as he raced back and forth, striking out with his fiery sword at the hands descending on them.

Jordan aimed at the back of the skull of one of the giants who was bent over to allow one of his counterparts to climb on his back. She leaned over the battlements so far she almost fell, pumping round after round into the back of his skull until it finally gave way and she was rewarded with access to his brain matter.

The giant collapsed, sending the other giant on its back falling backward. Another cheer went up from those defending the wall. Slowly, they were taking out the giants.

Hope was soon lost as a primitive roar vibrated through the center of Jordan’s very being. Her sternum and ribs jostled as the creature she knew as a dinosaur appeared on the horizon.

It was larger than she thought. This creature would need no help reaching them on the battlement. It charged forward with a group of six giants prodding it along with chains and spears. Another bellow came from the beast and death followed with it.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Rhun forced himself to sleep in the Juggernaut; he more than most understood the value of rest and food before an engagement such as this. He would be doing no one any favors entering the battlefield tired and hungry.

With his sleep came the absence of dreams. He very much doubted any dream or nightmare would be able to compete with the insanity his life had spiraled into. Amidst all the wild happenings in the last few weeks, two beacons of hope tore at the darkness like a blade through water.

One was the hope that this would all soon be behind them. Although the future was unclear, at least the truth would be known. His wife was the second ray of inspiration. He had found her again and he would not leave her. Whatever came, they would face it together.

Rhun could have slept for a few days straight, he was sure of that. After their conversation with the Arulion, Eldar had another alien named Lia board the Juggernaut. She chided them for wearing their armor before she had a chance to look at their wounds.

The female Arulion was kind; that was something Rhun had yet to see in the species. Eldar was hopeful at best, but kindness did not live in his eyes like it did Lia’s. Once she had cared for their wounds using a handheld monitor that injected them with a serum that sped recovery, she was gone again, Rhun and Cara left to sleep.

It was only Eldar’s voice and a firm shake on his arm that woke Rhun.

“It’s time. I let you sleep as long as I could. We’re approaching the battlefield now at the rear of the enemy army as you suggested,” Eldar said in a hushed tone, looking to Cara’s still sleeping figure beside Rhun. “We arrive in fifteen minutes.”

Rhun rubbed the sleep from his eyes, wishing he had twice that amount of time before going into combat and triple the amount of sleep, but he was a soldier and he would make do with what he had.

Cara roused at Rhun’s movements, looking to him first with a smile and a yawn, then a serious expression as what was about to happen washed over her like a bad memory.

“Rhun Tarhound, are you prepared?” Tracan asked, looking over at the two from his spot near the rear hatch of the Juggernaut. “Do you require anything else to perform your job?”

Job? Rhun thought to himself. Men are about to die, so this is more than a job.

“I am,” Rhun said out loud. “Can you bring up what you called the hologram display screen?”

Eldar nodded, motioning with the silver glove he had on his hand. A moment later, a hologram appeared in the center of the Juggernaut.

“Infantry in the front with the vehicles right behind us.” Rhun pointed to the spots on the map as he explained his plan. “The weapons mounted on the vehicles will be able to fire over our heads. If we need to advance to the rear, we can do so and use the vehicles for cover. That will be a last option. We take them by surprise and we advance until we reach the city. We kill anything between us and them.”

Eldar and Tracan traded approving nods.

“I lead the infantry from the front.” Rhun thought about the weapons the Arulion used, the rifles and projectile arms he was unfamiliar with. “I’ll need to see what hand-to-hand armaments you’ve brought with you.”

“You plan to lead the infantry from the front?” Tracan asked, taken aback.

“I’ve always led from the front.” Rhun left no measure of doubt in his voice. “I don’t plan on stopping now.”

“That will be unnecessary.” Tracan shook his head as the Juggernaut slowed to a stop under them. “Our army is instructed to obey your every command.”

“I’d rather them follow me by choice,” Rhun said, looking over at his wife. “I know you’re not going to stay out of this, but will you please at least remain with the vehicles? I’ll be able to focus if I know you’re with the Juggernauts and Raptors.”

Cara thought about this for a moment then nodded. She leaned in, placing a long kiss on his lips that reminded him of so many memories shared together.

“Go, and come back to me, Alpha Centaury,” Cara said.

Rhun nodded, looking back at Eldar and Tracan, who awkwardly coughed into their hands and looked at anything but the couple. It seemed public affection was not only foreign to the Arulion but uncomfortable at best.

“Let’s go,” Tracan said as he pressed the button to open the rear hatch.

Rhun stepped out into the desert once more, the familiar heat touching his face like a caress from a mother he never knew. Rhun held his helmet under one hand and looked at the line of infantry following the vehicles. They all wore their helmets with mirrored visors, making eye contact with them impossible.

Tracan followed, doling out orders and maneuvering the army into position. Cara stayed on the Juggernaut. Rhun smiled as he already heard her asking the soldier on the seventies how the weapon worked and that she would be using it during the coming conflict.

“We’re just outside the rear of their army,” Eldar said, motioning Rhun to another Juggernaut that carried a kind of sleek hovering trailer behind it. He opened the doors to reveal a fast armory. Every inch of the trailer was packed with weapons Rhun had never seen.

It seemed the Arulion preferred their weapons to be of the projectile variety. There were no shields and the only bladed weapons they carried were thick-handled knifes, one side of the blade serrated.

Rhun took two of these and placed them on his belt.

“You don’t want a rifle or a blaster?” Eldar asked, confused. “The Arulion armory is the finest in the Union. We are known across the universe for—”

Eldar stopped, seeing the raised eyebrow on Rhun’s face.

“This will do for now, until I can get my hands on a weapon I’m used to,” Rhun said as he patted the knife on his right side. “I’m unfamiliar with your weapons; as such, I’d be as likely to shoot myself as the enemy. I wanted to talk to you about your machines. I know you said the Olg dispatch them with ease, but they might serve as a distraction. Have them ready to the east.”

Eldar nodded, biting his lower lips. “How will I know when to send them?”

“You won’t,” Rhun said with a grin. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Understood.” Eldar looked side to side to make sure they were alone and out of ear range from any of the soldiers around them. “I want to tell you, I’m sorry. On behalf of my people, I mean. We aren’t all the monsters you must see us as. Not all of us were in line with the Pandora Experiment. Some of us even had plans to help you before the Olg were unleashed on the planet.”

Trust wasn’t something Rhun threw around lightly. He wasn’t sure if he could believe the words coming out of Eldar’s mouth. He did, however, recognize sincerity. Either Eldar was a master manipulator or he was being truthful, at least to some extent.

“Thank you,” Rhun said, making for the front lines of the Arulion army with Eldar at his side. “If you are being honest with your words, I’d ask that you make sure Cara is looked after if I fall.”

Eldar bobbed his head up and down. “I will do everything I can.”

Rhun wanted to say more, but that was all there was time for. The Arulion soldiers and their vehicles were still maneuvering into lines. Dust from the desert sand was billowing in the light wind as the hovering vehicles moved this way and that. Soldiers stood in attention just in front of the vehicles as Rhun had requested. Their armor glinted in the sun’s never ending beating light. Their eyes were masked from Rhun, leaving him to guess at their expressions.

Far ahead and to the north, Rhun could see the sand being kicked up by some vast army. Details were hidden from him as the distance between the two armies was still too great.

Helmeted heads turned to Rhun as he made his way to the front of the lines. He had left his own helmet behind for the time being. He preferred to look his soldiers in the eye before an engagement.

“I understand you have your own way of doing things,” Rhun said, looking to the soldiers standing in front of him. He couldn’t help but notice neither Tracan or Elder were among them. “But if you’d please take off your helmets just for a moment. Where I come from, we look one another in the eye before we go to war together.”

There was a brief moment as soldiers looked to their own leaders for permission to do as the stranger asked. Nods were passed along the ranks of Arulion soldiers. The next moment, clicks were heard up and down the lines as they removed the helmets holding the mirror lenses from their heads and looked at Rhun with their own eyes for the first time.

Their faces were still foreign to Rhun; light blue skin and white hair made them anything but normal to him. Their eyes, however, were eyes he had seen before in his own men. They were large, fearful, expectant, nervous, anxious, and courageous.

Rhun took a moment to walk up and down the lines, making eye contact with as many soldiers as he could.

This is their first engagement, Rhun reminded himself. Never mind their fancy technology, that they are the ones controlling this experiment, this is their first time going to battle.

“I don’t lead men into battle who don’t want to be here,” Rhun said, looking at the soldiers in turn. “I’m not a slaver; if you don’t want to fight, then you can leave right now.”

None of the soldiers moved. A few glances were exchanged to one another, but no one made to leave. They were at least disciplined if nothing else.

“Listen to me when the fighting starts,” Rhun said in a voice so loud it was nearly a roar. More than anything, these men and women needed inspiration. They needed to know that he was trustworthy and their leader knew what he was doing. It would be this belief that would spur them on if they felt like they were going to break at any point during the fight.

“I will lead you from the front, and together, we will advance on the enemy,” Rhun shouted. “We will drive them from the face of this planet to the abyss from where they came. We’ll push straight through their lines and to the city. Aim for their heads or the places over their hearts. They may not feel pain, but they are living, breathing beings just like you and me. With enough blood spilt, they will go down. You fight for yourself and you fight for the man beside you.”

The soldiers were nodding along with Rhun’s words now. It was clear they were beginning to understand why Rhun had been chosen for this job as their military leader.

“Show them no mercy because you will receive none in return,” Rhun’s voice boomed over the still. “As one! Let me hear you say it! As one!”

“As one!” the soldiers shouted.


“As one!”

“On me!” Rhun shouted as he took his place at the head of the line.

The Arulion army was ready. It was a feeling more than a sight, Rhun could tell. The nervousness in the air was still present, but it was angry and ready to be used now.

Helmets were snapped in place, rifles were lifted as the Arulion Army led by the Alpha Centaury marched to war.

Chapter Twenty-Four

The defenders on the wall poured everything they had into the charging monstrosity Jordan knew as a dinosaur, and still it came. The creature’s thick hide was too dense for any of the lead projectiles the Long Shot Corp used against it.

Likewise, Jordan’s blue beams splashed against the creature like a bucket of water thrown against a stone wall. Melrin’s ferocious magic was the only thing that seemed to affect the creature, but even his magic failed to penetrate the creature’s scaly hide.

When a blast from Melrin’s magic struck the beast, it was more the force of the blow instead of its penetrating power that hindered the creature’s progress. The small eyes of the monster were impossible to hit. It was smarter than the giants, lifting its head into the air to reveal its neck when rounds traveled too close to its eyes.

“Let’s go, let’s go!” Melrin said as he grabbed Jordan by the crook of her left elbow. The dinosaur bellowed as it shook the ground under its feet. It would reach the wall in a matter of moments. “We’re not giving up, but there will be no victory here on the wall. We must fight them in the city!”

Sweat poured into Jordan’s eyes from her brow as she realized the wisdom in Melrin’s words. The Long Shot Corp was hurrying down the steps to take up their predestinated defensive positions in the city should the battlements fall.

Jordan nodded quickly to Melrin as they joined the others fleeing from the wall. As they descended down the steps, the true horror of war met Jordan’s eyes. She had never seen so many dead bodies, never felt so much blood under her boots.

The four Mechas, along with the Ironhammer infantry led by King Orsik had held the gates piling the enemy dead in great mounds just inside the city courtyard. A kill box had been set and thousands of enemy soldiers lay dead one on top of the other.

Jordan was just stepping off the last stair racing into the city when a sound like cracking stone rose above the booming of rifles and the screams of battle. Something hard hit her from behind. Jordan was hurled into the air like a rag doll.

Her air was forced out of her lungs as she slammed to the hard ground a dozen yards to the left of her previous location. She lay there still for a moment, checking to see if all her limbs still worked.

Get back up, Jordan told herself. Come on, get back up!

Ugly, having followed her down the steps, licked her face clean as he looked on with worried eyes.

Jordan rose to her unsteady feet. Her ears rang. There was so much noise around her, it was hard picking out different voices from one another. Orders were being shouted, weapons fired, and above all, the roar of the dinosaur.

Jordan turned around to see what had become of the wall. Her heart sank in her chest. The beast had slammed through the entrance, crumpling the section of the archway that rested above the gates. The stones crumpled inward to the courtyard like an avalanche of rock and masonry.

Fighting was beginning to spread to all portions of the city as the Mecha moved their attention from the enemy infantry to the dinosaur. Even with superior numbers, four against one, they would be hard pressed to neutralize the dinosaur.

Meanwhile, the enemy infantry and the few giants remained locked in combat with the Ironhammer infantry unit. Everywhere Jordan looked, her friends were fighting and dying. King Orsik was overwhelmed by a wave of enemies as he stood with his men in the courtyard.

There was no sight of Argo or Lierna.

Melrin was struggling to his feet with Grizla’s help. Jerrick fought with his gauntlets and the weapon Balon had given him, sending explosive rounds into the giants. The armor he was fitted with was dark red and black.

Jordan searched for her own weapon, but it was lost somewhere in the courtyard. Leopold appeared next to her with his pulse rifle, offering it up with a scared look in his eyes.

“Jordan, here, take it. You’re better with it than I am.” Leopold swallowed hard, his eyes darting around in every direction. “Are you okay? You’re bleeding.”

Jordan touched a hand to the left side of her numb face. It came back sticky with blood. There was no time to see exactly how bad her injury was; the adrenaline pumping through her told her she was fine or at least well enough to keep fighting.

The enemy surged again. The fighting was hand-to-hand in every direction as the enemy overran their position. A group of magic wielders who looked much too young to fight rallied around Melrin and Grizla.

Leopold helped Jordan toward them as Jerrick walked backwards to the defensive location where the survivors were rallying.

Thousands more of the enemy entered the city through the broken wall. Jordan gritted her teeth and fired her weapon into the advancing enemy. She didn’t know how many she killed, but it wasn’t enough. In a few moments, enemy soldiers were on them. One reached for her throat while another jabbed at her with a spear. Ugly lunged at them both, ready to give his life for Jordan’s.

A horn Jordan had never heard before cut through every sound like a newly sharpened knife through soft bread. Whatever the signal meant, the enemy stopped in their tracks. They looked to one another in confusion.

The horn rang a third time, and this time, there were more sounds: weapon fire unlike Jordan had ever heard. Not the loud booming of the Clansmen’s weapons nor the sounds of the pulse rifles. These sounded more like cracking than explosions.

A chant came with the new sounds. It sounded like a great many voices yelling, “As one.”

The enemy forces immediately retreated from the city, leaving only their massive beast struggling with the Mecha. The six chains the giants had used to maneuver the beast around dangled off it like tentacles from some horrific sea creature.

Seeing the bulk of the enemy force retreating gave the defenders a new surge of hope.

“Don’t give up!” Leopold screamed. “Never give up!”

Jordan took his words to heart as she continued to fire into the much smaller force that remained in their walls.

The survivors moved forward, leaning on one another for support at times, but they fought on. One Mecha’s center was crushed from a blow of the dinosaur’s massive tail, another was missing an arm, and a third sparked from multiple joints.

The dinosaur, on the other hand, was as alive and ferocious as ever as it chomped down on steel and iron.

“Grizla! It’s time!” Melrin shouted, looking to the older woman.

“I swore I wouldn’t! Never again,” Grizla said.

“If you want to save them, you will! You must.” Melrin looked over to Jordan and Jerrick through a sheen of blood that fell into his eyes. “Make sure we aren’t disturbed.”

Jordan gave him a half nod, unsure what was about to take place but realizing the part she needed to play.

Jerrick joined her on her left. Argo and a limping Lierna escaped the fray and joined Jordan on her right.

“You’re about to see something special,” Argo yelled over the echoes of war as he looked over at the healer and the wizard.

Jordan saw Melrin and Grizla clasp hands as a dull yellow light began to bleed from Melrin and a pure white glimmer from Grizla. That was all she had time to see as she and the rest of the defenders dealt with a much smaller enemy force.

Nearly all the giants were either dead or retreated through the breach in the wall. The job they had now was much more manageable as rallying cries came from every corner of the city. Legends were born that day as warriors from every city acted out of selflessness and pure abandon, hurling themselves at the enemy, taking blows for one another, and pushing the enemy back.

Jordan was in the process of eviscerating the skull of one of the enemy soldiers who aimed a wicked-looking bow at Jerrick, when the beam of white and yellow energy struck the dinosaur full in the chest.

The beam was so dazzling in its brilliance, Jordan had to squint. Reflex rose a hand to protect her eyes.

She looked back to the origin point of the bright light for only a moment. Melrin and Grizla stood facing one another, chanting the same words. From their grip, a ball of white light brighter than the sun grew. The light was so harsh, Melrin and Grizla were nearly lost in the glow.

A deep hum came from the energy beam as the dinosaur roared and fought for traction on the city stones with its two back feet. The energy beam moved from its chest to its face as the creature screamed in pain and surprise.

From what Jordan could see, the energy beam thrown at it wasn’t succeeding in breaking through its scales, but it was clearly causing it pain to some degree.

Fighting from outside of the wall grew in intensity as the rest of the enemy soldiers in the city fled. A moment later, the prehistoric beast thought better of its position. With another roar and a shake of its massive head, it seemed to realize that it was free. The chains falling from its body were unmanned, the giants having either died or retreated out of the city to meet a new threat.

With another bellow, the dinosaur turned and fled the same way it had come. It trampled members of its own army as it retreated into the desert.

A premature celebration rippled through the line of the defenders. Melrin and Grizla closed their hands, ending the incantation. They slumped against one another, exhausted but smiling.

There was no need for orders to be given. The intrigue as to what had caused the enemy army to retreat was enough for everyone still able to move to do so toward the wreckage of the city gates.

Jordan and Jerrick were among the first to see what lay beyond their broken wall. Jordan crested a mound of rubble that had once been the archway over their gates before the dinosaur destroyed it. Bodies lay strewn in every direction.

In front of her and to the south, an army the likes of which she had never seen before laid waste to the monsters at their gates. Their enemy fell by the thousands at the hands of the superior technology and tactics the strange new army used. The fight had changed course for certain, but it was not yet over. The enemy army had shifted its focus on the newcomers now and was charging their lines.

King Orsik was nowhere to be seen. Melrin was on his knees panting for breath. Jerrick and Jordan looked at one another with a nod.

“One more time!” Jerrick yelled to everyone still standing.

“Let’s give them a hand.” Jordan waved the forces to follow. “This isn’t over yet.”

The fight continued well into the night until the enemy was dead to the last man. The only member of their army that retreated was the dinosaur. Finally free from its captors, it ran north and didn’t look back. The casualties for those defending the city was over fifty percent of their force and nearly everyone was wounded to one extent or another.

When Jordan and the rest of the survivors finally linked up with the force in green and gold armor, they were overjoyed to find their Alpha Centaury leading from the front.

Chapter Twenty-Five

The dead would take weeks to bury or burn with the full support of a city made up of healthy men and women. With the amount of wounded inside the desolated gates, it was impossible to say exactly how long the process would take.

There was a time for mourning the many who had laid down their lives in order that a free city would be possible.

When Rhun introduced Eldar and the rest of the Arulion, feelings were mixed by the survivors and rightfully so. Even Jordan was conflicted; on one hand, the Arulion Founders living in the pyramid had used them as an experiment, on the other, they had come to their rescue, realizing the error of their ways.

The truth was spread wide in the city of exactly what they were and why they were there. There was no point in breaking it to anyone easy. They had all been through enough.

The Arulions stayed after the battle to their own credit, offering their full resources to the wounded. A day after the battle, the Arulion High Council had notified Eldar, Tracan, and the others about what would be done with the survivors of the Pandora Experiment.

Jordan stood in a room waiting with Leopold, Grizla, Balon, and Rhun. King Orsik was slain in the battle and Balon had been elected as emissary for his city while Colonel Harbeck stood in interim for their king.

Jordan’s entire body ached and she was one of the lucky ones. She had escaped the battle with a few stitches and bruises. Others had not been so lucky.

Balon carried his left arm in a sling while a scar on the right side of Rhun’s face would provide a constant reminder of the battle.

“No matter what they say,” Leopold said, shaking his head. His voice told everyone he didn’t care who heard or didn’t hear his proclamation. “No matter what the aliens say, I’m not going to stop fighting for our freedom.”

“None of us are,” Grizla agreed. The incantations performed by herself and Melrin had drained the poor woman. She stood now with a cane in her right hand to support her weight. “Too much blood has been spilled on our behalf. We’ll keep fighting if they refuse to release us from this experiment.”

“It would behoove us, however, to be cautious,” Balon said, pursing his lips in thought. “Let’s see what they say before we start threatening them.”

“What do you think, Rhun?” Jordan asked, looking to the silent Alpha Centaury. “What do you think we should do?”

Rhun took in a deep breath through his mouth and let it out slowly through his nose. He stared at the far wall on the bottom floor of Leopold’s blown-out workplace.

“We wait and see what they say,” Rhun said, nodding slowly along with his own words. “I’ve witnessed enough death, done enough killing to last me a lifetime. Still, if they come back announcing that we aren’t released from their project, I’m prepared to follow this through to the end, whatever end that may be. Grizla is right; too many have sacrificed too much to get us to this point.”

All other talk was suspended as Eldar and Tracan appeared at the top of the stairs leading to Leopold’s sleeping quarters. The two Arulion were dressed in their battle armor of dark green and gold.

Eldar wore a grin on his lips, telling Jordan that perhaps things were about to rule in their own favor. If that were to be the case, it would be a first.

Tracan’s expression was a mask. If Jordan had to guess what the outcome was by only his appearance, she would have to guess a bleak proclamation waited for them.

“Well, don’t keep us in suspense, you son of a clicker,” Leopold said, shaking his gnarled fist. “Are you letting us be or are we going to war with you now?”

“Leopold,” Balon warned, trying to calm the man.

“It’s all right,” Tracan said, lifting a gloved hand. “I think we deserve that much. The Arulion High Council has reviewed our request. In light of our recommendation, we are hereby closing all testing. The Pandora Experiment is finally at an end. You will all be allowed to live as you wish in whatever city you wish as a free people.”

Jordan wasn’t sure why she wasn’t happier. Tracan was telling her everything she wanted to hear. For some reason, she wasn’t feeling the sense of joy she wanted.

She realized a moment later why. Tracan wasn’t smiling.

“You should all know that you are prized fighters, now more than ever,” Tracan said. “Although we will let you be, if news of this spreads, others will be interested in the idea of retaining your services for themselves.”

“If anyone tries, we’ll be ready.” Grizla nodded.

“I feel sorry if anyone comes looking,” Rhun said in a deep voice from the corner of the room.

Tracan looked over to Rhun, a level of respect in his eyes that had not been there a moment before. “I feel a great swell of pity for anyone who comes for you as well.”

“And I’m sure you will all be fine,” Eldar said, speaking for the first time. “We’ll stay as long as we can and leave you with a city well stocked and repaired. Many of my people realize what was done to you is wrong and are offering their services to aid in your continued survival.”

“Thank you,” Balon said.

“We can go over details when you are ready,” Eldar said, following Tracan out of the room. “I am so very glad things happened the way they did. I know the Arulion people can learn from this and be better in the future.”

“We should tell everyone,” Rhun said, pushing himself from his spot where he leaned against the wall. “Too many secrets have been kept for too long.”

The party filed out of Leopold’s home. Ugly had decided to sit outside. When he saw Jordan, he jogged over to walk beside her.

Jordan fell in line beside Rhun. “When this has all settled down, maybe not next week or next month, but later, Jerrick and I want to invite you and your wife over for dinner.”

Jordan cringed at her words and her timing. They were still reeling from the battle with the army she now knew were called the Olg. The city was in shambles, the to-do list in setting up a thriving city for the survivors was a mile long. Still, they were alive now and she intended to experience a life worth living.

Rhun looked at her, blinking his dark eyes for a moment as if he were still chewing on what she had said. The large man rolled his shoulders then smiled. “You and Jerrick, huh?”

“Yeah, yeah, I think so,” Jordan said.

“I’m happy for the two of you, and yes, I’m sure Cara would like that very much,” Rhun said.

“So dinner, right?” Leopold walked in between the pair, placing a hand on each of their backs. “Should I bring anything?”

“Just yourself.” Jordan couldn’t help but smile. She scrunched her nose for a moment, catching a whiff of something truly horrific. “Leopold?”

“I know, I know, I’ll take a bath between now and then, I’ve been kind of busy.” Leopold removed his hands and waved in a sign of surrender.

Rhun and Jordan laughed, still walking with the rest of the group as they made their way to where the city waited to hear the news on what the Arulion High Council had decided.

They turned a corner to the decimated city courtyard. The bodies had been removed, but a pair of downed Mechas sat on the ground like skeletons while buildings sat decimated beside them.

Jordan searched the crowd for Jerrick. She didn’t have to wait long to find him. He was toward the front of the line, grinning and speaking with Argo, Lierna, and Cara.

Jerrick looked up to see Jordan.

She smiled at him and gave him a nod, telling him the news the rest of the city was about to hear would sway in their favor for once.

He beamed at her and waved her over.

Seeing the survivors from five cities and the Foundation all standing together gave Jordan hope for their future. The path would never be easy, but with the support of those around her, Jordan knew they would find a way to thrive.

The Pandora Experiment: Box Set of Books 1 - 3


A Special Note For You

Well, here we are again. At the end of another book. I find myself wanting to find out what happens next. It’s strange that stories never really end. There is always more to tell and more to know in every single book I’ve ever picked up.

I think this is a good stopping point, as the main conflict is over and there is a resolution at this point. Yes, there always could be more and one day there might be. But for now, I think we should give Jordan, Rhun, and Leopold some time to enjoy their hard-earned freedom.

Writing The Pandora Experiment has been a great learning experience for me. I’m always trying to grow and evolve as an author. One thing I really wanted to focus in on this series was open loops. Open loops are asking questions and not giving you the answers right away.

I’m not sure if you were a fan of the TV show Lost, but they did that in every episode. The idea is that you have a set of questions or mysteries that are always running. As you pay off some, you open others, so there is always a level of intrigue in the novel. I want to carry this technique on with me in my next series as I work on getting better and better as a writer.

I’ve been writing full time for six years now with thirty-something titles. I know the day I think I know it all I’ve failed. I see the line of learning always moving forward and until the day I die, I’ll be a student. I’m strangely okay with that and excited about the possibilities.

Life for me is a whirlwind of family, writing, and the gym. For those of you who don’t know, I still personal train clients at the gym six times a week and model on a part-time basis. While my author career was taking off, I worked as a personal trainer. It keeps me sane going to the gym and getting out from behind the keyboard and my own head.

Free time is spent with my wife and my two-year-old daughter named Josephine (Jo). Jo is a lot of fun. The way she looks at me tells me she only sees the best in me. You and I know how broken by this world we are, but children see none of that. They see you as the version you strive to be day in and day out.

To Jo, I’m just Daddy. She runs out from her room in the morning after she wakes up, her bare feet padding on our hardwood floor, saying my name. I’m always in the family room writing on the couch trying to get in a few thousand words before she wakes up.

She hurls herself on the couch beside me, swiping at her chestnut hair with a chubby forearm and gives me that smile that tells me when she looks at me she only sees the best.

Thank you for supporting me as a writer and giving me this time with my daughter. I don’t know of many professions that allow parents to stay home with their children. I’ll take these memories with me to my grave. One day when my time on this world is done, when I’m taking my last breath, I’ll still have these images of her running to me in the morning with a smile on her chubby face, hair in her eyes.

Okay, so I don’t really know how to transition away from that. Just insert a smooth transition here. What’s next for me is the last book in The New Arilion Knights series as well as the last book in the Gateway to the Galaxy series. After that, I’ll be releasing a nonfiction book to help writers get things done. I’ll be pulling a lot from my background in personal training to coach them on how to overcome writer’s block, accomplish their goals as writers, and how to stay motivated.

I’ll also be dropping a book I co-wrote with Jason Anspach and Nick Cole in their Galaxy’s Edge universe. For any of you who enjoy a good fantasy, I’ll also be rereleasing my five-book series called The Vampire Project. In a nutshell, that series explores what happens along the way when governments try to create super soldiers. I’ll give you a hint: nothing good.

Well, that’s it from me. If you’ve read any of my other books, you know I always end with a personal invitation to stay in touch. I have two options for you below.

1) I have a private group on Facebook I created for all of us to hang out. There are over two hundred likeminded readers who enjoy everything you do. We’re there just sharing cool new books, movies, and the occasional meme. Join the Pack here

2) I know some readers don’t like using Facebook and/or would rather just receive an email with info when new books are out. I totally get that. If you’d like to be part of The Pack via our newsletter, you can go to and join the ranks.

As always, you are the very best. Know that you’re valued and your pack is with you,


P.S. As an extra bonus, I’ll add the first few chapter of Into the Breach (Gateway to the Galaxy Book 1) to see if that is something you’d like to check out. Talk soon.

Preview: Into the Breach

(Gateway to the Galaxy Book 1)

Chapter 1

“You’re smarter than you look.”

“Yeah, well, I like to manage expectations.” Frank glanced at his flavor-of-the-week date with a wry grin. He tried a playful line he had used so many times before, intentionally misquoting the saying to get a smile. “I’m just a girl looking at a guy, wondering what—”

A message from Frank’s watch blared a familiar tune as it interrupted the two at dinner and all those around them.

“Umm—sir?” A waiter passing by their table gave Frank a parental look.

“Sorry, I’m on it,” Frank said with an apologetic nod.

“What’s ‘butts’?” the ash-blonde at his right asked, scrunching together her perfectly shaped eyebrows. “Why does your watch say ‘butts’ on it?”

“It’s B.U.T.T.S. all in caps, like an acronym. It’s just work,” Frank said, checking the smooth, black face of the watch he wore on his left wrist. He ignored the message from his boss. “So where were we? We were talking about doing something fun after dinner, right?”

“What’s an acronym?” the blonde asked, a quizzical expression etched on her face. “Is that like two words that are the same?”

“I think you’re thinking of a synonym,” Frank said with a signature smile.


Before he could continue, his watch sounded again. Usually, it wouldn’t have been of any major concern; his Power Rangers ringtone letting him know he had a message from work was standard. However, tonight, Frank had taken his newest date to a rather exclusive, highbrow Italian cuisine experience, where the other patrons didn’t look amused by the constant juvenile sounds emanating from his latest communication tech.

“Can you turn that off?” his date asked as she looked around, her shoulders shrinking as she glanced from side to side, avoiding eye contact with the other diners. Her gaze beneath the curtain of obvious eyelash extensions landed on a table in the corner, where a quartet of brawny, well-dressed men sat glaring at them. Their bodies were tense and unnaturally still within their cashmere, fine-tailored suits. If Frank were to venture a guess, their day jobs weren’t exactly of the legal kind.

“Technically, I can. But the boss doesn’t like it when I switch her to ‘off’ or ‘mute.’ They can track all of that stuff, you know,” Frank said, eyes on the same table as Melony … or was it Susan?

Open concept dining area of the restaurant featured low, cushioned seating around polished, olive-wood tables. A warm, orange glow from table candles and low-hung pendant lamps lit the way for the service staff. The team met their patrons’ needs in swift, unpressured movements; their timing and recommendations were as impeccable as their shirts were crisp. It was the type of place one went for a celebration, where the prices on the menu carried an extra digit and the parking was valet only. It wasn’t Frank’s usual go-to, but he was always down to try anything once.

The light chatter in the restaurant picked up again, after having been disturbed for the second time by Frank’s watch. A cellist filled the air with smooth vibrations from a corner, serenading the crowd with songs Frank could recall but couldn’t name.

“Like, what kind of watch is that, anyway?” The blonde leaned over to Frank, revealing a light pink bralette beneath a plunging neckline. “I’ve never seen a triangle one like that before.”

“Oh, it’s not really on the market,” Frank started. “It’s a—”


This time his watch didn’t send him a message—it rang. The theme music to Terminator thundered through the quiet of the restaurant like a war drum in a church. The interruption was too loud for Frank to ignore. A quick look down confirmed his suspicions: two messages and a call.

The first message said: Frank, report in.

The second: Frank we have an urgent matter for you. Report.

The call was from his immediate supervisor.

“Hey, muscles,” a raspy voice said from Frank’s left. “Time for you and your cell phone to make yourself scarce from my restaurant. You can leave the lady.”

Frank leaned back in his chair to look up into the bloodshot eyes of a bald man with a scar across his throat. He was one of the four who had been glaring at him from the table in the corner. Behind him stood three larger men Frank guessed were his own “muscles.”

“Listen, I’m sorry,” Frank said, shaking his head with a sigh. “I understand my watch going off can be disturbing. Trust me, the last thing I want to do is ruin someone’s tortellini. That’s a fun word, right? Tortellini? Anyway, I’ll take the call outside, and we can all go back to enjoying our night.”

“You must not have heard me.” Baldy grabbed Frank by the collar and dragged him to his feet. “You’re done here.”

“This … this is just escalating so fast.” Frank sighed. Although he was being lifted from his seat, his tiptoes barely touching the ground underneath him, Frank kept his cool. “We’re really going to do this right here? Right now?”

“You have brain damage or something?” Baldy leered down at him.

“Probably. All that time in the Corps couldn’t have been good for me.” Frank placed both his hands on top of the man’s who was holding him up. He looked over to his date. “I’m really sorry about this.”

The blonde’s mouth was wide open as she watched the scene unfolding in front of her. She wasn’t capable of saying anything, though she did manage to grab her phone and begin to record the scene. The entire restaurant had gone quiet; from the cellist playing in the corner, to the chattering people at the other tables, everyone looked on, unwilling to intervene.

“Last chance,” Frank said to the gorilla-sized restaurateur still holding him. “Let me go now, or things are going to get … painful, up in here.”

“You idiot,” Baldy said. “You’re—ahhhhh!”

Frank had kept his temper in check for as long as he was able. A long time ago, he had been taught the lesson that someone’s grip could be stronger than your own, but a single finger of theirs was never as strong as your entire hand.

In one quick move, Frank had grabbed the man’s left pinky finger and twisted it backwards past its normal range of motion.


The phalange cracked with a sickening noise. And Frank didn’t stop. It was his turn to grab the hefty man, who was a few inches taller than his own six-foot frame, by the pressed broadcloth collar. Frank slammed the crown of his own head into the man’s crooked nose—once, twice, three times.

There was another crunch as a shower of blood cascaded over the two combatants, as well as the table Frank had been sitting at with his date. Frank’s chambray shirt was a bloody mess. The front of Baldy’s shirt was white no more.

“Damn. I’m going to need another new shirt,” Frank said, considering himself for a brief moment, rolling his eyes.

Everyone was stunned as the bald man moaned and sunk to his knees. Like some spell had been lifted, the three goons behind their downed leader charged at Frank.

Frank’s plan was simple. When dealing with multiple targets, the best idea was to always put down each enemy as fast as possible, with as few strikes as possible, in order to move on to the next target. Not like in the movies, where the hero fights five different bad guys at once.

The first attacker came at Frank with a wide swing. Frank leaned back, letting the blow glance past his face. The strike was so close, a brief gust of wind rushed past his nose.

Frank struck out with his right fist, which landed across the bearded man’s jaw. Then he slammed into the man with his right shoulder, driving him back into his two counterparts who were trying to get around their comrade and join the fight. Frank grabbed the dazed man behind the head with both of his hands, and at once, he drove the man’s head down and his right knee up into his skull.

The man toppled just as pain exploded across Frank’s eyes. Bright dots played in front of him. Another strike from the dark-suited man on his right split the right side of Frank’s lip.

Recovering, Frank caught the third blow intended for him, twisting the man’s arm completely around by his wrist. The attacker fell to his knees in a scream of pain. As though in one single, fluid motion, Frank slammed his right fist into the back of the man’s exposed arm. His blow landed right over the man’s elbow, shattering his arm in multiple locations.

But it had taken too much time. Frank’s final attacker grabbed a dinner knife from the table and lunged for his head. Frank moved out of the way, but too late. A shallow cut opened at his dark hairline on the left side of his face.

Frank knocked into a table behind him, trying to get out of the path of the man swiping his knife through the air like a crazed orchestra conductor.

Frank reached behind him, feeling at the edge of the table and grabbing a utensil he hoped was a knife of his own. It was a spoon.

“Of course I would grab a spoon,” Frank muttered.

The two men circled one another. Frank’s enemy smiled at him with malicious intent. Without warning, the man charged again.

Inverting the spoon so the handle now pointed up, Frank batted the incoming knife to the side and plunged the handle of his spoon into the man’s left eye.

A collective gasp rose up from the restaurant’s clientele. The man screamed, clawing at the spoon coming out of his eye as he fell to the ground.

“Someone should call an ambulance … or two.” Frank looked down at the carnage at his feet. “They’re going to need some help getting up from this one, and a lot of pain meds.”

Frank looked over at his date. The woman’s mouth hadn’t closed since the fight began. Nor had her phone been put down. A spray of crimson blood from the bald man’s nose speckled her cream dress.

“Hey, Faith.” Frank winced, hoping that was her name. “You okay?”

“My name’s not Faith, Frank!” The woman finally recovered from her shock, looking down at her blood-spattered dress. “And no, I’m not okay!”

“Why was I thinking Faith? Amber? It’s Amber, right?”

The blonde shot daggers at him from her blue eyes.


“I’m going to kill you myself!” the woman screamed.

Frank’s watch went off again.

“Well, I gotta run, but … raincheck?” Frank grinned at the woman, his split lip still bleeding. “We should really do this again sometime soon.”

The Pandora Experiment: Box Set of Books 1 - 3

Chapter 2

Instructions always came the same way: a location destination and a time. Nothing more, nothing less. Transportation arrangements were made for him. All Frank had to do was show up where he was told to and introduce the buyers to the weapons and/or equipment.

B.U.T.T.S. stood for Ballistics United Tactical and Tech Systems. His employer was a technology and weapons manufacturer that primarily sold to the United States government. The company, founded by two Marines who had served in Desert Shield and were originally backed by some smart investors, had earned the leading name in the business of everything from body armor that could stop a high-caliber bullet at point-blank range, to the latest and greatest in gauss powered rifles. Not to mention, they developed and launched items most people have only heard of in futuristic and sci-fi cinemas. They credited part of their continued success to employing Marines who had been in the field, who knew their stuff, and who knew how to execute orders.

A quick flight, and Frank found himself in Nevada. An armed escort picked him up from McCarran airport. Frank wasn’t given details on who the buyer was, but when the soldier approached him, he was pretty sure he knew.

“Frank Wolffe?” asked an attractive, middle-aged woman with shoulder-length chestnut hair and clad in military fatigues. “Are you Frank Wolffe?”

“You already know the answer to that.” Frank smiled with a wince. The act had brought on a stinging sensation to the corner of his lip, which was still recovering from the previous night. “I heard you needed some … goods.”

The woman’s astute gaze darted around the small airport to see whether anyone had overheard Frank’s remarks. “Yes, we can discuss the details later. The products have arrived ahead of you and are waiting for us. Follow me.”

She wasted no time on pleasantries. Simply completing an about-face, she walked away.

Frank was used to the military type. He had served his own obligation as soon as he could enlist. It seemed like a lifetime ago that he had been contracted with the United States Marine Corps. As soon as he had completed his stint, he had been hired by B.U.T.T.S. During his decade or so with the weapons manufacturer, he had worked his way up the ranks to be a salesman of sorts for the company. His amiable personality and ability to magnify the effectiveness of their product made him a perfect fit for the job.

“I’m Major Lucy Lopez,” the woman said, still walking briskly to exit the airport terminal. She extended a hand while she walked, making the handshake awkward.

Frank took it anyway. “Glad to meet you.”

That was it. Frank and the woman strode to the terminal exit, where a desert Humvee awaited, with two more Marines riding in front.

Major Lopez opened the door for Frank, and the two ducked into the back of the Humvee.

A pile of paperwork sat in a bulky, foliage-green seat. The familiar B.U.T.T.S. logo stamped on the envelope was enough to tell Frank the paperwork was for him.

“This came for you a few hours ago with the rest of the equipment,” Major Lopez said, taking a seat opposite Frank and slamming the heavy door shut behind her.

The chill morning air of the Nevada desert was just cold enough to create light puffs of mist from Frank’s breath. He pulled his wool peacoat tighter around him, wishing he had worn long underwear or something other than denim jeans. Though the arid desert climate didn’t cut to the bone like the winds of Chicago, it penetrated clothing layers with a slow, still creep.

“Not used to the cold?” Major Lopez looked amused as the Humvee jerked into motion. “Don’t worry, we’ll be there soon.”

“I’m great, take your time,” Frank said, grabbing the manila envelope resting on the seat beside him. Embossed at the top of the otherwise nondescript enclosure was the logo of his employer—a pyramid with the back of a bullet in the center filled the triangle-shaped emblem. A circle surrounded the pyramid.

Frank took the next few minutes to peruse the itemization of equipment and weaponry he would be unpacking and presenting to the United States Marine Corps. The list was extensive; beyond extensive. Frank saw items on the inventory he had previously thought were still in the conceptual stages of development. This order would have totaled in the billions of dollars.

“You all right?” Major Lopez asked across from Frank as the Humvee barreled out of Sin City and into the vast Mojave desert’s rocky red-browns with patches of cactus and grasses. “You look like you’re surprised.”

“What? Oh.” Frank kept his head tilted down, but moved his eyes up to meet the Major’s gaze. “What are you jarheads doing out here in the Mojave? I’ve never seen an order like this before.”

“You know the rules: don’t ask, don’t tell,” Major Lopez said with a twitch of her own eyebrows. It was clear she was aware of her flawless skin and attractive disposition. “Eyes only.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Frank said, shaking his head from side to side as he finished pouring over the manifest. “I’m breaking my own rule. The less I know, the better. I’m going to introduce you and your CO to the goodies then I’ll be off.”

“Sounds good to me,” Major Lopez said.

But the truth was Frank couldn’t shake curiosity that easily. “But seriously, like it’s aliens or something, right?”

“What’s that?”

“I mean out here in the desert, you found aliens. Like Area 51. Don’t try to lie to me about that one. I’ve been there.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny.” Major Lopez actually smiled.

Frank leaned back with a sigh. “You’ve told me everything already.”

“I’ve told you nothing.” Major Lopez rolled her eyes.

“Exactly,” Frank said, putting his hands into the pockets of his peacoat. “That’s my point.”

“You’re a nut.”

“Oh, I’m a lot more than that,” Frank said as his mind ran over the vast inventory once more. The Marines had spared no expense. Everything on the list would equip a small army. The only thing missing was the large hyper-beam weapons Frank had seen in development at B.U.T.T.S. headquarters. He wouldn’t doubt that it was only on backorder.

Thy made the rest of the journey in silence. Frank caught signs on the road to their destination outside the city of Las Vegas, and it was soon clear where the Humvee was headed. The Hoover Dam was getting closer and closer.

Mile markers counting down the span to the man-made structure popped up every few minutes as they approached. Frank’s mind was working on overdrive. To his knowledge, there was no working military branch stationed at the Hoover Dam.

A sixth sense Frank had grown to trust during his own time in the military tickled the back of his neck.

Easy there, hombre, Frank thought. You’re not in the military anymore. This isn’t different than any other job. Get in, play Santa, give the kids their shiny new toys, and get out. Don’t ask any more questions or show more interest than you have to. This is just a job. Tonight, you’ll be back taking Lisa, or Deborah, or whatever her name was, out on a make-up date. Or if not her, someone else.

Despite his own internal pep talk, Frank couldn’t help noticing when the Humvee pulled off the main road. Major Lopez produced a black hood from her back pocket and handed it to Frank.

“Really?” Frank accepted the hood. “It’s not like I don’t know where we are. And the hood’s still warm from your butt cheek.”

“Oh, I know you know where we are, but you don’t know how we get in.” Major Lopez pointed to the hood. “I’m going to have to insist. And I warmed it up for you on purpose. You looked cold.”

“That’s borderline disgusting.” Frank sighed as he placed the hood over his head, covering his espresso brown hair down to his muscular neck, the end resting on his broad shoulders. The cloth was coarse and irritated the cut on his hairline where the steak knife had scratched him the night before. “I’m going to tack on hazard pay for this one.”

Frank felt the Humvee lurch to life again and bounce down an unmarked road.

“I’m going to have to ask you for your phone, smartwatch, and any other pieces of communication you have on your person,” Major Lopez said, her voice drifting past the hood. “It won’t work where we’re going anyway but just to be sure. They’ll be returned when you’re done.”

Frank had been expecting this new development, but he moved slowly anyway. “Rules, rules, rules. Makes me miss my time in the corps.”

“I’m sure we could find you the right paperwork if you want to re-enlist,” the Major said, accepting Frank’s phone and watch. “Maybe even speed up the process for you and get you back in basic by week’s end.”

“I’m going to have to take a hard pass on that.” Frank was going to say more, when the thundering of water—a lot of water—picked up the conversation for him.

Frank resisted the urge to take off the hood and see for himself. It sounded like millions, maybe trillions, of gallons of water escaping somewhere around or below him.

The Pandora Experiment: Box Set of Books 1 - 3

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