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Anthony DeCosmo Empire

1. Raleigh

    “He who loves the world as his body may be entrusted with the empire.”
Lao-tzu (604 BC — 531 BC), The Way of Lao-tzu

    Portable lights on yellow tripods lit the white cinderblock walls of the rectangular room. Rusty pipes lined the low ceiling; stains on the concrete floor marked five years of leaks and added mustiness to the cornucopia of aromas ranging from oil and grease to the moist smell of rot and fungi hiding in dark corners.
    Fading block letters stenciled on the wall identified the dank room as an “Irrigation Station” for the greens of “Cheviot Hills” but the place served a new purpose in a changed world.
    Aerial photography, charts, and pencil-sketched diagrams covered the walls held in place by strips of packing tape. Technicians in green army camouflage sat at plastic chairs monitoring radios and laptop computers atop small desks. Static, chatter, electronic beeps, and the tap of fingers on keyboards generated a dull murmur filling the cramped quarters.
    A folding table held center court where one large unfurled map lay with its curled edges anchored by makeshift paperweights: a baseball cap, a ceramic ashtray, a stack of rifle magazines, and a pistol.
    General Jerry Shepherd leaned over the table and focused his aging eyes on the pins, marks, and lines peppering the paper landscape, none of which had moved in the thirty seconds since he last leaned over the map.
    He scratched the rough stubble on his cheeks, the color of which matched his thin mustache and even thinner hair: gray.
    A voice from his flank said, “Stonewall for you, Sir.”
    Jerry straightened and faced Bobby Bogart, who seemed more his shadow than his aid and who always wore a big radio headset and a big Lebanese nose.
    Shepherd stepped to the radio console and answered the third call from Stonewall in the last twenty minutes.
    “This is Shepherd…”
    …”Stonewall” McAllister waited under a pine tree, alone on his steed in the long shadows of near-dusk. He wore a hat made of fur-felt material with a creased crown wrapped by a grosgrain band and a matching jacket with rows of ornate buttons. Both the jacket and the hat were colored in old mist gray, recalling the color of the confederacy during the American Civil War.
    “Tell me, General Shepherd, is it still our aim to conduct this undertaking or can I relax and enjoy this beautiful southern summer evening?”
    Shepherd’s voice crackled over the radio: “Garrett, I’m still waiting on the signal from the strike team. Unless you’d care to go forward before those main guns are down? I reckon that might just spoil your southern summer evening.”
    “I dare say, you may be correct in that, General Shepherd,” Stonewall answered as crickets chirped from the stretching shadows and fire flies fluttered in the gentle breeze…
    …Stonewall’s voice continued over the radio to Shepherd’s command post: “At this point, are you still certain that a signal is forthcoming?”
    Shep transmitted, “Seems to me she always comes through,” but after closing the channel he stared at the map and muttered to himself, “C’mon girl, send that signal.”
    The waiting continued…
    …Dark, cramped alleyways filled with steam released from arcane machinery. Glittering spotlights searching the sky. Moisture dripping from faraway rooftops.
    Shadows moving.
    Four people dressed in black and gray appeared from those shadows along with four black and gray Norwegian Elkhounds following in step.
    They crept forward, assault weapons ready, their faces covered by Nomex hoods and their bodies sheathed in lightweight armor.
    On their shoulders, one concession to ego, one mark: a gray wolf’s face with ruby eyes, fangs ready to strike.
    Weapons swept fields of fire, searching for enemies but stealth served as their most potent weapon. They worked in the shadows. They lived in the shadows.
    At last, they reached the final stop in a long line of objectives. The finale after six hours of moving through the back passages and dark, tight corridors of the enemy battlements. Above them, a web of beams, wires, pipes, and ductwork dripping with foul-smelling moisture and steam pumped from churning furnaces. Hisses and pops and metallic clangs drown any sound of the team’s approach.
    The element leader stopped and surveyed the scene through blue eyes peaking from the slit of her balaclava; a hint of blond hair poked from the crease between hood and body armor.
    She pointed to the massive gears and conduits above them in the cramped access way. The K9s also followed her hand signals and took position at the corners, their acute senses searched for danger.
    The team climbed pipes and placed packages beneath rafters, between gears, against load-bearing beams. They moved fast and silent. Two minutes later, they reassembled and withdrew.
    As they returned to the shadows, the woman produced a transmitter and sent the signal…
    …A buzzer and a flashing light announced the completion of the strike team’s mission to General Shepherd.
    “That’s my girl,” he mumbled as he reached for his radio. “McAllister, you still awake out there?”
    “I am now, Mr. Shepherd.”
    “Good. Now wake up our friends.”
    Stonewall asked, “Ms. Forest has completed her objectives?”
    Jerry Shepherd offered a cocky grin under his gray mustache.
    “Seems to me, there never was any doubt about that, was there?”
    Stonewall McAllister could not argue with the truth…
    …The General stood stiff in the saddle and changed the frequency on his radio.
    “Captain Ross, please be so kind as to stand to and bring your guns to bear as per our previous arrangements.”
    The reply from his artillery officer: “Yes, General. Hoo-rah!”
    Stonewall sighed for he knew the lovely evening would now turn bloody…
    …Woody “Bear” Ross stepped forward. The former All-American at the University of Miami and one-time starting linebacker for the Washington Redskins spoke in a booming voice that seemed to shake the ground as violently as the guns he commanded.
    “First battery! Commence fire!”
    A crew of five loaded ordnance into a lone 155mm Howitzer waiting on a gentle green slope. It broke the peace of the August night with a brilliant flash and a thunderous boom.
    Then the next 155mm Howitzer did the same. And another. And another.
    The swoosh and ROAR of rocket after rocket from a pair of tracked, self-propelled M270 MLRS vehicles joined the chorus. Their mass of deadly torpedoes arched into the sky leaving behind plumes of smoke glinting in the fading light of dusk.
    All in all, twenty artillery pieces spat a veil of explosives toward their objective, whizzing into the sky like oversized fireworks…
    …Shepherd emerged from the small building and climbed to the roof via a metal ladder in order to watch the action his commands sent into motion.
    Years ago, developers cleared the trees and greens of what had been the Cheviot Hills Golf Club to make way for development when Armageddon halted construction. Their handiwork left a barren flat land where woodlands once stood, providing General Shepherd with an unobstructed view of the battlefield from his perch atop the small building.
    Bogart, of course, followed his commander close, relaying incoming radio messages as he moved: “Preliminary artillery bombardment coming to a close.”
    Shepherd produced binoculars. Bogart stood next to him.
    “First tactical support wing coming on station and proceeding to target.”
    Shepherd listened to that announcement as the sound of firing artillery halted.
    “Where? Where’s my air support?”
    “There,” Bogart pointed behind them, to the north.
    Shepherd turned and followed his aide’s outstretched arm.
    The ground-and seemingly the air-shook as turbo shafts pounded like bass players in a heavy metal band. A line of five deadly birds-of-prey cut through the twilight speeding southwest. The collective downdrafts from the Apaches and Cobras nearly pushed the two men to their knees.
    “I can’t believe it,” Shepherd said. “Never thought we’d ever get that many birds flying at once. Air support. Shit, we might just pull this off after all.”
    Shepherd watched them fly toward the battlefield; the massive battlefield, stretching for miles east to west: the place once known as Raleigh, North Carolina. Now it masqueraded as something else, a part of the “Hivvan Republic.”
    Through his field glasses, he saw the BB amp;T building rising 400 feet toward the sky as well as the 30-story Capitol Center. The rest of downtown hid from sight behind a two-hundred foot high wall erected along highways 440, 40 and 64. Those roads once formed a beltway around Raleigh. Now they outlined the barrier keeping enemies out and slaves in.
    Even more imposing than the wall, three massive guns stood guard on top the northern side of the barricade: huge energy artillery pieces with barrels stretching one-hundred feet and swiveling on gigantic round bases.
    Shepherd knew an army camped in the shadows of those guns. A modern army with advanced weaponry, a comprehensive battlefield doctrine, and the confidence of knowing they had conquered most of what had once been the American south. Indeed, an entire corps of the Grand Army of the Hivvan Republic awaited General Shepherd’s divisions.
    He watched as the helicopters flew toward their targets; targets now backlit by fires burning from the bombardment.
    The battle joined…
    …The attack choppers moved in low toward pre-determined objectives.
    Hellfire missiles sliced into an enemy mobile battalion north of the defensive walls on the open black top of Six Forks Road, a major route into and out of the city.
    A salvo shredded several single-seat treaded vehicles slightly larger than a forklift with caged cockpits. Nicknamed “Firecats” by the human armies, the machines moved fast and counted missiles, flamethrowers, and repeater energy weapons in their arsenal, making them both the backbone of the Hivvan ground forces and the bane of humanity’s infantry.
    Just off Six Forks Road, the choppers found and fired on another priority target, this one a massive, thirty-foot tall rectangular beast code-named a “Main Battlebarge”.
    Explosions ripped through its belly, scoring kills among the command crew and troops sheltered therein. Before it died, the Battlebarge shot down a Cobra with a volley of anti-air shells. A bundle of disintegrating wreckage crashed to Earth.
    The four remaining attackers banked to the west and headed toward secondary targets: short-range alien artillery hidden in the peaceful woodlands of North Hills Park…
    … Most of the buildings and walls of the Crabtree Valley Mall had toppled inward five years ago during the first months of the invasion. The roof of the Sears building had, in fact, smashed and crumbled into large chunks. One of those chunks stretched skyward not unlike a steep mountain peak.
    The Dark Wolves unit gathered there, gazing toward the walls and gargantuan artillery guns of the Hivvan stronghold that stood a half-mile to the southeast.
    Nina Forest removed her balaclava. A blonde ponytail dropped between her shoulder blades and her icy blue eyes stared at the city while sunset played behind her. Odin-her loyal Norwegian Elkhound-hovered nearby.
    She produced a detonator control.
    Then she said something. A whisper. Just loud enough for her comrades to hear.
    A wolf’s howl: “Aw-woooooo…” As if blowing a kiss.
    Explosions flashed along the northern wall as well as the base of the circular turrets. Two seconds later, a stretch of the structure crumbled as its support fell out from beneath. A span of the wall collapsed as cleanly as if a professional demolition team had spent weeks preparing. An earthquake shook the landscape driven by the fall of thousands of tons of masonry and metal. A cloud of dust and debris formed in a sudden tempest.
    Next, the guns disintegrated from the bottom up. The barrels sank into the debris cloud like the bows of ships slipping beneath the surface of a turbulent ocean.
    The violent fury flickered in Nina’s eyes…
    …The sound and dust from the destruction rumbled across the North Carolina landscape like thunder over the plains.
    “Forward!” General Stonewall McAllister cried both aloud and into his radio as he spurred his horse. Not far from his side, a freckle-faced teen age boy played something that sounded similar to “charge” on his trumpet.
    They swarmed from hiding places in the northern and northwestern suburbs of the city in an assortment of transports and tracked vehicles. One Brigade-led by General Stonewall and his steely blade-rode on horseback shouting a rebel yell as they charged toward the hole in the wall.
    The humans came by the thousands, most armed with carbines, some armed with rifles and pistols, a handful armed with energy weapons stolen from aliens.
    Yet their greatest armament was a fierce determination to take the battle to the enemy: to kick the invaders from their world.
    The determination and brutality of mankind’s armies had become the stuff of legend among the alien legions, as had the human policy of taking no prisoners.
    Humanity’s warriors bore only passing resemblance to the modern armies of the pre-Armageddon world. While many of the weapons remained, they fought more like a controlled mob and resembled one, too. Most wore casual clothing: jeans and cargo pants were as common in the ranks as military fatigues; Kevlar helmets more scarce than baseball caps, cowboy hats, and bandannas.
    An eclectic collection of fighters born from the ashes of the alien invasion that had crushed man’s civilization, this new army came from the old world’s accountants and delivery drivers, restaurant managers, and salesmen. Surviving the invasion forged their mettle; a desire to avenge the death of billions drove them onward in a murdering mass.
    With a gaping hole blasted through the Hivvan defenses and the best of the aliens’ mobile forces destroyed by the helicopters, the Hivvans… grudgingly… gave ground.
    Stonewall lopped the reptilian head off one of the retreating bipedal extraterrestrials. Its short stubby tail twitched as the lifeless body fell to the pavement of Creedmoor Road.
    The Hivvans wore light body armor but it provided little protection from bullets and even less from shrapnel. Yet the Hivvan retreat remained orderly…at first. The reptilian Hivvan soldiers used suppressing fire from energy weapons and deployed what Firecats remained to slow the attack.
    Yet, still, the human army moved forward and the Hivvan forces moved back.
    First, the defenders outside of the crumbling northern walls retreated. Then, as the two human mechanized divisions continued to advance, Hivvan units inside the city turned tail-literally-and ran.
    The ferocity of the assault combined with the breech of their wall shocked the aliens into rout. Units disintegrated into rabble and officers lost control of their charges…
    …Shepherd watched through his binoculars as the sun completely set and the battle became a night fight. Humanity liked fighting at night. It added to their mystique and they maintained a good supply of night vision equipment scavenged from the old world.
    Explosions erupted across the wide front. Short-range artillery and mortars dueled. Helicopters hovered, found targets, and fired. The dust of the destroyed walls hung over it all in a haze illuminated by flashing flares and searching floodlights.
    Bogart listened to a radio report and said, “Sir, the boss is coming. Eagle One touchdown in two minutes.”
    Shepherd shook his head and offered a wry grin. “He sure likes to make an entrance, don’t he?”
    Bogart nodded but his attention remained on the chorus of reports coming from the front and playing in his headphones…
    …A flight of three rectangular air ships moved over the dead woodlands of the golf course. With no wings or rotors, the crafts appeared to contradict the laws of aerodynamics. At the front, a triangular nose cone with rounded edges and a thin long cockpit windshield. In the center, a brick-shaped passenger compartment, followed to the rear by two engine baffles. On each corner sat a pod sporting flat, round landing gear and blinking running lights. The white-colored flying machines scanned the ground through brilliant spotlights fixed to the undercarriage.
    The ships found a suitable landing zone on the dead greens. The vehicles hovered for a moment then slid to the ground with nary a sound. The landing gear bounced gently, absorbing the weight of the craft.
    Ramps extended from the passenger compartment doors. Human and dog soldiers-Grenadiers-poured out…
    …Kristy Kaufman, dressed in perfectly pressed tiger camo with an Aussie cowboy hat, took aim through a night vision scope then blasted the short snout off a Hivvan soldier. Combined with a bazooka shot from one of her comrades that blew up a Firecat, the hole in the northern wall was cleared of its last defenders.
    Stonewall then led a wave of infantry into the city of Raleigh, North Carolina: the first free humans in that city in years.
    He radioed his report to General Shepherd: “The enemy is retiring from the city in earnest. A rear guard is half-heartily attempting to delay us but I believe you will find that they are heading quickly for Interstate Forty southbound.”
    Shepherd’s voice replied, “Keep the pressure up as long as you can, General. Make sure we drive them out all the way.”
    Stonewall cocked an eye and answered, “Yes, I believe that is the objective.”
    He raised his sword and urged his men onward…
    …Shepherd no longer occupied the roof of the building alone. The entourage had arrived, most of which stayed below but he was there on the roof alongside his General. The man at the center of it all. The man who had plucked survivors-including Shepherd-from the rubble of humanity’s civilization. The man who had turned the tide of Armageddon.
    Trevor Stone.
    Like the rest of them, his face had weathered the passing of time by growing harder, more resolved. War was their reality, their life.
    Trevor held field glasses, too, and stood next to Shepherd.
    “How are we doing this evening, General?”
    “We shocked em’ and got em’ on the run. They don’t like it but they’re pulling out. About ten thousand of them with a handful fighting rearguard action.”
    Trevor knew that more than fifteen thousand of his people-two mechanized divisions-led the assault.
    Shepherd made the more important point: “The choppers got the ball rolling. They made the difference. Make sure you give Jon Brewer my thanks for that. In any case, I figure by dawn I’ll be able to present you with the city of Raleigh, North Carolina.”
    “Good,” Trevor nodded in satisfaction. “I’ll add it to my collection.”
    The three male members of the Dark Wolves unit gathered on the roof of the Sears building after spending the night camped in the old cosmetics department.
    A haze remained over the battlefield, dulling the morning sun. The enemy armies had fled but scattered reports of gunfire rang out periodically as human forces moved through the debris. Overhead, a small helicopter buzzed by, and in the distance loudspeakers broadcast a message of freedom to the city’s slaves.
    “Now that was tidy,” Oliver Maddock said, referring to the ruin of the Hivvan walls visible from their perch.
    “Tidy?” Carl Bly replied. “I’d say that was just about the shit.”
    “Oh, sorry chap,” Maddock rephrased as he understood his fellow commando did not recognize Welsh slang. “I should be saying, ‘excellent’ or something like that, for your sake.”
    “Kiss my black ass,” Bly shot with a smile.
    “Pucker up, sweetie,” the Welshman blew him a kiss.
    Nina Forest joined the group. As usual, Odin obediently trailed behind.
    “What’s the word, Captain?” Vince Caesar asked in his usual, straight-laced all-soldier way.
    Nina told them, “The word is that the man himself wants to see us.”
    “Again? Well isn’t that just swank,” Oliver said.
    Caesar asked, “What about the bad guys? They all cleared out?”
    Nina answered, “Nothing to it. Second Mech chased them a couple of miles out of town before running out of gas. Fast-movers are harassing their green asses as they run down forty.”
    “Be-utiful,” Carl Bly quipped.
    “What’s the man want?” Caesar asked, again with the all-business attitude drilled into him during his old world life with Marine Force Recon.
    In other company, Caesar’s background might sound impressive, but among the Dark Wolves, his was just another resume to match Oliver Maddock’s five years in British SAS and Carl Bly’s tour as a U.S. Army Ranger.
    In another world, it would be Nina Forest’s resume as a SWAT officer and National Guard pilot that would not have stacked up; certainly not enough to serve as element leader for the team. But Armageddon re-shuffled the deck. She had fought the Redcoats at Wilkes-Barre and she had fought in the legendary Battle of Five Armies; the battle that turned the tide.
    In the four years since that great fight, she had fought in dozens of other battles and proved her worth by wiping out alien armies and extraterrestrial monsters. Indeed, her resume fit perfectly with this new world.
    Nina smiled as she answered Caesar’s question, “I think we’ve earned some more jewelry.”

    Completed in 1840, the North Carolina State Capitol building wore Greek Revival architecture including tall stone columns and an impressive dome sitting at the center of four distinct wings.
    As Trevor and his entourage of human and canine bodyguards approached, he thought the building reminded him of the county courthouse back home in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania but, then again, he figured most capitols would look familiar: politicians of old loved buildings that projected power and control.
    Of course, the rest of Raleigh felt familiar for darker reasons.
    He had seen it before. Richmond. Baltimore. Heavy Hivvan industry including matter transfiguration equipment; bulldozed or blasted houses replaced with alien domes; and of course, the hordes of malnourished, beaten human slaves who labored for extraterrestrial masters.
    In the case of this city, they rescued nearly six thousand from pens and chain gangs and the bowels of the hideous manufacturing facilities. Many would die in the next few days from their wounds, disease, and lack of nourishment. Most would recover and take their place in man’s new nation.
    Raleigh would be salvaged from the filth of alien occupation. It would take time to wash away the infection, but Raleigh would breathe life again some day and join the other places across the mid-Atlantic region freed by Trevor’s crusade.
    General Shepherd’s 1 ^ st Mechanized Division still worked the streets flushing out Hivvan snipers and stragglers. As usual, the K9s-or Grenadiers-proved particularly helpful in sniffing out the enemy; the damn Hivvans stunk to high heaven.
    A complete securing of every neighborhood would take several days. Yet for all purposes, Raleigh was a human place again, as evidenced by the energy Shepherd’s command post injected into center city.
    A black and silver flag depicting a hand gripping an iron axe waved in the breeze outside the capitol entrance. Couriers and sentries, motorbikes and supply trucks raced to and from the magnificent old building making it the beating heart of the city’s liberation.
    Furthermore, the ‘groupies’ of the two Mechanized Divisions in the city planted their temporary roots downtown. These were the mothers and fathers, husbands, wives, and children of some of the soldiers fighting in the front lines. They followed the advancing armies; a massive band of nomads living from covered wagons and tents, riding on horses and bikes, carrying heavy packs on their shoulders.
    They existed as a city on wheels, building the needs of life then tearing them down in favor of the open road, then building again. Already Trevor saw latrines being constructed, temporary water reservoirs filled, cooking pots steaming atop open fires, barter merchants hanging their wears on racks in portable shops, and teachers gathering students in makeshift classrooms.
    The supply lines would soon follow, too, bringing foodstuffs, medicines, munitions, and more from cities up north. Too many times those supply lines brought too little, but with each victory in the south came more growing fields, more grazing lands, more fuel resources, and more workers.
    As Trevor walked toward the capitol building in the midst of a squad of bodyguards both human and K9, shouts of approval came from nomads, soldiers, and the stunned but now free people of Raleigh.
    “You did them lizards really good!”
    “On to Columbia!”
    He acknowledged the cheers with a wave but kept moving. Much work remained; time did not allow for celebration.
    Trevor and his group entered the building and made their way to the central rotunda where a copy of Canova’s original statue of George Washington in Roman garb grabbed his attention. Along the outer walls were a series of plaques and busts celebrating North Carolinian people and events of note such as likenesses of Samuel Johnston and Matt Whitaker Ransom, a copy of the Halifax Resolves, and more.
    Despite the capitol’s prominent stature, the Hivvans had ignored it even as they had flattened much of the rest of Raleigh to make way for their bubble-shaped buildings and boxy industrial plants. A thick layer of disturbed dust floated in the air, eliciting sneezes from one of his bodyguards. Portable lights and sun slipping in from outside lit the chamber but the upper reaches remained dark.
    The four-human Dark Wolves waited there, dressed in basic green BDUs with their four K9 compatriots by their side.
    Unlike other ceremonies to decorate soldiers of note, no press accompanied Trevor this day, no news releases, and no spectators. The Dark Wolves were to remain a mystery not only to the aliens they hunted but also to the fledgling post-Armageddon nation for whom they fought.
    This served Trevor’s purpose for a variety of reasons. Occasionally the press caught wind of some invincible commando unit acting as Trevor’s sword, reaching out and striking humanity’s enemies. Whispers of their deeds boosted morale far greater than could be gained by unmasking these agents. Besides, he liked to keep people thinking that no matter the situation, Trevor Stone always held an ace in his hand.
    When the commandos saw Trevor enter the chamber, they snapped to perfect attention. General Jerry Shepherd stood by their side.
    Trevor addressed the soldiers, “It seems this is becoming a habit. Captain Forest, once again you and your team have taken on a difficult task successfully. Your work here was the tip of the spear in wiping out our enemies in Raleigh. Thousands of your fellow human beings are now free because of you. Congratulations seems…well, it seems an understatement.”
    General Shepherd handed Stone a case holding tiny gold emblems in the shape of broadswords. One by one, Trevor pinned a golden sword on their chests and shook their hands. He came last to Nina Forest. Her icy blue eyes offered only the most diligent of respectful stares.
    It had been more than four years since the Battle of Five Armies. More than four years since they had discovered the implant in Nina’s brain. More than four years since Reverend Johnny removed that vile parasite. And when he removed it, he removed a year’s worth of Nina Forest’s memories.
    A year of fighting alongside-and sometimes with-Trevor Stone. A year during which she discovered there was more to her than killing; that she could show compassion; that she could love Trevor.
    At one time, it seemed destiny chose them as a match for eternity. Neither had ever before known the scope of feeling, the intensity of passion, nor the openness they had yielded to one another during those months together.
    Then those days vanished.
    That Nina Forest-the one who had found so much of her own soul by sharing it with Trevor-no longer existed. With her memories wiped clean, he occupied a different place in her heart: the place of respected leader.
    He lost the one person he truly loved, the one person with whom he could drop the front and be merely a man.
    So there Trevor stood, inches from the person he had once embraced with all his heart. And oh, how he longed to be with her again; yet he had been told by his mysterious benefactor that their relationship was not to be. The handful of people who knew the truth were banned from speaking of it. Such talk would be the talk of treason. The forces of Armageddon had warned Trevor that he did not belong with her, and so he dared not risk such revelations.
    He did his best to keep his hand from shaking as he pinned the medal on her uniform.
    Yet little did he know that she shook, too. She trembled out of respect for him. Out of respect for all the places he had taken them. From a tiny corner of Pennsylvania they had grown into an army- a nation — taking back their planet from the invaders one mile at a time.
    Whatever he commanded, she would do. Wherever he needed her to be, she would go. He gave her purpose; gave legitimacy to her natural talent for destruction.
    Trevor Stone backed away from the small formation and raised his hand in salute.
    “Thank you for all you have done and how well you have done it. I know that I can count on you. I know mankind can count on you.”
    Shepherd dismissed the unit.
    Trevor watched them leave.
    He watched her leave.

2. Observations

    Four and a half hours after decorating Nina Forest and the Dark Wolves, Trevor Stone waited inside his personal “Eagle” airship as it sat idle just beyond the earthen walls of old Ft. McHenry at the mouth to the Inner Harbor of Baltimore.
    Outside, ground crewmen wearing jeans and shorts but going shirtless in the heat affixed a thick hose to the refueling port in one of the aft landing gear pods. That hose stretched across the grassy grounds to the bay waters after passing through a large silver desalination tank. The Eagles-stolen from the alien invaders nicknamed ‘Redcoats’ after the Battle of Wilkes-Barre-flew on hydrogen-powered engines fueled by H20.
    Inside, Stone sat in one of a dozen leather seats situated in rows along one wall of the passenger compartment. Most of the Eagle air ships included another row of seats on the other side but this was Eagle One; a command ship modified into a mobile tactical control center. Individual chairs paired to work stations for communication, data, and asset tracking replaced that second row of seats, although on this trip those stations sat empty.
    Trevor Stone waited alone with the exception of the Norwegian Elkhound named Tyr; his family dog since long before Armageddon.
    The steady drone and thump of the pumps continued as the refueling process dragged on. Trevor drummed his fingers on his thigh in an anxious fit; he did not like sitting around doing nothing, not with so much going on. The Hivvan front dominated his thoughts but many things competed for attention. Every step forward created new issues and as the sole authority governing humanity’s comeback, those issues rested on his shoulders.
    He tried to think of other things, pleasant things. He thought about the Eagle air ships and how humanity now built their own, improved versions of the craft. The “Eagles” were now better armed and fitted with upgraded communications systems.
    The ‘humanized’ version of those ships originated from the old naval shipyard in Philadelphia. In the last two years, that facility manufactured nearly two dozen. With their vertical take off/landing capability, the Eagles provided a unique mode of transportation that did not tap fuel supplies and could be modified to serve a variety of purposes.
    Of course, none of that would be possible without the re-opened and re-configured steel facilities in Bethlehem, PA. Those haunted old plants operated again thanks to matter transfiguration machines stolen from the Hivvans, first from a crashed ship in Pennsylvania and then larger units from facilities in Washington and Richmond.
    Now that Raleigh had fallen, more of the machines would be at their disposal but the victory also meant thousands more people to feed and shelter, which meant the supply trains needed to run even faster but with so many attacks on stations and tracks in recent months that was hard to The side door slid open, mercifully breaking Trevor’s frustrating circle of thought.
    Four soldiers wearing the best available equipment-green fatigues, body armor, and M16s-walked inside and found seats.
    A fifth man entered wearing a blue flight suit, blond hair, and glasses.
    “Thought you’d like something to read,” Rick Hauser-Trevor’s personal pilot-said as he handed his boss a crude newspaper.
    Trevor accepted the paper and consulted his watch. He figured they would be at the estate sometime shortly after nightfall, meaning Jorge would still be awake and hence Trevor could tuck his son in to bed tonight.
    Hauser disappeared through the cockpit door just as the drone and thump of the refueling process ended. A few moments later, Trevor heard the hum of spooling engines, then felt the craft effortless lift into the air thanks to the anti-gravity circuitry in the undercarriage.
    He held a copy of The Baltimore New Press, one of a half-dozen fledgling newspapers that joined an on-again/off-again AM band radio station and a couple of regional television outlets as the rebirth of the news media.
    It was today’s edition: August 18. Five years and two months since the first monsters and aliens came to his world.
    The paper spanned ten pages printed in broadsheet with grainy photos and error-filled prose. Still, Trevor admired their tenacity and, admittedly, found he liked this post-invasion version far better than the old world’s media. The new press included hard reporting and lots of hustle but no damn stories about rock stars marrying actors or sex scandals in Hollywood.
    The headline blared: “RALEIGH IS OURS!”
    As of this morning, Raleigh, North Carolina belongs to mankind once again. The First and Second Mechanized divisions smashed through the perilous city defenses and routed the Hivvan garrison. Word has it that the one and only “Stonewall” McAllister led the assault on horseback. More interestingly, the imposing enemy gun emplacements and their defensive walls tumbled moments before the main assault. Rumor has it that the same mysterious commando unit that assassinated the Hivvan regional governor in Richmond last year was behind this sudden strike.
    The alien army that once ruled all of Virginia and North Carolina continues to retreat as the fighters of humanity strike yet another lethal blow against the invaders. Some of the soldiers chanted “On to Atlanta!” Atlanta being the heart of the Hivvan holdings on Earth.

    Trevor smiled and imagined how the LA Times or NY Post would have covered such a story years before. The first paragraph would have speculated about undo civilian casualties, openly wondered if the Hivvan strength had been overstated, then provided a military “expert” to lash out at the tactics and strategies used.
    Things had changed for the better, to Trevor’s mind.
    He never tried to influence the press. Even if he wanted to, he simply did not have the time. Nonetheless, the new media remained supportive of the cause, probably because that cause had freed many of them from slavery or starvation.
    Stone paused as he remembered one exception to the ‘supportive’ rule. Still, he would not let that bother him. He read on and enjoyed the glowing report of rescued slaves, crushed enemies, and the bravery of his soldiers.
    Another page in the Baltimore New Press offered a rough sketch of the eastern third of what had once been the United States.
    The areas liberated by Trevor’s armies were colored white in the sketch, including all of Pennsylvania, all but the northeastern parts of New Jersey, the southern half of New York state including key spots along the Hudson, all of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia west to the Appalachian Mountains. The northern most third of North Carolina was now white, too.
    That slate of white gave the impression humanity firmly controlled all that area, but Trevor knew the truth. No organized opposition existed within the new nation’s boundaries, but the people lived in isolated pockets with vast tracks of wild lands between.
    Dangerous alien animals hid in the mountains, forests, and abandoned buildings. Travel between cities and towns meant heavily armed convoys. Life in the settlements bore little resemblance to life in the old world, due to constant shortages of food, medicine, clothing, power…the list went on. Only housing remained in great supply; plenty of vacant homes waited to replace ghosts.
    On the map, a gray area marked the lands controlled by the “Grand Army of the Hivvan Republic.” That included the balance of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Big question marks rested over Alabama and northern Florida where the map cut off.
    Trevor liked how the Baltimore New Press handled their war coverage. At the bottom of the same page, a statistic printed in bold gave meaning to the effort.
    People liberated: 563,241.
    That number, Trevor knew, came from his ‘Census Bureau.’ That number also sounded incredibly big. To have found so many people over the years seemed improbable. Yet Trevor knew that the areas they now controlled had once been home to 36 million people. This roughly translated into a 1.5 % survival rate, meaning more than 35 million people in those areas died during Armageddon.
    That accounted for the large patches of vacant towns and untraveled roads inside the ‘liberated’ zone. The number of saved people sounded large, but in reality was frighteningly small.
    The 1.5 % included large numbers of slaves freed from invaders who had beaten and worked them nearly to death for as long as five years.
    Trevor felt a gentle shove as the Eagle increased speed. He hoped Rick would make good time. He wanted to get home fast; he had not seen his son for nearly a week.
    During the first year of survival, Trevor thought he managed to grasp the rules of the new world: alien monsters lurking in every shadow and extraterrestrial armies trying to carve out zones of control. The key to victory, he knew, lay in finding survivors in the ruins and freeing hostages from alien captors.
    Then came the curveball that challenged his understanding of it all: the 1.5 % survival rate also included people who had “rode the ark”.
    Oh, there were many names for the people who emerged through time and space covered in globs of green goo: Sleepers. Angels. Returnees. With time, one name won out: these people had “rode the ark.”
    A fitting description, no doubt, because they disappeared during the early days of the calamity with no explanation. Most-including the U.S. government when there had still been a functioning U.S. government-believed those people vaporize. Not so.
    Some force plucked them away from the fire of the Apocalypse just before or just as it started. Much as Noah saved his family and the animals before the Biblical great flood.
    Trevor’s pre-war fiancee-Ashley Trump-and her entire neighborhood ‘rode the ark.’ What a surprise it had been when the vanished people of her neighborhood appeared out of nowhere one day, encased in coffin-like blobs of goo.
    That was the way of those who ‘rode the ark.’ They were not merely waiting around hoping to be discovered. They appeared in areas shortly after that area came under human control, always within a certain distance from where they had disappeared.
    For instance, missing cadets and teachers at the naval academy in Annapolis suddenly returned to the land of the living less than a week after Trevor personally led the assault clearing the city of ‘hostiles’. Those cadets and teachers reappeared scattered across campus.
    The story always sounded the same with each of those blessed people. The same as Ashley’s story: they never saw it coming.
    In Ashley’s case, while speaking on the phone with Trevor she suddenly felt a hot flash…and then opened her eyes as Trevor and Dante Jones pulled her from a case of green goo.
    What did she remember?
    She remembered talking with Trevor on the phone. Yet on some level, she understood things had changed. Not a complete understanding. She did not experience that passing of time, but knew it occurred.
    In practice, for those who ‘rode the ark’ no real time elapsed. Their bodies either time-traveled or entered some sort of perfect stasis.
    People suffering broken bones or a cough and cold or a headache when they disappeared awoke with those broken bones unhealed or with a sneeze on their lips or the desperate need for an aspirin. For them, awakening inside the slimy sarcophagi had simply been the next moment.
    As random as those disappearances seemed, the return of the vanished showed they had not been random at all. Each batch included at least one, and usually more than one, person with important skills.
    The military personnel from West Point and Annapolis; engineers and scientists from Georgetown University; a gifted doctor from a batch of empty cars on Interstate 80 by Milton, Pennsylvania; and many more. Without these experts and professional warriors, there would be no army to fight the Hivvans, only bands of refugees hiding and hoping to survive.
    To date, Trevor’s forces had revived nearly 15,000 people who ‘rode the ark.’ He knew more awaited them in places such as the Citadel in South Carolina and the marine biology building at the University of Miami as well as Cubs fans at Wrigley field.
    How many had been plucked from the world to keep them safe during the worst of the storm? And why them? Who had done it?
    He incessantly questioned his mysterious benefactor, The Old Man, who granted Trevor gifts of knowledge, sanctuary, and control of the K9s when they first met. That entity sat by his campfire in the woods and remained tight-lipped about the ark. He either did not know or would not say.
    So many mysteries; so many reasons to wonder. Yet none of it really mattered; not to Trevor Stone.
    The Old Man once told Trevor he was a link in a chain; a man with a path to walk to keep humanity from dying and that he must survive, fight, and sacrifice.
    He survived, at least so far.
    He already fought an uncountable number of battles and knew many more were to come.
    And he had made the most difficult sacrifice he could imagine; he gave up the only woman he truly loved, Nina Forest.
    The Old Man warned Trevor that his soul was damned. Damnation meant living a life filled with violence, a life devoid of anything other than the mission. At least he had his son, Jorge. And Ashley, of course. On some level or another.
    Trevor put aside the paper, closed his eyes, and tried to shut out the questions and the worries for a spell.
    Ashley walked into the den on the first floor of the estate and spoke to the boy who was only a few months past his third birthday: “What are you still doing up?”
    Jorge crawled around the floor on his hands and knees wearing powder blue racecar pajamas and surrounded by large pieces of paper and crayons. The boy stopped his drawing and looked into the green eyes of his dark-haired mother.
    “I’m waiting for father.”
    Never ‘daddy’ or ‘dad’, always “father.”
    Ashley leaned against the doorframe.
    Tall bookshelves filled with everything from science fiction to reference to religion lined the room. A massive oak desk sat in front of French casement windows facing the south grounds. Illumination came from wall-mounted antique brass fixtures.
    One part library, one part office, this stuffy room sat unused during Trevor’s first years in the mansion. Jorge turned it into a playroom of sorts.
    “JB,” Ashley called her son by his initials. “I don’t know when your father will be home. He had important business and may not get back until morning.”
    The blonde haired, blue-eyed boy shook his head. “He will be home tonight. He likes to tuck me to bed.”
    Ashley frowned. JB tended to be right about such things.
    She walked further into the den. A floorboard creaked underfoot.
    “What is it you’re drawing?” She knelt to examine one of the crayon sketches.
    “It is the battle in the south. Father was victorious again.”
    ‘ Victorious.’ What three-year-old boy uses such a word?
    “Isn’t he always?” Ashley chided.
    The unexpected answer gave her pause. JB drew another scene: a giant monster waving fists at a mass of stick-people.
    She huffed and told him, “That’s enough for tonight, JB. It’s late.”
    He stood and gave her a hug.
    “Please, mom. I just know father will be here soon. Another few minutes?”
    “I see,” she found it difficult to deny him. He was, after all, her boy. Her child. Perhaps the only thing-the only person-in the world that she knew actually loved her. The two spent a lot of time alone together waiting for ‘father’ to return.
    “Okay, okay,” she kissed him on the forehead as he smiled in victory.
    Ashley glanced at the classic grandfather clock ticking and tocking in the corner. “Ten more minutes by grandpa’s watch,” she told the boy, referring to the clock. “But that’s it. Understand?”
    “Yes,” he hugged her again. “I love you, mommy.”

    Eagle One flew over the mountains and into the basin holding Harveys Lake. That lake had once been home to the region’s wealthy as well as seasonal summer dwellers of means.
    Armageddon chased them away. During the first days, authorities urged evacuation to rescue stations. This ended disastrously for those who listened. Those who did not leave faced monsters and then starvation.
    When the Old Man informed Trevor that he had to survive, fight, and sacrifice, he also informed the young man he would receive three gifts to help.
    The lakeside estate came first, packed with survival gear and weapons. This had been his home during the early months. Eventually it morphed into the center point for rebuilding civilization.
    His second gift proved more unusual: the ability to communicate with dogs, although he preferred to call them K9s or even “Grenadiers” as Stonewall McAllister nicknamed them.
    Even after five years he did not fully understand how the communication worked, but it involved a combination of sound and mental projection.
    Nonetheless, they were obedient, fearless, and ruthless; an extension of Trevor’s will. They never questioned his orders, argued morals, or hesitated to obey.
    As the number of human survivors grew, the importance of K9s in pitched battles diminished. They transitioned from front line fighting to rooting out alien predators as well as security, although more than a few Hivvans met their fate in the jaws of Trevor’s Grenadiers.
    As far as anyone could tell, Trevor remained the only human who could communicate thoroughly with the K9s. Nonetheless, the dogs were born with an instinct for human commands.
    The K9s numbered in the tens of thousands throughout the new civilization and provided basic perimeter and patrol security for almost every human community. While certainly intimidating to newcomers, people slept better knowing Grenadiers patrolled the streets.
    His third gift proved the most puzzling of all, at least to those who had known him before Armageddon. Trevor’s close friends-like Jon Brewer and Dante Jones-could not understand how Stone knew how to fly helicopters or repair complicated equipment. How had he learned to be a good marksman or understand the tactics of war as well as any General?
    He told them he had just “picked it up.” They never questioned further.
    A collection of human genetic memories, this third gift remained stored in a secret room in an underground chamber beneath the mansion; a chamber only he could access using a key that was always around his neck but only visible when he needed it.
    Those memories served as a library of knowledge and with that knowledge Trevor gained the courage and self-confidence to become the leader mankind needed.
    Yet he did not completely understand the gift. Among those genetic memories came the know-how to fly the “Eagle” ships stolen from the Redcoat aliens. That information should not be accessible to him, not through his network of human memories; human genes.
    It seemed the more Trevor learned about the new world the more mysteries he found.
    In any case, as his Eagle approached the mansion, the deceleration woke Stone. With no windows inside the passenger compartment, he activated a view screen to look outside the craft.
    Each time he saw ‘home’ he felt relieved; a part of him feared finding nothing but ruins overrun by hostiles; a fear that was a part of the responsibility he carried on his shoulders.
    Surrounded by a tall black iron fence, the mansion sat isolated except for two neighbors: a silent A-frame on one side, a small white church fifty yards in the other direction.
    A driveway climbed a slight grade toward the east-facing main house through a perfectly manicured lawn dotted with ornamental trees. A six-car garage with apartments on top rested in the northern quadrant of the grounds. Other, smaller buildings hid among the trees on the back half of the lot in the shadow of a mountain, including a barn that had been the original home for Trevor’s first army of dogs.
    Standing two stories tall, the architecture suggested Victorian roots but lacked heavy gothic flavor. Thick pillars lined a big front porch while a second-floor balcony overlooked the front grounds with a breathtaking view of the lake.
    The Eagle airship slowed to a stop in mid air and then descended onto a concrete helicopter pad built in the front yard.

    Trevor pulled the sheets to his son’s chin. It was August, it was warm, but tucking Jorge in always meant literally tucking him in. No doubt Jorgie would soon toss and twist those sheets but Trevor followed the routine step by step.
    “Tell me again, how fast did the Hivvans run?”
    Trevor smiled at his boy’s desire to know about the world he would someday inherit. For such a young child he held an unusual grasp of the situation.
    “They ran like a boy from a Jaw-Wolf,” he tickled JB’s nose. “Maybe even faster.”
    “That’s pretty fast,” JB giggled. “I’m glad you’re home, father. Mommy is glad you’re home, too.”
    Trevor kissed his boy on the forehead.
    “Could you wrap bunny up?” JB asked before his father left.
    ‘Bunny’ was a fuzzy yellow rabbit given to the boy by Jon Brewer last Easter. JB had a small white and red blanket that always stayed with Bunny; the plush rabbit’s version of the covers Trevor pulled tight over his son at night.
    Bunny always went to bed with JB and often times accompanied the boy on long trips. Most important, however, Bunny required wrapping, too.
    When he finished, Trevor handed the bundle to his son who accepted it with a warm hug. Daddy then pulled those bed sheets snug again to his son’s chin.
    “Sweet dreams, Jorge.”
    Jorge, with his eyes closed, repeated, “…like a boy from a Jaw-Wolf…”
    Trevor turned off the lamp on the nightstand and tip toed into the hallway. Ashley stood there with crossed arms.
    “Like a boy from a Jaw-Wolf? Are you trying to give him nightmares?”
    Trevor gently closed the door, but not quite all the way.
    “I don’t think he gets nightmares.”
    “Hmmm…” Ashley tried-unconvincingly-to sound annoyed.
    They walked along the hall toward what had once been the second-floor ‘Command Center‘. Now it served as Trevor’s personal office. The majority of official business and meetings took place in the basement conference room.
    “So things went well?” Ashley asked.
    “The bad guys are on the run.”
    “You were victorious,” she said in a funny tone.
    “Nothing. Forget it.”
    The sliding doors to the balcony stood open and a soft breeze blew in. Outside, over the lake, an Eagle patrol ship flew through the night sky with spotlights searching the waters below and its running lights flashing like big fireflies.
    He stood at the balcony and watched. The image of the ship floating over the waters with its lights flashing resembled a special effects shot from a movie; surreal.
    In truth, so much of what happened at the mansion seemed surreal any more. He and Ashley, for instance. Their relationship felt more like a stage play. They never actually went through with the wedding they had been planning before the world fell apart. All the seating chart strategies and finely planned details were now faded memories of a dream life.
    In truth, few people formally married in the post-Armageddon world. Those of strong religious beliefs went to clergy and received the blessings of their preferred church, but Trevor’s bureaucracy offered no official sanction of ‘marriage.’
    Appointed regional judges settled “legal” disputes between people but had no time to stamp marriage licenses. More important issues-from food to alien monsters-vied for ‘government’ attention.
    To Trevor, finding Ashley covered in the green goo four years before had been a surprise, but not a shock. Some how it seemed to fit. Of course. He could not be with Nina because he was supposed to be with Ashley. Why?
    She was no fighter. Ashley had been somewhat of a whiny princess in the old days. Not a survivor at all. Ah, but what better reason for her to have been chosen to ‘ride the ark’?
    Yet for her, no time had elapsed. She spoke to her fiance in one breath, then gasped for air in the next as he pulled her from a gooey coffin.
    Not so for him. Between the moment of her disappearance and the time of her reappearance, his entire person changed from a directionless young man to a single-minded leader equipped with the knowledge and burdened with the responsibility to fight a war against alien invaders.
    His months with Nina taught him the truth about his feelings for Ashley: he never really loved her. Not the type of deep, open love he felt with Nina. With his true love stripped from his life, he did not want to return to that old-world lie.
    For the first days after her return, he comforted her, awkwardly. He explained how the world changed. He did not need to explain how he had changed, she saw that for herself.
    Then he found out why he was supposed to be with Ashley. She told him about her nausea and a missed period. Dr. Maple quickly confirmed Ashley Trump’s pregnancy.
    After JB’s birth, blood testing confirmed his paternity and his humanity. Whatever force stole her away on the ark did not manipulate the child’s development, only postponed the birth.
    Trevor understood. Jorge Benjamin Stone was the reason he had to be with Ashley.
    JB needed a father, not merely a sperm donor. A father and a mother. His father and mother. Trevor and Ashley.
    Perhaps JB would be the next link on the chain.
    To her credit, it did not take long for Ashley Trump to change, either.
    Ironically, her ride on the ark made her something akin to royalty in the new world. That and her being-for all purposes-the wife of Trevor Stone. She demonstrated a quiet strength in her husband’s shadow.
    In many ways, she legitimately became the ‘princess’ Lori Brewer often referred to her as in the old days. Yet the uppity attitude that elicited that derogatory title dissipated.
    Ashley did not know of Trevor’s relationship with Nina Forest. Nonetheless, it did not take her long to realize she did not hold Trevor’s heart. Not firmly, at least.
    They shared the same bed. Sometimes there was affection and there was always kindness.
    It seemed Ashley had come to believe she played a role in all this, too. The role of JB’s mother. The role of Trevor’s supportive companion. A place for her in the world of nightmares she had awoken to. Like him, it was a role forced upon her.
    Trevor watched the Eagle patrol ship move across the waters of the lake. Ashley stood next to him.
    “Beautiful night,” she said. “I’m going to bed now. You’re welcome to join me.”
    An invitation. Yet no matter how heated their embrace may become when they shared warmth, they both sensed a barrier between them. The same barrier imprisoning them in their roles in the new world.
    Oh, it was not a harsh prison. She was beautiful. He had evolved into a handsome, chiseled man. There were worse fates.
    Trevor looked out at the August night one more time. The lights of the patrol craft faded in the distance.
    He thought he would accept the invitation. To feel her touch would be…would be nice.
    Trevor walked away from the balcony…
    …Through binoculars, a pair of eyes watched Trevor disappear inside the mansion.
    The figure stood amongst the trees on the slope of the mountain. He had watched the estate for a long time. For days now.
    At the same moment he watched Trevor move from view, the shadowy figure realized they had caught his scent.
    Two Siberian Huskies abandoned their patrol route and raced toward the scent of the intruder. They came upon the shadowy man standing amidst the trees. They sensed he did not belong.
    The shadow stood still as the angry dogs approached. He heard their snarls. He felt them prepare to strike, slowing as they circled the trapped quarry.
    “Very good,” he patted his hands together in a quiet clap, cheering the dogs for their keen awareness. “You must be the best of the best,” he spoke as their nostrils flared. “What a shame.”
    The Grenadiers stepped closer; snarls gasped from their snouts.
    Then they hesitated.
    The snarls stopped. Each tried to bark but only a tiny yap came from their throats.
    Then the dogs whined as if an unpleasant scent assaulted their noses.
    Anger came again. More snarls, this time not directed at the shadowy intruder in the woods but at each other.
    The Huskies circled one another, twitching and drooling as they moved. Then they crashed together, teeth ripping and claws tearing. Blood spilled as they twisted and wrestled in the woods.
    The shadowy figure turned and slowly walked away as the two K9s tore each other apart, inflicting mortal wounds and eventually slumping to the ground motionless as their lifeblood drained.
    The man disappeared into the shadows. He would not be seen again until he chose to be seen. It was not time yet. That time would come, soon enough.
    Soon enough.

3. Fishing

    Nina turned off the shower and stepped from behind the curtain. A solitary ray of morning light entered between warped window blinds, cut across the small dorm room, and shot through the open door to the steam-filled bathroom like a golden laser.
    While the room lacked electricity, the engineers managed to get the residence hall’s hot water heaters up and running, something Nina greatly appreciated.
    Her towel wiped the inside thigh of her left leg, just below a tattoo depicting the profile of a wolf’s head. She paused and stared at the rendering permanently sketched on her body. The drawing still baffled her. More precisely, how had she worked up the courage-or stupidity-to allow a fat, smelly biker-dude ‘ink’ her?
    It all started when she led a group of commandos on a mission behind enemy lines outside of Pittsburgh. Things went FUBAR and they found themselves surrounded by three-legged plasma-rifle-wielding platypus aliens. She and her men expected to die and hoped only to kill a number of the enemy before the end.
    Instead, her commando unit not only survived, but turned the tables so thoroughly the aliens ran for their lives. Indeed, eschewing the opportunity to slip quietly away, Nina and her team chased the fleeing aliens and slaughtered them like wolves on the hunt.
    On that day, Special Forces Unit Alpha-One became the Dark Wolves.
    When they had returned to base camp a sense of euphoria overcame the team. Drinking, laughing, and then finally a dare to seal their bond. Each of the four agreed to the tattoo.
    Before that year of lost memories, the idea of a tattoo abhorred her. Yet on that day she consented and not all of her consent could be blamed on alcohol.
    Ever since the day four years ago when she opened her eyes inside the bowels of The Order’s abandoned base in Allentown with Jerry Shepherd the only familiar face in a room full of strangers, she felt something missing in her life.
    Like an elusive itch defying all attempts to scratch, Nina failed to satiate that feeling. Perhaps the adventure of getting the risque tattoo had served as another scratch and like all the others, it failed to chase a sense of loss. Of emptiness.
    She experimented with relationships over the years, even taking two lovers. Yet each ended in failure and she placed the blame on herself. She always stopped short of opening herself to people and she found no interest in casual flings: she could never separate the physical intimacy from the emotional.
    Thus, she focused almost entirely on her work. This produced the best results. She felt most at home on the battlefield or sneaking behind enemy lines or picking off an alien leader with a sniper rifle at three hundred yards. In such cases, the mission may be difficult and dangerous but at least the goals were well defined.
    Nonetheless, as much as she tried to submerge herself in work; as much as she tried to chase away that empty feeling; it managed to return. It always wormed through to nag at her, particularly between missions.
    Nina moved into the center of the dorm room, strapped on her watch and slipped into black BDUs. A North Carolina State Wolfpack pennant decorated one wall, a small refrigerator filled with skunked beer sat between two skinny beds. The whole place smelled old and dusty; the calendar remained stuck on a summer day five years past.
    A stranger’s room with a stranger’s stuff. She owned only an assault rifle and a duffle bag of equipment that traveled with her from mission to mission. Everything else in that place belonged to a world long-gone; echoes from a civilization ground to dust.
    Wait, no, one more item belonged to her: a fishing pole propped in a corner.
    Nina checked her watch and realized she had enough time to put that fishing pole to use.

    Not far from the campus of North Carolina State University lapped the calm waters of Lake Johnson, situated on the southwestern corner of Raleigh within the perimeter of the Hivvan walls.
    General Jerry Shepherd and Nina Forest sat on an isolated grassy bank with their lines cast in the lake. No bites came and given the strands of industrial slime floating on the surface after years of Hivvan manufacturing, they doubted anything edible lived in those waters. In fact, they worried more about something unearthly coming from the depths to feast on them.
    Of course, catching fish was not the point.
    Jerry Shepherd had been Nina’s mentor in the Philadelphia police force. Since those days, she viewed him as sort of a second father.
    A veteran of both the military and law enforcement, Shep treated Nina like a soldier since the day he first met her, not like some chick trying to muscle her way onto the sacred ground of masculinity. Ironically, Nina Forest‘s disposition remained shy and reclusive, except on the battlefield. Except on a mission.
    Except-Nina might add-when getting wolf tattoos etched on her upper thigh.
    Shep had led Nina and a handful of others from Philadelphia that first summer of the invasion when the chain of command broke and splintered, when a nation deteriorated into individuals running for their lives.
    When they happened upon an abandoned police helicopter north of the city, Nina’s skills as an Army National Guard pilot allowed them to take to the air. During their flight north, the chopper experienced mechanical problems forcing an emergency landing in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
    The story went on from there but it ended with Shep and Nina joining Trevor’s band of survivors.
    In the years since, the two saw less of each other due to their diverging roles in the military campaign.
    Technically, the Dark Wolves served as part of Shepherd’s “Southern Command,” but their unit often moved fast with little break between tasks.
    Those tasks included reconnaissance, assassinations, sabotage, harassing enemy supply convoys, taking out particularly nasty predatory hostiles, securing key river crossings, and more.
    Overhead, the sound of a military jet cut through the otherwise peaceful morning.
    Shep glanced skyward and told her, “We’ve been running sorties since dawn. Hitting em’ with everything we got.”
    She asked, “But not ground forces? I heard 2 ^ nd Mech hasn’t moved an inch.”
    “Supplies are stretched to the limit. We got some units down to less than a dozen bullets per man and gas tanks are about dry. It’s going to take some time before we can get after them.”
    “Same old story,” she said. “We’ve got the manpower but no supplies. I thought you brought that up at the last big meeting?”
    Shepherd chuckled. “Yeah, Nina, I brought it up. That don’t mean there were any more bullets to spare.”
    Something moved in the lake waters. A fish. Maybe. Whatever it was scurried off. Some of the new animals on Earth came to feast, but the bulk of the new creatures were herbivores and carrion eaters.
    “Speaking of that last powwow,” Shepherd referred to a military conference held at the lakeside estate a month ago. “Prescott asked about you.”
    He meant General Tom Prescott, in command of the 1 ^ st Armored Division as well as the “Western Command,” currently securing their flank along the Appalachians.
    “How is he doing?”
    “He’s doing okay, I suppose,” Shep probed. “Nice guy. Kind of a warped sense of humor, but nice.”
    Nina sighed and gave in to his prodding. “Yeah, nice guy, but not exactly, well, not exactly the right fit for me. I hope he wasn’t too hurt when I broke it off.”
    “Oh, he’s a tough fellow, seems to me his spine is still intact.”
    Nina went silent and kept her eyes focused forward, as if studying her fishing line but Shep knew better. He scratched the back of his neck and waited for what he knew would come because they went through the same routine every six months or so. He hated it; he hated lying to her. Still, he had given his word to Trevor and what good would the truth do now? So he waited for the inevitable question and considered which strategy of deception he would use this time.
    “Look, Shep, I think there’s more you’re not telling me. More that lots of people aren’t telling me about what happened. I feel as if something is missing. I’m just saying that I deserve the truth, that’s all.”
    He licked his lips and answered, “I don’t know how many different ways I can tell it, Nina. You know it all.”
    Funny, he thought, you’d think lying would get easier each time, but it don’t.
    “Then tell me again.”
    “Well aren’t you the little detective. What am I, a suspect or something? You going to keep badgering me until my story slips up or something like that?”
    She glanced away as if ashamed for pushing, but turned her eyes back to him just as quick. No, he would not get away easy this time.
    Shepherd adopted an annoyed tone as he told her the story once again. “Helicopter crashes. You and Scott lure away the bad things from me and Sal ‘cause I’m all banged up. Trevor and Jon Brewer mosey along and help me and Sal back to the estate, then they go looking for you. They don’t find you for nearly three whole days and there’s no sign of Scott. He didn’t make it but you look right as rain when they do stagger upon you, other than being out cold. A few months later, you get snatched by The Order and taken to one of their bases. Turns out, they had implanted you with some sort of thing that was recording your memories. Sort of like a spy thing, except you didn’t know about it.”
    Part one of the story followed the truth with the exception being that Nina’s implant caused her to betray Trevor to The Order. The second part of the story included a different take on the rescue mission but one meant to cover up this betrayal. She had not been at fault and with all she lost, it made no sense to Shep to add guilt to the equation.
    “Jon Brewer and Trevor and a whole posse of us help get you out of there but we didn’t know there were two implants. So you go spending the next couple of months fighting alongside all of us, killing the bad guys, wiping out the Redcoats, and helping win the Battle of Five Armies-hooray for you.”
    Nina furled her brow; his sarcasm apparently hit a nerve.
    “But then you start fainting. I never thought I’d see you faint by the way. So ole Reverend Johnny finds the second implant. To take it out we got to get you down to The Order’s base and find the right enzyme or something like that. We do that and the second implant is gone before it can cause any more brain damage to your stubborn l’il noggin.”
    He punctuated the end of the story with an acerbic smile.
    “Nothing else?”
    “I reckon there’s a lot else but to be honest with you I didn’t go ‘round keeping a diary on everything you were up to. But all the big stuff, that about covers it.”
    Nina turned away and stared at the water.
    Shepherd squeezed his eyes shut and sighed. He figured he probably could have done without the sarcasm. She was, after all, just a girl who had had something bad happen to her. He wondered how he would react if he could not remember an entire year of his life; if he had awoken from that year as she had: changed.
    That was the truth of it. She had changed. Shepherd could see that as clearly as he saw her sitting next to him. She seemed to want more in her life than just the fighting, but had been unable to find exactly what that was.
    To him, Nina was like the daughter- the child — he never had, and he had just been mean to her. Man, did he wish he had a beer. Usually he brought a six-pack when he fished. Usually, when the two of them went, they brought a whole cooler full. Not this time. This was a temporary respite in the midst of a critical campaign, not a vacation.
    The older man rested his fishing pole on the grass and slid closer to her. He put a fatherly arm on her shoulder.
    “Say, I’m sorry, Nina.”
    “Yeah, me too. I need to learn to stop looking to you for answers. I have to find them somewhere else.”
    He said, “I just think I’ve been over about everything I can tell you.”
    She rested her head, briefly, on his shoulder like a little girl looking for comfort.
    “I’m sorry to be bothering you about all this. I won’t do it again, promise.”
    “I know,” he answered, but she said that each time. In six months or so, he figured she would say it again.
    The sound of approaching footsteps startled the two of them from the moment.
    “Sir! General, Sir!”
    Bogart hurried to the grassy slope. Shep and Nina stood to meet him. He held several sheets of paper toward the General.
    “Sir, you need to look at this. It’s the Hivvans, Sir.”
    Shep grabbed the papers. Nina peered over his shoulder.
    “I’ll be damned. Get me a secure line to the estate. I need to talk to Brewer right away.”

    Trevor leaned against the big oak desk in the den. His son crawled around on the floor amidst drawings of battles and monsters.
    “Did General Shepherd do well?” JB asked.
    “Shep did a very good job. Stonewall, too.”
    “Yes, I know,” Jorge replied as he paid particular attention to one drawing. “The man on the radio talked a lot about General Stonewall this morning. Said he cut the heads right off a bunch of Hivvans.”
    Trevor scratched his chin and said, “I don’t want you thinking about stuff like that, JB. It’s really not very pleasant.”
    “No,” Jorge said without turning from his drawing. “I guess not. Not for the Hivvan getting his head chopped off.”
    Trevor shook his head. JB always had something to say and he usually said it much more eloquently than any adult Trevor knew. Except for Stonewall, of course. No one spoke more eloquently than Stonewall.
    He turned away from his son, glanced out the French casement windows, and stopped dead at what he saw: a white wolf loitering beyond the iron fence on the south side of the estate.
    Stone shook his head. Why now? He finally had time to spend with his son and that damn Old Man summoned him.
    “Jorgie,” Trevor said, still looking out the window. “I have to go for a bit. Why don’t you stay here and finish your drawings?”
    “Uh-huh,” came the mumbled reply.
    He patted his son on his blonde hair then left the den, leaving behind a black Doberman Pincher named “Ajax,” JB’s bodyguard.
    Trevor moved along the first floor of the crowded mansion. One time dining rooms and guest bedrooms now served as meeting chambers and offices; the basement held the primary conference room and nerve center. The Stones kept the second floor as personal space.
    He heard Lori Brewer’s voice from behind a half-open door.
    “What? All riiiggghtty then, if that’s the attitude you’re going to take maybe we’ll just move you into the old warehouse on eleventh street. You know, the one where the Mutants entertained their guests. What’s that? Good. Now you’re being reasonable.”
    Amused, Trevor shook his head as he exited the front door of the mansion. He did not even notice how Tyr had caught up to him. They walked side by side out the front gate, and then swung north. A few steps later and they entered the woods. The white wolf had circled around the grounds to meet them on the north side. Trevor and Tyr followed the beast into the forest.
    Stone saw less and less of the Old Man in recent years. As long as Trevor freed people and killed aliens the Old Man rarely showed his face. The mysterious entity appeared to be most pleased when Trevor did the most killing. Indeed, the thing that looked like an Old Man wanted Stone to purge every non-human creature from the planet. No mercy. No prisoners.
    At the same time, the Old Man often knocked Trevor down a notch. When his forces had cleared Pennsylvania, the Old Man pointed out that there were forty-seven more states to go in the continental U.S.
    When they captured Washington D.C. the Old Man scoffed, “You should leave Washington a ghost town as an epitaph to the morons who had tried to rule from there.”
    As for Ashley and the others who ‘rode the arc,’ Trevor’s mentor said nothing. He either kept a secret or did not know the answer.
    Yes, the Old Man could be quiet when he did not want to share, yet very loud when he had things to say, such as the time he told Trevor he could not be with Nina because she did not share the path he walked. Or when Trevor had announced his grand plan to secure a thermonuclear warhead. The Old Man had been loud with laughter that day.
    The weapon would not detonate. Nor the next one, or the one after that.
    “They aren’t allowed,” the Old Man eventually revealed. “Against the rules. No-what do they call em’?-oh yeah, no wep-uns of mass destruction. You best be thankful for that cause lemme tell you, there’z stuff on the bad guys’ side that makes a nuke look like a water balloon.”
    Stone pushed his way through the brush and tree limbs until he found the Old Man sitting by a campfire with his butt planted on a chunk of red rock.
    “Sit down, Trev. We got to talk shop.”
    Trevor stepped into the glow of the fire light. His K9 companion, Tyr, rested on the ground by that same fire while the wolf took its usual position next to the old timer.
    “What is it?” Trevor said in a short burst like a teenager reluctantly reporting to dad for his daily chores.
    “Oh, no nice little howdy-do? I ‘spose I went and pulled ‘ya away from more pressing matters? Gee-whiz there Trev, please accept my apologies.”
    Trevor did not given an inch. “You didn’t call me out here to talk shit. What is it?”
    The man stiffened his lips and nodded slowly as if to say, ‘so that’s how it’s going to be then? Fine.’ Trevor stared at the entity unfazed.
    Who knew what it really was? Could it be God? Trevor did not think so-the Old Man denied that the first time they met. But he was something. Something extraordinary. Something with incredible power to match his incredible knowledge. On some level, this entity pulled the strings of Armageddon but also stood in humanity’s corner; or so it appeared.
    Nonetheless, Trevor no longer feared the Old Man, no matter what it might truly be. That entity had taken so much from Trevor that he was not afraid of it-he hated it.
    Besides, one thing became apparent from the first day they met. No matter how powerful the entity wearing the cloak of an elderly white human male may be, it needed Trevor.
    “Right then, straight to brass tacks,” the old timer went on. “You got to go get the best of your best people, Trevor. Get em’ and send em up north. I know, I know-I’ll tell you where, hold your jock strap on. But here’s the thing, they gotta get moving real fast like. Got a real chance here to help things along, or get em’ screwed up even worse still.”
    Stone shook his head as if to clear away the double-talk.
    “For Christ’s sake, just tell me what you need to tell me.”
    “Oh, excuse me, Mr. Big-Shit. Lemme just lay those cards all out on the table for ya’. Someone’s gone and broken the rules, so there’s a new element in play now.”
    The ‘rules.’ The first time they met the Old Man informed Trevor there were rules governing Armageddon. What that meant, Stone did not know. Whatever they were, those rules kept the Old Man from revealing too much.
    “A new element in play? What?”
    The Old Man told him, “Lessee…hmmm…what to call ‘em…hmmm…okay then, let’s go and say the ‘runes’ are now in play. Open for the takin’. First come, first served.”
    “The what?” Trevor never heard of the ‘runes’ before.
    “The runes…ya’ goin’ deaf? Maybe I could of called them the ‘gateway’ or the ‘gate’ or the ‘key’ or the ‘multi-dimensional sequential thingamajig.’ But, gosh-darn it, ‘runes’ just seemed like the easy way out.”
    Trevor shook his head again but the confusion remained.
    “So what? What do you want me to do?”
    “So what? Oh, Jimmy Christmas! Well, I suppose it’s not your fault for not knowing. Lemme see if I can clear this up a shade. If you and your boys goes and get the runes you can shut down every last gate on this planet.”
    Trevor’s eyes widened. He knew about the gates. He did not know how many existed but he had destroyed one in Binghamton, New York that first year. Closing them off would mean no more reinforcements for the bad guys.
    “Oh, yeah, hey, look it here the old timer does have something important to say. Don’t that just shake the cat?”
    “So you can tell me this,” Trevor asked. “And it’s not against the rules?”
    “Not now it ain’t. Someone else gone and broke them rules already so it’s fair game. Bad news being that a lot of other folks competing for living space on this rock are getting the message about now, too. They get hold of them runes and they can control the gates for themselves. Here’s a hint, Trevvy-that’d be real bad for you.”
    “So where are the runes, how do I get them?”
    “I’m getting there. Tell your boys to pack a warm set of long johns, hehe. Oh yeah, you going to have to haul ass, too. Now that the rules have been broken on the runes…well, let’s just say the starters’ pistol just went BANG.”
    Trevor asked, “Hold on a sec. Who broke the rules?”
    The Old Man’s eyes grew narrow.
    “Why Trevor, you did.”
    Before he could respond the Old Man added, “I mean to say, you will. I suppose from your point of view it hasn’t happened yet. For me, well I keep telling you time is irrelevant. But the long and the short of it is that you really are going screw things up, Trev.”
    The Old Man smiled.
    “Thought you oughtta know.”

4. Powwow

    The basement of the estate had undergone significant renovations since the day Richard Trevor Stone stumbled through the front door. No more sports bar theme; no Penn State pennants or billiards table. Instead, a large conference table dominated the room surrounded by wall-mounted wide-screen televisions connected to audio/visual equipment.
    For several years now, the basement served as the main conference room for the leaders of humanity’s comeback. Those conferences included either the full council or a smaller, military committee.
    Thursday, August 20 ^ th began with a full conference.
    Like the room, the council evolved since its inception four years prior. One key element remained the same, however: Trevor personally selected each participant. Over the years he switched, modified, or otherwise changed individual responsibilities while also expanding the council to include more people, a necessity given his expanding realm.
    Reverend Johnny, the fiery black man who constantly quoted Old Testament scripture served as, “Chief Analyst of Hostile Biotechnology,” a job rooted in understanding one of humanity’s most mysterious-and dangerous-enemies, The Order.
    Despite his title, ‘Reverend’ Johnny had actually been a surgeon in the old world, not a clergyman. Therefore, he originally held the title of “Secretary of Medical and Health Services.” That job now fell to Dr. Maple, a middle-aged man wearing spectacles on a very round head.
    Anita Nehru was “Chief Analyst Hostile Information and Tracking.” Anita and her staff maintained a library of information on alien animals and armies. They distributed field manuals for use by soldiers and Hunter-Killer teams.
    Her husband, Omar, held the position of “Director, Science and Technology” giving him responsibility for everything from power supplies to adapting alien wares to human needs.
    Eva Rheimmer-a gray-haired woman who helped Trevor since the early days with food from her family farm-served as “Secretary of Food and Agriculture.” She monitored farm animals, crop yields, and food distribution, making her department the largest non-military entity. Wherever human beings lived in the new nation, you would find people who reported to Eva.
    People often loved her, particularly when meat and milk arrived in starving villages. Just as often people despised her, such as when she ordered the removal of a community’s grain or livestock for use elsewhere. Such decisions often resulted in protests or riots or even gunfire.
    Food logistics-like all supplies-relied on the railroads and old-fashioned steam locomotives pulled from museums. With coal literally lying around Pennsylvania, fuel was easy to find. Furthermore, tracks crisscrossed the northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
    On the other hand, finding experienced conductors and engineers proved difficult. In the end, humanity’s logistical network relied as much on old-world railroad hobbyists as professionals; Armageddon provided a chance for modelers to turn their tabletop dioramas into the real thing.
    One of the newer members of the council was Brett Stanton, a thin, dark-haired fellow with brown eyes and a drawn face. He served as “Director of Industry and Manufacturing.”
    Stanton kept the factories going, including military manufacturing such as the Eagle airships at the Philadelphia shipyard and shells from Chamberlain Munitions in northeast Pennsylvania.
    Brett ‘rode the ark’ outside of Pittsburgh two years earlier. In his previous life, he worked as a systems engineer for PPG. He caught Trevor’s attention by demonstrating a knack for getting the most done with the least materials, a trait as critical to the war effort as a battalion of tanks.
    Every military plan required consultation with Brett Stanton before finalization. Without bullets and guns from his factories, no attack could go forward.
    Evan Godfrey-one of the original council members-remained on board despite his open hostility toward Trevor’s rule.
    Prior to the invasion, Godfrey studied political science and laid the groundwork for a career in office through a network of connections and a resume thick with community service.
    Unfortunately for Evan, Armageddon cast aside the old-world system of buddies, favors, and political theory. Nonetheless, Godfrey helped scrounge supplies, living quarters, and other necessities as the survivors rolled in. At every opportunity, however, he opposed Trevor’s power. Even appointment to the council as the “Secretary of Housing and Needs” could not appease him.
    More specifically, Evan derided Trevor’s system of naming military governors and Mayors in liberated towns. He argued in favor of a representative government and for reinstituting the ideals of democracy and capitalism, an argument Godfrey made time and again in his newspaper, The New American Press.
    It would be easy to remove Godfrey; perhaps just as easy to get rid of him in a more permanent manner. Despite the trouble he caused, Trevor knew Godfrey did an excellent job helping newcomers settle into homes, cutting through red tape to find specialized medicines, and a plethora of similar good deeds.
    Evan Godfrey was a pain Trevor learned to tolerate for the greater good.
    Another pain was Lori Brewer, but for different reasons. She often told Trevor what he did not want to hear, usually about himself. She went by the title of “Chief Administrator.” Her staff tracked and processed liberated/saved people and worked with Evan’s teams to find appropriate housing. Lori kept her finger on the pulse of everything happening in the slowly building nation. Her bull-in-a-china-shop attitude got things done, even if she ruffled a few feathers.
    Her husband, Jon Brewer, acted as “Military Chief of Staff” and coordinated all combat operations. The various Generals reported to him. He held responsibility for organizing and supplying the troops who waged the war to take back the planet.
    He had done an excellent job to date, particularly considering that more than ninety percent of his soldiers had no military training prior to the Apocalypse. Jon’s troops were yesterday’s accountants, store clerks, waitresses, and insurance salesmen. Trevor was often surprised at how well- how naturally — people took to fighting. It reinforced his theory that mankind may be the best of the universe’s warriors, a thought that also scared him.
    Jon built a huge support structure that included training facilities, weapons caches, vehicle pools, air bases, and more. He played the role of de-facto second-in-command, a role he held since the early days of humanity’s counter-attack.
    Dante Jones, Trevor’s best friend in the old days, served as “Chief of Internal Security and Secretary of Justice.” A long title for a simple job. He coordinated security inside the front lines of the war. This meant organizing local police forces and investigators to handle human on human crime. It also meant coordinating Hunter-Killer teams with the military to eliminate hostile predators and other non-earthly animals.
    Like his other good friend-Lori Brewer-Dante often sounded like Trevor’s conscience. Indeed, sometimes he could almost feel Lori on one shoulder and Dante on the other when he faced hard decisions. They swapped the angel and devil costumes depending on circumstance.
    The “Justice” word in Dante’s title added the responsibility of finding and appointing judges and arbitrators to adjudicate cases, sentence criminals and solve disagreements.
    In the new world, people worried most about eating or being eaten, resulting in a greater sense of camaraderie and less disagreements.
    Very few cold-blooded murders occurred while rape occurred at a much lower rate than in the old, ‘civilized’ world. Robbery happened with far more frequency and often in various shades of gray.
    Those guilty of crimes against other people-particularly murder or rape-found no second chances. Hanging returned to many public squares or- in more merciful jurisdictions-the sharp report of a firing squad.
    Defendants received counsel and serious crimes involved a jury of peers. No code of laws for lawyers to twist and bend existed; parole boards and appeals processes mere memories. Each judge set the rules for his courtroom using his or her sensibilities as guide. Dante Jones’ regional supervisors could remove those who demonstrated poor sensibilities while abuses of power ended with adjudicators facing the gallows of their own construction.
    A harsh system for harsh times. Perhaps that harshness deserved credit for low crime rates. More likely, the fact that everyone-even the most petite teenage girl-carried a firearm, probably served as the greatest deterrence.
    Whatever the truth, atop that system sat Dante Jones who earned his position due to Trevor’s trust. Dante worked with computers in the old world, not law enforcement. Yet Trevor relied on his judgment and always found him a fair person.
    The last member of Trevor’s council was also the most recent addition.
    Gordon Knox, “Director of Intelligence.”
    To say that Trevor’s forces had saved Gordon would paint the wrong picture. Knox had ruled a small settlement of his own, hidden in the back woods of Maryland and surviving quite fine, thank you very much.
    However, Gordon signed on enthusiastically when he saw the level of organization, the aggressiveness, and the hawkish intent of Stone’s armies.
    In his old life, the Central Intelligence Agency employed Gordon Knox first as a field agent, then a paramilitary soldier (one of the first into Afghanistan during the American invasion), and eventually in middle management.
    Balding with a fluffy mustache, he exhibited a positive attitude for the work.
    Stone loved Knox because he expertly found information, enemy positions, and what-in the old days-they would have called “actionable intelligence.”
    Gordon had quickly organized a new network of spies and reconnaissance. He also used the handful of submarines at their disposal to insert recon teams along the coast and overseas.
    Even then, as they gathered for a big meeting, Gordon coordinated dozens of spies not only behind Hivvan lines, but also in Africa and Europe to explore and understand the nature of the changed world.
    Conversely, Knox loved Trevor because Stone turned him loose. No red tape, no books filled with legalese, no pesky lines of distinction between foreign and domestic spying. Knox was free to do what needed to be done- everything that needed to be done-to protect humanity’s war effort.
    He utilized children as young as nine to infiltrate slave camps to ferment rebellion. He identified a series of Hivvan regional leaders and had them assassinated. And-to everyone’s surprise-he uncovered a small network of pro-Hivvan human sympathizers sent to spy on the growing nation. Trevor never asked where Gordon hid those bodies.
    Council meetings were often long, often rough, and heated. On occasion, Trevor would drive those meetings and be the only one speaking for hours on end. Other times he sat and listened while debates raged.
    Nonetheless, somehow or another the council met the needs of the growing population and kept the war machine grinding away.
    The meeting that day, however, threatened to be one for the ages.
    Eva got things started working from a series of hand-written notes. She spoke in a formal, professional manner. They all knew she held little tolerance for bullshit; she considered her time too valuable to waste.
    “The corn harvest in central Pennsylvania and Maryland will be 10 percentage points lower than last season. This comes despite a substantial increase in the number of farms producing corn. The reason is due to insect infestations. We have been dealing with a lack of pesticides. This will have a cascade effect over the rest of this year. Corn is the primary ingredient in farm animal feed. We anticipate needing to slaughter more animals because we will not have the feed to keep them eating through the winter. Needless to say, this will result in less meat yields per animal.”
    “Now that is a cruel twist of fate,” Reverend Johnny said. “A bounty of meat this Fall because we’re running out of corn.”
    “Furthermore, we will have less offspring and fewer animal products such as milk and wool. Enjoy your lamb chops this Fall, Reverend, but I hope you don’t freeze to death from a lack of a coat in February.”
    She glanced from her notes and saw the audience hanging on her every word. Military speak and industrial output sounded cooler, but all of that meant nothing without food to eat.
    “This situation will aggravate food supply problems in New Jersey, Delaware, and eastern Maryland. We estimate that as many as fifteen thousand souls in those areas will be subjected to rations below subsistence levels by October.”
    “Wow,” Jon Brewer broke in. “What about fishing? Those areas have access to the Chesapeake, Delaware Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Jersey.”
    “We have shortages in fuel to run fishing boats,” Eva responded. “There are two other considerations. The first is that so many of our foodstuffs were forwarded to Southern Command. Second, our facilities have recently come under aggressive attack from hostile animals. In the last week alone, I had distribution centers in Vineland, New Jersey, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and Denton, Maryland wiped out. Two trains were also hit by creatures, one resulting in lost cargo and a gutted crew.”
    She took a deep breath and then hit them with another shock. “If you check your casualty reports you’ll find that more people protecting or distributing food were killed in the last several weeks than were lost during the assault on Raleigh.”
    Evan Godfrey said, “Where the Hell is Internal Security?” he turned to Dante Jones. “Jesus Christ, we can’t even protect our food supply.”
    “Hey,” Dante defended. “I’ve only got so much manpower. Do you know how thin we’re spread? I got guys using friggin’ 22’s because there isn’t enough assault rifles to go around.”
    “Brett,” Jon Brewer said, “What can we do about cranking out more assault rifles?”
    Brett Stanton had obtained the specifications necessary for making just about any human firearm from ATF files in Washington, D.C. Brett’s people cranked out a variety of guns as well as matching ammunition on assembly lines.
    However, those assembly lines would not function without the transfiguration machines stolen from the Hivvans. Those machines morphed more plentiful materials-rock, wood, scrap, waste-into coveted resources such as metal, iron, petroleum, and rubber by actually changing the atomic structure of the substance. Without this alien technology, Trevor’s growing nation would not be able to maintain the war effort, let alone meet the energy, transportation, and manufacturing needs of the civilian sector.
    Yet only so many of the machines existed, particularly the big industrial-capacity ones. Furthermore, the process of metamorphosis required planning and time. The matter transfiguration machines were a thin funnel through which many needs must pass. On top of that, transportation of those raw materials to manufacturing plants required coordination with the railroads for access to the trains’ coveted cargo capacity.
    Brett Stanton answered Jon’s question, “Well I guess that would be one way to go. But wait, if I push the making of the actual guns to the top of the list then I’ll lose the capacity to make the bullets for them guns. We ramped up rifle and pistol cartridge production for the Raleigh thing. It will take a while to switch things over.”
    This sent everyone’s eyes toward Omar, the Director of Science and Technology.
    “Oh, now you all be just waiting one second here now,” the man said with a cigarette hanging from the edge of his mouth. The more aggravated Omar felt, the more he played up an Indian accent to match his complexion, as if trying hard to hit the stereotype on the head. “I will be saying that there is only so much I can be doing with the machines we have. It is a very delicate process and not something so simple as it sounds. The transfiguration equipment is very limited in what types of matter it can change into what types. It already is running at fullest capacity.”
    “The man says we need guns, that’s the priority now,” Gordon Knox jumped but Eva Rheimmer countered, “My department already has a request in for plastics and coolant, unless you want rotten produce showing up on your doorstep.”
    Lori Brewer added her voice to the cross talk, “We are already behind schedule for heating oil. A lot of people in Pennsylvania are going to freeze this winter if we don’t-”
    “Wait,” Trevor raised a hand and silenced the group. “Lori, have your people raid every damn military museum in our territory. Christ, there’s got to be five hundred Civil War museums alone. Also, hit every knife shop and sporting goods store. You’re looking for swords, maces, clubs, spears…primitive weapons, yes, but weapons all the same. I want them distributed to Internal Security to supplement their current fire arms.”
    “Swords?” Dante gasped. “How the hell can we expect to use swords to hold off a skip beetle or pack of Jaw-Wolves?”
    Evan Godfrey said, “Just pull some damn troops off the front line and give them over to I.S. That would solve the problem.”
    Brewer sneered, “Sure, and let the Hivvans retake North Carolina while you’re at it.”
    “Might as well,” Evan waved a hand in the air. “We’re not safe back here!”
    Trevor said, “No front line troops will be pulled out. We’ve got the Hivvans on the run now. Several thousand people were just freed and a lot more are waiting for us in Columbia.”
    “Thousands of people we can’t feed! They’re better off slaves for now because they’d just starve here!” Godfrey pushed.
    “End of discussion.”
    Under his breath but loud enough to hear, Evan mumbled, “Yes, my Lord.”
    “Doctor?” Trevor moved on with a glance toward Dr. Maple.
    “Yes, um, well, in your packs you will find a chart of infectious diseases that have hit several communities inside our borders. Thankfully all of them are of Earthly origin.”
    “You know, that’s been bugging me,” Dante broke in. “We’ve got thousands of animals and people from other planets but not a single weird alien disease? I mean, remember how Small Pox wiped out the Indians and stuff? Why nothing like that here?”
    Trevor’s lips moved but he held his tongue even though the answer hovered there. Like humanity’s nuclear arsenal, bio-weapons-intentional or accidental-probably fell under the category of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, hence outlawed by The Old Man’s ‘rules’.
    Instead of sharing his guess, Trevor told them, “I’ll bet they went through some kind of decontamination before coming over. Probably were inoculated against our microbes and viruses, too. Just a guess.”
    “It does not matter, Mr. Jones,” Dr. Maple continued. “Our own diseases are lethal enough, particularly given the, um, sanitation issues. For example, last week we, um, dispatched a brigade from General Prescott’s 1 ^ st Armored Division to isolate and contain the population in Lynchburg, Virginia. There is a, um, respiratory infection that has taken the lives of a dozen people there and hundreds more are quite ill. We are treating it as best we can but the priority right now is to contain the illness to that settlement.”
    “Nice,” Evan Godfrey sneered. “Our health care program’s number one priority is to contain sick people, not heal them.”
    “Limited resources,” Maple answered. “We did, um, send a team of specialists. They have an old Army mobile bio weapons lab and have set up camp at the center of town. We are hopeful that rudimentary medicines can lower the mortality rate.”
    Godfrey showed signs of jumping on his soapbox again as he said, “And that’s all we have: rudimentary medicines. We’ve got attack helicopters, tanks, and alien air ships in our military but little more than aspirin and cough syrup in our hospitals.”
    Maple consulted a pile of papers and replied, “Well, um, actually there is some good news on that front. Vaccine production out of Swiftwater has reached seventy-percent capacity. Most of the population has received the important inoculations and we are in the process of, um, expanding the scope of the vaccination program. Furthermore, um, our quantity of penicillin, fever-reducers, and antibiotics has more than doubled thanks to a slight increase in output but, um, more importantly the discovery of government stockpiles.”
    The fire under Godfrey faded but he pushed on anyway, saying, “What about diabetics? What about heart drugs? What about surgical supplies? Those are hard to find.”
    Trevor said, “When you think about it, it’s good news that we need those kinds of things again. It means people with chronic conditions aren’t doomed from the start; it means they’re living long enough to need specialized care and medicine.”
    “And we’re not giving it,” Godfrey complained. “There are children being born with conditions that require specialized treatment and drugs. Our capabilities in this area are lacking.”
    Maple presented more good news certain to ruin Evan’s tirade. “The, um, ‘Physicians Training and Education’ facility at John Hopkins in Baltimore will be ready to open within, um, two weeks or so. The, um, immediate focus will be on fundamental health care but we will expand the, um, curriculum to more advanced studies as we progress. Approximately one-hundred, um, ‘students’ have enrolled for medical training.”
    Gordon Knox never missed an opportunity to hit Godfrey with a zinger. “See that, Evan; all your concerns have been addressed. That should keep you quiet for a minute or two.”
    Godfrey shot Knox a vicious glance, which Gordon countered with a big grin.
    “That it, doctor?”
    “Um, yes, Trevor.”
    “Dante, what have you got for us?”
    “Pirates,” Dante answered. “They’re hiding out in the Poconos hitting supply trains and civilians. Four officers and twice that number of K9s have been killed by these guys this month. That’s not counting the civvies ambushed and killed. The regional I.S. Supervisor over there needs a helicopter or two to do aerial sweeps. Maybe with infrared gear.”
    “We’ll see what can be done,” Trevor looked to Jon. “An Eagle might do a better job. See if you can get him one of the recon models with surveillance gear.”
    “I’m not sure if we’ve got one to spare,” Brewer answered. “Two are down for repairs and we have that new commitment we talked about.”
    Dante huffed and repeated, “Like I said, what about a helicopter? Or two?”
    Brewer thought and said, “Plenty of helicopters around but not enough pilots. Last count, we had fifteen pilots in the field who could fly the big military birds, another three or four with civilian level training. Hey wait, there are a couple of guys in chopper flight school right now. I’ll see if they’ve advanced enough to do the job.”
    Dante-frustrated-waved a hand toward Omar to move the conversation to the next station.
    “My friends, this is a great day,” Nehru told them after enjoying a long drag on a cigarette. “We have secured four more industrial-sized matter transfiguration machines from the factories of Raleigh. I have confirmed…they are in good operating condition. I am going down myself in a few days to personally examine the equipment. Once things are on line, I will coordinate output with Mr. Stanton.”
    “How long until full capacity?” Jon Brewer asked.
    “I cannot say. At least a week. The building where they were housed was damaged by shelling, but the machines were not harmed.”
    Trevor said, “That’s good news. Who’s next?”
    Evan Godfrey occupied the seat alongside Omar.
    “There are too many kids going hungry,” he looked to Eva Rheimmer and added, “I think Eva and her people are doing an incredibly good job. However, I did a little checking and found there are several bridges destroyed during last spring’s retreat that otherwise would provide more direct routes to some of the outlying settlements. We re-took the ground during the summer, but the bridges have not been repaired.”
    “Lots of things need to be repaired, Evan,” Jon Brewer said. “I can name half-a-dozen airports that could do us some good if we had the time and manpower to pave the runways. Most secondary roads are in horrible shape, and ports in Delaware and New Jersey need serious attention. None of that can be done without sacrificing somewhere else.”
    “Yes, I know,” Evan agreed. “In the past thirty days Trenton has lacked power for more than three weeks. Five thousand people live there and it’s the regional hub for supply distribution, security, and medical facilities yet we cannot keep the lights on most days! I suggest we slow our advance against the Hivvans to secure our infrastructure and deal with the population currently under our control. It does no good to liberate ‘survivors’ only to have them starve here.”
    Knox said, “Tell you what, Evan, why don’t we have you parachute into Columbia, South Carolina and ask the human slaves there if they want to join us now or would mind waiting until we sort all the bugs out of the system.”
    “That’s not the point but if you want to go that way, fine. Eva and Dante just told you about how much havoc things are causing behind our lines. Internal Security is short of manpower and weapons, let alone vehicles and fuel. The attacks on our civilians, our trains, and our supply depots prove that we’re not as secure as you think!”
    Anita Nehru stroked her long, dark hair and explained, “Actually, I think the attacks on the trains and the supply depots demonstrate that the predators in our rear areas are becoming desperate. The Hunter-Killer teams have been effective in wiping out alien life forms, reducing the prey animals and forcing the predators to become bolder.”
    Evan Godfrey, however, kept rolling.
    “That’s another point. Why are we killing every single animal that came here? Most of those animals are not dangerous; they’re the equivalent of rabbits, pigs, and horses from other worlds. From what I can tell, animals like chew-cows and horned fur-pheasants could be harvested for edible meat or have glands that produce drinkable liquids.”
    Lori Brewer raised a hand to her mouth and gagged.
    Gordon Knox offered, “Evan, I will personally serve you up a helping of broiled rat-thing if you’d like.”
    Before Godfrey could respond, Trevor told them, “No. I have told everyone at this table before and I will say it again: any animal that does not belong on this Earth is to be destroyed and disposed of. There can be no exceptions.”
    “And so says Trevor Stone,” Evan mocked.
    “Yes, so says I. Next order of business.”
    “I’m not finished.”
    Trevor said, “I didn’t hear one word about housing, Evan. You were too busy worrying about everything else. If you have issues in your specific area of responsibility, submit them in writing. Next.”
    Lori Brewer coughed to clear away the gag induced by Evan’s food suggestions and consulted a binder of notes as she spoke.
    “I talked to Trevor about this earlier in the week; he said to bring it up here so here it is. We have to consider starting some kind of currency. Right now, our ‘economy’ is made up of barter, charity, and handouts. If you want to get your haircut, you trade a pair of shoes. Need a new chain for your bicycle? Then you better have some bullets, eyeglasses, or chocolate to trade. Of course, I’m not even going to get into people trading sex for stuff or the fact that indentured servitude has come back into style.”
    Jon Brewer asked, “What about bringing dollars back? Plenty of them around.”
    Godfrey responded, “That’s the problem, they have no value. In the winter people were burning bucks to stay warm.”
    “So, General, a currency has to have a value attached to it. You can’t just say ‘hey, ten dollars buys you a haircut, folks.’ It’s not that simple,” Godfrey shot.
    Trevor sighed. “Actual dollar bills aren’t really worth anything now that there’s no U.S. government backing them. We can’t just go out, hit the banks, and collect as many as we can find then call them our new money.”
    “At the same time,” Lori said. “No one is being paid for their work. Without compensation, how long will people want to work in a factory? Who wants to be a garbage man?”
    Evan joined in, “Without a formal currency there will be no economy. If we have a real economy, the result will be improved production and a more involved work force. You’ll also get investment and entrepreneurism.”
    “Just like the old days?” Trevor asked with skepticism in his voice. “We can’t turn the clock back, Evan.”
    “Just stop and listen for a second, Trevor. The only incentive people have right now is to survive. In the short term that works because people are just glad to get a ration of food and a warm place to sleep. In the long term, it is doomed to fail. You have to give consideration to creating a currency and developing some kind of economic foundation. Eventually your war will grind to a halt because you won’t have the bullets, food, or fuel to keep pushing forward, matter-makers or not.”
    Before Trevor could respond, Lori Brewer agreed. “Evan is right. We’re not a little lakeside community anymore. I was a counselor in the old days, not an economist, but even I see that we have to build some kind of economic foundation.”
    Trevor closed his eyes, pinched his nose, and said, “Okay, okay. I get it. Lori, I want you and Evan to put together a group to come up with a proposal. Find the best financial minds.”
    Brewer said, “There’s a sergeant in 2 ^ nd Mech who used to work for the SEC. I think he spent time in jail for some sort of insider trading or something. I can get you his name.”
    “See, that type of thing,” Trevor nodded. “Sit down, work it out, and then we’ll make some decisions.”
    “Good, great,” Lori said. “This brings me to another question. Kind of a dumb question, actually, but something we have to address. For the last four years, we’ve been fighting and expanding. Hundreds of thousands of people are now a part of this whole thing. We’ve got cities, regional governors, armies, and-I guess sometime soon-money.”
    Trevor grunted, “So what’s the question?”
    “The question is, what are we calling ourselves?”
    Lori rephrased, “What do I put on my letterhead? What are we? Who are we? There are only so many times you can say ‘the community’ or ‘mankind’s new nation’ or whatnot. Are we a country? A city? Are we Trevor’s great nation of wonderful folks?”
    “I see,” Trevor came to understand the question.
    “We’re Americans,” Jon Brewer said.
    Trevor thought of the thousands of ‘foreigners’ who were a part of the effort; visitors and tourists in the United States when Armageddon struck. Many served in his military, shedding their blood not for ‘America‘ but for mankind.
    “No, that’s not right,” Trevor said. “We have people fighting and dying for the cause who weren’t American citizens. We have to discard those old boundaries.”
    A variety of suggestions bounced around the room
    “Human Nation.”
    “The Coalition for Earth!”
    “Trevor’s Posse!”
    “Shut up, Dante.”
    The suggestions whittled away to silence.
    “Well, there is something that has been tossed around in a newspaper,” Dante suggested coyly. He apparently knew damn well which newspaper tossed it.
    “Oh?” Trevor looked to him.
    “Empire,” Dante set the stage for another argument. “I think it was, Trevor’s personal Empire.”
    “I see,” Trevor ran a hand over his eyes as he realized where that one came from.
    Evan Godfrey-the man who wrote that particular newspaper article-said softly, “All of the good ones were taken.”
    “What’s that?” Brewer asked as he shot Evan a sharp glance.
    “I said, all of the good empire names were taken,” Evan slid away his chair and stood as his angry enthusiasm bubbled to the surface again. “You know…Roman, Ottoman, Galactic. All of the good Empire names are taken, so I had to wing it. But it sounded about right. That’s what this is, isn’t it? Trevor’s personal empire.”
    Jon Brewer stood, too. “Sometimes I think you should just shut up.”
    “That’s what you want to do, isn’t it?” Evan fired. “Shut me up. Stop that guy from talking about freedom and elections and rights. We don’t want to listen to him. He just keeps on screwing around with this good thing we’ve got going.”
    “You sorry piece of shit,” Brewer growled.
    Trevor held a hand aloft, stopping Jon’s counter attack but both men remained standing at opposite ends of the table, red-faced and angry.
    “You’d love that, wouldn’t you?” Trevor said calmly. “You would just love it if we shut down your newspaper, maybe threw you in jail or stripped you of your position.”
    “You wouldn’t dare.”
    “And there you go. Throwing down the gauntlet. Drawing a line and daring me to cross because you want me to cross it. You want me to find you more than just an annoyance. You want me to give you credibility. Shut you down and you become some sort of modern day Thomas Paine, right? The voice so dangerous Trevor had to silence him. Well, I’m not going to do it, Evan. You go on, publish your newspaper and try and convince people that I’m some evil dictator who’s doing all this for personal power.”
    “My mistake,” Evan sneered from his soapbox. “You were picked by destiny, isn’t that the story? The Gods chose Trevor Stone.
    Oh, I’ve heard the stories about you and your trips into the woods. I’m not buying it. The Egyptians thought their pharaohs were Gods. The Kings of Europe justified their absolute power by claiming divine right. All I see is a man, and no man should have the power you have. The power must ultimately be with the people. If you were really a great leader, you’d see that. You would set up elections. Then you’d dare to run to see if your peasants really do adore you.”
    Dante Jones quipped from the sidelines, “Wow, Evan, just think of the campaign you could run. You could buy TV commercials, have a convention, and make neat bumper stickers. Man, that would be fun! Hey, I’ll put a sign in my yard for you. It’ll be like old times.”
    Lori Brewer’s tongue let fly, “Hey asshole, maybe you haven’t been paying attention but the world is a little different now. And you know what, it’s better. All the politicians and lawyers and accountants are gone.”
    “Better for you,” Evan said. “You know most of the leaders of the Nazi party were nobodies before they had Hitler. Then they got to wear those nifty arm bands.”
    “Why don’t you pack your bags and get out of here then?” Jon Brewer said through clenched teeth, clearly inferring that he would be happy to carry Evan by the scruff of his neck to the border and give him a swift kick toward Hivvan lines.
    Evan stopped as the weight of so many angry faces bore down on his speech. He glanced around the table, shook his head, and as he sat in his seat again he muttered, “Like I said, Empire.”
    The silence remained unbroken for several long seconds until Trevor-his chin resting in his hand propped on the table-said, “I like it. Empire. It has a ring.”
    Evan’s eyes grew wide; incredulous that Trevor took the mockery he created in a newspaper column and embraced it.
    “It’s aggressive, and I plan to be aggressive. It has a sound of inevitability to it, as if it encompasses everything. I think our people will take a comfort in that name for now because it implies strength. For the same reason, our enemies will tremble at the sound of the words.”
    Jon Brewer asked, “So, what, like the American Empire or something?”
    “No, no,” Trevor shook his head. “This doesn’t have anything to do with America or Canada or France or Norway or any of them. The countries are gone now. We just happen to be in this part of the world. Just Empire. The Empire. As if every other empire that came before was something less.”
    Evan said, “I guess that makes you the Emperor. Someone get this man a crown and a cape and some tapestries to walk on.”
    “You go on printing your paper, Evan. Tell your side of the story,” Trevor leaned forward for emphasis. His eyes narrowed and he warned his adversary, “But Evan, if you ever print anything that gives away future operations, or costs the lives of our soldiers…”
    “I’d never do that,” Godfrey snapped. “That’s right, dismiss me as a traitor. Tell yourselves that I’m not a patriot. Point your finger at me and call me that pain in the ass who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. History will show that I was the biggest patriot of them all. I will fight when I have to, but I will not blindly follow, particularly not a despot who sees himself as some divine emissary.”
    “Yes,” Trevor said. “History will judge us all. If we survive in order to make history. Speaking of history, this meeting of the full council is adjourned. Members of the military council will stay behind. Thank you, everyone, for your input.”
    Evan, Eva Rheimmer, and Dr. Maple stood, gathered their papers, and made their way to the stairs.
    Reverend Johnny, Jon and Lori Brewer, Dante Jones, Omar and Anita Nehru, Gordon Knox and Brett Stanton remained. Had it not been for the strategic situation, Generals Shepherd, Prescott, Stonewall McAllister, and William Hoth would have been present, too but they were occupied with operations of varying natures.
    Lori Brewer said to Trevor, “You went with the whole ‘Empire’ thing just to piss off Evan, didn’t you?”
    Trevor scratched his chin. “Maybe a little. But, honestly, it makes as good a sense as anything. You know me, I like to keep things simple. If we need to change it down the road, we’ll change it.”
    Dante Jones protested, “We should change it now, before it gets started. I was just kidding around when I said it. Truth is, every empire I can think of has been on the bad side of things. I know you want something that sounds kick-ass, but people are going to think of the wrong things when they hear ‘empire’.”
    “The Romans weren’t so bad,” Trevor mused.
    Dante countered, “I wonder what Brutus would say about that.”
    Lori said, “I can’t wait to read his first editorial about the new evil Empire.”
    “You know, Trevor,” Dante said, “Evan isn’t wrong all the time. You fight him on anything that comes out of his mouth, just because it’s him saying it. The guy may be a pain in the ass, but he actually makes a good point now and then.”
    Before Trevor could reply, the door at the top of the basement stairs closed with a solid thud. Trevor brought the military meeting to order.
    “Fate has decided to test our mettle. We have not one, but two urgent situations that must be addressed immediately.”
    “Now that does not sound too good,” Brett Stanton said. “I mean, well now wait, I think most of us figured things would cool down for a spell now that Raleigh is done, given the supply situation and all.”
    “I have received…” Trevor’s voice trailed as he considered his words. “… information of great importance. An expeditionary force is to be formed and depart immediately for a destination in the Arctic Circle.”
    Eyes widened, scattered gasps, a jaw dropped, and Omar nearly choked on a puff of his cigarette.
    “Listen close. We know that organized alien forces who invaded our planet come through gateways. We have suspected that those gateways provide reinforcements and supplies to our enemies. I tell you now there is a means to close those gates. A device. An artifact-I dunno exactly what it its. But it has been buried in the ice at the top of the world for centuries, maybe a millennium. Maybe longer.”
    “That’s impossible,” Dante said. “How could we march an army to the north?”
    Brewer cut in, “A small force. We’ll fly in stripped Eagles north to Hopedale in northeastern Canada.”
    “We?” Lori Brewer said as if tasting a particularly sour lemon.
    Gordon Knox joined the conversation. His voice held the faintest hint of a New Yorker’s accent even though he had lived most of his life south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
    “There the task force will rendezvous with SSN-750 Newport News, one of our two operational nuclear submarines. That boat is returning from inserting recon teams into Ireland. The timing should be perfect.”
    Trevor continued, “The sub will transport the task force to the glaciers and ice caps of northwestern Greenland. There they will disembark and race to the artifact. I have specific coordinates for the target area. The force will extract the object, return to the submarine, and make their way home.”
    Cross talk ensued. Urgent, confused, and incredulous cross talk.
    “Easy, easy,” Trevor held a hand aloft. “I know this sounds crazy but we have no choice. If we get hold of this object-these ‘runes’-we can effectively shut down those gates and cut off our enemies from reinforcements. This would not ensure victory, but it would be a tremendous step forward.”
    “It’s suicide!” Dante complained.
    “That’s too far!” Lori added.
    Trevor spoke loud enough to override the dissenting voices.
    “Other races are aware of these runes. They will send forces of their own to obtain them. If they do, it is my understanding they can fundamentally shift the parameters of the invasion of our planet. These runes are sort of a funnel or spigot that affects the flow through the gates. In enemy hands, that flow can be increased exponentially. We could find ourselves facing double, triple, maybe a hundred times more enemies than we face now. The flip side of that is we can shut off that spigot; close the gates.”
    That silenced the debate for a moment.
    Gordon Knox broke the silence. “Task Force Blizzard will need arctic gear including specialized weapons lubricants for the extreme temperatures, snow cats for transportation, and even dog sleds. I have already secured most of this equipment as per the orders given to me prior to this meeting. However, there is still much to do.”
    “And little time to do it in,” Trevor looked directly at Jon Brewer. “I want the force wheels-up in less than forty-eight hours.”
    “We’ll be ready,” Jon nodded.
    Lori threw fire with her eyes at her husband. “When were you going to tell me this?”
    “After the meeting,” Jon answered.
    “I can not emphasize how important this mission is. That is why I have asked Jon to personally lead the force. He’ll take approximately one-hundred men with K9s in a support role.”
    “Wait now, that don’t sound like a lot of firepower,” Brett Stanton noted.
    “It isn’t,” Jon answered. “The emphasis is on moving fast. We’re hoping to avoid contact with hostiles. Still, I’m requisitioning mortars, anti-tank missiles, and a few other goodies in case we run into any problems.”
    “We’ll see what we can scrounge up,” Stanton scratched his head.
    Reverend Johnny said, “May the blessings of the Lord travel with you to that frozen wasteland, Mr. Brewer.”
    Jon smiled at the Reverend. “I’m sure you’ll see to it that they will. Pack some long underwear.”
    “Oh dear.”
    Trevor concluded this part of the discussion. “Jon will hand-pick units to accompany him and the Reverend. Omar and Brett, you’ll be receiving written requisitions for equipment for Jon’s team. Fill those requisitions immediately. No red tape, no hassle. We can talk about this after the meeting as necessary but there’s no more room for discussion now. The decision is made.”
    Trevor glanced around the table and made eye contact with each member of the council. He saw fear and surprise in their eyes, but this was not the first time. They would overcome the shock and focus on their jobs. They had to; there was no other choice.
    “I said there were two items,” he moved on. As Trevor spoke, Brewer produced an easel with a map of North Carolina. “We’ve been fighting the ‘Grand Army of the Hivvan Republic‘ for nearly two years. Honestly, if we had met them that first year we never would have survived this long and Lord knows we’ve had our asses handed to us more than once. So here’s the good news: our offensive in Raleigh was not only successful, it created an opportunity to effectively cripple the Hivvans.”
    “Jesus,” Dante whispered. “I knew it went well, but cripple them?”
    “Listen up. General Shepherd reports that the Hivvans have made a big mistake. That is, they have put themselves in a bad position and we might just be able to break their backs, if we move quickly. Jon…”
    Brewer referred to the map as he spoke. “As you know, the Hivvans used Raleigh as their primary base in North Carolina. General Shepherd has twelve of our seventeen operational military fixed-wing aircraft at his disposal and is using them to bombard, antagonize, and otherwise piss-off the retreating Hivvan Corp. Interstate 40 is the major route leading south out of Raleigh. Twenty-six miles or so south of that city I-40 intersects with I-95 that runs to the southwest. You can see here, that intersection makes sort of a point in a triangle. I-95 continues southwest across the middle of North Carolina then eventually into South Carolina, here.”
    He stood back and used his finger to outline the roads he mentioned.
    “For its part, I-40 continues southeast toward the coast and Wilmington, um, right here. You can see here that another major road-Route 17- heads out of Wilmington and follows along the coast into South Carolina. The gist of it is, you have two major routes leading from North Carolina into South Carolina, one not far from the coast below Wilmington, the other much further inland.”
    Lori stared at her husband with angry eyes and barked, “But what’s the point?”
    Jon continued, “We expected the Hivvans would follow 40 until hitting 95 then follow that road in a retreat toward South Carolina. Their next major base-in fact their last big one in the region-is in Columbia. But that’s not what they did. It seems they are more disorganized than we thought. During their retreat, and under constant harassment from the air, the Hivvan armies did not follow either of the major routes. Instead, dozens of smaller, splintered formations headed almost directly south along minor roads into the small towns, villages, and wilderness between those two major routes. They are fractured and vulnerable, although they still represent a significant fighting force, somewhere between seven and eight thousand.”
    “Well that’s good, right?” Dante guessed.
    “It’s great,” Trevor agreed. “They are putting themselves in a big trap. They are heading through hard ground, tough terrain. They’ve got the Bladen Lakes State Forest in their path not to mention an uncountable number of streams and lakes. There’s also the impassable Green Swamp to the southeast so they can’t get to the coast.”
    “Okay, but, so what?” Lori Brewer asked.
    “This is a huge force,” Trevor explained. “But it’s fragmented now. It will coalesce at some point, maybe in a few days, maybe a week or so. We know the Hivvans are too smart to stay fractured for long. Then they’ll need supplies, even if only to retreat. Those supplies come from Columbia but they have to go through one of two forward distribution points that Knox’s intelligence people identified. One is in Conway about thirty miles inside the South Carolina border and just off the coast north of Myrtle Beach. The second is inland at Dillon, also just inside the border of South Carolina. We take those two posts out and we eliminate all support for the retreating Hivvans. The lizards starve and their Firecats run out of gas.”
    “Choke the bastards,” Gordon Knox jumped in. “Cut em’ off and choke em. Just like the Nazis at Stalingrad.”
    Trevor nodded his head in agreement.
    Brewer presented more specifics. “General Shepherd has proposed an ambitious plan to take out both of those depots while we encircle the retreating enemy. Encircled and without supplies we can then reduce them with artillery and whatever air power we can muster. Think of it, eight thousand Hivvans surrounded and cut off. We could wipe them out.”
    “Oh, that is being wonderful,” Omar spoke. “But how can we possibly do such a thing? Our supplies are low as it is!”
    Knox said, “Think. The Hivvans have about seven thousand more troops garrisoned in Columbia. If the forces retreating from Raleigh make it back to Columbia then we’ve got a real dogfight on our hands when we get down there. If we can cut them off and destroy them then taking Columbia becomes a lot easier. Take Columbia and you free more than ten thousand human slaves and you break the back of the Hivvans in the Carolinas. They would have to withdraw all the way to Atlanta.”
    “It would shorten this phase of the war,” Trevor simplified. “Save human lives and free more slaves. In the long run, it would mean fewer supplies needed to get the job done.”
    Brewer continued with the details. “Shep proposes to send Stonewall’s 2 ^ nd Mechanized Division along I-95 and into South Carolina. They will first occupy Dillon then head toward the coast to hook up with the second branch of the attack, which will be Shepherd’s own 1 ^ st Mech Division. He will lead them down I-40 to Wilmington then hang a right to follow Route 17 until he gets to Conway. At that point the trap would close; the Hivvan army would be cut off.”
    Knox enlightened them, “Intelligence indicates no large, organized forces in Wilmington, just animals as well as some human groups who have carved out small sanctuaries in different neighborhoods. General Shepherd’s group could actually bypass the city proper. We could then send Hunter-Killer groups to take care of Wilmington and secure the force’s rear area and supply lines.”
    “Sounds simple, Gordo,” Dante sneered.
    “It is, Mr. Jones. It is. We just have to tough it out.”
    Reverend Johnny boomed as he spoke directly at both Trevor and Jon Brewer. “Praise the Lord, your ambition burns hotter than Lucifer’s kitchen. Can such a feat be done? Perhaps your reach exceeds your grasp.”
    “Perhaps,” Trevor answered. “Either divine intervention or luck has given us an opportunity to deal a fatal blow to our enemies. If we can move these two armies quickly, we can cut off our enemy and destroy him at a relatively small cost. But the effect, Reverend, would be catastrophic for our opponents.”
    Brewer added, “You have to remember, the retreating Hivvans abandoned ammunition and supplies when they ran out of Raleigh, and now they are on bad ground. The roads are thin and in poor shape, the terrain around those roads is wet or dense or both. Their movement will be restricted. It will take them days just to reconstitute. After that they will rely on those supply convoys either to retreat or counter attack. No matter how you look at it, take out those depots, surround the Hivvans, and they will whither and die.”
    “Looks like a race,” Brett pointed out. “Wait now. Yep, that’s what it is. It’s a race to get those two pincers into position before the Hivvans can get out of the trap. I’m guessing if we win that race, they die. But if they get out of the noose then we’ve gone and wasted a heck of a lot of materials. Gee, not only that, our boys would be in bad shape to fend off a counter attack.”
    “What kind of time frame we looking at?” Lori Brewer asked
    Her husband answered, “We think we can complete the encirclement in a week or so, depending on what type of smaller hostile forces we encounter.”
    Anita Nehru offered her insight on that matter. “You’ve got a lot of swamps down there. Great hangouts for Deadheads, Snake-Beasts, and Giant Skip-Beetles. Even though the Hivvans are reptilian, we know they don’t like swamps or even the wilderness in general, not unlike us.”
    Trevor said, “It’s going to take them time to get organized. They are under constant harassment and their lines of communication are sketchy right now. I think Stonewall and his unit did an even better job of whacking them than we first thought.”
    “Right. I suspect you’re going to need a ton of fuel, a heap more in ammunition, and a couple of warehouses worth of food for all this,” Stanton said.
    Trevor voiced what they all thought: “That means diverting more from civilian stocks. That means putting distribution people in Raleigh right away. It means more head aches and a lot more screaming from Eva Rheimmer.”
    Dante Jones said, “Our supplies are at the breaking point right now. If this doesn’t work, we’ll be in a world of hurt.”
    “People, this is a tremendous opportunity,” Trevor told them. “If it works, then we’ll have time to get caught up on the internal stuff because the Hivvans will be beaten all the way back to Atlanta. Throw in Jon’s northern expedition and the next few weeks could determine the outcome of this war. Some may ask, why take this risk? Why push things too hard? I say fortune favors the bold. I say there is a reason why we have learned of these runes. There is a reason why one of our most clever enemies has made such a foolish mistake. Maybe it’s destiny. Maybe it is a higher power keeping watch on us. Maybe dumb luck. Whatever it is, we would be fools if we did not act. I have faith that we can get it done because I have faith in you people.”
    He glanced around the room at his lieutenants, gauging them; looking at their hearts. As he did, he filled them with confidence. He had, after all, led them to victory after victory. This was the man-the leader — who had told his defeated, worn forces at the Battle of Five Armies that they could win by charging a better armed, more numerous opponent. He had been right.
    “What better way to introduce us to the world than to embark on two fantastic adventures? Let this be our formal introduction. Let our enemies know that there is no power greater than us. No greater power than The Empire.”

5. Opposing Views

    “A politician, Proteus-like, must alter
    His face and habit; and, like water, seem
    Of the same colour that the vessel is
    That doth contain it, varying his form,
    With the chameleon, at each object’s change.”
    — Mason
    Evan sat at the head of his own conference table. Certainly not as grand as the council chambers, and the authority he exuded not as dominating as Trevor’s authority. Nonetheless, his followers were as loyal as Stone’s cronies.
    A half-dozen of them gathered at Evan’s table in what had once been the editorial offices of The Citizen’s Voice newspaper in downtown Wilkes-Barre, just outside the zone of rubble left from the Redcoat bombardment nearly five years before.
    “So what have we got for tomorrow’s edition?”
    Evan meant, of course, the next issue of The New American Press: his own newspaper, distributed in several cities via hard-driving couriers.
    A young man with thick glasses and wearing a plaid shirt pulled a batch of loosely organized papers from a folder and offered a checklist of sorts. “Um, well, we’ve got the page one story on Raleigh and a sub-head working the over-extended angle. Then there’s directional headers that will lead people to the nuclear reactor waste issue at Three Mile Island then-”
    “What’s the Raleigh story? What’s the angle?”
    An older man with broad shoulders dressed in an Oxford University polo replied, “It’s a two-pronged story that interviews a couple of soldiers who complain about the lack of front line supplies, that forces are stretched too thin-that sort of thing. Then we got a witness who says it was a human artillery shell that hit the slave camp on the northeast side and killed ten people. The military claims it was a Hivvan Battlebarge, but they’re lying.”
    “Wait, just wait,” Evan held a hand aloft. “Exactly what is it this article is going to imply? Is it slanted against the war? Is that what I’m hearing?”
    The guy with the glasses and the guy in the Oxford shirt both nodded.
    “No, no that’s not right. How the Hell can anyone be against this? How can anyone sitting here be against the idea of freeing human slaves? Of saving our fellow human beings?”
    Like most at the table, the Oxford-shirt-wearing-man cocked his head in confusion and said, “I thought, well, I thought we were against the war.”
    “Jesus, we are not against liberating humans. We’re not against freeing slaves. That’s ridiculous. You start running blanket criticisms against the war and people will throw our paper away and dismiss us as a bunch of crazies. I have not worked this hard for this long to get thrown away. Not when we’re primed to really make a difference.”
    A middle-aged woman with long strawberry blonde hair and a deep scar across her face where a Devilbat had slashed her years before spoke for everyone else at the table: “I don’t get it. We ran the story in the last issue about mayoral appointments and how a couple of those bozos managed to really screw things up. We also had the piece on the supplies lifted from the orphanage in Albany and sent to 2 ^ nd Mech and how that left a bunch of underweight kids starving. So how are we not against this war?”
    “We aren’t against this war,” Evan insisted. “Anyone here who is against the idea of freeing slaves and saving human lives can get off their ass and leave my newspaper now.”
    No one dared move.
    Evan carried on, “What we’re against is how this war is fought. We’re against people being freed without enough thought given to how we are going to take care of those people. We’re against these massive offensive operations if they take food and heating fuel and medicines away from the civilian population. Most of all, we’re against the fact that none of us has a say in what is happening and why.”
    Evan, in a move he learned from watching Trevor, made eye contact with his entire editorial board, one at a time. Some nodded in agreement; others looked away.
    “Paul,” Evan spoke directly to a skinny thirty-something fellow with a pencil stuck behind his ear and a bushy mustache above his lip. “I don’t ever want to see another one of your cartoons linking Trevor with Hitler. I know why you did it and it was funny but we have to remember that most of the people out there feel they owe a debt to Trevor Stone. They see him as sort of a King Arthur; sure, he’s a dictator but he’s tough in the way people like their leaders to be tough. We need to back off the personal attacks and focus on his tactics and the mistakes his underlings make. When we attack him, we’re attacking the guy who saved mankind. Instead, let’s attack the goofs he handpicks to make decisions. Let’s start asking questions there.”
    A mumble of agreement circled the table.
    “Questions like, why didn’t anyone negotiate with the Hivvans before attacking Raleigh? What if we could have found a way to free those people without losing so many soldiers? What if we hadn’t assassinated the regional governor last year and instead opened a dialogue with him? Or it. Whatever. You get the point.”
    “What about the nuke story?” the young man with thick glasses and the plaid shirt asked.
    “That’s good. That’s exactly what we want. We want to show that some of these decisions are not thought through. Where is the waste going to be stored? Are there enough skilled technicians to run the plant? Is the plant in good shape? That’s a great story.”
    The Oxford-shirt guy volunteered, “You know, we still have that story about the lack of vaccinations and shortages in antibiotics. We didn’t have the space to run that one last time.”
    Evan remembered Dr. Maple’s good news about increased production and recently-discovered stockpiles of vaccinations, antibiotics, and other medicines.
    “Um,” Evan stumbled. A voice in the back of his mind whispered that he should run that story and detail how many lives would be saved by this development. But another voice- the one in the front of his mind — reminded him that his newspaper was not in the good news business. Good news did not serve his purpose. Not yet, at least.
    “Let’s shelve that one for now.”
    The strawberry blonde girl asked, “Do you want us to do a piece on the people freed in Raleigh?”
    “No. Not yet. Give it six months. By then, the time those people spent in bondage will be a fading memory, but blackouts, shortages, and all of the problems here will be on the tips of their tongues. In the meantime, I have another story brewing. This one is big. Jamie,” he caught the attention of a young girl with curly red hair and one of the largest chests in the brave new world. “Start pulling records. I want hard stats and a timeline on military deaths during the last year as well as Internal Security and food distribution deaths.”
    “What is it you’re looking for?” the Oxford-shirted man inquired.
    “It may be that we’re losing more people behind the front lines than we are on the battlefield. That makes the perfect point; we’re expanding too quickly without enough thought given to infrastructure, food, health care, and all that.”
    Jamie nodded as she scribbled notes.
    “What about your editorial?” The woman with the scar asked. “Is it done?”
    “I had one done. It was about the need for a modern constitution and congress. I think I’m going to shelve it until Jamie gets me those stats. That might be the best way to go.”
    The thick-glasses-wearing man broke in, “Hey, that gal from the TV station will be here any minute. You’ve got an interview.”
    “Oh yeah,” Evan remembered. “How do I look?”
    “Butt ugly,” the scar-faced woman said.
    Laughter erupted around the table.

    “Is this good?” Evan asked as he adjusted his tie, ran a hand through his brown hair, and wiggled his chair a little to the left as per the cameraman’s directions.
    The cubicles, tables, and desks of the paper’s newsroom served as backdrop with the staff firmly instructed to appear busy but avoid any noise that might reach the microphone.
    In a chair next to Evan sat Angela West, a woman-like Evan-in her early thirties. The dark roots hinted her blond hair might not be natural and the thick make-up surrounding her smile suggested she remembered a few tricks from the news business of old.
    While giving his tie and hair another good straightening, Evan made small talk.
    “How long have you been with the National Broadcast Network?”
    “I’ve been with NTN since we started in Harrisburg last year.”
    He knew the answer but asked anyway, “You have outlets in Pittsburgh and Baltimore now, don’t you?”
    “Yes. Baltimore is still at low power though, not much of a signal. We have couriers, though, who run tapes to the independent stations that are popping up all over the place. Our interview today will probably be seen by at least half the free population.”
    “That’s great,” he finally found satisfaction with the knot in his tie. “I’m just surprised you wanted to talk to me.”
    “Mr. Godfrey, you’re a member of the governing council and at the same time run what could fairly be called an ‘opposition’ newspaper. If that’s not an interesting interview, I don’t know what is.”
    “Please, call me Evan.”
    “Are we ready yet?” she asked the cameraman.
    “I’m rolling in three…two…one…”
    “Evan, you began The New American Press almost two years ago. Why did you get into the newspaper business and how would you describe your editorial slant?”
    “Well, Angela, history has taught us that a free and independent press is a critical component in ensuring human rights, the rule of law, and in pushing for equality and dignity for all people. The more media outlets we have with participation from as many people as possible then the more likely we are to build the type of society humanity deserves.”
    “I see,” Angela accepted the first part of his answer.
    “As for editorial slant, I think that’s the wrong description. We do have an agenda. Our agenda is to bring to light as much information as possible-good and bad-about what is happening in the world, what the future holds, and to offer alternative ideas.”
    “Would you consider your paper more liberal or conservative?”
    Evan vigorously shook his head. “Angela, I don’t believe those terms hold any meaning in this new world. My editorial board includes people who, in the old world, were left-wing activists as well as what politicos would have considered neo-conservatives. In the past, those types of people were diametrically opposed, but both shared a fundamental belief in representative government, a free economy, and an open society. Issues that would have divided these groups in the past-issues like social policies and programs-are simply dead right now.”
    Angela nodded politely but let him speak.
    “Instead, many of yesterday’s political groups find themselves drawn together by a common cause; the cause of improving life here within the boundaries of what is now officially being called The Empire. A name to which I am vehemently opposed, by the way.”
    “So despite the fact that you were personally appointed to the governing council by Trevor Stone himself, you are opposed to much of what his government is doing?”
    Evan offered a gentle smile.
    “I’d have to disagree with what your question infers. Know that I have been fighting alongside Trevor since the early days. Indeed, I consider Trevor a friend and I will always remember the day when he led a rescue party that saved my life. I would also mention that I fought alongside him at the Battle of Five Armies and was a part of his forces when the infamous battle for Wilkes-Barre took place.”
    “But you have been very vocal in questioning his policies.”
    “Yes, I have a lot of questions about the direction we are headed in. As a student of history, I know that even the most benevolent dictatorships are still dictatorships. It is dangerous for all parts of our society to be so dependent on one man. Consider that our food supply, fuel and energy resources, health services-why just about everything in our lives funnels through one council with one man at the head of it. That’s simply too much for one person. Besides, what happens-God forbid-if Trevor dies in battle? Who is next in line? What makes us believe that fortune would smile on us with two great leaders in a row?”
    Angela, still nodding politely, asked, “So you feel there needs to be some sort of electoral process? Perhaps a new version of the house and senate?”
    “That is a grand idea but we need to start small first. Why don’t individual towns and villages elect their Mayors? City councils? Why not elect regional governors instead of having them appointed?”
    “The speed and urgency of the war has made it a necessity.”
    Evan shook his head in polite disagreement.
    “That presents another set of questions. Questions I’m not afraid to ask because, like Trevor Stone, I am focused on saving humanity and rebuilding our civilization.”
    “Such as?”
    Evan enjoyed the opportunity to explain. “During World War II why didn’t we invade Europe to save the French immediately? Why did we wait until 1944? The reason is that we needed time to mobilize. America needed time to gather supplies, to train soldiers, to get together the necessary components to ensure victory.
    “So I ask, why are we in such a hurry now? As important as it is to free enslaved humans and find survivors, it is also important to build our infrastructure, to muster our resources, to plan for contingencies. Right now, we are little more than a loose connection of outposts; small cities and villages scattered across a dangerous wilderness. The bonds between these isolated communities are thin. Just traveling from one place to another is a life-threatening trip.
    “Instead of building on what little we have, we rush forward. While this leads to some glorious victories in places like Raleigh, it also saps our strength at home. I worry that we are trading quick results for long-term failure. The retreat last spring is a good example, we’re fortunate to have stopped the Hivvans then, but what about the next alien offensive? I worry we are expanding our boundaries but that we are not strong enough to defend them.”
    “What is it you propose?”
    “Well, Angela, those decisions are not up to me. That’s the point. I believe we need to build democracy again. History has shown that functioning democracies have always waged just wars better than have dictatorships. I believe a representative government could better handle our domestic issues and would lead to victories in the war that would be lasting. I cannot say the same about what is happening now. I am very concerned for the future.”
    Angela pointed out, “You’re a part of that governing council. Doesn’t that make you part of the problem?”
    “I would gladly trade my position on the council for free elections. No one person should be above the will of the people. That’s why I publish The New American Press. It is a means of covering all of the topics from all angles. We certainly give Trevor Stone his due for everything he has accomplished. We just hope to encourage him to return to the tradition of freedom we once held so dear.”

    Another summer day turned into a summer night.
    Evan Godfrey drove his armor-plated Mercedes-Benz sedan along empty boulevards until reaching Kidder Street, once a thriving thoroughfare on the north end of town but badly mauled during the Battle for Wilkes-Barre and then again during the Battle of Five Armies, as evidenced by the rubble of the Wyoming Valley Mall. Four years ago, Jon Brewer detonated that shopping center to destroy an army of insane robots.
    He passed a handful of trading posts where torches and portable lights illuminated merchants ready to barter the fruits of scavenger hunts for ration cards, ammunition, or any number of personal services. He saw a couple of horseback riders and several bicycles, but only one other car; gasoline was a luxury.
    Those horses and bicycles would soon disappear, as would the merchants. As day turned to night, the threat of nocturnal predators threatened, no matter how thorough the efforts of their K9 guardians.
    He arrived at “Tortelli’s Restaurant and Bar,” built from what had once been a Red Lobster.
    Instead of seafood, the new establishment specialized in the same thing every local restaurant specialized in: beef dishes, chicken dishes, soup, and the occasional salad when enough greens came in from the farms.
    The Tortelli family ran the business. Dad cooked, mom hosted and served, the kids cleaned tables, and the oldest stood behind the bar serving home brewed beers.
    Tortelli’s Restaurant and Bar earned official recognition from the council, meaning they redeemed food rations there and they received supplies from government stockpiles.
    Evan, who had given his contingent of human bodyguards this night off (and he refused any K9 protection), entered the front door where a chalkboard greeted him. Messages for customers read, “We don’t need any more pots, pans or silverware, thank you,” and “Looking for size 11 sneakers or work boots…also need children’s clothing.”
    Shoes-particularly children’s shoes and heavy boots-were some of the most coveted items in the new world. Most people walked around in badly torn, stained, and poor-fitting sneakers or loafers. Even most soldiers made due with casual footwear as opposed to boots.
    Evan walked through the candle-lit restaurant to the bar area. The air carried a combination of scents including something burning and something rotting.
    He nodded to the bartender who mixed his usual drink. While gin held its constitution over the years, the lack of fizzle in the glass suggested flat tonic water.
    Instead of asking for payment, the bartender scribbled a mark in a ledger next to Evan Godfrey’s name. Most customers would pay-through barter-for their drink before the first sip. A precious few earned credit from larger trades, such as a gallon of gasoline, a roll of old-world toilet paper, or services along the lines of landscaping or equipment repair.
    Writing Evan’s name was merely a formality. After all, Evan served on the council, the same council that designated Tortelli’s a ration redemption point, which ensured a high level of traffic. Evan’s tab was covered.
    He found a quiet booth in the corner and waited several minutes until his appointment arrived: a white man just about six feet tall with thin brown hair, a lanky body, and small, sharp brown eyes. He wore a sport jacket that covered a shoulder holster where a 357 Magnum hung.
    “Hello Ray, what took you so long?”
    The waitress-Mrs. Tortelli-knew to get the newcomer a glass of homemade beer. Like Evan, the tab made no difference because it paid to have friends in Internal Security.
    “Don’t you just get to the point? Yes you do. But you are going to love why I’m late.”
    Evan sipped his drink then placed it on a coaster atop the wooden table.
    “Now you just have to tell me.”
    “I will, I will. But what have you got for me?”
    Evan told him, “I’ve got you an appointment with Dr. Davis. Just like I promised.”
    “Yeah? Everything?”
    “Novocain. Nurses. Everything. They’ll have that tooth taken care of in no time.”
    Ray raised a hand to his cheek and said, “Good thing, too. This was starting to drive me nuts. How long is the wait?”
    “For most people, about three months and they don’t get Novocain. For my friend? Well, let’s just say the name ‘Ray Roos’ is at the top of their list. Go in whenever you want. Go tomorrow, if you like. You’ll probably be out of there in two hours or less.”
    “Isn’t that fantastic? Yes it is,” Ray thanked Evan.
    “Now, what have you got for me?”
    “I got a shitload for you. Most of it is no problem because it’s general knowledge in I.S. But today’s stuff, well, find a creative way to bring it up because it can be traced back to people like me. You know, officers.”
    “C’mon now,” Evan pushed. “Don’t leave me hanging.”
    “Okay,” Roos leaned forward. “First off, ammo is way low in just about every field office north of Maryland. A couple of H-K handlers refused to go out with the K9s because they didn’t have high-caliber rounds for their big guns. So the friggin’ dogs were doing the sweeps on their own. Now what if they ran into a Hostile One-Fifty Seven or a Goat-Walker? They couldn’t handle those. For Christ’s sake, military units can’t handle those things most of the time.”
    “Yeah, yeah,” Evan waved his hand impatiently. “I got the gist of that from the council meeting. Jones won’t discuss half of it when I’m around. Still, you can do better than ‘we’re low on ammo’.”
    Roos grinned mischievously.
    “Howabout this, then? Howabout K9s ripping each other apart.”
    “What did you say?”
    “The past few days security at the estate has found five different K9s that seemed to have turned on each other. Ripped each other apart. They found a sixth dog that killed its buddy but it was whacko. They say Trevor couldn’t even get through to it. They had to put it down.”
    Evan felt goose bumps bubble along his arms. He could only imagine the nightmare that would ensue if Trevor’s dogs went berserk.
    “Well, what? A disease? Rabies?”
    “No one is sure, but it’s scaring the I.S. guys around the mansion. It’s like something got into the dogs’ heads or something. No one has actually witnessed it, either, just finding bodies. Really creepy shit.”
    “Yeah, really creepy. I’ll see what I can find out. What else you got?”
    Roos smiled as if anticipating the joy this news would bring the councilman.
    “I got Dubois, Pennsylvania. Maybe seventy miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Small place, sort of a hub for some farms. No electricity, well-water, real stone-age living. Point is, about one-hundred people were there and they just got slaughtered by Red Hands. That’s right, Red Hands. Wanna know the kicker? The follow up teams got a bloody nose and had to call in regular military units to handle it, to handle Red Hands! Those idiots use spears and arrows for Christ’s sake.”
    Evan licked his lips. Red Hands-a primitive organized force-hit a human settlement well inside the ‘secure’ boundaries of the lands Trevor had ‘saved.’
    “There’s more to it,” Evan said. “I can tell by the way you tap your thumb on the table. You’re just waiting for it to sink in before you hit me with the real punch line.”
    “Is that what you think? Of course you do. They found over a thousand Red Hands living north of Dubois in Allegheny National Forest. They had to have been there for a year at least.”
    “Jesus,” Evan slouched in the booth. “You know what that means? It means we’re not safe inside our borders. It means we damn well need more resources for Internal Security. I mean, who cares about the Hivvans if primitive Red Hands can take out a settlement way inside our lines?”
    “You think I don’t know that? Of course, you know I do. I’m hoping you get the word out because we need help.”
    “Maybe you need a new chief.”
    Roos tilted his head slightly as he considered that thought and then answered, “Jones is a good guy, but he’s in over his head.”
    Evan said, “No shit. He has no law enforcement experience, no background in criminal justice; he wasn’t even a mall security guard. He used to work with computers, for God’s sake. He got that job only because he’s Trevor’s friend.”
    “Sometimes he don’t talk like it,” Roos said and that grabbed Evan’s attention.
    “What do you mean?”
    “I hear him mumbling now and then. Complaining. Every so often he says something loud enough for his guys to hear.”
    “What kind of somethings?”
    Roos told Evan, “That maybe Trevor is a little too big for his britches. I little too all-powerful and whatnot.”
    “Now that is interesting,” Godfrey took note. “That’s very interesting.”
    “I think he’s like us; he’s got a lot of questions. And I’ll tell you what, the boys in I.S. love him because he’s always looking out for us and he stands up to Trevor a lot. But he’s overwhelmed and these days he’s been hoppin’ mad over things. Some more resources would go a long way.”
    “I’ll do my best,” Evan said.
    “Why do you think I’m here? First time I met you, Mr. Godfrey, I could see you were going places. I’ve had this little feeling since day one that you were a horse worth backing. I think you can really help a fellow out.”
    Roos raised his beer in salute.
    Evan returned the salute with his flat gin and tonic.
    “I know we can help each other, Ray. I just know it.”

6. Marching Orders

    An hour before dawn, Catherine Nina Brewer slept peacefully in her bed, one arm clasping a raggedy one-eyed teddy bear. Her tiny belly eased up and down as she inhaled and exhaled softly.
    Jon watched his daughter sleep and wondered if she would ever understand exactly how wrong the world was.
    He could not lie to his child; monsters did exist. Terrible, ferocious monsters. He could never assure her that ‘it’s just a dream’ or ‘things like that aren’t real.’ Every bump in the night could be a horror waiting to pounce; there might really be something nasty hiding under her bed.
    Jon stroked her forehead, just to feel his flesh and blood once before leaving.
    Like all the children born into this insanity, his daughter accepted that nightmare world. Only four years old, she recognized the whistle of a Devilbat in the sky and could distinguish between the playful bark of a K9 and a howl of warning.
    “Pleasant dreams, sweet pea,” he whispered.
    Lori stepped to his side and placed an arm on his shoulder. Jon decided he needed more than a touch of her forehead. He leaned his tall frame over and kissed her sleeping cheek.
    The two parents walked out into the hall. Lori eased the bedroom door shut.
    At first, the Brewers had lived in the mansion with Trevor. When Catherine came along, they moved a few hundred yards away to a Cape Cod style lakeside home. While not huge, it fit their new family just fine.
    Two Doberman Pinschers half-slept/half-guarded their living room while additional sentries periodically patrolled by their home on a regular basis. As military Chief of Staff, Jon Brewer certainly sat in the cross hairs of humanity’s enemies.
    A pair of over-stuffed duffel bags rested by the front door: his marching orders had come through; it was time to go.
    Lori projected a tough front; little ever penetrated her armor and if anything managed to punch through, she reacted with bravado or venomous sarcasm. This time, Jon saw chinks in the armor. He heard her crying in the bathroom last night and she continuously asked questions to which he could only answer, “I don’t know” and she cursed Trevor for sending her husband on what seemed a hopeless mission.
    What he saw in her that morning felt even worse: resolve. Jon realized his wife finally resolved herself to the fact of him leaving and everything that entailed. As she walked him to the front door, he understood she thought this might be the last time she ever saw him. And he could not kid himself. Had he seen his daughter for the last time? Was this the final good bye?
    The journey ahead felt impossibly long and too fantastic to believe. He felt as if he flew blind into a storm with no real knowledge of the path to follow. He traveled to the frozen wastelands of the north, away from any support with only a handful of men and supplies to find a mystical object now sought by hordes of dangerous aliens.
    He stopped between the duffle bags, took a deep breath, and tried to find the right words but speeches were not his strong point.
    “Hey, listen, um, what I mean is…” Jon closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and found a better approach: “I love you. I love you and I love that wonderful little girl sleeping in there. So I’m coming back. I’m going to do this and I’m coming back in one piece.”
    Her eyes watered and she threw two powerful arms around him.
    “God damn it, you better come home, you hear me?”
    “I hear you.”
    “I mean it,” Lori repeated. “You come home to me and your little girl. Y ou come home.”
    Jon pulled her away with his strong hands on her shoulders.
    “Keep a light on for me.”
    She nodded and wiped away the moisture from beneath her eyes. He saw her reach deep and find just enough to hold it together as he walked out. When the door closed behind him, he heard the facade collapse.

    Trevor walked alongside the Doberman Pinscher, nodding his head as he moved across the front lawn toward the Eagle airship parked on the helipad. Floodlights from the mansion provided circles of illumination in the otherwise dark pre-dawn morning.
    “Double the patrols,” Trevor said aloud and formed a mental picture of K9s walking routes around the estate.
    With the communication complete, the dog trotted away just as Trevor rendezvoused with Jon Brewer at the rim of the landing pad. A line of soldiers hauling gear slowly boarded the craft up a short ramp and through the open side door.
    “What’s wrong?” Jon asked.
    “This shit with the K9s. Two more tore themselves to shreds last night. Both were still alive when we found them. Both were…they were unstable. Had to put them down.”
    “What is happening?”
    “I honestly don’t know. There might be some sort of hostile out there that uses insanity as a weapon or something. But they weren’t eaten or anything. They just mauled each other.”
    The running lights on the Eagle clicked on and flashed over the men’s faces. Engines spooled to life with a heavy hum.
    Trevor said to Jon, “Listen, don’t worry about the K9s. We’ll figure it out. Probably nothing. Relatively speaking, we’re only talking about a handful and only here around the lake. You worry about your mission.”
    “Trust me,” Jon huffed. “I am worried about it.”
    “I wish I could tell you what you’re going to run into, I just don’t know. I told you everything I can.”
    Jon repeated all of what Trevor had shared. “I’m looking for a structure northeast of Qaanaaq, Greenland. I’ve got the exact coordinates and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the Globestar GPS satellite is still functional.”
    Trevor assured him, “Knox’s crew at the Pentagon checked the data at Space Command. They believe you’ll get a good GPS signal to follow.”
    “Anyway, I get there and find these rune-things. Two pillars, about six feet high. Then I…then I…are you sure?”
    Trevor nodded.
    Jon shrugged for what had to have been the hundredth time since he received his instructions. “There’s a round ball of some sort on top of each pillar. I touch each one, one with each hand.”
    “That’s right,” Trevor said.
    “What is that supposed to do again?”
    “I don’t know for sure, but I have a theory. I’m thinking it sort of reboots whatever force is controlling the gateways.”
    “Somehow or another these gateways were opened to our world from other worlds. My guess is that once you come in contact with the runes you sort of establish that this world belongs to you, a human. Then the runes won’t allow any more non-humans to come through. Got it?”
    “Shit no, I don’t got it.”
    Trevor warned, “If some alien touches those things, then…”
    “Then they get to start pouring in here as if they own the place. I guess I never realized that this invasion thing could actually get worse.”
    “Think of it this way,” Trevor said. “There are rules governing all this, and some of those rules are controlled by these runes. Whoever gets there first gets to change some of the rules.”
    “Looks like we’re all ready to go,” Jon said as the last soldier disappeared into the passenger compartment. “We’ll rendezvous with the other transports north of here.”
    Trevor took a deep breath and then said, “Hey, Jon, we’ve been doing this for five years now, you know.”
    “Wow. Man, where’d the time go?”
    “I’m just saying that I don’t think I ever really stopped and told you how much I appreciate what you do around here. You do a lot of the heavy lifting, and I get most of the credit, but I know we wouldn’t have come half this far without you. You’ve been a tough and loyal soldier, and I don’t think I ever said ‘thanks’.”
    “That’s because you don’t have to. You’re the boss, see? That’s the way things are. Don’t matter if I accept that or not. It’s the way. Just a fact, that’s all.”
    “Yeah, well, thanks anyway.”
    “Thank me when I bring these stupid-ass runes back for you. Then I want a week off. Maybe somewhere in the Outer Banks. Make sure Shep clears them out soon. I got a feeling I’m going to be real friggin’ cold for a while. Need somewhere warm to melt.”
    Trevor smiled, “You got it.”
    “Mister Brewer!” Reverend Johnny shouted from the Eagle’s open passenger door. “Hurry up with your goodbye kiss!”
    Brewer shot the Revered a stiff middle finger and then turned back to Trevor who extended his hand and said, “Good luck.”
    Jon shook it. “Don’t worry, I’m coming back. At least you’d better hope so,” Brewer moved away. “Otherwise my wife will kick the shit out of you.”
    Trevor watched his General climb the ramp and board the transport. The outer door slid shut and the ramp retracted. A moment later the Eagle lifted off the pad slowly and easily, turned, and flew over the mountains to the north.

    Two miles east of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Interstate 95 passes under Route 24 in crisscrossing strips of concrete and long sweeping traffic ramps. NCDOT last tended to the intersection five years ago, leaving neglected landscaping separating the parallel north and south strips of I-95 while overgrown brush and trees died along the shoulders and banks.
    Nearly twenty cars in various states of crash, burn, and otherwise shredded metal cluttered the highways, a memento from the panicked last days of the United States.
    A dreary gray sky delivered a warm drizzle across the entire scene, but the sound of chaos drown the pitter-patter of rain: explosions, rifle fire, and an electric buzz of energy weapons punctuated by human screams and reptilian hisses.
    The prim-and-proper Kristy Kaufman led an infantry column southward on I-95. Sixty yards to her right on the far side of I-95, Dustin McBride did the same.
    “Two Firecats at nine o’clock!” yelled his voice from her hand-held walkie-talkie. “They’re coming right atchya, Princess!”
    Kristy cringed at the nickname, but pushed aside her anger for a moment to wave her Aussie-style cowboy hat in the air as encouragement to her troops. While the hat did not match her Tiger stripe camouflage particularly well, it fit with her personality perfectly.
    Despite her urging, energy bolts from alien infantrymen attempting to capture the high ground of the Route 24 overpass kept Kaufman’s soldiers pinned. As per Dustin’s warning, two Firecats came over an earthen bank into the midst of Kaufman’s unit. Their caterpillar treads tore into the ground whipping up clumps of mud.
    She ordered “Into the trees!” referring to the tight cluster of summit ash trees filling the circle-shaped ground in the center of I-95 North’s onramp to Route 24.
    A golden stream of liquid flame poured from a nozzle on the lead Firecat, filling the air with a noxious petroleum smell and engulfing an older man as he struggled to his feet from a prone position. His skin melted away instantaneously leaving behind a pile of smoldering dungarees and a warped shotgun.
    Another of her charges ran for the woods but slowed to empty a clip from his AK-47 into the second alien tank. The rounds struck the netting of the cockpit and ripped away at the protective sheath.
    Before his bullets could puncture that protection, however, the Firecat responded from a double-barreled swiveling turret lobbing volleys of green plasma. The bolts sliced through the man turning his body into chunks of red gore that splattered on the pavement.
    Nonetheless, his foolhardy attack bought time for the remainder of Kaufman’s squad to find cover amidst the trees.
    The Firecats could not enter the tightly packed woods in pursuit, so they assaulted the patch of trees and the hiding humans with napalm and energy weapons, circling the perimeter as they fired.
    “Keep your heads down!” Kaufman yelled as plasma severed a branch overhead.
    She decided to ignore her own advice. After slinging her hunting rifle, Kristy pulled a heavy Desert Eagle. 50 caliber from a thigh rig and approached the edge of the woods. Holding the gun in both hands, she poked out from cover and fired.
    Blam! Blam!
    The gun sounded more a cannon while the recoil threatened to break her wrist. Like the Tiger camo and the Aussie cowboy hat, the powerful silver-plated weapon served her image as much as function, but in this case the added firepower offered more than mere style points.
    She heard her radio crackle with Dustin McBride’s incredulous voice, “Princess! What are you doing? Get into cover you idiot!”
    I’m remembering what my Hostiles Database told me, you dork, she thought as she realized that the hour she spent reading the field manual last week might actually pay off.
    Her shots aimed for a hose-like conduit affixed to the energy weapon turret. According to the manual, that hose ran the length of the machine and attached to the powerful rear-mounted engine providing energy for those main guns.
    Volatile energy.
    A well-placed shot should rupture that line.
    The Firecat noticed her and turned. She saw the pilot through the protective cover that resembled more a net than a windshield. She saw the look of surprise in its reptilian eyes, no doubt shocked at the audacity of the woman to assault the armored killer with a handgun.
    I wonder how many people this bastard has cooked. She knew Hivvan Firecat drivers preferred to burn their enemies.
    In a split-second that lasted much longer to her perception, she saw flammable vapors jet from the Firecat’s flamethrower nozzle…and then the front end of the miniature tank erupted in a splash of green energy as one of her bullets found the weak spot. The gun turret rolled off and clattered along the highway while a ball of smoke filled the cabin.
    With the sooty mist stinging its yellow eyes, the pilot pushed open the side door and staggered away from the wounded vehicle. The light rain splattered on its white body armor while the fingers on its green hands struggled for a side arm.
    BLAM. Another round from her gun finished the job.
    The second Firecat moved to avenge its fallen brethren, giving the trapped humans no time to cheer. Kristy saw one, then two of her squad fall to energy blasts.
    One of the better-equipped men of her group-an old world soldier by the look of his BDUs and his weapons-stepped into the open and lobbed a grenade from an M203 launcher mounted under the barrel of his M16. The resulting explosion tore up the passing lane of I-95 North but little else. Counter-fire from the ‘cat blasted away the man’s right arm, sending the M16 to the ground and filling the air with his cry.
    A second later, that remaining Firecat exploded, forcing Kristy to dive for cover at the base of a tree, while metal, rubber, and pieces of alien pilot rained down.
    When she pulled her head from her hands she saw their savior: a green Humvee with a TOW anti-tank missile mounted on top. Behind that vehicle marched a line of armored personnel carriers, trucks, and a dozen horse soldiers with Stonewall McAllister at the lead.
    With the Firecats destroyed, the Hivvan infantry vacated the overpass and ran. The Humvee and APCs pursued.
    Stonewall collected his officers under the cover of the Route 24 bridge to avoid the rain. His bugle boy-a freckle-faced teenager named Benny Duda-stood a pace behind the General.
    “Do tell, I sent you forward on a scouting mission and have to pull your collective souls out of the fire. What, may I inquire, happened?”
    The sound of motored military vehicles idling mixed with the falling rain to create a steady drum of background noise. After the loud battle, the atmosphere felt incredibly quiet.
    Dustin answered, “Yeah, geez, we saw them heading toward Fayetteville along 24 and decided to surprise them. They must’ve seen us first and sent those damn Firecats around our flank. Shit, then we got the surprise.”
    “Yes, indeed you did. Let us remember that due to your ‘surprise’ several of the troops under your care will not be seeing their wives, or husbands, or children again. I suggest that you endeavor to avoid similar surprises in the future.”
    Dustin bowed his head and scratched the tuft of scar tissue where his right ear had once been.
    “Yes, General.”
    Stonewall McAllister let that sink in for a moment and then continued, “Nonetheless, our progress is ahead of schedule. We’ve barely started the second day of this excursion and our vanguard is nearly half the march to Dillon. Still, it is my understanding that the First Mechanized Division is making even greater progress on their trek to the coast. I shall endure much taunting should General Shepherd’s forces reach Conway before we reach Dillon.”
    Kristy Kaufman asked, “Our strength is being depleted by all the units we’ve left behind to seal up this pocket. What happens when we get to Dillon?”
    “My dear Ms. Kaufman, intelligence informs that Dillon is home to less than five hundred of our friends. It is significant in that it holds a supply depot and logistics base for our opponents, but it is not a well-defended target.”
    Dustin asked, “Like, why wouldn’t they send out their troops from Columbia to protect it, if it’s that important?”
    “First, that would be a long march and we know the Hivvans prefer the comfort of their walls and gun emplacements to the open road. Second, they won’t want to lower their troop strength in Columbia. Besides, they almost certainly do not realize the extent to which they are being trapped.”
    “Hmm,” Kristy Kaufman grunted.
    “You have something to add, Princess?”
    Kaufman scowled but remained focused. “What if they realize what’s going on? What if they realize that Raleigh is lightly defended?”
    “The only way they can threaten Raleigh again is with their retreating forces which are currently slipping into our jaws,” Stonewall answered. “If they reconstitute we’ll see that from the air. Regardless of what they do, if we cut off their supply lines they will not last long.”
    “Then I guess we’d better get going,” Dustin said. “On to Dillon and all, right?”
    “Yes, Mr. McBride. We must press on to Dillon. It is not so far away.”
    The General gazed southward and fell silent. They waited several seconds until Kristy prodded, “Do you know this area?”
    Stonewall shook himself out of the trance.
    “What was that? Oh, yes, I do. Dillon, after all, used to be my home.”

7. Goat-Walker

    As he gazed up at a perfectly black sky, Jon Brewer realized he had never truly known darkness before the invasion shut off mankind’s power plants and generators. The absolute absence of artificial light took him by surprise during those first months after the collapse. He found it unnerving; the pure blackness made him feel like an animal, naked in the wilderness not knowing from which direction the next horror would pounce.
    Conversely, he had never really seen the stars in the sky before the end-of-the-world, either. The very concept of ‘light pollution’ sounded ridiculous to his ears, until he lived in a world without it. Those tiny flickers of light in a vast sea of black came to life in a way he never imagined. So many of them, and so bright; not specks but radiant spheres flashing, winking, and swirling in patterns his mind could not quite grasp.
    Of course, he regarded those stars with as much suspicion as wonder, considering alien beings came from those heavens through a network of gateways to slaughter his race.
    On this particular night, those mysterious and dangerous orbs hid behind a thick blanket of cloud cover.
    As his armada of nine Eagle air ships paused one hundred miles northeast of Montreal on the northern bank of Lake Edouard, he felt his nerves jitter once again, perhaps because he felt surrounded by darkness.
    While he did not feel alone this time-not with one hundred well-armed soldiers and a compliment of K9s under his command-he felt vulnerable.
    The lake stretched nearly two miles north to south but little more than a quarter mile across at its widest point. Tall coniferous trees dominated the land around the lake, stretching off into the unseen distance; a vast void of nothingness dwarfing the small ring of light carved by the floodlights of parked ships occupying the only stretch of open ground for miles.
    Two specialty Eagles parked at the water’s edge near a sagging rack of canoes once rented to summer vacationers now left rotting on the rocky dirt and rough grass comprising the shoreline. Instead of rectangular passenger modules, a large round gray tank occupied the space between nose cone and engine baffles. One big hose ran from each ship to the lake, sucking H2o into the purification filters onboard the customized craft. Several soldiers oversaw the extraction process aided by lights mounted above the landing struts.
    Five troop transports and two cargo carriers landed further inland, two of which were on the receiving end of the ‘fueling’ ships. The fleet formed a circle of sorts.
    Jon walked toward the fueling pumps alongside Captain Casey Fink, an old-world military veteran and a big man; so big he could have been a professional wrestler. Around them within the circle, men sat on the ground or on access ramps enjoying a few minutes respite from the cramped quarters of the transports.
    “Cold out,” Jon muttered in reference to the bite in the Canadian air; a frosty-white exhale accentuated the point.
    “Refreshing,” Casey flapped his arms as if jump-starting circulation. “I managed to catch some shut eye during the trip. A little nip in the air is just what I need to wake up.”
    “That’s because you didn’t ride with Reverend Johnny. The man snores loud enough to wake the dead.”
    “Praise the Lord,” Casey mocked. “Either way, the men are happy to be out of those ships for a few minutes.”
    “I’m not,” Jon cocked an eye toward the darkness threatening to engulf their oasis of light. “I don’t like it. Wish we didn’t have to refuel. Can’t those pumps work any faster?”
    They arrived at one of the specially equipped Eagles filtering lake water for use in the airships’ hydrogen-powered engines. The hum and swoosh of the working pumps forced the men to raise their voices a notch.
    Casey touched the metal tank and said, “Better let them take their time. Last thing we want is to have dirty fuel grounding one of the birds in the middle of no where.”
    Jon snapped, “We’re already behind schedule. I wanted to get here before dark, but look at it. It’s dark.”
    “Our pilot said it must be all the extra weight with the gear and the vehicles in the cargo ships that’s slowing us down. If we went any faster we never would have reached this stop.”
    “That’s one excuse. Two ships were late getting started, one had mechanical problems and needed to be switched out, and then we find out someone miscalculated our cruising range so we had to power down to a flying crawl. This whole mission is borderline FUBAR and we’re not even at the sub yet.”
    Casey peered at the northwestern sky. “I think it’s going to get worse. Must be a storm coming, I just saw lightening. Funny, it was pretty close, but no thunder.”
    One of the K9s at the center of the makeshift camp barked. Then another. And another.
    Jon felt his nerves kick into overdrive.
    “Mother…Casey, get these pumps going, I want out of here.”
    “Yeah…yeah sure,” any good humor drained from the soldier’s voice as more of the Grenadiers howled in warning.
    Jon left Casey at the fueling ship and hurried toward the center of the sphere of light. Relaxing soldiers stood and tensed; others wandered out from inside ships.
    A dozen dogs-mainly Huskies and Shepherds-trotted to the northwest edge of the camp staring at a line of giant evergreens that resembled more a castle wall than the rim of a forest.
    Reverend Johnny emerged from one of the cargo Eagles wearing a white arctic jacket and carrying a machine gun.
    “I fear something has taken note of our presence. Perhaps we should be leaving?”
    Brewer-his eyes focused on the forest-answered, “We’re not done refueling yet. We have two birds that can’t take off.”
    Johnny said, “It is our misfortune that despite the brevity of our stay something has stumbled upon-dear Lord, did you feel that?”
    Both men glanced at the tough soil beneath their feet and felt another tremor.
    The Reverend whispered, “Whatever it is-”
    “-it must be big,” Jon finished and as the words left his mouth he saw the line of K9s growling at the woods step back, in unison, and their angry snarls grow more subdued.
    He ordered, “Reverend, all the fueled ships airborne now.”
    Both men saw movement in the otherwise black forest, and heard the unmistakable crack and crash of a tree falling. Then another. Then another.
    “Rev, get going!”
    As ordered, Reverend Johnny hurried toward one of the nearby cargo-carriers, identified by a larger side door. He went inside where the pilots should be waiting.
    Jon managed to pull his eyes away from the forest and take stock of his men. Like him, they stood and watched, waiting to see what evil came their way. He pulled his walkie-talkie and radioed, “All ships that are refueled get airborne now. Drop everything, board now, and get airborne. Everyone else to arms!”
    Suddenly, the K9s retreated in a sprint from the perimeter and gathered near the center of the camp as a giant came out of the forest.
    Glowing red eyes some twenty-stories in the sky grabbed the onlookers’ attention first. As floodlights splashed on the creature, more details came into focus.
    It wore a scaly, tinny skin that could have been flesh or possibly a kind of metal armor. It stood on two muscular, thick legs that, again, could have been organic or could have been manufactured struts. Ram horns wrapped its head on either side of those raging red eyes and it pushed aside mighty evergreens as easily as parting curtains using arms ending in cloven hooves.
    A Goat-Walker.
    Jon knew that Trevor encountered a goat walker for the first time during an expedition to the alien gateway in Binghamton, New York, five years ago. It had stepped into the world from some hellish dimension just as a truck bomb detonated. According to the story, a vortex formed when that gate collapsed, sucking the creature-and many of Trevor’s expedition including his friend Danny Washburn-to some unknown, but certainly horrid, fate.
    While rare, they proved one of the most dangerous hostiles. Unlike the majority of alien monsters that could be categorized as predator or prey, a Goat-Walker did not conform to any logical law of nature. No nests or dens were ever found, the walkers did not appear to feed on their victims and their physical characteristics-particularly the hoof-like cloven appendages where hands should be-seemed ill suited to long-term survival.
    They behaved more like an elemental force than a living animal; a walking tornado bent on destruction. As if natural selection on whatever nightmare world they hailed from favored fear and chaos in some warped version of Darwinian evolution.
    “Javelins! Get the Javelins!” Brewer shouted at the soldiers assigned to the two transports still refueling. “There should be some onboard Eagle 2!”
    The K9s mustered their courage and bound toward the walking skyscraper as it stepped into the heart of the camp. They stood no chance, of course, but instinctively knew they needed to buy time.
    One after another, sliding ramps closed and airships took to the sky in haste. Reverend Johnny’s cargo Eagle shot up in a rapid ascent.
    Meanwhile, small arms fire from the thirty-men not onboard fleeing ships pelted the creature like pebbles thrown at a battleship, while the dogs yapped and snarled.
    It hovered over the camp as if considering what to stomp first. A transport parked at the outer rim of the camp took off right at the giant’s feet, drawing the creature’s attention. The pilot went to full acceleration at the same moment the monster swung a hoof-like hand. The blow missed by less than two feet.
    With one potential victim out of reach, it returned its attention to the ground and stepped toward a crowd of men. They managed to scatter clear of the impact but the tremor knocked them off balance. The beast brought one of its warped ‘hands’ to the ground aiming to crush one of the men who escaped the first blow. A Grenadier dashed in front of the fallen soldier, grabbing the monster’s attention at the last second and averting the strike.
    Jon raised his carbine and fired, aiming for the inferno-red eyes. His bullets either missed or did nothing; it seemed this animal offered no weak spots, no quick solutions. Nonetheless, he would try to distract and confuse the monster while the transports escaped.
    Two bolts of energy blasted from Johnny’s airborne cargo Eagle via a turret mounted below the nose cone. Like the airships themselves, those energy weapons had been captured from the ‘Redcoat’ aliens following the Battle for Wilkes-Barre.
    One massive leg and the hoof at the end of it kicked, sending a broken dog flying and a pair of soldiers tumbling. A second kick smashed the side of a transport Eagle. The side door crumpled in and vehicle nearly toppled as it took to the air.
    Another stream of energy from the cargo Eagle rippled across the beast’s snout, scorching its goat face and eliciting a roar that echoed through the wilderness. The very sound felt like an assault; Jon instinctively cowered for the briefest of moments. There was something about this entity that made it feel even more alien than the extraterrestrials that had invaded Earth: as if even among the invaders, this thing was an abomination.
    A cloven hoof where a hand should be swung at a flying Eagle, glancing a landing pod and sending it into a flat spin. The engines screamed as the plane spiraled toward the treetops, grazing branches before regaining control.
    The Goat-Walker turned again to the humans and dogs scurrying around its feet. With a grunt that sounded like an explosion of compressed air, it leaned over and struck with both arms, pounding one into the backbone of a refueling transport and crushing two men and a dog with the other.
    Two contrails raced skyward and a pair of anti-tank missiles walloped the gargantuan in the neck. Pieces of what might have been either flesh or building materials poured down as well as a muddy red liquid.
    The creature stood to full height and howled.
    “Keep firing! Keep firing!” Jon ordered even as he cursed the waste of precious ordnance.
    A hand grabbed his shoulder from behind; he nearly jumped out of his skin.
    Casey Fink shouted in his ear, “They’re done refueling! We can bug out!”
    “Do it!” Jon shouted as the creature swung and missed at the two soldiers who had launched the missiles. “Take off! Everyone get onboard and get the hell out of here!”
    Troops hurried for the two remaining transports while the two tankers retracted hoses from the lake.
    “Withdraw!” Brewer shouted, this time directing his order at the K9s. The dogs wasted no time in scampering onboard Eagle 2.
    Into his radio Jon transmitted, “We need covering fire to take off. Blast the damn thing!”
    A swarm of Eagles fired potshots at the beast from energy turrets.
    Jon slung his rifle and raced onboard Eagle 3 where Casey Fink shouted orders of his own into his radio: “Tankers, get out of here!”
    A voice answered, “Retracting pumps now, Sir.”
    “Just friggin’ go. We’re out of time!”
    Eagle 2 blasted away from the surface. The sound drew the attention of the snarling monster.
    Jon, standing at Eagle 3’s open side door, saw two of his soldiers-one man helping a limping woman-emerge from cover at the edge of the forest and hurry toward his transport. He waved encouragement to them but the wounded woman could only move at half-speed.
    The Goat-Walker apparently realized most of its prey had escaped and aimed for the three ships remaining on the ground: Jon’s ship number 3 and the two tankers.
    “Come on!” Jon shouted at the limping soldiers. “Haul ass!”
    One of the hideous legs of the massive creature thudded to the ground just ten yards from the transport’s side door, half as close as the fleeing soldiers.
    Jon raised his hand to wave again, but the sliding door slammed shut in front of his face. He turned to see Casey Fink pressing the ‘lock’ switch. The pilot must have reacted to the ‘sealed’ indicator on his console and the Eagle took to the air with such acceleration that Jon and Casey fell to the floor.
    “What the hell are you doing?” Jon shouted with the faces of the abandoned personnel etched in his mind.
    “Saving our asses, General,” Fink answered.
    The transport shuddered as if absorbing a glancing blow. The fifteen men buckled into seats groaned a collective gasp.
    Jon scrambled to his feet, opened the cockpit bulkhead, and staggered into the nose cone where a solitary pilot wearing bulky navigation goggles struggled with the controls.
    Through the windshield, Jon saw the red eyes of the Goat-Walker. He felt them look right at him; regard him.
    “This was no accident,” he muttered but the pilot could not hear; he grunted and growled as he tried to control the rapidly ascending craft. “That thing was sent to stop us.”
    Streaks of energy slammed into the monster’s head. It roared again.
    “Hold on,” the pilot warned and he reversed thrust, pushing the ship out over the lake, away from the bank.
    Jon sat-fell-into the navigator’s chair. Through the window, he saw the two tankers take off. The Goat-Walker saw them, too. It struck at one, missing as the ship shot out of reach. The second failed to escape; a hoof smashed into its mid-section, exploding the purification equipment and tossing the craft into the icy waters of Lake Edouard.
    “Oh Christ,” Jon’s pilot muttered. “Oh Jesus Christ.”
    The white nose of the tanker ship bobbed straight up and then slipped into the dark waters. As the transport moved off, darkness swallowed the banks of the lake where their camp had been moments before.
    Reverend Johnny’s voice piped through the radio on the console. “All flights, report in. Is General Brewer on the line?”
    Jon leaned forward and punched the transmit button.
    “Yeah, I’m here.”
    “We made it, Jon. That was close.”
    Jon thought of the soldiers left behind and the tanker ship drowning in the lake.
    “Yeah, we made it.”
    “Sir,” Casey Fink woke Jon from a light sleep. “We’re about ready to touch down in Hopedale.”
    “What? Already?”
    Jon stood and stretched. He walked along the row of seats then opened the sliding cockpit door. Daylight glared in through the windshield.
    “We’re heading in for a landing, Sir,” the pilot informed and Jon felt the ship descend.
    A frigid bay split Hopedale into two distinct parts. To the north, the city proper including its primary claim to fame, the historic Moravian Mission House.
    The southern end of that bay was less developed and dominated by a primitive shipping dock comprised of wooden planks and buildings set upon a piled stone foundation.
    With a harbor deep enough to accommodate heavy tankers, Hopedale served as an ideal place to rendezvous with the Newport News.
    In any case, the Eagles descended on to a flat, open area between low rolling hills north of the dock. The landing gear sank into soft ground. After a few moments, the doors opened and the travel-weary troops disembarked.
    A biting cold chased away their weariness. While still August, a wet, chilly breeze cut through the men’s BDUs. Several returned inside the transports to retrieve their arctic gear.
    Jon left most of the men and Reverend Johnny with the Eagles and took Casey Fink and a small force to the docks.
    Gentle mountains overlooked the bay while grassy bush and rocky beaches covered most of the coastline. Calm water sloshed and curious seabirds squawked beneath a canopy of white clouds. A salty, marshy smell blew around on the wind.
    At the dock waited an intimidating beast from the deep. It stretched more than a football field in length from bow to stern and was certainly a predator.
    The Newport News, a Los Angeles Class nuclear submarine, had been one of the best and most modern attack boats in the U.S. arsenal before something other than Soviet bombers or Chinese ICBMs destroyed the country.
    Jon and his small team approached the dock as a group of sailors moved to meet them.
    The lead man wore a Navy Captain’s uniform and a leather military jacket. He sported thin streaks of gray in otherwise brown hair, but most of that remained tucked under his cap.
    The two groups converged and eyed each other cautiously.
    “Captain Farway?”
    The man with the brown hair and cap nodded. “General Jon Brewer, I presume?”
    This time Jon nodded.
    They knew each other only through a few radio transmissions and written dispatches. Jon had little time to worry about boats when focused on fighting a land war.
    Most of the naval forces, including the two nuke subs in their arsenal, worked with Gordon Knox for use in intelligence gathering. Unlike the bulk of “The Empire’s” military forces, original crews manned most of the ships. Arguably, the Navy survived the Apocalypse better than the other services.
    The Captain extended a hand and smiled.
    “I’ve heard a hell of a lot about you, General. I hear you know how to get things done these days.”
    Jon accepted the shake. “We give it our best.”
    “I think it’s fair to say that so far your best has been much better than anyone else’s. Still, I guess you’re needing a ride?”
    Jon replied, “I want to go see Santa Claus. Get my list in early, you know?”
    The Captain and his sailors chuckled.
    “Then what are we waiting for?” Farway asked.
    Jon turned to Casey Fink and ordered, “Go round up the men and start moving supplies down here.”
    Fink took a step but paused as Farway said, “Oh, one other thing. I hope your guys aren’t claustrophobic. You see, General, we’re spending most of this trip under the surf. You’re going into a big metal coffin. It’s tight in there. Real tight. And you hear things, too. Sometimes it’s just the currents, maybe a whale. But these days, well, these days there are things you hear down there that just aren’t right. Being on a sub for days on end, why that was always enough to put a little shake in a man’s hand. These days it’s enough to drive a man to crazy thoughts. So the question is, can you handle it?”
    Jon looked at Captain Farway, shrugged, and told him, “I have a four year old daughter.”
    “Oh,” Farway considered. “Then this should be a walk in the park.”

8. Lair

    General Tom Prescott gazed at the ruins of the destroyed compound with a dozen soldiers standing on his flanks and his mobile command post-a modified version of an M113 armored personnel carrier-parked in the driveway.
    At one point, the compound had consisted of several smaller buildings surrounding a large one protected by a chain link fence. The area covered several hundred square yards in a lightly wooded area off an access road in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains.
    Whatever purpose the compound served went up in ashes and smoke a long time ago, several years at least. Smashed and burned piles of rubble stood in place of wood and stone buildings, the chain link fence torn and flattened.
    To the General, it resembled a thousand other country homes and estates he had seen along the Appalachians as they secured the expanding Empire’s western flank.
    He noticed human bones scattered in the debris. Again, a sight he saw on a daily basis. Certainly not worthy of pulling him away from his tour of the captured Radford Army Ammunition plant, one of his force’s most important objectives as they cleared the area around Blacksburg, Virginia.
    “Captain Rhodes,” he asked in a tone that did not hide his annoyance. “Pardon my French, but why the heck am I out here staring at rubble?”
    “This is just the introduction. You might want to follow me, Sir.”
    Rhodes directed General Prescott around the piles of debris to a wooded and rocky slope that ascended into the mountains.
    The posse of soldiers led by the two officers walked along an overgrown path into the woods, pushing their way through low-hanging leaves belonging to short white and dark green Striped Maple trees. Prescott stumbled over something.
    “Holy shit,” the General shot when he saw the obstruction.
    “That’s just the first of them,” Rhodes referred to the old, dried mess the General tripped over.
    “Is that…is that what I think it is?”
    “Yes, Sir. You might want to take a look around you.”
    The General did as his Captain suggested and surveyed the forest surrounding them. Among the rotting leaves left over from last autumn and wildflowers competing for what little sunlight sneaked between branches, he saw mounds of something familiar. Years old, so old that they blended in with the forest floor, hidden by time and wind and falling leaves and rain.
    “Sweet Jesus.”
    “Dozens of them, Sir.”
    The General scratched his head. “We need to call the boss. He needs to see this.”
    “Oh, that isn’t the punch line, General, Sir.”
    After years of service with Rhodes, including time in the U.S. Army prior to Armageddon, Prescott knew that when his best officer emphasized ‘Sir’ it meant he was nervous or disturbed or really interested in drawing attention.
    Rhodes led Prescott further along. The trees thinned and the upward slope eased into a small plateau set in the side of the mountain. That flat space ended at a big wall of earth. There, partially hidden under the roots of a massive overturned Hemlock tree, waited an opening.
    A cave.
    “Now I know you have to go in there,” Rhodes said, “But you’re not going to like it.”
    Prescott instinctively swallowed hard and asked, “Why is that?”
    “Because you’re going to lose a lot of sleep from now on, Sir.”

    After bidding Jon Brewer farewell, Trevor nearly fell asleep in the big comfortable chair behind the oak desk in the den, but JB walked right in carrying colored paper and a box of crayons to work, once again, on illustrations of the great war.
    With his nap thwarted, Trevor spent the morning reviewing status reports on civilian and military operations. Those reports consisted of complaints from command posts and cities and distribution centers that had been raided for supplies. Those supplies had been transferred in the middle of the night to outfit Brewer’s northern expedition as well as to build a stockpile of food and munitions to support Southern Command’s encirclement of the Hivvans.
    Settlements previously categorized as ‘low’ on food now faced critical shortages. Military units down to their last two crates of ammunition were suddenly down to their last one crate of ammunition. Tanker trucks in transit to the west or east or north turned away in favor of a southerly direction toward operating centers established by the 1 ^ st and 2 ^ nd Mechanized Divisions.
    Before lunch time, Trevor was forced to hang up on the military Governor of western Pennsylvania, endured what sounded like Yiddish swearing from the manager of the Cape May County Distribution center, and successfully dodged two visits by Evan Godfrey and one by Eva Rheimmer.
    The shortages and squabbling for any morsel of foodstuffs or ammunition made the name he chose for their new nation- The Empire-sound like a joke. He wondered if he had made the right choice. Perhaps something like ‘the barely capable band of savages’ or ‘one step above starving republic’ might have better fit. He did not feel like an ‘Emperor’.
    Trevor used the pretext of reviewing military updates as an excuse to hide behind a closed door in his second floor office (the old Command Center). Unlike the reports from the rest of ‘ The Empire’, the info coming from Southern Command sounded good.
    Stonewall reported strong progress in his drive southwest on I-95 while Shepherd drove even further on I-40. It appeared Shep would reach the suburbs of Wilmington within twenty-four hours as he faced little opposition.
    Furthermore, aerial recon showed the Hivvans remained disorganized and-apparently-unaware of the closing trap. In a few more days it would be too late; their supply depots would fall and the remnants of the Raleigh corps would be cut off and annihilated.
    Despite the number of mayors and Generals cursing their “Emperor” that morning, Trevor finally found a reason to feel good…until late in the afternoon when Knox walked in wearing a somber look and holding a communique.
    Trevor felt a bolt up his spine; a tingle of fear. A variety of bad thoughts raced through his mind. Had the Hivvans regrouped for a counter-attack on Raleigh? Were enemy reinforcements pouring from Columbia to intercept the offensive? Either piece of news would derail the plan and cause the entire southern front to tip back into the aliens’ favor.
    The Director of Intelligence glanced at Trevor, back at the paper he held, and then handed it over to his boss, saying, “I don’t know what to think of this, so here you go. It’s from Prescott.”
    Trevor accepted the paper and read. His eyes scanned the lines, gaining speed as his mind deciphered the message. Trevor stood so fast that his chair rolled backwards into the sliding glass doors of the balcony.
    “When did this come in? Where is he? I need to get down there!”
    “It came in a few minutes ago. He’s west of Blacksburg, Virginia. Hauser is on standby but you probably want to wait until morning.”
    “Because at this point, by the time you get there it will be nightfall and you’d probably rather view the site in daylight.”
    Trevor started to move, then stopped. He shook the paper, he shook his head.
    “Calm down…calm down,” Gordon tried to sooth.
    “I want Anita Nehru and Dante.”
    Gordon suggested, “I should go with you.”
    “No. I need you here to watch over the military stuff, with Brewer gone and all.”
    “Could this be more important?” Knox wondered.
    Trevor stopped cold, looked at the words on the paper again, and tried to answer.

    Later that evening, after telling Ashley of his travel plans for tomorrow, Trevor searched out his son to break the bad news and found him in the den. Other than a trip into town with his mother after lunch, JB spent the entire day in there drawing.
    Trevor walked in and paced across the floor, careful not to step on the artwork. JB, for his part, gave his dad a quick smile but returned immediately to his drawings.
    “Hey, um, JB,” Trevor stuttered as he leaned against the desk. “Something has come up and I have to go away tomorrow. I shouldn’t be gone long.”
    Without looking up, Jorgie said, “I want to go with you.”
    Shocked, Trevor could not find any words so JB repeated as if worried his dad had not heard the first time. “I want to go with you, father.”
    Trevor stepped away from the desk and stood straight. His hands wavered in the air as if using them to sculpt words.
    “Umm, JB, no, it could be dangerous. Not a good idea.”
    “I want to go with you.”
    “Look,” Trevor stepped closer to his son and leaned over the boy who kept his focus on the drawing. “There really is no chance of that, Jorge. I’m not going to…I’m not. Um, JB, what is that you’re drawing?”
    The boy held the piece of paper aloft to his father who took it.
    While a crude work of crayons, Trevor could clearly see that his son drew two dogs lying on their sides with a black ‘x’ where each eye should be and a field of red crayon surrounding them. A black stick figure hovered over the dogs with his arms stretched wide.
    “It’s the doggies, father,” Trevor heard a sniffle in his son’s words. “They’re in pain.”
    The piece of paper wobbled as Trevor’s hands shook. He had not told JB about the problems with the K9s. No one outside of a few I.S. people, Ashley, and the military council knew of the issue.
    He swallowed hard, pointed at the black stick figure, and asked, “Who is this?”
    JB’s lip stiffened and his eyes sharpened.
    “He’s the Other. He’s bad.”
    “Who is he?”
    Jorgie’s mouth opened and then shut without a sound coming out.
    “Tell me, Jorge,” Trevor started in a harsh tone and then forced it to soften. “Have you seen this ‘Other’ before?”
    The three year old nodded his head slow. “When I’m sleeping. He’s been in my nightmares a lot. He’s why the doggies are in pain. That’s all I know.”
    Trevor knew Ashley would protest, but he also knew that in the morning his son would travel with him to Virginia.

    In 1663, Charles II quartered the arms of Virginia on his shield and since that time, the state has been known as ‘Old Dominion’.
    Before the end-of-the-world, Old Dominion boasted more than seven million souls in its boundaries. Those same boundaries now counted only one hundred thousand, most living in the eastern part of the state.
    Trevor and JB’s Eagle flight carried them south above I-81 with the gorgeous Blue Ridge range to their east and the imposing Appalachians-formed eons ago by colliding continental shelves-rising to the west.
    Early in the afternoon of August 23, Eagle One landed on the fifty-yard line of Lane Stadium, formerly home of the Virginia Tech Hokies. A pack of Jaw-Wolves had been living there when the 1 ^ st Armored Division arrived in town a few weeks before. After losing a tank, Prescott‘s forces managed to kill off the massive, armor-plated predators in a brutal engagement.
    Nonetheless, with arrival of the human army, the area around Blacksburg became fairly safe although they found no survivors, much to Prescott‘s surprise. Indeed, the rural nature of the region should have resulted in a survival rate equal to or exceeding the 1.5 % average.
    Not in Blacksburg.
    In any case, they traveled out of town in a heavily armed convoy along Rt. 460. They followed the road north then west before hooking up with State Route 621 through the Jefferson National Forest. Not long after, they said goodbye to the major roads and dove deeper into the Appalachians.
    During the trip, Trevor fidgeted and squirmed in his seat as he considered what waited ahead. He kept wondering why he brought JB along yet, for some reason, he felt as if honoring the boy’s request was the right thing to do.
    As for Jorge, he admired the scenery from inside the armored Suburban. His nose spent most of the trip flat against the window while one arm gently clasped his stuffed bunny which was, as usual, tightly wrapped in its tiny blanket.
    Anita Nehru and Dante Jones accompanied the father and son, the former due to her knowledge of hostiles and the latter because Trevor felt he might need a friend.
    Finally, they arrived at the ultimate destination: an old burned compound once surrounded by a chain link fence.
    Troops from the 1 ^ st Armored division blanked the area with checkpoints and patrols in surrounding hills and fields.
    Trevor and his entourage of two advisors, his son, General Prescott, and human bodyguards emerged from the vehicles. No K9s accompanied Trevor on this trip.
    The rain from the previous day had moved along but a quilt-like cover of silky gray clouds remained overhead, blocking out a good deal of sunlight and contributing to a cold, damp chill that belied the August day.
    Captain Phillip Rhodes met them at the ruins.
    Trevor surveyed his surroundings and felt a tingle in his spine. Although destroyed, the fence, the smaller buildings, and the isolated location felt hauntingly familiar.
    “We don’t know how long ago this place was wiped out,” Rhodes answered the question before anyone asked. “Our division analysts have been going over the area with a fine tooth comb to figure out what did it in.”
    Anita Nehru asked, “Tell me, Captain, what have your men discovered?”
    “Not much,” Rhodes admitted. “We found rifles and pistols, most of which looked to have been in storage in this main building. We pulled them from under the ruins so it was probably stuff lying around and not used.”
    “Tracks?” Anita asked.
    “We found deer and bear tracks, all relatively fresh but that’s about it. Judging by the skeletons in the mess we figure this happened a long time ago, so much so that if they were hit by predators or something on foot then the tracks are long since lost.”
    “What about the bodies?” Trevor asked while his eyes scanned the rubble.
    “Nothing conclusive yet. Most of our medical evaluation staff is back at Lynchburg helping Dr. Maple’s quarantine team. But it don’t matter much-um, Sir, — because the remains are few and far between. I mean, we’re talking about parts. Scavengers, carrion eaters have picked this place dry.”
    Trevor glared. “So you’re telling me you don’t know jack shit about what happened here?”
    Rhodes‘ mouth opened but he did not speak. General Prescott stepped in.
    “Well, we just spotted this place yesterday and our resources are spread out up and down the range setting up positions. Sorry we don’t have more, but we’re working on it.”
    “Show me the rest.”
    Dante placed a hand on Trevor’s shoulder. “Are you sure? You might want to chew a few more of them out first.”
    Stone swiped away Dante’s hand and followed the others beyond the destroyed estate into the gently rising woods. That is when Trevor noticed the carcasses. Everywhere.
    Dogs. Canines. Judging by the bones, they represented a variety of breeds.
    Trevor heard a sniffle from his son and saw tears forming in JB’s eyes. He reached down and hoisted Jorgie into his arms.
    “All the doggies, father…all the doggies…”
    Dante asked Anita, “Can you figure out what did this?”
    “I’m not a veterinarian or a coroner. Besides, it doesn’t look like there are enough remains to draw any conclusions.”
    Trevor stated surely, “They tore each other apart, in fits of madness.”
    The dead dogs littered the forest with as many piles of bones as there were trees. It was hard to make out the parts; spring thaws and winter snows and thaws again conspired to warp and rot the bodies.
    They arrived at the small plateau in front of the mountain face where the overturned Hemlock tree guarded a black hole. Soldiers stood there, securing the cave from the outside.
    Trevor and the others stopped. JB slid from his father’s grasp and stood.
    The hole in the earth beckoned Trevor as if it were a voice from some forgotten past begging to be heard again. Pleading to tell a tale.
    Stone stepped forward. His son grabbed his hand and took a step, too.
    Trevor hesitated. How could he possibly justify taking his three year old son in there, especially before he had seen it himself? Then he remembered the drawing and the shadowy figure his son saw in nightmares.
    Against his better judgment, he allowed Jorgie to accompany him inside while the others waited behind. The two pushed through the deformed roots of the Hemlock and into a hole of black.
    Trevor stopped a pace inside the entrance. He saw nothing, as if he had closed his eyes.
    The air felt surprisingly dry and his nose detected-or perhaps felt-an almost chalky taste in the air, masking an underlying, distant odor of decay.
    His eyes slowly adjusted, noticing a flickering red light coming from somewhere at the back of the dome-shaped cavern. That flicker splashed enough illumination to allow his eyes to understand his surroundings.
    He saw bones. Human bones everywhere, the remains of skeletons broken and decaying. Many wore the torn and faded remains of jeans, dresses, fatigues, and police uniforms. The red light danced over them like a ghost of spilt blood.
    Trevor cupped his palm over JB’s blue eyes.
    “You shouldn’t see this.”
    Next, he saw a pile of debris stacked against a wall of dirt, rock, and roots. The light came from-no, that was not a pile of debris, it was a mound of remains. Skeletal bodies stacked one on top of the other creating a…
    “A wall,” he thought aloud.
    “What’s that, father?” JB’s eyes still hid behind Trevor’s hand.
    “I said, someone piled…piled junk in one corner to hide the entrance to another room.”
    Trevor hoisted his boy and carried him toward that next chamber, toward the red glimmer. With his father’s shielding hand gone, JB covered his eyes himself while slung against his dad’s hip.
    Trevor felt his son shake. Or maybe it was Trevor’s own tremble.
    Brittle human bones crunched under his feet as he approached the barrier. Something had breached that wall, pushing out from inside. A red light flickered from behind the pile.
    Trevor stopped. A chilled air escaped from the smaller chamber and carried with it a harsh smell that nearly overwhelmed his senses. He could not quite place the smell, perhaps one part rot and another part stink; something akin to the stench of a sewer.
    As bad the odor, he hesitated for a different reason.
    Like the smell, he could not quite place that reason but it caused an eerie tingle along his spine, much like the first day of the invasion when he went home and found the front door smashed open. Despite everything he had seen that day-monsters in the streets, people dying-it was that moment when he crossed the threshold of his house that his world truly changed; when he found his dead parents and the horrific creature that had mutilated them. At that moment, he had confronted the truth of a new reality.
    This felt similar. The tiny chamber in the cave hidden behind a mound of bodies held something more than just another creature or alien invader. Something waited for him. For Richard Trevor Stone.
    “Yes, yes, we’re going in. Hold on, I have to stoop, the ceiling is low.”
    The flickering red light came from two flares placed there by Rhodes‘ men. The red glow danced across the rocky dirt floor, around the rough walls, and against the low-hanging roof where roots reached down like warped fingers.
    In contrast to the larger chamber, the smaller one held no bones. Instead, remains of a different kind: empty bags of freeze-dried food, old soup cans, wrappers, and plastic water bottles pushed into a corner like a miniature garbage dump.
    “A survivor’s sanctuary,” Trevor, again, thought aloud.
    “It smells in here, father. It smells bad.”
    “Jorgie, it’s okay, you can get down and open your eyes.”
    JB squirmed and dropped to the floor where he stood next to his dad. At first, he shielded his eyes from the sparkle of the flares but his pupils soon adjusted.
    “Someone hid in here,” Trevor explained. “Look at all the wrappers and cans. Someone survived in here for a long while.”
    “Is that smell from the old food?”
    Trevor thought for a moment and then answered, “Some of it, yes. But if someone was hiding back here for a long time-”
    “Yuck,” Jorgie offered his thought on the matter.
    “Yes, yuck,” Trevor agreed.
    “Father, look, someone was coloring, like I do.”
    He followed his son’s attention to the walls.
    The survivor had left behind a story told in drawings.
    No, not drawings. Paintings.
    Colorful and finely detailed paintings by an artist’s hand. Borderline beautiful despite being colored on the canvass of rough stone along the rear wall. Trevor could not discern how they had been made. Perhaps real paint, perhaps colored chalk, maybe some manner of dye.
    The first depicted a city skyline erupting in flames. The silhouette of a tall lanky creature-probably a Shadow-wreaked havoc. What resembled Jaw-Wolves chased groups of people while primitive men, almost certainly Red Hands, fired arrows and gored humans.
    A painting of Armageddon; a gruesome recollection of the day when the hellish gates opened on the Earth. The day when humanity went into hiding.
    The second painting was so well done that the emotion of its vision poured from the colors. This one showed a mass of downtrodden people surging forward with their hands outstretched toward the point of view of the artist. Despair, yes, but also hope in the eyes of the people, an expression Trevor saw often during those first months when he found survivors. Survivors like Sheila Evans, the first person he actually rescued.
    In that painting were a hundred Sheila Evans’ rushing to whoever promised them salvation. They huddled together like refugees while in the background flames of destruction licked the sky.
    A third depicted yet another group called forth. Trevor recognized this group, too: a thick line of canines of many breeds marching in strict obedience to a master.
    However, as the line of dogs stretched from left to right across the picture, the animals changed. In the lead, rows of sturdy, proud K9s but as the march progressed the dogs warped becoming first shaggy, then weak, then diseased, and then pitiful creatures snarling, collapsing, and turning to bones
    “The doggies, father,” JB stood on his tippy-toes and touched the image. “They’re in pain.”
    He gave Jorgie a comforting hug even though he had little comfort to give, particularly when he saw the fourth painting. By the time he understood the image it was too late to warn his son away.
    Again, perfectly crafted in vivid colors, mainly red.
    People torn asunder, impaled on edged weapons and eviscerated by monstrous talons, grabbed by the extending maw of a Jaw-Wolf, decapitated by the claws of a Devilbat.
    The carnage played out in front of a collection of buildings-most small but one a mansion-burning and collapsing.
    Trevor recognized the scene. He saw it many times in his worst nightmares, an image of his greatest fear: an image of failure.
    “Look away, JB.”
    But Trevor realized JB had moved on to the fifth, final painting.
    “I’m afraid, father.”
    In the background, a large homestead of obscure but essentially Victorian style with a second floor balcony overlooking a lake. In the foreground, two people: one older, one much, much younger.
    This fifth painting clearly depicted Trevor and Jorge Benjamin Stone in front of the estate where they lived.
    Next to the painting, the artist had etched two messages into the wall; the first message contained a solitary word: Germanitas.
    A second, simpler message appeared to have been written more recently due to a shiny gleam in the letters of the three words.

9. Hunter-Killer

    “Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward. Let those who have been wearing themselves out in both body and soul now work for a double honor. Behold! On this side will be the sorrowful and poor, on that, the rich; on this side, the enemies of the Lord, on that, his friends.”
    — From a speech by Pope Urban II circa 1095 AD calling for a Holy Crusade
    In less than forty-eight hours, General Jerry Shepherd’s 1 ^ st Mechanized Infantry Division raced more than one hundred miles from Raleigh to Wilmington without any engagements against the Hivvans who, for their part, slipped more and more into a nicely forming pocket in eastern North Carolina.
    However, Shep’s race did include other entanglements that nearly slowed progress. Two trolls jumped the vanguard south of Newton Grove, injuring three soldiers. Fortunately, small arms fire dispatched the trolls without causing the army any significant delay.
    In contrast, they did suffer a substantial hold up from a ‘Green Proto-Mass’ nesting at a Holiday Inn outside of Warsaw the morning of the second day. The single-celled organism blanketed a twenty-meter circumference but constantly expanded and contracted making any accurate measurement impossible and quite dangerous.
    A big wad of acidic slime one relation away from the “Blob” of Hollywood fame, they were known as “Green Pudding” among the rank and file
    It absorbed bullets like a fat kid eating candy. Try running it over with a car or an APC and it would work its way through the air vents or up the gun barrel and suck out the crew like that same fat kid going for the creamy filling in a cupcake.
    Flame proved the best weapon against a Proto-Mass. While waiting for a flamethrower team to move forward, the Green Pudding killed two men and scattered several squads at the front of the column.
    However, despite this delay, the advance retained an impressive pace, especially considering that most of Shepherd’s fighters walked in worn sneakers and loafers and carried their gear not in official weatherproof army sacks, but back and fanny packs better suited to strolling a shopping mall than marching into battle.
    Along the way, he left small groups to hold key intersections and observation points outlining the bag in which the Hivvans would soon be stuck.
    According to reconnaissance, the enemy remained disorganized and-generally-moving south and southwest in clusters ranging in size from squads to regiments. Aerial surveillance noted a number taking refuge in the small city of Clinton where they would face a colony of gigantic, dangerous, and highly territorial spider-ants, not to mention predatory razor-cats certain to inflict a fair number of casualties.
    More of his reptilian adversaries continued southward on Rt. 701 in a raggedy column of artillery pieces and supply wagons while still more vacated an adhoc hard-point in Salemburg and retreated along Rt. 242 south.
    Judging by their actions, it seemed to Shepherd that the Hivvans had not yet established reliable communications between their scattered formations and did not know where and how the human army deployed.
    A communique from Gordon Knox detailed Intelligence’s opinion that the best opportunity for the Hivvan force to regroup would come if the smaller bands coalesced at the Bladen Lakes State Forest, roughly in the center of the pocket humanity hoped to box them into, and a scenario that appeared highly likely.
    That suited Shep just fine. Hopefully by then the 1 ^ st and 2 ^ nd Divisions will have reached their objectives and cut off the enemy supply lines, lines already searching for their dispersed comrades.
    Once those two depots fell to Shepherd and Stonewall, the Hivvans would be trapped and they would either starve or strangle in a tightening noose of artillery and air power.
    As rosy as the plan sound, General Jerry Shepherd faced a bear of a problem that Sunday morning.
    While Trevor and JB Stone flew south toward Blacksburg, Shep waited on the tarmac of Wilmington International Airport and contemplated his next move. The idea of investing the port city a short distance to his south did not sit well in his belly.
    By all accounts, Wilmington stood in much better shape than most cities, in that it did not include an organized alien garrison and the worst of the extraterrestrial predators prowling its streets did not seem as nasty as those found in places like Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.
    Indeed, Gordon Knox’s intelligence teams made contact weeks ago with a group of humans who carved out an existence on Masonboro Sound along the coast.
    Nonetheless, going through downtown would slow his boys and invite pest attacks from all manner of bad things.
    Besides, Shepherd saw a real chance to reach Conway before Stonewall hit Dillon. That would make for great fun at the next military meeting.
    Those considerations led Jerry Shepherd to a major decision certain to cause waves. He had authorized the use of two C-141 Starlifters (taken after liberating Andrews Air Force Base last year). Those transport planes sucked aviation fuel even more greedily than fat kids eat candy or take to cream filling. Considering all the air power deployed to befuddle the Hivvans (nearly 50 sorties a day), it meant Southern Command gobbled about seventy-five percent of ‘The Empire’s’ jet fuel and around 90 % of available pilots.
    He eyed the two behemoths taxiing in along the primary runway from his position outside the main terminal. While doing little more than idling, their engines still dominated the air with a droning hum while the smell of fuel covered everything.
    Those planes brought with them Shepherd’s plan for dealing with Wilmington. And he must deal with Wilmington. Bypassing it completely would leave a hostile-infested city dangerously close to his supply lines. Furthermore, the city sat on a key junction of roads serving as a critical hinge in the developing trap.
    Besides, a cleared Wilmington could be used as a supply distribution point. In addition to the benefits its sea and airports offered, the city was a significant railway hub.
    In any case, the planes taxied to a stop and, after a few minutes, rear cargo ramps opened and lowered to the pavement.
    The Hunter-Killers arrived.
    Trevor Stone was the only human capable of giving complex orders to the Grenadiers. However, post-Armageddon canines came in to the world better trained than any police dogs Shepherd ever worked with during a long career in old-world military and law enforcement.
    They responded fast to a wide range of commands and could-on some level-communicate with their human masters through barks and whines. No detailed information, but it did not take Trevor Stone to know when a Grenadier caught whiff of a predator or heard the cry of a human being.
    K9s organized in ‘Legions’ of about 500, further broken down into groups of 100 called “Centuries.” Colored collars identified the organization, primarily for the benefit of their human masters: the dogs grew up and trained with each other, becoming a large pack that worked and stayed together as if by instinct.
    Human “hunters” commanded Centuries in a loose manner. If you asked a hunter, he would probably admit he just got in the way half of the time.
    However, there was the other half of the time, too. Those were the times when K9s faced foes sporting ranged or heavy weapons as well as when they came against the nastier, larger predators that could easily cut through a hundred dogs in a few minutes. Things like Goat-Walkers or a pack of Jaw-Wolves or a Shadow or a Proto-Mass.
    Each Grenadier legion included a heavy-weapons Hunter team to combat these more dangerous threats.
    The H-K groups straddled a line between military and Internal Security. Most of the time, I.S. coordinated and deployed the groups although military field commanders often took direct control of the teams during situations just like the one faced at Wilmington by Shepherd.
    The engines on the planes slowly spooled down from loud to quiet to off. As they did, groups of black-clad humans, fierce looking Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, German shepherds, and Belgian Malinois’, as well as cargo and equipment off-loaded from the transports.
    Usually Hunter-Killer teams did not operate in groups larger than a legion. For Wilmington, Shepherd used his influence with Dante Jones to have four legions placed at his disposal.
    For the assault on Wilmington, an officer of Shepherd’s choosing would coordinate command of the Hunter-Killers, and he knew exactly whom he wanted for the job.
    Nina Forest exited the terminal building and joined the General. The planes and their disembarking passengers stood one hundred yards away.
    “Is this the last of them?”
    Shep told her, “I reckon so. You got enough?”
    “You sure you want me for this? You’re going to piss off some of the H-K commanders when they hear you put a field-operator in charge of this.”
    “Screw them,” he replied, as his eyes remained focused on the planes. “You did a damn good job in Harrisburg and Trenton and you did it fast. That’s what I need.”
    “Yeah, well, I’m just saying, we were a lot smaller than. Now we’ve got all sorts of chains of command and people get their panties in a twist real quick when their toes get stepped on.”
    “Anyone thinking like that will get a boot up their ass. You know the boss isn’t much for red tape or bureaucracy. I’m putting in you in charge and that’s the end of the conversation as far as anyone is concerned. Your track record is pretty good. Use the Wolves as necessary. Sweep that city, clear it out, and cover my ass while we head south. Think you can handle that?”
    The Captain answered, “Nothing to it.”
    Shepherd turned and stared her directly in the eye.
    “Nina, I mean it, I got to get my boys over to seventeen today and start going south fast to finish up this little trap we’ve put together. I can’t be worrying about what’s going on behind me. I need you to take this city. I need you to do it fast.”
    Nina furled her brow and spat, “Which part of ‘nothing to it’ didn’t you understand?”
    He could not help but smile. She was not being arrogant- okay, maybe a little — instead she was, in her mind, simply stating a fact.
    After all, one way or another she always got the job done.

    The city of Wilmington, North Carolina provided a perfect example of what happened to humanity’s sprawling concrete and steel jungles in the five years since the invasion. Unlike Richmond and Raleigh, no large organized alien army bothered with this port city. Instead, a new ecosystem grew over the old.
    The vast majority of buildings-government, private, commercial, historical sites-stood intact, although the lack of maintenance showed in overgrown lawns, creeping vines, wind damage, and fading paint.
    Five years after Armageddon, those buildings served as dens for a variety of creatures. Among the newcomers, Type A (herbivore, somewhat passive) Giant Sloths thrived by dining on the large number of trees throughout the city. In turn, Type B (carnivore, more aggressive) Giant Sloths thrived by dining on Type A Sloths, as well as a myriad of animals lower on the food chain such as slimy and electrified ‘Land Eels’ and dog-sized reptiles that spat acid and were known as-obviously-’Spit Lizards’.
    Ironically, vacant cities like Wilmington became incubators for Earthly animals formerly in danger of eradication. Red wolves hunted amidst the buildings for both terrestrial and extraterrestrial prey including white-tailed deer prancing along vacant boulevards and furry six-legged squirrel-like mammals digging burrows in city parks. Foxes competed with alien carrion eaters for scraps and gray bats shared twilight airspace with gigantic Devilbats.
    While the wildlife did not distinguish between Earthly and otherwise, Trevor Stone’s warriors did. Harmless or not, every alien creature faced extermination, and that was the job of the Hunter-Killer teams and why they came to Wilmington, North Carolina on Sunday, August 23 ^ rd.
    Just before midday, a blue and white helicopter soared toward the squat skyline of Wilmington. Below the chopper, two columns of invaders marched aggressively for the city’s heart.
    The first crossed the Northeast Cape Fear Bridge entering the city’s western sector; the second plunged southward along Route 117 intent on occupying the centrally located University of North Carolina at Wilmington campus.
    Each column included a thousand disciplined and fearless K9s accompanied by human handlers dressed in black BDUs with matching caps carrying backpacks filled with specialized ordnance and armed primarily with shotguns or hunting rifles.
    Nina Forest stood among crates in the rear hatch of an open-air Humvee holding a radio in one hand and clasping the roll bar with the other. She led the first column as it crossed the river and entered Wilmington from the west.
    The previous day’s rain had blown out to sea leaving behind damp ground, fading puddles, and a musty smell everywhere. As noon approached, the clouds gave way to sun and the temperature rose. She rolled the sleeves on her black BDUs and took off her cap, letting a ponytail fall free to her shoulder blades.
    Captain Nina Forest directed the Humvee to lead the mob of dogs and their handlers to the south along the river. When they came to a fork in the road, she radioed orders after consulting a map provided by the navigator sitting in the front passenger seat.
    “Romeo One through Five, take Davis Street east until you hit McRae, then clear all points from Bess street north to Red Cross Street south with 4 ^ th as boundary west. How copy?”
    “Romeo Command to Boss, hard copy all.”
    Five different whistles blew and the mass of canines parted with half turning east into a residential neighborhood of small family dwellings, churches, and deteriorated neighborhood parks. Human handlers jogged alongside their fast-trotting Grenadiers waving their arms and shouting to show their army the way.
    Nina surveyed the scene ahead where the four-lane blacktop led. Everything looked bleak and neglected, with colors worn to gray, dying and twisted landscaping, and scraps of litter coalescing against walls and stuck in the branches of bushes and trees. A picture postcard from post-apocalyptic America.
    Insects-particularly mosquitoes-buzzed everywhere especially in the gravel and weed fields sloping down toward the river off to the right.
    She pushed aside aesthetic considerations and dispatched the other half of her force.
    “Juliet Two, push west to the river, spread out between the bank and Nutt Street and move south. You’re our right flank. Juliet Three, stack up next to Two, sweep the equipment rental place, the bus station, and then continue south on Front Street. Juliet Four, straight down on North Third until you hit the community college. Clear the college, secure a perimeter, and establish a first aid and rescue zone.”
    “Juliet Four Command, solid copy.”
    “Juliet Five, you’re our left flank. Start with that office building over there, keep Fourth Street to your left, and push south.”
    More whistles. The remaining Grenadiers parted with handlers providing direction. One Legion still followed her Humvee.
    Nina leaned over to speak with a dark-clad black man walking alongside her ride toting a military automatic shotgun, wearing stylish Oakley shades, and chewing a large wad of gum.
    “Juliet One, you’re in reserve. Follow along and put out brush fires.”
    The man with the shotgun and the shades answered with a thumbs up.
    She returned her map to the navigator in the front seat and alternated her attention from left, to right, to straight ahead. Radio chatter from the Century commanders carried over her walkie-talkie.
    “Juliet Two to Juliet Command, Something hopping around down by the shoreline…dogs got it.”
    “Juliet Three Command to J-3 HK Alpha, open up the doors on the PPD Building and get some noses in there.”
    “Roger that, Juliet Command we are Oscar Mike.”
    “Romeo 5 to Romeo Command, we’ve got large scat outside the Johnson Elementary School. Looks recent, might be a, ah, Stumphide in the area.”
    “Romeo 5 this is Romeo Command, hard copy. Clear the school with caution then search for tracks.”
    A flurry of gunshots to the west pulled Nina’s ear from the radio.
    “Juliet Two this is Boss, is that your fire?”
    An out-of-breath voice replied, “Boss, Juliet Command, J-2 Charlie engaging hostiles between Front and Nutt streets. We’ve got a swarm of jellyfish coming out of a some kind of old railroad building.”
    Nina slapped her hand on the roll bar and ordered the driver, “Get us over there.”
    In response, the Humvee accelerated from a crawl and sped south on 3 ^ rd Street. Momentum caused her to tilt backwards as one hand held firmly to the bar while the other kept the walkie-talkie close to her ear. The navigator in the front passenger seat of the roofless Humvee relayed directions to the driver.
    As they drove, Nina took note of her forces deployed and searching to either side of the main road. To her right, a female handler used a rifle butt to shatter a large plate glass window leading into some old retail shop; a trio of dogs stormed through the hole to search the darkness inside.
    To her left, a pair of Rottweilers trapped something scaly in a withering bush at the rim of a parking lot. She saw their jaws work as her ride zipped by.
    Further along they passed a massive skeleton-picked so clean the bones shined pure ivory-in a field adjacent to a Salvation Army building.
    “Here’s our turn, Captain, hold on,” the soldier steering the Humvee warned as he swerved to the right. Nina’s body swayed in response.
    They came upon a skirmish in the streets around an old train station, possibly a museum. The sounds of gunfire and a chorus of barking dogs carried over an open lot and echoed through a nearby parking garage.
    Nina nearly fell forward as the Humvee came to an abrupt stop to avoid crashing into the center of the fray.
    She counted twenty Giant Jellyfish ranging from six feet around to twice that size, each with cloudy white bodies and rows of similarly colored tendrils. A perimeter of K9s alternated between retreating from the things and attacking.
    Nina saw one German shepherd lunge in and take an obviously foul-tasting chunk from one of the beasts as it slithered over a rusted Volkswagen at the middle of an intersection.
    She watched as a different Jellyfish propelled its pulsating bulbous body into the air with a blast of expelled gas that sounded like a soda fizzing. The extraterrestrial creature floated-almost flew-for several seconds until landing atop a huge Irish Wolfhound. Everything above the dog’s neck melted inside the attacker’s translucent body.
    Before it could ingest the entire Grenadier, two Dobermans charged in from either side and pulled it apart, but a splash of internal digestive juices disintegrated a K9 snout, inflicting yet another Hunter-Killer casualty.
    A blast from a handler’s shotgun caused one of the enemy swarm to pop like a water balloon while tendrils from another punctured a Rottweiler’s hide.
    However, as the balance of Juliet Two’s Grenadiers converged, the battle turned decisively. Giant Jellyfish slinking on the ground met the gnashing teeth of K9s three or four to one. Jellyfish taking to the air fell to well-placed bullets and buckshot.
    She raised her radio and transmitted, “Boss to Juliet Two, remind your team leaders not to kick over hives of Jellyfish; they shouldn’t be this difficult to deal with.”
    “Umm, Juliet Two Command to Boss, received and understood. Rookie handler took a pot shot without thinking.”
    Another message terminated that conversation: “Juliet Three Command to Boss, we found and destroyed a Devilbat nest on the top floor of the PPD building.”
    “Copy that, J-3 Command.”
    “Boss, Juliet Three Command, our HK team reported lots of hostile bones in the nest, probably hunting this area good and doing a lot of work for us.”
    “Hard Copy, J-3, keep your eyes open for scavengers and bottom-feeders living off the leftovers. Sweep that building good.”
    A flurry of gunshots came from her left. An animal of some kind howled in pain, sounding like a cross between a wolf and a rooster. Behind her a small explosion, probably a grenade, and a puff of smoke rose from somewhere to the northeast.
    An incoming transmission reported, “Juliet Two to Boss, we’ve got two HK teams at the Convention Center. Something new over here. Some kind of froggy, pig-things.”
    “Juliet Two, this is Boss, I copy. Are they giving you a problem?”
    “Ahh, that’s a negative, Boss, the dogs can tear them up but they look new to me.”
    “Juliet Two, take some photos and box up a couple of samples for the eggheads to dissect.”
    “Roger that, Boss.”
    Nina leaned between the front seats and told the driver, “Take us down the road a bit.”
    They drove through the remains of the Jellyfish battle heading south on North Front Street. They passed a cluster of satellite dishes outside a television station and crossed an overpass that traveled above a parking lot where ten Grenadiers surrounded a trio of three-foot-tall bipedal ‘Gremlins’ resembling a cross between monkeys and wingless bats. The things shrieked as the dogs tore them to pieces.
    A block further along, the Humvee stopped in the heart of Cape Fear Community College. Nina watched twenty or so K9s with handlers-including one with a flamethrower-invade the college’s administration building. Two vans hurried to a stop on the sidewalk outside the main entrance and black-BDU clad people unloaded boxes, crates, and folding tables.
    Nina radioed, “Juliet Four, get those buildings clear and set up operations. We know there are some people living locally and I want somewhere to put them.”
    “Juliet Four, hard copy all. We should be open for business in thirty-minutes.”
    Nina heard a gun shot, a bark, and the dying scream of something unworldly come from the building entered by the Hunter-Killers but gave it no consideration; at this point she knew how to distinguish the nuances in gun shots, barks, and alien screams that made the difference between things going according to plan and things going awry.
    Instead, she gazed ahead. Front Street narrowed with address after address of retail shops and small businesses, each a potential breeding ground for nasty little things. It would take hours to clear this quadrant, but she would push as hard as necessary to finish the job by day’s end. After all, Shep counted on her.
    “Romeo Command to Boss, you copy?”
    “Go ahead, Romeo Command.”
    “Romeo 5 reports Stumphide tracks heading south. Ah, looks like it’s nesting up here but hunting downtown.”
    “Hard copy, Romeo Command. I’ll get reconnaissance on it.”
    She leaned to the navigator and asked, “What’s the book say on a Stumphide?”
    While the navigator thought, the driver answered, “About one mile hunting radius.”
    The navigator consulted his map, ran his finger in several directions, and said, “Well it’s not going to cross the river. Odds are it’s either in our sector or somewhere to the east.” Nina raised her radio and transmitted, “Boss to Overwatch, you copy?”
    After a few seconds, a muffled voice replied, “Overwatch, copy, Boss. Go ahead.”
    She looked to the sky and, in the distance to the southwest, saw the helicopter flying over the river.
    “Need you to scout downtown. We’ve got a Stumphide somewhere in our sector. Need you to spot it before it spots us.”
    “Understood, Boss, we’re on it.”
    The chopper banked hard to the east.
    A flurry of frantic automatic gunfire reached her ears. Radio chatter confirmed that these sounds belonged to the ‘things going awry’ category.
    “J-5 Delta, requesting immediate heavy assistance.”
    “Juliet Command to five-Delta, what is the nature-”
    “Those damn statue things! Jesus, small arms barely chipping them!”
    She radioed, “Boss here, J-5 Delta report your position.”
    “Most of my K9s are dead and we’ve-”
    “REPORT your position, J-5 Delta.”
    “We, um-shit, look out! Back in the house! Get inside! Um, J-5 Delta here, we’re hiding out in this museum house or some old shit, on Market Street, ah, on the corner with Third. Need heavies-”
    A loud crash cut off the transmission.
    Nina patted the driver on his black baseball cap and pointed forward. He did not need further instruction, the Humvee surged south at a fast pace, slowing only to swerve around toppled cars and fallen shade trees.
    “Juliet One,” Nina radioed, “send your K9s south to Third and Market.”
    A sound of chewing gum garbled the, “Roger that,” reply.
    The Humvee turned hard left on to Market Street and raced east. Pops of gunfire and the clap of a grenade explosion helped direct them to the battle. Nina ignored a ball of eel-things sliding out from an old nightclub as well as a big hairy ‘Type A’ Sloth eating tree leaves outside a bank building as they hurried to help the endangered Hunter-Killer team.
    Smoke from skidding tires erupted from the front of the vehicle and Nina nearly fell over forward as the driver brought them to a sudden stop.
    Big, muddy tracks led across Market Street, over a pulverized white picket fence, and between the cracked and broken remains of a pair of trees creating an easy-to-follow trail on to the rear grounds of a Colonial-era homestead.
    Three fifteen-foot tall giants attacked the rear of that home, swinging swords in slow but powerful strikes. To Nina’s eye, the attackers resembled Roman Legionnaires or a similar warrior from the ancient past. However, these warriors were made entirely of stone, like statues come to life.
    Nina, the driver, and the navigator jumped from the car.
    “One each,” Nina said as she slid crates from the Humvee’s open-air cargo hold. “Don’t waste them; you’ve got one shot and these things are like gold these days.”
    CRASH. A nice chunk of the museum fell. Dogs barked. Bullets ricocheted off the Stone Soldiers as the HK team hiding in the house tried in vain to wound their assailants.
    Nina raised her radio and transmitted, “J-5 Delta, get your heads down. We’re hitting these things with AT4s in about three seconds.”
    She did not wait for a reply. She could not be sure the handlers even heard her orders but it did not matter; they needed to destroy the Stone Soldiers with the anti-tank rockets or the monsters would kill every human and dog in the museum.
    One by one, the rescuers opened the crates holding forty-inch long tubes decorated with all manner of warning labels. Nina and the two men grabbed one each and followed the giant, muddy footsteps into the backyard and over flattened hedgerows as well as the equally flattened bodies of three Rottweilers.
    They passed a historical plaque detailing Lord Cornwallis’ stay at the home during the Revolutionary War and stopped thirty feet behind the walking statues that systematically tore apart the outer wall of the museum, exposing the rooms inside and making it resemble a child’s open dollhouse.
    Nina saw movement among the collapsed walls. She heard shouts; she heard barks. At least some of J-5 Delta remained, but they would not last much longer.
    “Clear behind!” She yelled and then fired with the weapon propped on her shoulder.
    While a smoky fire ejected from the back end, a deadly projectile shot forward, aimed only by her eye but aimed well nonetheless. The missile hit one of the Stone Soldiers in its block-shaped ass, sending chunks of rock everywhere. The creature-with no apparent innards other than chalky rock-collapsed into a pile of gravel.
    The driver and the navigator fired in succession, each of their shots hit true turning those targets into similar piles.
    Nina dropped the now-useless tube and fell to a knee with both hands on her ears. The vibration and the roar disorientated her senses and made her body feel like quivering Jell-O for several seconds. The driver stumbled around and the navigator hunched over with hands on his knees.
    As the trio of rescuers regained their composure, a pair of black-clad Hunter-Killer handlers stumbled from the ruins of the museum as well as a bunch of German shepherds and Rottweilers.
    “I hate things like that,” Nina’s driver said as he wiggled a finger in his ear to clear away the ringing bell.
    “Things like what?” The navigator asked.
    “They don’t serve no purpose, it’s not like they’re animals,” the driver answered as he took to stretching his mouth in a series of yawns in another attempt to clear the ringing. “The Sloths and the Stumphides…they’re just animals. But things like those statues, they don’t eat, they don’t shit, they just walk around trying to clobber us.”
    Nina added her two cents: “I guess all monsters aren’t created equal.”
    The rescued HK squad offered their thanks but a radio call interrupted.
    “Overwatch to Boss, you copy?”
    Nina unclipped the walkie-talkie from her belt.
    “Boss here, go ahead, Overwatch.”
    “You know that Stumphide you were looking for…”
    …Islands of grass and trees separated the east and west bound lanes of Market Street as it ran spine-like through Wilmington.
    A Stumphide straddled one of those islands as it moved along in search of unlucky prey.
    The “Stump” came from four legs as thick as trees capable of pulverizing a car-let alone a man-into a pile of scrap. The “Hide” referred to the thick, green leathery skin stretched over a cylinder shaped body.
    Two yellow eyes sat menacingly above a crescent maw filled by sharp teeth with wiry fir atop a football-shaped skull. Making matters worse, a dozen short tendrils sprouted from what might be its ‘cheeks’ to grasp prey.
    Judging by the tub of fat dangling from this one’s belly, it had enjoyed thinning the heard of Sloths infesting Wilmington.
    Nina stood fifty yards from the big monster, watching and waiting for the thing to take notice of her. The creature grabbed a rusting motorcycle with its tendrils, crunched down on the chrome, decided it did not like the taste, and threw the bike aside. At that moment, its yellow eyes looked ahead and saw.
    Flanking Nina stood a wall of K9s staring and panting.
    The monster and the dog army eyed one another like gunfighters in the old west waiting to draw.
    Nina heard the Rottweilers, Dobermans, and Shepherds growl and snarl, their paws scraping the pavement in an anticipation held in check only by the invisible fence of their obedience; waiting for the command.
    She gave it.
    The army of canines ran at full gallop toward the hideous creature capable of splattering any single one of the dogs with a step. Their paws clattered off the pavement as they rolled forward like a flood of claws and fangs. No hesitation. No fear. Nothing other than the desire to follow the master’s command to kill.
    They smashed into the Stumphide, first a dozen snouts grabbing and biting, then twenty, then thirty, then more.
    It stomped its legs and grabbed with its tendrils, throwing dogs off like rag dolls, their bodies crashed into buildings, the sidewalk, fences, and abandoned cars.
    Nevertheless, the dogs charged.
    That hideous mouth swallowed a Shepherd whole.
    Yet the K9s did not falter.
    Its short tendrils strangled a Rottweiler while its massive feet crushed two more.
    The Grenadiers concentrated on the tree-trunk-like legs, tearing at them until the flesh cracked and splintered, laying bare muscle and bone.
    A gargled howl came from the beast and it stomped with its wounded leg, killing three K9s and crippling another. The dogs tore into the wound, gnawing, tearing, chewing, and clawing.
    A mound of Grenadiers-alive and dead-formed around the Stumphide with some actually climbing on their comrades to rip into the face of the monster.
    It threw more off, smashed others, but its legs stamped with less power, less enthusiasm.
    Finally, as two dozen Grenadiers lay dead on Market Street, the monstrosity collapsed to its side.
    With its belly exposed, the creature was doomed.
    The K9s enveloped the animal as if they were a school of piranha, ripping and tearing with a ferocity that even gave Nina a chill…
    …For the rest of the day, the helicopter circled above relaying information. Human hunters used more heavy weapons to dispatch several larger hostiles including a giant turtle with an insect head, but the K9s were the shock troops.
    Battering rams knocked open doors and Grenadiers poured in. They moved along the boulevards and alleyways relentlessly. No battle fatigue, no hesitation, no second thoughts.
    Elements of the second column reached and cleared the college campus at the center of town by late afternoon while other elements pushed east toward the coast.
    By nightfall, sixty K9s from the first column and half that number from the second died in the invasion, but an untold number of hostiles also met their fate.
    Darkness did not stop the hunt.
    Human fighters used night vision while the dogs relied on their acute hearing and smell to track prey.
    Several of the humanoid-like Mutants-with their oversized mouths and forked tongues-were found and killed while others made at least a temporary escape on hoverbikes.
    Grenadiers shredded a pack of Ghouls and both types of Sloths fell by the hundreds.
    As morning neared, the intensity of the fighting waned as hostiles disappeared from the street, retreating to hiding spots. Extermination changed from massed attacks to smaller units tracking and cornering alien creatures.
    Not long after dawn, Captain Nina Forest traveled by helicopter to the eastern part of the city in response to a civilian request for emergency assistance.
    The helicopter landed on a stretch of gorgeous beach near a row of fancy condominiums and ocean view homes in an area known as Wrightsville Beach.
    She exited her ride and moved out from under the whirring blades that spawned a miniature sandstorm. There she found a small gathering of Hunter-Killer units among a group of human survivors.
    One of those people-dressed in patchwork clothes but in decent physical shape-approached her in an urgent gait. The older man with white hair and a permanent tan offered his hand but Nina felt it a gesture born of impulse, not thought.
    “Hello, hello, are you the commanding officer?”
    Nina nodded. “Captain Forest. What’s the emergency?”
    “We need your help, desperately.”
    “Yes, I know,” Nina told him. “You’ll be safe soon. Most of the city is under our control already.”
    “Yes, yes, that’s wonderful, but that’s not the problem. It’s the children. They took them.”
    She tilted her head and asked, “Children? What children? Who took them? Where?”
    The man caught his breath and explained. “The orphans. Jim Brock’s orphans. A bunch of what you call ‘Mutants’ snuck over the bridge and grabbed them. They left one behind to tell us they want safe passage out of the city or they will kill all the hostages by sunset.”
    “Mutants leaving messages? Taking hostages? That’s new.”
    “Please, you have to help us. They’re just kids.”
    Nina rested a hand on his shoulder and assured, “Nothing to it.”
    10. Enclave en-clave n. 1. A country or part of a country lying wholly within the boundaries of another. 2. A distinctly bounded area enclosed within a larger unit.
    Jon Brewer closed his eyes and filled his lungs with a deep inhale.
    A fine mist carried across his face and the distinct aroma of salt water filled his nose. He heard the splash and surge of the ocean parting as the shark-like craft cut through the Labrador Sea.
    He opened his eyes again and did not see much more than he saw with them closed. His entire trip felt shrouded in darkness. Perhaps that was appropriate.
    Built for stealth, the submarine did not offer any external lighting. Its colorless hull pushed through a lightless ocean.
    Jon stood in the conning tower of the Newport News as it sailed northeasterly. It would be a long while before they made it to Qaanaaq. Even then, their journey would not be complete. The coordinates indicated that the “X” marking the spot on Jon’s version of a treasure map waited even further north and further inland.
    He expected that being bottled up in the submarine would become difficult over the next several days, particularly once they submerged again. Yet he wondered if it would be easy compared to the low temperatures, the bone-chilling wind gusts, and the hazardous terrain that awaited the Greenland leg of their trip.
    “What’s on your mind?” Captain Farway stood in the cramped conning tower next to Brewer. They each held a cup filled with a liquid close in taste to hot tea.
    “Just looking ahead.”
    Farway said, “Not much to see out here. Not on a cloudy night like this.”
    “Oh I can see it just fine,” Brewer answered. “I can see the snow and the cold and Lord knows what else is waiting for us up there.”
    “I sure hope it’s worth it,” the Captain said. “Me? I’m not much for all this…all this…well I guess I’m not sure what to call it.”
    “I’d call it crazy ass bull shit.”
    “You certainly have a way with words.”
    “Problem is,” Jon said, “I reckon as crazy as it may sound it sure as hell ain’t bull shit.”
    ‘Reckon’ had become a regular part of Jon Brewer’s vocabulary after having spent so much time around Jerry Shepherd.
    The submarine Captain agreed, “I suppose you may be right about that.”
    “So tell me,” Jon asked. “Where did you spend the Apocalypse?”
    Farway chuckled, probably in reaction to the ease with which words like “apocalypse” and “Armageddon” were used.
    “Now let me try and remember,” the Captain put his fingers to his chin in a reflective posture. “We were assigned to the George Washington Battle Group touring the Persian Gulf. Always seemed a reason or two for heading in that direction, you recall.”
    “Yeah, I watched the news back then.”
    “Anyway, we didn’t know as much as the surface boys because you don’t get to watch too much CNN when you’re several fathoms underwater. But we started hearing about the higher alert status, then Defcon 2, then all sorts of shit.”
    Jon watched the skipper as he gazed at the field of blackness ahead. He knew Farway’s eyes looked not at the horizon, but back through time.
    “Lots of confusion, no real info. I guess it was a week into things and we launched a bunch of tomahawks in support of the ground forces in Baghdad. They didn’t tell us what we were shooting at but I have to assume it wasn’t a bunch of terrorists or insurgents. You don’t need four cruise missiles for that. I also heard that the air sorties picked up so much that some thought we were back at the beginning of the war again.” Farway licked his lips. “Then the Vella Gulf went up.”
    “Vella Gulf?” Jon recognized the name but could not quite place it.
    “Aegis class cruiser. Part of our strike group.”
    “Something in the water hit it. Something big. Came up right from underneath so fast that the sonar didn’t give much warning. The whole thing went down in about ten minutes. We could hear the transmissions from the rescue teams. Whatever took out the Vella stayed around for a while and went after the rescue boats. We didn’t get much of a description, just lots of yelling. Whatever it was, somebody finally hit it with something and sent it down. We weren’t a part of that action but I think I speak for the entire crew when I say we found it rather disturbing. I’m sure you can understand.”
    Jon nodded. “Yeah, I understand.”
    “So then we get orders for the battle group to return to port in Norfolk. We had a big problem at Suez. Apparently, no one was around to let us through. Didn’t matter, though. We sent teams ashore to take care of that. There aren’t any locks on the Suez, so it’s not nearly as big a deal as Panama. Must have been late July when we were half way home. What happens then? The group gets split up.”
    “Split up?”
    “A bunch of the smaller, escort ships got rerouted to ports all over the place. The Newport News was ordered to the Azores to pick up some VIPs flown in from Europe. I think they were U.S. ambassadors being evacuated. That was not a comforting thought.”
    “What? What do you mean?”
    “Remember, we were hearing next to nothing. The satellite news services were off the air and the fleet commanders were too busy doing their own business to fill us in on the situation. But we knew something bad was going on. Most of us figured terrorists got a hold of some big bang or other. Or maybe there had been a coup d’etat in Russia or China. All we knew for certain was that Hell had broke loose. Of course, none of us realized how true that was.”
    Farway paused. The sound of the white caps breaking against the bow droned on.
    “Then we get to the Azores. A couple of landing parties later and we realize there is nothing on the island but lizards the size of bulldozers and what looked to me like some sort of flying dinosaur. I lost a couple of good men those two days.”
    Jon could only say, “Wow.”
    “So we set out to sea again and tried to raise someone and we get static. Nothing on the ship to shore. Nothing ship to ship. Dead air. Of course, by this time we are running low on food and everyone is on edge and going stir crazy. Part of that was because…because…”
    Farway stopped.
    “Go ahead.”
    “General, have you spent much time at sea?”
    “No. Almost none.”
    “There’s a way about the ocean. Don’t get me wrong, it can be as unpredictable as a woman. But there is a…a rhythm to it. An order, if you will. When you spend as much time as I have underneath these waves you get to know that rhythm, especially when you can’t really see things, so you hear them. You spend a lot of time listening to the ocean, through the sonar of course, but also just with your ears.
    “Let me tell you, Jon, it changed. I could feel it. The whole crew could. We all came to realize that we weren’t safe out here in the middle of the ocean; we couldn’t hide under the waves from what had happened.”
    Jon said, “Just like things happened on land, I guess. Monsters, everywhere.”
    “You think there are some bad things walking around back home? Let me tell you, I think there are worse things down here. I’m just hoping we can quietly slip by without waking them.”
    Jon smiled and reminded the Captain, “I thought you weren’t much for this crazy bull shit.”
    The Skipper returned the smile.
    “I’m not. I suppose that’s why now, today, I take orders from people like you and Mr. Stone. I think this world belongs to people like you now. I wish you luck.”
    Jon returned his eyes to that unseen horizon and the horrors that waited.
    I’m going to need it.
    General Jerry Shepherd felt the frustration boiling over.
    For all his effort to bypass Wilmington and rely on Hunter-Killer teams-not his Division-to pacify that city, his progress still faltered miserably.
    While Nina and the Hunter-Killers invested Wilmington that afternoon, General Jerry Shepherd marched his 1 ^ st Mechanized Division around the western outskirts of the city and then southwest on Route 17.
    The first sign of trouble came when two Armored Personnel Carriers ran out of fuel. That is when he realized that that morning’s fuel convoy never arrived. After a few heated radio calls, the General came to realize that he would not see those trucks until after dark.
    With no fuel reserve, Shepherd halted his advance. The lack of gasoline meant he could not maneuver if they stumbled upon a Hivvan force of any consequence.
    He had expected that, by Sunday night, his force would be approaching the South Carolina border. Instead, they bivouacked at a crossroads named Spring Hill about six miles outside of Wilmington.
    At that point, he made another strategic decision based on his supply levels. Shep ordered a complete restock. He put in for ammunition, more fuel, medical supplies; the works. He knew the home stretch loomed and like a clever stock car driver he decided to take an early pit stop with the hope he would have fresh tires for the last laps of the race.
    The convoys began arriving around dawn, but Shepherd knew they would not be in a position to march for a few more hours. He hoped that if they started up again by ten o’clock, they might still reach the border before sunset.
    Nonetheless, the path ahead provided a small sense of trepidation. The impassable Green Swamp encroached on 17 from the north and east, filled with dense evergreen shrub bog, long leaf pines, and thick patches of yellow pitcher plants not to mention the immediate threat of alligators as well as plenty of non-Earthly hostiles.
    Furthermore, 17 remained the only passable route heading for the border and his destination of Conway, South Carolina. While the Green Swamp kept a barrier between his army and the disorganized, retreating Hivvan forces falling into a pocket to the west, if enemy command in Columbia learned of his maneuver and managed to send a substantial force up from the south, they could easily block his advance.
    However, there were advantages, too. First, that barrier the swamp provided meant he did not have to sacrifice as many units to man checkpoints to solidify the trap. Second, aerial reconnaissance spotted what appeared to be a major human settlement along the way. Their liberation would be a nice bonus as part of what could be a major victory for the newly christened “Empire.”
    So on the morning of Monday, August 24, while Jerry Shepherd sat in his temporary command post inside an old truck rental garage waiting for his troops to receive re-supply, cavalry scouts from his army galloped south to survey the road ahead.

    Captain Cassy Simms rode on horseback with a group of four other patrollers. The sun’s beams shot at them from the east across the coastal plain.
    Cassy had joined Trevor’s band of survivors as part of General Stonewall McAllister’s party. However, she proved her mettle on several occasions and earned a command of her own. That opportunity came with a brigade in General Shepherd’s 1 ^ st Mechanized Division.
    While she left behind Stonewall, she did not leave behind the notion of riding on horseback. The speed and maneuverability often provided great advantage on the battlefield, not to mention the pure shock value of a mounted warrior.
    Besides, horses were not slaves to gas. So while the Humvees and Bradleys sat idle waiting for a drink of their precious fuel, Cassy Simms led a handful of mounted scouts on a reconnaissance mission, per General Shepherd’s orders.
    She moved them along the wide, four lanes of Route 17 south on the path the rest of the army would soon follow.
    Mid-morning, they passed what had once been called Town Creek, North Carolina. The forest and bog there came right to the pavement at some points. Isolated homes dotted the landscape, all apparently empty giving the area a peaceful feel, despite the occasional roar of something unworldly from the surrounding wilderness.
    That peace dissipated as they approached what a sign told them should be the town of Winnabow. Only debris remained of that place.
    First, she saw a flattened U-Haul rental center where the propane tanks appeared to have exploded. Another-or perhaps the same-conflagration consumed dozens of forested acres, isolated houses, and mobile homes to either side of the highway, leaving behind charred trees and vacant foundations as well as dozens of cars, some overturned, others twisted together in piles.
    In her years of fighting against the invaders, Cassy came upon all manner of apocalyptic destruction left over from those first months. This particular carnage felt a little different from most. She tried to understand why and as they trotted through, she realized the difference: no human bones, and no extraterrestrial bodies.
    Her patrol continued onward, leaving behind the ruins.
    The wilderness crept in on either side of Rt. 17. The forest grew thick, fed by swamps.
    After a spell, that forest retreated again and gave way to a golden, grassy field that descended a long, soft embankment. At the bottom of that embankment, straddling Route 17, stood a town.
    At a half-mile’s distance, Cassy Simms spied wood and brick buildings, even a large structure reminding her of something like a Greek amphitheater.
    Cassy raised her binoculars and surveyed the sight. She saw two and three story buildings, what appeared to be barns, as well as small homes grouped together.
    To her surprise, the entire town appeared to be made of new construction. Many of the wood beams remained unpainted and bright white mortar held together brick walls, suggesting recent completion. No graying paint, all fresh colors. No litter.
    That golden field bordered the town on the north and east, providing a buffer between the village and dense woodlands.
    Through her field glasses, she followed Route 17 as it continued through the center of town and to the south beyond. There she saw more destroyed buildings and debris, yet this debris appeared to have been cleared and organized, resembling something more like a monument than the leftovers of a calamity.
    “Captain…” one of her soldiers called for her attention.
    A group of four persons approached the patrol. They walked along the road at a casual pace but Cassy saw rifles slung over their shoulders.
    Captain Simms waved her team forward at a non-threatening trot. This would not be the first time she made “first contact” with a band of survivors. Certainly, they would be suspicious. They might fear that Cassy led a band of marauders. They would be defensive and uneasy. She reminded herself to keep her temper in check and her dual pistols in their shoulder holsters.
    As the gap closed, Cassy dismounted and approached the group of three men and one woman.
    One of the men-a big man with broad shoulders and a freckled face-carried himself as if in charge. His appearance would have screamed ‘red neck’ if not for the soft, hand-woven tunic and primitive but skillfully crafted sandals he wore.
    Perhaps he’s a redneck / beatnik hybrid, she thought. I wonder if the redneck in him will have a problem talking to a black woman.
    “Hi, um, we mean you no harm,” she did her best to smile, something not naturally in her character. “My name is Captain Cassy Simms and I’ve got good news. Consider your town liberated.”
    The redneck/beatnik hybrid cringed as if he bit into a sour apple.
    “Liberated? What the hell does that mean?”
    “I know; there are only four of us. We’re a scouting party for the 1 ^ st Mechanized Division. We’re part of a human army that’s been retaking the entire region. Why, we control everything all the way up to Pennsylvania.”
    The leader spoke again, this time with less sour-face.
    “And why would I care about that?”
    This caught Cassy off guard. Usually she received one of two responses. The first response might be disbelief, either in shock, or in fear of deception.
    The second response was normally a flood of questions or requests such as “do you have food?” or “we need medicine” or even “help us, there’s a horned monster with glowing red eyes that keeps stealing the town’s women.”
    Occasionally they would stumble upon warlords running a colony of slaves, usually with a three to one female to male ratio. In such instances, bullets met scouting parties.
    This response-one of indifference-came as a surprise.
    Cassy eyed this man a little closer, trying to see beyond the redneck physique and the beatnik clothing.
    No malnutrition, clean grooming, and his teeth appeared in decent shape. This was not a struggling survivor.
    However, she followed the first contact playbook and said, “Why would you care? Well, because we can get you food, medicine, and all sorts of supplies. If there are any hostiles around here bugging you, we’ll hunt them down and wipe them out.”
    “I know we don’t look like much but there are a couple thousand soldiers, vehicles, and big guns that’ll be here before the day is out. You’ll see. You’ll be impressed.”
    A different man said, “I don’t think so.”
    This older man sported gray and white hair around a balding scalp. He stepped to the front of the group. As he did, the redneck told him, “She says she’s a Captain in some army. I think they’re thieves or something, Chief. We should run them out of town with buckshot in their behinds.”
    Cassy’s mind raced as she realized she had completely misunderstood the situation. Her thoughts turned to shooting and she decided the redneck would get an extra shot in the face just for talking tough.
    The older man, however, quickly diffused the situation.
    “Calm down,” he told the redneck/beatnik hybrid. “I don’t believe a fight is in anyone’s interest.”
    “No, it’s not,” Cassy jumped in. “We’re not here to fight. We’re here to help. Honest. If you don’t believe me, just wait and the rest of my formation will be here in a few hours.”
    “Oh, I believe you, Captain.” the Chief said. “I believe every word you’ve said. Especially the part about your soldiers coming along this road later.”
    “I’m sure General Shepherd will be happy to discuss all of the benefits to your town that we will provide,” and she realized her words came out jumbled and silly sounding, the result of befuddlement at the townspeople’s disposition.
    “I do look forward to speaking with this General Shepherd,” the elder told her. “In fact, if you would not mind, please see if he will join us as soon as he is able. And please, ask him to leave his army behind.”

    Shepherd walked amidst the buildings of the town and found himself impressed both with the place and with his guide, Robert Parsons, Chief of the New Winnabow Council.
    The structures stood close together, packed in tight along narrow stone streets except for Rt. 17, which drove directly through the middle of it all. Those structures included a community arena that was surprisingly large for something built after the fall of civilization without the benefit of the most modern construction tools.
    They called the area surrounding the arena The Commons, and it included ‘public’ buildings such as the council chambers, a school, and what Parsons called a necessary evil, the armory.
    During their thirty-minute tour of “New Winnabow”, Shepherd learned that five hundred residents lived here, mainly in rebuilt homes within the town’s borders or in the temporary housing of a trailer park to the southwest.
    The swamps to the north and west harbored many dangers, but also provided a cornucopia of natural medicines and food. The coastal plains to the east were deserted, almost entirely free of people or monsters.
    Within the limits of ‘New Winnabow,” Shep observed old and young, families and single adults, and residents from just about every “race” (if that term meant anything anymore).
    At the same time, utopia remained out of reach. He saw sick and injured in the small hospital, some dying from simple infections that the town’s meager medical supplies could not control. In a corner graveyard, he read tombstones for those lost to predatory alien animals as well as markers for children who never grew up because of a soaring infant mortality rate.
    Yet overall, he witnessed a functioning town with order and purpose for each citizen, making it the first time outside of Trevor Stone’s estate that Jerry Shepherd saw survivors thriving.
    He could not help but smile to himself and think well done.
    The two men arrived outside the council chambers, a brick and stone building with a wooden roof. No doubt, many skilled masons lived in the town.
    As a boy pulling a cart filled with seeds and flowers walked by, Chief Parsons finished a thought: “Our food mainly comes from agriculture, hunting, and fishing.”
    “Fishing, eh? Nothing like drowning a few worms to pass a day.”
    “If you like to fish, General, I recommend Town Creek just north of here. You’ll find a nice stock of herring and catfish. That would make for a good dinner, I’d say.”
    “I reckon it would.”
    “I hope you’ve enjoyed your tour of New Winnabow, General.”
    “You seem to have done a fair sight well for yourself, Mr. Parsons,” Shepherd conceded as he admired the peaceful but busy surroundings.
    “We have done so, General, by rejecting everything you stand for. As that is the case, I must ask you and your men to turn around and never come back.”
    “I don’t understand. We mean you no harm. In fact, I think you’d like being-”
    “A part of The Empire?” Parsons tried to be as nice as he could when he said it, but his distaste for those words carried on his tongue.
    “Well, yes,” Shepherd wondered yet again why Trevor chose that name. “Like I said, seems to me you’ve done well for yourself. But most people haven’t in these hard times. That’s what The Empire is about. Rebuilding our society and kicking the aliens off the planet. So far, we’re doing a pretty fine job of it.”
    Parsons shook his head in either pity or disappointment.
    “Man never learns, does he?”
    “I don’t rightly follow you.”
    “General, I am sure you are an honorable man. Nonetheless, we are not in need of liberation. We are armed- not as well as you, no doubt — but armed enough to protect ourselves from the creatures in the swamp. We are not in need of protection.”
    Shep scratched the back of his neck absently and told Parsons, “That may be so, but a few dozen miles away there’s a whole army of smart lizards that enslave people like you and me. If we don’t kick them out of the Carolinas, I reckon some day they’re going take an interest in your little community.”
    “The Hivvans-that’s what you called them, right? — they have never bothered us. And I know why.”
    “Why is that, Mr. Parsons?”
    “What happened to mankind was brought upon us by our violence and taste for war. We have rejected all of that here. We do not fight among ourselves and we do not go searching out aliens to kill. We only kill to hunt and to defend our town, not to conquer or seek retribution against the invaders.”
    “That’s mighty noble-sounding, Chief,” Shepherd said with just a hint of acid.
    Parsons narrowed his eyes. “Do you know what happened to the original Winnabow, North Carolina?”
    “Near as I can tell, something burned the place to the ground. Smashed over the walls. What was it? I’ve seen a thousand cities like it and I know a thousand critters that could do it to Winnabow.”
    Parsons raised his finger.
    “Ah, but there in lay the answer, General. Winnabow was not burned to the ground by a monster of this new order. No, the people of Winnabow did it to themselves. They did it in fear. In anger. For greed or just for the sake of violence. When the fires of Armageddon touched our planet, the people of Winnabow decided to throw kindling on the blaze. Riots, fights. The town died of its own hand. Of its own human failings.”
    “I see,” Shep could think of nothing else to say, but it was not the first time he heard of riots and looting even as aliens captured and exterminated.
    “The survivors of that community and others from all around this area came together in fellowship and built a town not only from brick and wood, but from a commitment to change our ways.”
    Shepherd sighed and scratched at his ear as he considered his mission and the bigger picture. Truth was, whether or not New Winnabow remained independent from The Empire was not his concern. He did have a concern, however, about moving on to Conway and closing his trap on the Hivvans in the pocket. Trevor and the others on the governing council could decide how best to handle New Winnabow.
    “Well, Chief Parsons, I see your point. I don’t agree with it, but I see it.”
    Parsons responded in a soothing voice, “I hope someday you do agree. If you do, come back here to stay with us. Lots of good fishing on Town Creek.”
    Shepherd smiled. “Thank you. I’m afraid that in the meantime, I have a job to do. I must get moving. I’m on a time frame. We’ll get through as quickly as we can. I don’t want to disturb your people any more than necessary. The main body will probably get here around-”
    “Huh? What say you?”
    Parsons tried to smile to soften the blow, but he could only soften it so much.
    “We will not grant your army permission to pass through our town. These are our lands. We would be facilitating the violence we so vehemently oppose. I assure you, should the Hivvans come in the other direction we would not grant them passage, either.”
    “Hmm, well we have ourselves a problem,” Shepherd said. “You see, Chief Parsons, Seventeen is the only direct way to get around the Green Swamp down here. There is a reason we came this way. I really don’t have any choice.”
    “General you do, in fact, have a choice. A choice between violence and peace. A choice you and your Emperor will have to make. It may be that the fate of humanity itself will hang in your decision. I hope you choose wisely.”

11. Hostage Situation

    Airlie Gardens covered more than 77 acres east of downtown Wilmington and west of Wrightsville Beach, providing an oasis of nature in the midst of the city.
    Old world visitors enjoyed vast gardens of azaleas and camellias as well as pleasant strolls along the forested grounds while swans and other aquatic fowl made homes on ten acres of freshwater lakes.
    Alas, five years without upkeep took its toll on Airlie Gardens. Weeds and unwelcome species of wildflowers mustered in the shadows of the exquisite gardens, tainting the beauty with a wild look.
    A band of Mutants moved in to Airlie Gardens after the world came to an end. All that natural beauty provided cover and the central location made it an ideal area for staging raids on the city’s dwindling population and then, later, against camps of survivors.
    Around the same time that Cassy Simms made first contact with the people of New Winnabow, Nina Forest and the Dark Wolves waded across Bradley Creek on the southern side of Airlie Gardens.
    Dressed in slick black wetsuits, the team swam a considerable distance until the water grew shallow enough to walk to the western bank. They stayed low, allowing only their heads, shoulders, and plastic-covered weapons to poke above the boggy surface of the water.
    Two black and gray Norwegian Elkhounds came with the team, Odin and Phobos.
    Not a breed known for their swimming acumen, the Elkhounds learned through training and experience to cross short stretches of water.
    Nina led the group of four commandos and two dogs through the tidal creek until they arrived at the riparian buffer lining the bank. The trees and thick growth afforded the Wolves cover as they slipped off their wet suits to reveal green camouflage underneath.
    They believed the aliens held the hostages at the Mt. Lebanon Chapel, a historic old house of worship in a clearing not far from the banks of the creek.
    To get there, Nina would have to cut through the tree line of the creek buffer, follow a wooded walking path, and find the perimeter fence of the graveyard to the south of the chapel. From there they would reconnoiter the area to ascertain the situation.
    While the specifics might change, the strategy would remain simple: kill the Mutants, free the captives.
    As for those Mutants, they occupied a middle ground between the organized extraterrestrial armies conquering land and enslaving humans-like the Hivvans-and animal life, both predators and prey, now a part of Earth’s ecosystem.
    In appearance, Mutants were bipedal humanoids. Oversized mouths filled with jagged teeth and a forked tongue dominated their oval heads. A pair of small eyes sat above round nostrils
    As for disposition, Mutants acted something akin to a motorcycle gang, wreaking chaotic destruction wherever they rode on their speedy hovercraft bikes. They wore clothing resembling leather and carried a variety of blunt and edged weapons as well as a firearm similar in function to an 18 ^ th century flintlock pistol.
    In the five years since the aliens arrived on Earth, Nina came to know that Mutants preferred to avoid battle. Instead, they employed the tactics of terror: harassment, torment, and murder. As if they lived to inflict suffering.
    In that regard, their taking of hostages felt out of character, as did their decision to leave a survivor to dictate terms. For that matter, just trying to communicate came as a surprise, she knew of no other such instances.
    Nina guessed that, perhaps, The Empire’s reputation preceded it into Wilmington, putting such a fright into the bastards that they grew desperate.
    According to the people of Wrightsville Beach, a pack of these Mutants happened upon a group of kids from the town’s orphanage taking part in a ‘learn to fish’ outing. They gathered them into a school bus and forced it to the gardens, leaving behind a terrified eight year old with terms: safe passage out of the city.
    As her team approached the Bradley Creek Overlook, the Mutants surprised Nina yet again; she spied two sentries keeping watch. A more organized and more thoughtful move than she expected from these fiends.
    On the other hand, it came as no surprise to Nina to see that the two sentries were not very alert. They shuffled about kicking at the wooden slats, swatting flies, and occasionally shoving each other; doing just about anything other than watching for threats.
    The wooden overlook included a walkway and a viewing patio designed to observe the tidal creek ecosystem without disturbing it. Using binoculars, Nina scanned the forest and shrubs around the overlook for any hidden guards. She saw nothing.
    “Um, Cap, we going to do something about these guys? It’s a long way ‘round,” Carl Bly whispered as the four humans and their K9 compliment lay prone under cover of heavy brush.
    Satisfied no other surprises waited, she said, “Okay look, we snipe them.”
    Nina produced a scoped M4 and attached a sound suppressor.
    “Vince, you take the one on the left, I got the one on the right.”
    Vince Caesar followed suite, silencer and all.
    “On three,” Nina commanded. “One…two…”
    Bullets flew across the open terrain without a sound. Both shots found their mark. Both targets dropped, thudding to the floorboards.
    Nina’s team waited. No sound of alarm came.
    “Pack it up, let’s go.”
    The Dark Wolves crossed the open terrain to the darkness under the overlook.
    Oliver Maddock and Carl Bly-with a boost from the other two-scaled the wooden structure and threw the dead enemy bodies over the railing into brush.
    With the first obstacle overcome, the Dark Wolves proceeded with their mission…
    …Built in 1835, the Mt. Lebanon Chapel was a small white wooden building one-story tall with a sharply pointed roof, a short steeple, and rows of large stately windows.
    A dirt and gravel field separated the chapel from the forest. A road cut a tunnel through the woodlands as it headed away from the area but an empty yellow school bus blocked that path.
    In front of the chapel, Nina saw a large bell atop a wooden post that looked at home on the grounds of the quaint church.
    On the other hand, she saw something that did not match the surroundings: a Mutant refueling station in the form of a tall sharp pillar that reminded her of a miniature version of the Washington monument. Several unattended Mutant hoverbikes floated at its base.
    One adult man and eight children sat huddled on the front steps of the chapel wearing the same type of patchwork clothing Nina had seen on the spokesman for the Wrightsville Beach survivors.
    Whimpers came from the children as they clung together; their shoulders slumped in what had to be exhaustion from hours of terror. For his part, the man sat with his arms on his knees and his head slung low.
    Nina expected to find two adult women with the group but did not see them. As bloodstained Mutants moved periodically in and out of the chapel, she guessed the worst.
    She counted four of the aliens loafing around the perimeter and occasionally stopping to glare at the captives. More came in and out of the chapel to the extent that tracking individuals for an accurate count proved difficult. She guessed more waited inside.
    The Mutants sported a variety of weapons. Two of the perimeter guards carried flintlocks capable of punching through the toughest human body armor. Another carried a spiked club and the fourth an axe. She noted one particularly large Mutant enter the church with a pair of nasty-looking swords strapped to its back.
    In addition to the guards, two unarmed Mutants stood by the refueling station, perhaps repairing or operating it in some fashion.
    She split the team, sending Vince Caesar to circle around to the bus where he would wait to extract the hostages, and Oliver and Carl to points around the perimeter. Nina kept the two hounds with her.
    She took a deep breath, and then sent the two Grenadiers running out of the woods directly for one of the Mutants armed with a flintlock. It heard the fast pat-pat of the dogs’ feet and turned in time to see them racing at him. It panicked and fired its flintlock wildly, hitting nothing but distant treetops.
    The dogs dragged the Mutant down with bone-crunching bites and raking claws.
    Oliver Maddock bolted from cover and knifed the guard on the far side of the chapel. Carl Bly fired his assault rifle, dropping a third guard and Nina did the same, killing the fourth.
    The unarmed bad guys manning the refueling station hurried for the woods like scared rabbits. Nina pointed in their direction and ordered the hounds to, “pursue and kill,” which they did.
    Maddock and Bly moved to the front stairs as the startled hostages panicked and tried to scatter, despite their male chaperon attempting to keep them together. Nina Forest stayed further away and covered the scene with keen eyes scanning for any surprises.
    With a throaty grumble, the school bus came to life and pulled to the chapel. Vince Caesar, behind the wheel, motioned for the hostages to get in but they stood and gawked, stunned into inaction.
    The chapel’s front doors opened and a trio of Mutants ran out with flintlocks drawn.
    Maddock and Bly nailed all three in a series of bursts, their shots whizzing by the ears of shell-shocked hostages.
    The bullets and the Mutants accomplished what Caesar could not: the children and their chaperon raced for the open doors of the school bus. However, one eleven year old girl did not make it. The last Mutant-the big one with dual swords-grabbed her in a hug and retreated into the church closing the front door behind.
    Nina ordered her team, “Get them on the bus! Do it!”
    With her M4 held high, she entered the building.
    Two rows of pews sat between white walls with a thin aisle down the center. At the far end of the room stood the altar with a low wooden banister ahead of it and podiums to either side.
    Blobs of gore-the remains of the Mutants’ most recent victims-lay scattered about.
    She entered the church in hot pursuit and saw only the eleven-year-old blond girl standing in the middle of the center aisle by herself.
    Her battlefield instincts sensed the attack a fraction of an instant before her eyes saw the flicker of a shadow. The creature struck from above, having sat in ambush on a perch atop the front door.
    One of its two swords swung down as it jumped. Nina held her rifle aloft to block the strike. The Mutant’s double-edged weapon hammered into the composite barrel, saving Nina’s life but bending the rifle and sending her staggering backwards.
    The Mutant landed on the floor in two heavy thumps and quickly slammed shut the front door, locking out any reinforcements
    The vile creature stared along the aisle at Nina and used its massive maw to present a disgustingly wide smile. Its forked tongue slithered along its teeth in anticipation of another kill.
    Nina examined her carbine. The bent barrel turned it from a powerful high-tech weapon into a fancy-looking club.
    The Mutant drew its second sword and charged. Both of the deadly weapons swung at Nina. Her only defense was the broken frame of the M4.
    The little girl dove between the pews as Nina backed away while desperately blocking two clumsy swings by her opponent. The M4 bent and warped even more-its usefulness as a club neared its end.
    To her advantage, the Mutant did not fight like a skilled swordsman. It wielded the blades as if they were sharp clubs. No finesse. No style. Perhaps it had stolen the weapons from some unfortunate soul or alien but did not know how to use the blades properly.
    Skilled or not, the Mutant aimed to split her in halves. It raised both blades high and hacked down. She held the deformed rifle up and blocked both blows in unison. With the swords against the rifle, the monster tried to out-muscle her, pushing to drive her to her knees.
    Nina refused to kneel. The creature’s strength could not bend her to its will.
    Frustrated, the Mutant changed tactics. In a surprisingly quick move, it pulled one sword away from the rifle and thrust at her. She twisted her hip sideways to dodge the stab. The tip of the sword ripped her pistol holster away and opened a gash in her pant leg. A solitary line of blood drizzled from the exposed flesh.
    The Mutant pressed the attack, forcing Nina to retreat several steps. She managed to block one more blow with the broken carbine but the force of the swing knocked the dead rifle from her hands and off through the air.
    Nina hopped backwards to avoid two more crescent strikes from her attacker. It smartly used a third weapon-one big booted leg-to kick her in the gut. She went sprawling and sliding along the floor to the base of the wooden banister near the altar.
    The Mutant grinned again and closed in.
    Nina reached to her utility belt as she staggered to her feet. With a flick of her wrist, a collapsible steel baton extended. She brought it forward barely in time to glance away a strike from one of the swords, but the baton wavered; it would not absorb much punishment.
    The Mutant brought its second sword down in an overhead hack.
    Nina threw herself over the banister.
    Instead of splitting her skull as intended, the sword splintered into the wood of the railing.
    Nina slammed her baton against the Mutant’s wrist as it tried to pull the blade free. She felt its bones there break like dry twigs.
    The Mutant howled in pain, released the sword, and backed off.
    Nina grabbed the weapon.
    It was short and surprisingly light, not from a lack of density but perfectly crafted balance.
    She never trained in fencing or sword fighting, but she did know how to use nightsticks, batons, and bayonets. Nina relied on that training as she went into battle with a new weapon.
    The Mutant regained its composure and raised its remaining sword, but its blade wavered, as if it knew fear.
    Nina attacked. Given their preference for easy prey, Mutants were not accustom to facing determined enemies; they preferred sheep.
    Nina was a wolf.
    It hissed as she sliced its shoulder. It responded, swinging its blade around to take her head off. She ducked and punched the creature’s gut. It felt like hitting a rolled carpet, but she did elicit a grunt of pain from the monster.
    Nina stood again and jabbed toward its oversized mouth. The Mutant stepped off and brought its sword around in time to smash aside the blow.
    They parried and plunged at one another as she chased him up the aisle.
    The little girl peeked from the pews and watched in amazement.
    Swords clanged as they met in mid air. Nina spun and brought a back fist to the creature’s tough jaw. It staggered.
    She used the momentum of her spin to whip her weapon around again. The Mutant raised its sword and blocked the attack.
    Surely, an experienced swordsman could have defeated Nina’s amateurish thrusts and strikes, but her warrior’s instincts kept her on the offensive. In her mind lived a natural battle computer considering moves and counter moves a step ahead of her opponent. Nina excelled as a warrior because of these instincts and the speed at which she calculated every tactic.
    Frustrated and afraid, the Mutant fell back on its own natural weapon: blind aggression. It foolishly raised its sword with both hands with the aim of striking at her like a hammer, to push through any defense with pure strength and determination.
    Nina closed in under the arc of the blow and sliced it in the gut.
    The wounded beast hunched over and tottered forward.
    Nina did not hesitate. She brought the blade again. And again. And again.
    Just as it dropped to the floor, two church windows smashed and both Oliver Maddock and Carl Bly jumped inside.
    They found Nina hovering over the slain body of the Mutant and the little girl gaping in amazement at the woman who had outfought the terrifying brute.
    “Well ain’t you just all that,” Bly quipped.
    “We thought you might need some help,” Maddock added.
    Nina, panting heavily, glanced over at the little girl and winked.
    “We got it covered, right, honey?”
    She stuttered in search of the right words and then burst, “That was awesome!”

12. New Winnabow

    Trevor stood on the second floor balcony. The August sun had descended below the mountains hours before and a thin vale of clouds obscured the stars. He heard the lapping of the lake water against the pillars of the boathouse dock.
    “I can feel you out there. What are you waiting for?”
    After viewing the scene in the cavern outside of Blacksburg, Trevor and his son had returned to the estate.
    The new Emperor-a title that felt awkward but aptly described the role he had played for five years-increased the number of Internal Security at the estate. Eagle patrol ships cruised overhead while squads of both human and K9 soldiers searched for threats.
    Ashley deteriorated into a nervous wreck. Her father-Benjamin Trump-stayed by her side constantly with JB never out of his mother’s or grandfather’s sight.
    Adding to his troubles, Trevor received word of the delay along the coast in North Carolina. He ordered Shepherd to bribe the leaders of New Winnabow with food, clothing, and medicines to allow the army to pass, but they rebuffed every offer.
    Trevor then investigated an alternative route, perhaps even backtracking toward Wilmington for Rt. 133. However, reconnaissance found a pile of destroyed metal where a bridge should have been and a road in impassable condition.
    No, the only feasible path went through New Winnabow and its resident idealists.
    Gordon Knox offered several suggestions, the most polite of which was to fly the New Winnabow council to the countryside retreat The Empire had established outside of Honesdale, Pennsylvania for the insane “survivors” from the town of Jim Thorpe, the ones who lived in the webs of a brood of White-Terrors for a year. Those hostiles actually fed off fear and suffering like milking dairy cows.
    Trevor often thought about the fate of those people. He thought about them whenever anyone suggested a pause in the fighting. Now he thought about them as he considered the pacifists of New Winnabow.
    By the morning of Wednesday, August 26, it became apparent General Shepherd had hit a formidable roadblock, the likes of which none of them had encountered to date.
    He hated leaving the estate with the threat from Blacksburg lurking in the shadows, but the great cause always came first and that cause called him to North Carolina. Intelligence indicated the Hivvans showed signs of reconstituting their strength; some enemy supply columns had made contact with their brethren inside the half-sealed pocket.
    In other words, the clock ticked.

    The people of New Winnabow went about their late afternoon business.
    Farmers tended to crops. Some hunting parties scoured the swamp and woods while others cleaned kills already made. Entertainers prepared for that night’s performance of Taming of the Shrew in the outdoor theater. A doctor bid goodbye to a patient succumbing to illness. A maintenance man re-pointed a brick wall.
    For the residents whose business brought them along Governor’s Road near the edge of town or who returned along Rt. 17 from fishing up in Town Creek, they saw a sight that had become familiar in recent days; the sight of the strange man in the General’s uniform.
    On that particular afternoon, the General stood at the outskirts of town with Chief Robert Parsons and council member Elizabeth Doss, a tall woman with short black hair who represented the northwest district of the colony.
    As they spoke, a woman in her late twenties approached the group. A six-year-old boy with straight dark hair and wide brown eyes accompanied her, nearly dragged along as his mother marched at a determined pace.
    “Father? Is there anything I can help with?” She asked as she neared, but her voice sounded less helpful and more confrontational, as if intending to break up an argument.
    Robert Parsons reacted, “Everything is fine. But since you are here, Sharon, there’s someone I would like you to meet.”
    Sharon reluctantly stepped amidst the small group. The six-year-old boy gaped at the General with a mixture of awe and fear.
    “This is General Jerry Shepherd. General, this is my daughter, Sharon.”
    Shep mustered every ounce of chivalrous charm he could find and funneled it into a warm smile and a polite nod.
    “Greetings, ma’am.”
    She offered no charm. “Why are you still here, General?”
    “Sharon! I apologize General, my daughter can be blunt.”
    “Oh now don’t go apologizing,” Shepherd maintained his smile. “I tend to be blunt, too. I find it speeds things up.”
    Shepherd addressed the woman while her son gazed at the grandfatherly officer. “I’m still here because we’re trying to work out a compromise; a deal that will work for everyone. Seems to me that’s all anybody wants, right?”
    “No,” Sharon shot. “We just want to be left alone. I don’t understand why that’s so difficult. We want to be left in peace.”
    “Peace,” Shepherd rolled that around on his tongue. “I reckon when it comes to other people, all we want is peace, too.”
    A rumble came over the treetops. The ground shook.
    Sharon Parsons sneered at the General a split second before the planes appeared.
    “Peace? Is that what you call this?”
    Two A-10 Thunderbolt jets-big and heavy tank killers-circled the golden field surrounding New Winnabow, and then flew southwest.
    The town stopped and the residents collectively gasped.
    Before the roar of the jets subsided, a new sound grew from the northeast above Route 17. A heavy thump-thump-thump chopped the air.
    A moment later, a pair of Apache attack helicopters appeared overhead. They hovered and examined the scene, then split in different directions to sweep the wilderness around the town.
    “I presume your Emperor is coming,” the elder Parsons remarked calmly.
    Sharon, less calm, growled, “Shall we get out the tapestries?”
    Her son, the six-year-old, held his hands to his ears to block the noise.
    Then a much quieter aircraft appeared; one of the Eagle ships. It hummed and whirred as it drifted in from above. Despite its anti-aerodynamic shape, it moved as if a bird, at one with the sky and having formed some sort of amicable deal with gravity.
    The craft descended to the grassy field. A short ramp slid from the undercarriage and the side door opened. Two green-camouflaged soldiers disembarked first, then Trevor-dressed in a simple gray tunic-emerged with Tyr the Elkhound at his side.
    “Oh my God,” Sharon Parsons chuckled. “He’s just a man. Why look, he walks no more gallantly than the rest of us.”
    This time Shepherd did react.
    “A man who’s pulled half a million people out of slavery or saved them from starving; a man who turned this whole thing around.”
    “Sharon,” Robert Parsons said. “Perhaps you should take Tory and go back to town.”
    Shepherd saw that Parsons, unlike his daughter, had received the message sent by the planes and helicopters.
    Sharon huffed and dragged her son away.
    Shepherd understood how Trevor could be underestimated. With shoulder-length hair and a fit but not exactly muscular physique, from a distance he appeared to be an average guy in his late twenties. What in the old world Shepherd would have thought of as a ‘kid’.
    Up close, the determination in his eyes and a rough edge to his skin-like dented armor-told a different, more rugged story.
    Trevor nodded to Shep and then addressed New Winnabow’s Chief Councilman. “You must be Robert Parsons.”
    “Yes. Yes, and this is Elizabeth Doss, a prominent member of our council.”
    Trevor smiled as friendly a smile as such a worn and battle-weary face could muster.
    “My name is Trevor Stone, but you already know that. And you also know we have some talking to do…”
    …After a brief walk through town, Shepherd followed Trevor, Parsons, and Doss into the main council chambers.
    Having stood for less than a year, the room smelled of fresh wood, particularly pine. Hand crafted tables and chairs-without stain or paint-comprised the furnishings making for a simple yet stately atmosphere. Long afternoon shadows stretched in through windows overlooking the tight streets of The Commons area.
    Shepherd noticed-but did not think their hosts noticed-that Trevor’s dog Tyr no longer accompanied the group.
    In any case, Parsons pointed the conversation in the necessary direction.
    “So are you here to give us an ultimatum, Mr. Stone? Or should I call you something else? Lord Stone?”
    “Trevor will do just fine. I have a feeling an ultimatum wouldn’t do too much good, now would it?”
    “And why do you suppose that?”
    “Because you’re a man of principle.”
    Parsons waved a finger to make a point. “It does not matter if I am or I’m not. The decision as to what we do is not mine alone.”
    Trevor conceded, “It seems to me this is a city of principled people. I admire that.”
    Elizabeth Doss said, “It has served us well, Mr. Stone. Over the years, we’ve watched towns and settlements across North Carolina whither and die from attack, disease, or starvation. We have weathered the storm.”
    Trevor attempted to remain friendly but Shep heard a strain in his voice. “I can’t do that. I can’t watch settlements whither and die. Not if I can stop it.”
    “We’re isolationists,” she explained further. “We ask nothing from our neighbors. We care not what they do as long as they leave us in peace.”
    “You can’t hide from the world,” Stone told them. “You can’t hide from what is happening out there.”
    Parsons led them to seats around a small table. As the four sat, he said, “Tell me, Trevor, how is it you came to be…” Parsons struggled with the title. “ Emperor of this…well, ‘Empire’ of yours. I’m sorry; I have trouble with those words.”
    “It’s okay,” Trevor waved his hand gently. “I’m having a hard time with the titles myself. The word Empire…it’s an old word. And I sure don’t feel like an ‘Emperor.’ No crown and all. But we had to come up with a name and, admittedly, I wanted something that would intimidate our enemies. Maybe I miscalculated how it would sound to our friends. Perhaps we’ll change it down the road.”
    Parsons nodded and rephrased his question, “So how did you go from one of the survivors to such a leader? General Shepherd tells me that you now rule a fair portion of the eastern seaboard. How did that happen?”
    “It all started very small, and grew from there. I had some help…” Trevor stopped and struggled with what he wanted to say. Shepherd felt himself lean forward, perhaps hoping to hear one the secrets; secrets about the woods Trevor often disappeared into, about how he could communicate with dogs and how he carried a library of knowledge in his head.
    Trevor re-worded his explanation.
    “I survived the early days. From there I found one survivor, then two. Then dozens and hundreds. Then thousands. Eventually we became more than a band of survivors, we became a nation.”
    “With all of these people swearing allegiance to you?” Parsons asked.
    Trevor nodded. “Yes.”
    Doss tried to hide the edge in her voice but failed as she asked, “What gives you the right to rule so absolutely?”
    “Results on the battlefield?” The answer did not impress the councilwoman.
    “Yes, but elsewhere, too. We have a complex system of farms and food services, healthcare including vaccines and surgeons and diagnostic equipment. We even have a couple of dozen guys playing baseball and calling themselves professionals. I’d love to take you to a game between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Of course, that’s the Newark Yankees and Erie Red Sox, but the uniforms look authentic.”
    Parsons smiled and continued to listen.
    “Seriously, though, everything we have is yours. Let me help you.”
    “We don’t need help,” Elizabeth Doss answered, but Shep did not hear much conviction in her words.
    Trevor narrowed his eyes and said, “Tell me you don’t have children who die from illness that antibiotics or a medical procedure could have cured; the type of healthcare that was common five years ago. Tell me that your life expectancy is even fifty years old here. Tell me that you don’t have monsters in that swamp that come out once in a while and grab someone.”
    “We shoot em’ if they do,” a new voice entered the discussion from the chamber doorway.
    Shep turned his head and spotted a big man with broad shoulders and a freckled face striding into the chamber. He fit the description Cassy Simms provided of a redneck/beatnik hybrid, but the grim, angry expression on his face leaned heavily toward redneck. Shepherd felt himself tense, as if a fight might shortly ensue.
    “Billy Ray,” Robert Parsons stood and intercepted the newcomer.
    “It’s okay. I’m okay,” Billy Ray-the redneck/beatnik-stopped and answered. “I’m okay now that I calmed down my kids after a couple of jets shook our house.”
    Parsons introduced, “This is Billy Ray Phelps. He’s our Sergeant-at-Arms.”
    Trevor stood and extended a hand but Billy Ray did not accept that. Shep remained tense. He did not feel comfortable about Billy Ray.
    “Sorry about that,” Trevor apologized and returned to his seat while Billy Ray retreated a step and stood silent. “Standard procedure for us.”
    “No it wasn’t,” Elizabeth Doss accused. “It was meant to intimidate us.”
    “No, that’s not right, either,” Robert Parsons contradicted her. “It was meant to show us that The Empire is for real. Isn’t that right, Trevor?”
    Trevor paused for a moment, and then admitted, “It was important to make a point.”
    “Like I said, to intimidate us,” Doss repeated.
    Once again, Parsons showed his wisdom and answered, “No. It was to show us that Trevor here could have overrun our town already if he had so chosen.”
    “We can defend ourselves,” Billy Ray bragged. “Couple of ugly bastards came out here on some sort of flying bikes last year and we pasted them real good. Big ugly things with big ugly mouths.”
    “Sergeant,” Parsons hit the man with reality. “If Trevor here so chooses, he will send thousands of well-armed, battle-hardened soldiers into this town. He will strafe our streets from helicopter gun ships and blast our beautiful brick walls with shells from tanks, no doubt. You and your men could not hold off such an attack with rifles, pistols, and shotguns.”
    “I don’t believe it,” Phelps growled. “Why hasn’t he done it yet if he can?”
    Parsons answered for Trevor yet again, “Because he’s a reasonable man. Because he doesn’t want humans to fight humans.”
    Trevor added, “I look at your town here and I see the life I want for all people. Besides, I have spent the last five years fighting aliens and monsters. Why would I want to fight other people? I mean, we’re on the same side.”
    “Then turn your army around,” Doss said. “March back north. Leave us in peace.”
    “We want to leave you in peace,” Trevor said and Shepherd heard the tiniest sound of pleading in his voice. “But I have to march south. We are in the midst of a battle.”
    Smugly, Doss told him, “We’ve never seen battle. At least not on your level.”
    Shep said, “I’d call that pretty lucky, if you asked me. Most people haven’t had that kind of luck.”
    Trevor spoke, “I wonder how long it took before the Native Americans in Colorado or Oregon saw any Europeans?”
    Doss tilted her head and asked, “Excuse me?”
    “That’s what this is like, you understand. It’s like North America in the 16 ^ th and 17 ^ th centuries. Colonists coming to our planet, first a few, then more and more. They have gateways and they are bringing in reinforcements. Time is on their side.”
    “I see,” Robert Parsons responded.
    “No, I don’t think you do,” Trevor corrected. “Because if you truly did, then we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.”
    Doss put a firm finger on the table and argued, “You say there are thousands of these Hivvan aliens not far from here. That they have ruled all through the south the past few years. Well we have never seen them. They have never bothered us.”
    Trevor told them, “The Grand Army of the Hivvan Republic is based out of Atlanta. They take control of areas by occupying large cities and turning them into fortresses. Inside those fortresses they have big transfiguration equipment, what we sometimes call ‘matter-makers’. This is the basis of their industry. Do you know who runs their industry?”
    Trevor looked to each of them one after another and said, “Slaves. Human slaves. Yesterday’s college professors and bellhops and cab drivers are being worked to death in slave labor camps. I know; I’ve seen the camps after we’ve liberated them.”
    “That’s terrible,” Parsons admitted. “But it has nothing to do with us.”
    Shepherd heard the pleading in Trevor’s voice exit and a growl of anger slip in.
    “It has everything to do with you. Don’t you get it? I’m talking about your fellow human beings. Fathers and mothers and children. Living in hot, dark quarters sometimes going for weeks without seeing daylight. They eat food so horrid that some have starved to death because they simply can’t stomach what they’re given.”
    “I wish you luck in freeing them,” Parsons sounded sincere. “But our town wants nothing to do with it.”
    Shepherd saw red creeping into Trevor’s face; pure exasperation, something he rarely saw from his leader. He tried to buy his boss a few seconds to calm by jumping into the conversation with, “You see now, your town has everything to do with it. If you just let us pass, we can complete a move that will cut off thousands of these Hivvan things. We do that, and we’ll be able to drive right down the road to Columbia. There are ten thousand human slaves there.”
    Elizabeth Doss looked to Shepherd and said, “Find another way.”
    Shep’s mouth opened but Trevor beat him to the punch.
    “It’s too late for that!” Trevor stood. Billy Ray responded by taking a step closer to the table. Trevor went on, “We are in the middle of this operation. I have only a few days to complete this march. If we don’t, our enemy will escape the trap and we will have to postpone our strike at Columbia. If they escape then when we do attack, more of my people will die and by the time that happens more of those slaves will die from exhaustion or beatings. Do you understand?”
    “I understand,” Parsons smiled to try to ease Trevor’s frustration. “Please, sit down, Mr. Stone.”
    The Chief Councilman gestured to the chair and Trevor returned to his seat. Phelps eased as well, but kept his eyes focused like lasers on Trevor.
    Parsons said, “I understand, and my heart goes out to those who suffer under such conditions. But tell me, Mr. Stone, why is it you keep fighting and waging your war?”
    “Like I said, those gateways are pouring reinforcements in.”
    “More than that. Get down to the basic reason.”
    “Because I believe it is the right thing to do. I believe that by winning this war we will save mankind.”
    “Yes! And if the-what is their name again? — these Hivvans win battles and have you on the run, will you stop fighting? Would you just give up?”
    Trevor shook his head, repulsed at the idea. “No, no. We will fight. In the beginning, we fought when the odds were against us. We fought when it seemed as if we had already lost, when the enemy was superior to us in every way. So no, we will never stop fighting until we win or we’re killed.”
    Parsons smiled and asked, “So why is it you ask us to stop fighting our fight? Why is it you think we should give up?”
    Trevor stared at Parsons, the red draining from his face, the anger slipping away. Shepherd wondered exactly what replaced that anger.
    Finally, Trevor clasped his hands together and replied, “I’m hoping you can make this small little concession for the greater good of mankind. You have to know that if I wanted to occupy or destroy your town it would have been done already. I do not want that, I just want to pass through. Is that so great a compromise of your beliefs?”
    “Yes,” Doss said. “It is. We have turned our backs on war. We believe that if we let you pass through our town that may be the mechanism that destroys us.”
    Trevor turned to her and said, “I find that hard to believe. This is not some religious cult. I see reasoned people here. I see intelligence. You can’t believe that some force of fate would punish you like a vengeful god if our army spends a few hours marching through your town.”
    “Of course not,” Parsons answered. “It is a slippery slope, Trevor. If we allow your army to pass because we are afraid of the consequences, we set a precedent that you or others might use against us in the future. This is our way of life. Not a religion in the traditional sense, but as important to us spiritually all the same. What good are our principles if we forget them when confronted?”
    “That’s your decision?”
    “No,” Robert Parsons told Trevor. “Unlike you, no one person makes the decisions here. We don’t have that advantage.”
    Stone closed his eyes.
    “Oh, Mr. Parsons, an advantage? I would trade places with you in a heartbeat. If only…if only the luxury of sharing that responsibility. For me? Well, every decision is my own. No blame to share. No hiding from the face in the mirror. Whatever happens here, in New Winnabow, you will be able to say it was the group. For me, it will rest entirely on my shoulders. There will be no where for me to hide.”
    Parsons responded, “And if there is blood, then that, too, will be on your hands.”
    A short while later, the full council refused passage for The Empire’s army.

    What had been a very pleasant afternoon quickly turned dark as a line of thunderstorms rolled in from the northwest, skirting the top of the mountains and hovering over the lake.
    Streaks of sunlight glittering through the den’s French casement windows flickered and then faded, snuffed out by heavy black clouds.
    “It’s okay now, little feller,” Benjamin Trump-one time owner of the fourth largest fence company in Luzerne County-assured his grandson, Jorge. “Just a storm passing through. A little rain is good for the farmers.”
    JB curled a little closer as he sat on grandpa’s lap.
    “I suppose we need a little light in here,” Trump said and he reached for the desk lamp.
    JB repeated words his father often said, “Do we need the light, grandpa? We have to con-serve energy because no sun means no power.”
    “Is that so? I suppose you have a point, Jorgie, since the clouds have blocked out the sun for a bit and that means those fancy solar panels won’t be collecting any light for a while. But don’t you worry; this little light won’t cause a problem. Besides, how else am I going to read to you?”
    Trump pulled the short chain and the lamp clicked on.
    “Okay, now, where were we? Oh yeah…” Benjamin Trump consulted a red and white Dr. Seuss book. “And, speaking of shapes, now just suppose…” grandpa read slow while JB followed the pictures.
    A flash of lightning lit the room in a sparkle. Three seconds later the boom of thunder followed. The lamp on the desktop flickered. Benjamin Trump eyed it as if to will the power to stay on.
    He read, “Suppose YOU were shaped like these…or those!”
    Light from outside flashed again, but a shadow blocked most of the flash this time.
    “Of all the shapes we MIGHT have been…”
    Grandpa turned to the last page of the children’s book.
    “I say HOORAY for the shapes we’re in!”
    The light on the desk went out. The room fell pitch black.
    “Grandpa, what happened? Did the storm knock out the power?”
    “No, that’s not the storm, can’t be, must be another problem-” Trump caught himself and corrected, “Well, um, maybe JB. Probably. Yes, probably the storm knocked the power out. It will be back on real soon.”
    JB wiggled in Grandpa’s lap and faced the window. He saw the silhouette of a man standing just outside the glass, staring in. Looking at them. Looking at Jorge.
    Benjamin Trump turned as well. He saw the shape of a man, shaggy around the edges perhaps from torn clothes, maybe from disfigured skin.
    The lightning flashed so brilliant that both grandpa and grandson shielded their eyes. Thunder shook the house at the same moment.
    When they looked again, the shadow remained. Standing there. Staring at them through the thin pane of glass.
    Benjamin staggered to his feet clutching the boy in his arms.
    “Go away! Go away you bad man!” JB shouted.
    The shadow raised a hand…drummed three fingers on the glass- thud-thud-thud — then waved.
    Grandpa tried to move around the desk but he bumped his hip on the edge. This caused him to lose his balance and almost fall over.
    “Security! Security!”
    Two black-clad I.S. agents came through the door but when they looked to the window, they saw only the dark grounds of the mansion and falling sheets of rain.
    Benjamin told them, “He was just there, but he’s gone now.”
    JB corrected, “He’s still here, grandpa. He’s still here.”

13. Little Girl Lost

    Three days after the Dark Wolves rescued the hostages at Airlie Gardens, Nina Forest remained in Wilmington, much to her dismay. Massive Stumphides no longer hunted the streets, the Mutant gangs no longer terrorized survivors, and both types of Sloths nearly disappeared from the city. However, a job remained. A tedious job, but one she had promised to finish.
    With the larger, more dangerous hostiles eliminated, the Hunter-Killer teams focused on the smaller and more numerous pests. They searched basements to root out cat-sized acid-spitting roaches, dug holes in parks to reach nests of otherworldly eels, picked through scrap heaps and trash piles for slithering carrion-eating slug-things, and burned nests of alien birds from treetops.
    Nina had hoped that, with the city essentially secure for humans and supply convoys, General Shepherd would send her new orders. However, apparently a problem on the road to Conway occupied the brass’ attention. That left Nina in Wilmington overseeing pest-control and helping rebuilding efforts until someone from civilian administration saw fit to take over the task.
    She began the day leading a convoy to Wrightsville Beach, carrying a health evaluation team, medical screening materials, and a truck of canned food. A reporter from the Baltimore New Press sat in the back seat of the lead Humvee. She allowed him to ride along only after he promised not to quote her or even mention her in his article on the liberation of the area.
    “This was a substantial group of survivors,” she told him. “About one hundred and fifty living near the coast. I think that helped, since they could fish and defending their camp against the threats in the city was a little easier, for the most part.”
    “How’d they react when your forces showed up?”
    “They love us. I think some of them had their first good night’s sleep in five years. I think if they had ticker-tape, they would have thrown us a parade.”
    The soldier driving her Humvee swerved the vehicle to the left. They bounced over a particularly nasty pothole-more a bomb crater-as the convoy turned onto a bridge.
    “That’s cool,” the reporter said.
    “Yeah, but it’d be weird if it were any other way. They’ve been stuck out here, isolated, for five years. Got to give them credit, they really conserved their fuel and they did a good job scrounging supplies, but you have to wonder how many of them died off from basic diseases and simple injuries. Stuff we took for granted in the old days and are only now starting to deal with again.”
    “Did they have, like, a leader or President or something?”
    Nina shook her head. “More like a couple of dominant personalities. People tend to find their place in situations like this.”
    The convoy arrived at the parking lot of a hotel that had become the community center for the survivors in Wrightsville Beach.
    “Remember, I don’t want my name or even mention of me appearing anywhere. I’m sort of a behind-the-scenes type of girl.”
    “Yeah, sure,” he agreed.
    As the reporter walked off into the hotel, Nina exited the Humvee and stretched. A mob of Wrightsville Beach survivors descended on the trucks and picked the contents clean. She watched them remove everything in a fast but orderly manner. This group impressed her; they had maintained their dignity despite the hardships they had endured. It felt good to have been a direct part in liberating them. Usually her work kept her at a distance from the survivors who benefited from her team’s missions. Maybe that had been Shep’s intent when he assigned her this task; to show her the good her bloody work produced.
    Around eleven, Nina prepared to depart from the hotel parking lot and return to her headquarters at City Hall.
    “Hey, let’s get going,” she called to the soldier standing at the hotel entrance who served as her driver. The young man busied himself talking to one of the liberated ladies who gazed into his eyes like Lois Lane staring at Superman.
    As Nina jumped in to the passenger seat of the roofless Humvee, a man approached calling, “Excuse me! Excuse me!”
    “Hi,” he caught his breath. “Sorry, I spotted your cars and I didn’t want you to leave without getting a chance to thank you.”
    Nina squinted and examined him. Probably in his early thirties, maybe a little thin but otherwise in decent shape.
    “I remember you,” she said. “You were with the kids, right?”
    “Jim Brock,” he extended his hand. “And thank you, Miss..?”
    “ Captain,” Nina corrected. “Captain Forest.”
    His smile faltered and a little red shot to his cheeks.
    She reconsidered her harsh tone and said, “Had we found out about it sooner maybe we could have got there before your two friends were killed.”
    Brock’s soft features hardened and his eyes cast to his feet.
    “Yeah, well, I mean, I can still…I can still…”
    “You can still hear the screams,” she knew. “That’s what Mutants do; they like to hear people scream. It’s how they’re wired, I guess.”
    He said, “At least all of the children made it out safe. Maybe, in some way, their deaths bought time for you to get there.”
    “I guess that’s one way to look at it.”
    Her driver-a smile on his face-slid behind the wheel and turned the ignition key. The Humvee rumbled to life.
    Nina asked Jim Brock, “What were you doing with all those kids? I mean, the guy said something about them being a part of your orphanage or something.”
    “Before the world went to hell I was at a day care center. You wouldn’t believe how many people went to work on the day of the Apocalypse. The parents never came to get their kids. You know, dead or injured. Maybe just trapped. We got a couple of phone calls. At least some of the children had a chance to speak to their moms or dads one more time. But the parents never came.”
    It seemed to her there were a million stories of that day, a million angles and new perspectives. She had never thought about the day cares or schools. Probably because she had no children or close friends with kids.
    Or any friends in those days, Nina thought.
    “Well done,” she told him.
    “What’s that?”
    “When all this started, I was heavily armed, with a group of trained police officers, and, honestly, I barely survived the first day. I’m guessing that instead of machine guns and grenades, you had diapers and juice boxes. I’m just saying, you did a good job.”
    “All of it would have ended if it weren’t for you. We were not getting out alive. No matter what. Those things, they wanted to kill the kids. It would have happened eventually. They want to kill every living thing that was on this earth before they got here.”
    And we want to kill everything that wasn’t here before then, Nina chewed on the irony.
    “Well, good luck and all. See you ‘round, Jim.”
    “Nice meeting you, Captain.”
    She nodded to the driver and as the Humvee pulled away, she told Jim Brock, “That’s Nina.”

    Half an hour later, the Humvee parked outside of City Hall. A minute after Nina and her driver exited the vehicle, a corner of the canvass tarp covering crates in the Humvee’s cargo bed lifted and a pair of young eyes peeked out.
    The overcast weather hovering over Wilmington for several days had moved off, painting the cityscape in warm, gold rays and giving the air a fresh, almost spring-like flavor but a flavor that-to the little girl’s nose-was drown out by the overriding smell of beef jerky radiating from one of the crates she hid among.
    Denise Cannon slipped out of the vehicle quietly, crouching near the rear bumper. She wore torn blue jeans, a dirty t-shirt, and one-size-too-big sneakers she had found in an empty motel room two months ago.
    She prepared to cross to the sidewalk but stopped when voices neared.
    Two men dressed in grease-stained overalls approached one of the many trucks parked along the curb. They opened the hood of one and mumbled something about a fuel pump.
    As she waited, Denise surveyed her surroundings.
    To her left across the street she saw a fancy, modern building about two-stories tall with windows and glass being the primary design element, all of which were now shattered. That modern building warped and sagged to the point that she guessed the next strong wind might cause it to collapse.
    To her right stood a thin, long building painted white with four tall pillars in front. Scruffy green lawn surrounded the place, as well as decorative trees that had been nearly picked clean of leaves, probably the work of Sloths. She also saw a statue of somebody holding his or her arm aloft.
    City Hall.
    She spotted a pair of nasty-looking dogs sitting at the top of the flight of stone stairs leading to the main entrance. She spied two more under a covered porch at the side entrance to the building.
    She used parked cars-some belonging to the new military force in town, others long-abandoned-as cover to work her way down the street until finding a safe route to cross the sidewalk and slip onto the grounds behind City Hall.
    There she found a first floor window with a hole in it just large enough for a petite eleven-year-old girl to slip through.
    Despite serving as the army’s base, few people walked the corridors of City Hall. In fact, Denise saw more dogs than she saw people. She avoided both, although she figured the dogs must have caught her scent but because she was human, they did not pay her any particular attention, despite the lingering odor of the beef jerky she had stowed away with.
    The musty smell of the place might have helped, too. City Hall looked and felt like a museum with exhibits, memorials, and even a theater.
    Denise stepped softly as she followed voices echoing through the halls. One of those voices sounded like it belonged to the woman. She eventually tracked the conversation to a small group of soldiers gathered around a table in a large, long room.
    A sign at the door said that the chamber once hosted press conferences and town hall meetings as called by Wilmington’s long-gone city governors. Row upon row of mostly knocked-over chairs lined the rectangular room.
    The soldiers conversed around a crescent-shaped table at the front of that room on a raised platform covered in red carpet. Three large windows behind the table allowed the sun to streak in.
    Denise peeked but knew she could not stay at the entrance, so she withdrew and followed a cramped stairwell to a small mezzanine level. A wooden banister offered Denise cover as she crouched low and listened in on the meeting from above.
    She was there, the woman with the ponytail. The one who outfought that beastly thing at Airlie Gardens. The one who shouted orders to men and who was not afraid of the nightmares.
    Her ear caught bits and pieces of the conversation.
    “…they swept through Pine Valley Estates and killed a bunch of Gremmies…”
    “…the track out there is operational, just needs…”
    “…Intelligence places them about a hundred miles northwest of here…”
    “…HQ says no re-supply on those for the rest of the week…”
    Another solider dressed in black ran into the meeting hall panting and shouting with a German shepherd on his heels
    “Captain! Captain Forest,” the newcomer sounded panicked.
    “What? Whatchya got?”
    All of the soldiers around the table grew rigid, as if tensing for battle.
    “Now? Where?”
    “No,” the man, still out of breath, reported. “Not here, not now. But we found something. Had to be a Shadow. Right down the damn street.”
    The woman named Captain Forest grabbed a mean-looking rifle from the table.
    “Show me.”
    Denise stayed still as the group marched out of the room beneath her. As they moved, the little girl noticed that Captain Forest still possessed the sword she had won from the big-mouthed ugly thing. She carried it in a scabbard strapped to her leg.
    “Wow,” Denise whispered aloud.
    She waited until they were out of the room then went downstairs again…
    …Denise used the smashed, rusted cars lining the streets of Wilmington as cover to follow Captain Forest and her group of soldiers in black uniforms. On several occasions, Forest turned her head as if sensing a stalker, but each time Denise managed to remain hidden.
    The group came to a very large intersection littered with more dead cars and buses and trucks. In the center of the intersection sat a big, circular fountain surrounded by shrubs.
    On one corner of the crossroads stood an impressive brick and stone cathedral. The damage done to that cathedral was equally as impressive and quite strange as well.
    Something had removed a chunk of the building.
    No, not a chunk; more like a scoop. As if a ball had bounced against the cathedral and every part of the wall it touched disintegrated into nothingness. A surgical and nearly beautiful piece of destruction, leaving a concave wound with no sign of debris.
    Whatever had removed such a huge piece of brick and stone had to be pretty huge itself. And powerful.
    “…radiation readings?”
    “…we don’t have the firepower to…”
    “…call Shepherd maybe he can…”
    Denise heard only fragments as she hid behind a destroyed Mustang at thirty yards, yet she noticed the soldiers fidgeting nervously as they surveyed the unusual damage.
    The group turned about and retraced their steps toward City Hall, nearly stumbling upon Denise in the process. After they passed, the girl followed once again. About half way to headquarters, Captain Forest separated from the men, heading off on her own.
    This impressed Denise a great deal. This woman felt confident enough to walk by herself along the streets of Wilmington? A few days ago, that would have been a death sentence.
    Her curiosity piqued even more, Denise followed as the woman left Fifth Street behind and traveled an alleyway.
    Denise crept between those buildings, too, rounding a corner into a courtyard of sorts, surrounded by the backsides of several small shops. She saw employee entrances and dumpsters. Multiple paths led away from the hidden clearing toward larger, primary streets.
    Her quarry nowhere in sight, Denise stopped and stood straight.
    “You’re pretty good,” the woman’s voice came.
    Captain Forest emerged from behind a dumpster, smiling but holding an assault weapon ready in her hands.
    “You forgot one thing though. Your shadow. Not much of one this time of day but just enough to give you away from around the corner. Remember that, next time you’re stalking someone.”
    “I wasn’t stalking!” Denise nearly shouted.
    “Hey, easy does it,” Forest calmed. “I’m just saying, next time you decide to follow someone you need to think it through a little more.”
    “I followed you all the way from City Hall,” Denise boasted. “And I was watching you meet with the soldiers in there, too.”
    Captain Forest tilted her head. “Is that a fact? Tell me, what’s a little girl like you doing walking around by yourself in this town?”
    Denise narrowed her eyes and answered, “I’m not little; I’m eleven. Besides, what are you doing walking around this town all by your self?”
    Forest held her rifle a little higher and asked, “Where’s yours?”
    Denise said nothing.
    Captain Forest stepped in front of Denise and ordered, “Turn around.”
    Denise hesitated, not sure what the woman meant until she swiveled her fingers in the air to make the point.
    Denise then understood what to do, but not why. The Captain examined the back of her neck, lifted her shirt, and-despite a series of protesting grunts from Denise-examined under her arms.
    “Just looking, don’t worry.”
    “Looking or what?” Denise chirped.
    Forest completed the examination, stepped off a pace, and said, “Voggoth sucks.”
    “Huh? Who’s Voog-Boog-Bugg-eth?”
    “Never mind. That’s good,” Forest answered. “You’d be surprised how many of them give themselves away like that. Easy to provoke and all.”
    “What are you talking about?”
    Forest‘s eyes widened and realization swept across her face.
    “Wait a second. You’re that girl from the chapel. The one who was almost Mutant foo-. I mean the one who was in the chapel.”
    She straightened her clothes with a look of indignation and replied, “Yeah, well, my name is Denise.”
    “Hello Denise, I’m Nina. Mind telling me why you were following me?”
    Denise glanced around, looked at her feet, looked at the sky, and then finally answered, “I don’t know. I was bored. Like, super bored. Something to do, I guess.”
    “I see.”
    “Hey, I don’t need you to tell me what to do. I can do what I want. I can take care of myself.”
    Nina said, “I can see that. You move pretty good. Got some real potential.”
    A smile exploded onto Denise’s face. “Really?” But she quickly suppressed the grin, nearly turning it into a frown, and mumbled, “I mean I know that.”
    The sound of an explosion rolled in from the distance, passing overhead like the calling card of a distant thunderstorm. Both women shot their eyes to the clear blue sky above.
    Nina said, “You know, I think we can both take care of ourselves pretty good. What do you think?”
    “Yeah. I mean, yes. Sure we can.”
    “But you know the first thing that you do to take care of yourself?”
    “What’s that?” Denise asked Nina.
    “You’re smart about where you go. You don’t put yourself in bad spots.”
    “Yeah, sure, I know that, geez,” Denise rolled her eyes.
    “Let’s get out of this spot for now. Come with me.”
    Denise mulled it over for all of two seconds before answering, “Well, okay. I’ve got nothing better to do right now, anyway.”

    When they had first came onboard, Jon thought he would never get accustomed to it, but in reality it had only taken him four days to adjust to the constant droning pervading the sub; the combined sound of engines and equipment creating a vibration of noise that served as background to everything.
    The first few days after departing Hopedale, he occasionally sniffed fresh air from the conning tower. Once entering Baffin Bay, Farway kept the Newport News submerged. Jon suspected Farway felt naked cruising on the surface, no doubt an impulse dating to the cold war.
    Jon became mindful of the watertight doors and remembered many Hollywood movies where a sub Captain sealed crewmembers in flooded compartment to save the ship. That thought put a flutter in his belly nearly as constant as the vibration through the boat.
    As they did each evening, Jon Brewer and Reverend Johnny joined Farway and his Executive Officer for dinner, after which they swapped stories.
    One night Jon and the Reverend presented a detailed accounting of the Battle of Five Armies. Another time, Farway had told them about arriving at their homeport of Norfolk and finding it infested with fluffy horned guinea pig things walking five feet tall on hind legs.
    “Sort of like a chia pet gone mad,” the XO had said.
    This evening in the small cubicle that served as the Captain’s dining room, the conversation turned to the Newport News’ missions for Gordon Knox. More specifically, inserting spies overseas.
    “We went through the straits of Gibraltar last year and dropped a team off in Algeria. We were supposed to make a pick up in Sicily but the group never showed.”
    Of course, John Brewer reviewed the data gathered by intelligence agents. Reverend Johnny had also seen much of it. Yet that did not stop the Reverend from taking the conversation in his favorite direction.
    “Pray tell, Captain, what words are being spoken in whispers about our best friends?”
    The Reverend’s question bewildered Farway, who paused in the middle of sipping pseudo-tea from a mug. Jon Brewer stepped in to explain.
    “He means The Order. Rev here has a special place in his heart for that group.”
    Reverend Johnny said, “The last time we had contact with that vile band was in Baltimore. We brought the Father’s fire upon that nest of heretics. You should have seen them burn.”
    While Johnny boomed a laugh, Brewer translated, “We destroyed several of The Order’s bases over the past five years. The first was in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Then there was a smaller one in Deptford, New Jersey; two outside of Harrisburg and the last one we’ve seen was in a Baltimore suburb. We think we stamped them off the continent before they could gain a real foothold.”
    What little Farway knew came as no surprise to either of his passengers, but it spurred talk of Voggoth which the Reverend wanted to hear, the same way grandchildren begged to be told their favorite stories again and again.
    “From what we’ve seen, they’re big in Eurasia and the Far East. That’s about all I know. What do you hear?”
    After swallowing the last drop of ‘tea’ in his mug, Brewer answered, “We hear the same thing. From what we can tell, they started off somewhere in Russia. Our teams at the Pentagon and White House found urgent communications from the Russian government describing the types of forces we would expect from our pal Voggoth. We think he poofed in over there and spread out.”
    The Executive Officer-a younger man with sharp eyes and slick black hair-asked, “How do they stack up against things like the Hivvans?”
    Reverend Johnny answered, “Like a fiendish puppet master pulling the strings.”
    Brewer said, “There has been plenty of speculation that this Voggoth thing is the big cheese. Not so much direct command, but kind of orchestrating the whole thing. That’s our guess, at least.”
    Farway asked, “And you kicked his butt off the North American continent?”
    Johnny beamed with pride. “Smashed him with divine wrath, praise the Lord.”
    Farway leaned close to Johnny and said, “I wouldn’t be too happy about that, Reverend.”
    “Oh? And why would that be?”
    “Got to figure, that probably doesn’t sit too well with this Voggoth thing. Why I just bet he’s been steaming over that for a while now.”
    Brewer and Johnny shared a glance. Jon spoke, “That’s the type of thing that keeps me up at night. I wonder what’s going on in Eurasia and the Far East. I wonder what The Order is planning. Given the tricks they pulled on us in the first year alone, I’ve got to figure they’re up to something big.”
    A buzzer blared in the room startling Jon and the Reverend, both of whom nearly jumped from their seats. Empty plates rattled as the passengers’ knees knocked the tiny dining table.
    The Executive Officer grabbed a wall-mounted phone.
    “XO here…aye…rig for silent running,” he hung up and spoke to his Captain as they all stood. “That was the D.O. We’ve got inbound. Big.”
    The steady hum that Jon had listened to the entire trip faded as he followed the naval officers through the tight corridors to the bridge. Main lighting dimmed in favor of red emergency lights. The crew moved quietly to secure loose objects.
    Brewer and Johnny stood off and watched the command crew work.
    The XO and the Captain approached the sonar station. Unlike those Hollywood movies Jon remembered, no noise came from that station. Instead, he saw a monitor that appeared to display sound waves. That display outlined some kind of blob: the sonar contact.
    “Two hundred meters and closing,” the XO announced. “Helm, watch your trim.”
    Jon felt the boat move, flattening in the water.
    Without the hum in the background, he suddenly realized that the water was not silent. It made noise-sometimes a groan, sometimes a raking sound. Subtle, but there nonetheless. No doubt the rhythm the Captain had come to know during his years beneath the surface; the rhythm that had changed when the bad things came to the world.
    “One hundred fifty meters and closing,” came the XO’s update.
    “Fire control,” the Captain looked to the weapons officer. “Get two fish on deck.”
    “Aye,” the young sailor responded and communicated the order to load torpedo bays.
    “We don’t have the right angle, Sir,” the XO reminded the Captain quietly.
    “I know. I want to be ready this time. Just in case.”
    A noise from outside the submarine shimmied through the ship, shaking the hull. Men onboard raised hands to ears; Jon felt himself cringe. The noise sounded something like a ghostly moan or an animal’s cry.
    “Jesus Christ,” the sonar operator said a little too loud.
    “Easy, son,” the Captain placed a hand on the seaman’s shoulder.
    “It’s on collision,” the XO said. “Planesman, take her down another fifty at twenty degrees.”
    The Captain added to the order, “Nice and steady…nothing sudden. Fill the auxiliaries if you have to.”
    The indistinct blob dominated the sonar display. It was huge.
    “One hundred meters and closing,” the XO informed.
    Jon felt the sub descend deeper into the northern waters. He held on to the bulkhead doorframe to steady his balance. As he did, he spied Reverend Johnny. The poor man sweated bullets.
    “Steady…steady everyone,” the Captain whispered encouragement.
    “Seventy-five meters.”
    A sound in the ocean surrounding them started low and grew louder and louder. A gushing, turbulent roar, as if an underwater tornado spun in their direction.
    “Helm, take us down another fifty. Fill those tanks,” the XO ordered as he watched the sonar.
    The diving officer repeated the order.
    Louder. Louder.
    “Damn thing is big. Biggest one yet,” the Captain said.
    “Fifty meters.”
    The image on the sonar display grew better, more defined, showing outcroppings-almost like tendrils-sprouting from the main blob.
    The rushing noise grew until it filled the bridge of the sub. Jon tried to block it out of his ears but failed; the chaotic cacophony bounced through the tube of steel and reached right into his mind. The boat shook, buffeted by some maelstrom on the other side of the hull. The red lights flickered.
    Farway shouted, “Hold on!”
    It sounded like being stuck in a wind tunnel of water. The vibration increased ten fold. The boat sloshed sideways and down like a surfer caught under the curl of a crushing wave.
    Jon staggered. Several muffled cries came from the crew.
    “It’s right over us!” The XO yelled the obvious.
    “Diving officer, I need more weight!” The Captain commanded.
    Reverend Johnny slammed his palms into his ears and cried out, “Be gone, beast! I say BE GONE!”
    “Hey, hey,” the XO reported. “It’s moving off. Target is moving off.”
    The vibration slowed. The sound reached its pinnacle…and then eased. Whatever monster passed the Newport News, it paid no interest to the submarine. Apparently, what had once been one of the most dangerous predators in the deep was now just another fish, an inconsequential fish at that.
    Slowly the roaring subsided and the monstrous blob on the sonar display faded away.
    Jon Brewer backed into the bulkhead and slid to the floor of the control room.
    His body…his hands…even his sanity shook uncontrollably.

14. Shadow Falls

    Name: Shadow
    Secondary Name (s): Walking Death; Blackness; The Dark
    Classification: Giant ethereal
    Organization: Solitary Chaotic
    Physical Characteristics: Five to ten stories tall and lanky; completely black in appearance-no features discernible. No physical examination ever conducted, does not show up well in photography (video or pictures).
    Description: Information incomplete.
    Notes: Only confront a shadow if armed with multiple heavy weapons.
    — Anita Nehru, Hostile Database 3 rd Edition

    “General, Sir! I believe we should take cover, Sir!” Woody “Bear” Ross boomed.
    Stonewall answered, “I do believe you have presented a reasonable course of action, Cap-”
    Before Stonewall could finish “Captain,” Woody pushed his superior officer into a drainage ditch alongside the road.
    The bombs hit a few yards from where the men had stood. Instead of the typical BOOM or BANG, the Hivvan weapons made an electronic buzz as the ‘blast’ created a deadly energy field several meters in diameter.
    No shrapnel. Instead, patches of dirt and chunks of pavement melted and warped.
    “I say, we haven’t seen Screamers since Richmond,” Stonewall took note of the enemy air power. “I thought we hit all their air bases.”
    The two enemy ‘planes’ climbed into the twilight sky and banked in a u-turn, aiming to swing about and hit the advancing column on the open pavement of I-95 yet again.
    Most of that column abandoned the highway, but several bodies covered in third degree burns lay dead as a result of the first run.
    “Sir, this could mean that they are aware of our intentions.”
    “Hmmm. A distinct possibility, Captain Ross,” Stonewall considered. His eyes suddenly widened and he yelled, “Princess!”
    Kristy Kaufman-on horseback-approached. She and her mount remained on the Interstate, looming above Garrett McAllister and Woody Ross huddled in the ditch below.
    “Yes, General?” Kristy acted unconcerned about the two slender, single-seat aircraft circling around toward her position.
    Stonewall glanced at her, then at Ross, and said in a voice with the slightest waver, “I believe it would be prudent for us to contact Tactical Air Control. What do you think of my suggestion?”
    The Screamers descended in earnest. Their wings glimmered in the sunlight, as did the two intimidating, scimitar-shaped appendages at the front of each craft. As they dove, the flying machines emitted a siren: a horrifying scream.
    Kristy answered Stonewall’s suggestion, “I suppose that would be a good idea, Sir.”
    Stonewall looked at Kristy, then to the approaching planes, then at her again. “Yes, um,” he staggered. “These Hivvan machines are no match for our boys, um, so one call should take care of this problem…um…”
    The screams grew louder.
    Yet Kristy did not move.
    Stonewall tried to sound unfazed. He said, “Yes, well, I am inclined to agree with intelligence’s theory that the Hivvans are accustomed to using aircraft only in support of a ground-attack. These, um…” he glanced at the closing fighters. “…these lizards are not much for air combat.”
    Ross added, “Haven’t seen them for a while. Thought we hit all of their forward air bases.”
    A shrieking filled the air as the Screamers made their run on the human army along Interstate 95.
    “Princess, if I may suggest-”
    “You know, General, I’ve been thinking. I’m not sure I’m entirely fond of that nickname.”
    “What? My dear, I do not think that now is the time to worry about such trivial matters.”
    She said, “It does not convey the, well, oh what is the word I’m looking for?”
    A whistle in the air suggested bombs falling toward Earth. Soldiers shouted in anticipation of the pending destruction.
    “Respect. Yes, that is the word. Respect.”
    “Captain Kaufman,” Stonewall conceded without a trace of his usual charming accent. “I suggest you get the Hell down here now!”
    Kaufman managed a smile of satisfaction and then spurred her horse to cover. The bombs sizzled on the road above. This time claiming no casualties, but only by the thinnest of margins.
    She dismounted and shuffled through a pack in search of a radio transmitter. As she did, Stonewall stood, dusted dirt from his Civil War era uniform, coughed, and said to her in a voice quite contrite, “Ms. Kaufman, please do me the favor of never doing that again. I am quite sure I would be lost without you.”
    “Why General!” She spoke as she assembled the gear. “You are certainly the charmer, aren’t you?”
    “I endeavor to be so, this is true. However, I would find this situation much more agreeable if a few of our fine fellows would-oh how to put this? — saunter on by and shoot our noisy friends from the heavens. Could you possibly arrange that, Captain?”

    “Dasher One this is T-A-C do you copy?” the radio crackled in the veteran pilot’s ear.
    “Uh, Roger that, TAC this is Dasher One. Go ahead.”
    “You should have bandits painted on your screens,” the TAC officer radioed.
    “Roger that, TAC. We’ll be hitting Gomer in thirty seconds,” the Veteran pilot ended his conversation with the Tactical Air Control station operating with the 2 ^ nd Mechanized Division.
    “Hey Billy, you good over there?” he asked his wingman as they flew a pair of F-15s.
    “Yeah-I mean, roger that.”
    The veteran pilot had been in the New Jersey Air National Guard before the world went to Hell. He had served in the Persian Gulf region and flown CAP missions over New York City the month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America.
    On the other hand, Billy was a rookie. Before ‘all this’, Billy trained to fly Learjets for private corporations. The Apocalypse claimed his young wife and the rest of his relatives. Now the twenty-seven year old ‘kid’ attacked alien aircraft in the North Carolina sky.
    Of course, Billy’s scant experience was far more than most of the guys learning to fly in The Empire’s tiny air force. Planes were not a problem; pilots were. More specifically, pilots surviving flight school.
    “Just relax,” Dasher One told Billy. “These things are sitting ducks. We’re going to make them go away before they even know we’re coming.”
    “I’m frosty,” Billy said once and then nervously repeated, “I’m frosty.”
    “Yeah, well don’t shit your bag. Just do like we did in training. We’ve got stand-off missiles and they don’t have any shit like that. They won’t even see us. You copy?”
    “I copy, um, I mean solid copy.”
    The veteran told his wingman, “Hey Dash-Two, you know who called us in?”
    “No man, who?”
    “That’s Stonewall down there. These Screamers have been taking pot shots at him.”
    “Stonewall? Really? Holy shit.”
    “So what you say we make these things go away?”
    Dasher Two answered enthusiastically, “Hell, yeah.”
    Dasher One radioed Tactical Air Control to let them know that he and his wingman were close enough to take control of the combat situation: “Judy. I repeat, Judy.”
    The Screamers-distant specks silhouetted by sunset-entered firing range.
    “I’ve got a heat-lock on Alpha Bandit,” Dasher One transmitted.
    “Um, yeah, a roger that. I think-I mean I got a lock on Bravo Bandit.”
    “Then let’s do it. Dasher One, Fox Two.”
    Dasher One launched a heat-seeking air-to-air Sidewinder missile. It blew out from under his wing and raced across the sky with a vengeance.
    Billy spoke, “Ahhh…oh yeah, Dasher Two, Fox Two.”
    Another sidewinder roared through the blue sky.
    The two pilots watched their scopes. The bandits-first one, then the other-flickered and disappeared.
    “Tactical Air Control this is Dasher One. Ah, read bandits one and two gone away. We’re bingo here, RTB.”
    “Dasher One, General Stonewall McAllister sends his thanks,” came the radio reply.
    The veteran pilot said, “See Billy, you’re getting the hang of this after all.”

    Nina sent word to Wrightsville via a supply truck driver that Denise Cannon was safe and spending the evening with the Hunter-Killer team.
    Nina did not know why she let Denise hang around. She told herself that with a Shadow haunting the area it was safer for the girl not to travel. Besides, Denise dropped a number of hints that she wanted to stay, although she would not openly admit it.
    In any case, Denise and Nina shared a supper of beef jerky (from the crates in the back of the Humvee) and apples in an old conference room at City Hall.
    Eventually, Nina asked Denise about her past.
    The daughter of a middle class family, Denise was six when the end-of-the-world came. Instead of memories, her recollection of those days came in muddled nightmares of monsters and fires and frantic riot police battling hideous beasts and helicopters whirring overhead and cars grabbed by some massive monster.
    In the years since, she lived on the run with the other children and the chaperons from the center as led by Jim Brock. At first they lived day to day, scrounging for canned food and drinkable water; hiding in burned out buildings and basements.
    Eventually, Brock’s group found their way to Wrightsville Beach where they settled into vacant beachfront properties and made contact with other survivors.
    Those survivors cooperated. Fishing, gardening, hunting, and scavenging for left over food stocks kept them alive. At least most of them.
    The stoicism-the I really don’t care about all this adolescent attitude — wavered as she remembered watching people die of infections and illness. Worse, her mind stored crystal-clear memories of hiding in dark corners and ignoring cries for help while monsters found others. Friends; children even younger than her.
    For the people of Wrightsville Beach, survival did not mean fighting. Other than a few low-caliber handguns, knives, and homemade spears, they owned no weapons. When something dangerous prowled the area, they could only hide. If a bad thing found one of their number, the others merely watched as it devoured or carried off the hapless victim.
    Nina explained that The Empire had arrived; that order and safety came to Wilmington and now it would be the monsters hiding and running.
    It all sounded good to Denise. The big guns and battle-hardened dogs made Nina’s assurances sound real.
    Then the Shadow came.

    It started around 2 a.m.
    Nina and Denise slept on small cots in second-floor offices across the hall from one another. K9s stood posts throughout the building and Grenadier patrols roamed the grounds.
    The stars flickered in the sky with only scattered clouds trying to obscure their light.
    A breeze blew across the empty streets and over City Hall coming in from the northeast. On that breeze rode the hint of a sound. A sound far too soft for human ears, but the dogs heard.
    The K9 sentries on the front steps stood and tensed. Their sensitive noses sifted through the air for clues.
    Again the noise came, a fraction louder but still hidden among the chirp of crickets, the flutter of flags atop poles, the noise of litter scraping across the pavement in the wind.
    Perhaps the buzz of insects. Or maybe the crackle of static electricity?
    The breeze faded but the sound came again, loud enough to reach human ears this time, loud enough to illicit growls from the Dobermans guarding the main entrance of City Hall. Loud enough to stir a little girl from sleep.
    A fuzzy, electric-sounding burst.
    Eleven-year-old Denise Cannon sat up in her makeshift bed: a wool blanket and a raggedy old pillow on the carpeted floor. As she rubbed her eyes, she realized that she had been in a deeper sleep than she remembered having her whole life. With Nina and the Grenadiers around, she felt safe: a new feeling to her.
    Alas, that feeling faded as a sizzling noise seeped in from the dark outside. It sounded as if someone tried to tune a radio station but found only static.
    Denise heard a new sound, one from the hallway. A scratching noise.
    She opened her door. A portable light at the end of the hall fired a thick beam of harsh illumination down the corridor, flooding most of the passage in brilliant white but also creating sharp shadows along the ceiling and floor.
    The black and gray Norwegian Elkhound named Odin pawed at Nina’s door across the hall. That door opened and Captain Forest stuck her head out. She wore sweat pants and a tank top while holding a pistol in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other.
    That static-like, electronic buzz came again. It sounded far off, but still managed to send a shiver through Denise’s body.
    Nina saw Denise watching her and must have noticed that shiver.
    “Hey, it’s okay. Don’t worry. Now hang on a sec.” Nina raised her radio and transmitted, “This is Captain Forest. Night watch, what have we got?”
    A man’s voice answered. Denise had trouble understanding his words because it sounded as if the guy chewed gum while he spoke.
    “You hear what we hear, Cap. No visuals, yet. I got spotters on the roof. They can’t see shit. “
    Nina answered, “Doesn’t sound too close. Did we get a pinball in yet?”
    “No, Sir,” came the reply. “We sent the request up yesterday when we realized what we were dealing with. 1 ^ st Mech is shipping one over in the morning. We’ve got rockets down here, if it comes to that.”
    “I don’t want to screw around with rockets. That’s not the best way to deal with these things,” Nina sighed and looked to the ceiling as if searching for an answer there. After a moment, she ordered, “Look, bottle things up tight. Stay out of sight. I want to wait until we get a pinball before we start messing around with it.”
    “Roger that.”
    The radio conversation ended. Nina looked at Odin and commanded, “Silent security.”
    Odin trotted off.
    “It’s okay. Go back to bed,” Nina said to Denise and added a quick but not-so-convincing smile.
    Denise hurried to ask, “What’s a pinball?”
    “It’s a special piece of, well, of equipment that we use against Shadows when they pop up. It causes them to, um, sort of break apart, I think. Now I need to get some more sleep, I’ve been going full speed the last couple of days. Good night.”
    Nina turned around. She stopped when a new noise reached in from outside: A swooshing sound, as if a large object waved through the air; like a gigantic club or baseball bat hitting nothing.
    Denise stood perfectly still. Any sense of security drained away. Once again, she felt like a little girl hiding under a porch watching a policeman pulled into the air by a tentacle, or crouching in the back seat of an abandoned mini van while a furry crocodile swallowed one of her schoolmates whole.
    Nina pivoted around to Denise and saw those terrified eyes. The soldier stared at the girl for several long seconds, obviously unsure how to act. But then something clicked home. Some internal circuit breaker connecting a wire between her mind and her heart.
    She crossed the hall into Denise’s room and closed the door behind them.
    “Hey, hey,” Nina said softly. “It’s okay. We’re safe here.”
    Denise squeezed in tight against Nina, as if trying to hide inside the strong woman’s arms. The two slid to the floor, propped up beneath a window.
    That swooshing sounded once more, followed by something howling, maybe one of the few remaining Sloths. Still far away, but scary nonetheless.
    Nina gave the kid a firm hug. Denise’s trembling slowed and, despite the occasional buzz and swoosh from outside, the little girl felt safe enough to fall asleep again.
    “General Stonewall, Sir,” Kristy Kaufman entered the command tent.
    “Yes, Captain?”
    Stonewall sat at a foldable table. In front of him lay several slices of barely toasted bread and two sunny side up eggs, both half-eaten. An oil lamp lit the small room in a soft glow. A hint of frost escaped their mouths with every word.
    “Latest report on enemy movements from reconnaissance.”
    “Oh, please, do tell, Captain. Pardon my manners; care for some breakfast? I could have more eggs delivered.”
    “No thank you, Sir.”
    “Well then, you read and I shall eat,” with that, Garrett Stonewall McAllister returned to devouring his morning meal.
    “Reconnaissance reports that several smaller enemy formations have regrouped in Parkersburg north of Bladen Lakes State Forest. They believe an additional group has formed in Kerr, west of the forest. Both those groups have made contact with enemy convoys and are now receiving supplies and fuel.”
    “I see.”
    “The Hivvan forces that had been in Clinton took heavy casualties and pulled out heading south. Their intentions are unknown. Additional smaller groups are beginning to regroup in areas both northwest and west of Bladen Lakes.”
    “You don’t say. Well, it seems our General Shepherd has a clairvoyance surpassing my own. That is difficult to admit.”
    “But he’s not going to get to Conway before you get to Dillon, Sir.”
    “Oh? And what is the reason behind such a brass prediction?”
    Kristy explained, “1st Mech is held up west of Wilmington. They’ve been stuck there for three or four days now.”
    “Interesting,” Stonewall set his fork aside and considered. “Let me guess, a field of Hivvan snapmines? Those blasted contraptions certainly delayed our advance, and electrified a few of our boys, too. Nasty way to die.”
    “No, Sir, they-”
    “The Screamers, then. If the Hivvans chose to strafe our lines, they certainly spent time annoying General Shepherd, too. Still, not much of a delay. I doubt it would account for his current predicament.”
    “Not Screamers either, General. It seems-”
    “Well of course then, he is facing the same supply difficulties as ourselves. That is, certainly, the reason for his-”
    “General, perhaps you should return to breakfast and allow me to complete my report?”
    Stonewall opened his mouth, paused, and then retrieved his fork and used it to fill that mouth with another bite.
    Kristy told him, “Rumor has it there’s a town of people who won’t allow 1 ^ st Mech to go through. It seems that if General Shepherd is to move forward, he’s going to face a village full of people who will resist his passage.”
    “Oh,” Stonewall considered that. “Oh, indeed. Yes, that is a remarkable development.”
    “I don’t understand it myself, General. If this is true…”
    “If true,” General Stonewall McAllister pushed aside his breakfast plate, retrieved his hat, and stood. “It creates a rather difficult-and I should say ‘interesting’-situation. Well, Captain, thank you for your report. Prepare the men for departure; I hope to make good time today.”
    “General, may I inquire where you are going?”
    “Just a morning walk to inspect the ground ahead.”
    He moved around Kristy and exited out into the chilled air of pre-dawn darkness. The General strolled among the tents of his temporary camp in the parking lot of a convenience store. Soldiers rolled sleeping bags, others cooked over open fires, one tried on boot after boot in search of something that fit best.
    Stonewall climbed a short rise and stood on the pavement of I-95. Far off to the east an orange glow mustered on the horizon as a new day prepared to arrive. Those first sunbeams provided just enough light for him to read a road sign in the distance.
    I wonder how much has changed since my last farewell?
    Another interesting question.

    The scratch came at the door again. However, this time Odin scratched at the wrong door. Still, Nina heard him.
    She moved and that woke Denise. The little girl rolled over onto the floor in a ball.
    Nina rose to her feet with a crack in her back, the price for sleeping in a sitting position against a hard wall.
    The Captain opened the door and saw Odin across the hall. The dog whined. While Nina could not communicate with K9s, she certainly knew when her friend tried to warn her of danger.
    Two minutes later Captain Forest-dressed in a black and gray tactical outfit-stood downstairs at the main entrance. Denise had tried to follow but Nina forced her to stay behind with Odin ordered to ‘protect’ the girl.
    “It’s up on North 23 ^ rd street,” a burly Hunter-Killer Century Commander reported as he and Nina exited the building. “My K9s are giving it shit but they won’t last long.”
    “Yeah, well, neither will we if we don’t get that pinball.”
    A noise-that electronic, buzzing sound-echoed over the rooftops.
    The Commander said, “Damn thing is pretty active. Why didn’t we see it before?”
    Another soldier stood by a Humvee parked at the curb. He wore the typical black BDUs of the Hunter-Killers but carried a heavy knapsack and Nina saw the back of his Humvee packed with crates. She knew him to be a heavy weapons ‘Specialist” assigned to one of the K9 Legions.
    “Captain,” the Specialist called. “We’re expecting the pinball some time this morning. It’s coming down from Raleigh in a convoy.”
    Nina told the two men, “I was hoping to hunker down until we got that pinball, but it’s too active to ignore, now. Besides, we have to show the survivors around here that we can handle things like Shadows.”
    “What did we do to get this thing in our shit?” The Commander asked. “Kill off all its food? Is it running around now because it’s hungry?”
    “They don’t eat,” Nina explained as she sat in the shotgun seat after the Commander jumped in the back. “Not as far as we know. I think it’s just pissed off because we’re around.”
    “Guess they just don’t like people,” the Specialist, moving behind the wheel, said.
    As the vehicle pulled away Nina asked, “Who does?”
    The Humvee headed north beneath a sky just starting to turn blue and with long shadows stretching across the pavement in the low sun.
    K9s in groups of three appeared on the sidewalks and side streets every few blocks, sniffing the air and searching for hiding hostiles. The pacification of Wilmington had reached the point that the dogs were set loose on their own to hunt down stragglers. If they found a big problem, they barked for help.
    A Shadow is a big problem.
    As they wove through the business district, Nina saw the leftovers from the Shadow’s nighttime visit. Buildings, cars, fences, trees: pieces of each had simply been removed. It was as if they were drawings and something had walked down the street swinging an eraser.
    If a key support was erased then, yes, the level above might fall as had happened to one office building. Otherwise the chunk was simply gone, surgically removed leaving behind a hole with perfectly smooth edges: a sedan missing everything between the hood and the trunk; a fast food restaurant split in half as if it were some kind of play set for a giant child; an overpass neatly cut in two pieces.
    Nina heard the swoosh and crackle of the creature wreaking devastation.
    “All heavy teams report to North 23 ^ rd street,” Nina radioed. “We’re going to need rockets. A lot of heavy stuff.”
    They turned left and drove through a smashed gate leading on to the grounds of ‘EUE/Screen Gems Studios.’ This large compound was one of the reasons why, in the old world, Wilmington became known as the Hollywood of the East.
    Several rows of long and tall featureless buildings comprised the studio grounds with paved lots and roadways between.
    As they drove onto the front lot, the Shadow appeared in the hazy early morning light.
    It did not look real; more like a bad special effect from a 1950s science fiction flick. A tall and lanky creature standing nearly seven stories tall, the Shadow resembled a stick figure man but blurry and with smooth edges and no discernable hands or feet. Indeed, it did not appear to touch the ground, walking on some invisible cushion.
    No features-no eyes, no ears-no appendages other than two arms and two legs. Nothing but black. In fact, it resembled less a creature and more a walking void cut from the fabric of reality.
    Whatever the Shadow touched, it annihilated. That is to say, matter disappeared. Vanished as if it never existed.
    As it moved, it ‘swooshed’ its arms back and forth. Sometimes it walked straight though buildings. Walls and windows, metal and rock, anything it touched disintegrated.
    This Shadow moved out from behind a tall, warehouse-like studio building. In front of it scrambled a pack of K9s, mostly Rottweilers. They could not actually fight this monster. Instead, they barked and snapped in an attempt to delay or confuse it but no one could be sure that a Shadow had sentience enough to be delayed or confused.
    Nina’s crew stopped a hundred yards from the monster on the open pavement of the front parking lot. She spoke into her radio, “All units we have sighted the target on the grounds of the Screen Gem Studios. We need immediate assistance.”
    That electronic, static noise buzzed everywhere. Nina felt the hair on her arms and neck stand straight.
    One of the Shadow’s long, featureless arms swooshed at the pack of Grenadiers. It passed through the front half of a Rottweiler with no resistance, as easily as waving in air. The head, neck, shoulders and front paws of the dog disappeared with no trace. Messy innards from the lifeless back half oozed out as the remains plopped to the pavement.
    The Shadow turned and ‘walked’ into a huge, long building. As it made contact with walls, those walls evaporated. No dust, no crash, no smashing. Instead, annihilation at some molecular level that left no atom intact.
    As it erased one wall, a banner from an internal ceiling beam fluttered to the ground. It read, “Shooting Stage: One Tree Hill.” Nina saw catwalks and row upon row of colored lights hanging above a sound stage where, apparently, this show once filmed.
    It moved off toward the back lot, seemingly uninterested in the dogs or the people for the moment. Nina did not waste the opportunity.
    “Listen, we need to mass our fire,” she spoke to the Specialist and the Century Commander. “You know the drill. Sometimes you hit these things, sometimes you don’t. Grab one of the AT4s.”
    The Specialist warned, “These three are all I got left, Cap.”
    “Then they’d better do the job, right?”
    Each soldier grabbed one of the shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets.
    Nina then whistled to grab the attention of the K9s trailing the beast.
    She waved and yelled, “Withdraw!”
    The canines enthusiastically retreated from following the walking void and assembled around Nina and the two H-K handlers.
    However, the Shadow noticed their withdrawal, or perhaps it heard Nina’s whistle, if it could hear at all. Regardless, the shambling creature changed direction, returning toward the front lot and stepping through an old catering truck on the way.
    “Spread out, hurry!” She ordered the other two men who then jogged in opposite directions, trying to flank the Shadow as it closed.
    It strode into the parking lot, although no part of the blackness seemed to touch the ground, despite making the motion of walking. No sound, no tremor, no impact she could see. Again, as if it did not exactly exist in her reality.
    The dogs growled and snapped again, turning to face the approaching monster.
    Nina yelled, “Fire!”
    All three rockets launched nearly simultaneously.
    Nina aimed directly where the creature’s ‘chest’ might be. The projectile passed straight through the target and headed harmlessly into the morning sky, its contrail drifting in the light breeze.
    A second rocket came from the Shadow’s left and went through the blackness of what was supposed to be its head and continued on into that same orange atmosphere.
    A third rocket, from the Specialist, impacted in what might have been the ‘gut’ of the thin entity. It exploded and shoved the Shadow backwards, not so much staggering as sliding. While the projectile hit, the explosion from the warhead seemed to miss, as if the entity faded out of existence in the microsecond between impact and detonation.
    Undeterred, the Shadow moved toward Nina. She jumped in the Humvee and skirted away as the Shadow tried to smash one of its arms into the vehicle. It hit the pavement, leaving behind a gigantic pothole in the form of a perfect circle.
    The other two soldiers and the K9s scattered. Nina drove between studio buildings with the Shadow in pursuit. While not particularly fast, it held the advantage of not having to go around anything, it simply sliced through buildings, cars, and walls as if they never existed in the first place.
    As she struggled to round a left turn at the rear of the lot, her radio crackled.
    “Captain Forest! The supply truck is here! We got the damn pinball!”
    She stopped driving. The Shadow bore down on her.
    “Send the Grenadiers to keep this thing busy!”
    Nina slammed the gas as the Shadow bent its lanky frame and pounded one black arm at her. The strike missed, leaving yet another perfectly smooth scar in the pavement.
    She raced to the front lot again. As she did, the pack of ten Grenadiers hurried in the other direction to confront and, again, attempt to delay the monster.
    She and the Specialist rendezvoused with a deuce-and-half army truck at the front gate.
    The driver of the supply truck jumped out and pointed in the distance at the tall black stick of a thing walking around. Like all survivors of Armageddon, the man had seen his share of nasty beasts but few matched a Shadow for outright weirdness.
    Nina and the Specialist hurried to the rear of his truck. There they found a three-foot square metal box.
    “Throw it in the Humvee,” she commanded.
    “You ever use one of these before?” the Specialist asked as he helped Nina move the surprisingly heavy box.
    “Once myself. Watched a couple of other times. Easy now, right in the back of the Humvee. You?”
    “Watched once. Didn’t get to see it work, the Shadow took out the guys and then went away before we had another chance. How the hell does it work?”
    They thumped it down it he cargo hold.
    “Fucking magic.”
    “Look, I don’t know,” she told what she knew. “It’s a byproduct of the Hivvan matter-makers we’ve been using. I went to a briefing once where Anita Nehru said they think the Shadow only exists in some kind of ghost state. I forget the word. Ather-all, something like that. I think the pinball contains anti-matter or something like it. Something left over from the matter-makers from the transfiguration shit they do to the atomic structure of-oh shit, I don’t have time for this.”
    She flicked a latch on the top of the box and opened the lid. The pinball earned its name from its looks, albeit much larger than something one might find in an arcade. The silver surface of the ‘ball’ fluttered a little, as if not quite solid. The ball itself did not touch the sides of the box; anti-gravity circuits similar to the ones found in an Eagle air ship kept the device from touching anything.
    “Wow,” the Specialist said. “I hear it takes like forever to make one of these.”
    “Look, I got to move. Pull the K9s back. If this doesn’t work, keep the civilians out of its path until you can find more rockets.”
    Nina jumped into the driver’s seat and drove off in the Humvee. Behind her, the Specialist and the Commander whistled for the Grenadiers to retreat.
    The Shadow wobbled along the parking lot adjacent to a large clearing amidst a patch of woodland. Pieces of a castle-a prop from some movie-remained in that clearing.
    Nina drove the Humvee directly at the Shadow. Retreating Grenadiers raced the opposite direction. She counted only five. The dogs had bought her time but at the price of half their number.
    As she drove, she honked the horn, grabbing the entity’s attention.
    She stepped on the gas, aiming straight for the black void.
    It reached down to greet the suicidal human. Nina threw herself from the vehicle. Her body hit and rolled along the pavement. She felt a stinging pain in her wrist and a solid thump on her head.
    The Humvee coasted into the creature, into the black space that defined the Shadow. A blinding flash of light marked the impact, but no noise.
    Nina lifted her aching head from the pavement and watched the Shadow blow apart like a shattered window. That static sound rippled through the air growing so loud it sounded like an electronic scream.
    When the sound subsided, the ‘pieces’ of black that had been the creature fluttered like feathers carried on the wind…then faded away.

    Despite a bandage wrapped on her wrist, a deep thigh bruise, and a throbbing ache in her head, Nina drove Denise home to Wrightsville Beach.
    “You know,” Denise said as they approached the row of condominiums where most of the Wrightsville survivors lived. “I suppose, if you really wanted me to, I could hang at that City Hall.”
    “You could, could you? Well, it was fun having you around but I think Mr. Brock is probably missing you.”
    Denise smiled devilishly and said, “Yeah sure, if that’s the excuse you’re going to use to see Jim.”
    Nina shot the girl a stern look. Before that look could dissolve into a smile, Nina refocused on the road ahead.
    Brock met them at the condominium complex the ‘orphans’ called home. He wore a disapproving expression.
    “You should not have done that. We were worried sick about you.”
    “Hey, like, I’m old enough to take care of myself.”
    The young girl turned to face Nina before she went inside.
    “Um, yeah, well, see-ya.”
    “Hey,” Nina stopped her. “You want to get together again, you don’t have to stow away.”
    Denise tried to hide a smile as she turned around and disappeared inside.
    Jim and Nina stood on the sidewalk alone in silence for a moment. It took him that long to realize the woman had injuries.
    “Hey, you look all banged up.”
    “Gee, thanks, aren’t you the charmer?”
    “Well, I mean you look great. No, wait, I mean to say that looks like it hurts, but not in the ‘oh my God what happened to your face’ way.”
    Nina said, “We ran into a pretty nasty baddy today. Don’t worry, Denise wasn’t anywhere near it.”
    “No but she was near you. You should be honored. D’ isn’t the type to start hero-worshipping the first person who comes along with a gun and an attitude.”
    “I have an attitude?”
    Brock stumbled, “Well, um, I meant to say-”
    “Yeah,” Nina nodded. “I have an attitude.”
    The radio crackled, “HK teams, two Devilbats sighted in the northeast quad. Need assistance to track and kill. All units please respond.”
    Nina walked to the radio lying on the front seat of the Humvee.
    “This is Forest, I’m coming.”
    She sat in the driver’s seat and turned to Jim Brock. “I’ve got to get going. I’ve got a job to do.”
    Brock’s eyes sagged. “Yeah, sure, I know. But hey, thanks for bringing her back.”
    “I’d like to stop by and see her again. I kind of feel responsible for her now. Besides, she’s got some sharp instincts. Pretty good reflexes and all.”
    “She’s a good kid. They all are. Just, a bad break for them. For all of us, I suppose.”
    “Better get a taste for it, Mr. Brock, beause it’s the only world we’ve got these days.”
    “I’ll try. But speaking of tastes, do you have a taste for seafood?”
    He explained, “We eat a lot of seafood around here. I don’t know if you guys-I mean girls-I mean whatever-get much of that.”
    “When I’m not in the field, I live in Annapolis. We get a lot of crabs. Not a lot of regular fish though. Not for me at least.”
    “Then you should stop back when you get a chance. I know a good seafood place.”
    Nina smiled. “Do they take credit cards?”
    “Miss Forest-I mean, Captain Forest-I mean, Nina,” he stopped and sucked in a deep breath. “What I mean to say is, rescuing me and the kids from Mutants gives you good credit around here.”
    Nina shifted into gear.
    “I guess I’ll have to collect on that sooner or later.”

15. Olive Branch

    “You told me, I remember, glory, built
    On selfish principles, is shame and guilt.”
    — William Cowper
    On August 27, as young Denise Cannon followed Nina Forest through the streets of Wilmington, Trevor stood in the first floor den staring out the French casement windows through eyes as sharp as lasers. Behind him stood Dante Jones and Gordon Knox. On the grounds in front of him, he saw a trio of Dobermans patrolling.
    “Tell me again how it is a guy can walk up to this window, tap on the damn glass, and then walk away without anyone seeing.”
    He pivoted about and locked those laser-eyes on Dante Jones.
    “Do you have an answer, Dante? Can you give me one good damn reason how this happened?”
    Dante swallowed. “Maybe we’re not dealing with a man here. Maybe-”
    “Is that the excuse? This is some sort of ghost? JB’s grandpa saw a man standing outside this window, a few feet from my son’s nose. He stood there and friggin’ waved at them for Christ’s sake!”
    “He slipped through. Want do you want me to say?”
    “If you can’t stop ONE man, how the HELL are you going to stop a Hivvan sniper or one of Voggoth’s assassins? Could you even stop the damn girl scouts from selling cookies at my front door? Could you? ANSWER ME!”
    Trevor stopped and waited, his breath heaved in and out. Dante stood with his shoulders shaking-just a little-and blood nearly coming from his bit lip.
    “I’m sorry, Trevor-”
    “Sorry doesn’t-”
    “-let ME finish. I’m sorry I got a dozen guys to guard the mansion instead of three times that number. I’m sorry the only time we have a helicopter around here is when you loan us one for a couple of hours from the military. I’m sorry I got guys out there trying to fight Jaw-Wolves with swords and Devilbats with. 22 caliber handguns. I’m sorry I can’t turn god damn water into god damn WINE!”
    “We’re all short on resources, Dante, but I don’t hear bitching from my Generals.”
    “Fine, then put one of them in charge of Internal Security. I never asked for this. You appointed me, remember? Like you appoint everybody else. There’s got to be an old Chief of Police somewhere who would want this job. Fire me and give the job to them.”
    Trevor pointed his finger and said, “Not that easy, Dante. I’m not going to fire you. You need to step up and do the job.”
    Dante Jones eyed Trevor and spoke in a much softer voice, “And why won’t you fire me? Is it because you enjoy bitching me out? Is this your revenge for when we were kids and I bossed you around? Or maybe if you fired me, then you have to admit that you made a mistake appointing me in the first place. That would make people wonder about all your other appointees. How many mistakes are out there, Trevor?”
    Trevor’s face turned red but before he could explode Gordon Knox physically stepped between the men.
    “I think it’s safe to say we’ve covered the ground on this. Dante, I’ll see if I can steal some manpower from Intelligence to help you out around here for a few days. In the meantime, you did lift fingerprints from the glass, so see where that leads and let me know. Perhaps my people can access the FBI data banks down in Washington.”
    Dante held his eyes on Trevor for a moment longer before letting out a long exhale.
    “Yeah, okay. Fine. I’ll do that.”
    Jones snapped around and marched out. Knox watched him go and then gently shut the door.
    Trevor returned his eyes to the lawn and trees outside the window. He said, “The last thing I thought I’d ever hear you do is intervene on Dante’s behalf.”
    “He does raise an interesting question. Exactly why is Dante Jones in charge of Internal Security? His background isn’t a perfect fit.”
    “There weren’t exactly a lot of people to choose from that first year. Most of the guys with actual police training had to be converted to military men. Besides, Internal Security seemed like an easy job in the early days. One that I thought would be hard to screw up.”
    “I see.”
    “Dante has been a friend of mine since I was a kid. I know him. I can trust him, and I can trust his judgment.”
    “Trevor, it’s obvious that after the invasion you somehow or another managed to learn a lot of new skills. I’ve heard it said that you were a car salesman in the old world, but now you can shoot guns and fly helicopters. Most people aren’t that lucky. Dante Jones didn’t get some special gift just because aliens came here. Maybe you’re expecting too much. Most people are still just the same regular folks they were in the old days.”
    Trevor ignored Knox’s point and mumbled, “He might not have the background in security, but he’s got a good head. I just have to stay on him. I have to push him.”
    Knox remarked, “I’d say you push him quite a bit.”
    “So now you’re worried about Dante’s feelings?”
    “No, no, I have more important things to worry about.”
    Without turning, Trevor said, “Yes, I heard a report. The Hivvans are regrouping inside the pocket.”
    “I estimate we have a few days before they become a significant threat, but the fact is that supplies have started rolling in to the enemy forces inside the pocket. They have established small operating bases and are improving communications.”
    “How long?”
    “Not an exact science, Trevor, you know that.”
    “How long?”
    “Okay, you want a guess, I’ll give you one. Three or four days before things get iffy. If we’re lucky, we might have another week. That’s best case. By then they will be an effective fighting force capable of punching out of the pocket we’re putting them in.”
    Trevor finally turned around and faced Knox. He pinched the bridge of his nose and admitted, “Southern Command says we’re running out of aviation fuel and bombs. Pilots are exhausted and they are starting to catch some anti-air flak. We lost one plane to a mechanical failure yesterday and another to enemy fire, a couple more are out of action for lack of spare parts. I can count the number of operational planes in that area with one hand. I guess it’s all bad news today.”
    “No, Sir, not at all,” Knox’s voice picked up a notch. “We still have time. Take out the supply depots and the plan will still work. Stonewall should make it in time. He’s facing opposition in his sector but nothing he can’t get through to complete his mission.”
    “You know I know that,” Trevor responded and stared at Gordon Knox. “You can stop playing games, Gordon. You’re not here to talk about Stonewall.”
    Knox nodded his head. “Okay then. No games.”
    “What have your agents found out about New Winnabow?”
    “There are four council members, each one roughly representing a different quadrant of the town. They are elected. The four then elect a ‘Chief’ councilman and a Sergeant-at-Arms.”
    Trevor replied, “I know that. I also know they have about fifty armed militiamen on duty at any one time. They have security zones each with its own warning bell to summon reinforcements as needed. Armaments are limited to primarily shotguns, hunting rifles, and pistols. They keep a few Molotov cocktails around and their armory has additional weapons but nothing we would consider heavy.”
    “Ah yes, of course. Your K9s, no doubt.”
    Trevor did not answer. He did not need to tell Gordon how much Tyr had learned by merely roaming the town for a couple of hours.
    “So what can you tell me that I don’t already know?”
    Knox tried, “The Sergeant-At-Arms sets duty rosters and maintains control over the armory. Private citizens do not have firearms in their homes. Each councilman can call out additional militiamen on a few minutes notice. It’s similar to how the United States used to be with the National Guard; the Governors had to mobilize them for use in their states. Same thing here, but it’s the individual councilmen who are responsible.”
    “So…” Trevor led.
    “…so if you’re planning on occupying New Winnabow you’ll want to decapitate the council first. That would cut down casualties on both sides.”
    Trevor mulled that over.
    Of course…take out the council then send in the infantry…could probably do the whole thing without knocking over a building He slammed his fist onto the desktop. A pencil jumped and then rolled to the floor.
    “Why the hell am I even thinking about this? We’re talking about a living, thriving human settlement. We’re talking about people. I’ve been doing this all these years to save people, not kill them. Not take away their homes and lives!”
    Stone grunted in disgust. Disgust with himself. For a moment there, he planned a military strategy to use against human beings. Not Hivvans. Not The Order. Not Redcoats. Not Vikings.
    Human beings.
    Peaceful human beings.
    For all he knew, Parsons and New Winnabow could be right.
    That thought sent a shiver along his spine. Gordon noticed a change in Trevor’s demeanor.
    “What is it?”
    Trevor spoke in an almost trance-like state. “All these years…I’ve been looking for a deeper meaning to Armageddon. I know this is about more than taking our planet. It is about…something about subjugating mankind. What if Parsons and his council have the right idea? What if this is a test to see if man can live without violence? His people haven’t been attacked. Jesus Christ…what if I’m the bad guy?”
    “Sir,” Gordon interrupted Trevor. “What do you want me to do?”
    “I want an alternative route around New Winnabow.”
    “There is none and we’re running out of time. You have two options. The first is to push through New Winnabow some way or another. The second is to call off the pincer movement, pull 1 ^ st and 2 ^ nd Mech off the line and let the Hivvan Corp escape to Columbia.”
    “Those aren’t acceptable options.”
    “Damn it, Trevor,” Gordon snapped. “Do you know why I’m here? Do you know why I follow you?”
    Trevor did not answer; he just stared at Knox.
    “Because you do what has to be done. When I look at you- when we all look at you — we see a man who can see a future for humanity. We see a man who will stop at nothing to get there. We see a man who knows that, yes, we are in a situation where the ends justify the means. That ends is the survival of our species.”
    “So I should kill the people in New Winnabow to save the rest of us?”
    “Yes!” Gordon nearly shouted. “If we are fortunate to win this war then in two hundred years our great grand children can second guess everything you did like they second guessed Truman for dropping the bomb. If we don’t win…it’s all over. There will be no one to pass judgment on you.”
    “If I destroy these people for the greater good, what will our grand children say of me?”
    Gordon narrowed his eyes, shook his head in the slightest, and with a combination frustration and awe, told him, “That’s why we follow you, Trevor. Because you don’t care what they will say. You know how important this is. You do whatever it takes. You’re not some slimy politician, you’re a leader.”
    Knox’s words sparked something in Trevor.
    “That’s it,” Trevor said. “A politician.”
    “Evan Godfrey. He has a silver tongue. He’s just the man I need for this.”
    Gordon smiled but not in humor.
    “You’re going to ask for his help? You’re willing to swallow your pride that much?”
    “You said it, Gordon. I’ll do whatever it takes. If I have to crawl on my belly and kiss Evan Godfrey’s boot I’ll do it, if he can get us through this town without bloodshed. Bring him to me. Now.”

    Evan Godfrey and Dante Jones stood in front of Trevor’s desk in the old Command Center on the second floor of the mansion.
    “You want me to what?” The shock in Godfrey’s voice carried out of the room and down the hall, practically through the entire house.
    “I want you to go there and convince them to let our army pass.”
    Evan glanced at Dante Jones then back to Trevor.
    “But I agree with the guy down there. He shouldn’t let you pass through. They’re a sovereign country. Besides, I don’t think we should be pushing this war so much. Take this as a sign and pull the troops back.”
    Trevor stood and snapped, “Evan!”
    Godfrey, surprised, stopped talking.
    Stone calmed and explained, “You’re not hearing me. You’re not listening, Evan. I didn’t call you in here to get your opinion. I have to go through that town, one way or another. Do you understand? We’re beyond the point of no return. Either he lets us pass or we push through.”
    Dante chimed in, “When you say push through, you mean a fight. You mean we’re going to shoot up other humans.”
    “Oh,” Godfrey nodded as he came to understand. “I get it. You think I can be more persuasive. You think I can trick him into letting us through.”
    “ Convince him,” Trevor corrected. “Convince him that it’s in his best interest. Make sure he knows I have no choice. Promise him whatever it takes-food, fuel, medicine-whatever. But Evan, make sure he knows that if he doesn’t let us pass I must send the army in there. Tanks. Guns. Make sure he knows I will have to do that.”
    Godfrey nodded, “You want me to convince him that all the blood will be on his hands. That the decision is his and his alone. You want your conscience to be clear, is that it?”
    “Damn it, Evan! For once, can you see the big picture? Can you see the position we’re in?”
    Evan fell quiet again.
    Stone asked, “Will you do this?”
    Evan stared at Trevor. He stared at him waiting in anticipation of the word he needed to hear. Trevor understood and made the concession.
    “I can only imagine,” Evan said seriously. “How hard that was for you.”
    “Not as hard as sending my men to kill other human beings.”
    “Okay then, I’ll go to New Winnabow. I’ll try and convince them to let us through. “
    “What does this have to do with me?” Dante asked.
    Trevor swallowed his pride again.
    “I’ve been on your case a lot, Dante. One thing hasn’t changed, though. I trust your judgment. I’m thinking maybe you can help figure out what it will take.”
    “And our intruder?”
    Trevor waved a hand and told him, “Leave it to your lieutenant. What’s his name? Roos?”
    “Yeah. Ray Roos.”
    “He can handle it,” Trevor said in what sounded to Dante’s ears as the closest his old friend would ever come to an apology.
    “When do we leave?” Evan asked.

    On Friday, August 28, while Nina Forest and the Hunter-Killers battled a Shadow and Stonewall McAllister’s forward elements moved to within twenty miles of the South Carolina border, Evan Godfrey arrived with Dante Jones on the outskirts of New Winnabow.
    “As they used to say in the old days,” Robert Parsons said as he greeted the newcomers. “If I had a nickel for every tour I gave of our town, I’d be a rich man.”
    Evan shook his hand, saying, “Fortunately, nickels are not the most important currency of our new world. My name is Evan Godfrey; this is Dante Jones. We are members of the council of our…our…”
    Parsons finished for the man, “Your Empire. I see that word does not slip easily from your lips.”
    “It is not a word I like. You must be Robert Parsons. Chief of the New Winnabow council.”
    “Yes,” he said. “My people elected me. How about you, Mr. Godfrey?”
    “I’m afraid I was appointed. If it means anything to you, I wish it were otherwise.”
    The group moved away from the Eagle airship that had delivered the two representatives. Both Evan and Dante entered the town unarmed and without escort.
    “So tell me, Mr. Godfrey. Why are you here?”
    Dante Jones decided to join the conversation, “We’re here to find a solution to our problem.”
    “It is not my problem, Mr. Jones. I hate to be so blunt but we are not associated with this in any way. We did not ask for your armies to come along the road.”
    “I am afraid, sir, that it is your problem,” Dante corrected. “You need to understand that.”
    “My friend is right, Mr. Parsons,” Godfrey agreed. “As is true in so much of life, we don’t always get to choose our problems. They choose us. I don’t know how much weight this will carry, but I am against the actions of my military. I oppose the plan they are executing. I oppose the demand that they go through your town. If it were up to me, I would turn those armies around and never return to New Winnabow.”
    They reached the town proper and walked amidst the population. Some of those people carried baskets of bread baked in brick ovens; the aroma stirred the appetite. Others led livestock, one man pushed a wheelbarrow packed high with building materials.
    Evan tried to dive into business, but the sight and sounds of New Winnabow took him by surprise. It had been one thing to hear the town described, another to see it in action. The more he saw, the more New Winnabow resembled the vision Evan held for the future of humanity. A far cry from the path of Trevor Stone.
    “What do you think of our hamlet, Mr. Godfrey?” Parsons asked as they rounded a corner. A group of children ran by playing tag.
    “This is…you have built something amazing here.”
    “You might appreciate this,” Parsons directed them toward the arena in the middle of town.
    “Wow, pretty impressive,” Dante said as he took in the sight of the outer walls that stood five stories tall.
    “You built all this, by hand?” Godfrey wondered.
    “For the most part, yes,” Parsons answered. “But out of necessity, not desire. We do not shun technology. However, we try to avoid any dependence on fueled vehicles or machines. That’s because we know our access to fuel is very limited, so why get used to something that will be gone in the near future?”
    “Makes sense to me,” Jones remarked.
    Parsons led them into the amphitheater. They moved through a tight, dark tunnel, rounded a corner, and then emerged in the stands of the stadium.
    Bleachers surrounded three quarters of the complex, all focused on a large stage. A round, well kempt grassy field occupied the center of everything. On that particular day, a dozen people sat in folding chairs on that lawn, facing the stage.
    In its entirety, Evan guessed the stadium could easily hold five hundred people, perhaps more.
    A woman stood on the stage and addressed the people in the seats.
    “The militia cannot react quickly to all threats! Therefore, it only makes sense that individual households be permitted to keep firearms! This is a reasonable…”
    A collection of both boos and applause came from the crowd. The woman continued to state her case in a passionate voice.
    Parsons smiled and said, “This is our society at work, Mr. Godfrey.”
    “ Evan, please.”
    “Evan, here we have a group of citizens debating issues of importance to our community. They are trying to influence opinion on these matters. Eventually they might bring these views to the council’s attention so we can draft a referendum.”
    Evan almost drooled as he surmised, “You let the people vote on the laws?”
    “Not every law,” Parsons replied. “We have a basic charter that outlines the parameters of how we want to live. Our constitution, if you will. In this case, our charter does not allow for the possession of firearms in individual households. Advocates for a change on this issue can present their case to all those who will listen.”
    “Just like the old days,” Evan said. “Change the minds of the people, then try and change the laws. Splendid.”
    “Gee Evan,” Dante spoke in nearly a whisper, but loud enough for his comrade to hear. “A political rally. Why look, it’s the National Rifle Association of New Winnabow. Wonder if they employ any lobbyists?”
    A woman sitting in the crowd of listeners spotted the group, rose to her feet, and ascended the stairs at a fast trot. Her approach pulled Evan’s attention from the debate.
    The woman stopped a step lower than the group and spoke to Parsons. “What is this? More mercenaries? What a brave Emperor, sending his lackeys to do what he couldn’t accomplish. Tell him we will not be intimidated. “
    “It seems, Sharon, I am spending far too much time insisting that you calm your voice. We will not be intimidated, but we will also not forget our manners.”
    “Father, you are wasting too much of your precious time welcoming guests from this phony Empire. Let Billy Ray turn them away next time. You should be tending to your office.”
    Parsons sighed, “Please forgive my daughter. She is full of fire.”
    “Yes,” Evan said, staring. “I can see that.”
    “But she is also right,” the elder admitted. “I do have responsibilities. Besides, you will wish to address the council no doubt?”
    Dante answered because he was not sure Evan heard the question. “Yes, we would. As soon as possible.”
    The Chief Councilman turned to his daughter and told her, “You’re right, Sharon. I do have much to do. I also have to gather the council to hear the words of Mr. Godfrey and Mr. Jones. So I’ll tell you what, you give these two gentlemen the tour. Show them what New Winnabow is about. Tell them, Sharon. Tell them about you.”
    “Father, I have no intention of-”
    “Sharon, we all must contribute in order for our community to survive. In this case, you might be able to help more than you imagine. Tell Mr. Godfrey and Mr. Jones everything you can about us. Perhaps then they will go away and only return when they desire to join us.”
    Sharon groaned.
    Robert Parsons smiled, “It is settled then. I will gather the council. Let us plan that meeting for after the dinner hour. That is, if you men can spare the time to eat with us?”
    Jones, again, answered for them both, “Yeah, I mean, if you’re going to have some of that bread, count me in.”
    Parsons moved off, exiting the arena and leaving the men with his scowling daughter.
    Evan smiled and tried to speak, “Well, Sharon-”
    “That’s Ms. Parsons, to you.”
    “Well, Ms. Parsons,” Evan started. “What can you tell me about New Winnabow?”

    Sharon Parsons did not smile or string more than five words together at a time during the first two hours of the tour, despite Evan’s incessant questions.
    “Do your farmers have problems with insect infestations?” he asked when shown the large wheat field to the west of town.
    “How many cattle do you have?” he wondered when they toured the animal hostels to the southwest of the village.
    “Do you have a monetary system?” he inquired after visiting a ‘downtown’ woodshop.
    “Sometimes,” “more than one-hundred,” and “no,” came her curt answers.
    At some point during the second two hours her disposition improved, a little. That is, her answers stretched longer and came more willingly.
    She took them to see a barn full of hand-operated grain grinders, then they visited a weaving room for fabrics, and then a workshop for melting and recycling metals.
    With each new sight, Evan grew further impressed with New Winnabow.
    As late afternoon gave way to early evening, Sharon introduced the two men to Tory, her six-year-old boy, when she stopped at a babysitting center to get him.
    On their way through downtown, Dante and Evan heard the call of mothers and fathers summoning their families for the evening meal and the half-hearted protests of children who wanted “just one more minute” or complained “but it was my turn to hide!”
    Alluring aromas drifted from open windows, aromas of meat roasting and stews bubbling. The visitors overheard the sounds of family conversations, gentle laughter, and scolding parents.
    Sharon led Dante and Evan to a large building on the edge of The Commons area at the heart of New Winnabow. Robert Parsons occupied the second floor of a wood and brick structure a few doors from the council chambers. Big beautiful windows in the living room, dining room, and kitchen area offered views of the rooftops surrounding their home, the large arena, and the distant sky over a forested horizon.
    Robert Parsons sat at the head of the table with his female friend of similar age (his wife died in the Apocalypse) to his left. Sharon and her son Tory, Councilwoman Elizabeth Doss, and Gunther Faust-an older, frail-looking councilman-also welcomed Dante and Evan to dinner.
    On the table waited a feast, starting with warm loafs of bread complimented by creamy hand-churned butter, beans, corn, and fresh-caught catfish.
    Light came from lamps and candles but some August sun still slipped in the windows.
    Robert Parsons explained they usually did not start their meals with prayer or ‘grace,’ but he thought this to be a special occasion and asked Evan Godfrey to do the honors.
    Evan cleared his throat, and then spoke as if he had been preparing for this moment for three weeks.
    “Let us give thanks to the hands and hearts that toiled so that this table could be blessed with such a rich bounty. May our fellowship here this night be the start of a greater understanding between our people. May we find the peace in our own hearts that we all long to feel. Amen.”
    Oh, very good, Evan, Dante thought. Non-denominational, not even a reference to God-and just a hint of sucking up.
    “Here, here,” Gunther Faust spoke quickly in a German accent.
    The platters of food as well as pitchers of juice and water circumnavigated the table. Plates clinked, glasses tinged and silverware jingled as arms reached and scooped.
    Dante closed his eyes and drifted into the past. Those sounds conjured vivid memories of Sunday evening dinners at his grandfather’s house. Sunday evening dinners long before Shadows, Deadheads and Hivvans.
    “So what have you learned about us, gentlemen?” Parsons asked.
    Evan answered as he slipped a filet of fish to his plate. “I’ve learned that this town is full of ingenuity, hard work, and honesty.”
    Dante said, “You should be proud, Mr. Parsons. New Winnabow would be a big deal even before Armageddon. I envy you.”
    Sharon said with a hint of sarcasm, “They don’t eat bread and fish in your Empire?”
    “We eat bread and fish,” Evan responded. “But we seldom have the time to sit down with one another and truly break bread like this. The pace is…the pace is much faster.”
    Dante added, “The war and all.”
    Gunther Faust addressed the two men as he buttered a slice of bread. Dante saw the man’s hands tremble as he worked the knife.
    “Tell me, Mr. Jones, of your Empire’s great victories.”
    “I don’t want to hear anything about their Empire,” Sharon interrupted.
    Robert Parsons encouraged, “Our visitors have learned much of us. It is fair to hear of their world. Of course, we could do without the more gruesome details.”
    Dante realized this presented an opportunity. When Evan did not respond, he did.
    “Leaving out the gruesome details would leave out the most important parts of what we’re doing, and why. The truth is it’s pretty damn gruesome out there.”
    Evan shot a glance at Dante and broke in, “But I’m certain we can paint a picture without being too graphic.”
    Dante understood the message: I’m in charge down here. Don’t get in my way.
    Dante steadied his temper and reminded himself that, yes, Trevor had placed Godfrey in charge. Instead of arguing, he grabbed a fork and attacked the lightly seasoned catfish.
    Evan told the table, “It began in northeastern Pennsylvania. The battles…” his eyes drifted off as if recalling something from the distant past. Dante nearly applauded Evan’s act as the war-weary soldier. “…too many to count. With every victory, our boundaries grew wider and we found more people. A few had built colonies but nothing like this. Most were diseased or starving or both. They welcomed us with open arms and eagerly joined on.
    “We found remnants of the U.S. military, opened factories to build bullets, discovered military stock piles…it was strange to find so many weapons unused. It was as if the U.S. military didn’t get a chance to fire many shots during it all.”
    Sharon Parsons stood, placed her cloth napkin on her crowded plate, and left the room.
    Evan’s act of fond remembrance evaporated and his eyes widened.
    “I’m sorry, what did I-?”
    “It is okay, Evan. It isn’t your fault,” Sharon’s father explained. “Sharon’s husband-Tory’s father-was a Marine killed during the fighting.”
    “My Dad was a hero!” Tory exclaimed but his attention focused on a huge slice of fresh bread dripping with gooey butter.
    “So you found many weapons, yes?” Gunther asked.
    “Excuse me,” Godfrey said and stood. “I think I have an apology to make.”
    “That is not necessary,” Parsons insisted.
    “I think it is.”
    Evan walked out of the room tracing Sharon‘s steps.
    Dante continued the story, without any sense of drama. “We found lots of weapons. Then we found the means to build what we needed. Some of that came from old industry, some from alien technology we grabbed.”
    “Air forces? Tanks?” Gunther craved the knowledge yet every answer seemed to fill the man with more fear. His eyes widened, his hand trembled more.
    “Equipment for entire divisions parked on bases,” Dante told them. “Armories still locked and convoys of unused supplies. We only have a few planes because we don’t have many pilots, but we have a flight school going, every few weeks we can put another plane or two in the air. Fact is we found hangers full of fighter jets and fuel from the Pennsylvania and New Jersey National Guard.”
    Elizabeth Doss said, “As if they were meant for you to find.”
    “No,” Dante corrected. “They were there because the soldiers and pilots they were meant for never received the proper orders. The bureaucracy failed our troops while the aliens appeared everywhere out of thin air. There was little time to muster and organize. It wasn’t our troops who failed us, but a disorganized chain of command.”
    Robert Parsons nodded. “So that is why you are an Empire? One Emperor controlling it all. No chains of command to be thrown into chaos. No confusion. One man in charge, one man making the decisions.”
    “Very efficient,” Gunther surmised. “Very brutal, no doubt.”
    Dante answered, “It can be, yes.”
    “And so you think your Emperor will send his troops here?”
    “Gunther,” Parsons interrupted. “Let us save those questions for the entire council. I think Mr. Jones has given us a good idea of how his people have come to be here. Perhaps we should return to a pleasant meal and talk of other things for now.”
    Gunther Faust appeared ready to protest but the glares he received from both Parsons and Doss silenced him. The older man shoved beans in his mouth and chewed…
    …Evan descended the stairs and walked outside in a fast trot. Sharon Parsons stood across the small street leaning against a brick wall biting at her thumbnail.
    “With everything you have here, you’d think you’d have a decent pair of nail clippers for that,” Evan said lightly as he approached her.
    “Why are you out here? Go back inside and tell them the tales of your great victories. Tell them how your soldiers march and kill everything in their path. How glorious it must be.”
    “Not so much,” Evan answered. “I find it depressing.”
    She stopped biting her thumb and looked at him.
    “Your father told me that your husband was killed in the fighting. That he was a soldier.”
    “He was a killer,” she spat. “A brute of a killer. It was him and people like him that brought this down on our heads.”
    A bird flew overhead between buildings, the flap of its wings echoed along the empty passage.
    “Your son says he was a hero.”
    “A child’s illusions,” she answered. “What should I tell him? The truth?”
    “The truth? What is that truth? He wasn’t a Marine?”
    “Oh, he most certainly was a Marine. He was stationed north of here at Camp Lejune. How charming he was with the ‘yes ma’ams’ to me and the ‘no Sirs’ to my father. Perfectly cut hair, a stiff upper lip, and he always opened the car door for me. A real gentleman.”
    “Why am I telling you this?” She wondered aloud and looked at him as if he might know the answer.
    “Because I’m not like the others who have come here,” he assured her. “I’m not like the Generals and that tin-pot dictator. I’m different. That’s why they asked me to come down here. They figured maybe I could do what they failed to do.”
    “And what is that?”
    Evan said, “No, not yet. First, you have to tell me. What is the truth about your husband?”
    She bit at her nail again.
    “You don’t want to do that.”
    “Oh, and why is that?”
    “Because you have lovely hands, you don’t want to ruin them.”
    She glanced at her fingers and palms. They were strong but far from lovely; rough with callus’ and hangnails, feint traces of old cuts and even a small, fresh bruise on the back of her thumb.
    “Lovely?” She found the idea that her hands were ‘lovely’ hysterically funny.
    Sharon Parsons laughed as she said, “My hands are scarred and battered. They haven’t been lovely in a good many years.”
    Evan told her, “They are lovely because they wear the marks of a person who works with her hands in the Earth. They are lovely because you have used them to build something amazing. They are lovely because I can see how strong they are.”
    “You have quite a way with words, Mr. Godfrey.”
    “The name is Evan, and you’re avoiding the subject. Tell me the truth about your husband.”
    She nodded as if saying, ‘okay, okay,’ then she glanced skyward, perhaps hoping to find the right words there.
    “He was certainly a gentleman. How handsome he was on our wedding day in his perfectly pressed uniform marching me in his arm down the aisle. Little did I know that the perfectly pressed uniform and the ‘yes ma’ams’ and the chivalry hid much. We weren’t married a year before he hit me for the first time.”
    “Yes, Evan, ‘oh.’ That wasn’t quite my response, of course. By the time I realized that his backhands were becoming a regular occurrence, Tory was born. Then I hoped our child would change things. It did, for a week or two.”
    “I’m sorry,” Evan said honestly.
    “And I realized then that there is no such thing as a weekend warrior. There are two kinds of people in the world, Mr. Godfrey. Those who live by the sword and those who don’t. A man cannot spend his day training to kill and then come home and be a peaceful husband, a peaceful father. It is not possible.”
    “No one? Never?”
    She sighed. “Not in my world, no.”
    “That’s why New Winnabow is so important to you, why you are so quick to protect it from all outsiders. This is your personal refuge.”
    “Not all outsiders,” she countered. “From those who resort to violence. From those who live by the sword. Which are you, Evan? Are you a man of war or a man of peace?”
    “I am a man of peace.”
    “A man of peace? And you’ve been sent here to convince us to let your war machine march through our lands. I suspect that you will also tell us that if we don’t comply, your armies will come here and kill us. Is that not so?”
    “That’s what they want me to do, yes. They sent me because they figured I could relate to you better than they could. The truth is that Trevor does not trust me and does not like me. I am-I must admit-his rival.”
    “So why doesn’t your all-powerful Emperor have you killed?”
    Evan told her and himself at the same time, “Because even he must live with political pressures and consequences. Even he knows he cannot kill off his rivals, or slaughter a town full of innocent people.”
    “So what is it you propose to do?”
    Evan drifted into thought. He saw the lines of his life, the lines of the new world, the lines of Trevor’s Empire…converging to a single point. He saw it perfectly clear and in that moment he knew fate delivered to him the chance he waited for since the first monster stepped foot on Earth.
    “I’m not sure,” Evan lied. “But I’ll save New Winnabow, I promise you,” he lied again.

    Evan eventually convinced Sharon to return to the dinner table where three hours of conversation followed the meal.
    “So you have a basic plurality vote?”
    “Have you considered the Borda count?”
    “Transitivity of the process was a concern…”
    “Reversal symmetry is encountered in any of the advanced electoral models but…”
    On and on they droned about election and political theory. Dante nearly fell asleep.
    In any case, the evening turned into night. Parsons postponed the council meeting until tomorrow and the two ambassadors from The Empire accepted an invitation to spend the night in a guesthouse.
    Despite the lack of guards, helicopters, and tanks, the two men felt safe and slept peacefully.

    Dante and Evan occupied single beds in the same room. A solitary window offered a view north toward an old barn turned workshop. That’s the first thing Dante saw as the alarm bells shocked him awake so fast that he jumped to his feet before realizing he was not dreaming.
    “Wh-what? What is that?” Evan said groggily as he pulled his head from under a pillow.
    Dante shook away the cobwebs and pulled on his pants and shirt. In addition to the bells, he heard people running through the streets shouting.
    “Sounds like they’re calling out the garrison. Must be an attack of some sort.”
    “Trevor? Did Trevor attack the city? I can’t believe it!”
    “Evan,” Dante interrupted as Godfrey started pulling together his clothes. “If The Empire were attacking it’d be over by now.”
    The two men jogged out from the guesthouse. The morning dew gave the fresh air a sharp cold sting.
    They saw groups of children, women, and men running southeast. They saw smaller groups of armed men and women running northwest.
    Dante and Evan followed the latter group.
    As they crossed an intersection between a pottery shop and barber, they saw Billy Ray Phelps, the Sergeant-at-Arms. He glanced at them but did not stop. He held a shotgun.
    “What is it? What is going on?” Evan called as he and Dante ran to keep pace with the armed man.
    “Something came out of the swamp,” he said. “A big red and black bug of some kind. Go back to your room. We don’t need your help.”
    Billy Ray accelerated away from the men. Evan and Dante stopped and glanced at one another.
    “A Skip-Beetle I’d bet,” Dante figured.
    “We’ve got to go help! Hey, wait up,” Evan chased after the militiamen rushing toward the scene.
    Dante did not follow. Instead, he glanced around and realized he was surrounded by what might be considered a shopping district. One store in particular grabbed his attention…
    … A strip of land that changed from golden fields to a thin tree line to wet ground and then to pure bog comprised the northwestern quadrant of New Winnabow.
    A Giant Skip-Beetle came out of that bog: a massive beetle with rear legs resembling a grasshopper’s.
    The mouth garnered the most attention. At first glance, it looked as if the creature had a tarantula stuffed in its maw. Further observation proved that its mouth was, in fact, surrounded by a tangled mass of furry leg-like appendages.
    Above that gruesome orifice watched two red eyes appearing more mammal-like than insect or arachnid.
    This Giant Skip-Beetle stood taller than a bus and as thick as a doublewide, making it slightly larger than average. It had come out of the swamp, pushed through the trees, and grabbed a cow from a grazing herd.
    As Evan, Billy Ray, and a group of ten militiamen approached, the Skip-Beetle swallowed one last bite of its bovine treat.
    “Set up a defense line!” Phelps ordered his militiamen who carried hunting rifles and shot guns.
    The group did so but only after prodding. A few of the men-unable to pull their eyes from the creature-stumbled over stones or their own feet while moving into position. Part of their fear came from the size and hideous appearance of the creature. Another part from the noxious odor it exuded.
    The Skip-Beetle hovered fifty yards in front of the defensive line. That line stood, in turn, another fifty yards from the buildings of New Winnabow.
    “It ate something already,” one of the militia said hopefully. “Now it’ll just go away.”
    The giant bug did not go away.
    In the blink of an eye, the huge beast ‘skipped’ across the field, moving from fifty yards to ten feet in front of the militia without warning, without a chance for them to react.
    Furry tendrils from the mouth grabbed for one of the men. He stumbled backwards, cringing from the reach and nearly incapacitated by the smell coming from its orifice.
    The group fired. Most shots went wild, missing the target despite its close range and massive size.
    Billy Phelps performed better. His shotgun hit the mouth as it loomed over his man. The pain of the pellets forced the beetle to hesitate for a second. After overcoming the minor pain from the shotgun blast, it again stretched down to gobble its next meal.
    “Hey, over here!” Cried Dante Jones’ voice.
    Jones ran into the field carrying two lit torches. He ran directly at the Skip-Beetle.
    To the shock of everyone-particularly Billy Ray Phelps and Evan Godfrey-the beetle retreated a step, like an elephant fearing a mouse.
    “Shoot it all you want, boys!” Dante yelled. “But unless you got something bigger than them pop guns you’re in for a bad day!”
    Dante flung a torch at the tangle mess of furry tendrils around the monster’s mouth. It hit the target and the front face of the creature lit up faster than charcoal coated in lighter fluid.
    The Skip-Beetle, its mouth burning, hopped away. It nearly reached the bog before it perished. The smell of burning giant insect would drift over New Winnabow for days.
    The militiamen and Evan stared at Dante.
    “Didn’t you smell that thing? What’d you think that odor was, bad breath?”
    They waited for more of an explanation.
    “Its saliva is like gasoline, burns real good.” Dante smiled a big cocky grin and told Evan, “Maybe you should pay more attention at the council meetings.”

    “We appreciate all of your efforts to bring this to a successful settlement,” Robert Parsons spoke to Evan Godfrey and Dante Jones from the center of the head table in the council chambers. “However, as we told your Emperor, we cannot allow your army to pass through. It would go against all we hold dear.”
    Dante burst, “Even after today? Even after a giant bug nearly killed some of your people? You won’t make this one small concession?”
    Parsons held his hand up, clearly annoyed at the breach of protocol.
    The fourth councilman, a younger fellow named Brad Case, spoke to Dante, “Hey, that was great what you did today. Thanks and all.”
    Elizabeth Doss added, “But that has no bearing on our decisions. Besides, there are some of us who think-” she stopped, embarrassed.
    Dante Jones finished for her, “Some of you think the Skip-Beetle was a sign. A sign Evan and me shouldn’t even be allowed here. Right?”
    The council-which prided itself on rationale thought and well-considered procedures-refused to admit to any such thing.
    “I can’t believe that,” Jones said. “It’s like you’re refusing to listen to reason because you’re too stubborn.”
    “Mr. Jones,” Parsons wrapped things up. “I am sorry that we cannot end this on a mutually agreeable note. You must understand this is the life we’ve chosen. We have not traveled to Pennsylvania and asked you to change for us. This is our land. We ask you to leave it, and us, in peace.”
    “That might not be possible,” Dante tried.
    Evan put a hand on his shoulder to stop him and said, “I see your mind is made up. I will have to inform Trevor of your decision.”
    “We understand, Mr. Godfrey. We wish you a safe journey home and we hope that we do not see one another again, unless you desire to come live with us.”
    “Make no mistake,” Elizabeth Doss warned. “We will defend our borders. Tell that to your Emperor. If he decides to force the issue, human blood will be shed. Blood that will be on his hands.”
    Dante glanced at Billy Ray Phelps who stood to the side of the chamber. The man enthusiastically nodded in agreement with Doss. Dante realized the man did not understand what he faced. On some level, Phelps must be entertaining a fantasy that determination and shotgun shells could hold off attack helicopters and tanks.
    Of course, that assumed General Jerry Shepherd and his men would follow the order to fight their way through this town. Would Shep do that? Could his men shoot fellow human beings, or run people over with tanks?
    Dante closed his eyes and shook his head. He saw no good outcome no matter which direction this went. And why? Because the leaders of New Winnabow were as stubborn and self-righteous as Trevor Stone.
    Parsons dismissed the council and ended the discussion.
    Dante turned to Evan. “We have to get back and tell Trevor we failed. These poor people put us in an awful position.”
    “He is supposed to be a great leader,” Evan said as they stood in the emptying chambers. “He must find another way. He must.”
    Dante insisted, “You heard what he said. He has no other choice. We had to convince these people of that. We failed.”
    Evan noticed a man walked toward him, but doing so in very tentative steps. He recognized him as Gunther Faust, the older, German-accented councilman they met at dinner the night before.
    “Please, may I have a word with you?” Gunther looked over his shoulder as if afraid someone might hear.
    However, Doss and Parsons stood in the far corner discussing something with Phelps. Case, the other member of the council, had left the building.
    Evan told Dante, “Why don’t I meet you back at the transport?”
    Dante put a hand on Evan’s shoulder, “Remember what we just talked about, Evan. Remember.”
    “I will.”
    Dante left.
    Gunther led Evan out a side exit. They found a quiet courtyard surrounded by flowers under a blue sky.
    “Mr. Godfrey, do you know what I’ve been doing the last few years?”
    “What is that?”
    “I have been building this town. Brick by brick, layers of mortar upon layers of mortar. Concrete and stone…that’s what I have been doing.”
    “You’re a mason,” Evan surmised. “Your work here is outstanding.”
    Gunther appeared both angry and frightened.
    “I do not want to see it smashed down! We have built more than buildings, this I know. But are our convictions so weak that they will not withstand the passing of your army? I find this something hard to believe.”
    This confused Evan. He said, “I’m not following you, Mr. Faust. Your council spoke. It was a unanimous vote against allowing us to pass.”
    “You are a political student, yes?”
    Evan nodded. Certainly, Gunther understood that after the conversation of the night before.
    “What we did…what would you call it? We presented a ‘united front,’ so to speak.”
    “Ahhh, I get it. You agreed to vote with the others for the sake of appearance. But why? If you’re so afraid of what The Empire will do, why didn’t you vote to allow us through?”
    Faust explained, “It was for Robert’s sake. He is a man of great convictions. This place…it means so much to him. And he is so certain…”
    “So certain of what?” Evan leaned close.
    “He met with this Trevor. Robert-forgive him-actually likes that young man. He thinks this Trevor is a person of honor. He thinks that if we show a united front that Trevor will not attack this city. Robert thinks that as long as we stick to our principles, Trevor will back down and go a different way. That is why he convinced us to vote with him.”
    “I see,” Trevor gnawed on that information.
    “But Mr. Godfrey, you are a member of the council of Trevor’s, no?”
    “I am.”
    “You have been with this Trevor since the very beginning, that is so?”
    Evan nodded, “Yes, yes it is.”
    “Then you know Trevor Stone. He is a friend of yours. A close friend, is this not true?”
    Evan considered for a moment then answered with a smile, “Trevor and I are very good friends. We have been very close over the years. What is it you want to know?”
    Gunther, nearly pleading, said, “Tell me now. Will he attack this city? If he will do so, please tell me. I will change my vote. I know Brad Case will change his vote, too. I think then we would be able to force Robert to let you pass.”
    “I see,” Evan considered.
    “It would be a small concession of our values, but it is much better than fighting with your people. I do not wish that.”
    “But you are willing to risk everything by voting with Robert. For what? To save his pride? You are willing to stick to your principles as long as there is no risk?”
    Gunther stumbled backwards and held his hands upward.
    “No, no, Mr. Godfrey. Please. I am an old man who has worked hard. Robert has done well for us over the years. However, I fear he is blinded in this matter because of his daughter. Please do not be mad with me. I want to support Robert, but if it is possible your forces will attack, I will wound his pride and change my vote. If for no other reason than to save him from himself.”
    “I understand,” Evan smiled and placed a reassuring hand on the older man’s shoulder. “I would do the same for Trevor in similar circumstances. Please excuse my outburst. I do understand. I do.”
    “Should I change my vote, Mr. Godfrey? Please, you must tell me. Even if you think it a little possible that your Emperor would attack. Maybe I go change my vote anyway,” Gunther made as if to leave.
    Evan stopped him.
    “You don’t have to do that, Mr. Faust. I know Trevor well. I can tell you with absolute certainty that he will not attack New Winnabow. Not as long as you show your united front. He will respect your wishes. Oh, he will scream and he will threaten, but he would not kill fellow human beings.”
    Gunther relaxed to the point that Evan thought the man might actually shed tears of relief.
    “Trust me, Mr. Faust. Stick to your principles. I know exactly what Trevor will do.”

16. Blood on the Snow

    Jon found the scenery astounding, and big. Everything felt huge.
    Jagged islands of ice floated in the cold waters, some hundreds of feet high with glorious peaks, others flat and wide. Some looked twisted and tormented; others seemingly carved with an artist’s eye.
    From the conning tower, he saw frosted, charcoal mountains on the inland horizon smothered in misty-white clouds while the sub cruised through breathtaking fjords welcoming-and daring-travelers.
    Off the port bow, a gigantic Blue Whale waved its tale to the sub as the Earthly creature pushed through the sea with a natural elegance that separated it from the clumsy machine.
    On the shoreline, a walrus watched the boat pass with a befuddled gaze as if amused by the folly of man.
    The air-perhaps the freshest air on Earth-tasted crisp but thin. Gentle breezes caressed the scenery, casting powdered snow aloft where it fluttered like old confetti from an ancient parade.
    After a long journey under the ocean waves, the Newport News reached its destination. The majestic and unforgiving landscape of northern Greenland served as backdrop to the last leg of Jon Brewer’s journey. The stage on which a dance of horrors would play.

    Qaanaaq, Greenland earned the title ‘the northernmost human settlement on Earth,’ prior to Armageddon. A child of the Cold War, Qaanaaq appeared in the 1950s when the U.S. airbase at Thule expanded.
    To the east and north waited glaciers that once drew hordes of well-funded climatologists. Sharply rising black rock mountains coated with a hint of snow loomed on the far side of the long, desert-like ice cap.
    To the west stood the fjords off northern Baffin Bay where blockades of icebergs often jammed due to a ridge at the bottom of the sea.
    For most of Greenland, the midnight sun had faded. Not so in Qaanaaq. It would remain in a state of perpetual twilight for a few more weeks.
    Nearly all of the homes, administrative buildings, and businesses were constructed of wood, a few included second floor lofts crammed under sharply pointed roofs.
    A surprising variety of bright colors decorated those homes, perhaps as a means to bring cheer to an otherwise dull environment. However, color provided the only style to the entire “town”. The place reminded Jon Brewer of a toy train village: lifeless.
    Dirt tracks, some under dusty coatings of old snow, cut between rows of homes with scattered lampposts and flagpoles along the way. The Polar Grill resembled a cross between a tool shed and a mobile home and offered “hot dogs” and “Roast chicken.”
    Some of the buildings rested on flat plateaus poking from the side of a rocky hill. Most of the town-at least the private homes-were built on flatter ground. A cluster of cisterns-for fuel or drinking water-stood taller than everything else.
    On Saturday, August 29, Jon Brewer’s task force arrived at Qaanaag, but no one came to greet them.
    His men spent nearly five hours ferrying equipment from the Newport News ashore then set about the task of preparing for their trek across the northern wastelands.
    Assembling the SUSV command vehicle came first. Jon supervised as his men built the vehicle as if putting together a child’s model kit. First came the two white-painted tracked modules-one resembling something like a tractor-trailer cab, the other a camper-that were coupled together with hoses and grapples not unlike the connections between box cars on a train. The vehicle would carry important equipment, shelter wounded if necessary, and otherwise provide a place for small groups to retreat from the cold now and then.
    A dozen soldiers enjoyed the luxury of snowmobiles, most of which towed cargo containers. There were also four dog sled teams with Huskies pulling the leads.
    Nonetheless, the majority of the one hundred infantrymen would cross the ice cap on foot. The lack of cargo space onboard the submarine combined with the haste with which the expedition had mustered allowed no other, more comfortable options.
    Jon established headquarters inside the relatively new, single-story Qaanaaq hospital. He found a treasure trove of medical supplies. Whatever happened to the citizens of Qaanaaq-evacuation or elimination-they left behind fully stocked stores.
    The balance of the task force occupied homes, garages, and city hall for shelter while they checked, prepped, and re-checked gear.
    With the submarine moving out to sea, every soldier under Jon’s command realized they operated entirely on their own. No air support. No reinforcements. No supply convoys. Only what they carried on their backs.
    Each of the men-including the command staff of Jon Brewer, Reverend Johnny, and Captain Casey Fink-wore heavy white arctic jackets. This offered more than enough protection against ‘summer’ temperatures hovering in the mid-twenties.
    General Brewer and Captain Fink turned the hospital administrator’s office into a temporary command center. Jon felt the more temporary the better. Speed, he knew, remained his number one concern. He suspected the Goat-Walker that attacked their refueling stop was an intentional attempt to delay them. He wondered what other obstacles-and rivals-waited for them in the arctic wasteland ahead.
    For the moment, Jon’s attention diverted from the map unfurled on the office desk to Fink, who stood at the far end of the room reviewing a field manual and whistling the same tune over and over again.
    Brewer glared at Fink and asked, “Casey, what are you doing?”
    “Huh? Oh, it’s from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon.” Fink then did the unthinkable. He stopped whistling and sung: “The five o’clock whistle’s on the blink. The whistle won’t blow and whaddya think? My pappa’s still in the factory ‘Cause he don’t know what tiiiiiiime-”
    “CASEY! If you don’t shut up I may have to-”
    Reverend Johnny appeared at the door panting heavily and wearing an expression that drained any good humor from the room.
    “General, I fear the devil is afoot. I have found something you need to see.”
    The men gathered their rifles and followed Johnny along a corridor lined with empty patient rooms. Two nervous soldiers stood outside one of those rooms. When Brewer looked inside, he became nervous, too.
    “I think we know what happened to the people here,” Brewer said.
    “Death came from below,” Reverend Johnny put a fine point on it.
    The floor of the hospital room was splintered and smashed upward, revealing a hole in the tundra beneath. The sides of the hole had long-ago collapsed, sealing that particular threat but the implications were clear. Something large-larger than a man, smaller than a car-had tunneled into the hospital room and struck from below.
    Reverend Johnny knelt and pointed to a ring of black, hardened sludge around the rim of the sealed tunnel.
    “Very strange. I do not believe this passage was dug in a conventional manner. An acid of some kind may be the culprit, used to bore through the Earth itself.”
    Jon turned to Fink and ordered, “Call the men together. We’re too scattered; everyone split up to find a place to rest during the layover, that makes us vulnerable. I don’t like that at all and I want to get out of here as fast as possible.”
    Automatic weapons fire echoed across Qaanaaq.
    The three men left the collapsed hole behind, ran the hall, and then exited the front door and stood at the top of a short flight of wooden stairs. The gunfire had stopped by the time they made it outside, replaced by voices calling from one house to another, from one sentry to the next.
    “Did you see it?”
    “It came out of the goddamn ground!”
    “Holy sh-ahhhhh”
    Gunfire again.
    Jon unclipped a radio from his belt. “I need a report! Report!”
    More screams.
    Jon and his officers descended the stairs and jogged the dirt path that played the role of Main Street. The radio crackled and a panicked sentry reported, “Jesus Christ there must be about a dozen of em’. They’re coming up out of the ground!”
    A burst of gunfire.
    Jon and the other two rounded a cluster of homes and stopped at the edge of an open space near the outskirts of the settlement. Three white-clad soldiers raced toward them over the frosted ground, each stumbling as they continually glanced over their shoulders.
    Behind the trio, Jon saw two grayish fins protruding from the ground. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust and realize that, yes, those fins sliced through the dirt as if attached to something underground; like a shark’s dorsal fin on the surface of the ocean.
    “Guys! Guys watch out!” Brewer yelled across the clearing.
    The creatures revealed themselves, leaping from the soil like killer whales performing at Sea World.
    They were out and then gone in a short second, affording Jon only a quick glimpse and what he did see puzzled his eyes: smooth, glistening dark skin with snouts covered in some sort of mist spraying from holes behind what might be foreheads; slender, long bodies that appeared coated in liquid, hence the glisten.
    The things leapt out of the ground and dove back in with no sign of digging, no drilling: boring through the solid earth as easily as a fish swimming through water.
    Jon saw massive, round mouths but no sign of teeth in that first quick glimpse. He did see that more fins covered the creatures, not just the one sticking from the ground but all over. A short, thin tail-less like a shark, more like a manta ray-trailed the main body.
    Two of these ‘Bore-Sharks’ attacked. The first jumped too high and one lucky soldier avoided the strike by sprawling on the ground. The monster went right over the top of her, then crashed into and through the dirt and snow, kicking up a surprisingly small amount of soil in the process. The hole the beast left behind quickly collapsed, covered over in dirt but leaving behind a ring in the Earth with steaming, melted slag around the rim.
    The second creature jumped from the ground, smashed into the body of a middle-aged human fighter, then returned beneath the surface leaving another steaming, collapsed tunnel behind. It also left behind the head and lower legs of its victim, having carried off everything in between.
    “Oh Christ,” Fink said with a delirious chuckle. “It’s a god damn land shark.”
    The radio blasted, “There’s some kind of things in the ground!”
    More gunfire from across the town.
    The two remaining soldiers in the field continued their run. Three more fins appeared in the distance, closing fast on the remaining man and woman.
    Captain Fink regained his composure and yelled, “Everyone! Freeze! Don’t move!”
    He then turned to General Brewer and explained, “I saw things like this in a movie once. They are attracted to vibrations in the ground. If you hold still, they won’t even see you.”
    “You saw it in a movie?” Jon gasped but Fink’s thinking sounded reasonable enough.
    The two soldiers in the field heeded the advice and stood perfectly still. ‘Bore-sharks’ jumped from underground and killed both people, again carrying away most of the body parts.
    Jon screamed, “Screw this! Get inside! Now!”
    They made for the nearest wooden home. As they moved, Jon gave the same order to all his men: “Get inside. Get to shelter.”
    Two fins pushed through the surface and sped toward Brewer, Fink, and Johnny as they hurried for a nearby homestead. The men barely got inside as the creatures ‘swam’ by.
    As they passed, Jon noted they barely disturbed the soil. No ground hog like trenches; hardly a line where the fins pushed through.
    A cold breeze hit the men from behind. They turned around and saw a hole in the side wall of the house.
    Reverend Johnny whispered, “They will bury so many bodies in Topheth that there won’t be room for all the graves. The corpses of my people will be food for the vultures and wild animals, and no one will be left to scare them away.”
    In the floor, another hole. Taken together, Jon clearly envisioned one of these Bore-Sharks jumping through the side wall, snatching prey, and diving through the floor into the ground again.
    Fink said what they all thought, “We’re not safe inside, either.”
    Rifle blasts sounded nearly continuous around the town.
    “How do they know where we are? They don’t have eyes above ground. If it’s not by vibration then what is it?” Jon paced as he tried to understand his enemy.
    “Whatever their fiendish means,” Reverend Johnny said, “they saw clearly through this wall and found their prey even within the confines of this home.”
    Jon held up a finger and closed his eyes. After a moment of consideration, he found an answer and shared, “They see us the same way we’re going to see them…”
    …A grenade landed on open ground and exploded a few yards in front of a fast-moving fin. The explosive mainly scattered useless shrapnel in the air, but the concussion also pushed into the soil, causing the fin to change directions, exactly as Jon hoped. The diversion gave Casey Fink time to reach the command vehicle parked outside City Hall.
    Reverend Johnny fired M16 rounds in the direction of a second fin. One bullet punched a hole in the appendage and the creature retreated.
    The same story played out around town. Groups of soldiers barricaded in buildings. The monsters circled outside. In the fifteen minutes since the swarm first arrived, Brewer confirmed five of his men dead. They managed to kill one of the creatures with a lucky burst of gunfire while at least two more of the things suffered serious wounds when they burrowed into occupied homes and met shotguns at close range.
    At the partially assembled command module, Casey Fink retrieved a large case and a small box. Unfortunately, the vehicle could not be driven; the caterpillar tracks had not yet been affixed and the fuel tank lacked gas, although several large barrels of petrol stood nearby.
    Fink-case and box in tow-rejoined General Brewer and Reverend Johnny. The three climbed the slope of the mountain at the back end of the town.
    Meanwhile, the rest of the expeditionary force remained in small groups at various hard points throughout the settlement. Of course, when an enemy can move through the ground as easily as a person moves through air, no point could be considered particularly ‘hard.’ Nonetheless, the soldiers concentrated fire at any approaching fin, discouraging the predators, but not chasing them off: the creatures circled the ‘streets’ waiting for an opportunity to feed.
    “Did you get the scope?” Jon Brewer asked Fink.
    “Yes, I got the scope,” Fink answered as he hoisted a. 50 caliber sniper rifle from its case.
    Their elevated position on a rock outcropping afforded a good view of the entire town.
    Captain Fink removed the telescopic sight and replaced it with a thermal scope. A moment later, he scanned the ‘streets’ of Qaanaag which appeared dull white through the heat-sensing sight.
    “All units, do you copy? Who has eyes-on any of the things?” Jon Brewer radioed.
    “Sir, Cooper here, Sir. We’re held up in the southwest quadrant in two homes. Got three of the damn things circling us.”
    Fink swept that area with the sniper rifle. He saw the heat signatures of the men inside the buildings. Then he saw a yellow and red blob moving around outside.
    He took careful aim, anticipated the creature’s movement, and fired.
    The. 50 caliber round could penetrate armor, so it easily penetrated several feet into the tundra. Nonetheless, Fink’s first shot missed, as did his second. Fortunately, the creatures did not appear to realize the bullets aimed for them.
    Finally, his third shot hit a fast-moving Bore-Shark. Its momentum through the hard dirt obviously contributed to its demise as the thing broke into three big pieces.
    “It sees us from our body heat,” Jon started and Reverend Johnny finished, “Turnabout is fair play. You are a clever man, General.”
    Fink picked off two more.
    “All units, if you’ve got infrared use it to track these things,” Jon radioed.
    Only a handful of the men possessed any type of heat-sensing sights or devices, but those who did directed grenades and rifle fire. The odds of the battle finally started to turn.
    Meanwhile, Fink picked off another one, dwindling the school of Bore-Sharks to five.
    However, his success drew attention. Captain Fink watched through his scope as the remaining creatures formed a wedge and ‘swam’ across the town…in his direction.
    “Um…I think they’re on to us.”
    “Then keep shooting,” Brewer said.
    Fink, prone on the side of the slope with the rifle balanced in a small tripod, drew a bead on the approaching group. He fired a series of semi-automatic shots from the big gun.
    “That’s one…,” he reported as the school closed to one hundred yards.
    Casey carefully aimed and pulled the trigger.
    Then again.
    “That’s two…three to go”
    Seventy yards.
    “Casey, are you going to get them all?”
    “Shit. Missed.”
    He pulled the trigger again but nothing happened. No bullet fired.
    “Oh you gotta be friggin’ kidding me!”
    “Jam?” Jon shouted. “It jammed? Jesus Christ! Fix it!”
    Casey went to work on the weapon, struggling to remove the huge clip.
    Reverend Johnny acted. He grabbed his M16 and descended the slope, directly toward the trio of closing fins.
    “Reverend! What the hell are you doing?”
    “The Lord is my Shepherd!”
    Reverend Johnny ran down the rocky slope toward City Hall and the non-operational command vehicle, but would need to outmaneuver the bore-sharks to get there; all three adjusted their course as they locked on to his body heat at fifty yards.
    He fumbled with his utility belt as he ran and found a flare.
    “Let…me…have…your…undivided…” the flare sparked to life, “attention!”
    He could nearly feel the sharks roar in hunger as the sparkling heat signature beckoned like a siren’s call.
    The creatures closed to twenty yards…ten…five…
    Johnny cut hard and changed directions like a halfback heading for the end zone. As he swerved, one of the attackers leapt from the ground, hungry for a new meal. For an instant, Johnny stared directly into its round mouth. He saw no teeth, only pinkish gums dripping with liquid and he understood: the creatures did not chew their prey; they dissolved them. Dissolved them with the same acid that allowed them to ‘swim’ through rock and earth.
    In the next instant, that Bore-Shark disappeared into the ground again.
    All three creatures circled around for another attack.
    “Get that gun going!” Johnny yelled to his friends on the hillside. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this!”
    The Reverend’s nifty dodging bought him enough time to reach the snow-covered dirt road outside City Hall. He aimed specifically for the cluster of fuel drums by the partially assembled command vehicle.
    Johnny set the flare on top of one drum, bear-hugged the container, and found the strength to move it-in hops-thirty feet away from the other two barrels.
    Behind him, the three remaining Bore-Sharks completed their circle and found his heat signature again. They ‘swam’ through the ground in his direction. When they closed to fifteen yards, they accelerated for the kill.
    “And Joshua said, why hast thou troubled us? The Lord shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with FIRE…”
    The Reverend ran, leaving the flare atop the fuel drum.
    All three Bore-Sharks greedily targeted the heat source of the flare. The lead creature jumped from the ground with its acid burrowing excretions coating its head as usual. It swooped half the petrol barrel and the flare into its mouth.
    A golden explosion knocked Johnny off his feet. He felt a blast of heat singe his neck as he fell face-first into the cold earth. A rain of burning liquid fell around him, thawing that cold ground to mush.
    The explosion left behind a crater, chunks from two melted monsters, and a smell similar to burning electrical wires.
    “Praise the Lord, two for the price of one.”
    The remaining creature withdrew, most likely disorientated or frightened off by the explosion. It ‘swam’ around to the far side of City Hall, disappearing from the Reverend’s view.
    Johnny brushed glowing embers from his jacket, stood, and started back toward the mountainside and his comrades.
    The fin appeared almost directly in front of him, allowing no time to dodge or even think about dodging. The Bore-Shark jumped. It seemed to hover over Reverend Johnny’s head as if time paused so the beast could relish its victory.
    Then its side exploded. Steaming acid splattered inches from Johnny’s feet and the ugly beast with the big round maw flopped to the tundra like a fish out of water.
    A split second later, Johnny heard the clap of the sniper rifle shot that saved his life.
    Up ahead on the hillside, Casey Fink wiped his brow.
    “Much obliged, Mr. Fink!” Reverend Johnny yelled.
    Fink stood from his prone sniper position and both he and Jon Brewer descended the slope where they met with the Reverend.
    “You just blew up a third of our fuel,” Brewer said, eyeing the dying flames from one barrel of gas.
    “My apologies, General, but it was the only plan I could muster on such short notice.”
    Fink said, “Unless anyone sees a tail fin swimming around here, I think we got every last one of the things.”
    “Good,” Brewer said and pulled his radio from his belt. “I’m going to call everyone in. I want my ride put together and then I want to get on our way.”
    Minutes later, the expeditionary force gathered around City Hall. While the technicians finished assembling and fueling the command vehicle, others collected body parts of their fallen comrades and managed to dig shallow graves in the hard ground.
    None of them noticed the storm in the distance moving across the horizon: a gray whirlwind spinning to the north.
    The competition had arrived.

17. Potential

    Nina Forest arrived at Wrightsville Beach just in time for the hard work.
    More specifically, the ‘guard’ at the bridge directed her to a small, one-story building a few blocks from the beachfront. There she found Jim Brock, his ‘orphans,’ and a small crew of adults working on a community project.
    Nina spied two large piles of timber as well as buckets and boxes of tools outside of the “Wrightsville Beach Physicians Association,” a single-story building that happened to be missing most of one wall.
    Jim greeted her as she parked at the curb. Denise Cannon stood in the distance with a group of bored-looking kids ranging in age from under eight to over twelve.
    “Hello, Captain,” Brock offered as Nina exited the topless Humvee. “Did you bring a hammer?”
    She looked at the hole in the wall then to him.
    “Actually, I brought an appetite. An appetite for seafood.”
    Brock tried hard but he could not contain his smile. “Great…that’s great. But-”
    “But you’ve got something else going right now,” she stated the obvious.
    “I’m sorry. It’s just that this is the only doctor’s office around and some big hairy thing knocked it down the other day. Some of those dogs-I mean, K9s-of yours chased it away but not before…before this…” he waved at the damage.
    “Damn. Well, I guess we better start working if we’re going to make that dinner before it gets too dark.”
    “Hey, uh, Captain-I mean Ms. Forest-uh, no, I mean Cap-”
    “Oh. Right. Um, Nina, you don’t need to do this. It’s going to take us forever. Besides, you’ve done more than-”
    “Forever? Listen, Jim, we just have to put some elbow grease into this.” She walked toward the building with Brock in tow.
    “Well there’s only four of us, I mean, I guess, five of us now, so it’s going to take a long, long time.”
    “What about them?” Nina nodded at the kids standing around.
    “Oh, yeah, them. It’s just me watching them now and I couldn’t leave them by themselves.”
    Nina yelled, “Hey, ‘D’!”
    Denise Cannon stood straight and cocked her head in such a smug manner that she might as well have told her friends, Yeah, that’s right, I’m tight with the coolest soldier around. Worship me.
    Nina approached Denise and her circle of admirers.
    “Hey, um, hey,” Denise said but kept a ‘cool’ posture.
    “How you doing, girl?”
    Jim Brock’s mouth nearly unhinged in fascination as he watched the exchange.
    “Everything’s, like, cool. You know?” Denise answered.
    “Hey, Denise, I need you to take care of something.”
    “Yeah? Whatchya need?”
    “We got to get this wall patched up real quick like, so I need you to take charge,” the Captain said.
    “M-me? I mean, take charge of what?”
    “Your gang over there,” Nina answered. “I know most of them are just kids, but I figured you could maybe get them to help do this.”
    Jim Brock tried to say, “Oh, the kids don’t need to-”
    “Yeah, you bet,” Denise answered.
    “Tell me what you think,” Nina asked of Denise. “But I was thinking maybe me, Jim, and the other people here would start putting up the boards and nailing them on; do the dry wall and stuff. You could take your team and start hauling over those supplies. Just keep the real little kids away from the sharp stuff.”
    “Nina, you don’t need to help with this,” Jim said but he was not really a part of the conversation.
    Denise suggested, “Maybe we should pile the stuff up to the side there and then run for nails and stuff when you need it.”
    “Damn good idea,” Nina nodded. “Why don’t you get them organized while I straighten things up over here.”
    “Yeah, sure. I mean, roger that and all, right?”
    Denise used all her strength to suppress a grin as she turned to the group of kids. “Hey, listen up! Billy, Joey, and Kate you guys come over here and start throwin’ all the nails in these buckets.”
    One of the older boys-maybe fifteen-asked the obvious question, “Who put you in charge?”
    “Don’t waste my time with stupid questions. Just do it.”
    Billy did not ask any more stupid questions.
    Nina and Jim walked to the clinic wall. He stared at her the entire way over.
    “I just…just-wow.”
    The two met up with the other adults and quickly put things into good working order. They rebuilt the wall in less than two hours. While not a perfect match, Nina felt it filled the hole nicely, at least for the time being.

    Nina watched a group of children run from the ocean’s edge carrying buckets of seaweed. The kids worked their way through the tangled mess of brush that had once been a meticulously kempt garden. Eventually, they rejoined the gathering on the patio deck.
    “Seaweed?” Nina turned to Jim Brock and accepted a glass of water he offered.
    “What? You’ve never been to a clam bake before?”
    The kids ran to the trio of chefs overseeing a big barbecue pit where a layer of round stones smoldered. Those chefs accepted the slimy green bounty and then carefully layered the seaweed over the hot stones.
    “We’re not eating the seaweed. Right? Seriously, Jim, right?”
    His poker face broke, he laughed, and admitted, “Hey, where’s that tough survival-girl? No, we’re not eating seaweed. More like Yellow Fin Tuna and Marlin, or whatever else they caught today.”
    Smoke rose from the pit.
    She said, “Fresh seafood. I remember when you paid top dollar in restaurants for that.”
    “No other way for us,” he told her. “We can’t really store any of it, so we eat tonight what we caught this afternoon. Some times the fishermen come back empty handed. In the early days, that meant eating canned soup or camping food; stuff we scavenged. The last year, well, it usually meant eating nothing at all. Are things going to be a lot better now? Now that you’re here?”
    She enjoyed a swig of water and answered, “Me? No, I just kill the monsters.”
    “You know what I mean. Now that your ‘Empire’ is here.”
    “Not my Empire, Jim. Yours now, too. You’re a part of it. If the fishermen had come back without a catch today, you’d still have something to eat.” She considered. “Well, probably. I mean, today, yes. That’s doesn’t mean there aren’t hard times ahead.”
    They stood at the edge of the patio deck looking out across the tangled gardens and the white sand toward the steady roll and splash of the surf. Darkness crept up from the horizon but they still had time before the sun set.
    Behind Nina and Jim, dozens of people who had spent years hiding in the old resorts along the beach celebrated their liberation from the horrors that had invaded Wilmington five years ago. Music played from a tape recorder, a couple of people danced at the bottom of an empty swimming pool, and little kids chased one another around a veranda.
    “What’s it like?” He asked. “What’s it like everywhere else?”
    “It’s not like the old days, before ‘all this’, if that’s what you’re wondering. I mean, things aren’t easy. Food is always in short supply, so are medical supplies, and things like shoes and toothbrushes. Towns and villages and stuff are scattered around and the roads in between are pretty dangerous. People still do a lot of scavenging through vacant houses and buildings to find stuff to trade or that can be recycled into something useful. Of course, people who do that don’t live as long as those who stay in town; there are still lots of bad things out there.”
    He told her, “I’m just happy that we’re not hiding anymore. Let the monsters do that for a while now, I’m sick of it.”
    “Yeah, well, that’s my job, right? I have to admit, it’s nice to hang around for a bit to see what good comes of it.”
    “What do you mean?”
    She said, “I move fast. My unit and I, we’re usually on to the next mission a couple of hours after the last one is done. I don’t normally get to meet the people we help. All the hanging out I’ve done around here this week is usually the stuff civilian administrators do. I’m a field operative. This sort of thing is, well, kind of unusual for me.”
    “That sets up a really good question I want to ask you.”
    “Oh? What’s that?”
    “Who are you, Nina Forest?”
    “That’s a heck of a question.”
    “I’ll bet it is.”
    “Just your average girl,” Nina told him. “Let’s see, where to start…well, before all this I flew choppers for the National Guard while I wasn’t fighting bad guys with the Philly SWAT team.”
    He laughed. “Seriously? I mean, before all the aliens came, you were already doing the soldier thing?”
    “Yeah,” her eyes glazed over. “Since I can remember, it’s always been a part of me.”
    “That must be tough.”
    “There were times, yeah, when I didn’t quite fit in.”
    “And what about nowadays?”
    “Nowadays…” she pondered. “I’m still just a soldier. I’m fighting to free people. People like you and Denise.”
    “And if I haven’t thanked you in the last five minutes let me do that again now.”
    She told him, “You don’t need to thank me. It’s my job.”
    Brock said, “I don’t think it’s part of your job to take care of an eleven year old girl overnight; to spend time with her like you did yesterday. That’s above and beyond, I think.”
    Nina felt a twinge of embarrassment. She tried to brush aside his words. “Yeah, well, I was a little girl once, too. But what about you? What were you doing before all this?”
    Jim leaned against the railing.
    “Me? Well I sure wasn’t with any SWAT teams, I’ll tell you that. I wanted to be a teacher. Elementary school. Couldn’t find any teaching jobs so I did the next best thing: worked in day care. A start, you know?”
    She nodded.
    “I thought it was just a stepping stone until something opened up in the district. Man, was I right. I did step up.”
    A flock of Earth-born sea birds passed overhead. The smell of the smoldering pit had drawn their attention.
    “What did you step up to?” Nina asked.
    “Den father, I suppose.”
    “Or maybe just ‘father’?”
    He nodded. “Sort of. In a way. Yeah.”
    “Guess you didn’t have your own children.”
    Brock shook his head. “No, I was just a kid myself. My whole life ahead of me,” he drifted away for a moment, perhaps revisiting those visions of the future; visions that evaporated in the fire of Armageddon. “I was living the high life. You know, young and single. Nice apartment. No responsibilities.”
    “Then came fatherhood,” she said.
    “Yeah,” Brock laughed. “Instant family. At first, it was just me and one other older lady, Mildred. Something…something got her on that first day while we were hunkered down in the center hoping parents would start showing up.”
    “They never did,” Nina knew.
    “Started off with fifteen kids.”
    Nina glanced toward Denise and the group of children running around the patio deck. She counted eight of them and did the math, totaling a casualty rate of nearly fifty percent.
    Jim told her, “Five of them weren’t even two yet. A couple of the kids were from the center’s day camp, so they were older. You know how I ended up with them? The two counselors in charge of the day camp took off when things went to hell. They told the kids to stay put and they walked out of the room and took off.”
    “You have got to be shitting me.”
    She saw a red glow in his cheeks, no doubt a memory of the rage he felt when he understood responsible ‘adults’ had abandoned their young charges.
    “They left them there. Just left them.”
    Nina said, “So you inherited even more. Wow, that must have been almost impossible.”
    “It didn’t feel that way at the time because I didn’t have a chance to think about it. I mean, watching over a bunch of children like that is hard enough when the world is running a-okay. Between juice cups and diapers and making sure they’re not pummeling each other, well, I probably was about the last person to realize the world was falling apart.”
    “And when you did realize it?”
    “It was difficult to believe the stuff on TV. Then when it was outside the door, man, I mean, your survival instincts really take over. Sometimes those kids, no matter how much you yell, they just can’t be quiet for two seconds. But man, we were all huddled up in the cloakroom with a couple of big things walking around the center with, like, axes or something. We stayed real quiet for almost an hour. Even the really little kids, it’s like they knew their life depended on being quiet.”
    He shook his head, sorting through foggy memories.
    “At first, we stayed in the center. We had snacks and stuff like that, even some games for the kids. It seemed like every couple of hours we had to hide. The streets in Wilmington got real bad.”
    She said, “You stayed there as long as you could, hoping parents would come and get their kids.”
    “It seemed the right thing to do. I think I told you already, for a while on that first day we got calls from parents. I mean, frantic calls. One little boy…his call from dad got cut off by…by…his dad being…”
    She placed a hand on his shoulder and spared him the details.
    “I understand.”
    He struggled to hold back tears.
    Nina told him, “Jim…let it go. All the years you worked so hard to keep these kids alive. Well guess what? You’ve crossed the finish line.”
    “I hope…I hope that-man, I’m sorry,” he put his eyes in his hands.
    “There’s still danger around,” she said. “I’m just saying, it isn’t all rosy. But you’ve got help now. We’ve got people who deal with this sort of thing. They’ll be coming here soon to help make arrangements.”
    “What?” He pulled his eyes out of his hands. “You mean, for the kids?”
    “If that’s what you want, yeah,” she said. “I can imagine the bond you have with them. But we’ve found orphans before and most of them are parts of families now.”
    He closed his eyes tight.
    “That’s good. That’s real good. Maybe I’ll be able to figure out my own life. That’s been sort of on hold for five years now.”
    He let out a long exhale then said, “I have to tell you. I really admire you. I mean, the way you fight and how you’re not afraid. All these years of running and hiding, I’ve been scared shitless. I think of all the kids I lost. I wonder if I had been braver maybe more of them would have made it.”
    Nina smiled; almost laughed.
    “What?” He asked. “What’d I say?”
    She paused, unsure how to say it. “It’s just that every guy I’ve met in the past four years is one of two types.”
    “Yeah? What types are those?”
    “The first is the guy that’s really gung-ho for the fighting and wants me to know how brave he is. Like he’s going to impress me with how tough he is. Usually they’re the types who go running head on at a Spider-Ant with nothing but a can of Raid and a fly swatter.”
    The phrase was an inside-joke with the Dark Wolves but she figured he would understand the idea. He did.
    “The second is the guy that puts on the brave front but is damn scared. He’s the one that that tells you he can arm-wrestle a Stick Ogre but then cut and runs at the site of a Chew-Cow.”
    “A Chew Cow?”
    “Think a big cow. Kind of harmless.”
    “Oh. Well..?”
    “But you,” she explained. “You just are who you are. That’s kid of refreshing.”
    “Actually I’m the third type. I’m the guy that’s damn scared and isn’t afraid to admit it.”
    “That’s what I mean. I admire that. It means people can count on you.”
    “It means you do things you have to do, even if it scares you.”
    His brow crinkled in an expression of mild confusion as he pointed out, “But that’s what you do, isn’t it?”
    “You’re braver than me,” she surprised him
    “No chance.”
    “Sure you are. Because the truth of the matter is that I don’t get afraid of all this. Not the monsters. Not the aliens. The only thing that sometimes scares me is, well, the fact that none of it scares me. Makes me wonder who I really am, deep down.”
    A voice called from the smoky cooking pit over by the empty swimming pool, “Dinner is served!”
    A chorus of cheers and claps broke out.
    “You are…” he started and tried to find the right words. It took him a moment. “You are a very interesting person, Captain Nina Forest.”
    “Not really,” she told him solemnly. “It just seems that way at first.”

    Jorge Benjamin Stone rolled, then stirred, then finally woke. Or, at least, opened his eyes; his mind hovered somewhere between dream and reality.
    The little boy sat up in his bed. The only light came from the moon hanging high in the heavens and casting a few stray moonbeams through his window.
    He rubbed his eyes and vaguely wondered why he no longer slept.
    Yes, that was it. A soft noise called him from slumber.
    JB swung his legs out of bed. His bare feet touched a cold wood floor. He staggered to stand as his mind tried in vain to convince him to return to the warmth of his blankets. Without thinking-on instinct-he grabbed his plush bunny and held it to his chest.
    Like most doors in the mansion, his stood slightly ajar to allow the K9 guards freedom of movement through the home.
    He pushed it open fully and stepped out into the dark, empty hallway. Several paces to his left was his father’s second floor office, which led to the master bedroom.
    Jorgie’s ears woke enough to trace the sound. It came from his right, along the hall toward the rear of the house where the door to a large bathroom stood. A faint glow came from behind that half-open door, a bluish glow from the night light therein.
    He stood still, staring in that direction. His mind fought a battle between sleep and awake, before settling on ‘groggy’ but functional.
    “Ajax?” He whispered for the Doberman Pinscher assigned to guard him.
    Jorge walked-more staggered-toward the bathroom. At this point, he needed to relieve himself, anyway.
    Louder this time. Closer.
    JB used two fingers to push the door all the way open. Blue light splashed over his entire face.
    Inside the large bathroom was a whirlpool tub, a shower stall, and of course the usual fixtures.
    JB took two steps onto tile that felt even colder than the wood. A dark mass lying on the floor against the tub grabbed and held his attention. That mass moved, a little.
    JB’s eyes adjusted. He saw Ajax on the floor. The sound came from the dog hitting its head against the tub like some kind of machine malfunctioning. A pool of blood dripped from a growing head wound and ran red across the white tile.
    “Ajax? Ajax?”
    JB stepped forward, still not quite sure if he was stuck in a nightmare.
    “Ajax, stop it,” JB cringed.
    The dog whined, just a little. Not loud.
    Jorge saw another mass. This one inside the tub. An Internal Security agent. JB was pretty sure his name had been Carlos. JB played football catch with him in the side yard a few months before. He thought him a nice man.
    Carlos’ white shirt was stained red as streams of blood gushed from his slashed throat.
    JB drew breath in preparation for a scream.
    A hand clamped over his mouth. Clamped tight.
    A large silver blade slid against the little boy’s throat and hovered there.
    “Hello, Jorgie,” the shadowy figure said. “I’m so pleased to make your acquaintance.”
    JB froze in place. He felt the sharp prick of the knife against the tender skin on his throat and realized that, yes, this was a nightmare but he was very much awake.
    “I’m sorry about this, really I am. I’m afraid it’s going to be a long night and it won’t be very pleasant. But your father and I have a lot to talk about. So let’s go get him, shall we?”

18. Illumination

    Trevor sat up in bed. His movement stirred Ashley, who groaned and opened her eyes.
    The master bedroom connected off Trevor’s office, the room that originally served as the “command center.” Two figures stood in that doorway, their features hidden in the dark.
    Trevor instinctively reached for the Beretta M9 under his pillow. He froze when he saw a flash of moonlight flicker off the blade held to his son’s throat.
    “Ah, ah, ah,” the shadowy figure teased.
    Trevor let the pistol be, and held both hands palms up and open.
    Ashley wiped her eyes and realized she did not dream.
    “JB? Trevor? Oh my God!”
    “Quiet now,” the man raised a finger to his lips. “We’ve got some talking to do. So the two of you need to get out from underneath those nice warm sheets and come on out here. I have better manners than to stand here and watch the misses, but I’m afraid it’d be in all of our best interests for me not to let you out of my sight. You might just do something stupid, isn’t that so?”
    Trevor, wearing navy blue sweat pants, cautiously rose from bed, still holding his empty hands aloft. Ashley wore considerably less. She grabbed a robe and tied it on.
    The assailant led them to the office where he walked behind the desk, the knife never leaving Jorge’s throat. Trevor and Ashley stood on the opposite side.
    “Go ahead, turn on a light. The smaller one,” the man directed.
    Trevor switched on the desk lamp. Ashley gasped.
    A human man held a knife to JB’s throat, but the scars he wore made him appear more creature than person.
    “What’s wrong, honey? I don’t look appetizing to you?” The intruder reacted with sarcasm to Ashley’s shock. “Shoot, this stuff is a couple of years old. You should have seen me when the skin melted. Felt like jelly on my cheekbones for a couple of weeks. Still, I tried to dress myself up for our big get together.” He ran his free hand through his hair-what remained of it-in mock grooming. Flakes from old scabs fell off a cracked scalp.
    Trevor saw more than scars. He saw starvation. The dirty coveralls the man wore hung loose on emaciated shoulders. Spindly fingers with chipped nails clutched the knife at Jorge’s neck. The man carried a stink of body odor and rot.
    “You should put down that knife,” Trevor said as his eyes searched for openings; searched for counter-moves.
    “Oh, I’m thinking no on that one, Dick.”
    “You’re not going to get out of here. There are guards all over the place.”
    “A few less. The dogs, they aren’t around. I sort of sent them off on a wild goose chase.”
    Jorgie said, “Father, he killed the man in the hallway.”
    “Carlos,” Trevor spoke the man’s name. He deserved as much.
    The intruder said, “You can forget about the guy in the basement watching the cameras. Wilson, I think that is his name. Anyway, he’s got a good bump on the noggin’ and is going to be tied up for a while.”
    Trevor’s mouth worked but the scarred man said, “Yeah, yeah, I know. In twenty minutes or so, someone is going to notice Wilson hasn’t checked in and then they’ll send folks this way. I expect to have things settled up by then, so don’t give it another thought.”
    The wind rattled against the sliding glass doors that hid behind drawn curtains.
    “What is it you want? Let my son go!” Ashley demanded.
    “Oh now honey, you know I can’t do that so don’t waste your breath. Besides, you’ve got nothing to fear. I mean, we’re all family here.”
    Trevor and Ashley glanced at one another.
    “Not yours honey,” the man said. “His.”
    He meant, of course, Trevor.
    “My name is George. That’s George with a ‘g’. But you could just call me Junior.”
    Trevor’s father had been named George.
    “George…George junior?” Trevor forced the words.
    “That’s right. I’m your brother, Richard. Your older brother.”
    “Bull shit!” Trevor spat. “I never had an older brother. I was an only child.”
    “I suppose I should add the ‘half’ part. I’m your half-brother, Dick.”
    “What?” Ashley exhaled.
    “Ole’ papa bear lived a lonely life on the road.”
    “No! No! My father loved my mother. He wouldn’t have been screwing around on her. You are full of shit.”
    “Easy, easy does it,” George waved the knife. “You need to control those emotions, Rich. You might just spook me into doing a little carving and none of us want that.”
    JB scolded, “My father’s name is Trevor.”
    George looked down at the boy and said, “Usually I don’t take that kind of lip from a three-year-old kid. Why, if I had had that mouth when I was a boy my mother would have back handed me.”
    “Don’t you touch my son,” Ashley spoke through clenched lips.
    Trevor saw her shake. Part of that shake came from fear, certainly. Much of it came from anger; the primal rage of a mother protecting her child. Trevor realized that, given the opportunity, Ashley would rip this man to pieces maybe as lethally as could Nina Forest.
    Nonetheless, George ignored her and remained focused on JB. “But you, you’re special. You’re special just like Richard is, right? That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I’m special, too.”
    “You’re not special,” Ashley growled. “You’re just another monster who looks like a man. No real man would hold a knife to a little boy’s throat.”
    “Would you like me to hold a knife to your throat, honey?” The man smiled. “I can think of lots of things I’d do if I had you under my knife. You’d sure as hell find out how much of a real man I can be. Might be a little rough, though.”
    Ashley wavered but only slightly. “You’d damn well need the knife.”
    “You are not my brother,” Trevor stayed on point.
    “Yeah, I knew you’d have problems with that. Don’t worry, Dick, your dad didn’t go messing around on your mother. He met my mom long before he married. I’m a good eight years your senior, little brother.”
    “You’re lying,” Trevor said with certainty. “My dad would have told us about you. He wasn’t the type to run away from his responsibilities. I know that.”
    “He isn’t going to tell you about something he don’t know about. That’s right; my mother didn’t even know your pop’s last name. They met at a truck stop way back when. It gets lonely on the road, you know. She was a waitress. It was his first time through. Next thing you know he goes driving off into the sunset and nine months later she’s got a nice little surprise. Life can be funny like that.”
    Trevor shook his head. “I don’t believe you.”
    “Yes you do. You believe me. You went to my place out there in Virginia and saw it yourself. You know I found you because I could see visions of who you are, of how far you’ve climbed in this new world. When you stood in my cave, you felt a connection with everything there. Just like I feel a connection with everything here. Do you want to know why, Dick?”
    “My father’s name is-”
    “Shut up you brat”
    George smacked the boy’s skull off the desktop then immediately placed the knife at his throat again. He moved so fast that Trevor managed only a half step before he had to abandon any thought of attack.
    “Stop it! Stop it!” Ashley roared.
    “No more words out of you, boy. No more from your lips. This is time for grown ups to talk. Not freaks like you, hear me?”
    Jorgie sniffled and held a hand to his head. He appeared dazed, possibly suffering a concussion.
    “You do that to my son again, and I’ll kill you,” Trevor stated a fact.
    “Oh Dick, who are you kidding? You decided to kill me long before I woke you and the misses out of bed tonight. The real question here is how bad do you want your son and wife to live? That’s the real question.”
    “What do you mean by that?” Ashley’s voice trembled from that combination of fear and anger.
    “You see, right now you’re thinking that the big revelation here is that Richie has himself a half-brother. You’re thinking, who really cares if his dad knocked up some minimum-wage waitress a long time ago. I mean, it’s not as if he was cheating on his wife, right? The point isn’t that I’m Richie’s half-brother. Oh no. That’s no big deal. That’s just the way of the world. The point here is what pieces of the puzzle does this put into place for you. The real revelation is right in front of your eyes and you’re not seeing it. Why here I am, only half of what my little brother is and I have it all figured out. Why, I thought me being here would give you all those answers you’ve been wondering about. I mean, you do have questions, don’t you…Trevor?”
    George smiled as if he did everyone a favor by calling his half-brother ‘Trevor’ instead of Rich or Dick.
    “Yes, I have lots of questions. Like why are you holding a knife to my son’s throat?”
    “Oh, c’mon now, I mean the real good questions. Like, why did you get the shit job of running this whole comeback show? Why is it you can order around dogs a lot easier than most folks can order around their kids? Questions about why this little brat of yours is so special.”
    “A link…” Trevor spoke soft as he remembered the Old Man’s words. “…a link on a chain…”
    “A link on a chain, huh?” George offered a better description. “More like a code for a combination lock, brother.”
    “You’re not making sense,” Ashley complained.
    “Oh honey, you need to start paying attention,” the brute said. “We’re talking big concepts here and you can’t see beyond the front of your nose. Hard to believe you’re such an important part of all this.”
    That sparked Ashley’s attention.
    “Me? What? What do you mean?”
    “You still don’t get it, do you? Oh honey, you need to understand something. All of this,” he waved his arm-the one that did not have the knife to Jorgie’s throat-around the room but his motion referred to the nightmarish world in which they lived. “All of this, it’s on your shoulders.”
    “What?” Ashley quivered.
    The man finished, “You and Trevor here. You started this. You caused Armageddon.”
    Ashley’s jaw dropped. Trevor’s eyes narrowed.
    “Yeah, let that soak in real good. Let that sting for a bit,” the man smiled evilly.
    Trevor tilted his head as the dots of understanding connected. “The other half of the equation. I was half, and Ashley was the other half. Is that what you’re saying?”
    “That’s good. Yeah, A plus B equals C. You had to be A and her as B. That’s how nature’s been planning it all along. Now you’re thinking. Think some more for me. Tell your honey what I am. Go ahead, Dick.”
    Trevor licked his lips.
    “You are a mistake.”
    Surprisingly, George nodded in agreement.
    “You were never meant to be. Your mom wasn’t the right mix with my dad.”
    “Yeah! Yeah! Keep on going.”
    “My dad was meant…was meant to be with my mom. The same way I was meant to be with Ashley.”
    George said, “A genetic code, Rich! All through history. I’m not so sure about this whole ‘meant’ thing, but you two had the ingredients for the recipe for Jorgie here.”
    Dad and mom looked to their son. Jorgie stood but his head wobbled side to side, his eyelids fluttered. The blow left him dazed and unaware of the conversation.
    Ashley asked, “What about my boy?”
    George said to her, “Let me bet you a dollar that you were starting to get sick and whatnot before all hell broke loose.”
    Trevor remembered how Ashley felt nauseous at about the same time people started disappearing and monsters started creeping around in shadows. He remembered waiting for her on the porch with her father while Ashley got sick upstairs. At the time, he dismissed it to nerves. However, more than a year later when they pulled her out of a green gooey cocoon with the initial batch of ark-riders, they realized she carried a child.
    The doctors calculated she conceived not long before disappearing, but it was hard to tell exactly when given that they had been having sex almost every night. Richard loved it at the time. He attributed Ashley’s eagerness to her nerves about the wedding, too.
    Ashley unconvincingly insisted, “You are crazy.”
    “Think about it, honey,” the man enjoyed horrifying her. As he did, a nasty edge built in his voice. “Think about when the creatures started appearing. If you go back and check them old newspaper clippings, you’ll see. Not The New York Times or something. Check out The National Enquirer. Shit like that. Sometimes the tabloids get it right. Hell, they were ahead of everyone this time around. They got the last, best scoop.”
    Trevor said, “What does that have to do with anything? We were planning for our wedding, that’s all. I was a nobody.”
    “We both were, bro, but we weren’t destined to stay that way, were we? You and Ashley here, like gasoline and fire, baby. Put the two of them together and you get a big boom. That boom was Armageddon.”
    Trevor’s mind raced. Since the day he first met the Old Man in the woods, he wondered why he had been chosen. Why had the estate been prepared and stocked for him? Why did he receive the library of memories? Why could he communicate with dogs and why did they follow his every command as if they were an extension of his body?
    He saw George-this warped man that claimed to be his half-brother-stare at him, savoring the torment that came with each revelation. Trevor also saw that whatever trauma had deformed and starved his body had also robbed George of his sanity.
    “Wait…wait a second…” Ashley’s hand wavered in the air. “You’re saying…you’re saying that when I…when we…I got-”
    “C’mon honey, spit it out. You can do it but you can’t say it? Maybe you should’ve been a little more shy when Richie here wanted to go poking around between those nice legs of yours.”
    “Our son,” Trevor jumped in. “When we… when he was conceived…”
    “Yeah! Now you got it! Bingo!”
    “Wh-what?” Ashley stuttered. “Because I got pregnant..?”
    “No, honey,” George explained. “Because you got pregnant with this thing…”
    George shook JB by the back of the neck.
    “Thing? That’s my son!” Trevor snarled.
    George spat back, “Too bad I can’t just slit his throat and undo what happened to the world. No, I guess the cat is out of the bag on that one.”
    Trevor said, “He was meant to be. You were the mistake. You don’t belong.”
    His half-brother curled his lips like a coyote warning off a badger.
    “Yeah, I was a mistake. Sort of the fly in the ointment; the monkey wrench in the works. But I was first.”
    “And you failed. I saw your cave. You failed. What happened, did you actually think you were the one chosen for all this?”
    “When it all started, I felt the strength in me,” he curled his free arm as if making a muscle. “I felt confident, sure of myself, nothing could stop me. This was all…all my time.”
    “So you gathered survivors,” Trevor said. “You found yourself a quiet little mansion in the woods. Somewhere secluded.”
    “Yeah…yeah,” George agreed. “I could see a picture in my mind, isn’t that funny? I found a place like that picture.”
    Trevor told him, “It wasn’t quite right, was it? Not exactly like the picture in your mind.”
    George shook his head. “No. Not exactly. But close enough.”
    “You saw this place. You saw the place given to me. “
    George clenched his teeth, “This should’ve been my place. Mistake or no, I was first. It should have been mine.”
    “You didn’t have the right, what? Combination of genes? You were an offshoot. A second thought. The wrong mix. But you had a little, a taste of what I got, didn’t you?”
    “Yeah, that’s right,” George conceded.
    Trevor told him, “The people came to you when they saw your confidence. Hell, you felt like you could save the world, didn’t you?”
    “Yeah, yeah,” George said. “And I could hear the dogs in my head. I would call to them and they came running.”
    Stone told him what he already knew: “But you only had half of it. When they came to you, something happened. It wasn’t right. Your thoughts in their head…the wrong frequency or something.”
    George bit on his lip.
    Trevor paused and considered the implication. All these years he believed the Old Man granted him the ability to communicate with the K9s. The entity had said, “Now, as to the second gift. Well you already got that one but you’re too shell-shocked to know it. When you get to the house that’s when you’ll realize that one. I guess I kind of lied when I said you don’t have no friends no more.”
    Yes, Trevor thought as he stood across from George. I did already have it. At the house, after my parents were killed…I could hear the dogs then. I just thought I was going crazy or something. But they warned me to get going.
    “You awake over there, brother?”
    “All these years I thought the K9 thing was a gift,” Trevor finally spoke.
    “It was,” George agreed. “It was a gift revealed in your genetic code; half coming from your dad, the other half from your mom. Like brown eyes and black hair, or maybe a pre-disposition to diabetes. All activated at the right time and the right place.”
    “I thought it was a gift from the Old Man,” Stone mumbled to himself.
    “The what?” George asked.
    “Nothing,” Trevor said. “So the dogs came to you, but they went nuts. Started ripping each other apart.”
    George confessed, “That’s right, yeah. Still, even without the dogs I knew I could do it. I knew I could be the savior. I just needed time; that was all.”
    “No, you couldn’t,” Trevor corrected. “You weren’t meant to! You weren’t meant to be! It had to be me. I was the next link in the chain. A chain of genetics going back-what? — to the dawn of man? Some code mixed in the primordial soup.”
    “It could’ve been me!”
    “Maybe a pre-determined plan. Maybe just a fluke. But it had to be me. I was the only one who could be JB’s father.”
    That’s why I couldn’t be with Nina. He could not say some things aloud.
    George grumbled, “I had the people with me, they trusted me. I was a great leader. They’d do whatever I asked! They pledged their loyalty to me! They followed without question!”
    Ashley snapped, “And you led them to what? Death?”
    George’s face twisted like angry storm clouds on the verge of spawning a tornado. First, it looked like rage…then agony.
    “I…didn’t…do…any…thing,” he flexed the fingers on his free hand as if trying to crush away the memories. “We hid…to gather our strength. We had food, guns, water.”
    Trevor understood. He said, “You hid too long. They came to get you. They wiped you out like trapped rats. No one told you,” Trevor paused, considered, and said, “no one told you it was time to fight.”
    George’s lip quivered. “There were so many. I never thought there could be so many. What you call Ghouls and Red Hands by the thousands, Hivvans, and more. Wave after wave.”
    Trevor surmised, “Your own Battle of Five Armies. But you let them get to your front door step. You fought on their terms, not yours.”
    “Yes,” George closed his fist and gnawed on a thumb knuckle. “I heard my people screaming…dying…ripped apart.”
    “So you hid,” Stone knew the rest of the story. “You abandoned your people as they were slaughtered. You fled to the cave and you piled their bodies high to hide your hole. You stayed there and drew your pictures.”
    “So…alone…” George mumbled.
    Ashley broke in, “This has nothing to do with us! This has nothing to do with our son!”
    George threw his eyes at her with anger but it was Trevor who spoke.
    “Don’t bother, Ashley, you can’t reason with him. He came here to try and hurt me with all these revelations, to impress me that he could get by my dogs and guards, all to show he was one up on me because he figured a lot out while he was sitting in his cave. Beyond that, he doesn’t have a plan. Maybe some fantasy about killing me and taking my place, but even he’s not insane enough to really think that would work.”
    George trembled, closed his eyes for a brief second, and then said, “I think I had one advantage you didn’t, little brother. Your pieces are put together like a puzzle, mine are all jumbled up and missing parts because I only had dad, not the right mom. From my mess, I was able to see the picture. Point is, sitting in my cave I had visions. Probably something in my genetic code slipping out because it was all afoul and whatnot. That’s how I put together the pieces. I dreamt everything. Our family line, our genes stretching back through time and around the world. You’ve got blood in your veins from every point on the compass.”
    “A responsibility I never wanted,” Trevor said. “I can’t run from it and it’s made me do some things I regret. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just another monster that came to this world five years ago with the rest of them.”
    “Oh yes, yes, you are,” George whispered. “I’ve seen it, Trevor. I’ve seen the monster inside you because it’s inside me, too. You think nature was going to choose some knight in shining armor? This isn’t a kid’s storybook. There’s messy work to be done. For every Sir Lancelot in your blood, there’s a Genghis Kahn. You were built for this, and they used a lot of parts from the dark side of the workshop. Me? Well, I didn’t get all the right parts.”
    Trevor asked, “So what do we do now? What brilliant plan have you got… brother?”
    “That’s the question, isn’t it? Where do we go from here?”
    Ashley said, “Please, let my son go.”
    George pulled the knife away from Jorgie…then quickly returned the blade to his throat. Ashley gasped but no blood came, not yet.
    “I was thinking,” George smiled. “Maybe I can’t be the man who saves the world. But maybe I can be the man who makes sure the world ends. Maybe I can be a bigger monster than even you, Trevor. I just have to slice this tender little throat and maybe that will do it. Of course, I’ll have to carve up the two of you just to make sure.”
    A gentle smash sounded in the room, as if a glass knocked over. Trevor saw the balcony curtains flutter and a tiny canister roll on the floor.
    Suddenly the room erupted in a blinding flash of light. A high-pitched tone blocked all sound from Trevor’s ears. He could smell the smoke of the detonation.
    His eyes blurred. Figures burst into the room; the sharp report of gunfire. He felt a pair of hands on his shoulders throw him to the ground then the weight of a body on his back.
    “Tango down! Tango down!”
    More commotion, voices shouting.
    Trevor blinked his eyes rapidly. They slowly cleared but his ears continued to ring.
    Lights snapped on in the office. He heard Ashley crying.
    Then he heard the voice that was most important to him.
    “Fa-Father? I don’t feel so good.”
    “Easy, easy does it,” came Gordon Knox’s voice as Trevor tried to stand.
    Knox spoke to someone else: “Status?”
    “Clear, Sir.”
    Gordon Knox stood, releasing Trevor from his protective tackle.
    Trevor stumbled to his feet.
    “Jorgie? JB where are you?”
    Gordon led Trevor by the arm because his vision remained fuzzy. Trevor realized I.S. agents filled the room. Someone must have heard the commotion in his office and alerted the standby tactical team.
    Jorgie sat on the floor behind the desk with his hands on his ears saying, “I can’t hear anything.”
    “Son…are you okay?”
    “He’s okay,” the voice of Benjamin Trump said. “Got a good bump on the head, though.”
    Trevor turned to the blurry figure who sounded like his father-in-law. He put a hand on the older man’s shoulder and said, “It was you? You alerted I.S.?”
    “Haven’t been sleeping much, not with what happened in the den the other day. I heard something going on, snuck up the steps and peeked in the door. Instead of rushing in and getting us all killed, I figured I’d call in the cavalry.”
    “Good job,” Trevor said as his eyes cleared a little more. Then he knelt to the ground and hugged his son.
    Ashley staggered over, nearly crawling on the floor and calling for, “JB!”
    The boy reacted to his mother’s voice. “Mommy? Mommy,” he cried softly and jumped as fast as he could into her arms.
    Grandpa came over and hugged both his daughter and grandson.
    “Sir,” one of the Internal Security agents examined the prone form of the intruder. “He’s still alive, barely.”
    Trevor staggered to George Junior who lay on his back. He did not look so scary with all the lights on. More sad than anything else.
    Blood flowed from a bullet wound to his skull. His eyes fluttered as his life drained.
    “George, tell me,” Trevor spoke softly. “You said something about my son being special. What was it George? What do you know that I don’t?”
    “Hey Richie…don’t…don’t stop…don’t stop fighting. That was my…my mistake.”
    “My son, George. What about my son?”
    “Maybe…maybe I’ll meet our father…Rich…I’d like that.”

19. Divination

    The billboard blared, “Keep Yelling Kids! They’ll Stop!”
    Stonewall cast an eye at that tribute to commercialism but noted, wryly, that yes, he and his men would, indeed, stop.
    2 nd Mechanized Division approached the South Carolina border on Interstate 95. Infantry in a collection of ‘uniforms’ ranging from army fatigues to football team t-shirts marched in uneven order along the shoulders of what had once been the north bound and south bound lanes of the highway, forming four distinct lines. The men and women of the division carried gear in backpacks, duffel bags, purses, shopping bags, and wheeled suitcases making them resemble less an army and more a ragtag band of grubby hitchhikers.
    Their weapons consisted of hunting rifles, shotguns, and some military-grade carbines; a variety of arms requiring a variety of bullets, a situation that created constant supply challenges.
    Cavalry units formed a loose picket line in the distance ahead while crawling APCs, Humvees, and civilian-model vehicles clogged the middle of the road.
    General Stonewall McAllister trotted along on horseback with Captain Kristy Kaufman as well as his bugler-freckle-faced Benny Duda-at his side and a perfectly blue sky above. The terrain ahead appeared flat and featureless; except for gaudy billboards promoting the “South of the Border” tourist stop.
    Kaufman finished the most recent intelligence report: “There are no signs that the Hivvans have sent reinforcements from Columbia to support the supply depot at Dillon. That means the garrison there is on their own.”
    “I am not happy, Captain. Not at all.”
    “Sir? I would think this would be good news.”
    “What? Yes, the lack of reinforcement is good-if not surprising-news. However, I am focused on the bad news today. We have lost cohesion in our division,” he pointed forward to the unknown ahead. “The front of our column is but seven miles from the objective.” He then turned in his saddle and pointed one gloved hand to the north, behind them. “Yet our column stretches some ten miles. We will arrive at Dillon piecemeal.”
    “I understand, General. I suppose those screamer attacks managed to scatter us.”
    “No doubt. Yet I sense a lackadaisical attitude among many of our number. Perhaps the proximity of the so-called ‘groupies’ travelling at our rear has caused some to wander in search of, let us say, comforts and leisure activities.”
    “Possibly, Sir. I will dispatch a squad to search the caravans for any sign of deserters. However, General, I must point out that food distribution has been rather limited as of late. Some of the boys may merely be searching for a warm meal from the civilians following us.”
    “Yes, I know,” Stonewall responded but in a hushed tone to keep his soldiers from hearing. “A scarcity of fuel is inhibiting the supply trucks. Nonetheless, we have a task to accomplish and our fighting spirit has not yet been diminished by these shortfalls.” He pointed to the billboard advertising ‘South of the Border.’ “I intend to rally our forces around this point ahead; this tourist trap. I want to establish my headquarters there and we will organize for the assault on the enemy depot.”
    A commotion grabbed their attention. The thin line of horse soldiers marking the forward tip of the division parted and a trio of riders galloped through, led by Dustin McBride.
    Benny Duda used his trumpet as a pointer and spoke the obvious, “Our scouts are back.”
    “Yes, I see that,” McAllister eyed the galloping riders suspiciously.
    McBride waved and yelled but the General could not quite hear the words.
    “I say, what is he shouting about?”
    Dustin yelled again, “Take cover!”
    A flash in the sky caught the General’s attention. Another flash followed a split second later, this one at ground level and it included an electronic buzz as a zone of explosive energy hit the front of an infantry line. The blast fried six men there like a microwave on full power. Their blackened bodies fell apart and the remains of their clothing smoked.
    The marching columns scattered off the Interstate for cover, but found only fields of grass and light brush.
    Wham-buzz. Wham-buzz.
    A horse soldier and his mount melted in a lethal electrical blast. The pavement beneath his charred horse turned to slag.
    “Hivvan artillery, Sir!” McBride reported as he reached the General. “They’re all over that big rest stop up ahead!”
    Two soldiers cowering near a small bush off the highway burst and burned as did the shrub around them.
    Stonewall said, “It appears the enemy has sallied out to face us and decided to use the very place I earmarked for our use.”
    McBride reported, “They’re dug-in at a fancy shopping place up ahead. We also saw short and medium ranged artillery.”
    Another electrical explosion hit close to an APC. Blue sparks danced on its hull, leaving a black scorch on the armored plating.
    “Yes, Dustin, I have ascertained as much.”
    McBride suggested, “We should call Tactical Air Command. I hear they have the two A-10s up and running again. Send them to bomb the crap out of them. That would do the trick!”
    “Splendid idea, Captain,” Stonewall said. “Alas, we received word this morning that no more sorties will be made in support of our advance. It seems our air force has run short on aviation fuel and ordnance. What little remains is committed to interdicting enemy convoys supplying the Hivvans in the pocket.”
    The air filled with a feeling of static electricity and a glowing ball of energy impacted the pavement thirty yards from the General and his Captains. A Humvee suffered the brunt of the lethal discharge, its fuel tank exploded and a trio of barbecued bodies scattered on the pavement. Pieces of blasted armor and something resembling a human forearm flew by inches from Stonewall’s nose.
    Kaufman warned, “Not safe here, General. They probably have this whole stretch of highway ranged!”
    “Sound the retreat, Benny,” he ordered to his teenaged bugle boy and reared his ride about. “Captain Kaufman, signal Bear to move his artillery unit to the front of our column with all due haste. Captain McBride, come with me, we have an attack to plan.”

    Built adjacent to the eastern edge of I-95, ‘South of the Border’ included a 300-room motel, five different theme restaurants, a variety of trinket stores, eye-catching over-sized ceramic animals including dinosaurs, a wiener-dog and a Hippo that made for humorous photo backdrops, an in-door 18-hole miniature golf course, a couple of fireworks stores, and several gas stations all surrounded by fields and forests.
    Sombreros decorated much of the park, including a tall sombrero tower and a giant man straddling a parking lot wearing, of course, a sombrero.
    A few vehicles remained, particularly around the gas stations to either side of the main entrance where lines of cars rusted away. An 18-wheeler lay jackknifed in the middle of the main road and the tail end of a crashed Cessna protruded from a white ‘restroom’ building.
    Dustin McBride dismounted and moved his brigade forward bravely, but the words “tallyho” did not sound as suave from his lips as from Stonewall’s.
    Several of his soldiers rode on horseback; several more were stuffed into Bradley Fighting Vehicles; even more crammed into cargo trucks, SUVs, and pickups.
    They descended off the high ground of I-95 about a half-mile from the center of “South of the Border.” Hivvan artillery shells sounded a high-pitched whistle as they fell. Explosions of deadly electrical fields erupted around the vehicles.
    One hit an army truck and it caught fire. The men inside scrambled to exit even before the vehicle stopped. Two rolled on the pavement, burning to death.
    “Get the hell out of the trucks,” McBride radioed. “Form a picket line of vehicles and men and let’s move forward!”
    Dozens of soldiers dismounted their rides. Those in the armored Bradleys stayed put.
    The entire force spread into a wide, advancing line. Foot soldiers moved through retail stores where bold ‘sale’ signs advertised wares and around restaurants decorated with giant plaster hamburgers and hot dogs.
    All the while incoming artillery melted pavement and men. One shell hit and collapsed a shop where several soldiers sheltered, killing a dozen and wounding twice that number.
    Dustin closed in on the 200-foot tall Sombrero Tower by “Pedroland” park. What sound he heard through his one good ear suggested that the Hivvan batteries fired somewhere just ahead. However, Dustin did not have time to give those batteries much thought. A probing force of Hivvan infantry supported by two Firecats came along the main road and opened fire. His ground troops hurried to defensive positions while two of the Bradleys moved to intercept.
    A firefight raged.
    One of the Bradleys smoked from Firecat plasma blasts but it let loose a storm of high caliber bullets into the attacking vehicle causing vapors to spew from the rear engine compartment. The crews of both war machines abandoned their rides.
    Dustin watched alien energy bolts come at his troops like horizontal rain, catching victims one after another. Yet his boys returned as good as they got, flinging grenades that sent reptilian soldiers flying into pieces, firing rifles-all manner of firearms-in a murderous rage.
    He knew that even as his men fought and died in their attack from the north, Stonewall and his sappers cleared snapmines to the west and came at the Hivvans from that direction, too. Only one piece of the plan remained.
    “C’mon, let’s push these bad boys back,” Dustin encouraged. “Let’s go! Attack!”
    Using two more Bradleys as cover, several human squads inched forward against the veil of defensive fire. Energy bolts from Hivvan infantry firing from a pedestrian bridge spanning the main road knocked down several of Dustin’s fighters. At the same time, a shoulder-fired missile blasted a Hivvan heavy gunner and his crew from the front window of a souvenir shop.
    Dustin watched a burly woman wearing a blue doo-rag charge two reptilian soldiers. She was armed with only a. 22 caliber rifle and her thirst for revenge against the invaders. They cut her to pieces but her example encouraged more to race forward, avenging her death and sending a group of Hivvans to flight.
    The attackers broke through the first ring of defenders who then retreated using abandoned cars and stores for cover. The enemy artillery barrage ceased for a moment as the front line of the battle broke into chaos.
    Yet just as the enemy appeared ready to retreat en masse, reinforcements braced their lines. More Firecats and a horde of infantry. The defenders increased their power threefold and added short-range artillery-green cauldron-like mortars-to the mix.
    Dustin’s men fell one after another until fear-not orders-halted the advance.
    McBride found cover in the foyer of a drug store. Through his field glasses, he saw the big red and green artillery pieces of the Hivvan defenders that bombarded anything daring to approach Dillon. The four guns resembled 18 ^ th century cannon, but much larger, mounted on spherical platforms, and linked to a shed-sized control station via heavy cables.
    “This is McBride calling fire support, do you copy, Bear? Are you guys ready to get in on the action?”
    He held the walkie-talkie closer to his one ear and listened. A deep, booming voice came over his radio, “McBride, this is Ross; everything is a go for support. Give me coordinates and get your head down.”
    Dustin whispered a prayer of thanks, knelt with his back against a building wall, and pulled a small map from the pocket of his dirty jeans. He examined the hand-written lines crisscrossing the map and then radioed his savior, Woody Ross.
    “Okay man; let’s see if I can do this right. Um, fire mission, grid 5–7, target enemy batteries, infantry, and, um, vehicles. I think that’s-no wait, um, danger close. Fire for range.”
    Ross’ voice came through, “Are you sure, Dustin? Don’t be too close.”
    “Hey Bear, between me and the General we’ve got these guys boxed in here. You do this right it’s like hitting fish in the barrel just, well,” the enemy’s artillery came back on line and a blast turned two human soldiers standing to McBride’s right into piles of burnt ash. “Just be sure to hit the target, man.”
    “First round comin’, keep your head down.”
    A moment later, an explosion erupted just in front of the pedestrian bridge crossing over the main road where alien infantry fired mercilessly at Dustin’s force. As nice as it felt to see the lizards scatter, they were not the target.
    “Fire control, yeah this is Dustin. Range, short, about fifty yards. Just a little short. Adjust and repeat.”
    Thirty seconds later another explosion; this one hit a store near the enemy’s artillery. Dustin watched the Hivvans scurry for cover.
    “That’s it! You hit-I mean, fire control, this is Dustin. Right on! Fire for effect! Light em’ up!”
    The rain came. A pouring rain of artillery. Explosion after explosion tore apart the pavement, the shops, the restaurants, as well as the enemy guns and infantry. A thick cloud of smoke formed over the one-time tourist attraction, fires burst to life, and the Hivvan defenses crumbled.

    Trevor and Ashley waited quietly in the sterile hospital lounge.
    A clock on the wall ticked but it told faulty time; no one had bothered to reset it since power had been reestablished a year after the invasion began. It ticked away the wrong minutes as if never interrupted by Armageddon.
    Still, the ticking sounded as loud as gunshots in the quiet room.
    Trevor rubbed his hands together in a physical motion that mimicked his mental state. He replayed the things the intruder had said. He tried to understand.
    Was it true? Was there some clue to all of this locked away in his genes? Was he the result of generation after generation of pairing and mating, had his life been predetermined by his DNA?
    That would explain his role as a “link” on a chain. Perhaps the Old Man’s words had been a metaphor for genealogy.
    But to what end? To what purpose?
    Maybe he would fight this war his entire life and then hand the reigns to his son?
    He prayed that was not true. He did not want to pass on the loneliness and despair of his purpose to the one bright spot of his life.
    Of all the things his half-brother said, one accusation stood above the rest: “You started this. You caused Armageddon.”
    Trevor sighed aloud.
    “You’re worried, aren’t you?” Ashley asked. “There isn’t something you haven’t told me, is there?”
    “Maple said JB did not have a concussion, just a pretty good whack on the head. He’s going to be fine.”
    “Then why are we sitting here waiting? Why isn’t he on his way home with us?”
    Trevor wrung his hands more and explained, once again, “Because I asked Dr. Maple to run those extra tests. Just to be sure.”
    “To be sure he doesn’t have a concussion?”
    “Yes,” he lied to her.
    To find out who my son really is.

    General Stonewall McAllister strolled among the devastation wrought by the human and Hivvan armies. Medics lifted crying, pleading comrades from the rubble and hurried them to aid stations while scattered pistol shots signaled the end for alien wounded. A haze of smoke and dust hovered over the scene where the destruction on the ground contrasted sharply with the peaceful blue sky overhead.
    Those Hivvans who survived the battle pulled out of “South of the Border” and retreated toward Dillon on secondary roads, primarily Rt. 301.
    More than three hundred of Stonewall’s troops died, at least twice that number injured enough to be pulled from the lines. They killed nearly that many Hivvans in addition to destroyed Firecats and artillery.
    McAllister realized, however, that had the aliens truly grasped the supply shortfalls faced by his army, they might have risked reinforcements from Columbia. His ‘mechanized’ division lacked the fuel to put the bulk of his mobile units into battle. A little air support or a battlebarge might have allowed the enemy to take the offensive and beat back his infantry, thus halting the entire plan to form a pocket around the alien army in North Carolina.
    Regardless, the Hivvans still nearly fought him to a standstill. Only an advantage in artillery range and accuracy allowed humanity to carry the day so quickly. If not for Ross’ guns, Stonewall would have had to deploy almost his entire division to flush out the Hivvans, and that would have cost at least a full day, if not two.
    Nevertheless, no significant enemy defenses remained in front of Dillon. They would collect and bury their dead, muster the division, and reach their objective in one last fast march.
    That would come tomorrow. What daylight remained would be used to pull his forces together, tend to the wounded, and prepare.
    As he resolved himself to this course of action, Stonewall allowed his mind to wander. That is, ‘wander’ in the way a ship ‘wanders’ when in the grip of a whirlpool. It may feel like sailing, but the pilot truly has no choice in direction.
    His eye recognized the landscape. His soul-the one buried beneath-filled with old desires. The ghosts called.
    With his army’s position secure, General Garrett McAllister issued the rather routine order to dispatch scouts. To the surprise of his officers, the General chose to personally lead one of those scouting parties.
    The glassy look in Stonewall’s eye caused Kristy Kaufman, Dustin McBride, Woody Ross, and 17-year-old bugle boy Benny Duda to accompany the man who had saved each of them five years before when the fires of Armageddon threatened to consume everything.
    So they ignored the danger of gathering the division’s top officers into one patrol and rode with their leader-their friend-into the past.
    They traveled north on back roads near the border between the Carolinas. Horseshoes clomp, clomp, clomped on the pavement, trotting at a leisurely pace along a secluded route surrounded by litter-filled brush. The rustle of slung machine guns, the slosh of half-full canteens, and the gentle jingle of spurs created an almost calming melody.
    Five years before, Garrett McAllister-in the person of “Stonewall”-assembled survivors and trekked north, charming his flock with a smooth tongue, courage, and a seemingly supernatural vision of a lakeside estate where humanity gathered for a stand.
    In the midst of the chaotic collapse of law and order…in the face of horrendous creatures from the worst possible nightmares…at a time when people deteriorated to basic and selfish survival instincts…in the middle of that came a gallant southern gentleman full of bravery, dignity, and honor.
    He treated them with respect but expected their best efforts. He suffered no fools, yet comforted the strong in their moments of weakness.
    Through it all, no one ever asked their General the most basic question. No one ever asked, ‘who is Garrett McAllister?’
    In a land where three-legged platypus creatures carried laser rifles and Mutants with massive maws rode hovercraft, a man with the persona of a Civil War General did not seem so odd. They accepted his persona because Armageddon had swept the slate clean.
    The solitude of the road they traveled gave way to more signs of yesterday’s civilization.
    They came upon a convenience store with two gas pumps and a rusted Buick station wagon out front.
    The patrollers guided their horses into that parking lot to find what five-year-old goodies might be scavenged, although they knew any gasoline in the pumps would have long ago eroded into worthless liquid.
    One of the mounted riders did not follow the rest.
    Stonewall eschewed the store and directed his horse in another direction, toward a bank of numbered mailboxes under a large wooden signpost for “Happy Acres.”
    The General examined those boxes for several seconds before dismounting and tying his steed to a yellow and black “Children at Play” sign.
    Stonewall, as if in a trance, followed a small side road that ascended a slight grade into a patch of thin woods.
    Across the way, Benny Duda took note of the General’s behavior. He grabbed the attention of the other officers who, one by one, dismounted and tied their horses, too.
    Woody Ross directed the attention of Dustin, Kristy, and Benny to one particular mailbox.
    They followed their General. Garrett paid them no attention; his eyes remained focused ahead as the woods gave way to a flat clearing holding the remains of a trailer park.
    A few of the mobile homes stood intact, but they were the exception. Others lay in halves, many more burned to the ground, one simply flattened like a stomped cardboard box.
    Garrett’s head turned side to side as he walked, marking each home, each memory.
    At the end of one row sat the remains of a trailer, its roof and most of the walls burned or otherwise disintegrated yet, ironically, the front door stood closed, held in place by a frame that refused to collapse.
    Garrett paused for a brief moment and then circumvented the door, walking under the shadow of what remained of the roof.
    His eyes grew wide and his lips parted slightly, giving him the look of a child in the grips of great wonder.
    Burned boards and curtains and shattered glass littered the floor. He stepped around overturned furniture, a crooked reading lamp, and a split kitchen table as he surveyed the destroyed interior.
    His friends hovered several paces behind, silently watching.
    Garrett removed his hat and tucked it under one arm as he approached a shelf nailed into one of the few remaining walls. He ran a hand over the surface, as if performing a white glove test. When he found nothing other than dust, he retreated a step and scanned the debris below.
    Garrett bent and retrieved a picture frame from the floor. The image showed a woman, a little boy, and a little girl. A mother and her kids. A wife and a husband’s children.
    He held the frame and studied it, tracing the cracked glass with gloved fingers, touching the faces of the family there. His fingers trembled. At first a little, but then more.
    His eyes narrowed and lips pursed tighter…tighter…and then he surrendered.
    Stonewall had slain many aliens and chased off uncountable hordes of monsters in the years since donning a General’s uniform, but he could not fight the man’s tears.
    As thin streaks traced down his cheek, he felt the strong grip of Woody Ross on his shoulder, then the slender form of Kristy Kaufman as she wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. Then Benny and Dustin completed the warm wall of affection and strength around their General.
    They stood there, together, their hearts melded to his in a tender silence broken only by the sobs of a man named Garrett McAllister…
    …He sat on a pile of cinderblocks outside what had once been his home, and stared into space as the others gathered around.
    “I was a man of many… passions,” he licked his lips but his eyes did not blink nor waver. “Many of these passions were easily obtained from a bottle. I really did not care which bottle it was, as long as my passion was satiated. And it was not for me to question why. After all, for a life so lacking in adventure and so rooted in the routine, what was wrong with seeking a little passion now and then?”
    Wind blew through the trees surrounding the long-dead trailer park. Leaves rustled. Litter bounced across the streets like tumbleweeds in a desert.
    “When the good Lord decided to pass judgment on humanity, I was busy indulging my passions at a tavern. Indulging quite heavily. I recall a rather nasty brouhaha, one which required the local constable to intercede. Therefore, my dear friends, when fate knocked on my door I was not home to answer, in that I was in the custody of that constable who did not take kindly to being struck.”
    Garrett paused. After several seconds, he blinked and regained his train of thought.
    “Where was I? Oh, yes. When fate knocked at my door, the task of answering fell upon my wife and my children. It seems that if fate could not have me that day, it would take them.”
    Stonewall’s friends glanced around the neighborhood. Whatever hostile ‘fate’ sent to knock on McAllister’s door, it performed its destruction with efficient brutality, leaving almost no home in the park untouched.
    “With all that was afoot that momentous morning, the good constable saw it in his kindness to allow me my leave. Indeed, he encouraged me to-in not so many words-to see to my family’s safety. Of course, by the time I found my way home, fate had already claimed its prize.”
    Kristy tried, “There’s nothing you could have done.”
    “That is where you are quite mistaken. I could have died. I could have died with my children. Had I managed to do at least that, then I would have done something of consequence for them. As it is, my record as a paternal guardian and as…as a husband…well,” he licked his lips but found little saliva there. “Suffice to say that a recounting of my history in such capacities would show that I was, to say the least, ‘lacking’. In the end, they died very much as they lived; without their father.”
    Garrett glanced at them quickly, as if hastily fulfilling an obligation for eye contact. Those eyes then found the ground.
    “As you are quite aware, destruction came to this Earth in many forms, and the manner in which people faced that destruction came in many forms as well. I witnessed acts as cowardly and as selfish as I had been guilty of in my neglect for my family, but fate showed me the best, as well. I watched from a distance as a police officer protected a mother and her child. With the last bullet expended from his pistol, he grappled a monster twice his size. It cost him his life.
    “I saw a woman ram her car into a giant beast as it assaulted traffic when she might have lived longer had she driven off. As I snuck through the parking lot of a retirement village, I witnessed a teen age boy run into a burning building under assault from fire-breathing insects to rescue an elderly man, perhaps his own grandfather although equally as likely a stranger.
    “I saw so much that day, that as I look back, it was as if a higher power granted me a tour of the human soul; as if Virgil took my arm and guided me through the inferno.
    “So yes, I saw the best, but also the worst. For every police officer protecting a family there was a scoundrel using the chaos as an opportunity to ravish a woman, or loot a store of wares. Imagine that, stealing a television in the midst of the Apocalypse! What absurdity.
    “I saw, in others, my shortcomings. As everything fell apart, I realized how small a man I was, and how utterly worthless to anyone around me.”
    He wiped his brow.
    Kristy Kaufman said, “That’s the old world, General. None of that matters now. Forget the past.”
    “How kind of you to say, but I remember the past. I hold on to it, you understand.”
    He clutched the fabric of his uniform above his heart.
    “I begged my way onto a pick up truck heading south to Florence, where a cousin lived. I hoped to connect with a family I had distanced myself from, perhaps in a subconscious attempt to redeem myself. I failed in that regard, but as I roamed the streets, I saw a group of what we now call ‘Ghouls’ attacking a neighborhood. I felt certain I would soon perish, and for the last act of a despicable life, I desired to die for someone else.
    “A car burned on the street, I can still smell its foul smoke. Through a thick plume of that smoke, I saw a trio of those Ghouls charge through the front door of a home, and I am certain I heard a scream at that point, perhaps a woman or maybe a child. Regardless, I stormed to the rescue with nothing other than my bare hands. I did not expect that my fists would be any match for the claws and teeth of those animals, but absolution-not victory-remained my priority.
    “I found that this was no ordinary home. It was, in fact, the ‘War Between the States’ museum. In the lobby, I found the three Ghouls. I also found at my feet, a toppled display case, smashed open and its contents strewn on the floor. Something like ‘swords of the confederacy’ or the like.
    “I never held a sword in my life, and this example did not appear particularly sharp. Nonetheless, I dispatched the three beasts, I am still not sure exactly how. It felt as if providence guided my blows. When I searched the museum, I found no trace of damsels in distress; perhaps I imagined the scream.
    “Regardless, I left the building, sword in hand, and sought to send as many monsters to their doom as possible before they could end my suffering. Opportunities for such a glorious death abound for I saw at least nine, maybe ten of the things attacking persons trapped in cars and swarming homes.”
    He turned to his friends and told them, “I killed all of them, without suffering a single scratch on my person. I was tired and worn and with each moment I expected to die. My only thought was that I would die fighting; that I would die with some manner of dignity, the way a good southern gentleman faces his fate. You must understand that the odds would have been stacked against me even if I carried a machine gun as a weapon, let alone an ancient sword with a dull blade.
    “When it was over, a father thanked me for saving his family trapped in their overturned minivan. He said, ‘God bless you.’ I wondered if God would ever do such a thing.”
    “You saved all those people,” Kristy said. “You redeemed yourself.”
    “No, my dear, the balance sheet in my soul is still red; many markers for a life wasted remain to be paid. Nonetheless, I should have died that day. The life I lead now is borrowed time and I shall put it to good ends. In a way, it is a dream of what I wish I had been before. Therefore, I embrace it fully. I take all that was good from my southern heritage and carry it into this new world, leaving behind the bad including the lazy, dead parts of the man who failed his family. This is who I must be, from now until the day fate comes to collect its due. Until then I shall be the person I should have been when destiny knocked on my door and I failed to answer.”

    Grandpa Trump took JB by the hand and the two strolled off along the hospital corridor with Tyr the Elkhound pacing behind protectively. Dr. Maple closed the office door behind them and turned to speak with the boy’s parents.
    The doctor desperately suppressed a yawn before he started; it had been a long day.
    No. It had been a long morning followed by a long day followed by a long evening and, finally, what had the makings of a long night. He had spent every minute of that time testing, analyzing and theorizing about Jorge Benjamin Stone, a three-year-old riddle of a boy.
    “Your son is fine,” he blurted out as their mouths started to form an assault of questions. “He has a good bump on his head but no lasting damage.”
    “Dr. Maple,” Ashley said. “I doubt it took you all day to tell us that.”
    “Well, of course, no,” he stumbled. “I ran those extra tests.”
    “And..?” Trevor encouraged an answer. “What did you find?”
    Ashley stared at him in a mixture of anger and surprise. She suddenly realized that he had ordered their son to be thoroughly examined, like a specimen in a research lab.
    “I…I’m not really sure,” the doctor admitted.
    “You poked and prodded him all these hours and you’re not sure?” Trevor treated the doctor like a field General who failed an assault.
    “What did you do to my son? You didn’t hurt him, did you?” Ashley’s anger blossomed in the red of her cheeks. Anger at both of them. Anger at her son being treated like a guinea pig.
    Dr. Maple held up his hands defensively. “Nothing! No, no, everyone relax. We did only the least obtrusive of tests. He barely felt a pinprick. In fact, it seemed to me your son enjoyed the entire process. Nonetheless, for all our work the tests-the scans-can only provide a snap shot. Some of our brain specialists were able to do a little more but-”
    “Brain specialists?” Ashley shouted and alternated death-dealing glares between the two men.
    “What did you find?” Trevor repeated, ignoring Ashley’s anger.
    “You’re son, he is extraordinary.”
    “Yes, thank you, but what did you…” Trevor stopped himself. Dr. Maple had not offered a casual compliment. He offered his analysis. “What do you mean… extraordinary?” the father changed his tone.
    Dr. Maple led them both to seats next to his desk.
    “Your son…his mind…his brain,” Maple struggled to find the description and decided it best to retreat and start somewhere approximating the beginning. “For all our science and technology, we still know very little about how the brain works, how it does the things it can do. It controls our involuntary reflexes and all of our bodily functions. Like the computer at the center of each person. But so much more; personality, senses, perception, memory…so much. Yet the normal human being accesses and uses only a small percentage of the cells inside the brain.”
    Ashley trembled as she asked, “And…and my son?”
    “You realize I can not draw any conclusions from the rushed tests we did today,” he covered himself. “I would need weeks…maybe months to truly develop a real understanding-”
    “And my son, doctor?” Ashley insisted.
    Maple heaved a deep breath.
    “It appears to us that he is accessing and utilizing a higher percentage of his brain than we ever thought was possible. You have to understand, there are a large number of cells inside the brain that science has always assumed were there just as protection. Yet in Jorgie’s brain they appear to be active.”
    Dr. Maple fidgeted as he grew excited.
    “But what does that mean?” Trevor needed an answer.
    “I don’t’ know,” Maple admitted. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
    “Is he in danger? Is his health in danger?” Ashley panicked.
    “I don’t think so, but I have no way of knowing. You have to understand,” Maple struggled to boil the complex data and observations into something he could translate to laymen.”Science has identified more than 300 types of neurotransmitters in the human brain.”
    “Neurotransmitters?” Trevor repeated the word.
    Trevor’s access to the genetic memories of humanity had not included much in the way of health sciences info. Instead, those memories focused on weapons systems, fighting techniques, marksmanship, and flying attack aircraft.
    “Chemicals that transmit across synapses in the brain. Each of the known types is associated with different functions of the brain. For example, um, Acetylcholine transmits messages to the heart, other muscles, and sweat glands. Serotonin is associated with the process of learning and consciousness.”
    “And..?” Trevor led.
    “And we’ve found indications that your son has three, maybe four times as many types of neurotransmitters in his brain. With more tests we could confirm that, and maybe understand.”
    “No more tests,” Ashley said.
    Trevor did not argue. He still struggled to understand the meaning. He said, “He has more of these neurotransmitters than the average Joe?”
    “A lot more types,” Maple put a fine point on it. “His brain is doing things we don’t understand. It has more functions…more uses…more ability…deeper consciousness-I do not know. We just don’t know.”
    Ashley threw her hands into the air in frustration and repeated her question, “But doctor! What does it all mean?”
    Dr. Maple’s voice rose a little but not to the point of disrespect. “I…don’t…know.”
    Trevor’s eyes gazed off at some yet-to-be-revealed truth as he spoke.
    “Someday…someday we’re going to find out.”
    20. Battle at the Top of the World
    A slab of rock protruded from the sea of white like an island in the middle of a frozen ocean, perhaps coughed up from beneath the surface as the result of an ancient earthquake or other disturbance.
    Whatever the cause, this sanctuary from open ground covered a square mile with edges surprisingly defined, as if nature purposely grew a fortress to command the surrounding plain of snow and ice.
    A lip of rock reaching as high as five feet tall at spots composed the outer ‘wall’ while boulders, mounds of dirt, snow and more rock walls created a sort of maze within.
    This strange stretch of rock was not Jon Brewer’s final destination, merely an interesting sight on his journey across the glacier. However, it quickly became the most important piece of real estate on the planet. Jon and his expedition raced for that stretch of defensible territory because their lives-and perhaps the continued existence of mankind-depended on it.
    “C’mon damn it! Hurry!”
    Jon abandoned the SUSV command module for a fast-moving snow mobile, leading other snow mobile troops ahead of the main force as they marched in a northeasterly direction.
    A half mile away, an alien army moved parallel to the human one. Like Jon’s force, the enemy traveled primarily on foot although several elephant-sized fur-covered lizard-things served as pack animals and the enemy also drove a couple of big, two-seat vehicles with three thick, huge wheels, making them resemble a grown up version of a tricycle.
    As he led the race for the only defensive ground for miles, General Brewer experienced a feeling of deja vu. More specifically, the situation felt eerily similar to the Battle of Five Armies.
    Four years ago, the small band of human survivors-a fledgling army-hurried to occupy the better fighting ground. Back then, the ground had been a series of mountains outside of town. This time an island of rock. In both cases, the enemy was the same.
    Nicknamed the “Vikings,” no one knew their real name because none survived the battle four years ago, but Jon remembered their cunning, their bravery, and their tools of war.
    As had been the case in the mountains, the Vikings’ ponchos changed color to blend with their surroundings, in this case pure white. Those ponchos covered the entire bipedal, humanoid beings from head to toe with the exception of thick goggles providing eye protection. This time the ponchos appeared more substantial, perhaps a hardier fabric or deeper layers to keep the cold at bay.
    Despite having lost four men in two separate surface collapses during the journey, Jon’s force appeared to outnumber the Vikings by a dozen or so. Those collapses into air pockets and ice caves not only cost four soldiers, but also valuable time: nearly two whole days had elapsed since their arrival in Greenland. The race did not go well.
    For the moment, he concerned himself with more immediate worries; the contest to capture that fortress of rock. While the armies managed long-range pot-shots at one another, both coveted that island for defensive purposes.
    Jon’s snow mobile troops arrived first. The General and Captain Fink led two dozen men onto the ‘island’ from the southern end. They wove through the rock maze heading north, hoping to deny the enemy a foothold.
    To Jon’s dismay, the aliens arrived in greater number. Armed with a type of magnetic rail gun, the Vikings cut down two of Jon’s men. Captain Casey Fink responded with a fragmentation grenade that shredded three bad guys and their white ponchos with a blast of shrapnel.
    Unfortunately, the aliens brought more manpower to bear. They swarmed down from the north side over sharp stone outcroppings and between mounds of snow and dirt.
    Brewer’s advance team grudgingly gave ground, retreating to the very tip of the ‘island’s‘ southern end. There they made a stand, but the Vikings kept coming with no regard for the losses they suffered. Certainly the alien general knew the value of that rock and accepted the price to be paid. With the island in alien hands, they could decimate the human army from the only cover around.
    General Brewer resigned himself to retreat but before he issued the order, a voice from behind changed the equation.
    “Let the battle cry be heard in the land, a shout of great destruction!” Reverend Johnny proclaimed as he led the main body of human soldiers onto the rocks and personally dispatched four enemies with his favorite weapon, an M240-B heavy machine gun.
    The surgeon-turned-holy-man’s strike grew into a counter attack. This time the Vikings gave ground until their main force arrived. At that point, the battle stabilized with each side hiding behind walls of rock separated by a flat, open stretch at the center of the battlefield.
    “Okay, okay,” Brewer sat behind a boulder and contemplated the situation as shots from both sides flew back and forth.
    “Squads one, two, and three on this line,” Brewer referred to the natural divider separating his army from the no-man’s land between the belligerents.
    “Remember, General,” Reverend Johnny advised. “These fiends have proven themselves to be the cleverest of our adversaries. They seem to share our own species’ devilish love for the combat arts.”
    Jon nodded and barked new orders, “Fink, get me a squad on each flank and keep the rest in reserve.”
    Captain Fink radioed orders as he moved to personally oversee the deployments.
    “Reverend, get the mortar teams organized. I want no more than three shots in a row from the same position. These son-of-a-bitches know all about counter-battery fire.”
    “Let us pray,” the Reverend told Jon, “that they did not see fit to bring their own batteries with them to this snowy Hell.”
    “Amen, brother.”
    While Johnny saw to his orders, Jon Brewer hunted down three of his best snipers. As he led them to the front lines, two of those snipers went down with enemy fire in their foreheads. Apparently the Vikings trained sharpshooters, too.
    He observed that the aliens did not sit and wait. They unloaded the cargo belts carried by their big furry lizards and removed gear from storage compartments on those giant, motorized tricycles. Just as the humans planned a strategy of attack, so did the aliens.
    In fact, both species concentrated on preparing defenses and plotting assaults to the extent that neither saw the cloud on the western horizon; a low hanging twirling mass like a dust storm or a tornado, gray and white and slowly spinning its way toward them.
    Brewer summoned his command staff.
    “Reverend, what type of ordnance did we bring along for the mortars?”
    “Standard high explosive and some white phosphorous. Would you prefer to blow them up or burn them?”
    “I want to lay down some Willy Pete in front of their lines. That should give us a good smoke screen.”
    Fink, rubbing his gloves together for warmth, said, “And heat things up, so there’s another plus.”
    “Dear heavens,” the Reverend ignored Fink. “I do not think our foes will be fooled. A smoke screen means attack.”
    “I reckon they won’t be,” Brewer said in his best Jerry Shepherd imitation. “But I don’t plan to go head on at them. You will.”
    Reverend Johnny gulped.
    “Relax, Rev,” Brewer smiled. “I want you to take one squad and make a hell of a lot of noise. Let them think we’re coming at them through the smoke. I’ll take a force around the eastern flank and try to get at their rear area.”
    “Mr. Brewer, I believe your plan runs a very high risk not only to my own precious life, but in its success. They are well entrenched on their side of this redoubt.”
    Almost in answer to Johnny’s observation, the first of the Vikings’ terrible artillery shells fell. A blast of concussion hit a few feet from two men pulling supplies off a dog sled. It seemed more an explosion of silence, a sort of anti-noise, followed by an unimpressive weak shockwave causing the men and dogs to topple over; but no shrapnel.
    A half-second later, a glowing red singularity in the center of the blast radius sucked everything in like a vacuum swallowing air. The men, the dogs, and several heavy crates flew into that red center where every molecule of matter-flesh and equipment-disintegrated.
    Fortunately, the big boulders and stone ridges filling the rocky ‘island’ mitigated the kill zone of the alien artillery, yet it was still a frightful sight.
    Jon spoke with a renewed sense of urgency, “We can’t sit here and slug it out! We’ll just keep taking casualties and lose time!”
    A gentle thwump-thwump-thwump signaled human mortars responding. Satisfying sounds of explosions and alien screams came from the Vikings’ half of the rocky plateau.
    Brewer winked at Johnny and said, “I think you’re the best guy for this because you sure can make a lot of noise.”
    “Like thunder, Mr. Brewer! Like thunder!”
    Jon patted his friend on the shoulder and reminded, “Have your teams switch over to WP and lay down that smoke screen.”
    General Brewer then summoned a force of thirty men and a half-dozen Siberian Huskies. They gathered at the eastern edge of the rocks.
    At the center of the island, mortar rounds fell on the rough plain in front of the Viking lines. The white phosphorous shells exploded like brilliant white fireworks and simmered on the ground. A blast of heat swept over the battlefield; ice around the impact zone melted to water. As the shells burned, they released clouds of smoke, creating a visceral wall in front of the enemy’s eyes.
    The Reverend and his men shot wildly into that cloud then proceeded forward, slow and low. The aliens answered with blind fire of their own.
    On the eastern flank, Jon heard the frantic gunfire, his cue to launch the assault. His force left the rock and jogged across the frozen glacier at the rim of the island, moving north and staying low. He hoped to hit his foe on their flank.
    Just as he dared dream the plan might work, enemy soldiers popped up from hiding spots along the stone walls. The Vikings had anticipated the attack and now unleashed a volley of merciless fire from cover.
    The two men standing to either side of General Brewer fell. The rest of his team returned fire but held little hope of dislodging the defenders from the rocky battlements.
    “Fall back! Fall back!” the General commanded as he threw a grenade to cover their retreat.
    More of the Empire’s fighters died as they ran, even more suffered injuries. Jon grabbed and carried a young woman trooper when an alien round shattered her knee cap.
    Two more Viking artillery blasts hit the retreating assault force, one a clean miss but the second sucked in four men. The Viking artillery was brutally efficient, allowing no middle ground. Either you were caught in the blast radius and pulled in to your death or not.
    The enemy batteries stopped firing. Viking troops jumped from cover to pursue Jon’s force along the eastern flank, going from defense to offense.
    Brewer and company reached the protective walls on their side of the battle where they were joined by reserve troops commanded by Captain Fink. This time the Vikings suffered the bloody nose and were forced to withdraw after losing eight of their number killed and several more wounded.
    At that point, Reverend Johnny called off his diversionary assault. The lines settled and the combatants exchanged sporadic gunfire across the no-man’s land.
    General Brewer gathered his two officers again.
    “We’re in a stalemate here,” he told them between heavy exhales as he caught his breath. “We’re in the same boat, too. No re-supply out here. No more bullets and no reinforcements. We’ve got wounded now, and so do they. If one side bolts to head for the objective, they’ll be ripped apart by the other firing from cover.”
    Casey Fink pointed out, “As long as both sides are hiding in these rocks, seems like the arty can’t do much damage. But we make a run for it and we’ll be creamed. Probably lose half our guys before we make it half a mile.”
    Johnny added, “And I assure you, Captain Fink, that our mortar teams would do the same to those vile invaders if they attempt to make a dash.”
    “We can’t stay here forever,” Brewer said. “We need something to change the equation. A weapon…a tactic. Something that either forces them from cover or covers us while we get out of here and continue on to the coordinates for the objective.”
    Reverend Johnny changed the conversation: “Good God, what in Lucifer’s name is that?”
    Aggravated, tense chatter rose like a chorus from the soldiers guarding the western flank.
    A whirlwind of gray and white bore down on the island. A wall of spinning air pushing across the snow now within half a mile of the battle. It moved with a whoosh, not quite the roar of a twister.
    Brewer raised his binoculars.
    The whirlwind slowed…slower; and became less a cyclone and more a cloud.
    Jon doubted his eyes as he watched what happened next. The cloud sort of pulled back-collapsing in-as if it were a fog machine set to reverse.
    As the mist receded, the particles of the cloud meld together and forms took shape, not exactly walking through its vapors, but being born from them.
    A line of figures…an army…materialized.
    Humanoid and wearing hooded gray cloaks they marched forward across the glacier slowly but deliberately as the cloud continued to evaporate.
    Jon watched through his field glasses. Most of their bodies were covered by those heavy cloaks but he could see their faces, or what passed for faces: skeletal with black eye sockets and elongated jaws.
    “Wow,” he mumbled but even that word did not fit what happened next.
    The cloud sucked rearward and evaporated, revealing one more monstrosity.
    A giant. An eight-story tall giant with a skinny body, a slack jawed humanoid face, and eyes devoid of both sanity and intelligence. It dragged two dangling, extremely long arms the knuckles of which scraped the snow as the thing lumbered forward behind the mass of robed foot soldiers.
    “Lord have mercy on our souls,” Johnny prayed.
    But mercy was in short supply on the frozen flats of the Arctic Circle.
    “I need guns over here!”
    Fink did not respond; the approaching line of horrific creatures mesmerized the man. They looked more like demons than aliens.
    Jon grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “Get me four squads over here, now! Double time, Captain!”
    Fink blinked and stammered, “What about…what about the Vikings?”
    “Keep firing on them, too!”
    Fink raced off.
    Reverend Johnny gasped, “What are these creatures? Some kind of wraiths from the depths of the underworld, I fear.”
    “Whatever they are,” Brewer answered, “they’re coming for us.”
    “Dear heavens, yes, I see we are now fighting a two-front war!”
    Screams of shock, barked orders, and scattered exchanges of fire with the Vikings reverberated through the human side of the rock island, reaffirming Johnny’s fear.
    The army of Hell spawn split into three groups. One body remained out of range. One phalanx each headed toward both groups on the rock formation. The giant sort of stood between the two, looking dumb.
    “They’re going after the Vikings, too,” Brewer said loud enough for Johnny to hear. “I guess they’re not part of the happy family.”
    “I take some solace in that, General. I also am comforted in that unless my eyes are failing, these wraiths do not bear any weapons.”
    Through his binoculars, Brewer confirmed the Reverend’s observation but noted, “That only makes me more nervous. What exactly are they bringing to the party?”
    Fink returned with the extra squads. They assembled on the western flank. Most of the men did not fire; they stood or knelt and watched the approaching horde with gaping jaws.
    “God damn it! Fire!” Brewer shouted.
    The first round of shots missed wide. However, the pop and bang of gunfire attracted the attention of the giant.
    Enemy troops parted to make way for the tall beast. At first, Jon thought it might march right over to his men and step on them. But no, it stayed a good three hundred yards away.
    A bullet from a Viking sharpshooter whizzed by Jon’s head. He dove to the ground, crawled to cover, then shouted for Fink’s attention.
    “Get over to the northern perimeter. Do not forget about the Vikings. Hold that line.”
    Fink nodded absently.
    Jon repeated with more emphasis, “Captain. hold the line.”
    “Yes…Yes Sir!”
    Fink scrambled off.
    Someone on the western wall yelled, “What the Hell?”
    The giant raised its long arms over its head with clenched fists where they hovered for a moment. Without a roar. Without a scream. Without any emotion, the giant swung its long arms down and pounded its fists onto the snow
    An earthquake poured forth. A focused channel of underground energy rumbled and rolled across the glacier like a subterranean cruise missile pushing a comet’s trail of snow above and behind.
    “ Mother fucker…incoming!!”
    The seismic ordnance slammed into and through the rock formation. The ground there shook like San Francisco in ’89. The earth ripped open in a crevice cutting into the plateau.
    Three men toppled into the newly formed hole as did a dog sled, pulling six yapping K9s with it. Jon himself tottered on the brink only to be steadied by Reverend Johnny’s firm grip.
    The line of hooded demonic attackers continued to approach.
    The human soldiers regrouped along the defensive wall and fired with renewed enthusiasm.
    Bullets slammed into Wraiths one after another. Instead of falling, their bodies evaporated into dust that blew off in the wind leaving behind empty cloaks fluttering to the ground.
    “They are as fragile as fine china!” Reverend Johnny shouted. “Let us smash them!”
    One of the fiends slightly tilted its head, opened its mouth unnaturally wide, and let out a sound to make Mephistopheles tremble.
    A shimmering, focused cone of scream traveled through the air and enveloped a soldier. He dropped his rifle and clutched the hood of his parka just before his head exploded, splashing red gore on the man’s white clothing. His lifeless body hovered for a moment then flopped to the ground.
    “For this is what the LORD says: I will send terror upon you and all your friends, and you will watch as they are slaughtered by the swords of the enemy!”
    Reverend Johnny stood on the defensive ledge and let loose a lethal wave of machine gun rounds, evaporating two then three of the skeletal beings.
    Yet they moved forward.
    Another…then a second Imperial soldier suffered Wraith screams. Two more heads exploded.
    The Vikings, meanwhile, continued to fire at the humans but also faced the new threat. They turned their catapult-like artillery on the Wraiths. The first shot smashed into a wave of enemies crossing the glacier toward the Vikings’ position.
    Three Wraiths flew through the air into the center of the blast zone where their bodies and cloaks disintegrated.
    Then the creatures unleashed their song of death on the Vikings. The tops of two ponchos popped like sick balloons; bloody goggles went flying.
    Another Viking artillery round hit the Wraith formation.
    The giant took aim at a new target. Its massive arms swung toward the sky, hovered for a moment, then crashed to the surface once again. The earth moved as if the monster had flicked one end of a jump rope.
    The Vikings scattered as the earthquake hit amidst the artillery battery. The crew and the machine wobbled then fell into a new fissure in the ground. Artillery shells burst on their way down causing an explosion to roar from the crevice.
    While both sides battled the Wraiths, Captain Fink and his counterpart on the Viking side continued to exchange fire. Sharpshooters plugged enemies, machine and rail gun rounds raced back and forth between the two camps. Smoke from expended cartridges joined frosty exhales to create a fine white frost hovering over the pandemonium.
    Military tactics deteriorated into mayhem in this three-way battle.
    Explosions. Screams. Dirt and snow, rock and bloody body parts flying through the air; soldiers running to and from cover, firing and hiding, reloading and gasping for breath.
    On the western wall of the human camp, Reverend Johnny stood tall in defiance of the demons, wielded his machine gun and cursed, “You crushed the heads of the wicked and laid bare their bones from head to toe!”
    His bullets blasted to pieces two Wraiths, but a third dropped its jaw and focused on the loud man with the big weapon. Its scream took form and shimmied directly for the Reverend.
    Jon Brewer tackled him, machine gun and all. The cone of noise hit the rock formation he stood upon a split second before and it shattered into pebbles.
    Jon poked his head up from cover.
    Most of the first wave of Wraiths had been dusted by both the human army and the Vikings. Yet a substantial number of the things remained, clustered near their giant hundreds of yards from the rocky plateau. No doubt they could stay out there and launch earthquakes, inflicting casualties and a loss of supplies that Jon could not afford to lose.
    Reverend Johnny sat on his knees, dusted snow and mud from the thighs of his white winter suit, and said, “Praise the Lord, General, I did not realize that I stood on such shaky ground!”
    “You’re welcome,” Brewer answered. “I’m thinking they’re going to stay out there and have that big ugly thing slam its fist and-wait a second. Shaky ground?”
    Johnny cocked a smile and noted, “You have the twinkle of inspiration in your eye.”
    “Reverend, get the mortar teams over here and load up on WP.”
    “You plan to melt them?”
    “Awe, gee, Rev, you want me to explain it to you? GET MOVING!”
    Reverend Johnny, properly motivated, hurried to gather the men and their equipment.
    In the meantime, a soldier approached General Brewer holding an AT4 missile launcher.
    “Sir? What do you think?
    Jon shrugged. “It’s a distance but worth a try. I’ll cover you.”
    The soldier and the General approached the rim of the rock island. Jon fired from his M4 at two nearby Wraiths; they scattered for non-existent cover.
    This bought the soldier time and space to run out onto the snow, kneel, and take aim at the giant. While far away, the thing stood tall.
    The missile launched, spewing exhaust rearwards while the warhead raced forward like an oversized flaming arrow. Particularly well-aimed, the shot sped directly for the creature’s slack-jawed face. At the last second, the beast swayed its upper body as if bobbing to the beat in a dance club. The projectile spiraled off into the midnight sun leaving behind a harmless contrail.
    Jon and the rocket soldier retreated.
    While the Wraiths contemplated their next move, the Vikings and humans continued their battle around the center of the rocky plateau.
    A human sharpshooter sniped a Viking officer. In turn, an explosive charge lobbed by one of the aliens obliterated that sharpshooter and injured two other soldiers.
    Fink fired from the M208 grenade launcher on his M16. The explosion filled a pair of Vikings with deadly shrapnel.
    The Captain paused and took stock of his force. The lines held, but too many red-stained white parkas lay motionless on the ground and many more limped about or cried for medics. Certainly they gave as good as they got, but at this pace even victory might mean the end of their expedition.
    “Keep up your fire, boys!” Fink returned to the business of killing.
    Back on the western flank facing the Wraiths and their behemoth, mortar rounds lobbed toward the giant, smacking into the ground- the ice — in front of it. The white phosphorous exploded in crackles and clouds of white with burning cores creating a blast of heat.
    “C’mon sweetheart,” Brewer mumbled as he watched the gargantuan through his binoculars. “You just know you want to send another tremor our way.”
    More rounds hit, exploding like sparklers. A wall of smoke grew in front of the Wraith army, obscuring the giant to its knees. It glared at the humans hiding among the rocks and slung its big fists into the air once again.
    Those fists slammed into the ground. Slammed into the ice of the glacier. The same glacier that had swallowed some of Brewer’s men during their trek across the frozen wastes. The same glacier that had been retreating and eroding over the centuries. The same glacier that had been further weakened by several rounds of burning, melting and exploding incendiary shells.
    The fists of the giant slammed into and through the ground, its earthquake exploding around its feet like a backfiring bullet. The tremor dissipated, the ice cap collapsed in a big circle. This time Wraiths fell to oblivion.
    The giant’s legs sunk into the crumpling surface and it fell with its arms to its side wedged into the ice up to its waistline. Its stoicism disappeared as it became entangled in the subsidence; now a trapped animal.
    Jon smiled, pumped a fist, and shouted, “Got you, you mother.”
    “Lord in heaven! Look!”
    Apparently the Wraiths decided to change tactics, favoring retreat. But the manner in which they departed caused ever witnesses’ jaw to drop.
    The remaining creatures-still a significant number-abandoned their oversized walking artillery to its fate and formed a tight group. Each stretched their arms out as if pointing to the sky and then…and then…flew into the air. As they left the ground, their bodies fell apart into wind, forming a spinning cloud, like a gray and white dust storm or cyclone.
    That torrid of cloud and wind moved north by northeast, leaving behind the battlefield and heading for the real goal.
    Captain Fink’s shout shook Jon from a trance of awe.
    “Sir! Sir!
    “W-what is it, Captain?”
    “It’s the Vikings, sir, they’re bugging out!”
    Jon rushed to the northern perimeter.
    Like the Wraiths, the Vikings decided to continue the race for the ultimate prize, using the distraction of the Wraith’s departure as an opportunity to escape the stalemate.
    Packed with gear, their oversized lizards hurried off at a fast trot while motorized tricycles led the way and an infantry rearguard took pot shots at the humans on the rocks.
    “Okay, okay,” Jon thought and then focused. “Pack it up! We’re getting out of here!”
    “Sir! We have injured,” Fink said.
    Jon glanced around and saw at least a dozen fighters too wounded to move.
    “Leave them here,” Jon said but before the shock of his order hit home he added, “Keep some supplies and a squad here to cover them. We need to move fast.”
    While the Imperials packed, the soldier who had missed with the rocket launcher re-armed and raced across the glacier toward the trapped giant.
    It roared as the tiny human approached, but it could not free its legs or arms.
    The soldier knelt, took aim, and fired an armor-piercing rocket into the giant’s face.

21. Moot Point

    Yesterday, Dr. Maple told Trevor that his son’s brain exhibited extraordinary activity and that its basic structure appeared different-more advanced-than a “normal” brain. Authorizing more tests could yield more answers, but Ashley would not allow it.
    Today, he listened to Gordon Knox rambling on with technical jargon and detailed map coordinates to the point that Trevor’s patience boiled over.
    “Skip the by-the-numbers crap, Gordon. You only go all technical with me when you’re trying to figure out how to tell me the bad news. Just give it to me already.”
    Knox cleared his throat. “Okay, then, I guess we’ll just tough this out. We’ve had to reduce the number of aerial reconnaissance due to a lack of aviation fuel and what few pilots we have are worn out. No tactical air support is available to the field commanders. We’ve kept a couple of fighters on alert in theater in case more Screamers pop up, but that’s it.”
    Trevor pinched the bridge of his nose and asked, “When can they expect re-supply?”
    “It’s going to be at least a week; Omar is over-taxing the matter makers as it is. But if we could get a hold of the ones in Columbia…”
    “Yeah, yeah I know, I know.”
    “Ground patrols now believe that about two thousand Hivvan infantry have mustered in Bladen Lakes State Forest, mainly around the intersections of 701 and 41 by White Lake. We can’t be sure though, it might be a little more.”
    Trevor sighed, “So they are reconstituting. Just friggin’ great.”
    “Other groups of a thousand here, five hundred there, are forming in a couple of places. Some of them have set up supply caches. It’s just a matter of time before their lines of communication are such that they can reform into their entire corps.”
    Trevor said, “And when that happens all they will need is a healthy dose of supplies to march out of our trap and make for Columbia.”
    Knox hit him with an alternative possibility.
    “Or march forward, right back at Raleigh.”
    Trevor shook his head. “That sounds too aggressive for Hivvans. They like to play it safe.”
    “They’ve had Screamers airborne. They know about Stonewall’s column, they had troops deployed to meet him outside of Dillon. You have to figure that the Hivvan commanders have intel, too. Assuming they haven’t spotted Shepherd’s column, then they’ll think we only have one division in Raleigh. If they have spotted General Shepherd, then they know there are only garrison troops at Raleigh. Either way, it would be a tempting target and a way to stop our advance and put us on defense again.”
    Trevor reacted as if hit with an electric shock.
    “Jesus Christ! New Winnabow. I’ve been so caught up with my son, I mean, where the Hell is Evan? I sent him and Dante down there three days ago.”
    He expected an answer from Knox. Gordon responded with a shrug.
    Trevor picked up the phone on the desk and buzzed security.
    “Yeah, Wilson, um, how’s the head? Great. Who’s the watch commander down there? Yeah, send him up.”
    Stone slammed the phone onto its cradle.
    “Okay, go ahead finish it up.”
    “Stonewall pushed through and is ready to take the supply point at Dillon at any time. But that’s just going through the motions. After yesterday’s defeat we noticed the lizards weren’t sending convoys through Dillon anymore. They’re counting entirely on Conway to supply that pocket now.”
    “Good,” Trevor nodded his head in approval.
    “Not so good,” Gordon corrected. “We haven’t gained anything yet. As long as there are supplies rolling in it doesn’t matter where they come from. You have to push through New Winnabow and do it soon, or we’ll be in bad shape.”
    Ray Roos knocked and walked in.
    “You wanted to see me, Sir?”
    “Yeah, Ray, right? Is Evan Godfrey back in town yet?”
    Roos glanced around the room, fidgeted, and then answered, “I wouldn’t know, Sir.”
    “You wouldn’t know? I thought the Watch Commander coordinated protection duty for all council members. How can you do that if you don’t know if he’s in town?”
    “You’re right, Sir, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Yeah, he’s back in town. We had a couple of guys meet him when he arrived.”
    “I assume you know where he is, then?” Stone asked.
    “Get him for me.”
    “Um, Sir, he was going to a meeting at his newspaper.”
    Trevor glared at Roos. “I don’t care if he’s in a meeting with the Almighty. You grab that toad by the ears and pull him over here. He was supposed to report to me as soon as he got back. If he doesn’t come…” Trevor considered. “If he doesn’t come tell him I’ll be sending some K9s over to fetch him.”
    Ray Roos gulped.
    “Yes, Sir. I’m hearing you loud and clear, yes I am.”

    “Gee, Evan, really nice to see you could join us,” Trevor said as Godfrey walked in to his second-floor office just as Gordon Knox walked out. “Where is Dante?”
    “He’s coming back tonight,” Evan said. “We stayed a night in New Winnabow then in Raleigh. He was staying there a little while longer to set up some security stuff.”
    “So you arranged for us to pass through?” Trevor led.
    “Trevor,” Evan licked his lips. “I know how important this operation is. I understand why you sent me down there. I met with their council. I spent an evening there and walked around that amazing town. You saw it, too. They have a theater. They have classrooms and apprenticeships. They’ve got country doctors who make house calls. At dinner time the town almost shuts down as all the families eat together. Those who don’t have families are invited to a different dinner table each night.”
    Trevor, pacing, waived his hand, “Yes Evan, I know. It is peaceful. It is calm. They are so wonderful. But Evan, they don’t have antibiotics, so kids with strep throat may end up dying. Chicken Pox is a life-threatening disease. They don’t have surgeons, Evan. Better not have your appendix burst. What about diagnosing skin cancer before it is too late?”
    “Maybe some things in life are worth giving up so that the quality of that life is better.”
    “Easy for you to say,” Trevor said. “You’re not a slave in Columbia.”
    “The whole time we were there the worst we saw was a Skip Beetle.”
    Trevor opened his mouth, ready to bat another volley in the conversation, but he stopped, refocused, and went to the point. “Why are we arguing this? You weren’t sent there as a sociologist. Are they going to allow us to pass, Evan?”
    Godfrey went quiet. He licked his lips again, threw his eyes to different spots around the room, and flexed his fingers. Body language spoke the answer he hesitated to say.
    The realization of failure swept across Trevor Stone, covering him like a blanket. His eyes glazed over, his pacing stopped, and he slowly — very slowly- eased to the seat behind the desk.
    Evan finally said, “They aren’t going to let us pass. Not without a fight. I spoke with their council. They are united in this. No one is going to change their mind. I think they’d rather die than give in.”
    “I see,” Trevor mumbled.
    “But Trevor, listen, you have to think of this as a chance. A chance to try something new,” Evan tried to persuade. Trevor did not react. “This is a chance to change who we are. So the Hivvans get away this time, so what? It’s a shame about Columbia but instead of forcing your way through New Winnabow maybe we can learn from them.”
    “Maybe Parsons can tell us how they’ve done it. I’ll be happy to be your ambassador to New Winnabow. It’s amazing what they’ve done down there! Amazing!”
    “Trevor, I am sorry that I failed. Truly I am. I hope you believe me. You trusted me despite everything we’ve been through, I won’t forget that.”
    “Of course not…no.”
    “I gave it my best shot. I tried to convince them. But maybe this is a sign. A sign that we can start changing things here so we can be more like them. Thanks for listening, Trevor,” Evan finished. “I think this might be a new leaf in our relationship.”
    “Yes…a new leaf.”
    Evan smiled, nodded his head, and left the room.
    Trevor Stone sat there, in his empty office, alone.

    Evan walked out the front door of the estate to the driveway where his Mercedes sedan idled with an Internal Security driver at the wheel. He jumped in and found Ray Roos in the back seat waiting for him.
    The car swung about and exited the grounds.
    Roos sat there, staring at Evan who finally asked, “What?”
    “Are you just something? Sure you are. You are just something.” Roos shook his head in admiration with a smile on his lips.
    “What are you talking about?”
    “Oh, now, come on now, I didn’t just fall off the cabbage truck. I know what’s going on in Carolina. You know I hear things. Of course you do. That’s why you like me so much. I hear things that can help you out.”
    “And what do you hear these days, Ray?”
    “Seems our boss has a decision to make, doesn’t it? He sure does.”
    This time Evan shook his head, adding a slight bite to his lip and down cast eyes for the perfect expression of remorse.
    Roos grinned. “That’s pretty good. You can almost sell that.”
    Evan snapped, “Sell what?”
    “Sell the idea that you’re all broken up about this. About how unfortunate it is. I have to tip my hat to you, Mr. Godfrey. You are a piece of work. Yes you are. That’s why I like you so much.”
    “It is, well, it is quite dreadful,” Evan stymied. Roos’ ability to see through his act knocked him off balance.
    “Dreadful for Stone, sure,” Roos laid it out. “But for you it’s a win-win situation, isn’t it? Yes it is. A win-win.”
    Again, Roos showed an uncanny knack for cutting through his charades, putting Evan on the defensive.
    “Oh, come on now,” Roos said. “Are you testing me? Yes you are, aren’t you? You want to see if Ray here has got an eye for this sort of thing. Okay, I’ll play. Stop me when I stumble down the wrong path.”
    The sedan followed the lakeside road. The driver showed no interest in the conversation, meaning he was either deaf or he had earned Ray Roos’ trust.
    “Stone has to decide, send in the troops to New Winnabow or don’t. If he sends them in you’ve got the Emperor sending humans to kill other humans. I wonder how that will sit with the people. Pictures of bombed-out villagers would make for a nice front page story, wouldn’t it? Of course, that’s assuming the troops follow those orders. General Shepherd, he might not take to shooting up a village. He might just tell Stone to shove it. I suppose you never know. Point is, if he sends the troops in Stone will end up looking like a real honest-to-goodness Emperor; a real nasty one. That weakens his support.”
    Evan chuckled dismissively. “He’s not going to send any troops in there. Even he isn’t that cold-blooded. Why, the political fall out would be enormous. He’ll pull back and the war will be on hold for a couple of months. That’s the way I’d bet.”
    “Now that’s just as good,” Roos unnerved Godfrey even more by showing a firm grasp of the situation and the potential outcomes. “Because if little New Winnabow can stand up to mighty Trevor Stone, then anyone can. I’m sure people in those farming villages will remember New Winnabow the next time their crops are divided up and sent out of town. Maybe they’ll just say ‘no’ and tell Trev to stick it. Why just about every little ‘burgh that has a gripe will see it as their chance to break away. Might end up in a civil war, but no matter what happens my guess is that a certain suave politician might be able to smooth things over. Probably by promising elections or representation or something fancy like that. What do you think?”
    Evan sat silent, his eyes locked on Roos, his mouth clamped tight. Roos winked.
    When he did finally speak, Evan’s lips barely parted. “I suppose that if something like that were to happen then, yes, someone with good negotiating skills could fix it. But that’s all speculation.”
    “Of course it is, right? Sure,” Roos smiled fully. “Either way, I don’t see how you could lose. Might even carve out a nice chunk of political clout-might even call it power-for yourself. That is, hypothetically speaking.”
    Evan turned his attention to the side window as the Mercedes passed a convoy of trucks, civilian and military.
    “It’s not about me,” Evan told him. “The Emperor sent me down there to do a job. Honestly, I failed. It’s as simple as that.”
    “Oh wait, I figured out one way you could lose.”
    No reply. Evan kept his eyes staring outside, but as Roos spoke his head slowly turned, his jaw drooping in the slightest.
    “You could have lost if those folks down there gave in and decided to let the army march through. Then everyone would have been happy, especially your buddy, Trevor. Good for him, but not really good for you. No pieces to pick up. Still, that’s water under the bridge, I suppose. But hold the phone, you still could end up behind the eight-ball, Mr. Godfrey. If the big guy ever finds out how you played this whole thing, well, then, he might just lop your head off for that.”
    Godfrey snapped. “How dare you! We’ve been friends, Ray, but now you’ve gone too far. I had a job to do and I did my best…to…” Roos greeted the outburst with a series of laughs, sapping Evan’s false fire as he realized he had been set up, that his righteous indignation had been exactly what Roos trawled for.
    “Just as I thought. Thanks for clearing that up,” Ray said. “You made damn sure those folks weren’t going to let the army parade on through. I’ll bet you had a tear in your eye when you told Trevor how bad you felt about that.”
    Evan’s face turned red and he murmured, “I don’t know what game you’re playing, but you have no proof of anything. If you’re trying to blackmail me or something-”
    “Oh, now, are you worrying about me? Little old me?” Roos acted insulted. “Mr. Godfrey, haven’t you realized that I’ve chosen which horse to back? Sure you have. That’s why we get along so well.”
    “I see.”
    “No, not really. So far you’ve just seen me as a guy with the inside scoop. Someone to give you juicy stories for your paper in exchange for a small favor or two. But I’m thinking that maybe there’s a lot more we could be doing.”
    Evan did not reply. He eyed Roos as if studying a dangerous puzzle.
    “Do you know how I got in to Internal Security? I’ll tell you this, Mr. Godfrey; I was not a law enforcement officer in the old days, nope. I’m good with guns, that’s one reason. Good with knives, too. They taught me that in the army, before the discharge and all. I had a tough time playing by the rules. My personal opinion in those days was that rules were the long way around for suckers; I preferred short cuts. I got to the places I wanted to be by working the angles, sort of out-thinking the other guy. A lot like a politician, Mr. Godfrey. In fact, I’ll bet, a lot like you.”
    “I believe in rules, Ray. It’s not really civilization without structure. But, of course, you have to know the rules and use them to your advantage. That’s just the way of life. But if you get caught breaking the rules, well, that’s what prisons are for.”
    “I concede your point there, yep. And I know exactly what you mean. You could say I have first-hand experience. So that got me thinking. Here we are in a brand new world and all those old rules have been blown away. Along comes Trevor Stone, and he’s building everything back up.”
    “That he is, Ray. That he is. For better or worse.”
    “I like to plan ahead, Mr. Godfrey. I can see a time where things will calm down. This war isn’t going to last forever, at least I sure hope not. We’ve got enough people here to start new, why risk it all by pushing and pushing? I’m not sure Stone knows when to stop.”
    Godfrey nodded, cautiously, and answered, “I’m of the same mind. Why is it our job to save the world? We need to take care of our own.”
    “Exactly. Of course, I’m more worried about taking care of my own. To be honest, I’m glad everything changed. The invasion, well, it sort of gave me a second chance. You might even say it released me. Better yet, I feel like I’m in on the ground floor of things. Like I said, I mainly didn’t like playing by the rules, unless I’m one of the gang writing those rules. If you see my point.”
    “Yes, well, that creates certain opportunities, of course. We can put it back together, Ray. Maybe not exact, but better. That’s what I’m all about.”
    “I’m thinking I can help you put things back together, Mr. Godfrey. Better this time; particularly in my own personal case, you understand.”
    “I’m a firm believer,” Evan said, “that those who make the sacrifices for the betterment of the greater good should be given certain, um, leeway.”
    “You’ll find that I’m quite willing to do things that some people shy away from. Call it, a sense of self-preservation.”
    “None of us would have survived this long without that, Ray. I understand completely.”
    “Good, I’m glad you do. Because dentist appointments and extra food rations are nice ‘thank yous’ for information here or the slip of a tongue there, but a man expects compensation based on the level of his, well, investment. I’m not an idiot, Mr. Godfrey. Not some muscle-head lackey. But I think you’ve figured that out by now.”
    “Unmistakable, Ray.”
    “Not as smart as you, mind you. You’ve got a leg up on me in that department. Part of being smart, you see, is knowing your limitations. By myself, well, not much I can accomplish. And you, Mr. Godfrey, by yourself, that silver tongue of yours can only go so far, too. Sooner or later the rubber meets the road. Think of that as my area of expertise. At the same time, it’s nice to know I’ve got someone in a high place watching my back.”
    “Are you suggesting a partnership of some kind, Ray?”
    “Partnership? No, not a partnership. That suggests equals. I know my place, Mr. Godfrey. I don’t see the big picture as well as you do, only my little part. Of course, I’m hoping my little part will be a big part some day. Not as big as yours, of course. But a few privileges here and there, some indulgences. That would be the pot of gold at the end of my rainbow.”
    “Risk-reward. Sounds reasonable to me, Ray.”
    “So let’s just call this a friendship. Let’s say that. You know, Evan, it always pays to have a friend in Internal Security. All that inside access…all that information…all sorts of friends in the military, and really close to the big brass. You never know how that might come in handy some day, as long as a person knows precisely when to play their trump card. And Mr. Godfrey, I am a very patient man. You get that way when you’ve served time. I can tell, you’re like that, too. Different reason, of course, but another way in which our friendship is certain to last.”
    Evan admitted, “I suppose it never hurts to have a few more friends.”

    Trevor Stone did not want to sit alone in his office any longer.
    He stood and walked, almost stumbled, out the door to the second floor hall. Usually he might find Ashley or JB or even grandpa Benjamin Trump there. A few years prior, grandma Trump might be around but she had fallen victim to breast cancer.
    This time he found no one. Grandpa Trump, Ashley, JB and nearly a platoon of security left the mansion to enjoy the nice weather with a picnic in a nearby park. Maybe some ‘normal’ relaxation would take Jorge’s-and Ashley’s-mind off the intruder. At least for while.
    For Trevor, forgetting about his half-brother and the chilling answers he provided was easy, thanks to New Winnabow. Chasing away bad news with more bad news could do that trick.
    As he descended the stairs, Trevor thought back to that first year after the Apocalypse.
    Those were the days.
    Yes, those were the days when the estate could have been wiped out by nothing more than a brigade of Hivvans or one Shadow. Their existence had been tenuous at best. Every day a struggle to survive; to fend off starvation or disease; to outfight some hostiles and outrun others.
    Back then, he woke up every morning wondering if today would be the last day for humanity. Every morning he feared making the wrong decision as he juggled tactics between hiding and fighting, when to sacrifice and when to make a stand all the time wondering if he had the courage to lead.
    Yet the question of right or wrong rarely entered in to the picture. He needed to hide from and then kill monsters and aliens to keep the flame of humanity from being extinguished. No gray area, no ambiguity. Humanity had been wronged and the responsibility to survive and avenge that wrong fell on his shoulders. Easy enough, if he were up to the task.
    The gift of the estate gave him a redoubt from which to muster strength. The gift of memories provided the abilities and the confidence to charge forward. The dogs-regardless of the source of that gift-built the foundation of an army.
    Failure remained his biggest worry, but not like before. No one force could snuff them out with a sudden blow. If failure came now, it would be a slow and agonizing retreat.
    Trevor no longer wielded merely a carbine and a cadre of Grenadiers, he commanded an army. His power had grown exponentially and would need to grow further still to seize victory. With that expansion the lines of black and white merged and swirled into gray with only one shining light breaking through the murk, and that was the cause. The mission. His purpose.
    That frightened him. He knew he could send his soldiers into New Winnabow. He knew he could justify the slaughter in the name of the great cause. What kind of man could make such a decision?
    So yes, Trevor could order Shepherd to march in there, kill any opposition, and secure passage. He could do that.
    And what would happen then?
    Trevor doubted Shepherd would refuse the order no matter how much he might not like it, but what about Shepherd’s Captains? What about the rank and file? Would they refuse to kill other human beings? Would they refuse to fight despite their pledge of loyalty?
    Maybe he should not attack New Winnabow for that reason alone. Losing the race to trap the Hivvans would be a severe blow; losing control of his army infinitely worse.
    If he ordered the attack, New Winnabow would put up a fight and people-men and women-on both sides would die. How would The Baltimore New Press cover that story? Would the little ticker they had at the bottom of the page recording liberated humans subtract out those murdered in the Emperor’s name?
    As he reached the bottom of the stairs he heard a familiar voice and it brought a smile to his face. Trevor followed the sound of that voice into what had once been a dining room but now served as Lori Brewer’s office. He walked in as she finished a phone call.
    “Right, have them meet me there. From what I hear, Wilmington isn’t in as bad a shape as Raleigh was but we need to move fast. Right. Goodbye.”
    She hung up the phone.
    “Hey,” Lori said.
    “How are you doing?”
    “Considering my husband is a couple of thousand of miles away marching across a polar ice cap, I think I’m holding up okay. Of course, that’s assuming they made it to the sub and that the sub made it to Greenland.”
    She did not need to add you sent him there. Trevor heard that clear enough.
    Lori shuffled papers, discarding some while shoving others into a leather messenger bag.
    “So, ah, what’s going on?” Trevor tried to strike up a conversation.
    “Well, let’s see. I’ve got to catch a shuttle to Philadelphia then from there to Baltimore then…well, you get the idea. If things go well I’ll be in Raleigh late tonight and Wilmington in the morning.”
    “Yes, assessment. Lots of civilians, some orphaned kids, there’s a rail link that would be useful, lots of empty housing. The normal stuff and with the mess Raleigh is in I need to go see for myself.”
    “Oh. Yeah. I understand.”
    Lori stood and slung the bag over her shoulder.
    “I have to go and talk to the housekeeper about Catherine and make sure she has everything. I swear, I’m taking care of the needs of tens of thousands of people and I can’t even take care of my own kid without going completely mental.”
    She walked to the door, stopped, and asked, “I’m sorry, did you need me for something?”
    Trevor considered for a moment, shook his head, and told her, “No. I’m good. Have a safe trip.”

22. Sincerest Form

    Denise raised the pistol and took aim; the gun trembled in her grip. When she finally tugged the trigger, the barrel jumped, sending the bullet out to sea several feet above the tin can target on the banister.
    “Urrg, I suck at this,” she grumbled.
    Denise stood in front of Nina on a dock outside of Wrightsville Beach with old cans lined up on a railing. Both women had grown accustomed to the strong salty scent from the marshes as well as the constant sound of hungry seagulls cawing for food. No doubt the birds missed the pretzel pieces and lost French fries from the days when tourists roamed the seaside resort.
    “So in the last five years no one ever taught you how to use a gun?”
    “For the tenth time, no.”
    Nina shook her head, amazed at such an oversight given the nature of the world.
    “Okay then. Relax, that’s only your third shot. Try again but-” Nina quickly grabbed the gun as the young girl held the weapon in a haphazard manner. “Hey, watch where you’re pointing that thing.”
    “Yeah, right.”
    “No, watch where you’re pointing that thing,” Nina said in a harsh, commander’s tone.
    “Geez, relax, no biggy.”
    “Stop. Stop right now,” Nina pulled the pistol away from Denise.
    “Look, you need to get your head on straight for this.”
    “Awe, c’mon, relax.”
    Nina popped the clip from the Glock automatic, opened the slide to empty the chambered round, and held the bullet between two fingers.
    “Come here.”
    “What?” Denise removed orange plugs from her ears.
    “This is a bullet. Feel it.” Nina pressed it hard into Denise’s chest.
    “Hey, ouch.”
    “Now imagine this bullet moving over a thousand feet per second,” Nina said.
    “Look, geez, I get it, okay? I’ll be careful.”
    “No, you don’t get it. Do you know how a bullet kills people?”
    Denise slapped her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes, but as Nina spoke, the young girls’ demeanor switched from annoyed to horrified.
    “It isn’t pretty, understand? It doesn’t disappear and you fall over dead like in some dumb movie. It punctures through your skin and starts tearing shit up inside. Not some clean little hole,” Nina poked Denise in the stomach. “It pierces organs and rips up your guts and tears open arteries. Blood and worse starts pouring out. Your whole insides are like a zip-lock bag of water that just got a hole punched in it. Hell, with a lucky shot maybe your stomach acids start pouring all over your intestines. Maybe a lung gets punctured and you drown on your own blood from the inside.”
    The little girl squirmed.
    “Understand something, Denise, just because this piss-poor new world means you got to live with guns everyday, it doesn’t mean you can treat guns like an everyday thing. Understand?”
    “Once that trigger is pulled, that bullet is going somewhere. If that barrel is pointing at me, or your foot or someone standing across the parking lot then they’re going to get hurt. Real bad. And guess what? You can’t take it back. You can’t say ‘I’m sorry.’ Once that shot is fired it’s going to do what it’s going to do and there are no second chances.”
    Denise stood silent.
    “Do you understand now?”
    “Yeah, sure.”
    “Do you?”
    Denise spoke clearly, “Yes.”
    Nina threw an arm around the girl.
    “I’m just saying, I don’t want anything to happen to you. That’s all.”
    “I know,” she said.
    “Now c’mon, let’s squeeze off a few more rounds there, Annie Oakley.”
    Denise asked, “Who is Annie Oakley?”
    Nina thought for a second, shrugged, and answered, “I don’t have a clue.”
    Jim Brock’s voice took them by surprise with a sudden and not particularly friendly, “Hey!”
    As he jogged toward them Nina said, “I thought you were taking the kids to scavenge up some winter clothes?”
    He slowed to a walk and asked, “What’s…um…what’s going on?”
    “Nina is showing me how to shoot,” Denise answered the question.
    “Shoot? Nina, could I talk to you for a sec?”
    “Sure, Jim,” Nina smiled politely although she easily saw the wary look in his eye.
    Nina made sure the gun was completely empty and then returned it to Denise.
    “What am I supposed to do with this?”
    “Practice your grip,” Nina instructed.
    Denise considered then, in fact, practiced her grip by pointing the weapon down range, probably seeing Mutants and Deadheads instead of old soup cans.
    Jim and Nina walked along the dock. He held his words until out of Denise’s earshot.
    “Nina, I mean, I don’t know about this gun thing.”
    “Yeah, I know. I take it today is the first time anyone let Denise hold a gun? Didn’t you guys have any all these years?”
    “There were some folks here in Wrightsville Beach that used them, sure. Not me. Me and the kids, we got along by hiding. But, I mean, that’s not my point. Like, I understand that shooting things is, well, kind of necessary these days. Hey, you don’t have to explain to me, I know things are different.”
    “But..?” Nina led.
    “But she’s just eleven. She doesn’t even know how to drive yet.”
    Nina nodded and told him, “I see your point. We’d better teach her to drive, too.”
    “I’m serious, Nina.”
    “So am I,” she countered as her brow furled. “You’re going to wait until she’s sixteen to teach her to drive? There aren’t any licenses anymore. Driving might just save her life someday. The gun even more so.”
    “But at eleven?”
    “Jim, if she’s strong enough to hold the gun then she should be taught how to use it. You know how nuts the world is. Odds are that someday she’ll have to use it.”
    “I thought your Empire was making things safe again. I thought you were chasing away the monsters and we weren’t going to have to worry about that type of thing anymore.”
    “Not going to have to worry? Hell, Jim, even before the invaders came our world had monsters in it. I was a cop, and the first thing I told people is learn to watch out for yourself because the police don’t usually get there in the nick of time. Nowadays? Are you kidding?”
    He said, “I just want her to have as normal a life as possible. I want her to be a little girl.”
    “In less than two years she’s going to be a teenage girl. This world we’re in, it’s still full of danger and not just from aliens. I’m just saying, she needs to know how to protect herself. Sometimes there’s no where to run, or hide.”
    He scratched his head and retreated on the subject.
    “Yeah, well, I mean, I just wish…I just wish-”
    “You wish I had asked your permission first. Is that it?”
    He did not respond.
    “Maybe I should have,” she conceded.
    He smiled, her answer apparently pleased him.
    She went on, “Are you going to have a hard time giving these kids up?”
    Brock answered with a question of his own, “That depends. I mean, what’s going to happen next?”
    The two stopped and enjoyed a nice view of a long-dead marina. The condition of the small yachts and luxury fishing boats there ranged from half-sunk to pristine.
    She explained, “Assessment teams due down here tomorrow. They’re going to come through, register everyone, and ask a bunch of questions.”
    “That’s right. To track the people who have been found or freed from slave camps.”
    “Why? What’s the purpose?”
    “Lots of reasons. First would be for medical needs. There aren’t that many doctors around, so the first thing is to identify any health issues like if you’ve been exposed to any communicable diseases. Like, if the chicken pox went through Wrightsville last year or something then they’d have to try and keep you guys from places where people haven’t been exposed. I guess. That type of thing. That and establishing what type of skill sets you and your people have.”
    “Skill sets?”
    “That’s to help them make a recommendation as to where you could best help out.”
    Jim cocked his head to the side and said, “I don’t follow.”
    “Well, no one gets paid to work these days. It’s all a question of everyone pitching in to help the war effort. You got some people out there doing some crappy jobs but it’s all they know or can do, so that’s how they pitch in. But if someone was a doctor or an engineer or worked construction back then, well, then there might be some special jobs you could work.”
    “Wait, they’re going to tell me where I have to work?”
    She shook her head. “No, it’s not like that. No forced labor. I think they give you a list of what they’d recommend and what’s needed. You then choose. Or maybe you choose nothing. But there aren’t any welfare programs anymore. The people who fight, work, or produce get the rations and the medicines first. Of course, there are lots of people who barter for stuff. They’re all over.”
    He smiled a nervous smile. “Denise, she’s too young to get drafted, right? I sure wouldn’t want that. That’s no way for a girl to grow up.”
    Nina’s brow grew taut again and she said, “Sure, she needs to learn how to walk in high heels and bake cookies first, right?”
    Jim gulped and closed his eyes.
    “Sorry. That came out wrong. No insult intended. This is still new to me.”
    Nina relaxed her glare. “She is a little young to go into a military unit, but she’s not too young to learn how to protect herself. In fact, that’s way past due.”
    An awkward silence came over the two, at first broken only by the call of seagulls, then eventually broke by Jim Brock’s wavering voice as he asked, “So, you’re just doing the target shooting today?”
    “I want to keep this up for a while until she gets the hang of it. After that, I have some big plans for the rest of the day.”
    His mouth widened, his eyes bulged, and he said, “You’re not thinking of taking Denise out to hunt down some monsters? Are you?”
    “Relax, Jim, we’re going to do something really girlie-like. You’d approve.”
    His cheeks turned a shade red.
    She told him, “We’re going shopping.”

    By the time they finished with target practice, Denise Cannon managed to knock a couple of cans off the railing. She required many more hours of practice before her aim would be satisfactory, but the novelty of the weapon faded, allowing the girl to focus on her marksmanship. Nina also made Denise disassemble and re-assemble the pistol.
    With their day at the range complete, Nina fulfilled her promise to take Denise ‘shopping.’ Although the word ‘scavenging’ would be more accurate, ‘shopping’ sounded a lot more fun.
    They took a Humvee with Odin the Elkhound and a large Rottweiler as escort. The two stopped first at City Hall where Nina checked in with the Hunter-Killer commanders who reported only minor scrapes with small predators.
    Before leaving, they raided the commissary where Nina packed a couple of pork sandwiches and something akin to homemade potato chips. They fit nicely in a backpack which they opened a half hour later on a scenic lookout along the riverfront. The same riverfront that, ten days prior, Nina had cleared with the Hunter-Killer force.
    Nina finished chewing a bite of the salty meat and asked, “So what are you shopping for today?”
    The words felt awkward to Nina, as if she played some sort of game; maybe a variation of ‘dress up.’ She managed to suppress an urge to giggle.
    “I really need to get some new duds. My stuff is so out of style,” Denise said and she sounded surprisingly serious.
    “Out of style?” The thought amused Nina. “What’s in style these days?”
    “Oh, lots of stuff. I mean, besides machine guns and black soldier outfits.”
    Nina paused and looked self-consciously at the black BDUs she wore.
    “Oh,” she said.
    “Don’t sweat it,” Denise told her. “I’ve got us covered.”
    Denise laid her sandwich on top of its wax paper wrapper, unzipped her own backpack, and produced copies of Glamour, Teen, and Mademoiselle magazines.
    “See, I’ve got it all right here,” she said.
    “Um, Denise, they’re a little out of date.”
    “Well, like, duh. We’re not going to find clothes in the stores that were made since five years ago either, now are we?”
    Nina shrugged and conceded the point.
    “So what do they say?” Forest asked as she took another bite.
    Denise opened one of the magazines and flipped through the pages full of color pictures of gorgeous models showing off fashions from the days when said models occupied a higher rung on the food chain.
    Denise pointed to one summer dress. “I think you’d look hot in that.”
    Nina nearly gagged on her food.
    “H-hot? I don’t think I’ve ever looked hot, Denise.”
    Still, Nina leaned closer to look at the photo.
    “Well don’t worry,” the eleven-year-old told her. “I’m here to help you with that.”
    “So I teach you to shoot and you’re going to help me look ‘hot’?”
    Denise nodded, “You got it.”
    Nina peered at the model wearing the dress and said to Denise, “She looks familiar. I think that’s an old movie star. Check the photo caption, what’s it say?”
    Denise squinted and tilted her head. Her lips moved, but no sound came out. She leaned close to the page, ran a finger over the sentences, and then said, “It doesn’t…it doesn’t really say who it is.” She then flipped through several pages very fast.
    Nina watched the girl who kept her eyes planted on the magazine.
    “Wait a second,” she finally figured it out. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. You don’t know how to read, do you?”
    Denise shot, “I can read, sure I can, just not very well.”
    Nina put her sandwich down and threw an arm around the little girl. She gave her a good hug.
    “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Denise. You spent your school years running and hiding from monsters. Just trying to stay alive. Hell, you’re smarter then any kid I knew when I was your age. You just didn’t get the chance to learn stuff like that. Like reading.”
    “I’m sorry,” Denise said dejectedly.
    “Hey, hey, you don’t have to be sorry. What’s with this ‘sorry?’ Listen, you were-what? — six years old when this started. But don’t worry, we’ve got schools.”
    “Not around here we don’t,” Denise pointed out.
    Nina told her, “There’ll be schools down here soon enough, once we’ve got these lizard-aliens beat. There is a small elementary school and even a high school back where I live.”
    “Where do you live?”
    “Annapolis. That’s up in Maryland along the Chesapeake Bay. I live in an old hotel with a bunch of other military people. Got a little place there. Nothing special.”
    “I bet it’s neat.”
    “The town is really neat. Parts of it are hundreds of years old but they don’t look old. They just look neat.”
    Nina found herself amused by her choice of words, again to the point of nearly giggling.
    “We’re going to get you to school so you can learn that stuff.”
    “What does it matter?” Denise shrugged. “I mean, with all the monsters around. I should just be a soldier, like you.”
    Nina thought Jim Brock would not like that answer.
    “That’s a decision you have to make once you learn to read and write. Who knows, maybe you’ll be a scientist or an artist. Something that makes the fighting we’re doing now worthwhile.”
    “You think it will be over by the time I’m your age? You think we won’t need soldiers anymore?”
    Nina wondered if she should tell Denise the truth; the truth that this war might never end. Such a huge world, so many invaders, so few people…it might take generations for victory to be achieved, or it might take one bad campaign to cause it all to collapse.
    “I don’t know about that, Denise. Maybe the war will be over by then, maybe not. But even before this invasion we needed soldiers and police. I’ll be honest with you, there will always be bad things; there were bad things before all this. You have to learn to protect yourself,” Nina thought, gave Denise a hug, and added, “and to protect the people you care about.”
    “Man, what a downer. Let’s stop talking about this and think about what we’re going to shop for today. What are you getting?”
    Some feminine impulse caused Nina to answer, “Shoes. Lots of shoes.”

    They stopped first at a shoe outlet. The prices were right but the selection thin. Plenty of pump heels and sandals could be found on the shelves, but Nina saw no boots or sneakers until they happened upon a couple of boxes that had fallen behind a counter where looters from years gone by had failed to search.
    Next they visited Independence Mall. The dogs barked and howled until Nina found, shot, and killed a Type B Sloth hiding in a video game store under a toppled shelf.
    Denise then dragged Nina into stores, one after another, primarily clothing boutiques offering selections that had been in style five years ago. The eleven year old found jeans, shorts, even a skirt that fit.
    Then she approached Nina with something for her.
    “Try this on,” Denise said.
    “You think I’d look ‘hot’ in that?”
    Denise nodded and handed her a hanger on which hung a black party dress with a rather short hemline.
    Nina held the hanger aloft and examined the skimpy outfit. The sight of the dress transported her mind back in time to the day when she awoke after having lost that year of memories.
    On that day, Shepherd took her to the apartment where, he told her, she had lived for nearly a year. It felt like a stranger’s place, particularly when she heard Patsy Cline on the stereo and found a black dress in the closet.
    She did not wear party dresses. Yes, she knew she sported a gorgeous figure but she never felt the need to put it on display. To Nina, her body was a very personal thing. She was proud of her strength and good form, but she preferred not to be the subject of leering eyes. That’s what made her decision to get the wolf’s head tattoo even more puzzling. The idea of her wearing a dress so short and so, well, sexy, felt just as crazy.
    “C’mon, try it on,” Denise said. “You have just got to stop being Miss Military all the time.”
    “Advice…from an eleven year old?”
    “I’m just saying,” Denise retorted in a near-perfect imitation of Nina.
    Forest laughed and took the dress into a curtained booth. A few moments later she returned.
    They moved a mirror closer to one of the outer doors to make up for the lack of light inside. The sun bounced off the mirror and cast Nina and her black dress in a sharp glow.
    “Wow,” Denise said. “I told you that was perfect for you.”
    Nina gazed at herself in the mirror and saw all the things she had never been; popular in school, fashionable in life, sexy in a bar or nightclub, the center of attention at a party.
    In that close-cut black dress she could see the allure of being those things. She could see herself-for the first time-as beautiful. And she was not embarrassed. She was not self-conscious. She did not look out of place, she felt comfortable…natural.
    For a moment she did not miss the fatigues or balaclava. For a moment she was glad not to have a gun in her hand. She wondered how it might feel to play the role of princess for a night.
    “Girl, you are all that,” Denise admired.
    Nina realized, yes, the black dress hanging in her apartment closet had belonged to her, and she had worn it. When? For who? No doubt those answers were stolen from her, too.
    “So,” Denise interrupted Nina’s thoughts. “Will that be cash or credit?”
    “You know, for someone who can’t remember the old days you sure know a lot about them.”
    “Hey, I talk to people. You should try it sometime.”
    “Right. You talk to people.”
    “And watch the occasional movie,” Denise admitted. “We found a Cadillac with a DVD player in it a couple of years ago. Watched all sorts of movies until the battery died.”
    “Great, you’ve been taught pop culture. I can see we really need to get you into school.”
    Denise jumped at the opening. “Guess you’ll just have to take me back to Annapolis with you.”
    A few minutes later they left that store and walked through the mall. Denise carried bags full of shirts and underwear; Nina carried her new sneakers and one other package; a dress box.

    Denise lugged her shopping bags inside the beachfront condominium she called home, leaving Nina alone outside with Jim Brock.
    He asked, “Hey, since you were out for lunch today what do you think, I mean, how about dinner?”
    Nina nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”
    The two wandered toward the beach. The Atlantic Ocean rolled in, one white cap after another, the same routine repeated for eons. Seagulls fluttered about in search of scraps, litter tumbled across the sand, and the long shadows of beachfront resorts stretched toward the water.
    To Nina, it felt like summer vacation. She had spent ten days in Wilmington, a symptom, certainly, of the delay in General Shepherd’s advance. Nonetheless, other than her apartment in Annapolis, she had not spent this much time in one place for years, nor this much time with anyone other than her Dark Wolves comrades.
    “I think it’s great that you spent the day with Denise,” Jim told her. “She really likes you. I’ve never seen her open up with anyone like that.”
    “I know what that’s like.”
    “I can tell that. Honestly, even with all the years I spent with her I didn’t get to know her that well. There were just so many kids, and I’m a guy. I suppose I spent more time with the boys because I understood them better. Women are different. Harder of figure out. Especially, well, you’re a bit of a mystery, too.”
    Nina said, “Me? I’m not really that interesting.”
    “You have to be. You are…I mean…you are one of the most beautiful women I have ever met. You’ve got a nice smile, too, you should show it more often.”
    The words sounded nice, but Nina heard a familiar tone running beneath.
    Jim said, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a girl as tough as you. Probably not many guys, for that matter.”
    Yes, there it was. It could have been one of the kids from her elementary school.
    “Teacher…why is Nina so quiet?”
    Or maybe a girlfriend from junior high.
    “Hey, here comes Nina Forest; you trying out for the football team, Nina?”
    Perhaps a high school date.
    “Ouch! Let go! Geez, I was just being friendly you freak!”
    Maybe even Scott from the Philly SWAT team.
    “Hey honey, stop acting like you’ve got a dick.”
    She knew he did not intend to be mean, he just did not know any better.
    “You’ve never met a girl as tough as me,” she repeated.
    “I like you, Nina. A lot. I haven’t known you that long, but I can tell that something is bothering you. It’s like you’re looking for something. Maybe you feel out of place. I’m hoping you might find what you need here. You could help us rebuild, and maybe we could help you, too.”
    He started to say more but his words were drown out by the roar of a Blackhawk helicopter swinging over the rooftops and descending toward the beach. Nina and Jim retreated to avoid the sand storm that raged to life under the rotors.
    Her Dark Wolves unit disembarked from the chopper, moving out from the sandstorm with their heads low.
    Jim Brock stood still, nearly frozen in terror by the big machine and the burly men coming toward them, one of whom walked directly to Nina.
    “Captain Forest,” Vince Caesar removed goggles and spoke in a voice mixing no-nonsense and respect. “May I have a word with you?”
    Nina nodded and walked off with him. The other two commandos hovered next to Jim Brock and waited. They probably did not intend to intimidate the man but, no doubt, took some perverse pleasure in it nonetheless.
    Carl Bly said, “Out for a walk on the beach?”
    “Um…yeah…” Jim glanced toward Nina who walked out of earshot.
    “Say, mate,” Maddock asked, “exactly what are your intentions toward our Captain?”
    Meanwhile, Vince leaned close to Nina and said, “We’ve got an assignment, a real rush job just came in.”
    Nina grew uncharacteristically frustrated and snapped, “Who’s the asshole who thinks they can just call us out on a whim?”
    Vince’s eyes widened and his normally stoic expression morphed to mild surprise.
    “Cap, we always get called out on a whim. As for who’s asking, that’d be Trevor Stone.”
    This time Nina’s eyes widened and, at the same time, her cheeks reddened. She raised a hand to her temple, closed her eyes, and mumbled, “I think all this R amp; R is going to my head. I’m not used to…not used to staying in one place this long.”
    Caesar said, “If Stone called us out personally, it must be important. We have a rendezvous to make.”
    “Yeah. Yes, of course. Let me grab some stuff.”
    Vince followed his commander as she retrieved her gear from the back of the Humvee parked in the lot, including one box that was not standard issue.
    Denise Cannon ran out of the condominium and right to Nina.
    “You’re going?”
    Nina saw panic-outright fear-in the little girl’s eyes.
    “I have to go, but I’ll be back.”
    “I don’t want you to go,” Denise glanced nervously at the other soldier standing nearby.
    Nina nearly pleaded, “Listen, this is who I am. Do you understand?”
    Denise nodded.
    “Please, tell me the truth. Do you understand?”
    “I understand,” the girl said but Nina kept staring at her. “I do. Really. ”
    Nina knelt and hugged Denise Cannon.
    “I’ll be coming back for you, Denise. If you want me to.”
    The girl answered with no hesitation, “I do.”
    Nina thought for a moment then handed Denise the dress box.
    “Could you hold this for me? I’ll get it from you when I get back.”
    Denise slowly nodded her head.
    Nina-the soldier — stood tall with her gear slung over her shoulder. She looked at the eleven-year-old girl, smiled briefly, and then walked away with Vince Caesar on her flank, passing Jim Brock and the other two commandos on the way.
    Carl Bly finished telling a tale-a tall one-to Brock, “…so Nina, she cuts the thing’s head right off and starts drinking its blood.”
    “Hell of a bloody mess,” Maddock agreed.
    Jim stepped out from between the two men.
    “Nina? Nina, what’s going on?”
    Vince directed Carl and Oliver to the Blackhawk.
    “I need to go, right now,” she told him.
    “Is there a problem?”
    “No, you’re safe,” she said with as much confidence as possible in a world of Shadows and Jaw-Wolves and Goat-Walkers.
    He stumbled, “About before…what I meant to say.”
    She interrupted, “You’re a nice guy. I think you’ve got a good heart.”
    “But the world changed, Jim. I’m not the one out of place. You could say, I guess, you could say I’ve never felt more in place. For better or worse.”
    The chopper’s engine spooled louder, encouraging Nina to get on board.
    “I have to go. I’ll stop back as soon as I can, but my vacation is over.”
    She left him standing there, watching. She raised a hand to ward off the raging sand storm and then jumped onboard the helicopter. The Blackhawk lifted away from the beach and flew off to the southwest.
    Toward New Winnabow.

23. Enigma

    The journey concluded.
    There, on the frozen flats of the ice cap, at the exact coordinates provided by Trevor Stone, stood the finish line and Jon Brewer had never seen a finish line quite like it.
    It was massive, the size of a small city.
    It was black, black like granite and appearing just as solid.
    It had a flat roof on top of curved walls, hundreds of feet in the air.
    One giant structure, like the end of a cylinder poking through the ice, or maybe the universe’s largest hockey puck.
    And it moved.
    He saw no lines or breaks in its colorless surface, yet layers-rings of varying thickness-periodically rotated, turning one on top of another like floors of a building spinning at various speeds and intervals.
    An enigma.
    Jon Brewer and his expedition waited outside that gargantuan puzzle.
    A half-mile away another group waited: Wraiths. They had discarded their travelling windstorm and huddled outside the building, or city, or whatever it was.
    The Vikings, too, reached the finish line. They gathered to another side of the obelisk.
    Three armies encamped on three different sides of the gigantic structure, each exhausted after forty-eight hours of running, trading small arms fire, launching artillery strikes, and employing various maneuvers in an attempt to win the race.
    Each suffered casualties along the way. Neither gained an advantage.
    Regardless of how fierce the Wraith’s storm appeared, well-placed explosive charges drew them from their veil of wind and slowed their advantage in mobility.
    The Vikings exhibited incredible endurance, rarely stopping or even slowing for rest, moving at a fast jog hour after hour, even when exchanging pot shots with their opponents.
    As for humanity, Jon’s force needed periodic rest stops, but their convoy of dog sleds, the tracked SUSV command vehicle, and snowmobiles allowed their vanguard bursts of superior speed.
    The Wraiths arrived thirty minutes before Jon, that an hour before the Vikings, each making camp as close to the obelisk as possible, but also as far away from their enemies as possible.
    Nonetheless, the order of arrival made no difference. Scouting parties sent by each force found no entrance to the enigma. So they stayed in place and waited, watching both the city-sized obelisk as well as the foes to either side.
    While Brewer and Fink established battle lines and considered strategies to move against their enemies, Reverend Johnny sat in the cab of the command vehicle. Behind him, several wounded soldiers moaned and squirmed. He worried he would soon need to shut off the engine in order to conserve fuel. At that point, they might move the wounded to one of the tents popping up on the snowy ground outside.
    Regardless, he sat in the front seat and stared out the frosty windshield, watching the obelisk as it worked. A level near the top spun and then halted; two more levels rotated near the middle but in different directions. They slowed, increased speed, slowed again, and then stopped just as the top level moved once more.
    He kept trying to count the number of moving rings but that proved frustrating; the size of each changed with each movement. Initially he thought seven or eight layers composed the structure, perhaps floors of some kind, each equal in height. Then more movement convinced him that twice that number existed on the structure’s surface, only to see three giant rings move moments later. It was as if the building melded and separated ‘floors’ at whim and with no lines clearly visible, counting the total number of those ‘floors’ remained an impossible, even maddening, task.
    Over time, the erratic movement mesmerized Johnny. He watched for what seemed like thirty minutes, only to find he had, in fact, sat for four hours. Yet he thought he saw a pattern developing; the manner in which certain levels turned, stopped, expanded, and then spun again in the opposite direction. Certainly some arcane mathematical problem was at work as if, yes, as if the obelisk attempted to solve itself.
    As he watched, his mind discerned that pattern. He could not put that pattern into words, he could not explain what he saw or why, but he grew convinced he understood the puzzle, and that soon an entryway would be revealed.
    But where would it open? Closer to one of the enemy armies?
    Reverend Johnny exited the command vehicle to find Jon Brewer. One last sprint remained.

    Each of the three combatants dispatched scouts to circle the obelisk, doing so from a distance armed with sniper rifles and binoculars. The groups traded fire here and there, but no one risked a full scale engagement, at least not before a way through the final obstacle could be found.
    Brewer stood at the front of their camp watching the obelisk rotate, stop, turn, rotate again. Reverend Johnny paced behind him, back and forth and mumbling.
    “Soon, I can feel it coming, soon,” the Revered assured yet again; he had been making such assurances for nearly an hour.
    Jon’s mind wandered. “It feels like it’s getting colder” and he waved his arms side to side to generate body heat. “Maybe because we’ve been stuck here for hours now. All that moving must have helped keep us warm. Exercise and all. It would be nice to get moving again.”
    “I am not responsible for the machinations of this infernal contraption; I am merely sensing a purpose to the otherwise-”
    “Sir!” Fink ran toward Brewer shouting, “Scouts report entrances have appeared in two spots around the object!”
    As the words left Fink’s mouth, Jon saw a force of Wraiths break away from their main group and hurry toward the obelisk. He turned the other direction and saw the Vikings sending a similar party forward.
    He shouted, “Damn it! We’re going to have to fight our way inside!”
    “I think not, General,” Reverend Johnny stopped pacing and pointed.
    All the turning and stopping, reversing and turning again, came to a halt. The puzzle had, indeed, solved itself. A huge black hole of a doorway opened directly in front of the human army camped on the plain of ice.
    General Brewer commanded, “Entry team! Let’s go!” He turned to Casey. “Captain Fink, you stay outside with the troops. If you don’t hear from us in about an hour, or if you have reason to believe we’ve failed, follow us in. Do you understand?”
    “Yes, Sir! Good luck, Sir.”
    Three dozen well-armed soldiers mustered at the front of camp. General Brewer and Reverend Johnny led them toward the opening in the obelisk. That opening stood tall enough to accommodate a Goat-Walker and wide enough to fit eight lanes of traffic.
    As they approached, the massive gate made Jon feel puny; insignificant, like Jack finding the castle after climbing the beanstalk.
    They formed two columns and jogged inside. The soft glow of the midnight sun faded as they followed the huge corridor. However, hundreds of pinpricks of light flickered to life on the dark walls, like stars on a night sky, providing just enough glow to illuminate the passage.
    Boots thumped on a solid floor but despite the height of the ceiling and a hallway that stretched forward seemingly forever, no echo sounded.
    “Cold in here,” Johnny remarked as his breath exhaled in white puffs.
    “Listen,” Brewer held a hand aloft and the column halted. “Do you hear that?”
    A rumble…deep and low as if machinery worked somewhere in the distance ahead. Jon thought he felt a vibration in the wall…
    …Outside, Captain Casey Fink waved his arms and walked the same circular path over and over wearing a track in the snow both in an effort to generate body heat and as a result of nerves. He alternated his attention from the obelisk to the Wraiths off in the distance to his left, to the Vikings off in the distance to the right, and then back to the strange contraption ahead.
    At that moment, the puzzle started again. A thick ring near the top rotated, then one at the bottom in the opposite direction, then a pair in the middle, one slower than the other.
    The door through which Brewer, the Reverend, and their men had entered disappeared…
    …The corridor trembled and the soldiers rocked back and forth. They moved-the entire passageway moved-with mild g-force pushing them toward a side wall.
    A slab of black slid out and blocked the passage ahead. Another did the same behind, this one catching a soldier at rear of the column, shoving him into some unseen groove leaving behind his arms and rifle while the rest of him disappeared, either pulverized or carried off.
    Groans, mumbles, and curses from the men. Jon suddenly felt more claustrophobic than he had during the entire trip on the submarine; he feared the roof-or perhaps the walls-would suddenly slam together and crush his entire team.
    “Dear Lord, we are spinning! The levels are moving again!” Reverend Johnny shouted the obvious.
    Brewer shouted back, “It’s a trap! All this way for a trap!”
    Johnny said, “No, no that’s not right. It’s a puzzle, General! A giant puzzle box made of levels and rings. A combination spinning and turning to different solutions, one that showed us the path. Another to…to…”
    Their movement stopped with a heavy thud as if something locked into place. Every man in the entry team including the Reverend and General Brewer slammed against the wall and fell to the ground, gear scattering and legs wobbling.
    An eruption of noise burst into the hall.
    Clang. Smash. Pop. Bang.
    Over and over again, a sound of grinding, whirring, hissing, machinery.
    Johnny staggered to stand, retrieved his heavy machine gun, and gawked at the flood of light now filling the tall corridor as he finished his thought, “Another to let us in.”
    Brewer regained his feet but struggled to regain his senses.
    The passage opened to chaos incarnate. The heart of the enigma.
    His mind fought to decipher the sight. Huge, inextricable, alien. He took the vision in bits and pieces in an attempt to digest the whole.
    Jon looked up and saw a ceiling so very high above, a ceiling cluttered with piping, gears, tubes, and pillars, some running along the roof, many more hanging down to various heights. Everything moving, pumping, sliding, and rotating.
    He stood on a ring made of some kind of cream-colored metal that traveled the circumference of the massive round chamber, stretching off to either side. Ahead, that ring ended at a short drop off where another ring waited, then another, then another, terraced and descending into the bowels of the structure, each crowded with gears, cranks, wires, pipes, blocks of stone with pulsating veins, and spinning top-like gadgets, and glass balls with electronic explosions inside and huge corkscrews and stretching springs.
    A city-sized machine.
    Jon watched a massive gear as tall as a small skyscraper roll along the lip of one of the rings, matching its teeth to notches in the floor.
    A gargantuan pendulum swung from the shadows, swooped through the mass of machinery, and then disappeared again on the far side of the incredibly huge chamber.
    On the concave walls, long cylinders jetted forth and connected with arcane sockets, some several times larger than a man. Spinning drill-like extensions darted out for unknown reason. Giant rock balls rolled in oversized gutters.
    Like his men, Jon gaped at the sight, paralyzed by the size, complexity, and energy of the place.
    “It’s like…like we’re fleas in a giant Swiss Clock.”
    Reverend Johnny replied, “The Lord has made everything for his own ends, even the wicked for the evil day.”
    A twisting, swooping tunnel encased in some sort of grayish metal or rock worked its way above, through, and around the madness. Jon spied several openings that might be entrances of some type; perhaps this was a thing meant for transportation. A conveyor belt of sorts moved through that tunnel in a stop, start, stop, start again fashion.
    That tunnel rose and turned then descended then turned again like an insane version of the monorail at Disney World. Jon could not see if it traveled all the way to the bottom but it made no difference because the nearest entry port was a distance away.
    From far down beyond the descending platforms came a light seemingly a mile away, its shine somehow seeping through the pandemonium to reach Jon’s eyes.
    The runes.
    “General, do you think we should-” a hailstorm of rail gun rounds cut off Reverend Johnny’s question as the shots ricocheted around the entry team.
    A group of Vikings stood on a jetty higher than Jon’s group and a hundred yards away to their right. Their camouflage ponchos struggled to find the right pattern. Some turned cream like the floor of the rings, others splashed blue resembling the arcs of electricity shooting across parts of the machine, others shaded black, gray, silver, and red in reaction to the various colors found in the chaos.
    “Take cover!” Jon yelled but that cover presented as much danger as bullets.
    “Dear God, we are not alone,” but Johnny did not mean the Vikings. He directed Brewer’s attention in the opposite direction where, in the shadow of a pyramid-shaped metallic structure spitting sparks, gathered a cadre of Wraiths.
    The alien races appeared as confused and intimidated by the gigantic apparatus as the humans. However, the commanders of each of the three groups managed to focus their charges on the mission.
    The Wraiths split into groups. Three hurried toward the transport tunnel, aiming for one of the entry slots. Others descended the rings level by level.
    The Vikings moved carefully, clearing every corner like a SWAT team sweeping a building.
    Jon spread out his force in a picket line and hurried to the next ring. His right flank made contact with the Vikings. One human soldier absorbed a series of rounds in the chest and fell. Another tossed a grenade at the enemy. Its detonation caused a nearby glowing red ball of crystal to explode. The resulting shock wave smashed more machine parts and crippled two Vikings.
    Jon’s left flank engaged several Wraiths. Their screams shattered tubes and chipped pulsating rocks and also killed a soldier.
    Reverend Johnny responded by climbing on top a large glowing block. He fired from his elevated position at the Wraiths, evaporating one and forcing the others to retreat.
    Through it all, the invaders on each side dodged moving walls, swinging hooks, and bursts of energy between power couplings.
    Unit cohesion evaporated, for all the combatants. The chaos of the great machine conspired to eradicate any order as did the constant sniping between enemies. Each of the invading forces deteriorated into smaller groups.
    No one-alien or human- noticed the covers on three compartments near the ceiling slide open.
    Jon, with a trio of soldiers in tow, came to the edge of the ring. The next level sat some six feet below but as he stood at the lip and prepared to leap, he noticed groves that resembled “Look out!” A soldier cried as a massive gear came whirling along the edge like a mammoth wheel.
    Jon and his three comrades jumped for the next level, one did not move fast enough. The groves of the gear caught him, crushed him beneath, and split his body in two, half of which stuck to the metallic surface as it rolled away.
    The chaos of the machine afforded no time to mourn, no moment for reflection. The instant Jon Brewer hit the floor on the next level he had to avoid an extending pole charged with electricity jabbing out from an opening in the terrace wall. Crackling energy singed the top of his crew cut.
    Brewer spoke to the two men on his flanks, “Watkins, Cooper, stick close to me.”
    Watkins-a short fellow with a beard who had been nicknamed ‘the Dwarf’ by some of the men-offered, “There are more of my squad in the area, Sir. I can round them up if you like.”
    “No time, we have to move fast. Just stay on my six.”
    Jon knew he could not waste the time to coordinate the entire team; every second that ticked by meant a Wraith or a Viking could find and imprint the runes first. He suppressed his instinct for military order and gave in to the chaos; the battle for the runes had become one last headlong sprint through this maze of machine with armies dwindling to individuals.
    His adrenaline, his focus, and his fear of failure compelled him forward like a junkie in desperate search of a fix and for Jon Brewer, that fix was the need to prove his courage and worth. Not to Trevor, not to Lori, not to his daughter, but to the ghosts of the men he once abandoned on a battlefield the day Armageddon struck.
    That focus kept him from seeing those three compartments high on the wall in the shadow of the ceiling. From those compartments came yet more madness in the form of three guardians, one flying out in search of targets, the other two walking down the wall on spindly legs, hidden from view by the pieces of the machine they protected.
    Below, a Viking hustled around a mass of wires and rock and came face-to-face with a human soldier who fired and missed, the Viking answered with better accuracy.
    Three Wraiths boarded the conveyor-belt in the transport tube. That belt moved them forward quickly until it stopped at another opening in the tunnel for a short pause not unlike a city bus halting to pick up passengers.
    A human soldier tossed a grenade at their feet. The demons reached for it, but the conveyor belt moved them forward again into the confines of the tunnel where the grenade exploded with a muffled boom.
    Meanwhile, Reverend Johnny ran and jumped across the top of machine parts with his big gun sweeping for targets. He watched humans and Wraiths and Vikings worm through the maze of machinations.
    He saw a Wraith impaled by a spear-like device. He saw a Viking fall into an open hole followed immediately by a large rock with pulsating veins dropped into that same hole where it certainly crushed the alien.
    Reverend Johnny glanced down and locked his eyes on the black sockets of a Wraith staring up at him. The vile fiend opened its long mouth and began its deadly scream.
    “Shut up!” Johnny’s shout lacked his usual elegance but his machine gun provided its usual lethality.
    Further away in the space between two house-sized bricks, a Viking soldier found his path suddenly blocked by some mechanical monstrosity walking on three legs supporting a round center piece. On that centerpiece, a track holding a long blade that spun around the body of the thing like a helicopter rotor.
    Before the alien realized exactly what he faced, the guardian wobbled forward and cut him into smaller parts. As those parts fell to the floor, the poncho finally settled on a color: red.
    Beneath a canopy of meshed wires, a Wraith screamed at a human soldier, exploding his head. But as the body fell, a new threat flew through the air directly at the demonic creature. The confused Wraith saw a sphere slightly larger than a beach ball with a ring of jagged blades around its center and the upper half covered by a large eye that appeared more biological than mechanical. The bottom half spun fast as if providing the propulsion needed for flight.
    A moment later, a powder-filled cloak fluttered to the ground with a round hole in its chest.
    Jon emerged from the forest of energy towers with Watkins and Cooper to either side. They came to the end of yet another of the terraced rings. Below them waited the next level, the next step closer to the runes.
    “Okay, let’s jump down, and watch for surprises.”
    Cooper jumped and landed safely. Jon did the same, and then turned to watch for Watkins, who stepped off the ledge but stopped in mid air with a scream coming from his lips.
    Something resembling a hose had grabbed the short man and hauled him back up to the ridge above. That hose-like tendril came from one panel of the diamond-shaped third guardian.
    It took Jon a long moment to realize that what grabbed his man was not just another mechanical menace from the giant machine, but a separate entity that killed on purpose, not as a side effect.
    This guardian walked on spidery legs while the bottom half of its bronze colored, diamond-shaped metallic body sported eyes on all four sides. It made a sound like a wind-up toy or perhaps the workings of a cuckoo clock preparing to chime.
    “Aim for the arms or whatever those things are,” Jon ordered Cooper while Watkins struggled in the grip of the creature.
    Before bullets fired, the guardian’s diamond-body unhinged at the mid-point revealing metallic teeth that tore away Watkins’ head, beard and all. The hoses then released the decapitated body. It bounced off the ridge and tumbled to Jon’s feet.
    Cooper pulled the trigger on his M16, hitting the guardian with several rounds. It retreated out of sight, back into the forest of towers.
    With the creature gone-for now-Cooper stopped firing, pulled a crucifix from beneath his white parka, and while he rubbed it between his finger and thumb he asked his General, “What the hell was that?”
    “Wow. I don’t know but keep moving, keep-”
    Jon pushed Cooper to the ground just in time to avoid a sharp plate swinging neck-high through the machinery…
    …Reverend Johnny continued running atop of the mechanisms but he did so with great caution; he found electrified sockets and holes filled with sharp prongs on many of the blocks, spheres, and pillars he jumped to and from. A risk worth taking in exchange for such an improved view of the terrain.
    Off to his right he spotted a lone soldier walking toward a set of massive pistons where four Vikings waited in ambush.
    “Hey! I say there! Fall back!”
    The Reverend’s voice was one of the few man-made sounds capable of rising above the cacophony of clicks, rumbles, buzzes, and clangs.
    On Johnny’s advice, the man retreated.
    The Reverend then steadied his machine gun and fired a burst in the direction of those Vikings. Two suffered grievous wounds, the other two ran away.
    However, as he fired at those aliens, behind him a Wraith climbed onto the rectangular box on which Johnny stood. The creature struck with a bony back hand and sent Johnny to his stomach and his gun sliding out of reach.
    The monstrosity gawked at its victim, perhaps savoring an easy kill. Its mouth stretched unbelievably wide, like a snake planning to gobble a meal twice its size.
    Suddenly, everything inside the cloak exploded into powder. The sound of rifle fire came next. Not until the empty cape fell to the ground did Johnny realized that someone had come to his rescue this time.
    He rose to a knee and saw that the soldier he had saved from the Vikings had returned the favor. The man had climbed on top of a marble-colored box for a clear shot.
    “I say there! Thank y-WATCH OUT!”
    A crescent-shaped pendulum the size of a yacht and attached to an incomprehensibly long arm arced down from the ceiling behind the soldier. Its pointed end slammed into the fellow’s back, scooping him up and then propelling him off into the air at great speed and height before his body disappeared into the patchwork of machine parts on the level below.
    “Lord have mercy.”
    Johnny bowed his head in a silent prayer before retrieving his weapon and returning to the task at hand…
    …The trio of Wraiths did not see the Viking as he jumped down behind them from the level above. He raised his rifle to shoot the three of them in the back, but a pillar of stone slammed to the floor from the ceiling, crushing him and his now crimson-colored poncho. The pillar then slowly withdrew upwards with the flattened body of the alien stuck to its underside like a crushed mouse on an elephant foot.
    The Wraiths-unaware of their good fortune-continued lower, deeper, into the machine toward the runes…
    …The diamond-shaped guardian stalked through a field of cables and mushroom-shaped power nodes. Jon and Cooper opened fire from the hiding spots they chose for the ambush. Their assault rifle shots first sparked against the thing’s metallic exterior before finding and goring one of its four eyes.
    “That’s the sweet spot! Keep firing!”
    Carbine fire cleared away the mess revealing a sick combination of animal organs and mechanical gears. Finally those bullets scored a critical hit. The guardian collapsed…
    …A squad of Vikings followed a ramp surrounded by banks of chattering levers engaged in some unfathomable task. The guardian with the spinning blade wobbled around the bend in front of the aliens and sliced in half the two at the front of the unit.
    Before the pieces of their bodies hit the ground, the rest of the squad opened fire with their magnetic rail guns. The powerful blasts punched dents in its spherical body but failed to strike a lethal blow.
    In the name of the cause, a Viking junior officer activated an explosive device on his ammunition belt and ran toward the beast in a suicidal charge. He and the guardian exploded together, leaving a pile of gore on the ramp and the robot’s big blade wedged in a mass of machinery…
    …Jon and Cooper reached the edge of another ring. From their position they could see two more rings of crazy machine but, beyond that and visible through a rare gap in the clutter, they also saw the final destination.
    Far below at the center of the descending rings glowed a circle of light. In that circle stood two objects about six feet tall with one round orb on top of each.
    Jon stopped and stared at the runes. Could that truly be the end of this crazy mission? Had Trevor actually been right about all this?
    “Sir, look out!”
    A Wraith shared the platform with the two humans, its mouth wide open and its deadly scream bellowing out from its demon heart.
    A massive column shot out from the wall as fast as a bullet, hitting, pushing, and tossing the Wraith off the ledge and twirling through the air where its body disintegrated to ashes and sprinkled down over the gears, sprockets, and flashing lights on the ring below.
    From the opposite direction came a group of Vikings, their ponchos colored in a collection of shades ranging from white to blue to tan.
    “We need to keep moving.”
    “Whatever you say, Sir.”
    “That’s the spirit, Coop.”
    “Not really. I’m just scared shitless.”
    The men jumped to the next level…
    …Only three Wraiths remained inside the obelisk because the flying guardian with the buzz-saw midriff had decimated their numbers. It honed in on the trio.
    The Wraiths gathered at the edge of a maze of granite blocks linked with shimmering electric cables. The guardian dive-bombed toward the group as their jaws elongated and their song of destruction began to play.
    Sharp, spinning blades sliced off a skeletal head as the great machine’s flying sentry made its pass. An empty cloak sans hood fell to the floor.
    The two remaining creatures entered the maze as the buzz saw swooped around in pursuit and followed them in.
    Just as it closed for a kill, its target darted to the side with surprising agility. The round attacker bounced off a wall, hovered in the air for a second as if dazed, and then continued the chase.
    Both Wraiths emerged from the maze onto the open ground overlooking the runes, overlooking the prize. One turned to face the exit of the maze and screamed despite no enemy in sight.
    With a whirr and a clang, the guardian rounded the last bend in the maze and flew along the exit path, into the cone of the Wraith’s scream.
    Perfect timing.
    The flying machine sparked and exploded into harmless shards.
    The victorious Wraith cocked its head, turned to its partner, and gawked its black maw in a devil’s grin of satisfaction.
    The two robed creatures descended toward the runes…
    …Jon fired his carbine to his right as he ran toward the last ridge of the last ring.
    The runes waited below.
    He fired at three Vikings running parallel to his sprint. Cooper did the same, a few steps behind his General.
    A bullet found its target, causing an alien to stumble and roll over the edge of the ring as its arms and covered head twitched and shook in death spasms.
    One of the poncho’d Vikings lobbed an explosive charge. The detonation delivered a powerful concussion. Jon sprawled to the floor and lost his rifle in the spill. He watched helplessly as it slid forward and over the edge.
    He heard Cooper scream and turned to see the man rolling on the floor holding a badly wounded knee. At that moment, Jon realized he was on his own…
    …In the center of a cone of light waited the runes. Two rough pillars resembling gray stalagmites six feet tall and nearly four feet apart from one another each fixed into a small base of similar material. Whoever or whatever forged the odd device also carved strange symbols on the pillars.
    At the top of each pillar was a round silver ball that resembled metal or something similar.
    Jon knew what he had to do. So did the Wraiths. So did the Vikings.
    The world’s fate…humanity’s future…depended on Jon Brewer-now unarmed and exhausted-reaching the ‘runes’ first.
    The two Wraiths jumped the final ledge and approached the pillars from the left. Two Vikings did the same from the right.
    One Wraith raised its lethal voice and enveloped a Viking with its scream, popping the brown-colored hood and creating a fountain of blood.
    The remaining Viking stopped, knelt for improved accuracy, and pulled the trigger of his rail gun. The projectile slammed into a Wraith’s shoulder, causing it to spin and twist while at the same time evaporating to dust.
    He fired once more for the remaining enemy but missed as the creature retreated.
    The alien stood and raced for the great prize that was now for his taking…only to be stopped as strong hands grasped his shoulders and spun him around where Jon Brewer’s fist smashed into the poncho hood just below the invader’s goggles.
    As the alien struggled with consciousness, Brewer yanked the rail gun from its grip and swung the rifle like a club, smashing his foe in the neck and causing the alien to tumble to the floor.
    His head filled with an ungodly vibration as the remaining Wraith returned and attacked. He felt his skull tremble and his brain expand like a balloon filling with helium.
    The noise stopped. Jon fell to a knee and, out the corner of his eye, saw a pile of chalky particles and an empty cloak where his assailant had stood.
    He felt something wet in his ear; blood no doubt, and the vibration that had assaulted his mind still echoed through his bones. Still, he lived and when he heard Reverend Johnny’s booming voice shouting down from the ridge above, he knew why.
    “I have a penchant for dramatic entrances, General Brewer, but even I admit that was too close for comfort!”
    He found the strength to stand and glanced behind and above him. There stood Johnny with the barrel of his heavy machine gun still smoking.
    Brewer waved and found his voice. “Cooper is up there somewhere; hit pretty bad, check on him.”
    Johnny nodded in understanding and went off in search of the wounded man.
    Brewer forced himself to regain control over his body and faced the runes at the center of the city-sized chamber.
    If he were not so exhausted…if he were not so banged up…if he did not have such a goddamn headache…perhaps he would have been afraid of what he had to do. As was the case, he just did it, with very little thought.
    Jon placed one hand on each of the silver globes at the top of the pillars and found that they were not metal but, rather, felt more like clay.
    Everything stopped.
    Every single piece of machinery in the obelisk.
    Every sound.
    The orbs sucked at his hands and held them as if making a plaster cast of his fingers. He felt a tingle in those finger tips…then hands…then wrists…then up his arms. He shimmied and shook and shut his eyes thinking the device planned to electrocute him.
    Images flashed one after another in a warped slide show for his mind’s eye.
    He saw faces of aliens and the worlds they originated from. He saw bent glowing trees and boiling oceans; he saw planets surrounded in crisscrossing rings and red giants burning their rays into cracked earth.
    He saw cities carved into the sides of blue-rock mountains and homes grown from glowing crystals.
    Then he saw Earth, the beautiful blue and white globe that had become a battleground.
    Then he felt the gateways being shut down.
    Felt it.
    The invaders were cut off.
    The orbs released Jon’s hands but they were not yet done with their work.
    A roar of energy built around the runes. Ghosts of images from other worlds danced about; but they were only ghosts, flickering images echoing across dimensions.
    Strange creatures. Some of which he recognized from five years of fighting, others he had never seen.
    They were not there in the enigma; they were on their home worlds but for a short time the door between those worlds and dimensions became more a window.
    Jon tried watch but he was interrupted. The Viking warrior had recovered from his pummeling. He was not happy and he was not a ghost.
    The shorter alien smacked Jon hard with a fist, then another, then reached up and grabbed Brewer’s throat.
    The General struggled to pull the hands from his neck but could not escape the alien’s potent grip.
    As he felt his wind pipe crush, Jon Brewer saw the face of his wife, Lori, and heard her words.
    You come home to me and your little girl. You come home.
    He had not traveled thousands of miles by air, in a submarine, and across the Arctic Circle…done battle with skyscraper-sized demons and subterranean sharks…only to choke to death in the hands of one short little alien bastard.
    No. I’m going home today.
    He brought a knee into the extraterrestrial’s gut then butted his aching head into the enemy’s poncho just above the goggles.
    This time the grip released.
    “Fuck…” Jon landed a solid left then a devastating right hook. The alien staggered as its goggles slipped crooked from the blows. He then kicked his big boot into the shorter alien’s chest.
    The kick sent the Viking backwards hard and fast and between the pillars.
    Jon watched in amazement at what happened next.
    As the alien stumbled between those pillars, his body broke apart atom by atom and then disappeared. A moment later, that same Viking warrior joined the collection of ghostly images around the runes.
    Jon got it. He understood.
    The runes might control-and now shut down-the gateways coming to Earth, but they also served as an exit home. A one-way ticket for aliens to their point of origin.
    He gaped at the runes and mumbled, “Wow.”
    Then another surprise.
    A wall of energy blasted out from the runes in all directions, encompassing the entire city-sized structure and expanding even further…
    …Outside on the ice cap, Captain Fink and his men as well as the remaining Wraiths and Vikings saw this wall of energy roll out from the obelisk as if it were a tsunami. He instinctively raised his hand and a scream escaped his lips as the force enveloped the human camp as well as the aliens to either side.
    It passed through him and continued on for another mile or so across the frozen wastelands before evaporating.
    “What in the name of Jesus was that?” He spoke aloud but even before he finished the words something more interesting grabbed his attention.
    The Wraiths. The Vikings.
    …Everything went silent. The gears and wires and pendulums froze. No energy flowed in the complex except for whatever powered the lights.
    The enigma was solved. The walls of the structure locked open. Cold air filtered in from outside.
    Brewer saw his hand print forever sealed in the top of each orb, marking this world for humanity.
    The General collapsed to his knees, then to the floor, and rolled over on his back.
    At first it sounded like a sob but as it grew in volume it became a laugh. A laugh from Jon Brewer’s lips.
    With the machinery now silent, he heard the voices of the surviving members of the entry team. He also heard the unmistakable voice of Reverend Johnny somewhere on the ridge above tending to Cooper: “Easy does it…easy does it…you’ll be okay, praise the Lord.”
    Jon Brewer closed his eyes and saw his daughter’s face.
    “I’m coming home, sweat pea. I’m coming home.”

24. Ten ‘Til Midnight

    “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil water-way leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky-seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”
    — Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
    A long-term storage facility served as the center point of the Hivvan supply depot at Dillon.
    Stonewall directed his division’s advance in multiple prongs, with the main force using a railroad line as its avenue of approach. His troops penetrated deep into Dillon uncontested and then charged at the dome-shaped alien structures that served as a Hivvan logistics hub.
    A rearguard of two Firecats and fifty or so light infantry remained, but the alien defenders broke, ran, or were killed by one of General Garret McAllister’s famous cavalry charges.
    The 2 ^ nd Mechanized Infantry Division secured Dillon moving block to block and house to house where they found nearly one-hundred human slaves alive and in hiding. They found three times that number dead in the street, executed minutes before liberation.
    McAllister’s men also searched those dome-shaped warehouses that had channeled materials north and east for the lizards’ Grand Army. They found an impressive stock of ammunition, energy cells, vehicle spare parts, and Hivvan military clothing; a sign that the matter transfiguration equipment in Columbia produced a tremendous quantity of materials.
    Stonewall dismounted his horse in the parking lot of the Dillon Church of God where his headquarters unit set up camp. Benny Duda supervised the unloading of equipment from a cargo truck while others hurried inside to establish an aid station as well as a communications center.
    Kristy Kaufman, flanked by cavalry soldiers, approached, dismounted, saluted, and reported, “General, Sir, we have established checkpoints around the perimeter of the city and have completed the first wave of neighborhood sweeps. We killed two Hivvan snipers down by the cemetery, but otherwise our men faced no opposition within the city limits.”
    “And Captain McBride?”
    “Dustin’s patrol went as far south as Latta where they spotted the remainder of the Hivvan rearguard. He says they showed no signs of looking for a fight.”
    “It is good news all around then. Splendid.”
    “Mission accomplished, General,” Kristy said, and then added with a wry smile, “Maybe next time they’ll give you something a little more challenging.”
    “Oh, now, let’s be careful what we wish for, Captain Kaufman. Our victory here will be short lived if General Shepherd does not-how should I say this? — get his ass moving. We still must march to the sea to seal the pocket once we receive word that Conway has been occupied.”
    “Now General, Sir, that is tomorrow’s worry. Today we can take satisfaction in yet another victory.” She then deepened her voice in an imitation of Bear Ross and shouted, “Three cheers for the General!”
    The cavalry soldiers and headquarters staff raised their voice and pumped their fists.
    Their General was, after all, the one and only Stonewall McAllister.

    While Nina Forest spent the day shopping with Denise Cannon and Jon Brewer fought his way through a city-sized machine, Trevor Stone walked along Route 17 toward the enclave of New Winnabow.
    He traveled alone with no dogs, no soldiers, no planes or tanks.
    As he neared the settlement, he saw a new, more robust checkpoint complete with crude tank traps made from scrap metal and razor wire slung haphazardly over wood supports.
    New Winnabow, it seemed, prepared for battle.
    Rifles and pistols cocked and aimed as he approached the checkpoint. Trevor saw the hands holding those weapons shiver. He walked alone and unarmed toward their barbed wire and their loaded guns yet they were afraid of him.
    How ironic, he thought considering how much New Winnabow scared the Hell out of him. He wondered, what kind of monster am I classified as in their Hostiles Database?
    He did so, and raised his empty hands in the air.
    The guards would not let him pass. Instead, Robert Parsons came to the checkpoint. The two leaders stood face to face in the center of the road under an afternoon sun.
    “I am giving no more tours, Mr. Stone. Unless you have come here to bid us farewell, you are not welcome.”
    “You know why I am here.”
    “Ah yes, this would be the point at which you threaten us, correct? Now you will tell us how much destruction you will visit upon our town if we do not relent.”
    Stone corrected, “No, I’m here to beg you. To ask your permission to allow us to march through your village for a good cause. What does it take? We have reached the end. The clock will soon strike midnight. This must be resolved here, now.”
    “I have told you, we shall not let you pass. This is our home and we control what happens here. No army shall march on our streets. We would become a part of your war and it would be the first step on a path we refuse to follow. It would be the beginning of our end.”
    Trevor did not debate, he only said, “You are giving me no choice.”
    The older man’s eyes widened. Clearly Trevor’s words angered him. “You have a choice! Stop being so arrogant for a moment and listen to yourself.”
    “Arrogant?” Stone matched Parson’s anger. “Who is arrogant?”
    “You are! You arrogantly assume that your needs-your goals-are loftier than ours. You want us to put aside what is important to our community to make way for you. That is arrogance!”
    “You far surpass my vanity,” Stone said in a subdued voice conveying a mix of anger and sadness. “You say I am arrogant? Look at yourself. You know what might happen to your city. Yet you put your own pride above the good of your people. A leader must have ideals, this is true, but a leader must also know what battles to fight, and when to stand down.”
    Parsons scoffed, “You would say anything to have your way.”
    “I would say anything to save my people. I will do anything to further the cause. If that means retreat, then I will retreat. If that means attack, then I will attack. If that means to demean myself or risk my life or give up what I value most…well I have done all of that already. But you…you are obviously not willing to sacrifice anything for the greater good.”
    “The greater good means nothing without principles.”
    “Wrong,” Trevor corrected. “The survival of our species is at stake. The only greater good that matters right now is ensuring we do not go extinct. That is the responsibility I bear. If that means I must destroy your city, I will do so.”
    “And there is the threat.”
    “Not a threat, Mr. Parsons. A forgone conclusion.”
    “And so it begins again. Congratulations, Trevor, you will start the first human on human war of the new world. I wonder how your people will take to that? How will history remember the name ‘Trevor Stone?’ If you attack, we will defend ourselves. My people are united on this. My council has given me their unanimous consent. We have guns and bullets. Your side will suffer casualties, too.”
    “I know.”
    “That blood will be on your hands. All that happens here will be your burden.”
    “I have…” Trevor thought, “…many such burdens.”
    “Go away, Emperor. Go away and do not come back. Not only for the sake of my people, but for your sake. I do not think you are a bad man, Trevor, but if you do this thing then you will regret it for the rest of your life.”
    Stone watched as Parsons turned and walked away, passing the checkpoint and returning to town.
    Trevor felt sorry for Robert Parsons and the people of New Winnabow because they did not comprehend the horror at their doorstep. He felt sorry for his own damned soul because he did.

    Shepherd walked out of his command tent on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 2 ^ nd and stood at the side of Route 17. His division had been encamped at Spring Hill for more than a week.
    At first, his men welcomed the respite after the fighting at Raleigh and the fast march to Wilmington. Those who did not have relatives following in the gypsy-like caravan of ‘groupies’ to the division’s rear used the time to write letters home. Others indulged hobbies such as art or music. Impromptu comedy acts and even plays popped up across camp. Whatever the choice, the first few days served as a nice rest for the boys.
    However, the time dragged and morale suffered. Nerves frayed. Touch football games turned into tackle, poker games deteriorated into brawls, and boxing matches replaced talent shows.
    Shepherd knew his men were restless. They had fought their way south. They had survived the battle of Raleigh. They had continued forward, poised to strike into the heart of the Hivvan holdings on Earth. Their bodies and minds remained tensed for combat.
    If the order came through to stand down for re-fitting and R amp;R, great, the men would know that the action was over for a time. A brief rest for some chow and sleep? Also great.
    But they had none of that surety. They only knew that they were supposed to be marching, but did not. They knew they should be engaging the Hivvans, but instead remained stationary in the middle of no where with no purpose, no goal, no sense of what was to come.
    Shepherd rolled his neck around on his shoulders to work out a stiff spot, a sign of his own nerves. Those nerves came from intelligence briefings.
    Recent reports clearly showed that the Hivvans had found their footing inside the pocket. Several formations had regrouped and were re-supplying via convoys from Conway. While 1 ^ st Mech waited at Spring Hill, the enemy corps changed from bands of defeated stragglers wandering in the wilderness of central North Carolina, to combat groups mustering for a fight.
    The balance of power was shifting. If the supplies from Conway continued to flow, the idea of a Hivvan counter-attack on Raleigh could become a reality. At this point, and with the 1 ^ st and 2 ^ nd Mechanized Divisions in their current positions, such a blow could set the war back a year; maybe two.
    Shep closed his eyes and envisioned the colored markers on his strategic maps. He saw an invigorated Hivvan force reverse direction from retreat to attack. He saw them smash the garrison units at Raleigh and the frantic recall of both himself and Stonewall before it was their divisions cut off from supply.
    The front would completely collapse and the aliens might push as far as the Virginia border before reserve forces or maybe Prescott‘s 1 ^ st Armored could be called in to plug the leak, assuming enough fuel and supplies remained to allow operations of that scale.
    Shepherd opened his eyes and spoke aloud to no one but himself.
    “Easy…easy does it. Just wait a second.”
    He reminded himself that one fundamental truth remained in his favor. The Hivvans depended on one supply point now. If Shepherd took out that junction, the enemy would be choked off. They could not move toward Raleigh. No matter how well organized, every army-even alien armies-needed food, bullets, artillery shells, and fuel. They would be trapped and subjected to artillery bombardment and a tightening noose of infantry.
    He could reach Conway from New Winnabow in a day or two and finish the job they started, but only if they got moving. Shep knew Stone had flown to Parson’s town that afternoon and he expected the situation would be resolved today.
    Cassy Simms ran toward him calling, “General Shepherd!”
    “Yes, Captain, what do you got?”
    “Sir, I just got off the horn with T-A-C. They told me Eagle One cleared local air space heading back north.”
    “What? Why the hell didn’t he stop here? We’re just sitting around waiting for orders and he skips right over us and flies home? Did you receive any news?”
    “No, Sir.”
    “This is god damn ridiculous! We can’t sit around here any longer. We’ve either got to go forward or turn for home.”
    She said, “No orders came through. The only reason I even heard about this is because T-A-C had to coordinate air cover for Eagle One through our sector.”
    Shep clenched his teeth and grunted. Cassy Simms retreated a step, perhaps afraid the General might literally explode.
    He told her, “I need air transport, now.”
    “Where are you going, General?”
    “To the estate to talk to Trevor Stone. One way or another, this has to end.”

    The white airship codenamed Eagle One landed in a paved parking area adjacent to the cluster of single-story buildings comprising the Belville Elementary School. A white wooden fence and big green lawns around the school gave the place more the feeling of a retirement ranch or country-themed motel than a school. However, the smashed windows and the overturned bus chased away any peaceful ambiance.
    Route 133 ran by the school’s front entrance. On the opposite side of that road was another parking lot for a boat launch accessing the Brunswick River. A Blackhawk transport helicopter had landed there; three soldiers milled around under the silent rotors.
    Captain Nina Forest walked alongside Trevor Stone as the two paced the center line of Route 133, the middle ground between their respective rides. The sun hovered just above the horizon, prepared to make its final journey into twilight. That, combined with the isolated location, the thick forest to each horizon, and the nature of their discussion, made the time feel more like night than day.
    “Do you understand your orders?”
    Nina nodded.
    He thought, do you understand that I am using you again? The only thing you can give me now is your killing nature.
    Trevor knew she did not remember the time five years ago when he unleashed her to slaughter the Red Hand tribes infesting northeastern Pennsylvania and threatening his estate. He had been mean to her then; cold, punishing her for the blackness in his own heart.
    Now he felt regret, even guilt, for sending her on a mission such as this. Since the theft of her memories, she was merely a tool in his arsenal.
    My sword.
    On his orders, she had killed countless aliens. He wondered if she would see the task at hand in a different light.
    “Captain Forest, do you have any reservations about the objectives or parameters of this mission?”
    Judging by her reaction, his words smacked her nearly as hard as a punch.
    “Sir, of course not, Sir.”
    “Those aren’t Hivvans out there, or Red Hands.”
    Nina asked him an interesting question: “Are they your enemies?”
    That gave him pause. She did not ask if they were enemies of humanity but if they were Trevor Stone’s enemies, a more personal consideration. He nearly said ‘no’ but that would have merely been a nice lie. From the moment Robert Parsons decided to place New Winnabow between Trevor Stone and the cause he served, they had, in fact, become his enemies.
    “Then we’ll get the job done. You can count on us, Sir. Have the other arrangements been made?”
    “Yes,” Trevor told her. “You may hear some chatter from local commanders between now and morning. Ignore it. They’ll have their answers soon enough.”
    She understood.
    Nina saluted, turned around, and returned to her side of the road.
    “Nina,” he surprised her by speaking her first name. “Good luck.”
    A few moments later, the Blackhawk and the Eagle lifted from the ground and went their separate ways.

25. Midnight

    Trevor sat back in his chair and gazed at the maps and written orders and statistics scattered across the top of his huge desk. All the trappings of an Emperor. His power measured in letters and numbers.
    Outside the balcony doors, the sky remained pitch black although dawn would soon rise.
    Inside his office on the second floor of the mansion, the only light came from the desk lamp, the glow of which cast over the gray mustache and hair of General Jerry Shepherd as he stood before his Emperor.
    “Trevor, did you hear what I said?”
    He answered in a mumble, “Yes, I heard you. I understand completely.”
    Among the papers and maps on Trevor’s desk sat the most recent intelligence report. The Hivvans inside the pocket now received massive resupply through Conway. With these supplies and improving communications, that alien army would certainly strike at Raleigh in a few days.
    Shepherd repeated, “If Parsons lets us through today, we can still complete the mission in time. Otherwise we have to pull back now so we don’t get our asses handed to us. I flew all the way up here because I have to have an answer, one way or the other.”
    Trevor did not answer. He looked at the papers, he looked at the glowing lamp, he looked at the place on the floor where the half-brother he had not known existed died a few days ago.
    For every Sir Lancelot in your blood, there’s a Genghis Kahn.
    A soft rap on the door drew both men’s attention. Dante Jones walked into the glow of the desk lamp.
    “I heard you were in town,” Jones said to Shepherd. “Then I saw the light.”
    “Good, you should be here,” Trevor said and he stood up from his chair.
    Jones’ eyes narrowed. He looked to Trevor to Shepherd, then back to Trevor again.
    “Wait a second. Trevor, you can’t be considering blasting through New Winnabow. Are you? You can’t do that.”
    Shepherd said nothing. Trevor asked, “Why’s that, Dante?”
    “No…no,” the idea horrified him. He ran a hand over his forehead as if the temperature in the room suddenly rose to sauna levels. “I’ve been there. I’ve seen them. They’re people. They are human, like us. There has to be another way. We can find an alternate route. Maybe negotiate with them.”
    Trevor’s voice remained calm as he replied, “We’re out of time, Dante.”
    “Trevor, I know you. I knew you back when you were Richard. The man I’ve known all my life can’t murder innocent civilians. Not for any reason. You have to find another way.”
    “The Dark Wolves are already in the air.”
    Again Dante alternated his eyes between the silent General Shepherd and Trevor.
    “What? Wait. Look, Trevor, Nina can’t take that town by herself. You need an army to do that. Trev, don’t do this.”
    “It’s already done.”
    Dante paced out of the glow of the light and then back in. He held his hands up as if trying to grab an idea that eluded him. He gasped in frustration, but then his eyes widened and he asked Shepherd, “Have you received marching orders?”
    Shepherd’s answer came in the slow shake of his head ‘no’.
    Dante looked to Trevor again and said, “There’s time. Shep’s army is still camped at Spring Hill. You can recall the Wolves. Stop this!”
    Trevor gazed vacantly at something the other men could not see and told them, “I have more than one army…”
    …The wind roared in Nina’s ear as she and her human team members dropped out of the night, exiting the airplane at extreme altitude and holding their chutes until the last possible moment in a tactic known as a H.A.L.O. drop. An old school insertion technique for a new type of war.
    As the air buffeted her body in freefall, she felt a sense of euphoria, as if liberated. An illusion, she knew; gravity still held her in its grasp even if that grasp did not feel so strong.
    Her goggles and gear wiggled and a few soft clanks and clings managed to reach her ear despite the roar of wind. Her body cut through a curtain of misty white clouds giving her the sensation of falling through a floor. On the other side, she faced a void of black stretching off in all directions, making any visual estimate of altitude impossible. She relied, instead, on the instruments strapped to her forearm.
    As she and her fellow wolves descended, a few pinpricks of lights appeared below. She knew one to be a watch tower, another a gate, yet another torches outside the council chambers’ entrance.
    Not much, but enough to provide guidance to their landing zone.
    At the right moment- the last possible moment — the chutes deployed.
    It was an abrupt end to a glorious fall that had felt more like flight. The harness straps pulled at and bruised her shoulders. Her equipment jingled and jangled from the sudden deceleration.
    Unseen in the black of night, the four figures drifted to the ground far behind the check points on the road, far behind the guard posts and watch tower. One by one the Dark Wolves landed inside the stadium at the center of The Commons in the heart of New Winnabow…
    …Trevor’s office door pushed open. Jorge Benjamin Stone’s tiny frame staggered in wearing powder blue pajamas adorned with smiling teddy bears. He held his stuffed rabbit-Bunny-wrapped in its tiny blanket close to his chest as he stepped into the room, stopped, and yawned a big wide yawn.
    Then the little boy’s eyes grew sharp and his lips clamped together tight as he looked at each of the three men in the room one after another. His survey complete, JB walked quickly behind the desk next to his father and spoke to Dante Jones and Jerry Shepherd.
    “There’s nothing left to say… you should go.”
    In another time or another place, such a bold statement from a three year old child would not go unchallenged, but in that dark office at that dark time, his words were accepted because, in truth, the boy was right.
    Shepherd tapped the desk top with his finger and tried to make eye contact with Trevor, but the Emperor kept focused on the desk. So he patted Dante on the shoulder before exiting the office on his way back to his division.
    Dante held his eyes shut for a moment and then walked for the door. He paused before leaving.
    “You know you were right. About our name; what to call us. I think I finally realized that it really does fit.”
    Trevor turned and gazed out the balcony doors. The clouds in the distance started to glow in soft orange, but it was not yet sunrise…
    …Oliver Maddock’s face hid behind a balaclava and he wore black BDUs to make him just another shadow in the dark as he moved through the tight alleys of The Commons.
    Crickets chirping, an occasional gust of breeze causing something to rattle, the beat of his heart, these were the sounds that came to his ears. Most of the people of New Winnabow still slept, particularly in The Commons area. That would not last, however. The people here often woke at first light.
    Soft drops of dew formed on the black metal of his silenced MP5 and a chill in the air turned his exhales a frosty white.
    Maddock slipped across a small intersection and into another cramped side street, this one behind the main council building. He crept flush against one wooden wall of a barn-like structure until he came to a long, sliding door. A soft light slipped out from underneath.
    Oliver raised his weapon in one hand and found a grip on the metal door handle with the other. He took a deep breath, and then rolled the door open.
    A lamp burning some type of improvised oil lit the chamber inside. Two men sat at a folding table, rifles at their feet and a chess board holding their attention. A third man stood nearby with his foot atop a locker and his arms crossed as he watched the match.
    Maddock immediately recognized the standing man as Brad Case, the youngest member of the New Winnabow council.
    All three turned to the door with smiles, expecting a friendly visitor. Before they fully realized the mistake, a series of sharp pops came from the intruder’s gun.
    A forehead shattered, a neck exploded, and a chest turned red from a shot through the heart.
    Maddock dimmed the lamp to off, slid the door closed, and returned to the shadows…
    …Elizabeth Doss stepped out the back door of the small house she and her husband called home. She had helped build the place with her own hands, starting with searching the scrap of old Winnabow for usable materials, and then hammering, sawing, bolting, and painting alongside the rest of the work party.
    In turn, she helped other families raise their homes, turning empty land into a colony.
    She wore a heavy sweater knit by a friend who ran a clothing swap on the outskirts of town and walked in boots scavenged from an Army amp; Navy store.
    Each morning the councilwoman awoke before her husband and tended to the tiny garden in their back yard where rows of white and yellow flowers struggled to survive. She saw the flowers as a symbol of the community and as such devoted many morning hours to their care.
    In the center of her yard stood a round stone well dug by city engineers last spring. It saved her a half-hour round trip to the main community well. She thanked those engineers by growing them fresh tomatoes this past summer, although half the crop fell victim to rabbits (which, in turn, made for good stew).
    She admired her flowers for a moment and then moved to the well, a lullaby hummed from her lips.
    As she reached for the water pail, a cord pulled taut around her neck, drawing blood as it dug into her skin and coiled across her windpipe.
    No air could escape; no sound, no breath. Her life drained way as Vince Caesar dragged her body toward the tool shed next to the back door.
    With no one to water them, the flowers of the garden would eventually wither and die…
    …A creak in the old staircase caused Carl Bly to pause his ascent in case the noise alerted the house to the intruder. He waited and watched his surroundings through night vision goggles. The home stayed dark and, judging by the nasal snore coming from behind the door at the top of the stairs, his target remained sound asleep.
    Bly wondered, if they did wake up, what would they do? Scream? Sound the alarm? Raise the garrison?
    None of that could save Gunther Faust. None of that would stop the chain reaction already in motion.
    Bly risked another step. No creak this time. He felt it safe to complete his task.
    He reached the bedroom door at the top of the stairs and slowly turned the brass knob. The latch clicked and a squeak came from the handle as he opened the door a crack, just enough for the long silencer attached to his pistol to poke into the master bedroom.
    Gunther Faust stirred awake, blinked his eyes, and raised his head from the goose-down pillow.
    A solitary silenced shot hit the elderly councilman in the head. His brains splattered against the oak bed board, the remaining half of his skull dropped to the pillow, a crimson stream dribbled over the white linens.
    His sleeping wife instinctively rolled near and draped an arm across her husband’s dead chest…
    …Dawn threatened.
    The first streaks of light reached over the eastern horizon and made the drifting clouds glow white and orange.
    Below those clouds in the middle of a golden field lived the enclave of New Winnabow. Its wood and brick and stone structures appeared both old and brand new at the same time, like a historical village preserved as a tourist attraction.
    The residents stirred awake to a chilly September morning. They left their homes and dormitories to tend to farmland, open stores, and feed livestock. For a few more minutes, New Winnabow remained a serene scene; an image of what could have been.
    All of that meant nothing to the eyes watching the town.
    Two observers stood atop a rise where the golden field met the forest. Their black and gray bodies blended well with the shadows and the brush. Their nostrils exhaled puffs of white, and dew matted the outer layer of their thick fur coats.
    Odin and Tyr did not watch New Winnabow with just their eyes. Their noses and their ears told them far more than vision could. They heard voices call out greetings, garage doors swing open on squeaky hinges, and wagon wheels roll on cobblestone drives. Scents ranging from crude soaps used for washing to the aroma of percolating coffee blends drifted across the field.
    They watched and waited…
    …Nina Forest crawled across the roof top on her chest. The seal there must have been some poor attempt at tar, flakes of black stuck to her BDUs and the coating smelled like mud.
    Regardless, she found a good angle on the target window, raised her sniper rifle, adjusted the scope, and scanned the target area…
    …The kitchen flickered with light as Robert Parsons ignited the wall lamps. The sun’s rays started to reach over the town but it remained too dark inside to fumble around in the kitchen without extra light.
    He tightened the draw string on his robe, yawned, and opened the ice box. There he found a pitcher of apple cider. Perhaps he would warm it in the fireplace.
    As he did every morning, the leader of the council of New Winnabow gazed out the big kitchen window to enjoy the panoramic view of his beloved community.
    To his surprise, last night brought only two false alarms; Parsons had expected more. But he expected only false alarms. In his heart, he believed standing firm to Trevor Stone was the best thing to do. He had looked into the young man’s eyes. He saw pain there. He saw a maturity beyond his years, but he did not see evil. There was no way that young man would send people to kill people.
    A glare caught his attention; a flash in the light of dawn. He squinted and saw something on the roof across the way.
    In the last second of his life, Robert Parsons realized how wrong he had been.
    He did not hear the shot but he did hear a tink as the bullet broke through the glass on its way into his throat.
    The man who often quoted Socrates and Aristotle in council meetings… the man who had laid the first cornerstone of New Winnabow…the man who believed that violence had brought Armageddon to Earth…slumped to the floor with his eyes wide open in shock and his hands clutching at the gory hole in his neck.
    Instinctually, he tried to call out but the bullet severed his vocal cords, the only sounds from his dying lips came in gurgles of blood.
    He lay on the kitchen floor kicking and rolling before finally growing still and cold…
    …Trevor opened the doors and stepped onto the balcony overlooking the front grounds of the estate. He could also see the boathouse and dock where Jerry Shepherd had ‘drowned a few worms’ often in those early days.
    Those simpler days.
    Above all of that was the sky; a sky lonely for the sun, and it would soon come. It always came. Like so many things in the universe, it was inevitable.
    JB stood inside and studied his father as that man waited for the inevitable…
    …Beautiful golden fields surrounded New Winnabow. Beautiful golden fields of tall grass sloping up to meet the woodlands.
    As dawn rose above New Winnabow, Trevor’s army came from those woods.
    First a few…then more. Trotting forward at a steady pace neither rushed nor slow.
    The mass of K9 Grenadiers swarmed from the forest and into those golden fields. Their paws stamped and flattened the grass. Breath from panting snouts sent clouds of frost into the sky like steam rising from machines.
    Killing machines.
    They came.
    Not dozens. Not hundreds.
    As they descended the slope, their pace hastened…
    …A hand reached down and grasped Nina’s reach. Vince pulled her up and off the ladder to the loft in the barn where the rest of the team gathered.
    She did not need reports; she could tell by the expression on their faces that each had completed their mission. They would not celebrate as they had when chasing off the platypus-like aliens outside of Pittsburgh or collapsing the Hivvan walls at Raleigh. Neither would they mourn. They had done their job, nothing more.
    Now they waited.
    Nina moved to the front of the loft and found a shuttered window. She opened one of those shutters the tiniest bit, just enough to let in the first rays of sunshine. Just enough so she could see the people of New Winnabow coming out of their homes to begin their chores, take their children to school, to build the next new home.
    The streets filled quickly and she knew that, by now, the bodies were being discovered. She also knew that even if they sounded the alarm now, it would come too late…
    …Jorge Benjamin Stone, the extraordinary three year old boy wearing powder blue pajamas with teddy bears, walked onto the balcony next to his father. He gazed at him curiously as the man stared off into the distance.
    JB tilted his head and his eyes glazed over as if trying to solve a complex equation. He found an answer of a kind. He stepped closer to his father and grabbed his hand, taking it with both of his own tiny hands and then holding it to his cheek as if trying to provide comfort…
    …The worst sound in all of New Winnabow called out more frantic than it had ever called out before. The alarm bell rang harder, louder, and faster than ever.
    That sound carried through the town, into bedrooms, through open bakery doors, and shook the glass window panes at the council building.
    Guards in the northwestern quadrant saw it first: a wave of beasts descending upon their village.
    Row upon row upon row pouring across the grassy field. Snarling, charging, growling; the mass of invaders smashed into the town like a tidal surge. Their columns streamed down every passage and every street and through ever open door as if they were a deluge of water filling all avenues.
    The first group of defending militia did not fire their weapons; they turned to run. The dogs dragged them down from behind, arms and hands and throats torn and ripped and crushed in the jaws of the merciless beasts.
    Sharon Parsons walked the street with her son, Tory. The wave poured directly at her.
    She stooped over and cradled her shivering son in a ball. Sharon felt the ground shake with thousands of galloping paws; she heard the click of talons on the cobblestones; she heard the snorts and yaps of the attackers.
    Then they passed her by. The dogs left her unmolested.
    She dared raise her eyes.
    Across the small street, she saw an elderly resident tumble and fall against a stack of wooden kegs. He held his cane aloft in a futile gesture of defense.
    But he did not need to. The dogs left him unharmed as well.
    A shop keeper further along the block was not as lucky. He fired a pistol at the mass which then swarmed him over, turning him into a bundle of bloody clothes in a matter of seconds.
    And still they came…still pouring in from the fields.
    Guard posts were overrun; sentries bitten and raked with razor claws.
    Billy Ray Phelps, the Sergeant-at-Arms, came out of his home wielding a shot gun amidst a fleeing mob of people.
    “Stand your ground! Fight! Call out the militia! Call out the full militia!” But no one listened.
    Phelps walked along an alleyway and heard them coming. A tremble in the ground. A growing chorus of snarls and barks.
    Then the street ahead filled with four-legged animals so tightly packed together that they seemed more like one single organism comprised of black, gray, brown, silver, and white fur.
    With a defiant roar, he raised his gun and fired.
    Two Rottweilers in the lead stumbled and fell dead but it made no difference; he might as well have thrown pebbles into the ocean.
    He fired…and fired…and fired…
    …The men inside the armory heard the commotion outside. The screaming. The howls. The gun shots.
    They saw, through the tall stained glass windows at the front of the building, silhouettes of people running through The Commons.
    The watchman opened the locked cabinets holding the town’s supply of rifles and pistols. He distributed the weapons to the handful of militiamen who had come out despite no order from the council.
    The stained glass windows exploded inward. Shards of glass rained down on the men. Dogs came jumping through like water through a breached dam…
    …Nina peeked at the carnage unfolding on the streets below.
    She found it hard to make out individual dogs because they moved in such unison, but she knew that her best friend, Odin, served as a part of that mass. She also knew that, unlike the Hunter-Killer teams, no human handlers participated in the attack. Indeed, Trevor had warned her at the rendezvous to ignore the ‘chatter’, and by that he meant the concerned calls from the Century and Legion commanders in Wilmington who had watched their K9s disobey all orders and march off to the southwest where they joined hundreds more.
    From her observation point, Nina heard the screams and cries of the dying town. She saw many bloody bodies lying in the streets like bundles of discarded, torn clothing.
    For all the horror she witnessed over the years, for all her work in the shadows, she still found the need to avert her eyes…
    …Billy Ray Phelps fired and fired despite blood dripping across his face, despite having lost two fingers, despite legs pouring out blood from torn skin. A dozen dead dogs lay at his feet. The barrel of his shotgun grew so hot he feared it might melt.
    The canines circled the crazed defender then rushed from all sides. A Husky bit into his lower leg. A Doberman leapt on his back and clamped its jaws on his shoulder. A German shepherd drove its head into his gut while a Rottweiler bit down on his arm.
    Phelps fell over, beneath the swarm, and was torn apart, piece by piece…
    …K9s battered doors with their heads, smashing through even if it cost a half dozen dogs their skulls first. They crashed through windows and jumped over walls.
    Any of the residents branding a weapon died, including a man who absently held a knife he used at breakfast and a woman carrying an unloaded gun.
    With no council to call out the full militia, resistance faded fast, particularly since the Grenadiers seized the armory in the first few minutes.
    The battle was won, but that had never been the question…
    …Trevor Stone stood on the balcony of his estate with his son clutching his hand as they watched the sun rise over the mountains surrounding the lake.
    It was a new day in The Empire.

26. But What of the Meek?

    At last, the army moved.
    Metallic squeaks marked the crawl of tanks, the clack and clink of loose gear reverberated through marching ranks.
    After freeing the blockage of New Winnabow, the 1 ^ st Mechanized Infantry Division gushed forward with incredible speed.
    Bogart, the General’s aide, took charge of the vanguard. By noon they reached the crossroad town of Supply, North Carolina where they established a strong point guarding the intersection with Rt. 211.
    Shepherd would normally remain at the lead of his column, but he felt a higher responsibility called that day. His command vehicle and a handful of transport trucks arrived at New Winnabow where they found the streets patrolled by K9s.
    Residents-survivors-huddled inside barricaded homes or surrounded on street corners.
    Robert Parsons had built his community on the premise of avoiding violence. In a sense, he had been proven correct. Only those who did not fight survived.
    As Shepherd’s occupation force arrived, the flood of K9s receded without any word from any handler, any human.
    A chorus of misery rose from New Winnabow. Constant sobbing, cries of anguish, curses at fate, God, and most of all Trevor Stone.
    Shepherd rode into town atop his armored command vehicle between columns of dazed people wandering the streets wondering what to do now that their town had been murdered.
    He recognized some of the faces from his prior visits; a guard from a checkpoint, a baker, a woman who offered him a haircut when he toured the town that first time. They had welcomed General Shepherd then, despite what he requested.
    Now they regarded him with contempt and fear. Probably the same way the people of Raleigh had regarded Hivvan soldiers when they occupied their city.
    Jerry Shepherd had served in the United States military, as a Philadelphia police officer, and for the past five years he had fought to save humanity.
    For the first time, he played a bad guy’s role.
    The General’s vehicle stopped outside the council building, nearly blocking the thin street. Captain Cassy Simms approached her superior officer as he stepped out.
    “Sir, what are your orders?”
    Shepherd looked up and down the streets of New Winnabow. He knew there would be no snipers; no pockets of resistance. These people had not been merely defeated, they had been terrorized.
    Cassy repeated, “What are you orders?”
    Shepherd used the back of his arm to rub sweat off his brow.
    “Medics. Get medics in here.”
    Simms frowned. “General, Sir,” she whispered so no others could hear. “There aren’t any wounded.”
    Shep understood. The Grenadiers killed anyone who resisted and ignored anyone who did not. Like everything else about New Winnabow, there had been no middle ground.

    Nina Forest’s Dark Wolves spent the next day and a half reconnoitering Hivvan positions inside the closing pocket. They provided information used for artillery strikes aimed to break up the coalescing enemy army.
    Shepherd pulled her team from the action on the afternoon of September 5 ^ th, as larger formations from both 1 ^ st and 2 ^ nd Mech bombarded the surrounded aliens, followed by a constricting band of infantry and armor. Command even found enough fuel reserves to fly a dozen sorties in support of the operation.
    As her last act in the securing of Wilmington, Nina returned to the city to help with the transition of authority to civilian administration. Rumor had it that The Emperor planned a run at Columbia as soon as the pocket collapsed. If that held true, the Dark Wolves would be in action again soon.
    Nina arrived at City Hall in Wilmington to meet with the Imperial Council’s Chief Administrator, Lori Brewer. She liked Brewer enough but the woman made her feel a little uncomfortable; she asked a lot of personal questions and spoke in a tone of familiarity. Still, she came across as a strong person, something Nina admired and of course she respected her husband, General Brewer.
    The two met in the big conference room with the raised platform, the red carpet, the three large windows, and the balcony where Denise hid the day she followed Nina around town. Unlike that day, City Hall no longer felt empty. Lori Brewer brought a team of clerks, accountants, doctors, and engineers to Wilmington.
    “The situation could be described as stable,” Nina reported. “We’re still finding lower-order nuisance animals in the old buildings, particularly basements, sewer treatment facilities, and near garbage dumps.”
    “Predators?” Lori asked as she scribbled notes on a tablet.
    “Occasionally, but most have retreated out of the city limits and into the wilderness but that’s pretty much the story all over. I’d be careful to the north of the city and the west.”
    “Organized threats? Pack animals?”
    “Nothing above animal sentience. We wiped out some Mutants when we first got here and a bunch of Gremlins. The dogs haven’t picked up a whiff of anything like that in four days, so it looks pretty good.”
    Lori consulted a paper and remarked, “With the exception of the people at Wrightsville Beach, it doesn’t look like there are many survivors in town. I see there were some scattered people out by the airport and some more along the coast to the northeast, but that’s a surprisingly low survival rate.”
    “We haven’t landed on the barrier islands yet. I heard some talk from Wrightsville survivors that a lot of people from Wilmington got out by boat in the early days. Good chance many of them headed for an isolated location that could be defended more easily.”
    “Like an island?”
    “Like an island.”
    Lori Brewer reviewed her notes, glanced at a binder with more notes, then scribbled something else in the margin.
    She said, “There aren’t enough people here to warrant keeping the city up and running, at least not until we’ve cleared all of the Carolinas. Then there might be people who want to migrate in from the rural areas. Until then, we’ll get the rail yards up and running, maybe the port, and set up check points.”
    “What about the people?”
    “I’m thinking relocation.”
    “Relocation? Moving everyone out?”
    Lori nodded and leaned forward; she sensed the officer’s interest in the topic.
    “Yes. At least for the time being. Something on your mind? Do you think they won’t want to go?”
    “No-I mean, yes. I think they’ll go,” Forest told the administrator. “I don’t think the people here, well, I think they’ve been isolated for a long time. I think they’re eager to feel safe and be a part of something.”
    “Most are like that. There’s only ever a few who really want to stay exactly where they are and that’s usually in the larger settlements that we wouldn’t want to relocate, anyhow.”
    “What about, well, never mind.”
    “Never mind what?” Lori pushed.
    The way she stared made Nina feel weird, as if Lori knew a secret.
    Nina exhaled loudly and said, “Listen, there’s a group of kids. They’re orphans. They were all a part of a day care center at one point.”
    “Jim Brock’s kids, right?”
    It surprised Nina that Lori knew of Brock’s group; she did not think the administrator had had enough time to learn that much about the city and the survivors.
    “Umm, are they going to get split up? You know, sent off to families?”
    Lori nodded. “We’ll be looking for hosts for the kids. But you know we’re a little shy on your typical families. A lot of the orphans end up going to elderly groups or parents who are in the military. It’s tough to find perfect homes. In fact, we’ve given up on perfect.”
    “I see,” Nina fumbled.
    “You know, Mr. Brock came to see me when I first got here,” Lori said and Nina thought she saw a smile tug at on the edges of the woman’s lips.
    “He did?”
    “He told me that he really wants to find good parents for these kids. Some of them are young and will need full time moms and dads.”
    “Full time…oh.”
    “Yes,” Lori said. “He also mentioned your name. Something about warning me about you…”
    …Nina walked on to the patio deck of the condo complex.
    Jim Brock sat holding a newspaper with his back to the door and speaking to an elderly resident of Wrightsville Beach.
    “I mean, what the hell is this?” His hands waved as he read an article. “Who does this guy think he is? That’s a whole town of people, like us. I mean, Jesus, I thought this Empire was supposed to be the good guys. What if we say ‘no’ to this Trevor guy?”
    Nina saw the masthead at the top of the paper: The New American Press. She could also read the headline: TREVOR SLAUGHTERS VILLAGE.
    Inevitably, the news spread although the fact that it had already spread to an outpost such as Wilmington surprised her, particularly from a fringe publication like The New American Press. Whoever ran that rag had obviously been in a hurry to get the word out.
    “What kind of people do this?” Jim ranted, unaware Nina walked onto the patio behind him. “I mean, just like the Nazis or something. These were people! It could’ve been us!”
    Her shadow fell over his shoulder and he turned.
    “Oh, um,” Jim put down the newspaper. “Hello. Nina.”
    “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you that mad,” she said as Jim stood.
    “Oh, I, hey, um, Nina, like, I don’t think you’re like that. I don’t think you’re a Nazi. I know you wouldn’t have anything to do with anything like that.”
    “You don’t know that, Jim. You don’t know me at all.”
    “I’d like to,” he said. “But I get the feeling I’m not going to get that chance.”
    “We spent a nice couple of days down here. For me, the picnic and the walking on the beach; it was a nice little escape. Like my shopping trip with Denise. A fantasy.”
    “Fantasies aren’t real,” he pointed out.
    She shook her head ‘no’ in agreement. “I can’t really afford any fantasies these days. I was born for this war. I have to be who I am. I don’t take strolls on beaches; I don’t sit under the moonlight and make wishes on stars. I don’t,” she paused, considered for a long hard moment, and then went on: “I don’t wear party dresses.”
    “I see.”
    “Maybe, when all this is over. If it ever is over. Until then, I have to be strong and I have to keep on fighting. I don’t need therapy. I don’t need a shoulder to cry on.”
    “You need someone who understands you.”
    “Could be,” she admitted. “Could be that I don’t need anyone at all.”
    “Everyone needs someone, Nina. Even the strong.”
    “Is that why you went to the Administrator’s office yesterday?”
    He nodded and repeated, “Everyone needs someone.”
    “Thank you for recommending that Denise lives with me. That was nice of you.”
    “I did it for her,” Brock said. “Okay, so, yeah, I did it a little for you, too. Mostly I did it for Denise. She never had a mother, not really. I couldn’t be that for her. She learned about how to be a girl from old magazines and movies.”
    Nina said, “Those old magazines and movies are about a world that’s gone.”
    “I took care of the kids as best I could but you’re right, there are things Denise needs to learn that I can’t teach her. Partly because I don’t know, maybe partly because I’m not ready to see what the world is really like now. Not ready, to, I guess, except things as they are.”
    “I’ll do my best.”
    Brock glanced at the newspaper on the patio table and solemnly said, “I always thought…I always thought that the meek were supposed to inherit the Earth. Isn’t that what they told us in Sunday school?”
    She shook her head because the man could not be more wrong. Nina had seen that first hand in New Winnabow. A reminder she had needed.
    “The meek are dead. They were wiped out. This world belongs to the strong.”
    He answered softly, “That isn’t right.”
    “Right or wrong has nothing to do with it. It’s not about that. It’s about what has to be done. It’s about reality. You know that. You survived all these years.”
    “I survived by hiding,” he confessed. “You survive by fighting. I guess we’re on the same planet, but living in different worlds.”
    He smiled, a little, in a conciliatory fashion.
    “Teach that to Denise,” he told her. “Teach her to be strong.”
    “She’s half way there already.”
    “Oh and Nina, if you allow it, you might just learn something, too. You never know.”
    Nina took a step forward, placed a hand on his neck, and then put her lips to his in a gentle kiss that took him by surprise.
    “Goodbye, Jim. I hope you find your place in all this.”
    I know I have.
    Nina Forest walked away from Jim Brock.
    He touched his lips and wondered. He wondered, could anyone get through that tough skin and find a way into that heart?

    And what did it all mean?
    What had it been for?
    Trevor Stone needed that answer.
    He could not find that answer-he would not find that answer-sitting behind his desk at the estate. He would not find that answer behind the veils of his Emperor’s title or gazing at a map.
    He sought that answer in the thick of the fight.
    When Shepherd’s second brigade stormed the Hivvan hard point at a strip mall outside of Rowan, North Carolina, Trevor Stone fired the first shots.
    When infiltrators were needed to circumvent enemy picket lines around the juncture of Routes 87 and 701 south of Bladen Lakes Forest, Stone led the way.
    When the largest group of Hivvan forces-more than 2,000-were caught on the move headed toward Fayetteville, Trevor jumped on a Bradley fighting vehicle and personally led the maneuver to hook around and hit that enemy on their northern flank.
    For every Hivvan he cut down, Trevor saw a face from New Winnabow. He kept score.
    A dozen lizards killed. Another alien tank destroyed. A hundred Hivvans fallen by Trevor’s own bullets, his own grenades, his own bayonet. How many would it take to even the ledger? How many must he kill to pay the bill?
    After several days of fighting, of bombarding, and of sniping, the cut off Hivvan Corp was reduced to a headquarters unit outside of Parkersburg. The lizard men occupied a camping ground off Little Coharie creek.
    Trevor Stone personally commanded the final assault, despite General Shepherd’s misgivings.
    The Hivvans dug trenches and pill boxes.
    Flamethrowers chased the defenders out.
    The Hivvans responded with Firecats and shock troops.
    Humvees mounted with TOW launchers and a well-coordinated flanking maneuver annihilated that counter-attack.
    The Hivvans hid in campers and cottages.
    Trevor burned them to the ground with the hissing aliens inside. The smoke was visible for miles.
    The highest ranking Hivvan commander inside the pocket and his bodyguards tried to run. When their fate came calling, those aliens who had enslaved and killed humans turned and ran through the woods like deer from a wolf.
    Trevor Stone personally shot the commander in the leg. The invader rolled down the bank of the creek amidst the green briar brush beneath a cluster of Atlantic White Cedars. The reptile’s booted feet splashed in the water.
    He looked into the enemy’s yellow eyes with contempt then used his assault rifle like a club. He smashed the alien’s short shout and cracked its skull. The thing lay dead but Trevor kept swinging his weapon again, and again, and again.
    He could nearly hear the Old Man laughing.

27. Sow

    “T-A-C this is Dasher One, we’re heading downtown,” the veteran pilot radioed.
    “Ah, roger that, Dasher One you are authorized to engage,” came the reply.
    “Hey Billy, you ready?”
    “Yep. I mean, yes, Sir,” the young wingman answered.
    With air supremacy achieved, the two F-15’s carried 2,000 pound laser-guided bombs built to penetrate bunkers, silos, or even fortified Hivvan headquarters.
    The two jets streaked over the morning skies toward Columbia, passing friendly troops that held Fort Jackson east of the city.
    Their target was a massive alien structure that had been built at Finlay Park near the center of the city. Messages were scribbled in chalk on the casings of those 2,000 pound bombs:
    “For Joan” and “ Here come the Judge!”
    Anti-aircraft batteries spit bolts of energy toward the craft as they zoomed in but Hivvan AA fire was spotty at best, comical at worst. Another sign that this race had not had to deal with effective air power on their home world.
    The two planes dropped their ordnance. The bombs smashed through the roof of the brick-shaped building, penetrated deep inside, then exploded, terminating what little command and control remained to defend Columbia.
    More sorties followed from a dozen different aircraft types. They hit defensive emplacements, troop formations, and walls built around the city. However, the strikes avoided the industrial heart of the Hivvan-controlled enclave. More specifically, the matter transfiguration equipment operating in buildings around the eastern banks of the Broad River.
    After having eliminating the alien pocket in North Carolina, humanity had turned its attention to Columbia, attacking with every last remaining bullet, shell, and gallon of aviation fuel. Suffering from the shock of their massive loss to the north, the Hivvans appeared unwilling to put up a major fight in Columbia.
    General Prescott’s 1 ^ st Armored Division rolled down Route 77 from the North, General Stonewall McAllister’s 2 ^ nd Mechanized Infantry came from the east out of Fort Jackson, and Shepherd’s 1 ^ st Mech attacked from the south along Old Bluff Road. They approached like three talons reaching to grab Columbia. They smashed into the alien perimeter on Saturday, September 19 ^ th.
    Stonewall’s cavalry punched a hole straight through the defensive lines and did not look back. His success was aided by 1 ^ st Armored’s tanks drawing the dangerous Hivvan Battlebarges to the northern perimeter. Prescott’s division suffered 20 % casualties in the first six hours of fighting before finally breaking through.
    The attack on Columbia was the last gamble in a string of gambles that had started after Raleigh. Again, this one paid off.
    After twenty-four hours of fighting, the three Generals met at the corner of North Sumter and Gervais Streets by the campus of South Carolina University. The dormitories there served as slavery hostels holding thousands of humans in captivity.
    The Hivvans retreated west from Columbia on Interstate 20. There would be no clever plan to trap them; no airpower to harass their escape. Columbia was the finish line; supplies were exhausted, even with the captured Raleigh matter-makers operating at maximum capacity. The summer campaign ended after achieving more than Trevor dared dream.
    Omar Nehru salivated like Pavlov’s dogs when he saw the matter makers in Columbia. They were larger, improved models. He estimated they would triple output capability. Supplies would not remain depleted for long. Empty warehouses and fuel tanks would be filled soon. Not just for the army, but for the civilians back home, too.
    The military would have the respite it needed to lick its wounds. The homeland would receive the supplies it craved.
    Conversely, the Grand Army of the Hivvan Republic had suffered a series of defeats leaving humanity in full possession of the initiative. Yes, the war would eventually continue, but it would continue in a manner dictated by Trevor Stone and his expanding Empire.

    Lori Brewer walked the driveway of the estate with a clipboard in hand and two aids on her flanks.
    Autumn arrived. She felt it in the chilled air. That meant heating fuel, blankets, winter clothing, and flu season. That meant more tasks and concerns to keep her mind focused on her job and not on other things. Not on her personal worries.
    An aid told her, “We estimate needs at a dozen more boxcars of heavy outerwear and a couple of tankers worth of oil. I’m not sure how we’re going to get that together, not with all the new people coming out of South Carolina.”
    Lori replied, “We just have to keep things together for another week. Science and Technology tells me those matter-makers are ready to go. Once they’re on line they’ll be plenty of supplies. Nehru says this is going to be the easiest winter we’ve ever had. Things are finally looking-”
    She stopped in mid-sentence.
    Jon stood there, ten paces away, smiling.
    Lori froze. Words failed her for one of the few times in her life.
    One aide took the clipboard from Lori’s hand and then encouraged the second to join him in heading inside the mansion. Mrs. Brewer waited until they disappeared inside. Then she walked-she did not run-up the driveway until she stood in front of her tall husband.
    “Let’s see,” she studied him for a moment. “Well, it looks like you’re all in one piece.”
    He nodded, “I missed you, too.”
    She bit her lip and fought oh-so-hard to hold it back.
    “Your daughter missed you,” she told him.
    “You sure are a tough one, aren’t you?”
    “Don’t…d-don’t you ever forget it.”
    Lori and Jon wrapped their arms around one another in the way that only familiar couples can. Kisses were great and romantic, but for those who knew each other so well and had been together so long…well nothing is ever closer than a strong hug.
    With her face against his chest, Jon could not see the water in her eyes.
    Then again, Lori could not see the tears in his, either.

    “Now what?” Trevor’s words sounded more an exasperated sigh, like a child tired of his chores.
    “Whoa, now, Trevvy,” the Old Man said from his seat on the lump of red rock. “I may not be the tallest branch on the tree but it seems to me you should be celebrating and makin’ with the whoopees and shit. You got them runes. You shut it all down.”
    “Yeah, great, so what?”
    “So what? Like I told you in the first place, you just cut the cord for all the nasties down here. Now don’t get me wrong, it ain’t all candy ‘n roses from here on in but if them boys in Vegas were still ‘round-that is, more than just mindless zombies-why I’d say they’d be making some changes on the odds board in your favor.”
    “And we can send aliens back through the runes; just push them through, right? That’s what Jon said. That’s what he saw.”
    The Old Man nodded in agreement while the flames of the fire flickered light on his surreptitious eyes. “Yeah, that’s right. Sort of like a big ole’ mail sorter. Reads your zip code, if you will,” the man smiled at himself for the clever analogy. “You can even take prisoners now, how about that? Just send them back lickity split. Return to sender, ha-ha.”
    Trevor laughed. “Some send off. They arrive back home in the middle of that big friggin’ machine. Not likely to last too long.”
    The Old Man shook his head. “See that, you just ain’t as smart as I thought you were. How’d you think they got here in the first place? They got them runes workin’ just fine back home. How’d you think they built them gateways and all? Why it’s just-”
    The Old Man stopped, tilted his head, and then roared a laugh. “Why looky there, you got me talking ‘n shit. Why Trevor, I do believe you’re smartening up. Pretty good.”
    “I suppose there are some things I’m just not supposed to understand, huh?”
    “Oh Trev, there’s some things you just can’t understand. But you’ll get your chance. Sooner or later, you’ll get your chance.”

    Evan lapped the conference table in paces with his editorial team gathered around the same way they gathered every morning in the weeks since the slaughter at New Winnabow.
    As he did every day, Evan warned, “Now is not the time to slow down, people. We need to keep this up. Circulation doubled again last week so output has to double again. Talk to the print shop, they need to add a third shift for now. We’ll also need to add more runners for deliveries.”
    The man with the thick glasses suggested, “I’m looking in to remote printing. We could deliver content on a disk to different print shops then use them as bases for regional distribution.”
    “That’s the type of thinking we need,” Evan replied and made eye contact with each of his people. “We’re no longer a fringe publication. What Trevor did at New Winnabow has opened the door for me, for us. We have to push and take full advantage of this opportunity. I’ve got an inside contact who tells me that the estate is worried about the traction we’ve gained with the people. So we push, hard. So tell me, what have we got?”
    “More pictures,” the man with thick glasses said. “We’ve got pictures of the military checkpoints outside ‘Bow. We’ve got pictures of little kids who lost their fathers during the assault standing next to tanks. Next to tanks for Christ’s sake.”
    “Wait a sec,” the woman with the scar and long strawberry blonde hair said. “Just so I don’t get yelled at or some shit like that. Are we against this war…again?”
    Evan stared directly at her. “How can we possibly be for a war like this? This war can’t go on, not without changes. Now tell me, what have we got?”
    The man with the Oxford shirt said, “We have a human worker from Columbia who thinks they were better off with the Hivvans. He was some sort of foreman.”
    “You mean collaborator?” Evan said. “Don’t run it. Could bite us on the ass. But no, forget the paper for a sec. I mean the good stuff. The other stuff.”
    The man with thick glasses understood. “Our people in Pittsburgh are marching tomorrow on the regional governor’s office. My guy out there tells me he’s got about a hundred people ready to go. They just have to get the banners and signs written up.”
    Evan asked, “How far they going to go?”
    The man smiled. “Most of them, not too far. But we’ve got a couple people in there that can really fire them up.”
    Fire them up, Evan thought. A few bricks tossed. Maybe turn over a government car. Something to show the intensity. Something to show the emotion. The power.
    “That’s good,” was all Evan said because he need not say more.
    The girl with the scar and strawberry hair added to the discussion, “The reporter from NBN that interviewed you last month-”
    Evan cut in. He knew names. Knowing names and knowing people, that was the source of his power. “Angela.”
    “Yeah, Angela,” the woman went on. “She called to ask for a follow up interview. Wants to know if you plan to resign from the council. Also, they’re running more video from the memorial services. There was one last night in Trenton and more are planned in Harrisburg, Morgantown, and Baltimore.”
    “We have people there?” Evan asked.
    She nodded, “Of course we do. But you know, we don’t need to. Some of this is happening without a word from us.”
    Jamie-Evan’s prized researcher-noted, “The other newspapers are running stories on this every day. Hell, it’s been more than two weeks and the story is still alive.”
    “Let me tell you what I want most of all,” Evan stopped pacing and pushed a heavy finger onto the table top for emphasis. “I want people at the candle light vigil this weekend. I want hundreds of people. Call in all your favors. Call in all your buddies. Get them to that vigil.”
    “Evan,” the thick-glasses guy said. “A lot of people will be nervous about walking right up to the front gates of the estate.”
    Jamie added, “Yeah, what if he unleashes those damn dogs on us?”
    “He won’t,” Evan told them. “And it is critical that we show that we are willing to be brave over this. We have to show backbone. This vigil…this is the final piece. This is where we really make the connection between what happened at Winnabow and the lack of representation in the government. We pull this off and our movement will be unstoppable. Sooner or later you have to stand up for what you believe in. This is our time.”
    “That didn’t work for us,” a new voice came from the doorway.
    No one in the room recognized Sharon Parsons, except for Evan.
    She stood at the door alongside her six year old boy, Tory.
    “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Godfrey,” she said without sounding genuine. “But they told me this was where I could find you.”
    Evan looked at her but spoke to his followers, “I’m going to need this room, people.”
    Godfrey’s staffers filed out, leaving notes, papers, and plans lying on the table top.
    Evan grabbed the attention of Jamie before she left and pointed to Sharon’s boy. Jamie understood.
    “Hey fella, what’s your name?” She asked.
    “His name is Tory,” Sharon answered before her son could.
    Jamie smiled and said to the boy, “We’ve got a stash of homemade lollipops around here, Tory. Would you like one?”
    The child cringed and squeezed tight against his mother.
    “Go ahead, Tory. Go with the nice woman. I’ll be right there.”
    The boy reluctantly left. Jamie closed the door behind.
    Evan stared at Sharon and she stared back. After several seconds of silence, Evan decided to start. “You’ve come a long way from New Winnabow.”
    “There’s nothing left there.”
    “Oh? I thought the town was still going. I thought the survivors were now a part of the Empire,” Evan used his fingers as quotation marks when he said ‘Empire.’
    “That’s what I mean,” she said. “My town is gone. Your Emperor took it from me.”
    She stepped closer.
    “So you took-what? — a train all the way up here? For what?”
    His words sounded like an innocent question, but the tone suggested coyness.
    “You know why I came here.”
    “I want you to tell me,” he said. “I want you to spell it out. Just so there are no misunderstandings.”
    “I need a home,” she said. “Tory needs a home.”
    “Let me guess. He needs a father-figure, is that it?”
    She scoffed at the idea. “He needs a home. A place with a bed. A place with food and heat. A place where he has a room. He does not need a father-figure. The only father-figure he had in his life was a brutal bastard. No. He only needs his mother.”
    “I see.”
    Sharon looked at the conference table. The most recent edition of The New American Press lay there. The headline quoted an angry-looking ‘survivor’ from somewhere down south: “I NEVER ASKED TO BE LIBERATED.”
    “You see lots of things, Evan. Do you see what I am?”
    “What you are?”
    “I’m a survivor of New Winnabow. I’m a single mother. My father was killed by Trevor Stone. My first husband was a brave U.S. Marine who fought for his country and for freedom. Why, he was a regular hero. My son will tell you as much.”
    It impressed Evan that Sharon managed to speak those words about her ex-husband without a sign of the venom she felt in her heart for the man.
    He said, “Yes, he was a hero for serving his country in the old days. But then again, I think all the people of New Winnabow were heroes, too.”
    “Tell me, Evan, what would it do for you if you had the mother of an orphan, the widow of a hero, and a victim of Trevor’s atrocities at your side?”
    He tilted his head, considered, and told her, “I suppose it would give added weight to what I say. Make a great story, about how we first met in that tranquil village. How you came to me for help after what happened. Why? Are you suggesting a partnership?”
    Sharon Parsons answered, “A partnership? Sort of a cold way of saying it, don’t you think?”
    “I don’t know, Sharon,” he feigned a look of consternation on his face. “I’m a single man, no one special in my life…”
    “Oh, Evan,” she cut through it all and ran a finger across his cheek. “This partnership would have plenty of fringe benefits. I think you’ll find me a rather…um… willing partner.”
    “That’s good,” he told her. “I like that. Maybe we can come to some sort of arrangement. But tell me, besides you’re son getting a home what is it you want out of this… partnership?”
    “I want to help you.”
    “Help me?”
    “I want to help you,” she repeated. “I’ve seen through the good Samaritan act you put on when you visited my town. You pulled that off very well.”
    “That wasn’t an act, Sharon. I cared about your village. I tried to stop the attack from happening.”
    “Yes, yes, I know, and I believe you…to an extent. But your objectives had less to do with helping New Winnabow and more to do with hurting Stone, for your own gain, of course. Don’t fear. Now that I’ve figured out what you’re all about, I want to help you. I want to help you get that power you desperately want.”
    “Oh? And why is that?”
    “Because you can only gain that power by taking it from your Emperor. As you get stronger, he gets weaker.”
    Evan asked, “Revenge?”
    “I want Trevor Stone to know, you reap what you sow.”

    From the Old Treasury building on State Circle in the center of town built circa 1735, to the majestic house of Charles Carroll overlooking Spa Creek, to the 238 acres of the U.S. Naval Academy, history lived in every corner of Annapolis.
    The “Southern Command” of what was now accepted as “The Empire” called Annapolis home, as did Nina Forest.
    She pushed open the door to her small apartment but, before she could enter, in rushed Denise Cannon.
    Jerry Shepherd-on well-deserved but short-lived leave-hovered at the door frame as Nina shook her head in wonder; wonder if she was up to this task.
    “So this is it? Okay, okay, this will work,” Denise said lightheartedly.
    The eleven-year-old inspected the small living room, darted into the even smaller kitchen, wove through the dining area, then down the short hall to examine the two bedrooms and bath.
    Denise and Shep dropped heavy bags on the carpeted floor.
    “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Nina said.
    “You’re doing it,” Shep laughed.
    A chubby man dressed in casual clothes knocked on the open door with the one hand he still possessed; only a stub remained of his right arm.
    “Denise! Come here, Denise!” Nina yelled.
    The man at the door shook Shep’s hand, left to left.
    “Read in the paper that you kicked those lizard asses all the way back to Atlanta. Good work down there, General.”
    “Thanks, Barn,” Shepherd answered and then asked, “How’s the itching?”
    Barney touched the stub and replied, “Still a bitch at night but that cream you sent my way helped a bit. Thanks again.”
    “Denise, this is Mr. Carson,” Nina introduced. “He’s the building’s caretaker. Everyone here knows him. He sort of looks after things when we’re off on missions and stuff. When I’m away, you’ll be seeing a lot of him.”
    “Hello there, little lady,” Barney greeted.
    Denise, in a well-rehearsed line, answered in an overly respectful tone, “Hello, Mr. Carson. It is nice to meet you.”
    “Call me Barn. Everyone else does.”
    Denise’s eyes gravitated to the stub.
    Barney said, “Be careful what you wish for.”
    “Huh?” Denise asked while Nina and Shep rolled their eyes in anticipation of the joke Barney told every day.
    “I said, be careful what you wish for,” Barney told the girl. “One day I said I’d give my right arm to get out of the army.”
    Denise’s eyes grew bigger and her mouth opened in the slightest.
    Nina assured, “He’s kidding.”
    Barney laughed. Denise forced a very fake smile.
    “Go ahead,” Nina relented. “Give it the once over.”
    Denise returned to her investigation, moving with the quick bursts of speed, changes in attention, and hyper-activity only afforded to kids.
    “She’s a pistol. Can tell that right ‘way,” Barney said.
    “Pistols can misfire,” Nina responded.
    “That’s right,” Barney turned to leave. “That’s why you got to make sure you always know which way the barrel is pointing.”
    Denise called from down the hall, “What? No bed? Where am I going to sleep? Wait a second, there’s no stereo in here.” Then she poked her head in the bathroom. “Oh boy, we have got to talk.”
    Nina and Shep shared a look as the little girl walked over to the entertainment center in the living room and rummaged through the DVDs there. “Ugh…nope…nope…oh, wait, cool-Brad Pitt. He is sooo hot.”
    “What did I get myself into?” Nina asked Shep.
    He told her, “Oh, now that’s a good question.”
    “But you know it’s like…I dunno…all I’m saying is that it feels kind of good. Look, this sounds silly, but well, I never had any kids of course, but when I’m with her…I feel like…I feel like I’m a-”
    Shep put a hand on her shoulder. “I know how you feel. You don’t have to explain.”
    Nina looked into Shepherd’s eyes. His fatherly eyes.
    “I guess not,” she said and placed a hand over his. “I guess not.”
    Denise moved into the kitchen. “What is this? A refrigerator? Does it work?”
    Nina called, “It will when I plug it back in! Have to save power when we’re not home, you know.”
    “Power? Cool. Like, we can watch movies and eat popcorn and-”
    “Hey! Hey,” Nina said. “Look, don’t you go getting ideas that this is some sort of big slumber party. You are going to school, kiddo, and you’ll have homework and you’re going to learn to shoot and-”
    “Relax,” Denise rounded the corner and smiled at Nina. “I know. Geez, don’t get all hyper… mom. ”
    Denise disappeared down the hallway again.
    “Is this your closet? Oh boy, did I get here just in time or what. Don’t worry; I’m all over it…”
    Nina shook her head, smiling.

    Dante Jones pointed at the shot glass. The bartender filled it with something again, maybe old Jack Daniels, maybe Jagermeister, maybe one of the new concoctions making the rounds.
    It did not matter. Whatever it was, he would drink it and he did not have a tab to worry about. It paid to be Chief of Internal Security. You often found you had more friends than you realized.
    The door to the center-city Wilkes-Barre bar creaked open. A few beams of late afternoon sunshine shot in, turning the man who opened the door into a silhouette.
    Dante did not notice the man who sat down next to him until he spoke.
    “Early night cap, Dante?”
    Jones looked, saw who it was, and sneered in disgust.
    “What do you want, Evan?”
    “Wow, that’s not a very nice way to greet a friend.”
    “A friend?” The choice of words surprised Dante.
    “Yeah. I thought we had, well, after the time we spent in North Carolina I thought we had bonded or something.”
    Jones told Godfrey, “Since then a lot of my people have been forced to whack yours with night sticks and tear gas. Don’t think I don’t know about this candle light vigil thing this weekend. You damn well better not pull any shit outside the estate.”
    “Hey, easy,” Evan said. “You know, I’m not behind every protest. I can’t be. There’s been too many of them. And you know what? There are more coming. Believe it or not, old Evan Godfrey isn’t the bad guy all the time.”
    “Yeah, sure, whatever.”
    “I’ll give you my personal word Dante. My personal word that the vigil will be non-violent. I know the kind of position that would put you in. You’ve been in enough tough positions the last few years. I promise.”
    Dante cocked his head. “Tough positions? What are you talking about?”
    “Well, like Dubois for instance when a bunch of Red Hands took that town out and I.S. got a bloody nose. Like trying to protect all the caravans and trains and shipyards when you don’t have enough manpower. You know a lot of people blame Internal Security. They say you’re not doing your job.”
    “Well screw them!” Dante said a little loud. “Do they know what we have to work with? Do they know how tough this job is? Resources are-”
    “Resources are thin, yeah,” Evan agreed.
    “You’re doing the best you can with what you’ve got.”
    “Hell yeah,” Dante nodded.
    “You’ve got good people working for you. They’re trying their best.”
    “Damn straight.”
    “Things have got to change.”
    “Shit, you can say that again-” Dante caught himself in mid sentence. He turned toward Evan with anger…breathed…then relaxed. “You know, Evan, you lived around here, right?”
    “What? You mean Wilkes-Barre? Northeast PA? Yeah, I moved here before graduate school.”
    “Back before ‘all this’, this bar wasn’t where we’d see a bunch of guys like you.”
    “Guys like me? What, college guys?”
    Dante answered, “White folk.”
    “Oh,” Evan glanced around. He saw a black bartender but both white and black customers at tables and bar stools.
    “Since things went to Hell, I come in here and it doesn’t matter what you look like. You know why? I’ll tell you why. Because when alien monsters start killing everyone, suddenly whether you’re black or white or red doesn’t matter much. Suddenly, you don’t see a redneck or a gang-banger, or some other stereotype, you see just a guy. Because you’re so damned happy that he’s a guy and not a friggin’ blob of Green Pudding that wants to suck your intestines through your nose.”
    Dante paused, sipped half his shot, and continued, “So look, all it took was the extermination of ninety-nine percent of humanity, and what have we got? True equality. Real peace between the races. Probably not the way Reverend Jackson wanted to get there, I figure. But still, all the same, we’re there.”
    Evan started, “Dante-”
    “He’s my friend. We’ve been friends since a long time ago. He wasn’t tough like he is now. He didn’t know everything. Hell, he couldn’t find his butt with both hands without my help. Half the time he followed me around like a puppy dog. But back when the world drew big fat ugly lines between people Trevor knew it was wrong.”
    “That’s great.”
    Dante said, “Trevor used to come here, with me. He used to come to this bar. I never saw you in here, Evan.”
    “I’m here now.”
    Dante snorted as if to say ‘big deal.’
    Evan pushed, “You just lied to me, Dante.”
    Jones, with alcohol in his veins, was not the person you called a liar. He sat straight in his bar stool, cocked his head back, and appeared ready to start a fight.
    Evan diffused his anger. “Trevor never came in here with you. Maybe Richard Stone, but Trevor didn’t exist back then. Trevor didn’t exist until there were Stumphides, Ghouls, and Gremmies in the streets. Think about that, Dante. Is that still your friend out there at the estate, or is it someone else?”
    Jones returned his attention to his drink so fast that it was obvious he had thought about that. Thought about it a lot. Especially since New Winnabow.
    “He is in over his head, Dante. He may be a good man at heart, but he has taken it upon himself to make a lot of hard decisions. It’s too much for him. He needs help, whether he admits it or not.”
    Dante quietly examined his glass.
    “You’ve been in here a lot, lately,” Evan said.
    “How do you know that, Evan? You spying on me?”
    “You weren’t known as a big drinker before, Dante. So that tells me something is bothering this man. I know it has a lot to do with New Winnabow. We were there, together. We got to know those people. Maybe Trevor didn’t think he had any choice. Maybe he just couldn’t see a way out of it. But what about next time, Dante? If the decisions stay on his shoulders alone then there may be a lot more New Winnabows. And guess what, buddy, no amount of drinking is going to chase those ghosts out of your head.”
    Dante took a slow sip of the drink.
    “I just want you to know,” Evan told him. “I want you to know that you have a friend in me. With everything going down, well, maybe the two of us can keep a lid on some of it. Keep it from getting out of control.”
    Dante Jones put the glass down, turned to Godfrey, and said in a wavering voice, “He’s my friend.”

    Trevor kicked the ball across the mansion’s side the yard. JB chased after it, missed with his kick, slipped to the ground, and laughed.
    “JB! Come on! Let’s go!” Ashley called from the front side of the mansion where she stood with her father Benjamin Trump as well as two human body guards and two K9s including the Doberman Pinscher named Ajax.
    JB scrambled to his feet, kicked the ball away, and then ran toward his mother. Trevor joined them.
    “You guys going in to town?” He asked Ashley.
    “No, security thinks we shouldn’t,” she said. “At least not until things die down.”
    “My boy can’t even go in town now?”
    “It will blow over,” she assured, although her assurance sounded hollow.
    JB grabbed his dad’s legs in a hug.
    “We’re going to Joe’s Pizza, father,” he said. “They have an air hockey game in there! Me and grandpa are going to play.”
    Trevor knelt down to his son’s level.
    “I bet you’re pretty good at it.”
    “Nah, I’m not so hot.”
    Trevor looked into the eyes of his boy. Really looked.
    What was in there? What mystery to all of this was hidden behind those eyes?
    Maybe…no, all he saw was a happy little boy. For now, maybe that was all there really was.
    “Hey, I love you, buddy,” Trevor put his hand on his son’s cheek.
    JB grew very serious. “I love you, too, daddy.”
    That stunned both Ashley and Trevor. They gaped at one another as JB ran to his grandfather.
    She said, “Being a parent is always full of surprises.”
    “I suppose so,” he admitted as he stood again.
    “We’ll be back later,” Ashley said and she followed her son and the security detail as they headed to an SUV idling in the driveway.
    Trevor needed something to do now. An idea came to mind…
    …Bam! Bam! Bam!
    Shots from the Beretta M9 semi-automatic pistol slapped the air around the estate’s shooting range like firecrackers.
    Trevor expended the last of that clip, ejected the magazine, and reloaded it from a box of bullets. Tyr yapped to alert Trevor to company.
    Gordon Knox approached, holding a sheet of paper. He wore a bomber jacket in light of the lowering temperatures. The weather promised to get much colder in the days ahead.
    Trevor removed his ear guards but continued to load bullets into the clip; each one harder to slip in as the spring inside the magazine grew more taut.
    “Where’s the family?” Knox asked.
    “Just left, went to dinner,” Trevor said.
    “What is it Gordon? What have you got for me? More protests in Scranton? Did they raid a food distribution center in Hagerstown again? Let me guess, this is full-fledged rebellion now.”
    Gordon laughed, “Nothing of the sort, Trevor. I wouldn’t let some scattered protests get you upset. It was bound to happen sooner or later.”
    Trevor smacked the reloaded clip into the pistol.
    “Maybe I should just sic the canines on them.”
    “Well, I think my timing couldn’t be better,” Gordon said.
    “What does that mean?”
    “Let’s just say, it strikes me that you need this bit of news right now.”
    “Okay then, spit it out.”
    “My people intercepted a message sent from Atlanta to Columbia before we captured the city. The Hivvan commander in Columbia never got the message because we took him out with a bunker buster before it got to him. We’ve finally translated it.”
    Trevor turned his head and waited.
    Knox told him, “It’s a directive from primary headquarters in Atlanta to the commander of Columbia. It tells that commander that after their heavy losses in North Carolina, the high command had decided to evacuate Columbia and consolidate defensive lines using the lakes and rivers on the South Carolina, Georgia border. It appears they were not planning a counter-attack on Raleigh after all.”
    “Oh,” Trevor shivered. “So you’re telling me…you’re telling me they were going to evacuate Columbia, anyway? So you’re telling me…Jesus Christ…you’re telling me that it was for nothing? That…that I killed all those people for-?”
    “That’s not the entire message.”
    Trevor bowed his head.
    Knox told him the rest.
    “The commander in Columbia was ordered to begin eradication of all human slaves in custody and to use the most expeditious means.”
    Stone raised his head again. His eyes stared off at something unseen.
    “Trevor,” Gordon told him. “If you hadn’t pushed through New Winnabow, the commander at Columbia would have received this message. If you had gone another way or pulled back, those ten thousand people in Columbia would have been slaughtered. You did the right thing.”
    Trevor chuckled but not in good humor. “The right thing, Gordon?”
    “Yes,” Knox answered. “How many casualties at New Winnabow? One hundred?”
    The answer lived at the tip of Trevor’s tongue, “One hundred and twenty two.”
    “Against ten thousand saved? Not a bad price to pay.”
    Stone cocked the slide on his pistol, chambering a new round.
    “What a bargain…” Trevor echoed.
    Ten thousand saved for the low price of just one soul.
    “What are you going to do now, Trevor?”
    The Emperor told the man the obvious.
    “I’m going to do some more target practice. Have to stay sharp. Have to be ready. A lot more fighting to do.”
    Trevor raised the pistol and squeezed the trigger.
    A lot more killing.