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Anthony DeCosmo Parallels

1. Medusa

    "I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!'"
    — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
    Nina lay naked and alone on a steel table. It felt cold and sterile.
    Darkness surrounded her. She felt no breeze, smelled nothing in the air, heard no sounds. A solitary light hovered above.
    A circle of people emerged from the blackness and swarmed toward her. Faceless, emotionless. She fidgeted; squirmed as they surrounded her, as they reached to touch her. First one hand from anonymous eyes, feeling her flesh and caressing…sliding over the rigid muscles of her strong body. Then another hand stroking her cheek.
    Her exhales changed to sighs.
    Then another. And another. Reaching for her ankles and calves. Sliding along her thighs and ribs…teasing her chest and feeling her bare shoulders. Hands and palms grasping her legs and tugging them open.
    With the hands came lips. She closed her eyes and felt firm kisses on her neck and legs and… a sigh became a moan, her body tingled from head to toe.
    She sensed their desire for her. It felt like love.
    More probing and welcomed invasion. Lips and fingers and hands and now more across her whole person. A swarm of caresses; an onslaught.
    Her breath grew rapid. She felt a mass inside building toward critical as her body rocked atop the metal slab. Her head slid back and over the edge baring her throat to the besiegers.
    She sensed their desire for her. It felt like lust.
    The horde grew heavy, pressing against her: legs in iron holds, arms pinned.
    So many reaching for her, wanting her; yet the table still felt cold. No matter how many came, they could not warm her. A crowd around her, yet loneliness remained.
    Her exhale became a shuddered groan, even as she felt trapped.
    They covered every inch of her body. She felt them on top and under, inside and around. Pressing and pushing.
    They did not listen. They would not stop.
    Nina opened her eyes as the mass reached critical and saw Trevor Stone standing alongside the table. He watched the swarm work her without mercy. He wore a perverse grin, enjoying her struggle; finding sweet music in the sound of her sighs as they changed to cries.
    She sensed his desire for her. It felt like possession.
    The mass inside exploded. Her entire body rippled. A moan of both release and panic trembled from her lips…
    …Nina jerked awake.
    She lay not on a metal table but a military cot. Smoldering embers inside a portable coal stove radiated a soft, hazy glow from the center of the tent. The three other members of the Dark Wolves team shared the tent. They were awake now. It had been difficult to sleep with the…the noises coming from her bunk.
    They sat in their cots staring at her with disbelief, wonder, and something else. She did not want to know what that something else was.
    "What?" She scowled even as she struggled to find her breath, even as her heart raced.
    "Um, I ah," Carl Bly stuttered. "I have to hit the latrine," he stood quickly and-slightly hunched over-grabbed his coat and walked outside.
    "Time for a shower," Oliver Maddock said bravely in his Welsh accent. "Yes that’s it. A cold one at that," and he too marched away after grabbing a heavy jacket.
    Vince Caesar stared silently at her for a moment longer and then exited the tent as well.
    Nina collapsed to the cot, puffing an exhale of frustration in the process.
    She never dreamt like that before. Weirder still, it had not felt as if it were her dream. More like…more like someone else’s dream; someone else’s nightmare.
    – Captain Forest emerged from her quarters to another overcast January morning, inhaling flavorless cold air that stung her lungs as she pulled her blond hair into a short ponytail and then zipped tight a green parka. Nina worked her way through the maze of tents and temporary shelters comprising the headquarters unit for Army Group North.
    Soldiers-dressed in clothes ranging from smart-looking Arctic gear to eclectic bundles of sweaters, jeans, jackets, and cargo pants-crisscrossed the grounds mumbling about the weather or cursing whatever passed for breakfast. If not for the rifles and salutes the group would more resemble refugees than an army.
    In any case, the headquarters unit sat atop dead farmland adjacent to the Sugar Creek Baptist Church off old US 35 near Washington Court House, Ohio.
    In the sixteen months since the destruction of the Hivvan forces at Columbia, South Carolina, Nina Forest and her Dark Wolves commandos shuffled north, south, east, and west. Sixteen months of fighting reptilian aliens in Georgia and Alabama, giant snakes in Florida, monsters infesting New York City, and human pirates ambushing supply convoys in Connecticut.
    For the last four of those months, her unit supported "Army Group North" and its role in the massive "Fall" offensive.
    While Army Group South knocked the Hivvan remnants across Mississippi and Army Group Center pushed through lower Kentucky and Tennessee, General William Hoth's force began a blitzkrieg to cross Ohio and thrust into Indiana. It all kicked off in late September-one year after the carnage at New Winnabow and the liberation of Columbia, South Carolina-and planned to meet all objectives before winter set in.
    So much for grand plans.
    Winter had, in fact, set in; weeks ago. While the other two prongs of the attack achieved their aims, Army Group North measured progress in fractions of miles.
    Part of the problem came from home. Newspaper editors wrote that the already-fragile economy deteriorated with the introduction of an official Imperial currency. Even Nina-who lacked a head for economics-realized that was when the supply problems started anew; problems revolving around work stoppages, transportation issues, and political squabbling.
    Then came a surprise from in front of the army. It seemed Intelligence underestimated the numbers and capabilities of the "Plats" or "Platypuses", so nicknamed because the three-legged uglies sported humorous duckbills where a mouth should be. The plasma rifles they carried, however, did not elicit chuckles.
    Things became even less amusing when the Plats revealed their own war vehicles; wooden, wheeled boats armed with a high-powered energy cannon.
    The Plats' "War Skiffs" nearly destroyed two brigades of infantry outside of Chillicothe in November. Only General Hoth’s skillful deployment of an armored reserve saved the day.
    Fortunately, the Platypuses lacked the numbers and organization of the Hivvans. By Thanksgiving, the 2 ^ nd Armored Division annihilated every enemy formation east of the Scioto River, destroying nearly five thousand Platypus fighters and a hundred vehicles during two weeks of pitched battles.
    Alas, bad news followed the good as scouts found Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati entirely infested with new, alien ecosystems full of dangerous extraterrestrial animals. No humans could possibly survive in such environments and Hunter-Killer teams would require armor and infantry support to clear those places.
    Instead of becoming bogged down in urban pacification operations, Hoth bypassed those cities with the aim of wiping out the Plats first. Supply shortages, bad weather, a horrendous wave of flu in the ranks, and stiffening enemy resolve conspired to undermine his strategy.
    So on Wednesday, January 19, as Nina walked from her tent in search of General Hoth, Army Group North sat idle east of Interstate 71 some forty miles southwest of Columbus. Horrible progress-or lack thereof-for an offensive that began last September.
    On the other side of Interstate 71 waited a few more Plat War Skiffs and scattered infantry formations, probably the last the enemy had to offer but an obstacle that could not be tackled until the supply situation and weather improved.
    Nina’s boots crunched on the frozen ground of what had once been a farmer’s field. Military trucks, tents, crates, fuel drums, and horse-drawn wagons turned that field into an encampment.
    A freezing wind whipped across the porch of the upscale farmhouse serving as the General’s headquarters, causing a banner depicting a hand wielding a hammer to flutter violently. Nina moved between two shivering sentries and walked through the main entrance.
    A wood burning furnace heated the interior filling the inside with a pleasant, almost maple aroma. Lighting came from lamps filled with whale oil harvested hundreds of miles away off the eastern seaboard and shipped via steam locomotives.
    The farmhouse bustled with activity, no doubt because people preferred working inside as opposed to doing nothing outside in the cold, even if that meant dealing with General Hoth.
    While others found the man short-mannered and overly stoic, Nina held him in high regard.
    Like thousands of others, William Hoth vanished hours before the alien invasion began only to reappear years later encased in a blob of green goo, a phenomena now known as "riding the ark." In his case, Hoth had been teaching a summer course at West Point when the world took that sudden left turn.
    A man of few words and even fewer facial expressions, Hoth wore broad shoulders and a wide frame. From a distance, he appeared a few pounds overweight. Closer inspection revealed a big-boned and solid fifty-something officer who could cut lesser men in half with a glare.
    She walked into a large parlor where a billiards table served as the centerpiece of Army Group North’s operations room and a roaring Rumford fireplace cast flashes of light on a mounted moose head, dusty velvet curtains, and long-neglected antique furniture.
    The folding tables, chairs, lap top computers, and communications gear from the military interlopers contrasted sharply with the home's original garish furnishings creating a strange mishmash of styles.
    General Hoth stood near the billiards table dressed in woodland BDUs over a black turtle neck. At his side hovered General Casey Fink, commander of the newly-formed 4 ^ th Mechanized Infantry Division.
    A large, muscular man, Fink could easily pass for a professional wrestler or a linebacker yet Hoth's presence loomed larger, regardless of a disadvantage in size.
    Nina knew Fink had been career Army prior to the end-of-the-world. She also knew his post-Armageddon credits included inspired fighting during the Battle of Five Armies as well as an equally impressive performance as part of Jon Brewer's expedition more than sixteen months ago to capture the mysterious 'runes' at the top of the world.
    Fink studied documents and maps while Hoth carried on a conversation via a radio headset. After finishing that conversation with a curt "understood," Hoth said to Fink, "He confirmed contact. Estimates five hundred Roachbots around Cincinnati."
    Captain Forest stood at attention in front of her two superior officers. Hoth glanced at her saying, "At ease, Captain."
    Fink said to Hoth, "They're about fifty miles to our southern flank."
    Nina understood that five hundred of those SUV-sized robots equated to a substantial fighting force. She asked, "Are they approaching?"
    General Hoth answered, "Not yet, but the book says they will attack once they are aware of our presence."
    Fink, who squared off against those psychotic, six-legged mechanical monstrosities during the Battle of Five Armies nearly five and a half years ago added, "They can't resist a chance to harvest human brains. Must be a couple of assembly lines down there by Cincy."
    Hoth said, "We have the assets to deal with five hundred Roachbots. However, it is another impediment to any progress we hope to achieve."
    Fink mumbled, "That's been the story since this whole thing started. It's like this whole offensive has been nothing but bad news after bad news."
    Hoth halted Fink's complaint with a stern glare but said nothing. What could he say? Fink spoke the truth, something that everyone in the ranks felt; this mission had been cursed. Not rational and therefore not something Hoth would consider, but the series of obstacles, surprises, and missteps gave the entire undertaking a decidedly irrational feel.
    Hoth told Fink, "If Washington Court House is secure we can transfer the camp into town. I want you to confirm that the town is safe to occupy. I will realign our armor to face any threats from the south."
    Fink accepted his orders and marched from the room.
    Forest waited silently while the General studied the tabletop map with seemingly glazed eyes. She knew better than to think he daydreamed.
    It impressed Nina that she could hear the crackle of the fireplace. Impressed because half a dozen technicians and specialists worked in the room examining communiques, intelligence information, supply requisitions, readiness reports, and more. Yet they remained quiet enough that the burning kindling made the loudest noise in the room. No idle conversations. The command staff reflected the personality of their General.
    "Captain, I want to make sure I understand the situation fully," he went over again that morning what he had discussed with Captain Forest last night. "Yesterday we received a radio communication from a group of survivors outside of Dayton, over thirty miles behind our front lines, warning of imminent danger to our entire Army Group. The voice on the radio specifically requests that you- Nina Forest — fly to her location to discuss this threat."
    Nina continued what the General started, "She says she won’t tell us about the threat because she wants guaranteed evacuation to our lines, but she isn’t willing to wait until the whole force rolls over to her. She wants out now. She'll trade this info for extraction."
    He said, "She will only trust you because you were good friends."
    Nina rolled the name from the radio around on her tongue: " Jolene Crawford. I knew a Jolene Crawford during basic training. We bunked together for a while. The only thing I remember is she constantly complained about a bias in the Army against women whenever she came up short on a drill. I suppose maybe she thought more of me than I did of her. I’m just saying, I never thought of her or saw her after basic training."
    Hoth returned his attention to the tabletop and exhaled roughly; his version of a sigh.
    She appreciated his frustration. Facing a host of Wraiths, or a Hivvan Corp, a pack of Jaw-Wolves, or the radiation signature of a Shadow would be preferable to this mystery. The entire operation felt like a stroll through a minefield. Nina wondered if they might not be better off extricating the entire army from Ohio and waiting until summer to try again.
    Yet she knew that was not an option. It was the promise of victory-not embarrassing retreats-keeping the people back home from descending into anti-inflation riots or work strikes.
    Those victories must keep coming because the people must have faith in the military. That military served as an extension of the Emperor and it was his power- his will — holding together the scattered settlements comprising humanity's hope for survival.
    "Captain, what is your opinion of this request?"
    Nina weighed her thoughts aloud. "Seems to me I have to go through with it. I mean, if it’s The Order or something like that, they wouldn’t gain much by luring me into a trap. It doesn’t make sense to try and net me or even the Dark Wolves unit. On the other hand, it's been six and a half years since the invasion. Survivors tend to be desperate to get behind our lines, particularly if she knows something big is about to happen."
    The General stood silent for several seconds. Nina could nearly hear the gears turning as the man analyzed the situation and prepared a strategy.
    "This Jolene Crawford wants you to rendezvous at her location in three days. Instead, we send you in tonight a few miles from the meeting point. You can survey the situation and decide either to leave or make contact. It will be your call."
    "That sounds like the easiest way to go."
    "Captain, since we marched into Ohio, nothing has been easy."
    – "Hello, Denise? Is that you?"
    Nina, in a farmhouse bedroom turned communications center, struggled to hear the voice on the other end of the phone.
    Communication across the growing Empire proved spotty at best. In the case of Army Group North, they managed to tap into hard lines connecting with a switchboard outside of Pittsburgh which, in turn, connected to more lines all the way back to Annapolis, an amazing technical feat in the post-Armageddon world.
    Nonetheless, Denise sounded as if she spoke through a tin can at the other end of a mile-long string.
    "Mom, that you?"
    It had taken Nina a long time to accept being called "mom". The opposite had been true of Denise. The girl longed to call someone "mother" after losing her real parents in the fires of the invasion at six years old.
    "It’s me, honey, how are you?"
    "I said, it’s me. Yes, it’s me, mom. How are you?"
    "Oh. I’m good."
    "Are you going to school? No skipping, you hear?"
    "That was one time, geez. No skipping, I promise. School is actually pretty cool."
    Nina broke the bad news, "Hey, I’m going on a…well…I’m going on a mission. You know I can't say much, this isn't exactly a secure line."
    Denise groaned, "So much for our weekend in Pittsburgh, I guess."
    "I'm really sorry. I pulled a lot of strings to try and meet up for your birthday, thirteen is a big one. You're a teenager now. I can't believe it."
    "This sucks. Mom. Things were better last summer. Can't I just live with the groupies?"
    The families, loved ones, merchants, and traders who packed their belongings into wagons, horses, and backpacks to follow the troop formations were known as "groupies." The teachers among the "groupies" held classes for kids offering basic ABCs. However, Nina and her commando unit often changed Army Groups at a moment's notice. She wanted something more stable for Denise, even if it meant seeing her less.
    Nina told her adopted daughter, "I’m sorry, honey. I really am. This will be over in a few days I think. We’ll see about next weekend. We were already celebrating a little late, so what's another week, right?"
    "Yeah, Mom, whatever."
    The line clicked, a burst of static, and the connection broke.
    – The black painted Eagle transport ship cut through the frigid darkness above the Till plains of western Ohio.
    Nina Forest did not remember the first time she rode in an Eagle air ship. That memory had been one of a year's worth of memories wiped away by the aliens known as The Order. She also did not remember how to fly an Eagle, a skill Trevor Stone taught her before the stealing of those memories.
    She did know, however, that humanity had captured four Eagle air ships from the invading force nicknamed "The Redcoats" during the battle of Wilkes-Barre six years ago. The ships exemplified humanity adapting extraterrestrial technology for use against the invaders.
    Engineers improved upon the alien design and now Eagles rolled off an assembly line at the old Philadelphia shipyards for use as transports, command vehicles, and cargo carriers.
    This flying machine amazed Nina because of the lack of aerodynamics. Indeed, the Eagle resembled a flying brick sporting a triangular nose cone with a thin long windshield. Twin engine baffles marked the rear of the rectangular passenger compartment while landing gear sprouted from pods at each corner. Anti-gravity circuits in the undercarriage kept the Eagle aloft and the hydrogen-powered engines-fueled by fresh or desalinated water-pushed the ship along with a ride as smooth as an ice skater gliding across a frozen pond.
    Most of the Eagles wore white paint but a few dressed in different colors, such as Nina's black special operations ride that night.
    Nina knew how to fly helicopters, even big Blackhawk transports and Apache gun ships, but she had not found the time to take a training course for Eagle flight.
    Captain Forest shook those musings from her mind and glanced around the compartment.
    A small sealed bulkhead led forward toward the cockpit while another bulkhead led to the aft engine room. Storage compartments lined the walls of the passenger module and two sliding doors would open to the outside at the right time.
    She shared the windowless yet brightly lit passenger compartment with the rest of her Dark Wolves team.
    Oliver Maddock sat in one of the high-backed bench seats reading an issue of Know Thy Enemy, a magazine devoted to the thousands of different monsters that had come to Earth alongside extraterrestrial armies and overrun humanity nearly seven years ago.
    Nina knew that a military expedition had traveled to the Arctic Circle and retrieved a device that shut down the alien gateways. The Empire had uncovered one such dormant gateway just outside of Atlanta; a big green arch serving as the Hivvan springboard in their assault across the American south.
    From what she heard, the device recovered from Greenland also made it possible to send captured aliens home, a sort of one-way return trip to their planet of origin. A backlog of Hivvan prisoners waited in cells in Pennsylvania to take that trip. The location of this device, however, remained a closely guarded secret.
    Alas, the Earth retained an incomprehensible number of dangerous alien life forms ranging from prey such as herd animals and giant rats to predators like armor-plated Jaw-Wolves and carnivorous Giant Jellyfish. Those animals did not need gateways to increase their number, they merely reproduced.
    As for the sentient extraterrestrial races such as the Hivvans, Platypuses and Red Hands, they had descended upon the Earth seemingly to murder or enslave mankind. Often times the invaders fought amongst themselves, but just as often they worked together to attack Earth's indigenous population.
    Nina did not understand why Maddock wasted his time reading Know Thy Enemy. Like her, Maddock received the most up-to-date information on the invaders including hard, scientific facts from scientists conducting tests on captured creatures at the underground complex in Red Rock, Pennsylvania.
    Carl Bly, meanwhile, studied creatures of another sort as he sat in a corner "reading" a new issue of Playboy. The headline lured, "Girls of the 1 ^ st Armored Division!"
    Vince Caesar, the fourth member of the Dark Wolves team, busied himself with cleaning his weapon. Caesar, she knew, read every report from Red Rock and would not allow his mind to be distracted by pornography, unless ordered to do so, of course.
    Nina pulled a photograph from the pocket of her black BDUs and stared at a picture of the blond girl who called her 'mother' and who had recently turned thirteen.
    Nina did not know what that had meant in the old days, but she knew what it meant in the post-Armageddon world. It meant making sure Denise went to school. It meant standing in line at the distribution center to get enough food for the week.
    It meant telling Denise that, no, she could not build bonfires at Highland Beach with the older boys from school. Nina did not care that Denise could fight with the skill of a second-degree black belt or that she could plug a Gremlin in the forehead at twenty yards with a handgun. The girl would be in bed at a reasonable time and not hanging out with older boys anywhere, let alone the beach at night.
    It meant taking Denise to the doctor-where the lines were often times longer than the distribution center lines-for vaccinations and check-ups. It meant scrounging enough of the new 'continental dollars' so Denise could buy a cool skirt for the school dance.
    It meant a lot of things that translated into headaches, heartache, shouting matches, spending lots of money, and bouts of self-doubt the likes of which Nina never experienced in all her life.
    And it was worth every last second.
    Then again, most of the time it was Barney-the caretaker at the complex where she and Denise lived-doing those things with Denise. The wounded combat vet treated the kids of all the military families living in the apartment building like his own, and Nina knew from the start she would spend most days away from Denise as part of her role in the war. Truth was, very few 'traditional' families remained anymore. None of that made it easier to be hundreds of miles away from the one person in the new world who gave Nina a reason to live other than battle.
    The cabin intercom buzzed and the pilot announced, "Two minutes to LZ. Stand by."
    Maddock and Bly stowed their magazines. Caesar re-assembled his rifle in seconds.
    The bright interior lights switched off, replaced by a soft red glow.
    Nina slipped on a black ski mask and warm gloves then wrestled a heavy backpack onto her shoulders. Next, she strapped a scabbard to her leg and checked the sword inside. That sword held special meaning to her; a prize won from the Mutant who had held Denise hostage in Wilmington, North Carolina.
    With everything in place, the Captain led her team to the starboard door and waited.
    Her stomach fluttered as she felt the craft descend, her body rocked forward and then back as momentum slowed to a stop.
    "Prepare to disembark."
    The side door slid open. A bitter breeze gust in. The red interior light radiated out and illuminated a patch of frosty dirt. The four members of the Dark Wolves jumped into the untamed wilderness more than thirty miles behind enemy lines.
    – The first rays of dawn glimmered over the horizon.
    Nina’s team had spent the night-a long, brutally cold night-nestled amongst the barren thickets atop one of the soft hills riding the gently rolling plains. Those plains marked the start of the corn belt: some of the best farming land in all of what used to be called the United States.
    Most of that fertile land sat neglected. However, Nina and her team spied a stretch that had not withered: a farm house and barn with a field stretching behind. With the growing season long over, the farm equipment sat idle but the field appeared disturbed, as if it had endured the tilling, seeding, and harvesting cycle in the not too distant past.
    From their position, the wolves observed three dozen men, women, and teenagers moving about a big house, a barn, and what appeared to be a guest cottage. At night they had watched the lights go out one after another, in the morning they watched the residents draw water from a well, feed livestock in the barn, and check game traps around the edge of their farm, finding several mice and rabbits in the process.
    Despite the livestock and farmland, the majority appeared hungry and desperate. Their clothes-threadbare at best-hung from slumped shoulders on scrawny frames. They wrapped themselves in table cloths, curtains, and burlap sacks to face the cold. Through binoculars, she saw rotting teeth, bruises, and sores; the signs of malnutrition.
    She did not find this surprising. When they came upon survivors they usually found people half-starving and mentally beaten by a world in which mankind no longer lived atop the food chain.
    However, a number of the residents appeared in better condition both physically and in dress. Again, not surprising; she saw this plenty of times, too. The bigger the gun the more likely a thug could grow himself into a warlord. Although she refused to jump to conclusions based on a few hours of study, she suspected that some tin-pot dictator and a handful of friends controlled this farm, living off the fruits of others with the threat of violence.
    Still, as Captain Forest watched the farm come to life that morning, she felt certain this was a colony of human beings, not The Order’s converts or aliens in disguise.
    Carl Bly, next to Nina among the dead thickets, whispered, "Whachya thinkin', Cap?"
    A freezing January wind blew across the frosted hill, reminding Nina of the uncomfortable night they had spent in the wilderness. Overhead, puffy white clouds raced across a blue sky as if late for a gathering storm.
    "Unless someone here sees something I don't, I think we've got a bunch of survivors. I don't detect any threats."
    "Looks clean to me, Cap," Vince Caesar agreed.
    Bly added, "I'd sure like it a Hell of a lot better down there inside that farmhouse than out on this hill. It has got to be warmer in there. I see smoke coming out the chimney."
    Maddock nodded his head enthusiastically at Bly's idea.
    Nina said, "We’re early but let's introduce ourselves."
    The four commandos stood and descended the slope. They were half way to the farmhouse when the residents caught sight of the visitors. One hurried into the main house. A few moments later a group of people rushed to meet the soldiers at the edge of the property.
    A woman with shoulder-length brunette hair covered by a knit hat and watching through green eyes led the welcoming committee. She and her escort were from the better fed/better clothed faction of the community. She appeared unfazed by the early arrival.
    "Nina? I’m glad you came!"
    "Yes, I’m Nina Forest. Do I know you?"
    "It’s me. Jo. Jolene Crawford. We were friends, right?"
    Captain Forest studied the dark-haired woman bundled in winter clothing.
    "Jolene. Jo Crawford?"
    "Yes," and she turned to one of the men on her flank and said, "See, I told you she'd know me. I knew it!"
    "We can have a transport here in a few hours to get you and your people out."
    "That's awesome," Jolene struggled to suppress a bout of giddiness. "I knew we could count on you. Thank you for coming."
    "How many people here?" Nina asked.
    "Ah, well, there's a few. And we've got lots of stuff we might want to take back. Maybe your boys here can help us sort out what's what."
    "You said in your radio message that there was a threat," Nina decided to move beyond the niceties. "What were you talking about?"
    "My boss can break it down for you. C'mon inside."
    Nina turned to her team and looked them each in the eye as she instructed, "Check out the rest of the camp here. Take a census of the survivors and their condition."
    While her words sent one message, the glare in her eye contact sent another. A message of caution and suspicion.
    Jolene and her escort then led Nina toward the farmhouse. As they approached, the scrawnier-looking residents stepped aside, like peasants scurrying from the path of royalty. Stranger still, they regarded her-Nina-with something akin to awe. Eyes widened, jaws dropped, and she overheard hushed gasps.
    They entered through a rickety front door. Jolene led Nina into the house's living room. The only light there came from slivers of sun sneaking in through seams between drawn curtains.
    Jolene presented, "Here she is."
    Nina saw a shadow on the far side of the room.
    A voice spoke, "Well. Isn’t this something."
    The voice sounded oddly familiar to Nina. She knew it from somewhere.
    The shadow moved closer.
    Nina saw.
    From somewhere far away, she heard a shout of warning-Vince, perhaps-and the sharp report of a solitary gunshot. From behind, she sensed concealed weapons drawn.
    Yet none of that mattered. The sight in front of Nina held her attention to the fullest. As that sight came in to focus, her senses corkscrewed as if her mind fell into a whirlwind. Nina gasped short breaths. Her entire body shook.
    "No…it’s not… it’s not possible."
    The combat veteran, the mother, the natural-born warrior…
    Nina screamed.

2. Toy Soldiers

    A cloud of dust kicked into the sky by a column of advancing armor…rockets roaring from artillery batteries…the zing of bullets and the dull clap of grenades…these were the sounds of battle; the music that beat time to humanity’s war of survival.
    Trevor Stone- Emperor Trevor Stone — could see it all.
    In his mind.
    With his eyes he saw only push pins and order of battle charts; aerial photography and casualty reports. These were the swords he swung from his seat of power in the second floor office at the lakeside estate in Pennsylvania.
    The biggest of the maps on the desktop illustrated the expanse of his Empire. The borders hugged the Mississippi river from the Gulf coast north to Illinois then retreated eastward along the Ohio River to Army Group North's position near Columbus.
    New England, several Canadian towns along the northern border, Florida, New York City…all "liberated."
    An eclectic combination of monsters and alien armies invaded Earth on a late June day six years and seven months ago. On that day, a mysterious entity dressed as an old man told Trevor that he must survive, fight, and sacrifice to save humanity.
    During those early months, each dawn felt like a precious gift because living until sunset of that same day seemed a tall task.
    After the Battle of Five Armies-so nicknamed by Dante Jones in reference to a famous battle from Tolkien's The Hobbit — 'survive' changed to 'fight'.
    To his surprise, Trevor found a knack for taking the downtrodden refugees of man's collapsed civilization and transforming them into armies of murdering mobs. Yesterday's store clerks and accountants, teachers and lawyers, found new purpose as soldiers crusading against the invaders.
    Slowly they expanded outward from Trevor's lakeside estate. First he found individual survivors and some families, then remnants of the U.S. military, and then hidden colonies at campgrounds or in isolated towns and villages.
    As he found more and more survivors, his cause grew into a small nation. Many of those survivors came from alien slave camps overrun and liberated, others-like Ashley, the mother of Trevor's son-rescued from globs of green goo into which they had mysteriously disappeared in the early days of Armageddon.
    Then came the Hivvans.
    The Grand Army of the Hivvan Republic controlled most of the southeastern United States. With air forces, armor support, and intelligence units, these bipedal reptiles possessed the trappings of evolved warfare.
    They fought a series of pitched, combined arms battles. Artillery bombardments and dive bombers; infiltration units and armored spearheads; the vocabulary sounded eerily familiar despite an enemy of extraterrestrial origin.
    Trevor’s finger stopped on a dot south of Wilmington along the Atlantic coast: New Winnabow, North Carolina.
    He closed his eyes and could nearly hear the village elders denying his forces passage despite explaining that failure to let his forces through would derail a critical strategic maneuver.
    After exhausting every avenue of negotiation, Trevor sent a swarm of his personal warriors-the K9 Grenadiers-to wipe out New Winnabow.
    In the year and four months since that slaughter, humanity made more gains-both in territory and resources-than in the previous four years combined, and the defeated Hivvans deserved the credit.
    Instead of outright murdering the human population, these reptilian aliens preferred to capture and enslave. With each victory, Trevor released more captives, growing the free population significantly. The liberation of Columbia, South Carolina emancipated ten thousand people alone. The following year nearly three times that number escaped bondage when the Hivvan capital in Atlanta fell.
    Furthermore, the Hivvans turned the large cities under their control into fortresses and cleared the surrounding wilderness of threats. In short, these invaders eliminated scores of dangerous alien monsters, making humanity's job that much easier.
    The Hivvans unknowingly helped Trevor's cause in one other way. They brought to Earth powerful equipment that re-arranged the atomic structure of matter. This form of alchemy allowed the aliens-and eventually humanity-to turn useless or abundant materials such as scrap metal, wood, or wastewater into important resources like rubber, iron ore, and petroleum.
    As the Hivvans retreated, the agriculture-friendly lands of the south came under human control and the food supply vastly improved, nearly eliminating starvation despite a population that recently broke the one-million mark.
    After the fall of Atlanta, his soldiers entered Florida and reached the citadel-like city of Miami where a large population lived besieged by a myriad of monsters. Trevor's Empire chased away those nightmares.
    Further north, ferocious block to block fighting cleared New York City of alien pests. While they found almost no human survivors in that concrete jungle, the symbolic capture of such a renowned city boosted morale.
    Last summer, "Operation Patriot" sent thousands of Imperial forces into New England. By summer's end the major cities and important junctures in the Yankee states stood free. Furthermore, expeditions across the old Canadian border found thousands of survivors-including Canadian military-living in camps scattered through the wilderness.
    Of course, the new civilization occupying the lands that once bore the name 'America' held little resemblance to the United States. No densely populated metropolis' linked by gridlocked roads and high speed trains. Instead, isolated outposts and villages connected by neglected highways where the danger of human bandits and extraterrestrial monsters threatened.
    Steam trains operated on the rail lines, armed convoys traveled the roads, and communications relied more on couriers and radios than phone lines and cell towers.
    While things progressed well on the battlefield, Trevor faced a monster of a different kind at home; the rebirth of one of the lowest forms of life on Earth: the politician.
    New Winnabow's destruction in the jaws of Trevor's K9s sparked a conflagration of protests with Evan Godfrey fanning the flames. The resulting unrest forced Trevor to make political concessions as evidenced by a stack of papers on his desk from the newly elected "Senate."
    The very sight of those papers-and what they meant-gave him a headache, thus he welcomed the interruption when a knock came at his door.
    "Yes, yes, come in," he called enthusiastically.
    Three men walked in to the room, starting with General Jon Brewer, the man who had organized the rescue mission to free Trevor from one of The Order’s torture chambers, outwitted the Roachbots at the Battle of Five Armies, and marched across the ice cap in northern Greenland to retrieve the gateway-controlling runes. At one time his ego stood nearly as tall as his six-foot frame, but a personal failure of courage at the outset of Armageddon clipped his swagger. Now he desired only to serve and had demonstrated the ability to adapt yesterday's tactics and weapons to the reality of a changed world.
    Next came Omar Nehru, the Imperial Council’s Director of Science and Technology. He oversaw the matter transfiguration equipment, prioritized resources, and adapted alien technology for use by humanity. Omar-a native of India who came to pre-Armageddon America to teach engineering-never failed to have a cigarette dangling from his lips.
    Last came Brett Stanton, Director of Industry and Manufacturing. Brett coordinated military production using the raw materials from Omar's matter-makers to manufacture guns, ammunition, spare parts, and even humanized versions of the captured alien 'Eagle' air ships. Brett occupied one of the most important positions in the burgeoning nation, but the stress of his job took a toll made obvious by the rapid thinning of his body and hair. His pot-marked face showed signs of early aging and his brown eyes always appeared exhausted.
    The men sat across from Trevor who noticed Omar carried a cardboard tube.
    "All three of you, at once? This can't be good news."
    "Relax, Trev," Brewer assured. "This is a good meeting."
    "Mister Trevor," Omar spoke in the stereotypical accent to match his ethnicity, something he did by design. It grew worse whenever he grew agitated, and disappeared when shocked or scared. He seemed to enjoy playing the part. "We having a proposal you will much like."
    Brewer translated, "We have an idea. I think you're going to like it."
    Trevor asked, "Is this the Isaac’s Apple project?"
    "The idea grew from that, yes," Jon answered as Omar pulled a set of blue prints from the cardboard tube and unfurled them on Trevor's desktop.
    "What am I looking at?"
    Brewer pitched, "Our forces are stretched thin, even with the two new divisions. There’s just so much territory to cover as we head west."
    Stone said, "We always find a way to get by."
    "Here’s our new way to get by," Brewer tapped a finger on the blue prints.
    Trevor let the lines take shape to his eye. At first, he thought he viewed a large navy ship, maybe a battleship or an aircraft carrier. Yet the hull did not look quite right.
    Brewer said, "This is something we were kicking around and realized it might work. Omar drew up the plans and Brett checked with our production capabilities. I spoke with Shep and Stonewall about it last week during our meeting in Chattanooga."
    "Fine, great, what is it?"
    "Take a good look, Trev, at a Dreadnought."
    "A what?"
    "Dreadnought. Just a name I thought up but it could be anything; air carrier, air ship…whatever. The point isn’t the name but what it can do for us."
    "And what is that?"
    "Project power," Brewer told him. "The same way navies used aircraft carriers to project power around the world. Except, in this case, it isn’t limited to oceans but can go anywhere."
    "Break it down for me."
    Omar pointed to different parts of the blueprint as he spoke. "It utilizes a greatly expanded version of the anti-gravity circuitry that is in the Eagle air ships. Now if you look here, you can see that we've incorporated more reverse-engineered alien technology, particularly-"
    Trevor held his hand in a 'stop' sign. "What is this thing? What do you see it doing?"
    Brewer said, "An airship nearly five thousand feet long-that’s about four times an aircraft carrier-and twenty-five hundred feet wide. That gives us a huge flight deck, heavy weapons mounts, and major transport capability, all with a crew under three hundred."
    Omar added, "We are a mind of such that the anti-gravity technology can be adapted to assist in the landing of the jet planes. Combined with the long deck, this will be making it much easier to recover and launch even at the higher of altitudes."
    "Right," Jon agreed. "We also see this thing being armed to the teeth with heavy-duty energy batteries based on Redcoat technology. The thing could pack a wallop, launch planes, and deliver hundreds of troops to the battlefield."
    Trevor leaned back in his seat and let the idea of such a craft sink in.
    "Think of it," Brewer salivated. "We send Dreadnoughts in advance of our armies. They pulverize enemy positions, land troops, and airlift out survivors. Remember my expedition up north? It would have been easy with one of these. We could have flown to the Arctic Circle in a day or two instead of going by sub and would have had air support, more troops, more supplies."
    Trevor turned to Brett Stanton. While Omar dreamed up such things and Brewer could use it on the battlefield, Brett Stanton would ultimately make it a reality.
    "Can this be done?"
    "Yep. But wait now, it won’t be easy and it won’t be fast. I’m figuring eight months from go to prototype. That’s assuming I have the materials I’ll need."
    "You will have all of the materials you will be needing," Omar insisted.
    "The technology this is based on, it’s all sound?"
    Omar answered, "It is simply expanding on things that are working for us already."
    "And our resources are best spent on something like this?"
    General Jon Brewer answered, "Trev, I mean wow, our response time will be faster, we’ll be able to explore remote areas easier. Hell, build a bunch of these and send a fleet around the world to hit The Order’s main facilities or gather survivors in Europe. All that will be possible."
    Trevor gazed at the blueprint and saw what Omar and Jon envisioned: jets lifting off the deck, alien fortresses pounded by the guns, a thousand soldiers landing behind enemy lines.
    "Okay, start work on the prototype. Do it real careful, though."
    Instead of the smiles and nods of enthusiasm he expected, Trevor saw the men-one after another-look away from him as if they had something more to say but feared sharing.
    "What? What is it?"
    "Well," Jon said sheepishly. "Don’t we have to first get funding through the Senate?"
    Of course. The recently elected Senate that busied itself debating food inspection regulations and labor laws with no practical application in the reality of the new world.
    Trevor’s blood boiled. "Do what I say. If any of those damned politicians say a word, send them to me. The only power the Senate has is what I allow it to have. It's a present I gave to Evan Godfrey and his protestors to get them back to work and away from my front yard."
    Jon nodded his head although Trevor saw doubt in his eyes. Nonetheless, his best General told him, "You won’t regret this, this could really change things."
    Trevor glanced at the map on his desk.
    "Yep. It’ll give me a whole new set of pins to push around."

3. Capital Idea

    Most of the crowd wore crude wool overcoats, a few dressed in fading leather jackets left over from the old world. Regardless, they all shivered as the Capitol Building's long shadow cast over them and made a cold morning colder.
    Their attention focused on a podium positioned between the two massive stairways ascending what had once been the home of the United States Congress.
    The building itself-strong and sturdy-suffered damage from bombs and energy weapons during the early months of the invasion, including the destruction of the 17-foot-tall "Columbus Doors."
    Inside, fire badly scorched the Frieze of American history in the rotunda but that loss represented merely the beginning of damage from flames and smoke. After the alien armies moved off, a Crawling Tube Worm nested inside and ensured that no post-apocalyptic vandals entered the Capitol Building. Or, rather, that no post-apocalyptic vandals left the Capitol Building.
    And so it remained for several years until Trevor's shock troops cleared the city during the first months of the war against the Hivvans.
    While Trevor gave the artifacts of America's old government no attention, Evan Godfrey recruited volunteers and oversaw the restoration of those hallowed halls, starting with the clearing of hundreds of decayed bodies of Capitol police, Secret Service, and CIA paramilitary.
    Now Evan stood at the podium to celebrate another triumph in a series of significant personal victories starting when he gave voice to those shocked by the destruction at New Winnabow. That popularity soared even higher when he calmed protests that otherwise could have torn the newborn Empire apart.
    His place at the forefront of post-invasion politics was sealed when Trevor Stone accepted Evan's compromise and allowed the planting of the seeds of democracy.
    "This is a great beginning," Godfrey’s voice echoed to the shivering crowd of three hundred spectators and nearly a dozen members of the new world's version of the news media. "It has been said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. As I take this first step with you, I am reminded of the many great words inscribed in the walls and recesses of this building behind me. Novus ordo seclorum. Or 'a new order of the ages is born.'
    "I was once told that our new world would be an order only of fighting and warfare. That humanity would be nothing more than a mass of soldiers combating the horrid invaders who sully our planet. That our children had nothing to look forward to other than a warrior’s life.
    "While I eagerly carry my sword into battle alongside my brothers in arms, I can confidently say that the new order of the ages is more than war. It will be an order of law, of freedom, and prosperity despite the darkness that threatens to eclipse us. Because what do you need to fight darkness? You need light. You need candles of freedom and torches of hope.
    "Today we have lit more of those candles and torches. Today the first post-invasion elected body will occupy our new home. Today the duly elected Senate will do the people’s business in this hall, a hall that has always been a sanctuary for liberty."
    Applause came but not as roaring as Evan would have liked.
    "We must make the most of this opportunity. We dare not allow this advance to be reversed. We dare not allow any quarter to those who feel there is no room for liberty. For the sake of our forefathers and for the sake of our children, I declare the Senate now in session!"
    The applause came once again, albeit shorter and softer than Evan would have preferred.
    In front of the podium gathered a handful of journalists, mainly from fledgling newspapers although two carried video cameras and a few more brandished tape recorders.
    "Mr. Godfrey!"
    "Evan, over here, I have a question!"
    He ignored them until one said exactly what he waited to hear: "Senator Godfrey!"
    Evan-Senator Godfrey-gave his attention to a red haired woman.
    "Yes? Um, Susan, right?"
    "Susan Constanino from WHBA in Harrisburg. Now that the re-opening ceremonies are out of the way, what business do you consider most urgent for the Senate?"
    "Susan, I don’t have to tell anyone out there that right now we have inflation problems and questions of legitimacy for our official currency, Continental Dollars. I am not convinced that Gold Dollars are helping the situation. I think it was a mistake for them to be issued. We will take this up in chambers, debate, and vote. That’s what democracies do."
    Again more questions, again Evan turned to the first to call him "Senator," in this case a Hispanic man wearing a torn leather jacket.
    "Ray Lito, Baltimore New Press. Isn’t that part of the problem? The Senate does not really have any power. Trevor can veto legislation and there is no recourse to override a veto."
    "I believe we will find several things to be true, starting with the fact that Trevor is over extended. The Senate alleviates some of that pressure and allows him to deal directly with military matters. He does not have to be bogged down in the details of day-to-day governing. Second, ultimately it is the people who hold the power. I do not believe Trevor would veto a measure that has the support of the people. Since we are the elected representatives of the people, then we are, in fact, the embodiment of that will."
    "Cindy Taylor, National Broadcast Network. Senator, there is still confusion over the composition of the Senate."
    "In truth, this Senate has more in common with the old House of Representatives. We are using a formula that combines population and geographic boundaries. The result is that there are forty-five Senators today. But I think the bigger point is that the Imperial Senate is really the first seed of democracy. We will continue to expand this concept with time. I, for one, hope that someday we will have both a Senate and a House of Representatives again. Of course, I also want to see a restoration of the three branches of government."
    "Senator Godfrey, do you plan on running for the position of President of the Senate?"
    "No comment."
    – Sharon Godfrey-formerly Sharon Parsons-met Evan underneath the Capitol rotunda. The room stretched high above and was so powerful in feel that it was nearly oppressive.
    The ornate walls…the statues, busts, and plaques…the paintings…it was easy to see how working in such an environment could foster a sense of arrogance; of personal importance.
    "So what do you think?" Evan sought her critique of his performance.
    The crowd moved inside and worked their way around the interior, absorbing the atmosphere and admiring the quality of the restoration. Volunteers served bottles of water and snacks of beef tips and fresh fruit trucked in from points south.
    "Not bad. Could do with a little more, um, let me think how to say this…"
    "Venom," Evan finished for her.
    "I didn’t say that."
    "You don’t have to. This is why I don’t put you in front of a microphone. You’re as subtle as an atomic bomb."
    Her father had served as Chief Councilman of New Winnabow where she lived with her young son. It had been her father’s disdain for all things military or violent that convinced him to refuse the passage of troops through their community and who had fatally misjudged the lengths to which Trevor would go for victory. More then one hundred people died at New Winnabow in the jaws of the K9 Grenadiers.
    "Sometimes subtlety is not a virtue, Evan."
    "You really don’t know this game, do you?" He pulled her aside into the shadow of a founding father's statue.
    "I didn’t think we were playing a game, Evan," his partner, occasional lover, and overall showpiece shot back.
    "Oh, now don’t make that mistake, Sharon. It’s one big game. The rules are simple. Don’t slip up. Don’t frown when you should smile, don’t smile when you should be sad. Don’t say the wrong word in front of a rolling camera. But you know the most important rule, Sharon?"
    "Oh, please tell me. I am dying to hear another of your speeches today."
    "The most important rule is to hold your cards close to your chest. You," he gazed at her top down with disdain. "You should never play poker, Sharon. You would go broke."
    "I suppose I have a lot to learn," she conceded nothing and he darned well knew it.
    "Just stick with your part and you’ll be fine. We’ll be fine."
    "Now don’t be mad," she wrapped her arm around his. "Look, I’m smiling because I am touring the grand new Senate building with my husband. Come, darling, let’s go walk arm and arm through your kingdom. Perhaps you can whisper sweet nothings to me about business regulation and budget projections."
    They strolled the hall absorbing the ambiance and the attention. Evan Godfrey, the champion of democracy; the man who could stand toe to toe with The Emperor.
    At his side his wife whose first husband-a brave U.S. Marine-died fighting the invasion and whose father was murdered when Trevor grasped New Winnabow.
    A skinny woman with dark hair and overly long earrings approached the happy couple. She wore a fur coat that served purpose, not fashion.
    "Senator Trimble," Evan greeted her with forced warmth.
    "Senator Godfrey," the woman spoke in guarded tones. "Your words today were well-chosen. Why, one might even say well-crafted."
    "I like to believe that my words were spoken on behalf of all the Senate."
    "I’m sure you would hope so. I am also sure that you feel confident your fellow Senators will elect you President of our new body next week."
    "Why my dear Helena, I don’t believe we’ve even started accepting nominations for that position. Besides," he waved a dismissive hand, "it is a rather boring and dull position."
    "Have you decided to resign from your post on The Emperor’s advisory council? Some believe it is a conflict of interest."
    "Of course they would," Sharon kept her smile but could not hold her tongue. "Then again, they have not accomplished what my husband has accomplished. If not for him, you would still be an appointed Mayor of that little town in Maryland. Now look at you, you’re an elected official. You’re moving up in the world."
    "Yes, this is true," Helena agreed but did not share Sharon’s smile. "Still, I thought your husband fought to reduce the power of one man, The Emperor. The more I see the more I wonder if this isn’t about increasing the power of another."
    "Careful," Evan warned. "We need to watch our words. I think it is unwise for the two of us to be so confrontational. I was just explaining to my lovely wife, we really should watch what we say. You never know when your words may come back to hurt you."
    – Evan did his best to suppress a yawn as Internal Security Chief Dante Jones finished his closing statement before the sub-committee meeting in the Senate chamber.
    In the hours since he declared the new Senate in session, they had completed the first roll call (one hundred percent attendance), outlined the parameters that would govern the committee that would prepare a proposal on the reach and goals of interstate commerce regulations (despite a lack of actual 'states' in the old-world sense), spent a working lunch listening to a presentation from a political scientist who told the new Senators how important they were, reconvened after lunch with afternoon roll call (seventy-five percent attendance, not bad), and opened nominations for chairpersons of various sub-committees including agriculture, finance, diversity, education, and history preservation.
    The largest gathering that afternoon revolved around the Domestic Security sub-committee and its charge to investigate and understand the needs of Internal Security.
    As Dante Jones read the last lines of his closing statement-something about cooperation and resources-Senator Frank Whitman of a district in central New Jersey stormed into the chambers and found a seat at the head table overlooking the Internal Security Chief. The Senator waved a piece of paper in the air and glared at Dante.
    "Senator Whitman," Chairperson Otis Love from New York halted the proceedings. "Is there a problem we should be aware of?"
    Evan, in the front row of desks arranged in a semi-circle facing the dais where the committee sat in high-backed chairs, watched carefully, noting that Whitman appeared ready to attack Jones.
    "I have some questions that the people need answered right now."
    Evan saw sweat on Dante's brow and a tremble in his hands. He knew Jones did not feel at home in such surroundings. Indeed, he rarely appeared comfortable about anything involving his job as Chief of I.S. Trevor had appointed him more out of trust for his judgment and disposition, not for any real world experience.
    "What…what is it you want to know?"
    "I have copies of a memorandum you wrote to Internal Security Post 47. For those who may not know, Post 47 is charged with maintaining security in central and southern New Jersey."
    Dante swallowed. "I write lots of memos, Senator. Actually-"
    "Dated this last Monday, January 17. Written to Post 47 in regards to manpower deployments and procedures. Do you remember this memo? Do you?"
    Dante's lips moved but no sound came out. His eyes sought the ceiling, then the floor, then his hands.
    "This memo, Mr. Jones, resulted in the death of five people last night."
    A hush rolled through the chamber.
    "This memo represents gross negligence. This memo authorizes post 47 to cut back on personnel at check points along the Atlantic City Expressway. Do you remember the damn memo now, Mr. Jones?"
    He swallowed hard and then stammered an answer, "I remember a memo that authorized a change in operations to reflect security conditions. As for people dying, I don’t know what you’re talking about."
    Whitman pounded his fists. "I’m talking about two young children, their parents, and their teamster ripped to shreds when their horse-drawn carriage was attacked at the Farley check point which was unmanned in the middle of the night! I’m talking about negligence, Mr. Jones!"
    Chairperson Love said, "Senator, please share this information with the rest of the panel."
    Whitman composed himself. Dante tried to do the same. Neither was very successful.
    "Mr. Chairman, my colleagues, the Atlantic City Expressway cuts through New Jersey from the coast to Philadelphia. Before the invasion it was probably the busiest highway south of Trenton. This is true again today. According to Internal Security records, the Farley checkpoint logged two supply convoys per day as well as an average of eight civilian vehicles, mainly horse-drawn wagons and bicycles. That's every day on average. By way of comparison, only the roads around Trevor's lakeside estate and this city-Washington-rank higher in logged traffic."
    Dante Jones quickly said, "Miami has much higher traffic rates and almost no incidents."
    Whitman appeared ready for that reaction. He shot, "We all know Miami is a special case, Mr. Jones. You inherited that situation; my understanding is that I.S. isn't even fully integrated there yet, so don't try and take credit for it!"
    Chairperson Love raised his hands. "Let's try to remain calm and focused."
    Whitman huffed and then continued, "With this memo, Internal Security Chief Dante Jones authorized a change in how those check points are organized. The result is that a family that I knew from my district stopped at what they thought was an active check point only to be slaughtered by what appears to have been a Jabberwock."
    "Mr. Jones, can you shed more light on this incident?"
    Dante shook his head ‘no’. "I have been here all day and haven’t received my daily reports. There is probably a report waiting on my desk. I’m sorry about your loss."
    "You’re sorry? I don’t have reports waiting back home, Mr. Jones. I have a dead family. All due to your incompetence."
    Disgruntled mumbles rumbled through the chamber, echoing to the tall ceiling and bouncing off the walls. The press that had been lulled to sleep by droning speeches awoke; video cameras and tape recorders rolled; the flash of photography flickered across the chamber.
    Evan Godfrey watched silently and held his cards close to his chest.
    "Mr. Jones," the Chairperson addressed the Chief. "How do you react to this news?"
    "As I said, like, I’m very sorry for what happened. I’ll have to look into it but we’re changing the way we’re organized all the time. We have a shortage of manpower."
    "I call for your resignation," Whitman burst. "This is the last straw. In the last week alone three people killed in West Virginia, another two in eastern Kentucky, the food center in Maryland wiped out, the list goes on. I don’t see how you can be trusted with Internal Security."
    "Um," Dante stuttered as the cameras focused on his blank expression.
    Evan waited. He wanted to see more sweat on Dante’s brow.
    Whitman pressed on, "Tell us all-right here and now-what your credentials are to hold this position. What did you do before Armageddon? Were you a police officer? Were you a soldier? This is the most important position in our nation and I cannot fathom why it has been entrusted to you!"
    Dante stammered, "I’ve been doing this for a bunch of years now and I-"
    "That’s not what I asked! I asked for your credentials before the invasion!"
    Sweat nearly poured from Dante's forehead. His eyes changed from wide-eyed shock to slits of defensive anger. His mouth opened and something akin to a bark formed…
    Evan stood and spoke. Not a shout. Firm…but calm.
    "Gentlemen, gentlemen. First, let me pass on my sincere condolences to the Senator from New Jersey. I think we all know the pain of loss in these times."
    Everything stopped. Evan Godfrey held the attention of the entire room, including all the cameras and all the reporters taking notes.
    "Despite the trappings of civilization with which we are currently surrounded, we cannot forget that we live in a chaotic world. Our population is spread thin across the eastern half of what once was our beloved America. There are great…great shadows hidden between our cities. When we gauge the success or failure of our Internal Security apparatus, we must view it with the proper perspective."
    Evan looked to Dante. The sweat still dripped from his brow, but in Dante's eyes Evan saw gratitude for the rescue.
    "The war effort demands supplies and resources. I think everyone in this chamber would join me in applauding the efforts of our troops in the field. Yet our front line soldiers are not the only warriors in this battle. The Internal Security agents and officers who patrol our streets, our interstates, our rail road stations and supply depots, are as much soldiers in this war as the pilots and infantrymen in Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi."
    Someone in the press pool coughed. It was the only sound save for Evan’s voice.
    "I’ve known Dante Jones for a long time. We fought together at Five Armies. We worked closely in North Carolina during the Hivvan war. I know he does the best job he can do with the resources at his disposal. This tragedy can not be dismissed as the responsibility of one man. He is doing the best job he can under the difficult circumstances in which he finds himself. As for his credentials, well, his track record of bravery and sound judgment is well-documented.
    "Lest we forget, Dante Jones was a voice of reason during the protests following the events at New Winnabow. He served as a mediator between the people and the office of the Emperor. Without him those days would have been much darker. Indeed, we owe Mr. Jones a debt of gratitude for his work during those difficult times. Without his sense of compromise, without his influence, without his judgment we almost certainly would never have witnessed the election of this Senate and, more importantly, we may have seen the beginnings of civil war."
    Evan spoke the truth; Dante had been an important mediator at the time. Yet it was Evan who pulled the strings of the protests and he did so in a manner to serve his own ends and those ends included making Dante look good. Evan considered it an investment.
    Senator Whitman-his anger somewhat deflated-redirected and the direction he traveled pleased Evan. "I concede your point, Senator Godfrey. Perhaps I affix responsibility to the wrong person. Trevor Stone-and the lack of resources he makes available to Internal Security-is the reason why tragedies such as this still occur within our boundaries."
    Dante waited. The press waited. Even Sharon Parsons-sitting in the balcony-waited like lions at feeding time anticipating red meat. They waited for what surely would be another of Evan’s renowned tirades against The Emperor.
    Evan spoke in a calm, reasoned voice, "No. The blame does not lay with Trevor Stone or any one person, or any people at all, for that matter. We live in a dangerous world. Our work securing this world for humanity is far from complete. If we were not at war, then maybe we would have the means to better secure our families. But we are, in point of fact, at war. I cannot argue against the resources sent forward to our fighting men and women. The sad truth is that neither Dante Jones nor Trevor Stone are responsible for the death of that family. The environment in which we live bears responsibility. It is a fact of our existence."
    Dante’s eyes widened-like so many in the chamber-widened in surprise. Whitman had lobbed a softball at Evan Godfrey; the perfect chance to hit another poetic homerun against Trevor Stone and the governing structure of The Empire.
    Yet Evan actually excused Trevor Stone. He sounded…reasonable. Fair minded, even.
    "I say to you, here today, the responsibility for changing this situation lay with this committee, this governing body. We fought for the Senate because we promised that our wisdom could improve the lives of our citizens and better advance the cause of humanity. We must take this tragedy and burn it into our hearts. Then we must work-we must roll up our sleeves and work-to find the solutions. That is the charge of this Senate. This cannot be a body of pointless political thought and gridlock. Instead, this has to be the engine of The Empire that produces the ideas, the direction, and the hope that will guide us to a better tomorrow."
    Evan stopped.
    Dante eased in his chair; the pressure off.
    First came one pair of hands clapping from somewhere in the crowd of observers. Then Chairperson Love brought his hands together. Then others. Senator Whitman was the first to stand.
    Before he knew it, Dante joined in the standing ovation of roaring applause in which Evan basked.
    For his part, Evan raised his hands to calm the crowd in a manner most humble. Still, he could not help but look toward the balcony.
    There stood his lovely wife, joining in the applause. Yet despite her clapping, Evan saw the disappointment in her eyes. Like everyone else-more so-Sharon Godfrey knew that her husband had been given the perfect opportunity to score points against Emperor Trevor Stone. Instead he took the heat off of that man and willingly accepted the burden on his own shoulders. If Evan was not so busy acting humble he would have laughed at how perplexed she looked.
    Oh Sharon, you just aren’t a poker player.

4. Fools Rush In

    Trevor lobbed the plastic ball. JB swung his bat-also plastic-and made solid contact. Trevor flinched as the ball flew by within an inch of his ear.
    Jorge Benjamin Stone-four months away from his fifth birthday-laughed hard but found his composure when his mother, Ashley, joined them on the open stretch of frozen lawn near the helicopter/Eagle landing pad outside the mansion.
    She said, "Baseball on a day this cold? Are you crazy?"
    "Hey, at least it's sunny out," Trevor answered as he retrieved the ball. "I think JB was getting stir crazy stuck inside for weeks now."
    "Jorgie, stir crazy? Or are you just running away from all that paperwork on your desk?"
    "No comment."
    She smiled and purposely annoyed him by saying, "You sound like a politician."
    "That's just plain mean."
    JB ran over and gave his mom a hug as best he could from inside the heavy winter coat he wore. As she returned the sturdy squeeze she told Trevor, "I came to let you know Shep’s transport touched down at the airport. He should be here soon."
    "Good. Now we’re just waiting on Hoth and we can have our staff meeting."
    "Another meeting, father?"
    "That’s right Jorge, another meeting. Got to have meetings. Meetings and papers…all sorts of papers. Big stacks of them this high" and he held his hand above his head.
    "As for you," Ashley ruffled the mad bomber deerskin cap covering JB's blond hair. "Miss Gill is looking for you. Time for class."
    "But mommy, it’s Saturday."
    Trevor told him, "It’s school time whenever Miss Gill says it’s school time. Roger that?"
    "Roger that, father."
    The young man then hurried ahead of his parents toward the mansion. A black Doberman Pincher named Ajax followed the boy, as was his charge.
    Ashley clasped her arms together and let out a, "burrrr," in regards to the temperature.
    Trevor threw an arm around her to provide some warmth. Such could be said about their entire relationship: a little warmth, now and then, to chase away the loneliness they both felt.
    Before the invasion, Trevor-or rather 'Richard'-and Ashley planned to wed. She and everyone in her neighborhood disappeared without a trace as had tens of thousands of others across the world in the days and hours before the invasion began in earnest.
    Over a year later, she reappeared with her neighbors encased in a kind of green goo; a biological sarcophagus of sorts that had transported them through time.
    More and more batches of missing persons popped up in the same areas where they had disappeared, usually not long after those areas came under control of Trevor's expanding Empire, as if their reappearance was timed for a safe return.
    Trevor suspected that the mysterious Old Man might have something to do with it, but he would not answer any questions on the matter.
    As for those people who had "rode the ark," they showed no signs of physical trauma and no impact from the lost time between vanishing and appearing.
    Ashley reappeared pregnant with Trevor’s child, having conceived just prior to the commencement of hostilities. On May fifteenth of the following year she gave birth to Jorge Benjamin Stone.
    During her absence-the year he spent with Nina-Trevor came to realize he never truly loved his fiancee. Yet he understood he had yet another role to play, the role of father. He could not abandon Ashley; he could not abandon his child.
    And oh, what an exceptional child.
    Trevor found out exactly how exceptional from an unexpected source, a previously unknown half-brother who trespassed into the mansion one scary evening.
    No shock that night came as more horrific than the accusation Ashley’s pregnancy started Armageddon. In addition, his crazy half-brother said that Trevor's ability to communicate with dogs came from a unique combination of genes in his body. He also suggested that Jorgie held some secret-perhaps a key-to Armageddon.
    Cursory medical exams revealed JB’s brain included far more neurotransmitters than the typical human. No one could even guess what that meant.
    Trevor pulled his arm from Ashley’s shoulder to catch the front door their son flung open. They followed JB inside where phones rang, couriers shuffled through the halls, and the always-obedient K9 'Grenadiers' sat and lay at guard positions.
    Ashley did not know about Nina. Those who did know were forbidden to speak of it.
    When Ashley returned from her trip through time, she found her fiance a changed man. Instead of clumsy and misguided Richard, she met Trevor. Cold, distant, and focused. She did not need to know of Nina to know she no longer held his heart.
    Nonetheless, in this new world she found a new role, too; the strong and quiet companion to the Emperor.
    While they never married, they shared the same bed and sometimes shared their bodies. Even then-even in the midst of passion-they mainly felt alone.
    As Trevor often told himself, there were worse fates. In a world that confined him to the prison of his mission, living with the beautiful Ashley was the least of his sorrows.
    "Full council meeting today?" She asked as they passed what used to be a dining room but had long ago morphed into Lori Brewer’s office.
    "No, just military. Dante and Eva are in Washington in front of Evan’s sub-committees."
    "You mean the Senate’s sub-committees."
    "That’s what I said, didn’t I?"
    "Freudian slip. Well, enjoy your meeting," Ashley gave him a peck on the cheek.
    "Oh, I’m sure it will be a laugh a minute."
    – Several days each week the den changed from playroom to classroom for a half-dozen children of officers and administrators, including Catherine Brewer and Jorge Stone.
    With a backpack slung over his shoulder, JB paused outside the door when he saw 'Reverend' Johnny, a stocky black man on his way to the military meeting in the basement.
    "Greetings and salutations young Jorge," Johnny boomed and grinned.
    JB replied, "Good morning Mister Reverend Johnny, sir."
    The sound of children chattering carried out from the makeshift classroom.
    "Today is a school day? When I was your age, Saturday was a day for shenanigans."
    "Wow, that must have been a long, long time ago."
    "Why yes, Master Stone, it was most certainly a long time ago. Now you run along and mind your manners with your teacher."
    Jorge took one step toward the den but stopped. He turned to Johnny again with his eyes cast down and his head tilted, as if struggling with a thought.
    "Do tell, JB, is there something else today?"
    The young boy found the solution he sought. He told the Reverend, "My father will need you. You can see things more clearly sometimes."
    "I do not comprehend your meaning, Master Stone."
    "You should be with my father when he goes. He’ll need you."
    "Goes? When your father goes where?"
    Jorgie’s answer came nonchalant as if- duh — everyone knows what I am talking about.
    JB walked into class leaving Reverend Johnny standing in the hallway, perplexed.
    – Trevor convened his military council at the conference table in the basement. There sat General Jon Brewer; his wife, Lori, who was Chief Administrator; Omar Nehru; Omar’s wife, Anita, who served as "Chief Analyst Hostile Information and Tracking"; Brett Stanton; Gordon Knox, Director of Intelligence; General Jerry Shepherd of Army Group Center; General Thomas Prescott of Army Group South and, of course, Reverend Johnny who held the position of "Chief Analyst Hostile Biotechnology."
    Ironically, they waited for General Hoth, the last person anyone expected to be late.
    Lori Brewer hung up a phone and reported, "A shuttle from Army Group North landed on the pad upstairs. General Fink is making his way down here."
    "Fink?" Stone said. "Where is Hoth?"
    Lori shrugged. "How the Hell am I supposed to know?"
    Moments later Casey Fink descended the stairs into the basement. Jon Brewer intercepted him before he could reach the table and grilled him as to Hoth's disposition. Fink responded with a whisper in Jon's ear while handing him a note. A moment later Jon came to Trevor's side and placed a hand on his shoulder.
    "Could I speak to you for a moment?"
    Brewer led Trevor to a corner and carried on a hushed conversation. The others at the table shared concerned glances but otherwise waited.
    After several minutes, the two men returned to the table but something was wrong with Trevor; his eyes glazed over and he sort of stumbled as he walked, almost zombie-like.
    "Okay, um," Stone coughed and started the meeting. Instead of making eye contact with the others as he always did, Trevor stared at his hands clasped in front of him on the table top. "Let’s go around and get updates from everyone. Let's, um, Shep, let’s start with you."
    Instead of reporting, Shepherd said, "Seems to me we should be waiting for Hoth, right?"
    Jon answered for Trevor, "He’s not coming. Casey here is standing in for Hoth today."
    "That's rather unusual, isn't it?" Shep did not really ask, he more demanded.
    Trevor conceded, "General Hoth did not want to leave his post at this time. He did not want to, um, leave because he has a group of missing soldiers out there."
    The room waited for more.
    Trevor swallowed hard and finally looked up.
    "The Dark Wolves failed to report in from a mission. They are considered M.I.A."
    Trevor turned his eyes to Shepherd. Nina was like a daughter to him. Trevor understood that Shep deserved an answer.
    "Nina Forest is missing."
    – The runes emitted a vibration of energy, like static electricity filling the cavern. The nature of that energy-in fact everything about the runes-befuddled Omar, Reverend Johnny, and everyone else who tried to understand the strange objects.
    Made of something resembling rock, the two jagged pillars stood six feet tall on a shared base, each crowned by a silver orb permanently stamped with the handprints of Jon Brewer.
    Symbols were etched into the columns, seemingly placed randomly and resembling just about every form of alphabet Earth had ever known, yet remaining undecipherable.
    After Jon Brewer and his team had returned home from their expedition to the north, Trevor blasted out a cave in one of the rocky mountains behind the estate. Massive iron doors, a complex security system, and a cadre of both humans and K9s stood guard.
    Hundreds of aliens resided at the "Chase" prison a few miles away in Jackson Township while they waited their turn through the runes or, in some cases, diversion to the Red Rock research facility for scientific examination.
    At any one time the prison held a hundred Hivvans and a few dozen Platypuses'. Plenty of room remained in Chase but humanity rarely sought surrender from the invaders; Trevor and mankind spoke of liberation but beneath that noble cause simmered a dark desire for revenge.
    On that particular Saturday afternoon, a line of ten Hivvans-bipedal reptiles-moved through the cave guarded by Doberman Pinschers and Internal Security officers. They marched toward the runes on the far side of a round chamber illuminated by portable lights.
    Trevor sat in a dark corner on a pile of boulders. He watched as the aliens, one by one, stepped between the pillars. Each time the letters on the runes glowed as the alien dissolved into molecules that faded away from Earth ostensibly to reassemble on their home planet.
    He watched, allowing his eyes to grow mesmerized by the sight while his mind considered that morning's meeting.
    Prescott's Army Group South planned an attack on the last two Hivvan colonies of any size at Little Rock and Shreveport. Prescott faced the challenge of knocking out the enemy's defenses without harming the nearly ten thousand slaves at those camps and doing so fast enough that the Hivvans could not exterminate their slaves if they chose that route.
    Army Group Center slowed its westward movement due to the poor condition of infrastructure in the Tennessee Mountains as well as the need to disperse Stonewall's 2 ^ nd Mechanized Infantry into smaller units to support Hunter-Killer teams liquidating extraterrestrial monsters in the region.
    However, they found a significantly higher survival rate in the Smokey Mountains. Shepherd's Army Group kept finding enclaves of people ranging in size from extended families to small villages, all hardened by six years of survival but eager to join the expanding Empire.
    Casey Fink reported on behalf of General Hoth that Army Group North remained in place, stuck outside of Washington Court House. This time the delay did not come from supply problems or sick soldiers. Instead, Hoth held back his advance for a reason that could not be explained on a map or in a report: instinct.
    "General Hoth is planning limited operations in the near future and will focus on intelligence gathering until the situation in Ohio becomes clearer," Fink had reported.
    Trevor and the others at the table easily read between the lines. While losing Special Forces operators did not qualify as an unusual occurrence, the circumstances around the Dark Wolves' disappearance suggested something larger at work. A trap? A ruse?
    On top of that, a sizeable force of crazy 'Roachbots' threatened Hoth's southern flank. Until he dealt with that, major thrusts westward could not be contemplated.
    Nina is missing.
    And there it was. The gigantic elephant in the room of Trevor's mind. He listened to the reports at that morning's conference but could not hear well because his mind-his heart-focused on the fate of the only woman he ever truly loved.
    Time had not healed the wound. How could it? She had not left him but had been taken; her memories-the person she became during that year with him-wiped clean. Time had merely dulled the pain; time and distance.
    Could he go back to his office and push pins around a map not knowing her fate?
    He knew-he accepted-that Nina would most likely meet a warrior's fate one day. Her purpose was to fight. She knew who she was-a natural born soldier-even if she did not understand the why. The result? A shy woman; an outcast. Yet she never gave in. She refused to change for the sake of acceptance.
    Armageddon gave her skills a noble purpose and eventually Trevor unlocked the lonely person hiding inside. He found the compassion in her. He found the warmth. He helped turn the shy little girl into a complete person just as she allowed him an escape from his burdens when the weight grew too heavy.
    If she died in battle, her body flown home for a soldier’s funeral, then it would be over and he could grieve the loss. But her fate remained a mystery.
    Years ago Trevor fell into the hands of The Order, arguably the most dangerous entity invading Earth. He suffered horrible torments at their hands to the point that he wondered how he remained sane.
    What if Nina suffered a similar fate? Could he sit in his office pushing pins and signing orders-doing nothing! — with that possibility? Even now, was Nina covered in Bore Bugs or in the clutches of one of The Order's Torture-Spiders?
    Trevor knew he could never be with her again. The woman he loved no longer existed. Yet that did not matter. He could not- he would not — abandon her.
    For more than six years he followed the Old Man's orders; he selflessly lived for the cause even when it cost him the love of his life; even when it cost him his soul at New Winnabow. For more than six years he had been nothing other than a leader.
    Not now. This time he would be something else; something he had not been in a long, long time.
    A man.
    – Contrary to legend, Trevor Stone had not instantaneously turned into an all-knowing, all-conquering hero when the invaders arrived on Earth.
    Indeed, during those first hours of Armageddon, Trevor pissed himself in fear, ran from every monster he faced, and would have been dinner for a Deadhead if not for Tyr and Odin, his pet Elkhounds.
    Furthermore, he probably would have died of exposure in the middle of the forest had he not happened upon the Old Man. At that point the mysterious entity told Trevor of his destiny to survive, fight, and sacrifice.
    The Old Man offered three gifts, although the visit by Trevor's crazed half-brother cast doubt on the origin of at least one of those gifts.
    Nonetheless, the first gift had been a well-stocked estate, perfect for weathering the initial storm. The second, the camaraderie of the canines, giving him an instant army. Both of these gifts on display for all to see. The third gift, however, remained a mystery even to his close friends. Only Nina had ever seen it, and that memory was erased.
    Trevor descended into the mansion basement, the conference table sat empty. He worked his way to a door under the stairs and opened it. Inside this utility closet he found a hot water heater and a cabinet which he shoved to the side revealing a small gray door.
    He wondered if the door really existed. After all, the key that unlocked it hung on a chain around his neck yet was never visible unless he needed it, as he did now.
    With a dull click the door unlocked. Trevor snapped on a flashlight and descended a dark staircase to a small chamber framed in earthen walls, smelling of damp air, and filled with a soft hum.
    Against the far wall waited a table holding the type of cliche treasure chest that a Hollywood Blackbeard might seek.
    Trevor opened that chest. A round object drifted out bathing the chamber in soft blue light. Inside the sphere hovered a double helix; the representation of human DNA.
    "Time to recharge," Stone mumbled to himself as he reached toward the glowing orb as if warming his hands in a campfire. As he did, a bout of lightheadedness caused him to stumble, nearly fall to the dirt floor.
    He did not understand exactly how it worked. He did not feel some flood of knowledge or visions, just a sense of dizziness. However, in the hours ahead he would find new memories in his mental library. Memories of soldiers and scientists, professors and politicians. He knew there were limits but the only boundary he had truly hit was one of medicine; his skills in that arena remained limited to basic first aid.
    What puzzled him most, however, was that the knowledge of how to fly the alien Redcoat shuttles-renamed 'Eagles'-came to him from this source. If this was a sphere of only human genetic memories, then why did the memories of an alien pilot exist therein?
    Trevor backed away from the sphere as the dizziness grew. As he did, the glowing orb returned to the chest. He then quickly shut the lid, locking it in until he might need it again.
    – Trevor read the title of the Sesame Street book JB selected for his bed time read: "The Monster at the end of this book…starring lovable furry old Grover!"
    Of course Jorge could easily read the book himself, but Trevor knew JB enjoyed hearing his father do the reading and, as usual, adding dramatic flare to the words. So Trevor lay on the small bed with his son-dressed in fire engine pajamas-curled close.
    As for the book, it depicted the friendly monster Grover attempting to stop the reader from turning the pages in order to avoid the monster at the end of the book, as per the title.
    Trevor read to his boy but his mind raced in other directions. His bags were packed and he had ordered his personal Eagle pilot-Rick Hauser-to prepare for a morning trip. Most important, he formulated a plausible lie for Ashley about a surprise visit to Ohio to boost morale.
    In truth, he planned to recruit a handful of Hoth's men and duplicate Nina's path. If she lived, he aimed to find her. If not, he would bring her body home. She deserved as much.
    He did his best to concentrate on the plan instead of his doubt. No, not doubt, guilt.
    For more than six years now, Trevor served only one mission. He played the role of a link on the Old Man's "chain" without straying. He had fought, sacrificed, and even murdered in the name of the cause. Now he risked everything to find a memory that existed only for him.
    Trevor matched the guilt with anger and determination: I don't give a damn.
    The conclusion of the book neared and Grover feared the looming confrontation with whatever creature waited at the end; the cartoon character begged the reader not to turn the page.
    Suddenly, Jorgie's hand slapped down on the book, achieving what Grover could not: stopping Trevor from turning to the final page.
    "No father! Don’t turn the page! Don’t turn the page!"
    Trevor, surprised, asked, "What’s wrong buddy? We've read this a dozen times."
    JB visibly trembled and cried, "There’s a monster, father! There’s a monster!"
    "Hey, easy does it, look, it’s not really a monster…"
    Trevor turned to the last page where Grover stood alone and realizes-to his embarrassment-that the 'monster' at the end of the book is lovable, furry Grover himself.
    "See, it's only Grover. He was the only monster in the book all along."
    Unconvinced, JB snorted, "Grover turned out to be a monster. I don't like that book. I don't ever want to read it again."
    Trevor decided not to fight the battle. "Well, next time we’ll read Green Eggs and Ham. But I have to go out to see the troops for a couple of days. Maybe mommy can read it to you."
    Trevor scooted off the bed and pulled the covers to his son’s chin. Then, as per their ritual, he took JB's stuffed bunny and wrapped it in a tiny blanket.
    "Snug as a bug in a rug," dad handed the wrapped bunny to his boy and then planted a kiss on JB’s forehead.
    "Father, could you promise me that while you’re gone you’ll think of me every day."
    "Oh, Jorge, I think of you every day anyway. You know that. But yes, I promise."
    "Good," JB sounded satisfied but did not look it. "That way I know you won’t forget me."
    – Trevor gave his map with the push pins one last look over. He wondered if the Old Man possessed a similar map. Maybe Trevor played the role of a red or blue push pin. How many other pins did the Old Man have on his map?
    He shook away those thoughts, slung a heavy duffle bag over his shoulder, and left his office for downstairs.
    First light struggled to rise over the mountain wall surrounding the lake, meaning that most of the support staff working at the mansion had not yet begun their day. Nonetheless, he heard Lori Brewer typing away on her computer. That did not surprise him. Between raising a daughter, keeping her husband in line, and serving as "Chief Administrator" Lori always had something to do.
    He decided not to disturb her; she had a tendency to see through his words so even a simple "goodbye" might open the door for more questions than he wished to answer. Yet while he managed to slip quietly by her office, he found the front door blocked by her husband-Jon Brewer-waiting in ambush.
    "Where are you going?"
    "Just running an errand," Trevor answered.
    "Bull shit. I know where you’re going."
    "Well then why are you asking stupid questions?"
    Jon shot back, "You’re the one acting stupid."
    "I’m in charge; I’m allowed to be stupid. A fringe benefit of the job."
    Trevor stepped around his tall friend and exited the front door. Snowflakes drifting in frigid morning air greeted him as he crossed the yard to the shuttle idling on the landing pad.
    "You are an important symbol, Trev. If something happens to you, it could all fall apart."
    "Right. You’d have to find someone else to push those pins around."
    "Never mind."
    Jon implored, "You can’t go running off like this. You need to be in that office."
    Trevor stopped and turned to face his friend. Something bubbled in his expression; some contorted combination of anger and fear.
    "I never asked to be a symbol. I don’t want to be some god damn statue sitting behind a desk giving orders to people a thousand miles away. I need to be out there. I need to see the smoke from the guns again and the suffering and the courage."
    "Because it doesn’t mean anything anymore! It’s just numbers and charts and reports! But when I found out Nina was missing… I mean, I can’t just let her be another number; another name. I have to do this Jon. I’m going to do this."
    Trevor walked quickly toward the landing pad as if trying to escape his friend but slowed when he saw two familiar faces waiting for him there: Jerry Shepherd and Reverend Johnny. They carried duffel bags as well.
    A drone came from the Eagle airship's idling engines as Trevor met his surprise visitors at the boarding ramp. Shepherd spoke before Trevor could say a word.
    "Don’t you go telling me that I can’t go along on this. You damn well know you can’t stop me. So if you’re going to do something stupid like chasing after her then I’m all in."
    Trevor knew he could not debate Jerry Shepherd. Certainly not when it came to this. Moreover, Army Group Center had stopped its advance to focus on Hunter-Killer operations, nothing Stonewall could not handle on his own for a while.
    He nodded his head and then turned to Reverend Johnny who said, "Praise the Lord, I love an adventure. Besides, it has been suggested to me that you could use another pair of eyes with which to see."
    Neither man waited for Stone's answer. Instead, they grabbed their gear and boarded.
    Trevor turned to Jon and told him, "You’re not going on this trip."
    "I know. Guess it’s your turn to fly off into the unknown."
    "I won't be gone long but I may be out of contact for short periods of time. So you’re in charge around her for a bit. I trust you, but Knox is a smart guy. Lean on him if you need to."
    "See you when you get back."
    Brewer retreated across the lawn toward the mansion. Trevor hoisted his bag and turned toward the open side door but something caught his eye. Standing on the far side of the north perimeter fence watched a white wolf. The white wolf. The Old Man’s familiar.
    Trevor locked his eyes on the animal and shot a stern middle finger in its direction.
    Yeah, I got a path to walk, but I think I’ll take a little detour.
    Trevor boarded the craft and the passenger module door slid shut behind. A moment later, the shuttle gracefully rose vertically from the landing pad. When it cleared the surrounding treetops, the hydrogen engines pushed the craft toward the horizon.
    Internal Security officer Ray Roos stood on the mansion grounds and, with a curious eye, watched the Emperor fly away.

5. Slaughterhouse

    General William Hoth stood in the cupola of an Abrams main battle tank. In front stretched Route 28 heading straight for Blanchester, Ohio. To his left and right, open fields of frozen soil broken only by sagging or even snapped telephone poles. Behind, six more Abrams tanks, a couple of Bradley fighting vehicles, several Humvees, and all manner of civilian vehicles 'up-armored' with metal plates and bars moving single-file on the pot-hole-marred roadway.
    Overhead, a quilt of gray clouds pressed down on the battlefield as if trying to smother the scene. Gusts from icy winds caused a black banner depicting a hand holding a hammer to flutter at the rear of his tank.
    Boom! Boom!
    A pair of explosions in the field sent chunks of tundra and black smoke curling into the air. A moment later pebbles and ice tinged off his armored ride.
    Hoth wore a headset through which came a communique from three quarters of a mile to his right-northern-flank. A female voice reported, "Hostiles engaged at Dudley Road."
    He radioed, "Punch straight through, Captain Rothchild. Do not break formation."
    The response came in the form of a ground-rattling blast; the unmistakable sound of a main gun firing.
    Through field glasses, Hoth spied his companion column as it drove along Second Creek Road, parallel to his own route. Like his, Gwen Rothschild's 'armor' started with impressive Abrams tanks but the further east it stretched the more it became a smorgasbord of car lot leftovers until ending with rusting fuel trucks and covered cargo carriers.
    Facing that column, six-legged van-sized robots with tubular metal frames, eyes resembling LED displays, and a mouth-like speaker on a front face plate. On either side of that "face" fired lethal Gatling guns swiveling on round bases giving them a wide firing arc.
    Roachbot drones, the same type defeated by Jon Brewer during the Battle of Five Armies.
    Boom! Boom!..Boom! Boom!
    Enemy artillery exploded to either side of Hoth's column, forcing him to refocus on his end of the pincer movement. He swung his binoculars forward and saw a sight identical, no doubt, to what Captain Rothchild saw in front of her: a line of Roachbot drones followed by several 'Mortarbots'.
    The 'Mortarbots' resembled walking cannon. More specifically, they could have been silver-painted guns lifted from an 18 ^ th Century Man-O-War.
    They moved on two mechanical legs affixed to an upward-pointing big gun that included a faceplate at the bottom of the barrel. The things wobbled in a clumsy manner but would stop, squat, and spit an artillery shell to the sound of a synthesized voice, "bwamp-bwamp."
    Hoth instructed his gunner, "fire at will," but reminded the driver, "run through."
    The General clamped his hands on his headset but the mind-numbing blast from the main gun still managed to make his ears ring. However, the result-a Roachbot drone obliterated into clumps of metal-made the pain easy to bear.
    A blast of heat from behind caught his attention. He swiveled around in time to watch two halves of a burning Humvee roll off the road.
    When he faced forward again, he saw sparks as Roachbot rounds sprayed his tank. Above the squeal of tank treads he heard the insane ramblings of the drones: A-hehehehe. A-hehehehe.
    Hoth's ears rang again but, also again, a Roachbot fell to pieces.
    Before he could fully appreciate the direct hit, the General instinctively ducked as his tank smashed through the remains of a rusted pick up truck cluttering the intersection of Route 28 and tiny Dudley Road directly in front of a "Welcome to the Village of Blanchester" sign.
    "Captain Rothchild, what is your status?" Hoth radioed as he raised his binoculars.
    "We've breached the front line and are taking up final positions."
    Hoth confirmed her words with his eyes. Rothchild's column slowed their westward advance and pivoted to face south. At the same time, his column slowed and turned north. Between the two gathered a mass of Roach and Mortar bots, caught between two pincers on the wide open terrain of a dead field.
    "All guns, watch your crossfire, aim low and aim accurate," he radioed.
    If the enemy understood their predicament, it did not show. The Roachbots fired wildly-one could say crazily-with no regard for each other. Before the first human volley launched, Hoth watched a Mortarbot lob an explosive shell in the midst of three of its drone brethren and robotic Gatling guns tear apart two of their own number.
    Then the guns of the 2 ^ nd Armored Division came to life. Abrams tank rounds, TOW missiles from atop Humvees, machine guns with armor piercing rounds, bazookas, and short-range artillery turned the mob of alien machines into a cloud of dirt, metal, fire, and smoke.
    As his brigades finished their work, the General organized an expedition to invest the Roachbot assembly line constructed nearby on the grounds of old Blanchester High School. A place known in human circles as a ‘slaughterhouse.’
    – Trevor's flight west included a refueling stop outside of Pittsburgh where he flew over the reincarnated steel mills. Smoke billowed from the foundries while convoys carried raw materials in and forged steel out.
    Stone knew that those mills operated thanks to Omar Nehru’s matter-makers. He also knew that the workers in those mills stamped the axles and girders and gun barrels keeping the armies on the march.
    However, those same workers only recently returned to the job after a three-week strike protesting the dropping value of their 'pay' in the face of rampant inflation. Trevor did not enjoy the irony that before the introduction of an official currency-as pushed by Evan Godfrey and others-those steel workers earned little more than food rations yet never felt so dissatisfied as to walk away from the mill.
    It felt to him as if the return of currency was yet another Pandora's Box from the old world. Certainly money would have its place again someday, he just wondered if humanity would be better served if such things from pre-Armageddon life did not return until after securing the survival of the species. Alas, money, politicians, unions, snake-oil salesmen, and accountants had escaped from their bottles.
    Later that day, they landed at the crossroads town of Chillicothe, Ohio where Army Group North had established a supply depot supported by a railroad junction and airstrip.
    Trevor, the Rev, and Shepherd switched from Eagle to Blackhawk for the flight to Washington Court House. However, when word came that Hoth faced Roachbots, Trevor insisted on detouring to the battlefield.
    As they flew toward Blanchester, Trevor appreciated the change in rides. While the open door of the helicopter let in the bitter cold air, the sounds and smells of battle also came in.
    Trevor felt goose bumps when he heard the first cannon shot. He filled with exhilaration as he smelled the thick aroma of burning oil. Then came the blasted Roachbot carcasses, the impact craters and smoldering fields…yes, the maps and color-coded push pins of his office brought to life. The meaning behind it all.
    They flew over as the last Roachbots met their fate. Ahead on the athletic fields of a high school stood a featureless rectangular metal building akin to a giant shoebox.
    The Blackhawk landed in the school parking lot. Trevor and companions disembarked.
    Reverend Johnny covered his nose. "That stench is certainly from the sewers of Hell."
    Shepherd said, "I reckon this is your first visit to an assembly line? That's the smell of mass murder."
    A squad of soldiers dressed in an assortment of coats and colors hovered outside the building trying to warm themselves with drinks from a flask. They snapped to something like attention as Trevor approached.
    "Is General Hoth inside?"
    "Yes, Sir." The soldier then suggested, "You may want this, Sir."
    Trevor accepted a small jar of olfactory blocking cream, placed a dab beneath each nostril, and then shared with Shep and Johnny before entering a garage-door-sized portal.
    Two gigantic rooms dominated the interior. The first filled with silver and black machinery: conveyor belts, robotic arms, and metal presses.
    As they walked among the soldiers milling about the chamber, Shepherd explained to Reverend Johnny, "This is where the things are made. Sort of an assembly line, I suppose. Almost looks like it could be a GM plant putting together Chevys or something, don't it?"
    Indeed, several Roachbots stood silent at the end of the line, having completed the manufacturing process save for the last, most vital component; like a car waiting for an engine.
    The second room offered an assembly line of a different sort, although not clean and sterile like the first. However, the men spied robotic arms and conveyor belts here, too. This time, those arms wielded long hypodermic needles filled with a paralyzing drug and the conveyor belts conveyed man-sized restraining tubes.
    While the chassis assembly line operated welding robots, the second line used surgical bots sporting blades and saws, perfect for opening a human skull. It was at that point on the line where the blood began. Lots of blood.
    Instead of metal stamp presses, the final machines were grinders, designed to manage the waste byproduct; pulverized and drained into large vats for disposal.
    The walls, the floors…splattered with discarded parts thrown haphazardly around the room in the same way a person might absently toss aside an empty peanut shell.
    General Hoth stood near the machines examining the mess with a few of his aides. Trevor's appearance certainly surprised the General but his version of a ‘surprised’ expression would pass for 'stoic' on any other man.
    As they walked toward Hoth, Reverend Johnny gagged then spat, "Of all the dens of horror I have been witness to…this…this," Johnny could not complete his thought and joined the number of men who vomited inside a slaughterhouse. Indeed, not getting sick upon a first visit to such a place would actually be cause for concern.
    One part stuck out amidst the discarded mess and caught Trevor's attention. It could have been a Halloween mask of a little boy with holes where eyes once lived.
    Stone stooped to look at that discarded piece of flesh. What had once been a child’s mouth was locked open in a scream. In that mask, Trevor saw what the invaders desired. He saw the horror and agony; he saw the sadness and isolation. He felt it in his bones.
    Here was a child whom he did not save.
    The fleshy fascia was stretched and worn and rotting; the boy might have died years ago, perhaps during those first days while Trevor built his strength at his secretive estate. Maybe the boy’s fate came during the years of painstakingly slow expansion or maybe while his divisions battled the Hivvans across the south.
    Trevor did not know when the aliens murdered this child but he knew- knew — that somewhere on the planet Earth at that exact moment another child faced a similar fate. Maybe in the claws of a Devilbat or the maw of a Jaw-Wolf. Perhaps an implant from The Order or an energy bolt from a Redcoat's gun.
    And tomorrow another child, or elderly lady, or caring mother, or trapped father. Tomorrow someone would die because of the invasion; because The Empire could not fight its way to them fast enough.
    "I won’t go back there, never again," Trevor said.
    Reverend Johnny wiped his mouth with a handkerchief and asked, "Back where?"
    "Behind that desk. I’m staying on the front lines. This is where I belong."

6. Eyes of a Stranger

    Trevor traced his finger over the map on the billiards table in General Hoth's headquarters. That map depicted the situation facing Army Group North although the marks on the map representing the Roachbot assembly line required the attention of an eraser.
    Hoth pointed at those marks and explained, "With this threat to our southern flank eliminated, the next phase will be set into motion. It is my intention to challenge the Plat formations on the far side of Interstate 71 once we've received the next convoy of fuel supplies."
    "Sounds good," Trevor said but his mind was not focused on Roachbots or Platypuses. He then spoke loud enough for Hoth's aides to hear, "I need everyone to clear this room."
    Interestingly enough, the men and women looked to Hoth first. He engendered a great deal of loyalty from some combination of love and fear; no doubt similar to how Generals like Lee, Guderian, and Patton earned the trust and obedience of their men.
    After the door closed, Trevor told Hoth, "I will be leading the rescue team to find the Dark Wolves. I'll need every piece of information you have on their last mission."
    Hoth's facial expression did not change. He did blink, however.
    "General Shepherd and Reverend Johnny will accompany me. I'll require a few of your best men, preferably men with recon experience and at least one pilot."
    "If I understand you, General Shepherd-commander of Army Group Center-and you," he did not need to add Trevor's title, "as well as a prominent member of the Imperial council will go behind enemy lines in search of a few missing soldiers. Did I hear that correctly?"
    While Trevor felt a streak of embarrassment run through his veins, Shep called from behind, "Yes, General, you heard that right enough. Does that create any problems?"
    "I question the logic. We have assets at our disposal that could search for the missing team without placing the command and control of The Empire in jeopardy."
    Trevor flipped his embarrassment into focus. "I do no seek your approval, General. I am informing you of the situation. For obvious reasons, my participation is to be kept quiet. Now, I've seen the report on the Dark Wolves' mission. Is there anything to add?"
    "Only that it makes no sense for the team to have been lured into a trap. I believe another explanation is likely."
    Shepherd stepped to Trevor's side and pointed out, "But you haven't received any more radio messages from this mystery woman?"
    "No. It is possible that whatever caused the loss of contact with Captain Forest has also interfered with those survivors. I'm working under the assumption that either a Platypus formation overran their position or another hostile force-organized or otherwise-is involved."
    "They did warn of some kind of approaching danger."
    "Yes," Hoth agreed with Trevor. "There may be a connection."
    Shep said, "Seems to me that's a good reason to head in there."
    Hoth told them, "I have operators who could lead this investigation without putting such high value personnel at risk."
    "General Hoth, it wasn't so long ago that I was taking a risk every morning I got out of bed. Shep and me here, well, we were doing this back when you could count the number of people in our army with two hands. This isn't anything new for me."
    "It is new, Sir, in the sense that this is a risk you don't have to take."
    "Actually, it's a risk I feel I must take. I can't really explain it, not in a way you'd understand. So let's move beyond the 'why' and get to the 'how', we leave tomorrow night."
    – Trevor dismissed the five soldiers selected to accompany him in the search. He then walked out of General Hoth's headquarters en route to the mess hall. Jerry Shepherd joined him as they moved between tents, around burning barrels where men gathered for warmth, and between the parked vehicles-most leaking something-in the ad hoc motor pool assembled on the farmer's field.
    "Sleep well?" Shep asked. "You should have stayed in the house."
    Trevor answered, "No, I wanted to be out in one of the tents. It was cold as Hell and I kept getting woken up by some sentry yelling '2 a.m. and all's well' and all that, but you know what? I needed this. Last night, I spent half an hour listening to guys singing old songs while someone played a guitar and then I got in on a late night poker game. I'm not sure half the guys recognized me. In fact, if I weren't wearing clean BDUs I would've blended in completely."
    "Like old times, huh?"
    "This is what it's about, Shep. The shit going on back in D.C., that's a bunch of BS. Out here, this is the heart of the fight. I have to keep reminding myself that most of the guys and girls here never held a weapon before six years ago or so. Now they're an army. Not exactly parade-ground ready, but there's a spirit here…I don't know, just makes me think I know how George Washington felt at Valley Forge or maybe Monty before El Alamein."
    "POP!" A young girl ran to Shepherd and threw her arms around him. To Trevor's surprise, Shepherd knelt and returned the hug with equal vigor.
    "Denise? Now what in the name are you doing here?"
    "Where’s my mom, Mr. Shepherd? What happened to her?"
    Shepherd's mouth worked but said nothing, no doubt searching for a comforting lie but Denise cut him off at the pass: "I know she's missing. What happened to her, Pop?"
    "How the heck did you get here?"
    "By train and hitchhiked on convoys the rest of the way. Is it true? Is my mom missing?"
    Trevor did not exist in the world where the conversation took place yet he managed to intrude as he gasped, "Your mother?"
    Denise did not appreciate the distraction from this stranger. She glared at Trevor with sharp eyes and shot, "Yeah, my mother. Is that a problem?"
    "Um," Shep coughed. "Denise, let's head somewhere a heap warmer and talk it over."
    Trevor trailed along in a zombie-like state absorbing the thought of Nina having a daughter as Jerry led them to the mess tent where they met Reverend Johnny.
    With breakfast long over, the mess felt deserted. Nonetheless, Reverend Johnny found a cup of hot chocolate-from very old mix-for Denise and pseudo-coffee for the three men.
    Between the drinks and a coal-burning stove the room offered just enough heat to allow them to strip off one layer of outerwear.
    As soon as their butts hit the wooden bench of a picnic table Denise blurted, "Where is my mother, Pop? What happened to her? Is she…is she dead?"
    "The truth is we don’t know what happened to your mom. Hell, she’s probably camped out roasting marshmallows with a broken radio, for all we know."
    Trevor and the Reverend remained outside the loop; Denise only had eyes for Shepherd.
    "But you haven’t heard from her. What was she doing? Where did she go?"
    Johnny tried to help. "I fear we cannot go into detail about the nature of her mission."
    "Hey, it’s my mom. I know she’s, like, Ms. Bigshot ‘round here. You don’t need to tell me that, Mister."
    Shep coughed. "Denise, this is Reverend Johnny, he’s on the Imperial Council."
    Despite her self-confidence, Denise’s face drooped into an ‘oh shit’ look.
    "Hello, Ms. Denise."
    The girl grew more guarded. She turned to the other man and asked the obvious, "Are you a member of the council, too?"
    Trevor could not resist a smug smile as he shook his head ‘no’.
    "Oh that’s good," Denise sounded relieved as she tried to act nonchalant with a casual sip from her mug. "I’d hate to make an ass out of myself twice."
    "Denise, this is Trevor Stone," Shepherd introduced. "The Emperor."
    She paused mid-sip. Her eyes widened but remained locked on the hot chocolate.
    "Hello, Denise. It’s nice to make your acquaintance."
    Slowly…oh so very slowly…the young girl turned her head to the man sitting next to her.
    "You…you are…I mean… you’re Mr. Stone?"
    "Call me Trevor."
    Denise put her mug down and hid her eyes in her hands. "I am such an idiot."
    "Actually," Trevor said, "I’m very impressed. You came all the way here to find out what happened to Nina? Of course, I never knew she had a daughter." Stone threw his eyes at Shepherd, eyes saying why didn’t you tell me about this?
    "Yes," Shep stumbled. " Captain Forest met Denise when she cleared Wilmington the summer before last. Denise here was an orphan and they hit it off. Isn’t that right, Denise?"
    The girl kept her eyes hidden, mumbling only, "Oh brother."
    "That’s great. I’m sure Nina is a great mother."
    That grabbed Denise’s attention. She finally pulled her eyes from her hands.
    "Mister Stone, sir, um, do you know where my mother is? Is she…is she alive, still?"
    Trevor placed his hands on Denise’s shoulders. "I want you to listen carefully now, okay? I promise you, your mother is coming home."
    Denise wanted to believe. "How…how can you promise that?"
    "Because I’m going to bring her back."
    – The black-painted Eagle airship flew low over rolling fields, the glint of brilliant moonlight lost in its dark surface.
    Trevor sat in the pilot's seat gripping the control sticks sprouting from the arms of the chair. He wore bulky navigation goggles that generated a view and a sensation of actually being the craft; as if his eyes watched from the nose cone and his body traveled through the air.
    Despite his concern for Nina, for the anxiety in facing unknown danger, and for the risk to the stability of The Empire in his being here, Trevor enjoyed himself. It felt good to fly an Eagle again.
    His view included a heads-up display providing altimeter and radar readings that allowed him to hug-but not crash into-those rolling fields. Furthermore, when Omar Nehru humanized these captured alien shuttles he added 'Starlight' night vision for improved night flying.
    Reverend Johnny could not fly an Eagle but he played the roll of navigator from the co-pilot's seat. Using a pen light in the darkened cockpit, he listened to Trevor call out landmarks and computed their course.
    "I believe we are nearing the area of concern."
    "You mean to say we’re reaching the L-Z? Can't sit in the big-boy chair, Rev if you're not going to use military-speak."
    "I’m glad to see you are enjoying yourself," Johnny then punched the intercom button and announced to the passenger compartment, "We are approaching the…we are approaching the L-Z. Prepare for touchdown."
    The Eagle rose and then descended like a rollercoaster as Trevor steered the ship into position above a half-mud, half-ice field. At that point he used floor pedals to slow forward motion, hovered, and then eased the vehicle to the ground where the landing struts bobbed once.
    "Perfect," Stone complimented himself. "We've got about an hour until dawn."
    "I hope the rest of our mission is as perfect," Johnny commented as the two men unbuckled their safety harnesses. "I assume we'll begin by snooping around?"
    "No," Trevor removed the navigation goggles. "If I know Nina, she did the snoop and sneaky approach and ended up vanishing. I plan to be more direct."
    – Trevor stayed true to his word. At first light, his eight-man, three-K9 team rushed the farm securing the disheveled and starving people living there without any resistance. He then sent three of the five Army Group North soldiers to search the outer perimeter while he remained at the farmhouse to interrogate the pitiful-looking prisoners.
    After binding their hands with plastic ties, his team moved the twenty detainees into the living room where they sat in groups packed together on two sofas and the floor. Before Trevor asked his first question, he knew these people could not be responsible for the Dark Wolves' disappearance.
    Based on the collection of ages-from elderly to teen agers with several in between-Trevor guessed them to be the leftovers of a couple of old-world families. Parents, grand parents, and children probably banded together when the invasion came and managed to eek out an existence on this farm. He had seen it enough times before.
    "Okay, um, you stand up," Trevor pointed to a man with a white beard dressed in a torn green sweater and wearing a Cincinnati Bengals cap. Trevor guessed him to be mid fifties but his scrawny frame and hungry, sunken eyes might hide a younger man. "What is your name?"
    "My name is Willis," came the answer but he would not look Trevor in the eye.
    "We’re not your enemies, Willis. We’re human, just like you."
    Reverend Johnny jumped in, "We are searching for some of our friends. They were supposed to come here a few days ago. Do you know of whom we speak?"
    Willis glanced at his brethren nervously but anyone he looked to averted their eyes.
    "Go ahead," Stone encouraged and made a conscious effort to ensure his M4 carbine pointed down. "One of them would have been a blonde woman."
    Willis’ nerves did not dissipate.
    "Listen here," Shepherd gave it a shot "They would've been like us. They would've come on foot. There were four of them."
    This time Willis understood. He spoke through a mouth holding maybe six teeth, "Yes I know who you mean. They came here a few days ago. The others were waiting for them."
    Trevor glanced to Shep and Johnny and then asked, "What others? Do you mean aliens? Look, if you're honest with me I can help you. Food, illness won’t be problems any more."
    The detainees murmured in approval.
    Willis answered, "Last week a group of people came here. They were soldiers, I think. They had guns. They were not pleasant, not at all. They hit Charles here for speaking his mind to them." Willis nodded toward a teenager who bore the remains of a nasty bruise on his cheek. "They changed their clothes to look like us. Then your friends came and they captured them; took them away."
    "Took them away? Where?"
    "To the north. Yes, to the forest to the north. They came from there; they took your friends that way when they left."
    – Trevor left two of Hoth’s soldiers and two K9s at the farm as protection and to arrange the evacuation of the settlers. The balance of his team boarded the Eagle and flew to the north. After thirty-minutes of flight they found a hardwood forest looking withered from the harsh winter but an imposing sea of trees nonetheless. Trevor would find no landing space in its midst. He circled above looking for something…anything.
    "Dear Lord, what is that?"
    Trevor saw what Johnny saw: a twisted cone-like structure rising from the forest. It could have been a building, but its texture more resembled tree bark. On its black surface he spotted a few scattered twinkles as if from glitter.
    "I can't land in that forest, it's too thick. We'll set down at the rim and hike in on foot."
    Johnny did not like that idea. "A hike? I dare say you are pushing the practical limits of safety in this matter. We should retreat and summon reinforcements."
    Trevor heard what Johnny said but the logic of his suggestion could not match the image of Nina covered in Bore Bugs or in the maw of a Torture-Spider.
    "I came here to find out what happened to the Dark Wolves, Reverend. I’m not waiting." When Johnny glared at him like a disapproving father Trevor unconvincingly added, "This is recon, not engagement. We’ll call in the troops once we see what we’re up against."
    Stone landed the Eagle at the rim of the forest…
    …Trevor left two more of Hoth’s commandos at the ship, including one trained to fly Eagles, with instructions to radio for back up should Trevor’s team not return within two hours.
    Reverend Johnny vehemently protested, but in the end put on his gear and marched off with Trevor, Shepherd, Tyr the Elkhound, and a tall soldier from Hoth's group.
    They pushed through the lifeless forest of crooked trees, climbed over rocky ridges, and crossed a pair of half-frozen streams. Along the way, morning turned into early afternoon but despite sharp sunbeams slicing through the canopy of jagged branches, the temperature remained below freezing.
    Thanks to an early warning from Tyr, the group avoided the prowl of a massive StumpHide as the gargantuan creature crashed through the forest. Fortunately, the monster moved off in pursuit of a white tail doe that happened across its path.
    After a twenty-minute hike, they arrived at the strange, cone-shaped structure. It stood nearly eight stories tall on a wide base hundreds of feet around and constructed of tightly-wound cords seemingly made of some kind of metal and another kind of wood.
    Surrounding the building-sized object was a ring of pulverized trees apparently burned and stamped leaving no piece larger than a fist and piles of sawdust.
    "Please correct me if I am mistaken," Johnny whispered to Trevor as they observed the thing from the woods. "But I do not recollect any image such as this in our Hostiles Database."
    Trevor agreed, "This is new."
    "I am not one who appreciates surprises."
    "Okay, let’s check this out," Trevor told the others. "Shep, you two move around the west side. Me and the Rev will go the other way with Tyr. Look for an entrance."
    Shep nodded and the two groups separated, both using the tree line for cover.
    Trevor and Johnny completed half their sweep when they spotted a huge archway leading to blackness.
    "Well, there we go," Stone said.
    "Very well then," Johnny placed a hand on Trevor's shoulder. "We've found the entrance. We have completed our reconnaissance. Time to call for assistance."
    Tyr whined. Just a little.
    Trevor translated the message sent to him by the K9: "He’s caught Nina’s scent."
    He leaned forward but Johnny's grip held firm.
    "You must not proceed alone, Trevor. We have been reckless enough today."
    "I didn't come all this way to wait. She could be in there."
    "I do not doubt it. But what good would it do Miss Forest for you to share her fate? I suggest we roust Mr. Shepherd, retrieve additional support from General Hoth's headquarters, and strike with a heavier fist."
    For a second, Trevor considered ignoring his advice and charging inside. Instead, he looked to Tyr and said, "Go find Shepherd. Lead him back here."
    The Elkhound ran off around the side of the structure, barely making a sound as its body pushed through the dry brush.
    Reverend Johnny relaxed and peered toward the entrance. It stood tall, maybe twenty feet high, and led into a wide hall.
    "What manner of beast dwells here, I wonder?"
    Trevor shook his head as he answered, "I don't know. Too small an entrance for a Goat-Walker, big enough for a Troll but they don't build nests. Besides, this looks less like an animal's nest and more like a building. Perhaps someone-"
    He heard the twig snap but still moved too slow.
    Trevor swiveled around into the face of a gun barrel held by a dark-haired woman with green eyes. On her flanks stood four body-armor-wearing men with unrecognizable bullpup style assault weapons affixed with nasty bayonets.
    "Drop your weapons. We do not want to hurt you," the woman insisted.
    Indeed, Trevor detected something like pleading in her voice.
    Stone and the Reverend kept their M-4 rifles aimed at their attackers.
    "Please, drop your weapons," she repeated. "Your people — Nina- they’re okay. They’re inside. I’ll take you to them but you have to put down your weapons."
    Trevor looked at his friend then dropped his gun. Johnny followed suit.
    The armor-clad soldiers moved in and secured the carbines and side arms from Trevor and Johnny.
    "Let's get inside before your pet comes back with help, I don't want to have to shoot any of your people," the woman said in a tone that sounded one part cocky but another part sincere.
    The soldiers ushered Trevor and Johnny inside the large opening. An instant later a thick bulkhead-some kind of dark stone maybe-slid shut over the entrance.
    "You’ll want to take your coats off," the woman suggested as they started along the hall. "It's hot in here."
    Trevor realized that, yes, despite the frigid temperatures outside, the interior of the structure felt quite warm. That meant a heat source. That meant power.
    Like Johnny, he removed his heavy jacket.
    "Come with me," the woman instructed. "My boss will want to meet you."
    "Wait. What about my men? What about Nina?"
    The woman smiled and told him, "Yeah, her, too."
    They ascended a ramp that spiraled upwards. Their boots clicked on the hard floor and gear jingled sending echoes along the massive passage. Moving through the wide, tall corridor made Trevor think about Dorothy and crew walking the oppressively oversized palace on their way to face the great and all-powerful Oz.
    Tiny lights-crystal like-embedded in the black walls provided illumination along the way. Not bright, just enough to see. The floor felt smooth and hard, as if made of rock.
    Along the way, Trevor noticed scattered soldiers at guard positions. They-himself included-looked small and insignificant inside those massive corridors.
    He felt the eyes of the guards follow his every step. They stared at him. He sensed a combination of fear and awe emanating from those watching eyes. What did they see when they saw Trevor? Something. Something strange. Reverence? Fear?
    Trevor found it unnerving. He found everything about this weird place and the strange humans unnerving.
    The ramp swerved around one last bend and opened into a wide room somewhere in the top of the twisted cone. That room had a similarly tall ceiling but was dominated by a bank of controls of a type- massive controls — along one wall. He had never seen anything of the kind before. He did not see electronics or computers but gears, levers, pulleys, and spinning spheres all of which seemed to grow out of the wall.
    People-maybe technicians-sat at portable folding chairs in front of those controls.
    One person caught Trevor’s eyes immediately.
    She stood with the technicians watching their work. He recognized her even though she stood with her back to him. He noticed she wore her blonde hair not in the usual solitary ponytail, but in two short tails dangling to her shoulder blades.
    Nina turned away from the technicians. Trevor locked eyes with the woman he once loved- still loved — so dearly. The woman he came to rescue only to end up a prisoner.
    Yet she lived! He barely suppressed a smile of relief.
    To his surprise, Nina failed to suppress her own delight. She grew a huge, mischievous grin and sauntered across the large room, approaching like a spider relishing its entangled dinner.
    Nina Forest stopped in front of Trevor Stone, merely inches away.
    So…so close.
    "Nina…Captain Forest…are you okay?"
    She examined him; traced every line on his face with her blue eyes. Her head tilted side to side as if studying a puzzle.
    Then Nina Forest leaned in…
    Trevor stood mesmerize, unsure how to react, unsure if he could trust his eyes.
    She leaned in…stopped as if considering the best approach…then put her lips to his.
    Nina kissed Trevor. He could not help but kiss her back. His heart pounded as her lips moved against his, as her tongue found his. After a moment…a long moment…she pulled away.
    The voice came from his right. He turned his head to see. There stood the Dark Wolves commando team, shuffled into the room by more armor-clad guards.
    Trevor knew the members of the team by name: Bly, Caesar, Maddock…and Forest.
    Nina Forest. Standing over there with her fellow commandos.
    Trevor's mind spun, his balance wavered as he faced forward again to see Nina there, too. Then back to the right. There she also stood on the far side of the room dressed in dirty black BDUs and surrounded by the other members of the missing unit.
    Forward again.
    The one- the Nina- who had kissed him, licked her lips as if savoring the flavor.
    Like the spider enjoying an appetizer.

7. Parallels

    "Dear God, my eyes are not to be believed," Reverend Johnny spoke inside the arcane control center of the twisted building. "There are two Ms. Forests."
    One of those Ninas stood with the other Dark Wolves commandos. The second-the one who favored Trevor with a kiss-appeared amused at the predicament.
    "No," Trevor regained enough of his senses to speak. "No, not two Nina Forests. One Nina, one imposter. What are you?"
    The one standing in front of Stone feigned pain at the accusation. "What am I? Why Trevor, I’m a who, just like you. Just like her."
    The Nina in command of the situation strolled over to the one herded with the Wolves. As she moved, Trevor took note of her clothing. She wore something looking one part rubber and one part leather; an outfit ribbed with protective bands along the mid section. Certainly some kind of battle armor and very different from the standard combat BDUs, worn by the other Nina.
    Furthermore, the suspect one carried two pistols in dual shoulder harnesses as well as a scythe-like knife sheathed on her waistband.
    The Nina in the strange battle suit approached her opposite. She gazed at her duplicate as if looking in a mirror. The new Nina brushed a curl off her brow as if expecting her reflection to do the same.
    "So much…alike…" for a second the cocky confidence faded, replaced by a quietness revealing her own sense of awe for the enormity of the situation.
    The suspect Nina changed directions. She walked toward Trevor, eyeing him suspiciously as she wagged a finger in the air.
    "This is interesting, very interesting. I mean, I figured you’d come running after me, I mean, her. Then after I met her," she nodded toward the other Nina. "Then I figured, like, this whole thing was a bust. I was trying to find a way to salvage all this before we had to go but then here you are, just like my original plan. This just gets more interesting all the time."
    "Then that was it, was it?" Reverend Johnny spoke. "It wasn’t about Ms. Forest. It was about Trevor Stone. And we walked right into it."
    "Let them go," Stone tried to ignore the Rev. "If it’s me you want, you don’t need them."
    This 'other' Nina said, "That’s the idea. In fact, our time is kind of short so let’s get this show on the road. Take them out."
    Trevor warned, "Whatever you are, you damned well better not hurt them."
    The battle suit-wearing Nina stepped close to Trevor. For a moment he was afraid — afraid? — she might kiss him again.
    "You still don’t believe your eyes, do you?" Then she turned to the Wolves' guards and said, "Take them, but watch; there’s still a couple of his men sneaking around out there."
    None of Trevor’s people budged.
    The duplicate Nina looked at them with admiration, then she addressed Trevor, "Now that’s just priceless. They don’t want to leave you. That’s loyalty. That’s just great. Hey, I’m not planning on hurting him. Trust me. But I don’t need anyone else. I mean, so either they walk out or we drag them out. Which is it?"
    Stone stared across the room at his Nina. So many things he wished to say but to that woman with the lost memories she would not understand.
    "Go. I’ll be okay."
    She did not move. None of them did. Trevor saw the concern in her eyes, reverence for her leader. Long ago, there would have been more. Now he only held her loyalty.
    "That’s an order."
    The Dark Wolves allowed themselves to be led out of the room by the mysterious soldiers. Reverend Johnny remained.
    "Hey, let’s go. Time is short, you know?" she said to Johnny.
    "I shall not leave. It would take the hand of God to budge me from Mr. Stone’s side."
    One of the soldiers aimed the wicked bayonet of his weapon toward Johnny’s neck.
    "Do you really want to meet God right here? Right now?" This 'other' Nina sounded exasperated. Trevor sensed she worked on a tight schedule.
    Johnny stood resolved. "I am prepared to meet my judgment. Are you?"
    "He stays," Trevor said.
    "He goes," Nina insisted.
    Trevor glared at her and for a moment-just a split second of a moment-he saw retreat in her icy blue eyes.
    "He stays. You say you mean me no harm? Prove it. He stays."
    Nina curled her lip and narrowed her eyes but it was not a pout, more consternation.
    "Fine. Whatever. Screw it."
    She turned her back to them and strolled over to the control panel where she consulted with the dark haired, green eyed woman.
    Trevor turned to Johnny and said, "Thanks."
    "I’d just assume leave you to clean up this mess you have made but Master JB would certainly scold me if I abandoned you at this point."
    While the reference confused Trevor he said, "I appreciate the vote of confidence."
    Johnny sighed and conceded, "I suppose we all look before we leap on occasion. Particularly in affairs such as these."
    While they waited for whatever they waited for, Trevor surveyed the room in more detail.
    Something akin to tree bark served as the basic building block with glowing crystals in the walls, a smooth floor, and those strange controls oversized to the point that the technicians working them seemed like children in comparison.
    Trevor could not fathom the purpose of the place, but he felt certain that whoever this Nina may be, she and her people were as much interlopers as he.
    A beep from Nina's utility belt grabbed her attention. She spoke into a small communications device, "All clear? Good. Seal things up, we’re going to jump."
    Trevor and Johnny shared a look.
    Nina spoke words to the technicians then returned to the two prisoners.
    "Okay, we’re all set."
    Johnny asked, "All set for what?"
    Nina ignored his question and returned to the puzzle she contemplated prior to removing the other Nina. She raised her finger and wagged it at Trevor again.
    "So anyway, what’s the story here, Trevor? I mean, I go out and grab Nina 'cause I figure you’re going to come to her rescue because, well, she’s your main squeeze. Right? Then I get here and she doesn’t know what the Hell I’m talking about. You should have seen the look on her face when I told her that you were going to come get her. Like, I think that shocked her more than seeing, well, seeing herself. Or me. I dunno. Shit, this is absolutely nuts. I can understand why she screamed."
    "Sounds like you don’t have it all figured out, do you?"
    Nina went on, "So I’m thinking that things are just, well, different over here. Or, at least, more different then we thought. I’m just about ready to scrap the whole idea and-shit-you come walking on in. So everything works out the way I planned."
    Nina strolled to Trevor and looked into his eyes as if there might be an answer there. "So either, like, she’s a great actress and lied her panties right off or…" She peered even closer. "Or there’s a really good story here."
    The dark haired woman-Jolene-interrupted the conversation. "We’re ready."
    Nina nodded and told the men, "This’ll just take a sec. There’ll be a flash; no biggy. But you’ll feel a little, well, dizzy after."
    "After what?" Trevor questioned.
    Nina may have answered, he did not know because he could not hear. A loud roar filled the complex. The air seemed to shake. Next came the flash Nina warned of, as if a thousand cameras snapped a picture at once. Yet Trevor could not discern the source of the flash. It came from nowhere, yet everywhere.
    As the spots in front of his eyes faded, Trevor felt a warm sensation across his body, almost like wind burn.
    That immensely loud noise stopped.
    "What in the Lord’s name was that all about?"
    Trevor tried to answer his friend but, instead, fell to the ground on his hands and knees.
    "I told…I told you," Nina stuttered as she too struggled with balance. "It’s like a really good buzz for a second or two. It’ll fade…whoa…I think."
    "Y-you think?"
    Trevor felt queasiness in his stomach from the loss of equilibrium. He was not the only one. He heard the unmistakable sound of someone vomiting.
    "Good God, what did you do? What was that flash?" Johnny asked.
    Nina ignored Reverend Johnny yet again. "We…we have to get going."
    Trevor staggered to a stand as his stability slowly returned. He saw the technicians hastily gather cases and pouches as well as jackets and weapons with an obvious sense of urgency. Despite fighting dizziness themselves, the members of Nina's 'crew' hurried to leave.
    Reverend Johnny grabbed her arm. "I asked you a question, woman!"
    Nina eyed the hand holding her, mildly shocked at the strength of his grip. But the anxiety Trevor saw in her eyes did not come from any threat posed by Johnny.
    Before they could exchange words, Nina’s communicator beeped. Trevor and the rest heard the panicked voice on the other end. "Team One, this is Perimeter. You need to haul ass because we’re out of time!"
    Trevor touched Johnny’s shoulder but looked to Nina as he said, "We’ll get our answers, but we have to get going first. Isn’t that right?"
    "Yeah. That’s right," she yanked her arm from Johnny’s grasp. "But we got to get going right now. I mean, right now."
    Johnny put aside his anger.
    Nina pulled the communicator from her belt and made a general announcement: "All units evacuate. Proceed to extraction zone for immediate egress." She holstered the radio again. "Now you two come with us. Trust me; you don’t want to do anything stupid. If you want to be stupid later, fine. But not now."
    Trevor agreed and said more to Johnny than her, "I’ve filled my quota on stupid today."
    "The day is young, Mr. Stone," Johnny shook his head. "The day is young."
    Green eyed Jolene joined them. Nina led the group down the wide ramp. She set the pace first walking, then walking fast. They overheard radio chatter along the way.
    "Command, I got movement at-" static enveloped the transmission.
    "This is Kartright; I’ve lost contact with my outer ring."
    "Kartright, this is Command, fall back to-"
    "Oh shit it’s RIGHT HERE-!"
    Nina’s pace changed from a fast walk to a jog.
    Johnny spoke to anyone who would listen, "What in the devil’s name is going on here? Why are we in such a hurry?"
    Trevor answered for their hosts, "Take a look around, Rev. This place doesn’t belong to our friend here. I think she stole it."
    Nina spoke as they came to the lower level where a large open archway offered a glow of sunlight from outside. "More like, well, borrowed it."
    "And now whoever you borrowed it from is coming to get it back, right?"
    "Something like that," she admitted as the exit neared.
    "Team One, this is Perimeter, the line has been breached at-oh SHIT! RUN! R-"
    No further transmissions came from the radio.
    Nina and her group of escorts and escorted took the advice of the last transmission: they bolted out into the cold afternoon and joined a mob of running people, some having come from inside the complex, others obviously the troops from outside.
    Trevor stumbled as his surroundings came in to focus. They were in the woods but not the same woods. The trees here were of a similar hardwood variety, but scorched white and warped into horrid shapes. This was a forest after a fire or some terrible tree disease.
    Reverend Johnny mumbled, "Tears of Jesus, what has happened?"
    "Save the questions!" Nina hollered as the two men fell behind. "Your answers are ahead but you won’t live to see them if you don’t run!"
    Two technicians scrambled around the slower-moving Trevor and Johnny, dropping papers from the bundles of notes and books they struggled to carry. Trevor wondered if those notes and books contained the instructions to operate the building Nina had 'borrowed'.
    Despite the fleeing crowd to either side, Trevor heard something. Or did he feel it? Either way, he glanced over to Johnny and saw him staring back with the same question in his eyes.
    What was that?
    A low, droning hum growing louder…approaching from behind.
    Thousands of sunbeams sliced through the canopy of twisted, lifeless branches casting sharp lines of bright and dark. Yet the sun could not chase away a feeling of emptiness, like death. Trevor felt a cold that came from more than the temperature.
    The hum grew into a buzz, growing louder; closing on the mob running like forest animals from a spreading fire.
    "Run!" Nina shouted and her blond ponytails waved behind her like miniature wings.
    Trevor hastened his pace as best he could, jumping over fallen limbs and crashing through piles of dead brush but the physical obstacles were not nearly as overwhelming as the mental ones. From the sorry sight of the decayed forest to the buzzing danger pursuing from behind to this Nina Forest doppelganger and her band of strangely-clothed mercenaries, it felt as if he entered some warped wonderland.
    A soldier with a badly injured leg ran-hopped at a sprint-forward. Every bound he made elicited a cry of pain yet he did not slow. Something-terror-compelled him to flight despite blood loss that would certainly kill him soon enough.
    A woman in a white lab coat stumbled and fell. Another technician literally stepped on her back as he continued on without a thought for his comrade, ignoring her cries before he tripped over a tree root and landed face-first in a pile of dried leaves.
    Trevor did not stop to help either of them. He followed Nina and the rest of the fleeing pack pushing through sharp barren branches.
    "I will pour out my terrible fury on this place. Its people, animals, trees, and crops will be consumed by the unquenchable fire of my anger…"
    Johnny slowed as he spoke. Trevor turned and saw why; his friend dared a glimpse behind.
    The humming noise bounced off the dead trees and filled the air like a demonic shriek.
    Trevor followed Reverend Johnny's eyes to the forest behind them, behind another wave of running people, back into the sea of sunbeams slicing down from above.
    Like lights in a dark hall switching off, those sunbeams flickered and disappeared one after another as the blackness came. Literally a flood of dark. A thick cloud oozing through the woods like a wall of black water running down a river bed.
    A hand grasped his shoulder and spun him around. Nina screamed, "Haul your ass!"
    Johnny mumbled, "Surely an agent of the serpent himself…"
    Trevor did not allow the sight to clutter his already chaotic mind any further. Instead, he grabbed on to fear and let it guide him, shouting to his friend, "Let’s move, Rev. Let’s MOVE!"
    Although his legs trembled, Trevor found more speed than he had ever known, easily keeping pace with Nina.
    The ground shook. The hum seemed more a scream and it seeped into his mind; invaded.
    Trevor…Johnny…the others…they stampeded, pushing through the horrid forest, flattening the withered foliage and weaving through the corpse-like hardwoods.
    Screams from behind; those not fast enough.
    Trevor dared a look over his shoulder after he jumped a fallen tree. The wave of black gained; fifty yards back and billowing forth.
    They splashed across a stream, climbed a short ridge of red rock, then the forest of twisted, sick trees gave way to a large clearing. Four machines parked there. Trevor immediately saw them as air craft but he could not identify the type. They stood slightly larger than a Blackhawk chopper with a large rotor affixed to a raised rear quarters that gave the impression of the ship sticking its ass in the air. The main body sported two short wings with jet-like engines underneath and a large cockpit at the bow dominated by a huge, multi-paneled windshield.
    Judging by their boxy design he guessed them to be cargo carriers or troop transports.
    "This way! C’mon!" Nina urged as she ran toward one of the craft.
    Rear ramps stood open on each of the ships.
    Forest called to Jolene as they raced across the clearing, "Take Two. I’ll get these guys out on Three!"
    Jolene directed herself and a group of running people toward one of the craft. Trevor and Johnny followed Nina inside another.
    They boarded directly into a tube-like cargo area with rows of seats along the outer walls under small glass portals. Two flight chairs waited in the big nose cone, Nina headed for one.
    A soldier shut the rear ramp immediately after Johnny and Trevor entered, closing it in the face of several technicians and forcing them to scamper for another means of escape.
    As the ramp sealed, Trevor glimpsed the deluge of darkness flood into the clearing. Several people disappeared into its midst. He thought he saw-he could not be sure-those people turn ghastly white and then melt as the black cloud enveloped them.
    "Everyone, take your seats!"
    He did exactly as told. He did it and prayed she could launch the vehicle fast enough.
    "Firing booster rockets!"
    Following Nina’s announcement, a jolt pinned the passengers in their seats and a loud rush filled the cabin. The ship thrust skyward like a rocket ship destined for orbit. Trevor felt his belly sink.
    "Hold on…almost clear…"
    Upwards momentum slowed, the rush of the rockets dissipated. The ship held still and silent in the sky for a moment; the world seemed to stop.
    Then Trevor felt his belly move to his throat as the powerless ride plummeted back toward Earth, gripped again by gravity.
    "Booster rockets," he mumbled to Johnny who sat across from him with his eyes closed mumbling prayers so he probably did not hear. "For a quick take off in emergencies."
    He heard Nina grumble, "Come on, damn it. Come ON!" She struggled with controls.
    A click. A whir. Then a rumble that sounded to his ear like the blades of a helicopter. In this case, the big rotor above his ride. The metal floor vibrated and he felt their descent slow as the spinning blade overhead caught and stabilized flight.
    "Sweeeet, yeah!" Nina cheered from the cockpit.
    Trevor looked out the portal near his seat. He saw another of the helicopter-like things shoot into the air then start its rotor while he felt his own gain forward momentum and bank. As it did, his side angled enough to afford a view of the clearing below.
    Whatever had come for them…whatever it was… surged across the entire field, covering it in a black, oily mist. An explosion erupted from the confines of that sea of darkness. Trevor saw fragments of another of the air ships as it died in a ball of fire on the ground. The explosion appeared muffled by that immense, inky entity, suggesting far more mass than any cloud.
    Trevor's eyes remained fixated on below; he felt a chill along his spine and despite all he had seen, fought, and vanquished over the years, this thing made him feel insignificant; a flea in the shadow of an elephant.
    – After nearly an hour of sitting in obedient silence, Trevor desired answers. He unbuckled and walked to the front of the craft. Glass surrounded nearly three-quarters of the cockpit providing a tremendous view of rolling plains dotted with forests, dead farms, and frozen ponds.
    He sat in the empty co-pilot's seat and said to Nina, "I want answers, no games."
    She shook her head in a manner suggesting a combination of amusement and annoyance.
    "Where do you want me to start?"
    "Let’s start with the big question. Who or what are you?"
    "I am Nina Forest."
    "Okay, then, where are we? That building was some sort of transport."
    "That’s right, yeah," she told him. "You’re on Earth. And no, it wasn’t a time machine."
    Trevor stared forward through the glass. He spoke with an edge in his voice. "So, I’m on Earth and you’re Nina Forest. Okay then, where are my troops? From what I can tell, we've been flying east for a while now. Army Group North should be around here, somewhere. If this is Earth and we’re still over Ohio some-." He caught himself. "Wait a second, that place…it wasn’t a gateway. I know that. I’ve seen them in action."
    "No, it wasn’t a gateway," she confirmed.
    "But it was a transport. You say we’re still on Earth?"
    "I said, we’re on Earth."
    Trevor understood. He eased into the chair and nodded to himself.
    Why not?
    So far in his life, aliens invaded his home world, he could communicate with dogs, learned he had a half-brother, and one of his best friends channeled Stonewall Jackson.
    So why not?
    "A parallel-what? — Universe?"
    She smiled. "Wow. I mean, you’re taking that a lot better than I thought you would."
    "I guess I’ve just learned that there’s a surprise waiting right around every bend in my life. Like everything else, I'll just accept it without thinking too hard and maybe I'll stay sane."
    She laughed. He allowed himself a small chuckle.
    There he sat, riding along in a strange flying machine over a world that was like his own but not quite the same. His eyes drifted to her.
    Different…but the same.
    He said, "I've seen enough movies and TV shows about this type of thing. Everything is pretty close to my world but a little different. Well, at least you don't have a beard."
    "Never mind. So okay, you went to a lot of trouble to bring me here. Why?"
    She said, "We monitored your broadcasts when we arrived on your Earth. I could tell you’re doing pretty well. You’ve managed to start taking back your planet. Pretty damn impressive, Trevor."
    "And here?"
    Her good humor faded. "For a while, great, but not anymore. These days the orders are always the same: retreat."
    "Retreat? Who the Hell has been in charge around here?" She told him the answer he feared, "You."
    He felt a wave of apprehension build inside. Seeing a duplicate Nina, that had been hard. But seeing a duplicate of himself, could he handle that? "I assume I’m going to go meet…well, me?" "Yes."
    "Why all the secrecy? We’re all human, right? I mean, you are human?"
    Nina looked at him again. "Yes, I'm human. Just like you in every way. You're flying in what we nicknamed a 'Skipper'. I know you have things like it on your world."
    Just as he had studied her, examining him up and down, taking in the sight. In her eyes he spied something between surprise and awe, between desperation and relief.
    She told him, "You need to see everything for yourself. I'm being honest when I say I don’t want to hurt you. You know that, don’t you? You can feel it, can’t you?"
    In the last few hours Trevor walked in to a trap, faced and even kissed a second Nina Forest, traveled to some kind of parallel universe, and ran for his life from a wall of evil blackness. He now rode in a helicopter-like contraption-a 'Skipper'-above an Earth where humanity fought the same war of survival as he did. Yet, he nearly felt relaxed.
    Why? Because he sat next to and spoke with Nina Forest. She even smiled, a little.
    "Yes," he answered her question. "I can feel it."
    "Good, we need you."
    "Why’s that?"
    "Because if you can’t help us, we’ll be wiped out."
    He sat in the co-pilot's chair and contemplated that thought. Trevor did not know how he felt about that and he did not know how much he cared. He did, after all, have his own world to worry about. But these people were human, too. Certainly the event's of her universe connected somehow or someway with Armageddon on his world.
    Below, the landscape changed from forests and frozen fields to a wasteland of bomb craters, vehicle wrecks, and scattered piles of remains. Occasional mounds of rubble, scorched patches of woods, and a dried riverbed broke the otherwise flat plain of destruction. Gusts of frigid air blew bands of dust and snow flakes over a seemingly dead land.
    "Almost home," Nina whispered.
    Another sight grabbed his attention; a break in the horizon. As they approached, that break took form. A city. A very large city growing taller and wider as they neared. But first came bands of defenses including trenches, barbed wire, sandbags, and pill boxes. He saw more remains below; fresher carcasses visited by scavengers and apparently stripped nearly naked of any equipment or gear that might serve the living.
    You don't leave your own to rot in the sun, he thought in disgust.
    The city filled the cockpit window. At the heart of the place stood a cluster of skyscrapers reaching dozens of stories tall yet lacking any style; any concession to aesthetics. He found them bland and boring; metal and brass structures dressed in a dull, almost sickly green.
    That same utilitarian design carried over the entire metropolis. As they descended, he saw an industrial sector where chimneys billowed clouds of white and gray smoke, and squat rectangular buildings arranged like building blocks end to end stood in neat rows as if painstakingly measured to maximize every meter of available space.
    It seemed to Trevor this city existed for function, not life. Then again, if mankind stood on its last legs here, then would he not also abandon style in favor of efficiency and purpose?
    Still, if this Earth's topography matched his own, this place might just be "Pittsburgh?"
    He apparently thought aloud. "Pittsburgh?" She responded. "Never heard of it. I think there are some differences between our worlds. Things like names. But that wouldn’t matter much in this case. This is the city of Thebes. It’s a new city, sort of. Only a few years old."
    "Oh. What about the other cities? Have you re-taken any of them?"
    Nina put a fine point on it. "Trevor, this is our last city. It was built for military purposes. Now it’s all that remains."
    He sat in stunned silence, unable to accept such a thought. If true, would failure here affect the fight on his planet? Had destiny brought him here, too? Was his fight against Armageddon not merely planet wide but…but universal?
    "You okay over there?"
    He heard genuine concern in her voice.
    "Yeah. Well, no. I mean, you're failing here. I'm failing, I guess. The version of me… well, you know what I mean. What I'm saying is, the idea of failure, it's the one thing that keeps me up at night."
    "I understand."
    "Sure, but you already met yourself. Now I get to meet me. That’s a weird feeling."
    "Tell me about it."
    The Skipper flew around the city for a better view. Most parts seemed covered in soot and dirt, a few stood out with glitzy designs resembling casinos on the old Las Vegas strip. Yet most buildings held more in common with warehouses, garages, and hangers.
    "Like I said, this is all about military. The skyscrapers are dormitories, there aren't any individual houses."
    "Hardly any windows and I see almost no lights. Let me guess, security reasons?"
    "No windows for security, no lights to conserve power. Sorry, it's not very impressive."
    "Feels like a big trap to me," he said but her expression suggested he insulted her so he clarified, "Not for me but for you. You're herded in here behind barbed wire and barricades. Makes for an easy target."
    "Yeah, tell me about it. Hang on, we're going in to land."
    The Skipper descended inside a fifteen foot tall wall. Trevor saw that the wall no longer protected the entire city; enemy fire had turned sections into rubble.
    After the landing gear touched ground, the rotor slowed and the rear door opened.
    "C’mon, it’s time for you to meet our Trevor Stone."
    Sweat formed in the palm of his hands. He felt a shiver in his backbone.
    Nina led Trevor, Johnny, and a squad of soldiers from the Skipper but this time Trevor judged the soldiers' behavior to be less that of guards and more escorts for a VIP. Still, they huddled around to hide Trevor in the midst of their group. He figured they did not want him to be seen. Two Trevor Stones walking around might be too much to handle.
    They moved through a set of turnstiles guarded by artillery and an armored vehicle. Their path then opened up at a wide courtyard but Trevor did not see another soul.
    "Come here, I want to show you something."
    Nina led them toward the center of the square. As they walked, a horde of scrawny pigeons fluttered away. As the flock flew off, Trevor saw something standing at the center of the courtyard draped in shadows cast by the skyscrapers around the perimeter of the yard.
    Sounds of distant activity drifted through the air: a bell ringing, the rumble of an engine, a voice barking orders; the wind whispering between buildings.
    "My Lord," Johnny gasped as he viewed what stood at the center of the courtyard.
    Trevor pushed out from the middle of the gang and approached the object that was the focus of the park. A statue of a man. A bronze statue atop a white granite pedestal. A man holding a sword and raising it in anger toward the sky.
    Trevor saw his eyes, his hair, his face cast in bronze.
    In Memory of Our Beloved Emperor
    Trevor Stone

8. Suspicions

    General Casey Fink led a squad of soldiers out from a garage and across a short parking lot past useless gas pumps. Balls of lethal plasma shot over and around them until they found cover in a drainage ditch alongside the road.
    Casey dared a look from his position; a position that changed drastically in recent days.
    Last weekend he stood-in for Hoth at an Imperial military meeting rubbing elbows with the bigwigs. Now he hid in a ditch outside some roadside town in central Ohio that seemingly consisted of a garage, a John Deere dealership, and a church.
    A ball of energy exploded on the slush and snow covered road a few yards in front of Casey’s peeking eyes. He ducked, avoiding a spray of icy goo and blasted black top.
    The squad returned fire toward the entrenched Plats. Rifle and carbine rounds smashed dealership windows and strafed the white wooden walls of the Presbyterian house of worship.
    Casey patted the shoulder of Captain Marty Blue. The former school teacher turned around allowing the General access to his backpack of bulky communications equipment.
    "Big Momma this is Gopher, do you copy? Over."
    Fink heard the reply he hoped for: "This is Big Bad Momma, we deliver."
    "Shit, yeah, I need a delivery, Momma. Stand by…"
    Fink consulted a hand held map of the patrol area; the area he had the brilliant urge to visit for himself; the area supposedly free of Plats and therefore a great route for pushing west.
    "Momma, I’m looking at grid reference fifty-two by fifty-five, over."
    An enemy bolt slammed into a black soldier, opening a hole in his shoulder and causing his arm to dangle like a broken tree branch. The squad's medic tended to the grievous wound with bandages and twine from his poorly-stocked first aid kit.
    Gunfire, screams, and finally a radio transmission filled Casey's ear: "Gopher, I copy your point of interest. How about we serve up some of Momma’s home cooking, over."
    "Hard copy that shit, Momma. We’re starving here, over."
    "Roger that, Gopher, stand by and get somewhere snug 'cause dinner is served."
    Fink shouted to his troops, "Danger close!"
    Moments later, waves of rockets descended through a low layer of morning clouds and slammed into grid reference 52–55, also known as the John Deere dealership and the church. A wave of heat swept over the frigid battleground as the target buildings disintegrated into shards of plaster and wood, balls of flame, and mushroom clouds of smoke.
    Amidst the ear-splitting explosions and sounds of destruction Casey heard the sweet melody of Platypus aliens squealing like wounded pigs.
    "Gopher, this is Momma. You guys still hungry down there? Over?"
    The barrage halted. Fink assessed the results. One church wall stood, the rest smoldered in a sort of funeral pyre. He saw a burning, three-legged duck-billed Platypus alien wobble out and collapse. Its flesh roasted with a smell like burnt Thanksgiving dinner.
    "Negative, Momma, we’re full. Them’s good eats. Over and out."
    Casey led the squad from the ditch. With this outpost destroyed, he had cleared a path for the hastily organized attack Hoth ordered. And while he liked the idea of Army Group North moving again, he could not understand why the brass suddenly seemed in such a hurry.
    – Nina Forest spent twenty-four hours under watch after having been a prisoner of, well, of herself. Certainly Oliver Maddock could find a Freud joke in there, but he and the rest of the team knew better than to make jokes. Not after how badly they screwed up.
    In hindsight, she questioned every decision from accepting the mysterious invitation to splitting up at the farm. Most of all, she questioned obeying Trevor's orders to leave him behind.
    At least a hundred times she went into battle willing to die for him; for what he represented to humanity. Why did she not charge those guards, even if it meant death? If Trevor died at the hands of those strangers-of a duplicate Nina-she would never forgive herself.
    And that raised another issue. One that added to her guilt but also generated more questions. Exactly why had she-Captain Forest-been a successful lure for the Emperor?
    The other Nina-the one who claimed to come from a 'parallel' Earth-showed the most emotion when Captain Forest of the Dark Wolves assured that she barely knew Trevor Stone and they had never engaged in any sort of relationship.
    Yes, that had elicited a response, Nina remembered.
    Nina with twin ponytails had refused to accept the truth, then deteriorated into panic then, later, relief when Stone actually showed.
    She chewed on that thought as she walked across the encampment on yet another relentlessly cold January day in Ohio.
    Nina paused as an ambulance drove by transporting wounded from the front lines to the camp's infirmary. Apparently the battle to push west raged and it bothered her that General Hoth would not allow the Wolves to participate.
    Nina arrived at the mess tent, opened the door, and went inside.
    One good thing about all this, Nina realized; those weird dreams have stopped.
    Before she could contemplate any connection between the dreams and the ordeal, a new set of thoughts and emotions overwhelmed the Captain. In a corner sat a lonely thirteen year old girl dressed in a heavy coat and drinking a mug of hot chocolate.
    Nina stopped in her tracks and eyed her daughter. Her family.
    Denise then caught sight of her mother and a smile grabbed control of her face. A big, genuine smile that nearly warmed the countryside. Then the thirteen-year-old attitude managed to stifle the grin and she nonchalantly returned her attention to the mug of hot drink as if ho-hum just another day.
    Nina strolled over and sat at the table, saying, "I heard you were in camp. Sorry, they wouldn't let me out of isolation until now. Standard procedure."
    "Yeah, well, you know, it’s no big deal."
    "Skipping school again?"
    Denise did not answer.
    "I’ll let you get away with it this time," mom smiled as she placed an arm on the girl’s shoulder. "Because I’m glad to see you."
    "Geez, don’t get all mushy."
    Denise tried to sound convincing but she could not even convince her own hands to stop shaking; the mug of hot chocolate shimmied in her grip.
    Nina agreed, "Yeah, you’re right."
    Neither of them could maintain the charade any longer. Denise’s lips trembled, her drink splashed in shaking hands. Nina reached in and moved the cup to the table top.
    "I’m okay. I’m back."
    Denise let it rip. She turned and cried and buried her head into Nina’s chest.
    "Don’t you ever do that to me! Don’t you ever do that!"
    "It’s okay…it’s okay, honey…I’m back."
    Sobs followed; sobs and hugs. Nina squeezed her tight.
    She wished she could promise her daughter that this would never happen again. She wished she could promise that she would never be a casualty in this war. She wished she could curl up in Annapolis with Denise and just be a mother, not a soldier-mom.
    But she could not. She would fight again soon. As long as this war raged, Nina Forest would risk her life. She could not walk away no matter how strong her maternal instincts called.
    For now, she held Denise as tight as she could. The two rocked softly back and forth on the bench seat.
    "I was so afraid when I heard," Denise said with her head still buried in mom’s arms. "The first thing…the first thing I did was find a way out here. I jumped a train, and then I got a ride with a convoy. I was afraid I’d be too late."
    "You’re pretty brave, to come all the way out here."
    "I got here and they didn’t know what happened to you. They didn’t know."
    "It's okay, sweat heart," Nina stroked Denise's hair. "You can calm down now."
    Denise pulled her face out of those loving arms, wiped away a tear, and in a tone that quickly reversed from sad to excited said, "I met Trevor-I mean, I met the Emperor! He was sitting right here! I didn’t know it, I made such an ass-I mean, such an idiot — of myself. You should have-"
    "Wait a sec," Nina interrupted. "You saw Trevor Stone here?"
    "Yeah, that’s how I knew you were going to make it back."
    "How? How did you know that?"
    Denise told her, "Because he promised me you were coming back. The Emperor told me he was going to get you himself."
    Nina did not know what to say but the obvious question came to mind: Why would the Emperor come all the way out here just for me?
    "He promised you’d come home. He promised and he was right."
    – "What’s the status of the 13 ^ th Brigade?"
    Hoth’s aid-a gritty but dignified gray-haired woman-answered, "Captain Blue’s infantry have secured the intersection at Jamestown. The bulk of his force is proceeding toward Xenia on schedule."
    "Signal Captain Downs to proceed with phase two. Remind him that he’s to have his Brigade across Caesar’s Creek in three hours or the schedule will be thrown off."
    "I understand," the woman responded.
    The aid walked off but Hoth-much to his chagrin-did not stand alone at the map-covered billiards table in the parlor. General Jerry Shepherd hovered at his side.
    "Will, I’ve been looking over your rosters and I see you’ve got a couple of extra squads in reserve. I’m thinking I can grab a Blackhawk off Captain Dunston over at Second Tactical Wing and get this search going again."
    Shep cocked his head. "Pardon me, General? I’m not sure I heard correctly."
    Hoth came through loud and clear this time. "My orders are to quickly pacify the Ohio area. I can no longer spare troops and supplies to continue the search."
    "Your orders come ultimately from Trevor Stone. He’s missing out there, somewhere."
    "I’ve read the reports, General Shepherd, from both aerial reconnaissance and ground teams. I also have heard the eye witness reports of yourself and the Dark Wolves. You clearly state that the structure Trevor Stone entered disappeared without a trace."
    "I reckon you’d better get to the point of this."
    Hoth did. "The point is that Trevor Stone is not out there to be found. He has been killed or transported to another location. The best way to find out what happened is to insert science teams to evaluate the area. That can not happen until we secure that sector. That’s something I’m working on and because I’m now rushed into this action I need all my assets. With all due respect, this is exactly why I opposed the participation of senior staff in the search effort."
    Shepherd nearly said something he might regret but managed to bite his tongue. Hoth, however, had more to say.
    "General Shepherd, I believe you have been recalled to the estate to discuss this matter."
    Shep had, indeed, received orders from Jon Brewer to return to the lakeside mansion to update the key players on the situation. The problem was that Shepherd was not sure of the situation, other than the obvious: they were leaderless. Fortunately, few people knew that yet.
    "General Shepherd, leave this operation to my people. We’ve been preparing to push west for some time. Once we take control of the areas around Dayton we’ll be in a better position to analyze what happened. Until then, you’re just getting in my way."
    Shep’s eyes widened. "Oh, now, we wouldn’t want to have that, now would we?"
    Hoth did not respond. Shepherd knew Hoth did not need to respond because Shep figured that everyone in that room knew Hoth was right. Including Jerry.
    Shep rubbed his tired eyes. "I suppose I’ll catch a flight back, then."
    "All three of my Eagle shuttles are committed. You’ll need to take the train."
    "Oh? Is that a fact?" The edge returned to the senior General’s voice.
    Hoth chased that edge away. "It might be a good idea if you headed for the station right away. If memory serves, Captain Forest is taking the next train back east, too. It would be a good idea for her to be escorted by someone who knows her."
    Shepherd bit his tongue yet again, nearly hard enough to draw blood, and mumbled, "Well, then, I guess that’s that. You have a really nice day now, you hear?"
    Hoth heard.
    – Jon Brewer and Ashley stood in the second floor office at the mansion. Gordon Knox sat in a chair along the wall.
    "What do you mean, ‘missing’?"
    "According to what Jerry Shepherd saw, the building Trevor entered vanished. Simply disappeared with everyone inside. We searched the area but found no trace. Once the area is secured by Army Group North we'll send Omar and science teams to the site to evaluate what actually happened."
    "I don’t understand. He said he was going to Ohio to surprise the troops to boost morale. He didn’t tell me anything about leading a mission."
    Jon paused, his eyes wandered, and he rocked back on his heals as he summoned the explanation he recently concocted. "Well, you know Trevor, um, he just got, well, out there and decided to do this, I guess."
    Ashley’s eyes narrowed and locked on him, her mouth opened a little. Jon heard her thought as clearly as if she spoke the words, I can’t believe it. You just lied to me.
    Jon looked at the floor.
    "I see," she spoke in something akin to a growl. "And exactly what was this spur of the moment adventure he went off on?"
    "One of our Special Forces units went missing. He decided to lead a rescue mission."
    "A special forces unit?"
    "It was the Dark Wolves. They’ve been our best over the years."
    Ashley asked, "What was this building? What was in there? Who was in there?"
    Brewer tried to slow things down. "Shep is on his way here to fill in the details. Like I said, he was on the ground with Trevor when it happened. Maybe he can shine light on all of this. But, hey, Ashley, according to the reports Trevor was alive when the place disappeared."
    Gordon Knox sat in his chair observing the conversation without saying a word. Ashley decided to drag him in. "Gordon. What do you know about this building? What do you know about the aliens that took Trevor?"
    Jon could only guess at how much Gordon knew about Trevor and Nina's relationship. On one hand, he had not joined the movement until long after that episode. At the same time, his business was information and he had grown close to Trevor in recent years.
    Knox replied, "Well, they weren’t aliens. Isn’t that right, Jon?"
    "People?" Ashley turned fast on Brewer. "Why didn’t you tell me that? Who were they?"
    "Calm down," Jon raised a reassuring hand but he quickly realized that Ashley now looked to Gordon for answers.
    "Anita has nothing on record that matches the type of structure Shepherd says he saw. Captain. Forest went to the area originally after receiving a radio transmission requesting help."
    Gordon said, "Captain Nina Forest. She’s the commanding officer of the Dark Wolves."
    "I know that name."
    "Yes you do," Jon tried desperately to gain control over the conversation. "Nina was one of the original band of survivors. She and Shep came to the estate those first few months."
    Gordon continued, "The reports are a little sketchy and, well, convoluted. We know that Captain Forest and her unit disappeared while on mission. Trevor, General Shepherd, and Reverend Johnny took in a follow up team to find them."
    "Wait a second," she interrupted. "Johnny, too?"
    Jon felt things spiraling further out of control.
    Ashley turned to him. "Reverend Johnny is missing, too? Trevor took Johnny all the way out to Ohio, met up with Shepherd who came all the way from-what? — Kentucky-"
    "Tennessee," Jon Brewer corrected.
    "Okay, Tennessee, and they went off searching for a couple of missing soldiers?"
    "Nina, listen-" Jon stopped. Had he really just said that? "Sorry. I mean, Ashley, listen. Shepherd will be back soon. Until then we really don’t know exactly what happened."
    Ashley stared at him.
    Jon reached for his jacket hanging on the back of a chair and repeated, "When Shep gets here we’ll all sit down and sort this out. In the meantime, General Hoth is pushing west to secure the area. We’ll be sending in all sorts of specialists to find out what happened. We’ll find him, Ashley. We’ll find Trevor."
    She added, "And Reverend Johnny, too."
    "And Johnny, yes."
    "And Nina Forest and her soldiers."
    Jon shook his head, "No, they’re on their way…"
    Brewer stopped again, caught like a deer in headlights. He closed his eyes and then finished because he could not do otherwise. "They let everyone go except Trevor and Reverend Johnny. Captain Forest and her unit have returned to duty."
    "I see."
    He heard the tone in her voice.
    Something is going on here; something you’re not telling me.
    Brewer slipped his jacket on fast and escaped from the room.
    – Evan knew he did not look good wearing safety goggles. Not Dukakis-in-the-tank bad, but certainly on the geeky side. However, on this day he traded image for substance. Sort of.
    He followed Omar Nehru through the large, long building and up a set of short but steep metal stairs to a platform. A gaggle of media-wearing geeky goggles as well-waited on the plant floor below like a crowd gathering for a rock concert.
    As bulbs flashed, Evan sensed an opportunity. He turned and lent a helping hand up the steep stairs to the third member of his party, Jim Hutch, a burly man with side burns who sweat profusely.
    "There you go, Jim."
    "Thank you, Senator Godfrey."
    "Now that won’t due, Jim. That won’t do at all. Call me Evan."
    "You should be coming over this way, so as to get the best view," Omar directed in a loud voice. He had to speak loud because the machines that filled the massive industrial center drown out most conversation.
    Omar's tour took the men to a big long cylinder set horizontally on thick support struts. Gauges, controls, hoses, wires, and all manner of mechanisms dotted the surface of the thing. At one end a funnel-like orifice; at the other an arched opening feeding onto a conveyor belt.
    From front to back the machine stretched nearly fifty yards with the diameter of a railroad tanker car.
    Evan addressed the crowd more so than Omar as he said, "This matter-maker is much larger than the one we discovered back during the first year. I remember when you and I got our first good look at one of these."
    "Um, yes, of course," Omar would not challenge Evan's historical revisionism.
    Hutch turned his nose up and grunted, "Damn ugly thing. Looks grimy and what's that smell? Geez, smells like something rotting."
    "It is an industrial-capacity matter transfiguration machine," Omar came across as defensive. "Given the variety of substances pushed through its workings it does develop an unpleasant odor, which is a side effect that cannot be helped."
    Evan sensed Omar's temperature rising, although the edge in his voice might be as much due to a lack of a cigarette as anything else. Whatever the case, Evan interceded, "So, tell me Omar, how much do we understand about the workings of this contraption?"
    "What we have learned has come from what you might say 'trial and error.' We have developed a comprehensive list of what materials can be created. We also have several theories as to exactly how this process is completed, but so far have been unable to duplicate the process with human technology."
    Evan summarized, "So you know what it does but not why."
    Hutch wiped perspiration from this forehead with his arm and suggested, "Why not just rip the thing apart and study its insides."
    Omar's eyes bulged and his lips trembled as he nearly shouted, "Because we only have so many of these machines and the entire industrial output of our nation is dependent upon them. We could not risk losing output capacity."
    Senator Godfrey rested an arm on Nehru's shoulder. "So, um, what's next on the tour?"
    Omar heaved a deep breath and led the men across the scaffold toward the input end.
    "As you will see here, at this point here in goes raw materials for metamorphosis."
    On cue, a crane tipped a large bucket and a dark-colored substance oozed into the receptacle. A terrible new smell drifted across the gathered VIPs and their media entourage.
    "What is that shit?" Jim Hutch found this new smell worse than the first.
    "I must be apologizing for the nastiness of this odor. Our technicians have now been pouring garbage sludge into the maker."
    "I see," Evan waved a hand over his nose half-heartily.
    A few of the gathered reporters laughed.
    "Now what happens?"
    Omar walked alongside the machine as if following the sludge on its unseen journey. He answered the Senator as they walked. "All of the conversions have been set in advance. It is much consuming of time to complete the equations. As the input materials move through the cylinder, the machine breaks the sludge into its basic building blocks on a level molecular."
    The cylinder vibrated, creating a sound similar to an overtaxed washing machine.
    "And at this time the sludge is becoming a mass of atoms. Those atoms will then be slowly changed into the new configuration we have selected for them."
    "This is fascinating, Omar. Fascinating," Evan made sure any audio recorders caught a tone of familiarity in his voice as he spoke to the Empire's leading scientific mind. Certainly anyone listening could tell these two were old buddies going back to the early days.
    "You cannot be seeing from this position, but on the side away from us there be a waste byproduct basin. It is there that excess materials are collected. From those materials we create the so-called ‘pinballs’ that our army people will use in combating Shadows."
    "Shadows?" Jim Hutch spoke between heavy huffs. "Those are nasty bastards."
    Omar pointed to a segment in the cylinder thicker than the rest of the machine.
    "As transformation occurs it is making much in radiation."
    Evan suppressed a natural instinct to step away from the machine at the mention of 'radiation.' Meanwhile, Omar continued with the tour.
    "And here you can be seeing the end result."
    Technicians pulled bins from a compartment. Those bins carried a pale yellow liquid from the machine that emitted a fruity bouquet.
    Evan acted like a kid on Christmas morning, "Absolutely wonderful! And exactly what is it you have produced today?"
    Omar answered, "This substance is being Undecylenic Acid."
    Evan seized the moment and suggested to Omar and the press, "No doubt a powerful weapon for use against hostiles such as Proto-Masses and Crawling Tube Worms!"
    Omar corrected, "Actually, undecylenic acid is an ingredient in anti-fungal applications."
    Evan’s smile faded a hair.
    Hutch's eyes widened and he said, "Oh, yeah, like for athletes foot and jock itch."
    "Well, I, um, see," Evan stumbled, but not very far.
    With the demonstration complete, the half-dozen reporters shot questions from below the raised platform.
    "Senator Godfrey, I see you’re touring this facility with Mr. Hutch. Does that mean you’re endorsing the idea of a laborer’s guild?"
    Evan felt Hutch’s eyes and ears await his response.
    "We are in a new world but there are some ideas from the old that are still applicable. I support Jim and his efforts to organize industrial workers, cargo handlers, and transportation drivers. I think the result will be a better work force and an improved quality of life."
    Flash bulbs popped as Evan turned and shook Jim’s grateful hand.
    Another question followed, "Senator, your colleagues appear ready to elect you President of the Senate later this week. How do you react to the news and do you worry that your position on the Emperor's advisory panel would then create a conflict of interest?"
    Evan nodded as he heard the question, rubbed his chin as if contemplating deep thoughts, then responded, "First, let me say that I am honored my colleagues are considering me for President. Second, I believe my constituents know that my interests are never conflicted."
    It is possible that those were the truest words Evan Godfrey ever spoke…
    …Evan relaxed in his hotel room at the Atlanta Hilton and Towers, the only hotel in town operating in a manner even vaguely resembling the pre-Armageddon world. No maids, of course, and no sheets or swimming pool or bar. But he did have a penthouse view of Atlanta
    The afternoon sun glittered through the windows while Godfrey hovered over a laptop computer putting the finishing touches on a speech he was to give at the train station that evening. It was all a part of his strategy to document every step in his journey from Washington, to New Winnabow, to Atlanta, and then back to Washington.
    He billed it as a pilgrimage into the hearts and lives of the citizens of The Empire; a chance to show his credentials as a man of the people.
    It kicked off with laying a wreath at the memorial in New Winnabow, then a show of gratitude to the garrison at Columbia, South Carolina. He spent three hours fishing off the coast of Savannah because fishermen deserved recognition for their work. On a farm he sheered sheep because people were cold up north that winter.
    Then came Atlanta and Jim Hutch.
    Godfrey saw Hutch as a disgusting, brute of a man. But that man was on the cutting edge of a new labor movement and, most likely, the cutting edge of the rebirth of organized crime.
    The matter-maker had been a nice backdrop, the presence of Omar Nehru a means of impressing Hutch with Evan’s own connections; a reminder that he could build bridges.
    Next he would go to the train station to recognize the challenges the railway workers faced; they had the third most dangerous civilian job in The Empire, you know.
    "Ah, that’s it," a great line came to mind and he typed frantically on the keyboard but an interruption came in the form of a ringing phone.
    He grumbled and answered, "This is Evan Godfrey."
    "Is it really? Not the Evan Godfrey who has been all over the news. Did you know that on NBN you got more coverage than the Ohio front? Of course you know that."
    The phone connection carried over a combination of hard lines and old cell towers but despite the static and distance, Evan recognized the voice.
    "Hello, officer Roos. How are you this afternoon?"
    Ray Roos, one of Dante Jones’ lieutenants in Internal Security and the top I.S. officer at the Imperial mansion. He had risen in the ranks without Trevor or Dante or anyone else realizing that Roos served as a conduit for information to Evan Godfrey. Information that had helped Evan make the right moves, the right decisions, and say the right words in advancing his interests.
    If Ray took the time and hassle of making the necessary connections to reach Evan Godfrey in Atlanta it must be important. Evan listened close because Ray's words usually only framed the message.
    "I am doing very well, thank you for asking, Senator. You’ll have to excuse the interruption. I figure you’ve got a lot to be doing down there."
    Godfrey responded, "As a Senator it’s important that I stay visible. The people have to know that we’re getting things done."
    Evan carried the phone over to the window. It was a nice day outside, even if overcast. The cityscape of Atlanta presented a mixture of human buildings and the remains of Hivvan structures. Even after more than a year, workers still demolished the walls, slave pens, and gun emplacements left behind by those invading lizards. Like all worthy projects, sanitizing Atlanta took time. Evan could appreciate that: time and patience to tear down the old and build the new.
    Ray continued, "It’s all over the news that you’re going to be elected President of the Senate. Wow, that is something else, Mr. Godfrey. A pretty big achievement for you."
    "Well, let’s not count our chickens, Ray."
    "Oh, now, you know me, Mr. Godfrey. I usually don’t go counting those chickens until they’re hatched. That way you don’t end up with egg on your face, don’t you think?"
    "Very true. Very true indeed."
    "But Senator, it just really seems like this whole President-elect thing is going to happen. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say it’s in the bag. Still, I’m willing to wait for the election before I start sending my congratulations."
    "I can appreciate that."
    "Yes, Sir, being President of the Senate, that would be a heck of an accomplishment. So big, you would expect that as soon as they voted you in you should expect a phone call-sorta like this one-a phone call of congratulations from the Emperor himself, wouldn’t you think?"
    Evan played the game, regardless of how it grated on him. For some reason, Ray Roos seemed to be the one man he had met who could see clearly through his political double speak. The one man capable of out-maneuvering him. Thankfully, Ray stood in his corner.
    "Yes. I suppose I should expect a call of congratulations from the Emperor, should I be elected President of the Senate."
    "Yep. I’d think so. Why, I can’t think of a good reason why the Emperor wouldn’t jump on that phone right away and give you a call to offer up a nice attaboy. Could you think of a good reason, Mr. Godfrey? I mean, is there any reason at all as to why the Emperor might not go calling you-or might not be able to call you-on your big day?"
    Evan stood in his hotel room and gazed out the window.
    "No, Ray, I can’t think of a good reason at all."

9. Train Ride

    The old freight train station on Main Street in Washington Court House had long ago been converted into a live-stock feed factory. As was the case so often, Armageddon made something old new again.
    Engineers had re-converted the one-story wooden building back into a train station with relative ease; the platforms and ramps were in good condition and CSX had operated on the accompanying tracks up until the day the world went away.
    General Jerry Shepherd hoisted a soft travel bag over his shoulder and walked across the puddle-covered parking lot. He heard the rough idle of supply trucks anticipating cargo and the distant hiss of a steam engine waiting for passengers.
    In contrast to most of his travel, a squad of security did not escort the General due to his presence in Ohio being a secret. He did not mind, however. Shepherd did not like the royal treatment. The more time he spent on the frontier of this new, untamed America the more he craved a sense of individuality and even a touch of adventure. No doubt that craving contributed to the rash rescue attempt.
    I think I'm turning in to a cowboy, he admitted to himself.
    A high pressure system had moved over central Ohio and the temperature rose to forty degrees, the highest since early December but winter managed to maintain its grip by sending a mix of sleet and rain from an absolutely gloomy sky.
    In fact, 'gloomy' described the entire scene outside the station; rain over everything, the waterfall-like rush pouring off the station’s slanted roof, desolate trees in the distance that looked weary of winter. Everything lacked color, as if the sleet had washed away the reds and blues. Even the canvas green on the army trucks was torn and faded.
    He worked his way between parked trucks, dodged a couple of moving ones, accepted the salute of two soldiers who noticed the stars on the collar of his BDUs, and passed two Bull Terriers sniffing for trouble before entering the building that smelled like a barn.
    Shep paid forty "Continentals" for a one-way ticket to Wilkes-Barre (that price doubled in the last three weeks), then relaxed on a makeshift bench made of barrels and wooden planks.
    His train idled outside and was scheduled to leave at 3 p.m., a half-hour ago. Those who traveled on The Empire's rails knew to add at least one full hour to any scheduled departure.
    Shep tried to relax but could not. His concern for Trevor and sense of guilt over the botched mission would not allow it. He tried to divert his attention by people-watching.
    He saw an elderly woman and a young boy walk hand-in-hand between the ticket counter and schedule postings. He did not need a sixth sense to know that the older woman was the caretaker of a soldier’s child.
    Nearby, a middle aged man argued with an attendant over a schedule. Shep knew the man was not actually angry over a schedule. He was afraid; afraid for whomever it was he had come to visit at the camp.
    He saw a group of adults and kids bustle in with carts full of luggage, and he saw a pregnant girl crying in a corner.
    At last, a couple of familiar faces. Nina and Denise crossed the station and exited out onto the loading platform. He wanted to run to them, but first he had to prepare for questioning.
    Like clockwork, Nina asked Shepherd about the year of her missing memories every six months. Each time he danced, dodged, and outright lied to keep his vow of never speaking of that relationship. He anticipated a need to dance yet again, but struggled to build a good defense. Exactly how could he explain to her that Trevor Stone-the Emperor-left behind his palace and body guards and grand plans to seek out little old Nina Forest?
    Shepherd let loose a long sigh before grabbing his bag and strolling across the busy lobby and outside. A slanted roof covered most of the platform; the freezing rain fell in sheets from the lip of that roof. Some of the flood pitter-patted against the edge of the concrete landing.
    He spotted Nina and Denise hovering at the far end of the crowded platform. Nina carried a duffel bag of personal gear and Denise a backpack. Odin-Nina’s faithful Norwegian Elkhound-sat near the two women.
    The General walked alongside the train as he made his way toward them. That train consisted of an eclectic collection of cars starting with several 1930’s vintage coaches, a glimmering silver Amtrak diner, a couple of old mail cars, and even a red caboose. He spotted all manner of modifications to the couplings, the undercarriages, and the wheels of the cars. Like everything else in the new world, transportation worked by modifying leftovers.
    A monster of a Mallet-type steam locomotive led the caravan, sitting and rumbling like a steel dragon waiting to take flight. Its coal tender proudly proclaimed "Norfolk and Western."
    Denise spotted him first. She ran over and gave her 'Pop' a big hug.
    He asked Nina, "How are you feeling?"
    "I’m good. Especially since I’ve got two weeks back home. They’re transferring my unit to the south. Probably going to heat up down there soon."
    "All aboard!"
    The Conductor’s shout elicited a murmur of relief from the crowd followed by the sound of feet shuffling toward the coaches.
    They boarded the musty old cars with Odin trotting along behind. Nina had spent the extra thirty Continentals on a sleeper car for the sake of Denise who was exhausted, even if she would not admit it. While Shep traveled to Wilkes-Barre, Nina and her daughter would remain on board all the way to Annapolis, meaning they would spend the night on the train.
    Nina opened the door to the old-style sleeper and hustled Denise in. The window there looked out on the train station platform. Soon enough it would offer a view of rolling Ohio countryside, then Pennsylvania farmland, then mountains, and more.
    Shepherd asked, "So what's your plan?"
    Denise stared out at the masses queued on the landing. Streaks of snowy rain raced along the glass.
    "First we’ll get settled. Then we’re going to the dining car. I’m starved and I don’t think Denise has had much more than hot chocolate in a couple of days."
    "Some chow sounds right fine by me," Shepherd had not realized his hunger until she mentioned food.
    "Then Denise is going nap. I think she’s had even less sleep than she’s had food."
    "Sounds like you’ve got a pretty good plan lined up."
    Nina faced him head on and, with the same friendly tone, said, "And after I get her tucked in, you and I are going to sit down and you’re going to tell me why the Emperor came all this way just to find me."
    Nina left him standing at the doorway as she entered the compartment to stow her bag.
    General Jerry Shepherd lost his appetite.
    – The rectangular Railscout's electronic motor whirred as it buzzed along the tracks on metal wheels with sensors and cameras measuring the landscape from a small dome on the center of its suitcase-sized frame.
    Information transmitted miles back to its host engine affirmed that the tracks remained in good condition, the icy rain had stopped, and, so far, no sign of any threats from the woods, plains, or empty villages surrounding the railway.
    – Jerry Shepherd waited in the dining car, his heart thumped and sweat greased his brow.
    How exactly am I going to get out of this one?
    Nina approached along the aisle swaying side to side in abeyance of the wobbling car then sat across from him.
    "You want a coffee?"
    She ignored the gesture and started right off, "Why did Trevor Stone come to find me? I’m just one of a hundred thousand soldiers. There has to be hundreds of soldiers missing all over this war and he takes the time to go after me. Why?"
    "I don’t like your tone there, Captain Forest. I think you need to remember who it is you’re talking to."
    "Listen, don’t pull that with me, Shep. You’re not allowed to. You’ve never fallen back on rank before so you can't do it now. I won’t fall for it. I want answers."
    He slowly sipped his mug of coffee. Another delaying tactic.
    She was right, of course. He had never — never- pulled rank on her. To do so now only made him look more guilty. Instead, he grabbed for another tactic.
    "My oh my, you sure got one bloated noggin' on those shoulders. Listen to you; ‘why did Trevor Stone come out here looking for me?’ Do you hear yourself?"
    "So, what? He came out looking for Odin?"
    Shepherd almost laughed because Nina did not know that Odin had originally been Trevor’s personal pet. He wondered how intense her questions would become if she found out that little nugget of information.
    "Now you listen to me, because I’m a right bit tired of getting interrogated every six months by you. The Emperor came to Ohio to surprise the troops. I came along because I heard you had gone missing and I wanted to find you. Maybe you don’t recall, but there was a time way back in the beginning when there weren’t many people other than Trev, Brewer, Johnny, and yeah, Nina Forest. So when I told Trevor I was going looking for you, he decided to take charge of the whole thing himself. You ask me, I think he was just tired of sitting behind a desk."
    He then nonchalantly sipped his coffee. To his surprise, he saw her eyes waver. Hitting at her ego-or suggesting her ego got the better of her-helped. She seemed off-balance. Unsure whether to proceed.
    "General Shepherd?" The interruption came from the Conductor, a man who appeared to have lost all color in his cheeks and spoke through trembling lips. "I’m sorry, Sir, but I heard you were on board and, well, we have a problem, Sir."
    Several Internal Security agents wearing plain cloths but identified by I.S. armbands hurried through the car on their way forward.
    "What is it?"
    "Could you come up to the security car? We could use your help…"
    …The Railscout slowed forward momentum allowing the steam engine to catch up. The cow-catcher at the front of the locomotive opened and the Railscout fit perfectly inside a compartment there with a metallic clang.
    In the armor-plated security car, a sharp buzz from a table top of electronic controls signaled the I.S. Onboard Chief Officer (O.C. O) that the surveillance drone was secure.
    Shep and Nina stood behind the O.C.O. seated at the console as he replayed a video image for the third time and said, "I was hoping you people could tell me what that is."
    The grainy image played on a malfunctioning monitor, I.S. never received the best equipment and train security occupied a lower rung on the totem pole. Nonetheless, the image displayed a house-sized mound of flesh with a big ugly mouth straddling a road fifty yards off the tracks.
    Two creepy, flat eyes moved-drifting up, down, and side to side like flotsam atop a pond-on pale, slimy skin.
    General Shepherd ran a hand over his eyes as he told the O.C.O. as well as the assembled security force, "Hostile Number one-five-seven. It only gets a number because no one has figured out a polite enough name for it."
    "It looks like it’s just sitting there," the Chief observed. "No arms or legs. Maybe it can’t reach the tracks."
    Nina scoffed, "Keep telling yourself that."
    "Then we should stop? We have to hit the brakes now if we’re going to stop before we get to it."
    "Nope. Can’t do that," Shepherd explained. "We need to push through really fast. Tell your engineer to crank the steam. Seems to me, that’s the best way to get by this thing."
    Nina added, "Listen, you’d better radio I.S. HQ for this sector. They’ll need to get some military units over here to clean up that pile of shit. Tell them you’ve got a one-fifty-seven."
    The Chief pointed out, "There’s no way military units will get here in time to help us."
    Shepherd said, "She knows that. What she means is that you should radio them now, ‘cause we might not be around to radio them later…"
    …The steam train chugged across the western Pennsylvania landscape gaining more and more speed as it ran on rails cutting between a collection of soft hills, patches of forest, and then one of the hundreds of ghost towns inside The Empire’s borders.
    The mound of pale creature sat on a stretch of road at the edge of the empty village. It spoiled what could have been a Norman Rockwell painting of small town America. Other than the movement of its two yellow eyes and the occasional grinding of its massive, ugly mouth, the thing showed no sign of life.
    Five I.S. agents traveled on the train, including their Chief who remained in the security car to monitor the situation while the Conductor searched for soldiers or volunteers to help.
    The I.S. agents not watching monitors divided, a pair went to the locomotive to protect the crew and another two took positions in the old-fashioned caboose.
    Nina and Shep, carrying assault rifles with grenade launchers, waited at the middle of the train, a train that included the large steam locomotive, its tender, the armored security control car, two mail coaches filled with packages and bags, a dining car, and four old-style passenger cars followed by the caboose that also served as a secondary security station..
    With time short, Nina sent a porter to find Denise in the sleeping car and fill her in on the situation. Other attendants moved passengers forward to the enclosed mail cars where the windowless walls and heavy doors provided better protection.
    On Shepherd's advice, they planned to race past the creature as quickly as possible. By the time the train reached the danger zone, the locomotive hit top speed. Smoke billowed from the stack, the cars rattled and shook causing gasps of fear among the passengers huddled in the dark mail cars, and the rail lines vibrated to the point of emitting a low hum like a tuning fork.
    All of the defenders carried radios. Shep listened to the play-by-play from the I.S. agents in the locomotive: "Closing on it now, no sign of movement. Those friggin’ eyes are looking right at us! Man, that's some ugly shit."
    The cars clickity-clacked along the tracks as if the train had gone mad.
    "We’re passing…no movement…nothing."
    Shep watched from his position alongside Nina in one of the passenger cars. The big blob of sickly pale fat did not move. Its two eyes swirled around in its mass and stayed locked on the passing train.
    "Man, I think we’re okay on this," the forward-most agents cheered.
    Shepherd and Nina drifted toward the rear of the train as the last coaches passed the disgusting mound of flesh. They both slid open windows better see the hideous creature, allowing the foul smell of the thing to seep inside.
    The security detail in the caboose radioed, "Hey, no sign of movement. It’s just looking at us like…wait a second…what the Hell..?"
    Nina and Shepherd saw what the men in the caboose saw: the creature’s massive mouth opened and the entire blob of a thing heaved, complete with a bellow that sounded as if it vomited.
    In fact, it did.
    Things flew out of its mouth. Large insect-like beasts with bodies as large as an automobile and wing spans stretching a good thirty feet from tip to tip.
    As they flew out-expelled from the belly of the blob-their undercarriages unfolded revealing rows of legs and two scythe-like appendages.
    The swarm-six of them-hovered in the air for a moment then headed toward the escaping train. The quick flap of their membrane wings created a loud whir audible even over the frantic chugging of the steam engine.
    "We’ve got incoming!" Shepherd radioed as he followed Nina through the passenger coaches and then finally into the caboose.
    One I.S. agent had removed a glass panel from the roof cupola to aim a heavy machine gun at the approaching flock.
    The second agent asked nervously, "What are these things? What was that big blob?"
    Nina answered the man with an angry tone in her voice; a tone Shep knew did not come from hostile animals but from his ability to deflect her questioning. "These flying things are fetching dinner for the big thing. I’m just saying, you don’t want that to happen."
    "What? They’ll carry someone back and feed it to the momma-thing?"
    "Not exactly," Nina delighted in the nasty explanation probably as a means of releasing the nastiness she felt toward Shepherd at that moment. "These flying things eat you then go back to 'momma'. Then she eats them. I have to think, that would just suck."
    "Don’t worry about it," Shepherd assured. "Just start firing. Look for the soft spot under the neck. Don’t bother with the heads; they’re armor plated."
    On cue, the officer in the cupola ripped loose a burst of fully automatic gunfire while shouting, "They’re…coming…in…fast!"
    Nina opened the rear door of the caboose and was greeted by a disgusting maw, two eyes on stalks, and the swing of one of the scythe-like appendages.
    Forest dived back into the caboose. The bone-blade of the creature crashed through the wooden walls like a knife through butter. Those walls splintered and warped. The rear part of the caboose’s roof collapsed midway down and blocked the rear door.
    The impact knocked the machine gun man off balance and he fell out of the cupola. On the way down, his weapon fired wildly. Bullets from the gun killed the second I.S. agent and nearly did the same to Nina as she lay prone on the floor.
    "Get out! Get out!" Shepherd ordered as he dragged the machine-gun man to his feet.
    Shock overcame the poor guy as he realized he just cut his partner in two.
    "Oh shit! I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry!"
    Shepherd pulled him toward the door even as the man continued to apologize to both pieces of his friend’s corpse.
    A heavy thud from above announced the arrival of a second insect while the first one tried to claw through the wood of the half-fallen roof.
    Nina scrambled to her feet and fired a three-round burst of bullets through the debris, covering Shepherd as he dragged the babbling gunner out of the caboose, across the metal walkway atop the coupler, and through the doorway of the rearmost passenger coach. As she did, she spied two more insect things flying alongside the train searching for avenues of attack.
    With one insect at the rear door trying to push through the debris of the roof it had caused to collapse and a second on the stretch of roof that still stood, a third rammed the side of the caboose.
    The entire car rose into the air, the two rear wheels corkscrewed then landed off the tracks. Sparks erupted from those derailed metal wheels rubbing against the rail. The friction sent a vibration across the coupler and into the passenger car. They felt the torque of the wayward caboose pull at the coach threatening a chain reaction that could crash the entire train.
    "We’re going to friggin’ derail!" the I.S. agent screamed as a frigid wind whipped through the open doorway of the coach from where the three watched the caboose's death throws.
    "Cut it loose! Cut the caboose loose!" Shep ordered the guy.
    The man looked to Shep with wide, frightened eyes but after a second of hesitation he found the courage to do the job. He put aside his machine gun and crawled on his belly. Nina and Shep took pot shots at a couple of the giant insects flying alongside the train.
    The rear wheels grew red from heat as they dragged and flared against the rails. Twisting metal groaned.
    Suddenly the landscape changed. Instead of town and roads, the train dove into a densely-populated evergreen forest forcing the flying insects to retreat to the sky or become entangled in branches. The two creatures already on the caboose remained.
    The I.S. officer cast aside the metal planks that served as a walkway over the coupler. He then leaned down and yanked hoses and wires.
    "Hurry up!" Nina shouted as their two unearthly passengers took notice of the three people standing in the open air between the caboose and the passenger coach.
    "Almost there!"
    The train rounded a bend at break neck speed. The line of cars-even those still firmly on rails-groaned as g force pulled the entire assembly to the right. The rear of the caboose took to the air. Its motion sent a shiver through the entire train. The physics became unavoidable…the wayward caboose would drag the entire train off the tracks.
    Shepherd hoped the crash killed him; he did not want a big bug to eat him alive.
    At the last possible second, the agent unleashed the coupler.
    The caboose literally flew off the railroad and spun in the air. The two insects clung to the vehicle even as the red car disintegrated in the spin. All of them-the caboose and the two giant insects-exploded into a wall of trees.
    The train continued on, one car lighter.
    Nina and Shep helped the agent to his feet.
    "Well done," Shep patted the shaken man on his back then led the three defenders further inside what was now the last car on the train, one of the four old style coaches. Of course, the entire car had been evacuated.
    A radio transmission warned, "Three of them are heading for the roof!"
    They heard the creatures land overhead. A moment later one of the massive blade-like appendages smashed through the ceiling all the way down and into the floor.
    Seconds later, another scythe pierced the ceiling forcing Nina to dive and roll to avoid its blind strike.
    The insects acted like magicians slicing their knife-like appendages through a box in to which the beautiful assistant had been sealed.
    "Keep…moving…forward…" Shep implored but it seemed as if another blade from either the roof or the side blocked every step they took…
    …The locomotive roared forward out of the forest, across a trestle overlooking a cold stream, and through a rolling field. Ahead of it, on the tracks, landed the fourth flying insect-beast, challenging the engine head on.
    From Hivvan saboteurs to human train robbers, this creature would soon learn that while the steam train came from a museum, it did not lack teeth.
    A gun pod deployed at the front of the engine just above the cow-catcher compartment storing the Railscout. The weapon spooled to life and released an incinerating fire of plasma, eradicating the insect’s armor plating and destroyed everything except for two fibrous wings that fluttered off in the January wind like oversized leaves…
    …The I.S. agent raised his heavy machine gun and fired a torrent of bullets straight up, tearing away an entire section of roof and eating into the belly of a beast. A sickly puss rained down upon him even as his dead target lost grip and fell away from the speeding coach.
    That puss smelled like gasoline and it burned. He screamed.
    Shep came to his assistance, forcing him forward even as blades from the remaining creatures tried to skewer them.
    One of the monsters stuck its head in through the destroyed patch of ceiling. Nina hit it with full-automatic fire right in the face. It retreated for a moment.
    "Go! Go! Go!"
    The security man-still screaming from burns to his face and shoulders-let Shep lead him out the door and to the open-air ramp leading toward the next coach. He unlatched the door and saw a small crowd of volunteers as well as the Conductor waiting in there.
    Shepherd gently pushed the man inside and ordered them to, "Get this fella some help and get forward."
    One of the creatures swung its head between cars and tried to engulf Shepherd as he stood above the coupling. Nina tackled Shep out of the bite of the monster and into the next coach. The sight of the two diving in just below alien jaws encouraged the Conductor and the volunteers to accelerate from a walk to a sprint toward the front of the train.
    Nina, lying on the floor next to Shep, turned and fired her weapon through the portal they had just crashed through. The insect thing squeezed into the space between the cars, its spindly legs resting on the metal crosswalk as if it might just follow them into the passenger car.
    Nina reacted, "Fire in the hole!"
    Shepherd did the only thing he had time to do; he rolled under one of the seats.
    Nina launched a grenade from the M203 on her M4's barrel and also rolled for cover.
    The grenade hit the creature at close range. The explosion pushed it back into the rear-most coach. Chunks of the creature tore off and the wood frame of the passenger car caught fire as the creature went up in flames. The flash-fire threatened to engulf the entire compartment.
    The last two of the insects stood on top of that coach jabbing their scythe-claws through the roof hoping to hit prey but actually cutting at their burning comrade.
    Nina stood and reloaded her launcher. She then fired a second grenade into the burning coach. The explosion split the train car in two. The rear half derailed and rolled down an embankment. Two of the dying creatures went with it while the third-the last one-took to the air with its wings on fire. It fluttered for a second like a warped firefly and then fell.
    "We need help back here," Shepherd radioed from the floor between seats. "Get us a fire extinguisher and someone who can uncouple the last coach."
    Nina, still full of anger, turned to face Shepherd with half-a-mind to restart the interrogation right there. She wanted answers.
    Then she saw the metal rod through his shoulder.
    "Holy shit, Shep," anger evaporated into panic.
    The explosion had sent shrapnel every where, including a foot-long steel rod through the seats and into his right shoulder.
    The Conductor and two men entered the car and worked quickly to disconnect the burning, dragging coach from the train before the flames could spread.
    Nina held Shepherd. A blood stain formed on his shirt and his sharp eyes glazed.
    "Oh my God. I need a medic here!"
    "It ain’t nothing, Nina. Don’t go fussin'."
    Nina took stock of the nasty-looking wound. The rod had not hit any vital organs but the pain was immense, or it would be, once the adrenaline of battle faded.
    "Oh, Shep, this is my fault. I shouldn’t have fired the grenade so close."
    "Now don’t go sayin' that. You did what you always do, Nina. You won the fight."
    He fell unconscious. Nina felt for a pulse and found a strong one. Still, she cradled his head in her lap and forgot about her questions. Suddenly they did not seem so important.
    10. Redoubt
    Trevor stood at the apartment's only window and from what the other Nina told him, most apartments did not have windows and those that did needed to shut the shudders after dark. That gave Trevor only another few minutes to view the city from the thirteenth floor of what felt like a nearly empty skyscraper hotel.
    From his vantage point, he saw a couple of other skyscrapers which were part of the cluster of tall buildings comprising central Thebes; each colored dirty green, each-according to Nina-dormitories.
    As he scanned the city, he saw smaller square-shaped and rectangular buildings; he saw fuel cisterns and generator stations, roof top greenhouses and air defense batteries.
    Far away from the downtown sector, he saw smoke stacks and factory buildings including a giant structure resembling a sort of industrial cathedral, but a veil of smog hovered over the district obscuring the view.
    A few traffic lights worked and he spied a handful of vehicles that reminded him of cargo carriers, transports, and cars from home but the streets remained mainly empty.
    It was January in this world, too, yet half the buildings in the city emitted no smoke. That meant half the buildings in the city did not need heat because they were empty.
    Overall, he saw a dark, sad city more depressing than the empty cities on his own post-Armageddon Earth. Those cities had died. This city-this 'Thebes'-seemed more a zombie: dead but too stubborn to pass quietly.
    The thought made him shiver because he knew there had been a Trevor Stone on this world. A Trevor Stone who-like himself-led humanity’s fight. A Trevor Stone who made some mistake or another; who had failed.
    Yes, they brought him here as a prisoner, but he felt pity for these humans. The Nina of this world thought that he could help so she kidnapped him. Could he judge her harshly? Had he not sent waves of his K9 killers to slaughter a village in the name of victory?
    The bathroom door opened. Reverend Johnny joined Trevor at the window.
    "What is it you spy, my friend?"
    "I have spent every day since the world changed fighting so as to never see this."
    Johnny nodded his head and quoted softly, "They may try to rebuild, but I will demolish them again…their country will be known as 'The Land of Wickedness,' and their people will be called 'The People with Whom the LORD Is Forever Angry.' "
    The second sunset of their stay in Thebes neared. The two men were kept isolated the entire time, starting first at a vacant military barracks, then an empty dining hall where they found the food as bland as the walls, and now this apartment. Other than the company of a few silent guards, they remained alone except for the occasional question of "how are you guys holding up?" and the promise that "this won’t last much longer," during quick visits from Nina.
    As for the dormitory, the furniture felt old, musty, and hard. Trevor found neither communication devices nor any type of radio or television. The dim lighting tended to flicker on and off, meaning power generation posed yet another issue for the people of this Earth.
    With his eyes fixed on the darkening city outside, Trevor told Johnny, "I want to apologize. It was my foolishness that led us here."
    "You owe me no apology, Trevor. I am wise in many ways but your vision in matters such as these is keener. If we were to speak honestly, then I must admit that you are in tune with forces I can not comprehend. You are a person of destiny, everyone knows this but we fear to speak openly of it."
    "I suppose," Trevor said, "some things are best left unspoken."
    "This is true. But here we are in what is apparently a duplicate world; a duplicate universe. The same in many ways and yet different in its subtleties. Imagine if told of a parallel universe a few years ago how we would have reacted. That revelation would have been enough to question all of what we know; our place in the universe, our faith, our science. But here I stand not in awe of this incredible truth, but in complete acceptance. Why is that?"
    Trevor answered, "Because you’ve seen so much already. Because monsters and aliens are real. When you’re fighting for your life it is easy to set aside the larger picture and focus on the 'what' and not the 'why' because the 'why' might just drive you crazy."
    "Yes, indeed. But for those who follow you, Trevor, there is a greater truth. We have fought the vile beasts and glimpsed Hell. These things point to powerful, all-encompassing forces. Yet, we are not afraid of these powers. Do you know why? Because of you. Partly because you are a master general, partly because you have taken the burden of our survival on your shoulders so as to keep that burden from crushing us. But most important, you are a man in tune with the powers. I suppose you could say, when the Gods convene to weave their plans, they save a seat for you at the table. I know that no matter how small we seem, we are in fact giants. We have to be; otherwise the universe wouldn’t be going to such trouble to destroy us."
    Trevor considered.
    A seat at the table.
    A quick knock on the door interrupted their conversation. Nina Forest walked inside.
    "Sorry leaving you alone for a while like that, but I had a couple of things to take care of. I promise you’ll have my complete attention from here on in."
    "I see," Trevor responded as she joined them at the window.
    "Beautiful, isn’t it," she gestured to the view although her words were probably sarcastic.
    "Sad," Trevor corrected. "I see a city that is barely alive."
    "Barely alive is better than dead. I mean, I’ll take it, you know?"
    "Tell us, my dear, what events conspired to lead to these dismal circumstances?"
    "How far back do you want me to go?"
    "Let me start," Trevor said. "Alien invasion, monsters, end of civilization. The Trevor Stone of this world becomes the leader and you win some fights, build up an army, save a lot of people, and start conquering territory. How am I doing?"
    "That about sums it up. Until the really big battle."
    "I’ll guess. The battle of five armies."
    "Actually, there were seven armies."
    Johnny laughed. "That would explain much."
    "I mean, the big battle sort of put a damper on things but, still, we were in good shape. Lots of cities. Factories. In some spots it was almost like a regular life, you know?"
    He led, "Then..?"
    Her head bowed and Trevor could have sworn he saw tears in her eyes.
    "Then you were killed. I mean, then our Trevor died in battle."
    She gathered her thoughts. "Trevor was a great warrior. He won battles that we never thought we’d win. He was the glue holding us together. He kept the army officers in line and loyal; he kept the civilian leaders in their place. I mean, he made sure we worked toward the same goal, you know?"
    Reverend Johnny assured, "I know."
    "So what happened after…after I died?"
    She sighed. "At first, chaos. Without Trevor at the top, the chain of command broke apart. Some officers tried to take over and some…some people actually killed each other. It was, like, almost a civil war. It went on for a while until we lost cities and armies because we were too busy fighting with ourselves. That’s when people negotiated. In the end, a group of administrators took over. We call them The Committee."
    Trevor posed the next question, "How long has it been like this?"
    "Like this? You-I mean, our Trevor-died two years ago. We’ve been losing ground even since. Things are bad. This is it. This is the last city. Do you understand? Twenty thousand people are all we have left. We’re desperate."
    Trevor saw the mark of that desperation in her eyes. His heart sank. How could it not? Maybe she was not the Nina he knew, but she looked like her; sounded like her.
    Nonetheless, he said, "I’m sorry, but I’m your prisoner, remember? You dragged me here. I have my own world to worry about. I don’t belong here."
    "Your world is fine," she shot as that desperation turned to defensiveness. "Your armies are on the march. What were you doing? Were you leading them in the battlefield?"
    Trevor remembered the maps and push pins and casualty reports. Maybe he had already been a prisoner and just did not know it.
    "We are about to be wiped off the Earth. Does that matter? Do you want to see me die?"
    "What I want is to go home. To be with my people," his words sounded hollow.
    "You can make a difference here, Trevor."
    Reverend Johnny asked, "Miss, you said your version of Trevor Stone died two years ago. Certainly your people know this; there is a statue in your courtyard. Therefore, they can not be fooled into believing he is still alive. Or am I mistaken?"
    "Yes, everyone knows our Emperor is dead. Part of the problem is that our people saw him as more than a man; more than a leader. He was touched by greatness, we all knew this. When he was alive," her eyes grew vacant as she remembered. "When he was alive we knew we couldn’t be defeated. But when he died…"
    Trevor finished for her, "When he died, it proved that you weren't invincible."
    "But this is not your Trevor who stands before you," the Reverend pointed out.
    "No," Trevor agreed. "I’m not. But her people could see…could see another Trevor from another universe; another world. To them it might be a sort of resurrection."
    Johnny shifted uneasily at the reference to 'resurrection.'
    "Yes, that’s right," Nina encouraged. "If only to see you. To have you walk among our troops. Then, maybe my people would be encouraged again."
    "Or maybe we should leave right now and return home," Johnny proposed. "As you have said, Miss, the death of your Trevor was the beginning of your destruction. His disappearance from our world could be the commencement of our own annihilation."
    Nina turned away and looked out the window. She did not answer Johnny but Trevor spoke for her. That angry tone returned to his voice, directed at the woman who had spirited him away from his world.
    "We can’t go back, Reverend. At least not the way we came, isn’t that right, Nina? You somehow tricked someone-or I should say, some thing — out of its transport ship or whatever. I got a feeling you know whatever trick you used won’t work twice."
    "I’ll find a way to get you home," she insisted without facing him. "I just need time."
    "I look out that window," Trevor tapped the glass, "and I see a people who are running out of time."
    Nina clasped her hands and struggled with words; struggled to hold back anger, frustration, and fear. "The attacks are coming every few days. We beat them back but each time we lose people; each time our supplies drain further. I…we…don’t know what to do. So I tried this. Tell me you wouldn’t have done the same, to save your people."
    She made a point with which he could not argue. Besides, now that he was here, could he walk away? Was there a connection between humanity’s fate on his world and elsewhere?
    "You moved across universes. What made you think to do that and how did you do it?"
    She sighed as if such a discussion only wasted time.
    "Trevor-our Trevor-I think he knew about the whole multi-dimension stuff. He knew a lot of things he never shared with me. He was secretive about some things, you know?"
    Reverend Johnny answered, "We know."
    "So anyway, after he died and things started to fall apart we got a tip about the Nyx and their nest. About what it was capable of doing. That got us thinking; if there’s another Earth with another Trevor who’s doing better, then maybe he could help us." She wringed her hands, cast her eyes down. "I wanted our leader back. I wanted…I wanted Trevor back."
    Trevor heard more than mere loyalty for a leader in her words.
    Johnny, however, kept the conversation on track. "So you managed to get a hold of this Nyx’s equipment? Can we not do that again?"
    "No. We always knew it was a one-shot deal. But, hey, we’ll find another way home."
    "Wait a second," Trevor interrupted. "How many, um. Wait, how to phrase this? How many different ‘worlds’ are there?"
    Reverend Johnny tried to answer, "I have heard suggestions of an infinite number of parallel universes from theorists back in the days before the invasion. One would imagine-"
    "Eight?" The men echoed in unison.
    "Eight different universes; eight different Earths at war."
    "What made you decide on, well, me from my world?"
    "Look, this wasn’t a cruise. Time was not on our side, you know? I mean, I got kind of lucky. It just so happened you were doing pretty good. Your people weren’t going to miss you much. With all the success you had, well, I’m hoping The Committee won’t kill me over this."
    Surprised, Trevor asked, "What do you mean?"
    She curled her lip and admitted, "Well, The Committee wasn’t really a big fan of this mission. They’re all about conserving resources. For them, we’re on the defensive now and we’re going to stay that way. We lost some people doing this, spent a lot of valuable fuel and ammunition, and I really can’t show them any results, you know?"
    "You do have me," he stated the obvious.
    "Yes, but you’re not sounding too cooperative. I told The Committee…" she stopped and bit her lip again.
    "You told them what?"
    Johnny answered for her, "She told them that you would stay and fight for them. That you would do it for her. "
    She did not want to answer, but after several seconds of the men staring at her she said, "Listen, I’ll get you home. I promise. And I’m sorry about stealing you away like this. But we’re dying here; it’s just a matter of time unless something changes. You can’t tell me that you don’t care what happens. We’re human beings, just like you."
    Trevor’s mind raced. He thought of a hundred reasons why he should walk away from this alternate reality and find a way home. He found a hundred more to stay and help.
    In his mind, two facts stood out. First, he had no way home. Not yet. If he was going to find a way home it would be with the help of these people.
    Second, he stood two feet from Nina Forest, talking to her without the cold distance of stolen memories. Yes, a part of him tingled excitedly, like an eighth grade kid finding out the girl he held a crush for would be sitting next to him in Algebra class.
    "Trevor, I don’t know the big picture. I’ll bet you know more about that than I do. But we’re connected even if we’re from different universes. You want to draw my blood and test it? I’m not going to rip off a mask and actually be a big lizard or something. I mean, there’s no parasite controlling my body. I’m not an android; I have veins and a heart and lungs like you.
    "Kidnapping you…luring you was not nice. I can see why you’re angry and I would be in your place, too. Especially to be brought here, where humanity is doomed. I only ask a few days of your time. See what we’re doing, maybe you can show us a way out of our bind. Maybe you can inspire our people."
    Reverend Johnny spoke in a deep but low tone, like a teacher trying to get through to a student, "You only ask that he saves the people of this planet. Mr. Stone is busy trying to save the people of our Earth. Two worlds is a tall request for one man."
    Trevor gazed out the window. The last streaks of sun flickered off the buildings like embers of a fire smoldering away. He reached for the metal shutters and considered. Could he refuse her?
    "I don't like being here. I'm not happy about it. But now I know there are eight different Earths facing invasion; eight places where humanity is under siege. Why? What's the grand plan at work here? If I can understand that plan, then maybe we can defeat it; for the sake of every person fighting and dying on those worlds. You said your Trevor knew of these Nyx things that allowed you to jump universes? What if he was on the trail of the answer?"
    "Pray tell, what answer?" Johnny's voice carried an aggravated edge as he saw where Trevor's reasoning led.
    "The answer to the question of 'why'?" He then narrowed his eyes at Nina and said, "Do you agree that we must return to our world? Do you promise to help us find a way home?"
    She nodded.
    "Okay then," he pulled the shutters closed. "Take me to The Committee."
    – Nina gave the two men plain brown coveralls, matching the outfits worn by maintenance workers and non-combat personnel. She made sure Trevor wore a cap that fit snug over his head, hoping to hide his identity, for the time being.
    She wore a short tan leather jacket over her black battle suit. Trevor and Johnny received a couple of windbreakers that were not adequate against the cold but would have to do for now because heavy jackets were in short supply.
    The elevator took them to the first floor where they stopped at a security station just inside the heavy glass doors of the main entrance. Nina spoke to the military policeman there. Trevor believed her words may have actually awoken that man.
    "We need ground transportation to the Operations Center."
    That guard grabbed a phone and made a call but his eyes kept glancing at the familiar-looking man in the brown coveralls and cap. Trevor tried not to make eye contact.
    Nina took him aside and said, "Most people have to walk around the city. Fuel is a luxury. Most of the traffic you see on the streets is military convoys, supply runs, or VIPs."
    The guard hung up the phone and said, "Major Forest, transportation is on its way."
    "Major Forest?" Trevor repeated her rank. "How good for you."
    "What am I," she paused, stepped closer to him, and then whispered into his ear. "What am I on your world?"
    "Captain. But honestly, you could be whatever you wanted. My Nina chose to stay a field operative. She was — is- most at home doing something dangerous."
    She smiled. "I see that’s at least one more thing I have in common with her."
    A vehicle arrived at the main entrance. Nina led the group outside into a blast of cold wind howling along the wide and dark empty street.
    Trevor gave the sedan a quick look over. He saw a variety of styles from his home world: a touch of 50's flare with covered wheel wells, chrome trim, and a very aerodynamic profile.
    He slipped into the rear seat with Johnny. Nina sat in the front passenger side. She told the soldier at the wheel their destination and off they went.
    The engine rumbled to life and the driver steered them along the lonely streets. A few vehicles-mainly trucks and armored cars-traveled the roads. Trevor saw many parked vehicles, most of which had deteriorated to skeletons, probably farmed for parts.
    He asked, "What do you use for fuel?"
    "Ethanol mixtures with gasoline for our vehicles, processed from oil. Some of our buildings and facilities use solar power, coal, and wood although we do have a nuclear reactor but it's tough to keep up and running due to a lack of parts and skilled technicians."
    Reverend Johnny joined the conversation, "Tell me, have you adapted any alien technology for your uses?"
    She shook her head. "Not much. Honestly, we always did well living off the resources we produced. But ever since things started going bad we’ve had less land to mine or drill. I mean, we send out scavenger parties who do strip mining, dig wells, that sort of thing, you know? But those are hit and miss operations. Seems we are always low on supplies."
    Trevor said, "On my world, we’ve adapted alien technology to serve our purposes. There’s a sort of irony using their stuff against them."
    "He means he gets a kick out of it, praise the Lord."
    "I’ll bet," Nina turned in her seat to face them and smiled.
    "What about laws and regulations and an economy and all that?" Trevor asked cautiously.
    The Major chuckled. "Laws? Regulations? An economy? We don’t really have time for that shit. We’re trying to stay alive, Trevor. Maybe you guys have the extra time to start playing politics but we don’t."
    Johnny suggested smartly, "He’ll get a kick out of that, too."
    "The Committee does handle a lot of administrative stuff," she conceded. "I mean, there are rules and all that. They’re always passing rules. They love to shuffle paper and crap like that. The rest of us are busy fighting and dying."
    The car passed a series of small buildings. A couple of those looked to be vacant stores. One big red sign suggested an active night club.
    "What about money?"
    "Money? Yeah, sure, and I own stocks, too," she laughed then grew more serious. "Sorry. It’s just that, well, it sounds like you guys are living the high life back there. Guess the war’s over, huh?"
    After a moment of silence, Trevor mumbled, "I have much more to do."
    "We get credits to use on luxuries. Sometimes you can trade credits to get out of a tour of duty on the front lines. Whatever. Most people use the credits to party or trade up a food card or something like that."
    "But not you, Miss?"
    She shook her head, "I’ve got things pretty good, I guess. Being a Major and all."
    "Hmmm…and being so close to your former Emperor, no doubt?" Johnny suggested.
    Trevor moved to another subject, "What about kids? Families? Civilians? How do they live around here?"
    "There are no civilians, not like you think. A civilian for us is someone who doesn’t fight in the front lines; techs, support people. You see, everyone fights or supports the fight. If you’re not a front line soldier, you’re working a couple of different shit jobs. If you don’t contribute, you don’t eat. Get it?"
    Johnny jumped in, "But there are men and women here. Surely there are children."
    "Yes, but not many. No one wants children."
    Stone’s fatherly instincts shuddered at the thought. "If you’re going to survive you have to have kids. They are the future."
    "Trevor, we don’t have a future. No one wants to give birth to a kid today when tomorrow we could all be slaughtered. Would you bring a child into the world when you know that at any moment your people could be wiped out?"
    He thought for a moment and then asked, "Did I…do I have a son here?"
    Nina’s head tilted as if hearing a strange sound. "No. Why, do you have one back home?"
    His answer seemed to surprise her. She said nothing the rest of the trip.
    The car came to a stop in front of a wide, long building. Several tall transmission towers sprouted from the roof. A number of armored vehicles parked in a lot next to the complex. Sandbags and a gun turret complimented the sentries at the front door.
    "This is the Ops-Operations-Center. We’ll find The Committee here."
    They exited the vehicle and approached a big iron door. Nina spoke with the guards who then allowed entry.
    Dull gray halls lined the interior with heavy metal beams crisscrossing the ceiling and soffit lights providing patches of illumination although half of them appeared burnt out.
    Unlike the rest of Thebes, he saw plenty of people in the Ops Center including guards, couriers, and technicians while a public address system called out messages such as, "Tactical analysis team report to discussion chamber four," "Major Davis contact communications center," and "Northern perimeter Sector G-4 reports scanner malfunction."
    Despite the number of people, Trevor noticed a relaxed atmosphere. He saw guards wearing poorly kempt uniforms, couriers stopping to chat, and technicians wandering about with no purpose. The announcements from the P.A. system droned on, but no one appeared to care.
    Nina directed them up a short flight of metal stairs and through a set of double doors leading to a large control room with a high ceiling.
    Desks and consoles swept across the room on descending half-circle tiers, all facing toward one massive wall with two huge monitors and several smaller ones. Those monitors presented pictures of the perimeter and gates of the city. Doors-probably offices-surrounded the chamber.
    "Stay here," Major Forest said and she moved around the room.
    As they waited, Trevor overhead conversations as well as radio communications.
    "Ah, yeah, Gino you guys are on watch until twenty-two hundred hours so you are going to miss all the fun."
    "Shit man, that sucks. I got an extra hundred credits I was going to blow on the table."
    "This is G-4 we’ve got a problem with our monitoring equipment here. I’ve been waiting on a tech team for four hours. What is their status?"
    "I dunno, G-4. I just got off my break. What’s the problem again?"
    Nina returned and summoned, "This way, boys."
    She led them across the control room to a set of big double doors guarded by a pair of heavily armed, serious-looking sentries. Trevor appreciated seeing at least a couple of grim faces in the place. From what he observed so far, the attitude of the humans on this world more resembled students in a campus dormitory than a people on the verge of extinction.
    The doors opened to a large, oppressive room. On one end stood a raised platform where three men sat at a long table overlooking the chamber like a judge’s bench. Trevor felt the presence of at least three more persons in the room standing in dark corners.
    The doors closed behind the newcomers, shutting out the noise from the Ops Center.
    Trevor and Johnny followed Nina as she circumvented an oval table to approach the platform and the overlords sitting there.
    To his surprise, Trevor did not see an Evan Godfrey doppelganger on The Committee. Instead, he found three middle aged men who in dress and Anglo appearance resembled stereotype Republicans from a bad Hollywood movie.
    Major Forest spoke to them. Trevor thought he sensed contempt in her voice.
    "If it so honors The Committee, may I introduce Trevor Stone and his associate, the Reverend Johnny."
    The first Committeeman stared down and said: "This is Trevor Stone of the alternate world?"
    The second: "He looks identical."
    The third: "The theories on parallel development have been proven. I suggest we invest additional resources in further studying the applications of this discovery."
    "No one has yet proposed any tactical advantages to be gained by this knowledge," spoke the first.
    "True. We no longer have access to the assets necessary for traveling to another alternate reality. This operation has been self-terminating," spoke the second.
    "Your analysis is correct. We should halt outward bound cross-dimensional research until such time as additional assets are made available," spoke the third.
    Major Forest addressed them again. "The operation achieved its objective. Standing before you is Trevor Stone. On his Earth, humanity thrives. He has forged a vast Empire and defeated numerous enemies."
    The first Committeeman sounded contrite. "Yes. Your operation was successful and a Trevor Stone stands before us. Despite our position on the matter, Major Forest has succeeded."
    The second Committeeman sounded skeptical. "However, Major Forest acted without direct authorization from The Committee. One could construe her actions as insubordination."
    The third Committeeman sounded direct. "Agreed. Major Forest’s actions resulted in the death of six members of the Third Legion and two support personnel, not to mention expending vast quantities of fuel and ammunition."
    A voice from one of the corners joined the discussion. "Major Forest acted with my approval. I was not aware The Committee forbade the project. Had that been so, the operation never would have proceeded."
    That voice moved out of the shadow and into the light; a short man with scruff on his cheeks and a head on the verge of complete baldness. Trevor thought him to be mid-forties, but his eyes seemed somewhat sharper than the rest of the people he had met thus far.
    He wore a gray uniform with several colorful emblems on the collar yet his disposition struck Trevor as more a business man than a soldier. Something in the way he walked; a little too rigid, a little too forced, as if he tried to play the role of an officer but was not quite comfortable in the boots.
    "Director Snowe," Nina nodded toward the man and he returned the gesture before turning his attention to Trevor. Snowe's eyes studied him as if searching for something. Perhaps Snowe wondered if he had been worth the effort.
    Nina spoke to The Committee again, "We have an opportunity to change our situation. If The Committee does not object, I would have Trevor Stone address you directly."
    "Only officers of proper rank may address The Committee."
    "This man is not even a member of our military hierarchy."
    "For him to speak before The Committee would be most improper."
    After all he survived, after all he built from the ruins of Armageddon, Trevor Stone did not appreciate a trio of arrogant administrators dismissing him.
    To the shock of every one in the room, he interrupted, "Well someone needs to address this Committee because the way I see it you’re all going to be ShellSquid bait by summer."
    "Uncalled for!"
    Nina reacted with a grin; Director Snowe stood silent and watched.
    "I didn’t ask to come here. Now I understand I can’t get home. So that means I’m stuck on this sinking ship of fools with you. If you don’t want to hear from me then, fine, open the front gate and let me out ‘cause I’d rather take my chances out there than painted in this giant corner you’ve made for yourselves."
    "You are out of line!"
    "You will be silent!"
    "You will be removed!"
    Snowe broke in. He spoke in a calm voice. One might even say measured.
    "With all due respect to The Committee, it should be noted that this man is, in fact, Emperor Trevor Stone…on his world. I am certain that he is not accustomed to being told he cannot speak. I hope The Committee will take this under consideration."
    A silence lasted several long seconds. The Committeemen then whispered to one another before addressing those gathered below.
    "Yes. This is an unusual situation."
    "Indeed. Some latitude could be granted."
    "Agreed. He will be allowed to address The Committee."
    Snowe added, "The Committee was presented with the parameters of the mission and while you did not directly approve said mission in the end, those parameters are still applicable. I point out again what Major Forest said; this Trevor Stone has been successful in his war defending his Earth. It is possible that he has knowledge that could be valuable to our efforts."
    Again, silence. Trevor realized after several more seconds of that silence that he had been granted the opportunity to speak.
    "Well, um, I do not know much of what has happened on this Earth, only what I’ve seen so far. But I know on my world we adapted alien technology to serve us in a lot of ways. It also seems to me that you’ve got some morale problems. Just on the walk over here I saw, well, a sort of lazy attitude in the guards around here. I mean, you’re The Committee; you’re the guys in charge. The people guarding this building should be ready for anything. Honestly, the security around here is so bad I think a herd of Chew Cows could overrun this place."
    Based on their expressions, the people in the room did not recognize the nicknames of the creatures Trevor mentioned. His point came across nonetheless.
    "Intriguing. The adaptation of foreign technology to address our supply issues has merit."
    "Insightful. Morale among our troops needs to be improved in order to ensure defensive operations."
    "Correct. The Committee is the final authority and must be protected at all costs."
    Nina suggested, "Perhaps The Committee will grant Trevor Stone an honorary position in the military ranks. He could observe our techniques and resources and tell us how they differ from his own world. He may even have information on enemy forces that we do not have."
    The Committee whispered amongst themselves yet again.
    "This is acceptable. An honorary position with limited authority."
    "We are agreed. He will be given a special command with the Third Legion under Director Snowe."
    "It is settled. Major Forest and Director Snowe will oversee Trevor Stone."
    The trio of rulers fell silent and turned their attention to the piles of folders and papers on their desk, as if no one else in the room existed anymore.
    Nina whispered, "Let's go before they change their mind."
    Snowe remained behind while Nina herded Trevor and Johnny from the chamber.

11. Confessions

    The sedan retraced its trip across town.
    "I seek enlightenment; exactly what just happened?"
    Trevor tried to answer Johnny’s question while Nina sat quiet in the front seat.
    "I believe I’ve been drafted."
    "I see. Could you explain to me how our situation has changed in relation to, I don’t know, thirty minutes ago?"
    Nina offered her take: "Trevor has been given a special position in the Third Legion. That’s one of our three combat groups. That will give you a chance to look over our military and our current situation. Maybe you can give us some pointers."
    She smiled. Trevor found it nice to see her smile.
    No. She’s not Nina. She’s a fraud.
    "Look, Major, as far as I know I’m still a prisoner here, I don’t have a way home, and the only thing that’s changed since I got here is that I know for sure that this place is run by incompetent idiots. To be honest, I’m amazed you still have this city left, even."
    Nina bit her lower lip and turned forward. The car bounced over a rough spot of pavement.
    "You can leave anytime you want," Nina said without facing him. "You’re not a prisoner anymore. I only…I only forced you here to show you the shape we’re in. If you can walk away from us, then I won’t stop you. "
    "I fear, Miss Forest, that you offer hollow assurance. Mr. Stone and I have no way to leave. Letting us walk out the front gate would surely be the end of us."
    "I’ll find a way for you to get home, somehow. Or you can stay in your room. I’ll see to it you won’t want for anything."
    "How generous of you," Trevor scoffed. "But you know we don’t have any choice. We either join your fight or we die when you die. From the look of things, that won’t be too long."
    She looked ready to yell something but held her tongue. It apparently took a great deal of effort.
    The taxi arrived at the base of the dormitory. Nina jumped out in a show of anger or frustration. Trevor could see that she was either going to scream or cry or both. This Nina seemed more emotional than the one he knew on his world.
    Trevor and Johnny exited the car and waited by the dormitory doors. Nina stood several paces away staring at the empty, dark street.
    "Look, Reverend…"
    Johnny raised a hand and told Trevor, "Yes. Perhaps you should speak with her alone. I must say I have an intense headache. I believe I will turn in early."
    "Can you find your way to our suite?"
    "Fear not, Mr. Stone, I left a trail of breadcrumbs."
    Stone patted his friend on the shoulder. The Reverend headed inside and faced a moment’s resistance from the interior guard until that man remembered Johnny’s face.
    Trevor eyed Nina. She stood with her back to him straddling the line between the darkness and the glow of light emanating from the building's lobby. Despite her leather jacket, she shivered in the frigid air.
    The cold got to him, too. The flimsy windbreaker he wore would barely be adequate for a cool autumn day, let alone a cold January night. Still, the cold ranked as the least of his worries.
    Trevor walked to her and said, "This must be difficult for you, too."
    She exhaled in what sounded like a soft sigh.
    "I…well, yes. It is. I mean, I saw you die. I was there."
    "So you jumped across a couple of dimensions to bring back a Trevor Stone. That was very brave."
    "Very stupid."
    "Well, I could tell you all about stupid. I’m a regular expert on the subject these days."
    Nina turned and peered into his eyes as if searching for something.
    "What? What is it?" He asked.
    "Nothing. I mean, since this happened we’ve been kind of moving at breakneck speed. You know? I haven’t had a chance to really think about the fact that you’re him. Or he was you. Or, I dunno…it’s nuts."
    "Not as nuts as staying out here in the cold. Let’s go inside before you catch the flu."
    She agreed, and led him in and across the lobby to what had once been a small restaurant and bar. Trevor smelled a heavy coating of dust in the dark, empty place.
    Rows of round tables and chairs filled the space between a long bar against the inside wall and a glass atrium on the other side. An exterior flood light splashed in, casting a sharp, angled glow across half the room.
    "This place is almost like a hotel," he said.
    "Yeah, well, it kind of was. Probably five thousand people living here a few years ago."
    "Mainly military, even back then?"
    "Yeah, this whole city was built for the great cause. It was Trevor’s idea; a new place for our new lives. He didn’t like the decay of the old cities. Thought it might hurt morale to live in those places." She hesitated and then emphasized, "He was big on forgetting about the old and starting everything new."
    "I suppose I can see his point."
    "Part of it…I mean, I know part of the reason to build this place was just to show that we could. Then, wow, we had resources and things were looking great. Nothing could stop us, you know?"
    He saw fond memories glitter through her eyes as she stared at the light raining in through the atrium.
    "Trevor…I mean, the man was not to be stopped. We all admired him for that. He made the hard decisions. He kept everyone focused on the goal."
    "I sound like a fun guy."
    She looked at him. "You were. You fought hard, you worked hard, you partied hard."
    "Tell me something," he selected the newest on his list of many questions. "Who is this Director Snowe? Sounds like he backed your plan to come over and get me."
    "He did. Jakob has a bunch of titles these days. That's what happens when you have a nice chunk of your officers killed off. He took over Intelligence when Gordon Knox died."
    "Gordon?" Trevor's heart sank. Based on what he knew of Gordon Knox on his home world, finding his doppelganger over here would be a blessing. Of course, he thought, if Gordon still lived over here they probably would not be in this mess.
    "Yeah, he was killed and Snowe rose up in the ranks. We lost a lot of soldiers and had to re-constitute the Third Legion. Most of the troops in that formation are leftovers from Intelligence paramilitaries and Special Forces units. Sort of a patchwork of elements. Snowe wears a couple of different hats, so he's got Intel and Third Legion and a couple of other things. Busy guy."
    "And he helped you go get me?"
    "He worked on the Nyx, getting the transport lined up and all that. Then he sort of looked the other way when I went off so that we could both, well, sort of claim ignorance when The Committee found out."
    "Tell me," he changed direction. "On my Earth, we’re facing all kinds of things. Some organized, some not. But I’ve always had the impression that there’s one particularly nasty group pushing it all along. They go by the name of The Order. I think there’s something-I don’t know if it’s a person or what-but something called ‘Voggoth’ behind them."
    She cast her eyes toward the ceiling as she thought over her answer.
    "I’ve head of them. I’ve heard of that Voggoth. He’s here, too. I don’t think he’s that big of a deal to us. For us it’s been the ‘Chaktaw’. At least that’s what they call themselves. We’ve called them a lot worse, let me tell you."
    "Never heard of them. We probably have different names for different things."
    "The Chaktaw hit us every couple of days like clockwork. I’m sure you’ll get to see the fireworks for yourself."
    "You don’t sound too concerned. You know, no one around here seems too worried about it. The guys in your Operations Center were busy making social plans and bull shitting."
    She said, "That’s part of the problem. We’ve got pretty good defenses. We’ll fight off the Chaktaw next time they come. Then the time after that and after that. But each time we lose a little more. They’re just eating away at us."
    Trevor remembered the Battle of Five Armies. He remembered how the enemy they dubbed the "Vikings" used a similar strategy with skirmishes and raids.
    "I’ve been in that position, too."
    "So a lot of people around here have this kind of fatalistic approach. I mean, on one hand I think they’ve accepted that we’re doomed. At the same time, maybe they don’t think there’s anything they can do about it, so it’s better to get drunk."
    "Eat and be merry for tomorrow we die?"
    "Yeah. I mean, I suppose so, yeah."
    "And that wasn’t how Trevor ran things, huh?"
    She laughed at the thought. "Are you kidding? He’d have heads on platters if he spotted that attitude. Don’t get me wrong, Trevor could party, but in the morning he was all business."
    Somehow Trevor could not imagine himself partying. "I guess your Trevor and me; we may not have been that much alike."
    That gave Nina pause. Her eyes narrowed. "Not that much alike, huh? You know, I had almost forgotten about it with everything that’s been going on since we got back."
    She wagged her finger toward him and circled like a wolf to a rabbit.
    "Forgotten about what?"
    "You. I mean, so look, I get to your planet, monitor a few transmissions, and I get the lay of the land. I figure it’s a lot like things over here. You know, people and stuff. To make a long story short, I nab the Nina from your world because I got to believe that Trevor Stone will come running to save his honey."
    "My…my honey?"
    "So I tell her that I don’t mean her any harm, I’m just using her as bait to grab Trevor. She practically freaks out laughing. She’s like, why would the Emperor save my sorry ass?"
    Nina continued to circle with her eyes focused entirely on him. "I mean, she was convincing. Really was. I’m about ready to figure that things were different on your side and then, wow, you show up. You did save her sorry ass. But man, I’m telling you, she couldn’t believe it. She was totally shocked by you showing up."
    The Major stopped and waited for him to explain.
    "I just decided to…wait, what made you think that she was my…my ‘honey’?"
    That knocked her a little off balance. He watched as she put together the words she wanted to use. "What made me think that?"
    She stepped close to him. The light streaking through the atrium fell across her body. For a moment, she was almost angelic in the glow. An illusion, of course.
    "I thought that because here, in my world, I loved Trevor Stone, and he loved me. We were together. We lived together. We went to war together. We…wow…we partied together. Like you wouldn’t believe."
    Trevor swallowed hard.
    "I shared his bed. I shared everything with him. All of me. Everything he ever wanted…he could have it from me."
    Her eyes…so beautiful.
    "So," his voice cracked. He stopped and licked his lips. "So you just figured. You figured that on my world me and you…I mean, me and Nina were-"
    "Lovers. Yes."
    "You were wrong."
    He stumbled away from her. The fly and the spider again.
    "Was I?"
    "Yes. You were wrong."
    "Okay then," she conceded. "I suppose so. I guess I was wrong. I’m glad then, too."
    "Huh? You’re glad?"
    "Well, the Nina over on your world…I mean geez. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time with her, but I could see she wasn’t the type I’d think Trevor-or any guy-would go for."
    "What are you saying?"
    "A real cold girl. I can’t see her warming up to anything or anybody without, like, a candle up her ass or something. A real waste."
    "You’re lucky you didn’t hook up with her. She probably wouldn’t know what to do with a man if she-"
    "Shut up. You… shut up."
    "What do you care? I mean, you didn’t-"
    He grabbed her shoulders but his reaction did not surprise her. In fact, she nearly laughed as he spoke his peace.
    "You shut up about her. You have no business judging her. Look at you people over here! You’re getting your collective heads kicked in. She’s a better soldier than anyone I’ve seen in this whole place."
    She goaded, "Better than all of us, huh?"
    "Damned straight!" He shot.
    "She could probably make a big difference over here."
    Trevor growled, "She’d teach you a thing or two. You bet."
    "And I bet it makes you really mad…" she led
    "Damn mad!"
    "…that I look like her."
    Her words derailed his train of thought.
    "Half the time you look like you want to sweep me off my feet; the other half of the time you want to curse me. And not for kidnapping you. Because I look like her, but I’m not."
    Trevor realized his hands trembled on her shoulders. But did they shake because he stood so close to an image of the woman he once loved, or because he was angry with her for daring to resemble his Nina?
    "What happened? If it was just a regular break up, I would’ve got that from her."
    Stone let go of her shoulders and retreated to the shadows.
    She asked, "Maybe you loved her but you never told her? Did you let her get away?"
    "I don’t want to…I don’t want to talk about it."
    "Yes. Yes you do."
    She stood behind him.
    So close.
    Major Nina Forest repeated, "You want to shout it at me. You want to scream at me how I’m an imposter in her body."
    How long had it been since he spoke of it? Who had he ever told?
    It had been nearly six years since the mysterious Old Man-his supernatural benefactor-told him that he could not be with Nina. That revelation came at the same time they found Nina’s memory implant, courtesy of Voggoth’s The Order. In one fell swoop Trevor learned destiny forbade them to be together and found a means of preserving that separation.
    "C’mon Trevor. We’re alone here…in another universe…far away. Tell me why you came for her; tell me why you love her but you’re not with her."
    He faced the woman who looked like Nina.
    "A confession? Is that what you want?"
    He paused. The flood of memories and emotion and…and loss… lapped over top the dam. It was not until that moment-the moment when he decided to let it come roaring out-that he realized how hard it had been to hold those flood waters at bay all these years.
    "Nina was the only woman I ever loved; and she was taken from me."
    Oh, where to start? And if I start…will I be able to stop?
    "She found my humanity and gave me a purpose beyond this whole save-the-human-race-crap. She gave me a purpose that wasn’t a burden, it was liberating. If I’m supposed to be the person to save mankind from Armageddon, then she was the one person who could save me from myself. A lifeline to my humanity. Without her…without her I can be…I can be…"
    He did not finish the sentence, not aloud. In his mind the sentence finished with fields of dead aliens; attack dogs swarming a peaceful human village.
    Trevor bowed his head, licked his lips, then continued. "And I gave to her, too. We found out more about who she was; who she wanted to be. I think I…I think I unlocked a part of her that had been waiting to come to the surface. I could see our future. We would stay together and fight the fight. At night, we could retreat to each other and find happiness-real honest-to-God-happiness-in a rotten world. "
    Nina spoke soft but with the tone of a detective trying to find the last piece of the puzzle. "You said she was taken from you. What does that mean?"
    "You felt your Trevor knew things about the world? He did. Just like I do. There are powers behind all this. I won’t say any more because, shit, I don’t know a whole lot more. But those powers told me I had a path to walk, and that Nina was not on that path with me."
    "Unless I’m really gullible, she doesn’t remember being in love with you."
    "That’s right. My Nina had been infected with a memory implant from Voggoth’s Order. When we removed it…when it was taken away…she lost a year’s worth of memories. She didn’t even remember meeting me. She…she went back to the person she was before we even met."
    "So you still love her?"
    Trevor told this Nina, "The woman I loved doesn’t exist anymore, do you understand? The memories and experiences we had together were erased. That’s what makes us who we are. The things we do…the things we remember. Take them away and we’re somebody different." He exhaled loudly and repeated, "She doesn’t exist anymore."
    Major Forest put a hand on his chest.
    "I exist. I’m real."
    So close.
    She put another hand on his shoulder. Trevor grabbed her wrists and pulled them away.
    "I have…I have responsibilities at home."
    Responsibilities? That's what Ashley and Jorgie are?
    "What does that mean?"
    "I told you, I wasn’t supposed to be with my Nina. I found out why. A woman I had been involved with before the invasion reappeared. Together, we have a son. My son is special. I think…I think he’s a part of the bigger picture…"
    His words trailed off as he considered that big picture.
    Nina grew frustrated. "But you don’t love her. And she’s a universe away!"
    He did not listen to her. Instead, his eyes widened and he said, "That’s it! Don’t you see?"
    "See what?" His change of demeanor unnerved her.
    "Here you and I never split up. I wonder if your Trevor told the Old Man to go to Hell."
    "The who?"
    "If I had stayed with her on my world, maybe we’d be in this spot. Maybe we’d be in the trouble you’re in now. Maybe here humanity is about to be wiped out because your Trevor followed his heart, instead of his path. Did fate bring me here to show me what could have happened if I had done what I wanted to do, instead of what I was supposed to do?"
    Thoughts raced through his mind. Thoughts of an Earth where he had stayed with Nina; where his desire for her had made him walk off the path.
    He felt a wave of empathy for the Trevor of this different universe; even jealousy for the happiness he must have known with Nina. If not for The Order's implant, would he have stayed with her? Would he have done what the Trevor Stone of this universe did? Is it possible…could it be…was he sent here to make amends for his other self's weakness?
    She said, "I don’t understand."
    "Neither do I," he admitted. "But there are answers here. I can feel it. I’m going to find those answers."

12. Cult of Personality

    Unlike his first night in the apartment, Trevor slept well the second night. Perhaps because even though questions still surrounded his presence there, he felt he had direction. If he helped the people of this world fight off the invaders, perhaps he could glean some insight into the greater plan. Maybe even circumvent the Old Man's hold over him.
    After a shower with weak water pressure and a breakfast of powdered orange drink and an oatmeal-like cereal, Major Nina Forest took them for a trip. They traveled by car for ten minutes to a training facility for the "Third Legion."
    She gave the men gym bags containing work out clothes, towels, and soap then directed them to the men’s locker room. While Trevor fit perfectly into the sneakers, sweat pants, and tank top (no doubt from the other Trevor's closet), Johnny's outfit hugged his stocky frame a little tight, although not as tight as Nina's spandex hugged her.
    When they first arrived, the place seemed nearly deserted except for a clerk and a sentry, both of whom eyed Stone suspiciously. However, with time more people filtered in for exercise and training maneuvers.
    Nina led the two newcomers to one area that remained quiet; an indoor shooting range.
    "Okay, boys, I’ve got a feeling you’ve handled guns before, right?"
    Reverend Johnny proudly proclaimed, "If it is capable of dispatching aliens I most certainly have handled it."
    "Well, okay then. Handle this."
    She handed them each an assault rifle. Trevor looked it over disapprovingly.
    "What? What’s wrong?" She asked.
    "Bullpup…I don’t like it," he referred to the design that placed the magazine and ejector slot behind the trigger mechanism, essentially next to the shooter’s ear.
    She defended, "Makes for a shorter gun. More compact."
    "Yeah. Less reliable, can only be fired from one side or you take spent casing in the face; tends to jam more. Not a favorite of mine."
    Reverend Johnny quipped, "True, but this baby looks way cool, Trevor."
    He laughed, "Rev, don't ever say 'way cool' again and I promise not to quote scripture."
    Nina said, "Well, it’s what we got. I mean, sorry it isn’t up to your standards."
    "Oh no, no we’re fine," Trevor mocked. "Don’t worry about little old me."
    She pointed out the rifle’s mechanisms including the safety, bolt, iron sights, rate of fire, clip ejection, and stock adjustment.
    He admitted, "A little longer than the bullpup designs I've seen, but pretty light and easy to handle. The rounds are similar in size to the ones I use back home in my M4."
    "So, gee, like you can put up with it for now?"
    He stepped to the firing line and looked down range at a flimsy paper target twenty yards away. It took him a moment to get used to the design-the bullpup alignment meant a trigger farther forward on the barrel than his M4.
    Still…very light. It felt comfortable against his shoulder.
    Stone pulled the trigger. A burst of four shots hit the target.
    "Hmmm, not much kick."
    Trevor remembered the bruises on his shoulder the first month after Armageddon; that first month of firing an assault rifle. They would not have been as bad with this weapon.
    "Quiet, too."
    "Yeah, but hey-it’s a bullpup so I’m sure you won’t like it."
    Was that a pout in her voice?
    He fired more bursts. His aim improved with each pull of the trigger. Never perfect. Just better. He was-he reminded himself-a jack of all trades yet a master of none. The ultimate expression of human adaptability. Part of his purpose, he supposed.
    "Hey, easy, ammunition doesn’t grow on trees around here."
    The bolt locked open; he had ripped through an entire magazine of thirty rounds.
    Johnny stepped to the line for his turn but first thumbed the fire selector switch. He then launched a storm of fully automatic fire. The barrel flash reflected off his angry eyes and a steady low grunt slipped from his lips. The target hung from its mount shredded.
    "Well, I’m ready."
    He returned the smoking gun to the woman.
    "What’s next, Major?"
    Next was a visit to the quartermaster’s shop manned by a tired-looking older fellow who jolted awake at the sight of Major Forest and her friends. The poor guy stared at Trevor, obviously wanting to say something but apparently afraid to.
    Nonetheless, the man did his work. He presented a battle suit to both Johnny and Trevor. Each man entered a dressing room, put on their new threads, and then paraded in front of their hostess.
    "Okay, this ain’t bad," Trevor said as studied his reflection in a mirror.
    The suit fit tight and felt almost like rubber except for strategically-positioned armored plates on his forearms, legs, and abdomen. Still, he found it surprisingly comfortable and, even more surprising, wearing it made him feel stronger.
    "Wow, this really feels good. What’s the trick here?"
    "Special design. You’ll find it regulates your body temperature; I mean, it’s not perfect but it’ll help. Also designed to support your muscles. Your stamina is a little better in this."
    Johnny did not fare as well. "Dear Lord, this thing is cutting off circulation in my ass."
    For his part, Trevor said, "I'm good here."
    Okay," Nina said. "Slip out of it and we’ll have it delivered to your quarters."
    Johnny protested, "Hells bells, my thighs feel as if they’re being wrapped by a boa constrictor and the devil’s-"
    "I think my friend here needs some help," Trevor spoke to the quartermaster who nodded and attended to Johnny.
    Nina said, "Why don’t we move on. I think the Reverend is going to be tied up for a bit."
    "Good Lord, I fear she speaks the truth. Carry on, Mister Stone, I will join you when-uggg-my new suit fits."
    Trevor spent two minutes changing out of the armor and into his sweat pants again. He and Major Forest left the shop to the sounds of Johnny’s grunts and groans.
    "What now?"
    "Like I said, ammunition doesn’t grow on trees around here."
    "So," she said. "You need to learn what to do when your rifle runs out of bullets."
    "Or," he joked. "When that lousy bullpup design jams."
    She scowled, "Yeah, that too."
    Trevor followed her through the complex. He saw more people-soldiers-walking the halls. Men and women. Most appeared to be in their mid twenties to early thirties. Some wore battle-weary expressions others looked freckled-faced and new. Regardless of the universe, it required only a glance to tell the rookies from the veterans.
    Few of these people gave him a second-glance. They appeared too wrapped up in their own thoughts to worry about their surroundings.
    They came to a small room with a padded floor. Nina opened a locker built into one wall that appeared to contain assault rifles but he saw them to be wooden replicas with flexible-maybe rubber-bayonets affixed to the barrels. She handed one dummy to him and retrieved a second for herself.
    "Bullets are at a premium. If we can kill something with the bayonet, that’s what we do. Save the rounds for things you wouldn’t want to get close to."
    Trevor’s mind paged through his mental Hostiles Database. He figured Land Jellyfish, Gremmies, Eels, maybe even Rat-Things could be dispatched using the bayonet. He would never want to be stuck without bullets against a Troll, DevilBat, or a pack of Ghouls. Then again, he remembered, it had not been bullets that routed the Vikings at the Battle of Five Armies.
    "I know you’re used to your big rifles and tanks and stuff, but maybe you’ll let me show you how to fight with your hands," her words served as a shot across the bow.
    He smiled. "Yeah, well, gee, don’t hurt me, okay?"
    He looked at Major Forest. She had Nina’s body but so far he was not convinced she had Nina’s instincts.
    "Okay, look," she instructed. "Start with the attack position."
    She demonstrated by standing slightly hunched over with her left foot a step ahead of her right. This created a good center of gravity similar to a boxer’s stance.
    Trevor imitated her movement.
    "Make sure you’re on the balls of your feet. Yeah, that’s right. Flex your knees. Do you feel comfortable?"
    "Just peachy."
    "Hold your rifle diagonally across-"
    She stopped because he already held his rifle across his body in the proper position.
    After a moment, she continued, "Okay. Well, great. Um…the first attack you need to learn is the thrust. Now what you need to-"
    He stepped forward with his left foot and jabbed the fake bayonet over her shoulder with his weight behind the strike. Again she paused, this time biting her lip and crinkling her brow. He saw a shade of red in her cheeks.
    "Slash movement."
    He drove the bayonet across the front of her body-not quite touching-up and down. A real blade would have eviscerated her.
    Trevor laughed. He laughed because he recognized the expression on Major Forest’s face. It was the same expression that the Nina Forest of his world showed when she had tried to dupe him with tactical hand signals, only to find that he knew them by the book.
    "Okay, I guess you know how to use a bayonet, huh? Did I teach you on your world?"
    He shook his head and told her the truth, "Actually, I picked it up from a guy who fought for the Germans in World War One."
    She, of course, did not have the slightest idea what he meant. She did not care, either.
    Sarcasm oozed, "I see. Fine. Well then, maybe you can show me some pointers?"
    Nina tried to surprise him, bringing her dummy rifle at him in a slashing maneuver. Trevor stepped backward and barely avoided the strike of the plastic mock up.
    She continued forward with a thrust. The butt of his rifle accidentally deflected the charge.
    He saw she had a head of steam going but, damn, she was going. It was possible he had underestimated her instincts.
    Nina executed a perfect parry-left and knocked his mockup aside, she then slashed at his chest, followed in a fluid motion by the butt of her wooden rifle striking him in the kidneys.
    Trevor fell toward the mat. Even before he hit the ground, he felt her bayonet zooming toward his exposed back.
    He rolled away. Her rubber weapon hit empty mat.
    Nina thrust again and again as he rolled across the floor. She made the mistake of moving too fast and lost a little balance. He took the opening and swept his foot into her calf and sent her to the floor.
    That bought him one precious second to get to his feet; rifle and bayonet in attack position.
    She faced off against him. "Well, you have done this before, haven’t you?" She hissed but the anger appeared to be leaving her voice. She seemed to enjoy the fight.
    "Once…twice…maybe a hundred times or so, yeah."
    He tried to slash at her. Nina effectively executed an upward block. The two pieces of wood thudded together then apart.
    She swung the butt of her rifle toward his groin. He brought his weapon down and met it.
    Nina grunted, from either pain or frustration. Trevor felt the sweat on his brow and back. Yes, he had underestimated her instincts.
    More thrusts, more parries. They danced across the room, huffing and puffing and exhaling in bursts. The rifles and bayonets went high, then low. Finally they locked weapons and hesitated. The bayonet fight reached a stalemate.
    Suddenly he tumbled backward with his rifle falling out of his hands, the result of a fast and effective leg-sweep.
    Oh, how clever.
    But, again, she acted too rash. He managed to catch her legs in a similar sweep as she closed in to drive her fake bayonet home. This time he did not go for his own weapon, he went for hers
    She panted in surprise as he pried it loose from her grip. The fake gun fumbled about before spinning off to the side.
    Nina scrambled to her feet and he grabbed her from behind…only to find himself going feet over head as she judo flipped him. His hand had a grasp on her shirt, however, and as he came down on the mat he pulled her along, over top of him, then rolling on the mat.
    More grunts. More gasps.
    The action stopped.
    He held her wrists, both of them, stretched above her head as he pinned her body to the floor with his own.
    She was faster and she did have good instincts, but Trevor weighed sixty pounds heavier.
    His body lay on top of hers too close for a knee to the groin and her hands immobilized by his tight grasp on her wrists.
    So close.
    They both breathed heavily for a moment, covered in sweat.
    "Well," she caught her wind. "It looks like you’ve got me."
    He felt her squirm underneath…felt her leg rub and bend along the side of his…slowly…intentionally.
    "What are you going to do to me?"
    "There’s another difference between you and the Nina I know. She never would have let me get the best of her like this."
    Major Forest smiled. "Maybe I just wanted you on top of me."
    He wondered…did he have her, or was she in complete control?
    Trevor huffed, rolled off, stood, and grabbed his towel.
    She massaged her wrists. He had squeezed them very hard.
    Trevor said, "You play a lot of games, don’t you?" There was no good humor in his voice. Not an ounce.
    "Nothing wrong with a game, now and then."
    He turned on her as he wiped sweat from his forehead. "I don’t play games, do you hear? I have a son back home whom I miss dearly. I have a world of my own. I want to go back there. But you brought me here. Don’t think I’ve forgotten that!"
    She sat on the floor and listened with no expression.
    "And most of all," he roared as the anger built. "You are just another person to me. I don’t know you! I don’t know who you are, no matter what you look like! Don’t think that you can convince me that you are anything like the Nina I knew. You are nothing like her!"
    He stormed from the room.
    Nina collapsed to the floor, stared at the ceiling. And grinned.
    – In the center of the gymnasium stood a mock-up of a small building, perhaps a home or an office complete with several rooms, a hallway, and windows. With no roof, Trevor could see inside the structure from his seat in the bleachers as could the drill supervisor who hovered overhead in a bucket attached to a hydraulic lift.
    Major Forest sat near him but he did not give her the courtesy of a glance. While part of that came from his anger with her, the exercises below also held his attention.
    The soldiers divided into two groups of three and competed as offensive and defensive teams engaged in entry and clear operations. Their weapons reminded Trevor of paint ball guns but the pellets exploded in puffs of gas. That gas interacted with patches on their body armor, causing a color change ranging from light red to dark depending on estimated severity of injury.
    One soldier in particular held Trevor's attention: a bombastic man standing over six feet tall with a crew cut who bossed his fellow soldiers around despite no extra rank on his sleeve.
    Reverend Johnny climbed the bleachers and sat next to Trevor. He said, "At long last that fiendish tailor has managed to fit this contraption to my frame in a manner that does not cut off circulation to my nether region."
    Trevor did not reply. He focused on the soldiers as they prepared for another exercise. Green team took position inside the mock building to defend while Blue team prepared to clear.
    For the first time in half an hour, Trevor spoke to Nina, "What's wrong down there, Major?"
    She examined the scene for a moment and then answered, "The defenders are spread out, they’re not covering each other’s backs. Each one could be isolated and overpowered."
    Trevor noted, "Equal weapons and equal numbers, the defenders should win easy, every time with a little planning. But wait, don't worry," he pointed as Blue team split up and infiltrated through open windows. "The attackers have made it easy."
    The Blue fighters each used separate entrances. That might have been acceptable, if they coordinated their approach. Instead, they left flanks uncovered, rooms unchecked, and did not know each other's positions.
    As the teams engaged, Trevor tapped Reverend Johnny on his shoulder and pointed toward the tall soldier participating on the defending Green team.
    "Look familiar?"
    Johnny looked and listened. He saw that soldier angrily shove a teammate and point him to a new position then scowl at another who walked across his field of fire.
    "Seems a bit like a-wait one moment, is that who I think it is? Dear Lord, that is General Jon Brewer!"
    Nina cut in, "General? That guy down there is a Corporal."
    Trevor said, "Then I can see why you're in such bad shape around here."
    Pellets zinged back and forth as individual members of each team confronted one another. No group action, no unison of movement, no cohesive plan on either side.
    A Green shot a Blue. A Blue popped a Green. A Green-Brewer-took out a second Blue as he rushed into a room.
    The remaining Blue carefully crept through the building after his comrades met their fate (said fate resulting in kneeling on the floor with their hands behind their head).
    Trevor watched Brewer. The man resembled his friend from pre-Armageddon days, in appearance and action. Like his former self from another world, this Jon Brewer believed in the doctrine of preemption. Instead of remaining in a defensive position, he went on the offensive, moving from the room he covered, to the hall, and then he apparently sensed a presence around a corner. Brewer ran into the room, gun blazing. He took a pellet in the chest for his trouble, but also managed to put a pellet into…the only other remaining Green teammate.
    From the bucket overhead came the instructor screaming, "Brewer! Morris! You idiots! You're on the same damn team and you're both out!"
    Reverend Johnny gasped to Trevor, "I cannot believe such incompetence."
    Trevor threw a stern glance at Major Forest first, then answered Johnny, "It's not incompetence, Reverend. Like everything else I've seen here, they're sloppy and disinterested."
    "Hey," Nina defended her comrades. "These are some of the best guys in Third L."
    Trevor shot back with red in his cheeks, "And they've been hiding behind defensive walls for how long? Months? Years? How long since you people even left this city?"
    She said nothing.
    Trevor spat, "I thought so."
    The instructor blew a whistle and lowered the observation bucket.
    "All right, all right. Seems like you guys just don’t got it today. Let’s hit the showers."
    Both teams exited the mock-up and gathered their gear. Brewer gave the one who shot him a shove but most of the soldiers laughed at how the drill ended.
    Trevor-with his hands clenched in fists and his eyes staring at the atrocity below-marched down the bleachers like a twister spawning over an unsuspecting Kansas town. Major Forest practically fell as she stumbled to her feet to follow.
    Before the group could disperse, Trevor growled, "Stop." Not so much loud, but deep.
    The soldiers turned to the sound of the voice and practically froze. He saw fear, shock, surprise, doubt, and disbelief in their eyes.
    "Being a soldier is more than carrying a gun and wearing a uniform. What I just watched… disgusting. You are all going to die on the battlefield."
    The instructor stumbled, "Now, wait a second, I don’t know who you think you are-"
    "Shut up."
    The chubby man with rank on his collar looked around Trevor at Major Forest.
    "Why are you looking at her? Look at me," he commanded the instructor. "You should be ashamed. You've failed your men! When their blood is spilled it will be on your hands!"
    One of the rank and file objected, "It's just a basic training mission. No big deal."
    Trevor turned on him. "What’s your name?"
    The man-young and cocky with hair too slick to be the hair of a grunt-stepped forward in confrontation and answered, "Pickering."
    "Pickering, you ever see a Crawling Tube Worm?"
    "Um…I don’t think so."
    Trevor brushed over the likelihood that Nina’s humans had a different nickname for that vile creature. He did not care about details at that moment.
    "Do you know what it does? It swallows a man whole, digests him for a couple of days, then shits him out into a pile."
    Pickering shrugged yeah, so?
    "The whole time… the whole friggin’ time…you’re alive. Even after it shits you out you’re still alive. Only, you just spent a couple of days inside an intestinal tract. Skin dissolved away, most of your internal organs digested, hair and eyes and all that. Lots of blood, sure, yeah. Most of the time folks are still breathing when it takes a dump, but they’re crazy. Can’t move. No arms. No legs. They just lay there like the rest of the feces except they moan and cry until a buddy puts a bullet through what’s left of their brains."
    "That’s pretty bad, man," the guy replied in that same arrogant voice.
    "The point is — what I’m trying to tell you — is I’ve seen piles of Crawling Tube Worm shit that was still a better soldier than you, Pickering. And if you don’t wipe that cocky smile off your face I’m GOING TO CUT YOUR FUCKING HEAD OFF."
    "Who the Hell are you?" Came the familiar voice of Jon Brewer.
    Trevor's head turned fast. Nina quickly interjected, "Your Legion has been briefed on this man. You know who he is."
    Trevor walked over to the Jon Brewer of this alternate universe. This was not the man he knew back home, but the one from before the world went to Hell.
    "You're the worst of the lot," Trevor told him. "You want to know why? Because I know you're better than what I saw out there. You're too damn cocky to realize it. You need to stop talking so much and start thinking."
    "Hey, easy does it," the instructor jumped in. "I’ve trained these guys myself. A little relaxed, yeah, but this a damn good team. Best in Third Legion."
    Murmurs of ‘yeah’ and ‘damn straight’ echoed amongst the troops.
    "Really? Best in third legion? Okay. Prove it. Clear the building," and Trevor walked toward the dummy structure.
    "Hey! You don’t have a gun!" Brewer yelled.
    Stone did not turn around as he replied, "I will in a minute."
    He entered through an open door then shut it behind.
    The instructor looked to Major Forest who said, "You heard the man. Clear the building."
    "Um," the leader stumbled. "Which team should I send in?"
    Reverend Johnny yelled from the top of the bleachers, "I’d send in both if I were you!"
    Nina ascended the stands for a better view. The instructor raised his platform and ordered, "Brewer, switch to Blue Team. Pickering, take Green."
    Brewer and Pickering discussed strategy, the former accentuating his points with shouts and a jabbing finger. The others poked their heads into the conversation offering alternatives, debating approaches, and generally foiling any attempt to create a comprehensive plan.
    Nina arrived at the top of the bleachers next to the Reverend.
    "Either your Trevor has a big ego or he’s damned good."
    "Perhaps a little of both. Or, maybe, a lot of both, my dear."
    While the instructor refereed from the raised bucket lift, Nina and Johnny watched from the stands. They could not see everything, but they could see enough.
    Brewer's Blue team entered through the door Trevor had used. The Green team circled around to the far side and headed in.
    For his part, Trevor maneuvered through the cluster of rooms toward the center of the giant cube where he paused until a shadow approached from a connecting room. He darted to another room, but someone spotted his shadow.
    "There he is!"
    Pop-pop-pop mock guns fired plastic pellets hitting walls and fake furniture.
    "Wait, where’d he go?"
    Brewer followed his two team members through a four-way intersection near the center. They remained focused forward to the point that Jon did not see Trevor close in from behind. Stone reached up and grabbed the taller man around the throat with one arm and overwhelmed his trigger finger with the other.
    The instructor's voice yelled, "Wilson! Edgars! You’re out!"
    Brewer struggled with Trevor for control of the gun, using his hands to try and muscle the weapon from his opponent's grip only to find himself letting go of the prize when a leg-sweep sent him tumbling backwards.
    "Brewer is out!"
    Jon did not like that, regardless of how red his patches glowed. While Wilson and Edgars followed procedure and sat on the floor with their hands behind their heads, this Jon Brewer of an alternate universe followed Trevor along the hall. A moment later, Brewer flew out a window onto the gymnasium floor with a broken nose and an equally fractured ego.
    "Brewer, you are way out!"
    If Green team had not been moving with an overabundance of caution, they probably would have caught Trevor in the midst of dealing with Brewer's insubordination. Instead, by the time they reached the commotion, Trevor had moved off.
    From their elevated vantage point, Nina and Reverend Johnny watched Trevor move parallel to the enemy through rooms across the hall from Green team. He stayed hidden by using his ears-not so much his eyes-to track enemy movement, until he sensed an opportunity.
    The three Greens crept along a thin hall. Trevor darted in front of them and fired as he raced from one room into another. With the enemy packed so close together, he could not miss.
    In a voice that sounded one-part panicked and another part sad, the referee shouted, "Pickering! You’re done!"
    Trevor ran through the building in sort of a big circle, racing across rooms and allowing his footsteps to be easily heard. Clearly, this unnerved the remaining two enemy fighters. They started in one direction, stopped, and stepped in a another direction, then back again to the extent that they did not move at all; like rabbits caught in an open field beneath a circling hawk.
    After a few moments of this, Trevor stopped. Everything went silent. The Greens lost any initiative. They hunkered down one each at the two internal door ways in a corner room.
    Trevor exited the building on the far side and re-entered through an exterior door directly behind the two soldiers who kept their eyes staring straight as if their foe could not approach from any direction other than the two interior hallways they guarded.
    Instead of taking the easy shots and shooting the two soldiers-one man, one woman-in their backs, Trevor entered the room without making a sound. He stood behind the two unsuspecting grunts and glared up at the instructor in his hovering bucket.
    Nina laughed as she watched from the stands. Reverend Johnny shook his head.
    Stone then clamped a hand over the man's mouth, and put his gun barrel to the fellow's temple. Next, he marched his captive to the center of the room. The red-headed woman remained oblivious to the events behind her as the hallway ahead held her complete attention.
    The red head turned and fired, hitting the human shield. Trevor, of course, shot her "dead" a split second later.
    The match — the demonstration — ended.
    Trevor exited the building as the instructor’s lift came to the floor and a medic attended to Brewer.
    "Just a training exercise," Trevor spat as the defeated soldiers gathered without a sound.
    Trevor thrust a finger toward the outer wall of the gymnasium but actually pointed at much more. "There is a world out there that is trying to kill you. Do you understand? There isn’t any mercy out there. They don’t use fake guns."
    "We know that," the instructor mumbled.
    "Then act like it! If you die, here, in this prison of a city then everything dies with you!"
    Nina and Johnny descended the bleachers.
    "Our city stands," one of the soldiers dared, yet Trevor heard something in the heckler’s voice that kept him from breaking the man’s neck. He heard the voice of defeat. He heard the sounds of a man who had been led down too many dead ends or who had seen too many comrades wasted. He heard the sound of a man resigned to his fate.
    "It will fall. You are not getting stronger. You are getting weaker. Your walls are crumbling. The enemy is reaching for your throat."
    Trevor found the eyes of every person listening and met them one after another.
    "You are better than this," his tone kicked up and he walked amongst them, touching a few shoulders along the way. "I know you're tired. Your city is attacked constantly. Supplies are almost gone. The weight of the world is crushing down on you. No matter where you look, there is no sign of hope. So you have to stop looking for hope from somewhere out there. You are that hope. Don’t surrender your power to the monsters out there. Take that power and use it."
    Stone maneuvered to the front of the pack, curled his arms, and made fists.
    "You were great, once," he looked toward Nina as he said that. She nodded.
    "Your armies were on the march. The monsters feared you. I say, make them fear us again. Let us pour out of these walls and strike terror into the hearts of those nightmares."
    He heard a mumble or two of approval. Just a little. Not much. But a spark.
    "We can’t march out of here," the instructor almost pleaded. "It would be suicide! Don’t fill them with empty promises. The Committee has decreed that we are on the defensive."
    "NEVER! It is never enough to sit and wait for death. If death is to come for us, then I say, meet it head on! Meet it where it lives!"
    "Easy to say, but we aren’t capable of launching attacks."
    "No," Trevor agreed with the man this time. "Not yet. We must prepare. We must train. Before we can challenge the enemy, we must challenge ourselves. But not like what I saw here. You do your men a disservice. If you don’t expect the best then they won’t be the best."
    "And what do you expect?" The instructor sneered.
    A simple word that dared not be spoken in a long time.
    "And I will accept nothing less."
    The instructor shook his head. The other soldiers…they listened.
    Brewer-his nose bandaged and his eyes cast down-stood among the group. Trevor walked to him and while he spoke to everyone, he looked at this doppelganger of his friend.
    "You are full of potential, but you must set aside your egos. I know there is greatness inside you, there are leaders here waiting to rise. You just have to give yourself a chance."
    He stepped to the front of the crowd and said, "So we’re running through this again. Blue Team, with me. Green team," Trevor looked to Nina. "Major Forest, you have Green Team."
    "She’s not an instructor!" the man who was pointed out.
    "I don’t need instructors. I need warriors. We need warriors."
    This breech of protocol flabbergasted the drill supervisor, but he could do nothing.
    "All right Green team, let’s go," Nina called.
    The soldiers glanced at their instructor, then to Trevor, and then followed the Major.
    With that, the exercises began anew. Again, sloppy, but Trevor and Nina took the men aside and revisited basics; the fundamentals they had not practiced in a long time. He learned the terms of their army and introduced them to terms from his; the language of war translated easily.
    According to Nina, these men had been briefed on Trevor's origins and they accepted him without questions. He purposely steered clear of discussing his world, he wanted to focus on theirs. He also did not ask about the past because it made no difference now; today was a new day, the first day.
    On the second pass, things improved. The third time through, better still. By the time the fourth practice run began, spectators gathered in the gymnasium, some even joined in.
    They fought through the building, and outside it, even charging across the gymnasium.
    By late afternoon, he and Nina turned over unit commands to other soldiers. By evening a line of people waited to be a part of the war games. To be a part of the energy. To see the man who inspired the hard work: the man who looked like…no, it could not be.
    Trevor felt their thirst for direction and he met that enthusiasm with correction and encouragement.
    Nina arranged for the 3 ^ rd Legion’s Training Facility to stay open late that night. Trevor told her it would need to stay open late many more nights.
    But it was a beginning. He had planted a seed.

13. Origins

    The dual rotor Chinook helicopter chopped through the air with an oversized van-like vehicle dangling from a winch underneath. The helicopter slowly descended to place its cargo in an open field adjacent to a dense, black forest.
    Ten days ago, Trevor landed a black-painted Eagle in that same field which, at the time, lay behind enemy Platypus lines. Much changed since then.
    Now tents, water buffalos, a latrine, and the Chinook's cargo-a mobile bio-weapons lab salvaged and modified from the old world-filled the field and created a command post for the Science and Technology task force named "Prodigal Son".
    If not for Hoth's costly-but-successful offensive, such resources could not have been brought to bear in the search for Trevor Stone.
    As the General watched the vehicle lower to the frozen ground, he reflected on events of recent weeks, starting with the foolhardy decision for Trevor to lead the rescue mission.
    Hoth's knowledge of history taught him to distrust the title 'Emperor,' but he respected Trevor Stone and recognized the man's focus on the mission and his understanding of the new world order. Yet he could not fathom why a man who seemed guided by the cold logic of this changed reality would act in such a rash manner.
    This put those left behind in a difficult situation. They dare not announce Trevor's disappearance. Given the economic and political state of things back east, only chaos could come from such revelations; the type of discord that could derail the war effort that, despite Army Group North's recent troubles, went surprisingly well.
    Casey Fink approached Hoth and reported, "Sir, my casualty reports are piling up. Unless we get some armored support I don't want any part of Dayton. It's not the Plats that are the trouble; they're almost easy compared to all these damn hostiles infesting everything."
    Hoth replied, "Not possible. We suffered a damaged-or-destroyed rate over fifty percent this week, the natural outcome when an operation is rushed without proper reconnaissance and with poor weather restricting air cover. What first-line armor I have available has been organized into a mobile screening force on our southern flank to guard against any additional Roachbot incursions. It seems there is more than one slaughterhouse in that sector."
    "We captured the ground we needed sir, perhaps it's time to slow things up?"
    "I don't think we have much choice. We will focus on eliminating Plat stragglers and consolidating our position. At this point, it is not prudent to continue a general offensive. We need to conserve our forces for any eventuality."
    Fink cocked his eye and asked, "You expecting something, General?"
    Hoth zipped his parka zipper to his chin and pulled the fur-lined hood over his ears.
    "If you were planning to attack our Empire, you might first want to decapitate leadership. From what I can see, General Fink, we have been decapitated."
    Hoth swung his legs over a hoverbike; another piece of invader technology usurped by humanity, and said, "I am going to inspect progress at the site."
    Two bodyguards flanked Hoth on crafts of their own as he sped into the forest along a recently-cut path of toppled trees and trampled undergrowth. Squads of soldiers and K9s patrolled the area around the access road, turning what had been a dark, foreboding forest into pacified ground as evidenced by the body of a massive StumpHide lying just off the trail.
    After several minutes, they reached a clearing in the forest where trees and thick brush once stood, but something had changed that.
    Never had Hoth seen a tree crushed and flattened like a flapjack. Yet that is exactly how dozens of trees appeared in the middle of the otherwise thick forest at exactly the spot where the complex Shepherd described once stood, the one that disappeared with Trevor Stone inside.
    He dismounted the hoverbike and walked among the science team. The ground was a pulpous mangle of those flattened trees and vegetation. Gory masses of worms and slimy insects had frozen after being fooled to the surface by the warmth of the complex; a warmth described by Nina and the Dark Wolves and one that suggested power.
    Professor Nehru-Director of Science and Technology on the Imperial Council-led the investigation. He wore a white parka two sizes too large, a knit hat, big gloves, and a ridiculous orange scarf. He paced the edge of the artificial clearing while consulting notes on a PDA.
    Other researchers spread around the clearing with a variety of measuring devices and scanners. That variety of equipment reflected the puzzle they faced in the sense that no one knew from exactly what angle to approach the mystery.
    A large number of K9 Grenadiers researched the area in their own way; they sniffed and scratched apparently under the guidance of Trevor's personal dog, Tyr.
    Hoth approached Director Nehru, overhearing the man talk to himself, his voice muffled by the big scarf. "Oh, yes, yes, certainly, yes. Yes, that is of course, yes."
    "Dr. Nehru. What is the status of your investigation?"
    "Yes, yes, I am thinking is-"
    Nehru faced Hoth revealing the stubble of two days without shaving as well as driblets of frost around his hood and scarf.
    "Oh! Yes! General, Sir! Yes!"
    "What is the status of your investigation?"
    "I am sorry to say that our status is very preliminary at this time, yes."
    General Hoth did not dislike Dr. Nehru. He did, however, have little use for sarcasm and levity and coyness.
    "Dr. Nehru. What have you learned so far?"
    Omar waved a hand toward the empty clearing. "Ah! We can certainly say with no doubt that the building described as to have being here is, most certainly, no longer here."
    The General’s ears filtered through Nehru’s forced accent to try and understand. When he put the words together, his eyes narrowed.
    "Doctor, I did not come out here to listen to jokes."
    "No joke, Mister General Hoth. I am quite aware that your sense of humor is not as much as would appreciate humorous interludes. It was of the first objective to understand that the building had first been here and that its absence now was a matter of fact and not speculation."
    "What are you saying?"
    "The building was, in point of fact, here at one time. The disturbance to the ground and surrounding area is consistent with the presence of a structure similar in the size and nature of which General Shepherd reported."
    "So…it wasn’t an illusion? Is that what you're getting at?"
    "Yes! Or, I should be saying, no, it was not an illusion. We have since ascertained that its disappearance is no illusion either. It is, as a matter of fact and I can say most assuredly, gone. Disappeared. Vanished."
    "Dr. Nehru. Are you telling me that your investigation has managed so far only to prove what my eyes can see? Time is critical."
    "Well," Nehru's heavy clothing sagged as he sighed. "I will be telling you that we know that a large amount of energy was expended at this place. A significant amount of heat was dispersed through the surrounding area. Your eyes will be seeing that, I would be imagining."
    "Heat? Okay. That implies an engine or machinery or some kind of chemical reaction."
    "Oh my! Yes! Very good."
    A hawk squawked as it dipped into the clearing from the sky, swooped over head, then disappeared off again.
    Nehru offered one more revelation, "Then, of course, there is the radiation which I am much doubting your eyes are seeing."
    Omar nodded and turned his attention to the PDA he held.
    Hoth waited. As a few seconds approached a minute, he considered throwing the Professor against a tree to grab his complete attention. Instead, Hoth's deep voice instructed, "Doctor, I require further explanation."
    "Oh, yes, you must excuse. I am quite busy I am sure you are understanding."
    "Of course."
    "There is a residual radiation that has permeated the area. It is not harmful radiation, not at the levels currently measured, at least. While that is quite a revelation of interest, there is something of much more importance. I have accessed records from the Department of Defense that remarked on radiation similar to this. It is the only match to which I have been making in regards to this energy signature."
    "And that is?"
    Omar went through the effort to pull the scarf entirely off his face so that he could be clearly heard. A stream of frosted air led the words from his mouth.
    "Before the invasion, radiation such as this kind was found in trace amounts in areas of mass disappearances."
    – A heavy door marked a choke point in the containment system of the underground facility. Anita Nehru slid a key card through the slot. A red light turned green then a heavy bolt retracted and the bulkhead slid open.
    "This next area is focused on Hostile biology," she told the tour. "Here is where we try to gain a deeper understanding of our enemies by examining them on a molecular level."
    President of the Senate-elect Evan Godfrey, standing at the front of the tour of three Senators and feeling a touch of claustrophobia from being far underground, asked, "What was this facility prior to the invasion?"
    "Red Rock started as a Cold War storage and survival complex, primarily for records and artifacts. Apparently in the 1980s it changed to a black-box scientific research facility, mainly for dealing with bio weapons. In the days before the invasion, when the alien creatures started showing up, the government decided to convert it into a containment facility."
    "Trevor finished the job?"
    "It was discovered as part of 'Task Force Boom', the initiative to find and secure nuclear and biological weapons to use against the invaders. As you know, none of those weapons have worked, for reasons yet unknown. But with a little manpower we've been able to finish the conversion of this complex. I think you'll agree that the location is nearly ideal; we're surrounded top side by forest and wilderness yet only an hour drive from the estate."
    Godfrey asked, "Is there any reason why this facility is being kept secret? I thought Trevor was convinced that the public supports the idea of killing off every last alien species."
    Nehru showed the men along a tight passage that felt like a submarine corridor, albeit with higher ceilings and wider girth. They passed laboratory and office doors as they moved.
    "We study these creatures in a variety of ways, Senators, including genetic testing, weapons research, physical tolerances…this is nasty, bloody business."
    "Ahh," Godfrey thought he cornered her. "So you admit that if the public knew about what happens here they might not approve?"
    "Senator, most people would be put off by what happens in a cattle slaughterhouse, but that doesn't stop us from loving hamburgers, does it?"
    Senator Wasnieski, an older man from Delaware, asked, "You said this area is for Hostile biology. What exactly does that mean?"
    "It is critical that we discover the building blocks of our enemies," she explained with the type of elegant tone that so eluded her husband. "By understanding their biology, we can better understand their needs, tendencies, and weaknesses."
    Evan asked, "What about finding means to communicate? What about better understanding with the aim of coexistence?"
    Anita smiled a polite smile the way she might at a child who wondered if the moon was made of green cheese. "Well, that’s not part of our charter."
    "What is your charter?" New Jersey Senator Whitman wanted to know.
    "It is our mission to find better, more expeditious means of killing our enemies and more effective means of protecting ourselves from their attacks. Furthermore, we are always looking for clues as to the greater nature of the invasion."
    Evan pointed out, "Of course, beginning next year the budget for this operation will be approved on the Senate floor and not by direct edict."
    "Is that so?" Again that tone of humoring a child, as if Evan told her he was going to be an astronaut when he grew up.
    Whitman interrupted, "Well, I hope they make the things in here suffer real good. Do you have any Jabberwocks?"
    "Not presently, no."
    They went through a high security door to a catwalk encased in heavy glass above a series of chambers with transparent ceilings, each occupied by an alien creature.
    "Here are holding pens for specimens awaiting dissection."
    She led the group forward. The security glass muffled all sound from the pens below.
    "Are they terminated in a humanly manner?" Evan asked as he eyed a Rat-Thing run headlong into its cell wall.
    Anita answered, "Most are put down by draining the oxygen from their chambers. This ensures the cadavers are in the best possible physical condition."
    Being in such proximity to alien monsters appeared to unnerve Wasnieski. His voice wavered as he looked down at a Giant Jellyfish in its cell. "Wh-what have you learned?"
    "Our research has been quite fruitful. The troops in the field have the most up to date information on how to kill or disable our enemies."
    Evan noted a bipedal, reptilian Hivvan in a holding cell. "There, that’s a very intelligent creature. Why is he caged like an animal?"
    She told him, "Because it is scheduled for dissection tomorrow morning."
    Godfrey's eyes widened. "Are we now torturing our enemies?"
    Nehru answered, "No enemy hostiles who surrender are sent here as a matter of policy. This particular Hivvan was a slave pen overseer in Raleigh and was captured after being wounded. It is personally responsible for executing at least one hundred human beings."
    Anita used her key card to open another bulkhead into a new section. The skywalk still looked down on specimens, but this time the holding pens spanned areas the size of small gymnasiums.
    The first pen held a creature resembling a house-sized hermit crab with slimy, worm like appendages oozing from some kind of shell.
    "If you'll look over here," Anita pointed, "you'll see our resident Shellsquid."
    Parts of a second creature the size of an elephant with a big seal-like face, a soft fuzzy hide, and a jagged backbone shared the same pen. The Shellsquid held the remains of this "ChewCow" in its tendrils, puncturing its lifeless hide and slurping in chunks of flesh.
    Whitman nearly vomited; the other Senators turned their heads.
    "Sorry. I forgot it was feeding time."
    Wasniewski repeated his earlier question, "What have you learned? What would be your, hmmm, biggest revelation so far?"
    As they left the Shellsquid to its meal, Anita answered, "We’ve made some astounding discoveries in terms of the basic building blocks of life. That is, in relation to our existence."
    Godfrey: "How so?"
    "As you are no doubt aware, every living organism is built with a genetic code or DNA. It’s what makes us look the way we look; gives us big noses and green eyes or," Anita ran her hand through her hair, "beautiful, lovely long black hair for that matter."
    "So? So what?" Senator Whitman ignored her attempt at levity.
    "All life on Earth is built from DNA and, in general terms, it is structured in much the same manner. That’s why you may have heard that there is a great deal of similarity between, oh, human DNA and nematodes."
    "Nematodes?" Wasniewski was not sure if he heard correctly.
    "A type of worm. Anyway, all Earthly life forms have similar genetic structures. Evolutionists theorize that this proves life on this planet is descendant from one particular organism; that evolution, time, environment, and other factors resulted in the slow creation of a variety of animals, including humanity. In essence, every type of animal on Earth evolved from the same seed."
    The next pen held a monster that had rolled itself into something like a fetal position alongside a big fake rock. The tour could see the thick legs, wiry black and silver hair, lizard tail, four arms, and crocodile-like snout of a Troll.
    Nehru continued, "The aliens who have invaded our world have a very similar-if not identical-DNA structure. They look different, of course, but their basic biology is the same and they share a cell structure with us that we categorize as Eukaryota. That means the DNA is enclosed in separate membranes within the cell. You could say it makes us-and these invaders-complex organisms."
    "Do you consider that a surprise?" Evan asked.
    "Senator Godfrey, it confirms that the basic building blocks of life are obviously the same. We may come from different planets, but we could easily have sprung from the same type of seed."
    "Good God," Whitman burst. "You’re telling us that we have a lot in common with these things. I’m not sure I can accept that."
    "However, during the course of studying alien DNA we came upon a find that may shed light on the nature of what has been happening to our planet. We were able to identify small-tiny-amounts of damage to the stem cells of the aliens that have come to our world. We believe radiation caused this damage, albeit a kind different of radiation than that attributed to the mass disappearances. Now, NASA had been studying the effects of stellar radiation on the human body to understand how it would affect long-distance space flight. They found a threat to stem cells in particular."
    Whitman jumped in, "But the aliens here didn’t come on space vessels, they came through those damn gateways."
    Evan held an impatient hand aloft. Whitman must learn when to listen and when to speak.
    Anita responded, "I understand that. We believe that their travel through the gateway caused this damage to their stem cells. Nothing major, mind you."
    "So we need to be worried about the aliens’ health? Maybe we should offer them free health care," Wasniewski joked but no one laughed. His smile faded fast.
    She said, "Damage might not be the right word; perhaps 'marking' would be more accurate, but let's stick with damage for now."
    "But..?" Evan wanted to move things along.
    "But what’s interesting is the degree of damage done. We’ve identified several very specific levels of damage."
    "Wait a second," Godfrey leapt. "You’re saying that different batches of these aliens were exposed to different levels of radiation."
    "Consistently, yes."
    "I’m lost," Whitman pouted.
    Evan answered for Anita, "She's saying that we’ve been able to identify that different groups of aliens came from different points of origin. Am I right?"
    Anita smiled in appreciation of his explanation and added, "Yes. For instance, we know that the creatures we call ‘Vikings’ come from the same environment that the animals nicknamed ‘Jaw-Wolves’ and ‘Rat-Things’ come from. And that Hivvans almost certainly originated from the same place as Gremlins. The amount and types of radiation damage to their stem cells links those groups together. It’s as if they traveled further through their gateways or through a different type of gateway…something."
    "As if they all traveled on the same bus together," Evan put the final touch on her analysis. He then asked, "Have any we can communicate with-like the Hivvans-told us more about what they know?"
    "Very little. We’ve never interrogated a high ranking officer. The most information we’ve obtained from these creatures is that they were either forced or volunteered to come through a gateway to get here. We believe the planets they came from are in our universe but the descriptions they gave of the environments and so forth indicate amazing ecosystems."
    Evan said, "But all based on the same genetic framework. So they may look different and have different cultures but they are-biologically speaking-similar to human beings. They breathe air, drink water, and eat food for sustenance."
    "Well said, Senator. One might even dare to suggest that we sprung from similar ancient gene pools, but evolution chose different appearances and some different traits, based on the planets each of us are from."
    Godfrey asked, "Mrs. Nehru, how is it that aliens that have the technology to cross the galaxy don't have military technology that could wipe us out with the push of a button?"
    "Senator, there are several possible answers but I think the most likely explanation is that the gateway technology did not originate with the invaders."
    "Wait a second," Whitman waved a hand. "You said you can differentiate between groups of aliens coming from different places. How many have you identified?"
    "We’ve identified four distinct damage patterns we feel indicate four points of origin. However, we haven’t cataloged even half of the creatures in the Hostiles Database at this point. That number could double before we’re done."
    "Interesting," Evan mused.
    "There are two other mysteries just as big."
    They came to the end of the bridge. Anita opened the secure door there and they walked into a security station. Several guards with side arms worked there.
    "Such as?" Godfrey prompted.
    "First, we’ve seen only higher life forms. The smallest thing we’ve done battle with has been cat-sized cock roaches. While they are insect in appearance, they have more in common with tigers, lions, and bears than ants and millipedes."
    "What do you mean? What is the difference?" Wasniewski asked.
    "Insects perform a vital function in relation to soil and plant life; bees pollinate flowers, worms and beetles decompose organic matter. We’ve found alien carrion eaters but nothing that really lives at the background level. For example, where are the alien versions of spiders or flies? Where are the alien flowers? Or weeds? Just as important, where is the alien bacteria and archaea; those are the categories for simpler organisms that do not have membranes separating their DNA from the rest of the cell."
    The expressions on their faces told Anita she might be throwing around too many scientific buzzwords. She decided to simplify.
    "When Columbus came to America he brought with him nasty diseases and new viruses. Logic suggests that the alien invaders should have come to our planet with that type of baggage. But they didn’t. And our bacterium appears not to have an effect on them."
    "I recall Trevor once suggested that the aliens went through a decontamination process and likely received inoculation against bacteria on Earth," Evan remembered.
    "Yes, the obvious answer is that this was a well-organized, well-planned invasion. It also suggests there were parameters. Rules, if you will. Some agreement that dictated what could or could not come over. I mean, do you know how many problems Earth suffered from insect or rodent species changing ecosystems? Snakehead fish are a good example. Someone transported them from their native habitat in Asia to some North American waters. They had no natural enemies and almost destroyed indigenous species. Imagine what alien roaches or other pests could do to our environment. Or an alien disease so different it would take medical science years to understand it. We could have been wiped out without a single shot fired."
    Whitman said, "Isn’t it possible that all of that is the same on their home worlds? Maybe insects have come, we just haven’t noticed because they are identical to what we have here?"
    Everyone looked at Whitman, surprised at the thoughtfulness of his suggestion.
    Anita answered, "That’s possible. It would explain how they survive here with minimal effort."
    "You raise some interesting questions," Evan conceded.
    "Ah, Senator Godfrey, if you think that’s interesting, now consider this."
    She led them to one of the security monitors and told the guard there to "Punch up three."
    The man pushed a button and the monitor displayed a "Mutant" in its pen. The humanoid creature wore a leather-like outfit over pale skin, had an oval-almost egg-shaped-head, a massive mouth, and tiny eyes positioned above small flaps that might have been nostrils.
    "Just another alien invader, right?" She suggested.
    "No," Evan said. His face went blank and, for a moment, he lost his statesman aura and shivered. For a moment, he was just another survivor with horrific memories.
    "Yes," Anita Nehru said. "I remember that you-"
    Evan regained his composure and cut her off, "You were making a point?"
    Anita paused for a moment and then explained, "As I told you already, we’ve identified four different patterns of radiation damage to stem cells that seem to indicate four different points of origin. I have to add a fifth classification to that. A fifth point of origin, if you will."
    "The Mutants have a different level of radiation damage?" Whitman guessed.
    "You could say that, yes," she admitted. "But not to their stem cells."
    It took a moment for Anita’s next words to shock them because they did not quite comprehend what she said. "They have no stem cells and no genetic structure. No DNA."
    She rattled off more names, "Mutants, Rollers, and Goat-Walkers are some of the others. We also analyzed particles of the Wraiths General Brewer encountered in the Arctic Circle. No trace of DNA there, either."
    "Mrs. Nehru," Evan tried to simplify the conversation, "What does that mean?"
    "Most of the extraterrestrial invaders have a genetic structure similar to man. Yet according to our experiments, some of the creatures attacking us have no such structure. They are, in essence, not living. At least, not in terms of our definition of life. They have, instead, a molecular composition that gives them the physical traits you’d expect in a living being, such as an outer shell we would call skin or mouths or eyes or even liquid resembling blood flowing through their veins. That’s where we found the radiation damage. But they have no ability to reproduce, no growing cells. No activity inside their bodies."
    "Wait a moment," Whitman jumped in. "We see these things move. We see them-Mutants-eat their victims. Some even communicate. Obviously your research is wrong."
    "We do not believe Mutants require sustenance. Mutant number three here has not been fed in two months. Its behavior is the same as it was when it first came here. It will consume ‘food’ when given the opportunity. It’s as if it eats for fun or out of habit, not out of need."
    "But there is intelligence?" Evan led.
    "Yes. In the Mutants, a blob of mass resembling a brain, but no electrical activity. No living cells. Just matter that resembles organic parts but in reality does not appear to be alive."
    "Then how do they…how do they live?" Wasniewski struggled with the contradiction.
    "That is a mystery that is compounded by one other interesting anomaly. We’ve examined remnants of the ‘organic’ machines used by The Order as well as salvaged implants removed from converts under the control of Voggoth. They do have a form of DNA but it is radically different from anything else we’ve seen. In short, it is a strain of DNA that is very basic, very simple to the point that we would classify it as archaea in structure, yet so foreign from our experience that we cannot figure out how it works, how it survives. It does not appear to have reproductive qualities. That’s something that even the most basic microbes on our planet can do. Honestly, we are stumped."
    "So this Voggoth and his Order," Godfrey summarized, "are completely unique even among the invading creatures?"
    Anita smiled a wait-until-you-hear-this smile. "Senators, we found radiation damage on The Order’s organic machines and implants that matches the type and level of radiation done to the creatures that have no DNA to speak of."
    Again, that look of confusion.
    "Gentlemen," she explained slowly. "Voggoth and the creatures that have no DNA-like Mutants, Wraiths and Goat-Walkers-they are all from the same place of origin and stand apart from the other invaders in terms of their biochemistry."
    The politicians stood silent for several moments while each tried to understand. Evan decided he had had enough learning for the day. He returned the subject to the first question he had asked when he arrived at the front gate of Red Rock two hours prior.
    "Where is Trevor Stone? We scheduled this tour with him weeks ago."
    "Oh. His people cancelled his appointment. Something about a scheduling conflict."
    Evan thought she spoke the truth, but he had not received that phone call of congratulations after having been elected President of the Senate.
    "Well then. If the Emperor will not come to us. I think I’ll go to him."

14. Stress Fractures

    Jon Brewer sat at the head of the conference table overseeing what passed for a military council meeting but lacked a fair number of the usual participants. General Hoth and both Omar and Anita Nehru usually attended, but Hoth and Omar continued the search for Trevor while Anita hosted VIPs at Red Rock.
    Therefore, that February 4 ^ th meeting included only Generals Shepherd, "Stonewall" McAllister, and Prescott as well as Gordon Knox, Director of Intelligence, Brett Stanton, Dante Jones, and Jon's wife and Chief Administrator, Lori Brewer.
    Very few people outside of this group realized that Trevor and Revered Johnny had not been seen since January 25 ^ th. Given the time of year, it would be difficult to explain their disappearance as a vacation to their beachfront property in Wildwood, New Jersey while the number of meetings, conferences, and appearances canceled had begun to add up.
    Jon started with a question, "Okay, what's new from the research team?"
    Reports from Omar's group traveled from Ohio to the estate via Gordon Knox's most trusted couriers. The Intelligence Director held the papers aloft for everyone to see and then let them fall to the table top.
    "Nothing. The last reports indicate an energy signature Omar was trying to categorize. We have had no new reports since yesterday evening."
    Jon Brewer said, "At least Hoth’s offensive has been successful. He’s taken the area around the point of interest and held it."
    "From what I heard, I reckon he paid a bit high price for that piece of real estate," Shep, his shoulder in a sling, added.
    Dante Jones had spent most of his time the past few weeks in and around Washington D.C., dealing with Senators. He just recently heard the news and was having a difficult time accepting the situation, as evident in his sharp tone: "Yeah, well, we wouldn’t be paying any damn price if you had stopped him from going on this stupid mission."
    "One second, Dante, you know how-" Jon tried but Dante cut him off.
    "Hey, you too. You’re supposed to be his friend. You should have talked some sense into him. And yeah, I know where his head was. That’s why the old cowboy over here should have been thinking a little harder before letting Trevor ride off into the sunset searching for his girl."
    Shepherd shifted in his seat just enough that he received a healthy jolt of pain from where the pipe impaled his shoulder, causing him to clench his teeth as he said, "You listen-arrrg-I don’t have to take that from you."
    "Yeah, well, I r eckon you were the only person who could of stopped Trevor from going after Nina and you didn’t cause you wanted to go after her yourself!"
    Shepherd said to Jones, "Seems to me you were too busy playin' politics with your Senator friends down in D.C. to be worrying about what the rest of us were dealing with."
    Stanton said in a slightly raised voice, "What difference does that make?"
    Dante lifted a little from his seat as he shouted, "She’s a soldier! Both of you knew this could of happened! Or were you and Trevor planning to go after every soldier who disappears?"
    The cross talk and tempers escalated. Brewer tried to get it under control. He failed. Dante and Shepherd stood. Prescott raised his voice. Lori appeared ready to jump. Gordon Knox’s face turned red.
    A solitary gun shot exploded through the room in a sharp clap.
    Jon flinched, Stanton and Lori Brewer instinctively ducked under the table, Prescott's head swiveled about, Shepherd grabbed his shoulder in pain, and Gordon Knox drew a nickel-plated semi-automatic. The basement door opened and two I.S. agents bolted down the stairs with machine guns sweeping for targets.
    General Stonewall McAllister leaned back in his chair holding his pistol aloft, letting loose a very long, drawn-out yawn, the only sound in the room. A trail of smoke drifted from a fresh hole in the old oak bar nestled in the corner near Stonewall's chair.
    Everyone gaped at Stonewall who, of course, wore his trademark Old Mist-colored General’s jacket while a matching hat rested on the table in front of him.
    He acted surprised at the sudden attention and let his chair fall forward with a thud.
    "Excuse me. It was not my intention to distract my colleagues from this spirited and insightful debate."
    Brewer dismissed the I.S. agents. The confused guards retreated from the basement.
    Stonewall filled the silence, "Where were we? Oh yes, Mr. Jones was accusing General Shepherd of poor judgment and Mr. Shepherd was questioning Mr. Jones’ focus. I believe Mrs. Brewer and Mr. Knox were about ready to join the fray. Okay, good, I just wanted to be sure that the custodians of humanity’s survival had things well under control. I am quite certain that at any moment we will manage to decide who is at fault for our current conundrum. Please, carry on."
    Shepherd grunted in pain then cast his eyes across the table. Dante met his stare. They both slumped in their chairs, embarrassed.
    Apparently the floor still belonged to Garrett "Stonewall" McAllister.
    "I have come all the way from Tennessee-leaving our armies there in the hands of less experienced officers-to learn…what? Trevor is missing. Is he presumed dead? Is he presumed hostage? Are we to believe that he has been spirited off across time and space?"
    "I told you what I saw," Shepherd repeated his story yet again. "The entire place flashed and then was gone. There was even a second of wind, as if the air rushed to fill a vacuum."
    Lori added what she had read in the report, "Nina and her team were set free but Trevor and Johnny were not. All right then, why?"
    "We know it was about getting Trevor," Dante said but he struggled hard to chase off any accusatory tone.
    Shep explained. "According to Nina, Johnny refused to leave Trevor. We all know the Reverend can be pretty damned stubborn."
    Chuckles from around the table.
    Jon said, "But the most important piece of this puzzle…the people who took Trevor were human. And one of them was Nina. Wow."
    "Hold on there," Shepherd’s protective instincts kicked in. "From what this lookalike told Nina, she and those other people came from a 'parallel' Earth, whatever that means."
    Lori Brewer said, "A 'parallel' Earth? A place like here, with duplicates of all of us?"
    Prescott cocked his head to the side and said, "Seen that enough on TV over the years. Pretty hard to believe it might be true."
    "No harder than to believe in aliens and monsters, don't you think?" Lori said.
    Gordon Knox assessed, "This was a well-planned operation on their part. They used someone Nina knew and they figured Ms. Forest’s disappearance would draw Trevor. Apparently they knew something that I didn’t know. How interesting is that?"
    Gordon’s words hung over the table. No one knew if he expected an answer or if he already knew the history involved.
    "There’s nothing to do," Brewer said.
    Knox agreed: "We have to tough it out and see through the investigation. Then we’ll get some answers."
    The upstairs door opened and the sound of shuffling feet came down the stairs as well as a voice saying, "Answers would be nice."
    That voice belonged to Evan Godfrey, with two I.S. agents frantically trailing behind, one being Ray Roos who called apologetically to the meeting, "I’m sorry, Sirs, but the Senator here bull-dogged his way through us."
    Evan approached the conference table. "I’m wondering why I have to force my way into the estate and why a Senator is told he can’t enter a conference chamber. Why Trevor Stone keeps canceling meetings. So, yes, I would like to get some answers, too."
    "This is a restricted meeting," Brewer stood. "You weren’t invited."
    Godfrey did not flinch. Not one single inch.
    "The top minds in The Empire, but no Emperor. I’ve done some checking. It's been at least a week since Trevor has been seen in public."
    Evan scanned the cast of conspirators in the room.
    "Where is Trevor Stone?"
    Brewer answered for them all. As the General spoke, he inched closer to Godfrey as if his physical presence might force the Senator to accept his words. "Trevor is on a mission on the front lines. It is top secret. You and no one else have been informed and it is to stay that way. A gag order, Evan."
    "From the Emperor? His gag order?"
    "Do you have that in writing?"
    "No. Since when does Trevor have to put his orders in writing?"
    Godfrey's eyes narrowed. "This isn’t his little clan any more, General. There are procedures. There is a system. Trevor may be at the top of that system, but he is a part of it, nonetheless. You’re hiding something, and you’re scared, too. I can see that. You have nothing to fear from me. Unless, that is, you have something to fear from the people. Me and my colleagues, we represent those people. Withholding the truth will do more harm than good."
    "I’ve…told you the truth," it was possible that Brewer’s lips did not move as he growled the words.
    "Understand this, all of you," Evan again scanned the room. "I accept that Trevor has been our unquestioned leader. I even accept his title- as foul-tasting as it is — I even accept his title of ‘Emperor’ because it fits what he has made of himself."
    Evan leaned closer to Brewer even though the latter towered overhead.
    "But know this…if Trevor is no more, I will not accept a new Emperor. The people will not accept a new despot. And if need be, I will lead an insurrection against all who try to impose some sort of line of succession."
    Lori Brewer's mouth dropped and she said, "Are you threatening civil war?"
    "I’m not threatening, I’m promising that when Trevor Stone is gone so is the office of the Emperor. Nothing less will be accept-."
    Evan stopped mid-sentence as a cold gun barrel pressed against the back of his head.
    Gordon Knox held a nickel-plated. 45 caliber with a hitherto unseen fire in his eyes.
    "Senator, I do believe you have just threatened treason. I think I speak for everyone in this room when I say I don’t really like that. Now you have your fancy papers and big speeches down there in Washington D.C., but you need to remember something, Senator. We’re still living in the jungle. The lions still eat the antelopes. So maybe you need to rethink your words."
    Ray Roos watched from the stairway. His hand wavered toward his side arm but then retreated. He did not commit to any action.
    Godfrey stared directly at Jon Brewer while the gun remained pressed to his skull.
    "This is in your hands," Evan challenged Jon. "Which way do you wish to go? Will you allow Mr. Knox to blow out the brains of an elected Senator here, in this mansion, on the hollowed grounds of humanity’s rebirth? Or are you more than a lion who eats antelope?"
    Jon sighed and held his hands up in a sign of surrender.
    "Gordon, put that damn thing away."
    Knox considered for a moment, and then holstered his gun. The room breathed a collective sigh of relief. Jon retreated to his chair and sat.
    "You’ve heard what I’ve said," Godfrey spoke to the entire room again. "If Trevor Stone is off on a secret mission, fine. I look forward to seeing him when he comes back. I can be patient. But if he isn’t coming back then know that I-and many like me-will not accept a new monarch. If Trevor is gone, then so is the Emperor."
    Evan turned and faced Gordon Knox. "I won’t forget this. Trust me."
    Gordon smiled and his eyes widened menacingly. "Good. Remember. Especially when you go to sleep at night…all safe in your bed. Just like that Hivvan governor in Richmond…"
    Evan scowled and ascended the stairs to the exit.
    Nobody said a word for nearly a full minute until Stonewall spoke.
    "Well, I dare say this has been a productive gathering. I think I shall head back to the front. The monsters there are much more pleasant."
    – Lori Brewer turned off the desktop lamp and the dining-room-turned-office went dark with only a trace of light eking through the windows from the dying day outside.
    With another bad day behind, she planned to steal her daughter away from the nanny and head to their small, lakeside home. Alas, she found her escape blocked by Ashley standing in the doorway.
    Lori said, "Hello, Ashley" but also gathered her papers into a bundle to send another message: I am leaving.
    Ashley ignored the body language and said, "I know you don’t like me very much."
    Lori could not deny that she had not liked Ashley in the old world. However, since her ark ride, Ashley seemed a changed woman. Quieter, stronger, and surprisingly resilient.
    Armageddon tended to change people.
    Still, she stumbled, "Huh? What? Ashley, what are you talking about?"
    "That’s why I came to you. Maybe you’ll tell me the truth."
    "The truth? The truth about what?"
    "You know, being married to…," she stopped, considered her words, and then re-phrased: "Being with Trevor has its advantages. While the rest of you play coy I went straight to one of Gordon Knox’s assistants and got hold of Shepherd’s report summary. I don’t think the poor woman knew I wasn’t supposed to see it."
    Lori eased back against her desk, a defensive posture.
    Ashley went on, "There’s a bunch of stuff Jon didn’t tell me about what happened in Ohio. Like Trevor knew the commandos were missing before he left and that one of the people in the building was a twin of Nina Forest."
    Lori did what she always did when on the defensive; she tried to go on offense. Mrs. Brewer was not the type to drop back ten yards and punt.
    "Alllrriiigghty then. It must be big conspiracy. Do you hear yourself? No one is keeping you from anything. Trevor did what he always does; he took control of the situation. That’d be just like him, wouldn’t it?"
    Ashley nodded in agreement. "It would be just like him. I guess you’re right. That would be something he would do," Ashley smiled but it was not a very friendly smile at all. "I guess those people who wanted to snatch him knew that, too. I guess that’s why they lured our Nina Forest into a trap. Apparently they thought that was going to get Trevor’s attention."
    Lori suddenly wished she had punted. Exactly when did Ashley get clever enough to maneuver people into a conversational corner like this?
    Ashley went on, "So now you believe these people were from some kind of parallel Earth? And there was a Nina Forest from that other world, waiting for Trevor."
    Lori gathered her things again. Denial served as good a fallback position as any.
    "We don't know what happened. Everything is guess work."
    "So your best guess is that people from the other universe thought Nina Forest would make a good lure for Trevor? That he would go behind enemy lines just to save her? Tell me, Lori, what happened in the year I was gone that would make anyone think that?"
    "I don't know, okay? Now, excuse me," and Lori finally navigated around Ashley.
    "Tell me something, Lori. The year I was gone…after I disappeared…did Trevor ever go searching for me?"
    Lori blinked and answered, "Ashley, everyone-even the U.S. government-thought the people who disappeared were vaporized. He thought you were dead."
    "So the answer would be no."

15. Echoes

    Hints of frost remained on the trees, but the sun shined intently through a clear blue sky, baking away all but the most stubborn patches of ice and snow despite sub-freezing temperatures.
    Frost or not, the trees looked familiar to Trevor. Towering Maples, thick Oaks, legions of thin White Birch, and finally rows of evergreens standing like sentries atop the mountains surrounding the lake basin.
    He did not ask Major Nina Forest what they called the lake on this Earth. However, based on maps she provided, he found the correct coordinates and, from the navigator's seat on the lead ship, directed a trio of 'Skipper' helicopters to the place known on his world as Harveys Lake.
    The threesome descended and banked over the half-frozen waters.
    "Should be on the western edge," Trevor pointed out the large cockpit window.
    Nina followed his gaze and steered the craft in that direction. Her wingmen did the same as they neared the end of a ninety-minute flight.
    Trevor felt goose bumps ripple along his arms. He spent two days arguing with Nina to convince Director Snowe to authorize the expedition. Trevor felt certain that after a week of intense training, the troops could handle a real mission. After all, these were not rookies but battle-hardened veterans who merely needed a reminder of what they could accomplish.
    Nina initially opposed the idea for two reasons. First, the Chaktaw were over due for an attack. Second, she explained that none of them were familiar with the estate. She said her Trevor never mentioned any such place and that-in another point of differentiation with his world-by the time she met him, her Stone had already assembled an army.
    That army apparently did not include K9s. Indeed, Nina's people did not even know what a 'dog' was, although she did know wolves. Yet another difference and perhaps another avenue to unlocking the secrets he might find answers to on this parallel world.
    The Skippers circled the western bank. Trevor pressed his nose against the cockpit glass and searched with both his naked eye and binoculars.
    At first glance, the area did not appear developed but as he surveyed the hillsides he saw what had to be homes, albeit of a much different architecture. These appeared built almost directly into the side of the mountain with only a portion of the dwelling sticking out. It made him think of how he utilized the cave behind his mansion to shield the runes.
    Very few of those homes remained intact. He saw more burned and blasted rubble than standing structures.
    Regardless of the difference in building style, everything felt familiar. He could nearly see the humans of this Earth, before the invasion, spending summer days on the banks of the lake, splashing in the water, fishing by the shore.
    That made him remember Jerry Shepherd, and how he fished these waters during that first year after Armageddon.
    He turned to Nina and asked, "Okay, so far I've met you, saw my statue, and I know there's a Jon Brewer here, and you had a Gordon Knox who was killed. What about other duplicates? Anyone else I'd know?"
    She steered the craft into a sharp bank and replied, "Probably. Give me some names."
    "Jerry Shepherd. He was a police officer and a friend of yours and is a General in my army."
    "Knew a Jerry Shepherd back when I was a cadet. Haven't seen him in years."
    "Okay, what about Garrett 'Stonewall' McAllister? Or my friend who's with me, Reverend Johnny?"
    "Nope and no. Never heard of either."
    Trevor turned his head and spied Johnny sitting in the passenger area with a squad of soldiers and mumbled, "Well, probably not enough room in eight universes for more than one of either of those guys. Wait a second, there it is."
    He pointed at what had to be his estate on this Earth. At least, it matched the location and it certainly looked the part: a big residence, this one surrounded by a wooden barrier instead of an iron fence, sturdy-looking stone walls comprised the main house, and he saw a second floor balcony that easily passed for the twin of his own.
    Like the rest of the homes around the lake, this mansion was built into the mountain side, meaning it stood further from the water's edge. It also lacked a landing pad, forcing Nina to steer the three Skippers to a clearing among the evergreen trees at the foot of one of the mountains on the southern bank, about half-a-mile from the mansion.
    As they flew toward the landing zone, Trevor felt a sense of deja vu; the same sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as when he returned from the airport flying an Apache for the first time only to find that his estate had been attacked by Red Hand tribesmen. This time, instead of seeing K9 and human bodies on the grounds, he saw a hole smashed in the barrier wall, burn marks on the stone balcony, and bomb craters across the grounds.
    A dead place.
    Before they landed, he already wrote the script. The Trevor of this world had been chased from his lakeside sanctuary but managed not only to survive, but to build an army and then a city.
    Major Forest eased the ship to a gentle landing. The other two set down to either side.
    As she shut off the controls, Nina warned for the third time, "This is hostile territory. We can’t stay long and at the first sign of trouble we got to bug out, you know?"
    He barely heard her. His mind focused on the mansion and what he might find there.
    Soldiers, including Corporal Brewer, disembarked the Skippers, scouts fanning out while the main body marched across the field and through the woods at a fast pace. Something shadowy and slimy scurried off; a bird of some kind cawed from a high branch.
    Trevor walked in big strides with Johnny on one flank and Major Forest on the other. They exited the woods and found rubble where a church stood on Trevor's world. As they rounded the pile of debris and approached the road, Trevor stopped.
    Two carcasses lay there. Big bodies, scavenged to the bone. He recognized the skeletons by one of the few parts remaining intact: circular rows of teeth that easily identified the cadavers as Jaw-Wolves.
    "Dear Lord in Heaven," Reverend Johnny gaped at the bones.
    Trevor said to Johnny more so than anyone else, "If Jaw-Wolves had attacked the estate on our Earth in the first few months, we would not have stood a chance, either."
    Johnny pointed at the holes in the road ahead and remarked, "Jaw-Wolves don't make bomb craters so they must have had help."
    "This whole thing," Trevor said, "it stinks like The Order to me."
    He led them forward again, this time at an even faster clip. They walked along the wall protecting the estate until reaching a breach and entering the grounds where they found another Jaw-Wolf carcass.
    Major Forest barked orders, "First squad, form a security perimeter. Second squad, split into teams and enter the structure. We’ll wait-"
    Trevor did not listen. He chambered a round on his bullpup assault rifle and marched to and through the arch-shaped front door. Nina could do nothing other than follow.
    Things differed from his home a universe away. Rougher interior textures, slightly larger doorways with an arched look as opposed to straight rectangles, lighting fixtures shaped like hour glasses, and moist air due to half the building being inside the mountain. The furniture lacked flare-much more utilitarian-but made to fit a human form. The walls had been picked clean of any decorating and the remains of battle-bullet holes, burn scars-littered each room.
    Nonetheless, the place felt the same in spirit. A home converted into a bunker; a place big enough to store the seeds to rebirth a world, isolated but still in close proximity to civilization.
    Regardless of what had driven him from this place, Trevor's counterpart on this Earth started here. He felt it. He knew it. And that meant answers might remain.
    Stone moved quickly through the first floor, his flashlight shining over damaged walls and smashed furniture, chasing away bugs and small mammals. Whatever ghosts lurked here, they guarded their secrets stubbornly.
    Frustration turned to anger. He ordered, "No one goes in the basement except me."
    "Okay, fair enough," Major Forest said and then she ordered Corporal Brewer, "Establish a command post on the first floor. Set up scanners and communications."
    Trevor ascended a set of wide, stone stairs to the second floor. The Reverend and Forest followed. With each step up he moved faster until he ran into what would have been his office.
    An oval-shaped table made of some kind of plastic dominated the room surrounded by the remains of broken chairs. Against one wall stood a circular storage rack where only burnt pieces of unreadable paper remained. Piles of plaster blended with the warped and splintered wood planks of the floor giving each of Trevor's steps a crunch, crack, or snap.
    The room felt like a microcosm of the entire planet; broken and failing, much like the people of Thebes who were drowning in Armageddon, waiting for the next wave-the last wave-to push them under.
    And why?
    Because I failed.
    He kicked a broken chair sending it spiraling into a wall. He paced back and forth, pumping his fists as if trying to strike the phantoms that had overrun this Trevor's redoubt.
    Johnny eyed Trevor, engrossed in the sight of a man facing an image of his own downfall. Nina, meanwhile, strolled through the destroyed room with a sense of awe in her expression, maybe fear; like a child in a dinosaur museum.
    "How did this happen? I have to know how this happened!"
    "Trevor…" Johnny spoke delicately. "We've seen the evidence in the form of bones."
    "There’s a reason. I did something wrong. I made a mistake…"
    Stone surged toward Nina, taking her by surprise. She retreated a step but he grabbed her by the shoulders.
    "Tell me! He had to have told you something! Why was he chased from here?"
    Johnny came to her rescue, "Trevor Stone! Get a hold of yourself!"
    The Reverend’s hand looked placid enough but he had more strength in that one arm than many men had in both. He smoothly but forcefully pulled Stone away from the woman.
    "Calm yourself!"
    "I have to have the answers! I have to know!"
    "Maybe you’re not meant to know. Maybe this place is not for you!"
    Stone threw Johnny’s hand from his shoulder and grunted. His chest heaved in and out in frustrated breaths. He pinched his nose and closed his eyes as the nightmares that must have befallen the mansion danced in his imagination.
    Wind rattled against the cracked, arch-shaped glass doors of the balcony beyond which they heard that wind whistle through the trees surrounding the dead home.
    The radio on Nina’s utility belt crackled to life with Corporal Jon Brewer's voice, "Major, we have a radar contact. It's big and coming our way."
    "That's it," she said to the men. "We're going to have to evacuate."
    Trevor grumbled, "Is it that Steel Guard you told me about? They're coming?"
    Nina raised her communicator and asked, "Have you identified the radar contact?"
    "One battleship," the Corporal's shaky voice replied. "Approaching from the east."
    Trevor stepped to the balcony doors and peered out through the spider web crack in one glass panel. He produced a set of compact binoculars and aimed them east. He saw something…a speck in the blue sky.
    He repeated what she had told him earlier, "The Steel Guard of the Geryon Reich."
    "Who is that?" Johnny asked because he had missed that conversation.
    Nina said, "They control most of the east coast of this continent."
    "Based on what she's told me, Rev, we haven't seen these guys yet."
    Major Forest stepped toward the hallway and said, "It doesn't matter. We have to go."
    Johnny stood in the middle of the room, looking first to Forest as she urged evacuation and then to Trevor who stared out the window toward the approaching threat.
    "It does matter," Trevor said without turning. "Will they attack as you suggested?"
    "Trevor, look, I know you're eager to get started, but we're not equipped for a full-scale battle. They've got a battleship that could blast apart this side of the lake in about thirty seconds."
    "But they won't use it," he said. "That's what you said."
    Nina grit her teeth and narrowed her eyes as she corrected, "I said they preferred not to use it. Their main batteries drain a lot of energy. But we’re about thirty soldiers. Their ground forces won’t need the main guns to take us out. We have hardly any heavy weapons."
    Footsteps announced the arrival of Corporal Brewer in the upstairs room.
    "Major, should I pull in the men and retreat to the Skippers?"
    Trevor turned around and Reverend Johnny recognized the glare in his friend's eyes. He told the other two, "I don't think retreat is on Mr. Stone's mind."
    "We have to pull out," Nina said. "There’s nothing here, you know?"
    He did not appear to hear her. He said, "They’re coming in from the east on the southern side. They’ll pass right over our parked Skippers before they get here."
    "Yeah, well, damn good reason to get moving. Their air-to-air defenses will knock the Skips right out of the sky. We’re running out of time."
    A message from the Major's radio interrupted their conversation. A message in human tongue but delivered by a monotone voice that could only come from a computer of some kind, probably a translation computer.
    The speck in the sky grew larger as it approached the mountain rim, becoming a full-blown dot descending as it moved.
    Johnny pronounced, "Now order the ranks, and fling wide the banners, for our souls are God's and our bodies the king's…"
    Trevor turned to him and asked, "New Testament?"
    Johnny admitted, "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m expanding my repertoire."
    Nina tried to keep things on track. Her voice grew a little louder and a little shakier.
    "Trevor, I know you’re upset about this but we don't have either the firepower or the numbers to combat the forces onboard that ship."
    "You said they will disembark troops," Trevor repeated the knowledge of Geryon tactics Nina had imparted to him on the way in.
    "Yes," she agreed. "They will dispatch Golems."
    "Controlled by the Battleship."
    Nina clarified, "By soldiers hooked to virtual reality controls. We’ll need heavy weapons to knock out the Golems."
    Johnny told her, "I fear Mister Stone is suggesting that you don’t need to knock out the Golems, as you say. You need to knock out that ship."
    Corporal Brewer watched the conversation with beads of sweat growing on his forehead despite the cold. His consternation burst and said loudly, "They have air-to-air defenses on that Battleship that can knock anything out of the sky!"
    Trevor walked over to Jon Brewer and stood before him, looking up at the taller man.
    The discoloration remained from his broken nose but the Corporal refused to wear a bandage anymore. More important, his obstinate, bossy nature suffered an even deeper wound that day in the training center. Trevor hoped that that injury to this Jon Brewer's pride might allow something new to be born, as had happened on his Earth.
    "Stop thinking about what we can't do and think about everything we can."
    The statement puzzled the Corporal. Or perhaps the way Trevor studied his face unnerved him.
    Nina said, "Even if we had a missile, they'd probably intercept it, but that doesn't matter because we don't have any surface-to-air missiles. So we can't take that ship down!"
    He stared at Brewer but spoke to Nina, "Look at how they are approaching. Think about what we need to get the job done. Then you'll realize we do have a missile. As for the ground forces, well, me and Corporal Brewer here are going to devise a means of frustrating them. We don't need to defeat them, just buy time."
    Corporal Brewer looked to his Major. She gaped back at him, equally dumbfounded.
    "Do tell, Mister Stone," Johnny asked almost playfully. "How is it you plan to strike that vessel from the heavens?"
    "Actually, I’m not going to do it. Major Forest here is."
    Her gasp was audible. She said, "Okay, you have a plan. But what are we going to gain? Why the risk?"
    Trevor alternated his eyes between her and Brewer as he said, "I told you I expect victory. How long has it been since you've tasted that? It's worth the risk and it's why you brought me here."
    "Let me show you-all of you-what we can do."
    – To Trevor's eyes, the Geryon Battleship resembled one very large zeppelin with two smaller, similar blimps bulging out to either side, giving it three nose cones, three tail fins, and room for a very wide carriage underneath.
    At the rear of the 'center' dirigible rotated a large propeller that looked more like it belonged on a submarine or under a cruise ship than pushing along an aircraft. Indeed, it spun in a slow, lazy manner to the point that it could not be solely responsible for the ship's momentum.
    Colored in a shade akin to rust, the Battleship sported sharp gray lightning icons in circles on both sides of the main fuselage.
    A large but surprisingly nondescript undercarriage hung from the belly in the form of a large rectangle with one long, shaded windshield facing forward. However, through his binoculars Trevor spied lines dividing the carriage into parts, suggesting a modular nature.
    Several small antennas and radio dishes protruded from various points along the hull. Gun emplacements projected from each of the four corners resembling miniature howitzers. No doubt part of the extensive air-defense network protecting the otherwise vulnerable gas giant. It seemed that knocking it down was a problem in regards to getting close enough to hit it.
    Fixed to the bow was an innocuous-looking gadget resembling a cross between a cannon and a transmitter. Further inspection revealed a series of conduits flowing the length of the craft between this contraption and the engine assembly at the rear of the ship. According to Major Forest's account, this main gun could blast the mansion to pieces with one shot, but each of those shots consumed a great deal of power.
    Their eyes-particularly Corporal Brewer's-had bulged when he informed that his plan depended on the Geryons using this main gun.
    That plan began with Trevor and Corporal Brewer leading the bulk of the human soldiers to occupy a cluster of three buildings not far from the Skipper landing field: a large house, a cottage, and a boathouse. Taken together, they guarded the likely Geryon approaches to the estate both through the woods and along the road.
    Major Nina Forest, Reverend Johnny, and two additional soldiers made their way to the Skippers, hurrying to get there before the enemy, which they did. They found hiding spots inside the large helicopter-like flyers.
    "Let us hope," Reverend Johnny remarked to the Major as they crunched in a dark corner of a wheel assembly, "that our foe does not merely blast these vessels into smithereens."
    "They won’t. As long as there’s a chance to salvage these ships they’ll leave them intact. I mean, the Geryons may be in better shape than we are, but every resource is, like, precious here. You know?"
    "Ah, yes, I understand. Currently, Major, I am worried about only one resource, my precious ass. Which is, yet again, in the hands of Trevor Stone."
    The Battleship floated three hundred feet above the southern side of the lake and hovered. Smaller propellers on the sides of the ship served as stabilizers.
    Two rectangular sections of the undercarriage on the craft broke away-fell-to Earth on cables aiming for a patch of burned-flat woods. Big metal ‘legs’ spun from each corner of the landing barges as they dropped. The featureless blocks hit the ground hard but those big legs absorbed the impact, bouncing while the umbilical cord cables wobbled overhead, still attached to the mother ship.
    As they stabilized, the front of each opened to form a big ramp. The Golems of the Steel Guard marched out into the sunshine.
    These metallic machines stood ten feet tall on two legs with hydraulic muscles, part of a skeletal body colored scarlet red. Large bolts served as joints on the knees and elbows. Their faces were sharp, almost beak-like with two glowing yellow cameras serving as eyes.
    Two arms ended in three thick clamps. Similar but wider designs comprised the ‘feet’. Tubes atop each arm suggested fire arms while other attachments of various design suggested additional means of dealing damage.
    Twelve of the beasts marched out of the drop container followed by smaller, tracked machines resembling boxes on wheels-maybe covered mining cars-lined with chutes, tubes, and ports to aid them in re-supplying the remote-controlled Golems.
    One final wave of attackers emerged from the container, a squad of ten living, breathing Geryon infantry. These humanoid aliens dressed in battle suits made of some kind of leather/metal mix. A tight-fitting helmet covered their heads with a strap supporting what resembled a ball gag but was, in fact, a communication mechanism.
    Only slivers of skin could be glimpsed through slits and openings in their protective gear, revealing a pale, soft hide.
    Each of the Geryon infantrymen wielded some kind of high-tech cross bow.
    The Steel Guard marched out from under the shadow of their floating Battleship and advanced into the woodlands on a direct course for the field where the Skippers parked. As they did, the cords on the elevator barges grew taut, the doors closed, and both of the crate-like carriers retracted into place underneath the dirigible…
    …Jon Brewer stood next to Trevor in the upper level of a home. He had just finished communicating with his squads. Everyone was in place.
    "They are headed our way," Brewer spoke with a hint of excitement in his voice.
    "Good. They’ll pass by our ships then come here."
    "Sir, have you thought about what we'll do if they discover Major Forest and her team?"
    Trevor nodded, "Yes."
    "You have? And what is it we’ll do then?"
    …Nina heard the sound of her own breath, and sound of the Reverend’s breath, and the distant hum of the parked Battleship as its engines droned in some type of neutral setting.
    Then she heard the approaching mass.
    A purr and hiss of hydraulic gears accompanied each step of a Golem's leg.
    She knew these robots to be a dangerous lot because the pilots controlling each Golem sat isolated from the battlefield in the floating fortress overhead, facing no more danger than a child playing a video game.
    By the same token, that lack of fear could translate into a lack of caution.
    "Dare I ask, Major," Johnny’s normally loud voice sounded out of place in a whisper. "Have your people ever tried to interrupt the signal between the operators and their automatons?"
    "Of course we did. But this is how they fight, you know? They’ve spent a lot of time getting it right. Scrambled frequencies, encoding, all that."
    The Rev appeared ready to ask another question but changed his mind when he felt a soft vibration as the first wave of Golems walked into the field…
    …"So it’s going sit up there and let its ground troops do the dirty work," Trevor said.
    "I sure hope so," Corporal Brewer replied in a voice that suggested the idea of bolting entered his mind. "They could wipe us out in about thirty seconds if they decide to."
    "Jon, I mean, Corporal, to win this war you have to take chances."
    Brewer wiped sweat from his brow and remarked, "Well, this is a big chance."
    Trevor examined his defenses yet again from the broken window on the top floor of the large home. Again, the primary building material consisted of stone but this particular structure was one of the few 'homes' that stood alone as opposed to sprouting from the mountainside.
    On his right flank, further up the soft slope of the lower mountain and beyond the main house’s back yard, was a kind of guest cottage, a single-story structure with a tall roof. A squad of human soldiers hid there armed with their assault rifles as well as a handful of fragmentation-style grenades and a heavy machine gun.
    To his left flank stretched a front yard then the lake perimeter road. On the far side of that road was a big boat house built on a pier over icy waters. Inside waited another squad equipped with the only surface-to-surface anti-armor weapon in their possession. The weapon could be fired multiple times, but they possessed only a handful of projectiles.
    The last squad joined Trevor and Brewer in the main house, a dilapidated structure lacking any furnishings; just empty rooms most showing signs of battle damage.
    In addition to their standard bullpup rifles, the men in the house brandished a pair of heavy machine guns and several high-yield explosive charges with remote detonators. Trevor had them rig some of those explosives around the perimeter while a they anchored a few more of those charges to rocks to add weight and allow them to be thrown like grenades if necessary.
    "They should be at the Skippers by now," Trevor cocked his ear toward the east as he spoke. "I don't hear anything. That's a good sign. If they had spotted Nina, we'd hear gunfire."
    Brewer did not appear to listen. He pointed to the east and nearly shouted, "Look!"
    The line of Golems and their supporting infantry appeared, moving among the barren winter trees. The eyes of the machines glowed fiercely.
    The closest Golem raised its arm and a volley of explosive shells slammed into the main house…
    …Nina and Johnny had sat quiet while the enemy searched the parked Skippers. The garbled transmissions of the infantry and the bleeps and buzzes of the robots had reverberated all around their hiding spot for several minutes.
    When the Geryons found nothing, their small army continued on its way. Or at least that is how it sounded to the stowaways’ ears.
    A few minutes later, the first sounds of battle sounded: the hollow thoot-thoot of the Golem’s main guns; the recognizable rat-tat-tat of human assault rifles.
    "Well, I say we may-"
    Nina held a finger to Johnny’s lips. She then produced a softball-sized object from her utility belt. Johnny saw tiny circles along its surface.
    She tossed it out from their hiding spot in the starboard landing gear hatch. It thumped to the ground, rolled, and then came to a halt.
    From a pouch on her utility belt, Nina pulled a small monitor which, when she switched it on, displayed a collage of images. She enhanced each and cycled through those images: a close-up shot of a landing gear wheel, a meaningless shot of the blue sky, a rock, and then a picture just outside their hiding spot showing one of the Golem machines and two Geryon infantrymen standing guard among the parked skippers…
    …As the Steel Guard approached the human positions, the attackers split into three distinct sub-groups to deal with each of the three anchors of the line.
    Brewer saw bullets bounce off the Golem armor and shouted, "We can't put a dent in them!"
    "We don't need to," Trevor replied. "This is about slowing them down. Do that and the rest of the plan will come together."
    Of course, Trevor thought, the entire plan is based on an assumption. A likely assumption but an assumption nonetheless.
    Brewer warned, "In coming!"
    Stone, the Corporal, and the two other soldiers in the room scattered. A small missile-not much larger than a firecracker-smashed through the window and exploded in the ceiling with a shower of sparks. Trevor felt hot splinters pepper his battle suit as he dove for cover behind the remains of a large pot, perhaps a planter.
    Smoke spread through the room causing gasps and coughs, but it quickly dispersed as fissures and cracks in the walls and roof brought in a flow of air from outside.
    "Incendiary charge!" Corporal Brewer spoke the obvious; the missile had erupted in heat and smoke instead of shrapnel.
    Trevor found his feet again and observed the battle once more. He saw three Golems and a couple of Geryon infantry men march toward the boat house.
    A trail of gray and white smoke shot out from the boat house to meet them. At the head of that contrail, an anti-armor rocket. It slammed into the lead Golem with a solid clang, like a hammer striking an anvil. The impact caused the upper half of the remote-guided robot to twist and it stumbled back a step…then righted itself.
    "Damn," Trevor muttered as the Guard raised its arms and fired exploding shells into the boat house. Big splinters of wood fell off and part of the outer wall sagged, threatening to collapse and take his left flank with it.
    Trevor raised his radio. "Third squad! Status report!"
    One of the Geryon infantrymen raised his crossbow and let a shot fly. A red bolt arrowed into the besieged boathouse.
    At last a radio response from third squad in the form of a panicked voice, "Two men down! Shit, the missile didn’t stop it! Shit!"
    "Relax, Pickering. Trust me, that bad boy is hurting; just take another poke at him. Stay focused on the mission."
    The portable rocket launcher fired again from the boat house and scored another hit on the exact same Golem. This time the warhead found a critical system. The war machine went limp and then tumbled over, its eyes glowed no more.
    "Whooeey! That did it, soldier! Keep up your fire!"
    An excited trooper radioed back, "Shit yeah! That did the trick!"
    The enemy force moving to engage the boat house paused, no doubt having second thoughts about storming the dock. Instead of moving forward, they stood off and traded pot shots with the defenders.
    "Our right flank is in trouble," Corporal Brewer warned.
    Trevor raced across the top floor of the main house. He felt a shudder from somewhere below, the result of missiles and shells pounding his command post.
    From the south-facing window he saw the remains of a back yard complete with some kind of rock garden and patio. In that split second he thought of how much he had in common with the people of this Earth.
    They had summer cookouts, too.
    Further up the hill, four Golems and a half-dozen enemy infantry approached the cottage. The Geryon foot soldiers tightened their formation, using the metal bodies of the robots as cover the way Trevor’s home world soldiers might huddle behind tanks.
    "First squad, you copy? Answer me, first squad! Use your grenades. Aim for the enemy infantry, forget about the Golems. Hit the infantry."
    Despite heavy suppression fire from the Geryon machines, first squad soldiers bravely broke from cover long enough to lob grenades at their enemy. Trevor heard a scream above the rip of bullets and the clap of explosions; someone paid a price for their courage.
    The first grenade fell far short of the enemy, its deadly shrapnel wasted on open air.
    The second hit in front of a Golem which merely stutter-stepped from the concussion.
    A third exploded in a halo of carnage encompassing a Golem and two foot soldiers, barely scratching the paint on the former but tearing into the latter. Instead of dying immediately, the two Geryon infantrymen writhed on the cold ground crying in their alien language as blue-red blood streamed from sliced veins.
    This bought more time for both the cottage's defenders and the entire line…
    …Reverend Johnny bolted into the open with his machine gun blasting away. His shots killed one of the humanoid sentries instantly. The other dropped to the ground in search of cover.
    Bullets bouncing off its metal exoskeleton, the Golem targeted the pesky intruder. Somewhere high above in the confines of the air ship the Golem's "driver" watched a video feed and moved a joystick to take aim.
    As the mechanical creature reacted to its operator's inputs and lined up a shot on Reverend Johnny, Nina took advantage of the diversion, raced in behind the remote-controlled machine, and deposited an explosive charge among the gears and servos of the beast.
    Muffled among the metallic innards, the explosion sounded in a soft pop that belied its power. Gears, wires, and chunks of armor flew away, nearly catching Major Forest in her retreat.
    A secondary explosion announced the breech of the Golem's ammunition cache and served as the final act of its destruction. As the cloud of shrapnel dissipated, two machine legs stood in the field supporting nothing more than a lonely steel rod.
    Nina admired her work while Johnny shot the remaining Geryon soldier dead.
    "Okay," she said. "Let’s do it."
    Two human soldiers emerged from hiding spots in empty external fuel pods. They joined Major Forest and the Reverend as they boarded a Skipper…
    …With the flanks holding for the moment, the Steel Guard unit concentrated on the main house at the center of the defensive line, sending four Golems to assault while the remaining infantrymen stayed in the rear area with the supply wagons.
    Explosive shells and missiles came with renewed concentration at the house. A slab of wall tumbled like an avalanche of rock but failed to cause a general collapse. A small fire started on the first floor but stamping boots quickly extinguished the flames.
    Blast after blast, round after round peppered the defiant home, suppressing human counter-fire and emboldening the Steel Guard to close in to point blank range. From there they fired through broken windows.
    Suddenly one of those Golems flew into the air, its rigid form looked nearly comical as it pin wheeled like a toy robot tossed across the playroom in a tantrum. The boom of the remote-detonated charge followed, shaking more stone loose from the house.
    The machine returned to Earth hitting with a heavy thud. One of its "eyes" flickered and ceased to function; one robotic hand twisted and broke. Nonetheless, the Golem struggled to its metal feet, still operational.
    Then a second explosion detonated along the main home. A Golem fell on its side, another one staggered. While the beasts worked to regain their balance and bearings, a soldier leaned out a second floor window and dropped a package toward the attackers. That package detonated chest-high on one Steel Guard. The severity of the explosion cracked both eyes, spun the head entirely around, and blasted the torso area. The Golem shimmied in a mechanical seizure then fell.
    From his position above, Trevor saw the entire Steel Guard assault hesitate. Apparently the operators decided the price in valuable machines might be too high, particularly when they could eliminate human resistance in one quick stroke.
    It seemed Trevor's assumption would prove correct…
    …Nina sat in the pilot’s seat, Johnny kept watch at the rear ramp, and the other two soldiers hurriedly opened supply crates and worked controls.
    "I say! Major Forest! It appears their dirigible is on the move!"
    Nina heard Johnny’s report. She moved faster. A discussion erupted between the three working to prep the Skipper.
    "Arming missile warheads."
    "Opening fuel tanks and flooding lines."
    "Shutting down fire suppression systems."
    "All power systems on line and functioning at one hundred percent."
    "Ammunition crates are open."
    "What about these frags? Leave em’ here?"
    "Leave them."
    Reverend Johnny boomed, "The battle ship is approaching! It’ll be upon us momentarily!"
    "Releasing engine safety locks."
    "Charging power cells to maximum."
    Nina stood and turned to access an overhead power regulator.
    "Hells bells, Major, the beast is upon us."
    "Calm down, just calm down. We can't do anything yet," she said. "They know they lost a Golem at the landing site. They may be expecting us to go airborne."
    Johnny countered, "Or they might blast us right here, on the ground."
    "We pose no threat on the ground. Well, unless they give it some thought."
    A shadow cast over the Skipper, causing Nina to go silent. However, the Geryon Battleship did not open fire but, rather, proceeded toward the battle zone, certainly aiming to obliterate Trevor's forces with its main gun.
    "Excuse me, Major," Johnny said. "Waiting until they have passed us by would defeat the purpose, would it not?"
    Nina glanced at him and ordered, "Every one out!" while she remained at the cockpit controls with the shadow of the armored blimp passing by overhead…
    …"Here they come," Corporal Brewer spoke the obvious.
    Trevor did not respond. Either they would be dead in a few moments or the Geryons would be mortally wounded.
    The Battleship made of one big Zeppelin and-seemingly-two smaller ones slowed its approach. It drifted a few hundred feet above the tree tops east of the defensive line. Trevor felt confident-but not certain-that the craft was still at least partially above the clearing where the Skippers parked.
    The main gun came to life. Conduits running along the undercarriage from the rear engine area to the bow glowed with a soft green light, flowing from the rear end to the hybrid cannon/transmitter-like contraption at the front of the craft.
    A brilliant, thick beam fired from the main battery in one long stream of energy. That energy hit the guest cottage just up the hill from the main home.
    The brilliant light caused Trevor to shield his eyes. It seemed as if the daytime sky added a dozen more suns to its blue canvas. A blast of heat swept across the battlefield. A sound like crackling flames filled the air.
    The beam hit the cottage like a fire hose of boiling water jetting onto a slab of ice. The house and the ground around melted away into tiny fragments, some of which flew up and outward. The building…the men inside…everything, gone.
    When the beam stopped, nothing remained of the cottage. No debris, no burning embers, no melted bodies. Only a deep, black crater surrounded by shiny specks of what resembled glass.
    Geryon infantrymen standing among their Steel Guard raised their fists and cheered.
    The Battleship’s gun pivoted and pointed directly at the main house…
    … Nina glanced out the cockpit glass at the gigantic, three-headed Geryon dirigible floating by and realized that it passed one hundred feet to the port side of the parked Skipper. As she turned two dials on the main control panel, she heard the whir of the rocket positioning gears as they tilted the engines in obedience to a new setting.
    Now comes the hard part, she thought, acutely aware that the designers had never foreseen the need for any kind of timing mechanism for emergency booster activation. She dialed up 'rocket output' to one-hundred and twenty-percent; far exceeding design specifications and, of course, safety parameters but programming the added build up would buy her a split second's delay between ignition and lift off.
    First, she pushed a big red button. Hydraulic jacks began retracting the rear exit ramp. If she did not close that ramp, the ship's trajectory would be adversely affected.
    Nina felt her heart beat. Before it beat again, she slammed the EMERGENCY BOOSTER activation switch and raced toward the closing rear ramp.
    Exploding plumes of thrust melted the frozen ground under the Skipper’s wings. Smoke and sparks of fire danced around the shivering rockets as they nearly split apart due to the overload of thrust.
    Nina jumped through the last sliver of daylight peeking in the closing ramp just as the wheels left the ground. Despite having her wind knocked out, she instinctively threw her arms over her head. She gasped for breath as her world filled with the roar of the boosters detonating in a controlled, focused explosion.
    The Skipper went airborne. Not a flying ship, not a helicopter, not a plane but an impromptu guided missile. Its rotors did not even turn and the angle of its ascent was far from perfect as it raced skyward, aiming for the underbelly of the beast.
    The Geryons’ anti-air batteries fired frantically at the approaching hulk of metal.
    Nina crouched to a knee and watched the ad hoc missile fly toward its target. She saw panic in the Geryon's anti-air fire. No doubt they prepared for the Skippers to take off and make strafing runs but failed to consider a suicide flight, particularly in this manner.
    Nevertheless, a shell from one of the flak guns hit the rocketing chopper in its starboard side. The engine there smashed to pieces; the thrust sprung loose from the containment of its baffle. Instead of funneled to push the craft up, the now-uncontrolled explosion of that rocket spread in all directions. The Skipper tumbled as it climbed. For a moment-a long, hair raising moment-Nina feared the missile would miss.
    It nearly did.
    Instead of impacting the undercarriage and command module of the Zeppelin as planned, the Skipper cart wheeled into the outer wall of the port side mini-blimp. The spinning mess of metal and more hit like a burning bullet. The rust-colored cover of the air ship crumpled then punctured. The flaming wreckage of the smaller craft continued to spin as its remaining engine casing lost integrity. It became a whirling ball of disintegrating aircraft, eviscerating the zeppelin in a jagged line.
    Then the secondary explosions inside the Skipper began. With fire suppression systems disengaged, the auxiliary fuel tanks erupted as did the fully-flooded fuel lines.
    Next came the ammunition caches. The bang and pop of grenades and bullet cartridges was lost in the rumbling blasts from the armed warheads fixed beneath disintegrating wings.
    Finally, as the whole ball fell to pieces, the batteries-overcharged to the point of instability-exploded.
    Debris from the Skipper fell to Earth leaving behind a long gash in the side of the Geryon Reich’s Battleship. Flames flashed from that gash as the volatile gases inside ignited. The entire aircraft listed as the explosions acted like a thruster, shoving the beast off-course.
    Nina heard alarms ringing inside the giant ship. She heard engines roar to life as the pilots tried to regain control.
    "I dare say, perhaps we should evacuate ourselves to-"
    Johnny did not need to finish his suggestion; a rain of debris-most of it on fire-fell onto the field. First small chunks from the Skipper, then larger pieces from the Battleship…
    …Trevor watched the beautiful destruction from the top floor of the badly-damaged summer home. Below him, human and Geryon infantrymen diverted their attention to the sounds of destruction above and behind them.
    For his part, the usually boisterous Brewer stood in a trance mumbling over and over again, "Wow."
    Trevor seized the opportunity and told this mirror image of his friend, "This is how you win this war, Jon. Every battle is a roll of the dice. You don't play it safe, you don't second-guess. Know your enemy and go for the throat."
    Brewer turned to him, his eyes wide and his lips still mumbling.
    Trevor put a hand on the taller man's shoulder and told him, "You have it in you. I've seen it. Stop being such an arrogant ass and you'll find it."
    He did not know if he got through. Was it even possible to get through to this alternate Brewer? It had taken the shock of invasion plus personal failure to change the Jon Brewer he knew, could a victory such as this do the trick here?
    Trevor hoped so. He missed the advice, the camaraderie, and the strategic mind of his friend. Perhaps he could find it again in this man, if only he could unlock it.
    The sound of an explosion carried over the battlefield. The Geryon Battleship-the one with the rust colored exterior and gray lightning icon-turned and descended. The flames in its side grew; the aftershocks of the successful attack rippled beneath the surface of the craft.
    It was dying.
    The nose swung down. The rear propeller seemed unaffected, spinning in the same lazy motion and helping to speed the craft's doom as the aft rose and momentum drove the Battleship toward Earth.
    "Look," Brewer pointed to the war zone below.
    The Golems staggered back and forth, some throwing their arms in the air as if fighting off phantom attacks.
    Trevor chuckled. No, he laughed. An evil laugh.
    "Controlled with virtual reality modules, right? Look at them," metal arms flailed, heads swiveled. Trevor laughed again. "Their pilots are burning up there in the ship and we get to watch it through their pet robots. Say, looks like that guy got his arm caught on fire," one of the Golems waved its right arm around as if there might be flames there but, of course, it was the operator in the dirigible-not the robot in the field- alight.
    "Burn you bastards," Trevor mumbled
    As the dirigible plunged into the lake, the Golems stopped acting and stood silent.
    Trevor radioed, "First and second squads, attack."
    The human soldiers from the remaining two houses poured out and quickly overwhelmed the handful of flesh-and-blood Geryons, most struck down from behind while staring in horror at their falling mother ship.
    A sound like thunder rolled across the basin of the lake. It bounced off the sentry mountains and cried toward the heavens. It was the sound of the Battleship crashing into the lake; sinking into the lethally-frigid waters.
    – While most of the troops stood by the water's edge shooting any swimming Geryons who managed to stave off hypothermia, and Reverend Johnny led a patrol to sweep the surrounding forest for stragglers, Nina hurried in to the mansion.
    Corporal Brewer and two men hovered over radar and communications gear there. When he saw her, the Corporal quickly reported, "Radar is clear."
    The report did not interest her.
    "Where is he?"
    Brewer answered with a glance toward the ceiling…
    …Trevor stood on the balcony, the remnants of doors open behind him.
    He stood and watched the corpse of his enemy. The Battleship’s front was fully under water, the back half still burned. Smoke from a dozen small fires and as many large ones joined to form a massive stream of black and gray rising to the blue sky.
    Behind him, Major Forest hurried into the office. She saw him, calmed, and then slowly walked out onto the balcony next to the man who had engineered their unlikely triumph.
    He felt her presence but did not look to her.
    Together-side by side-they gazed upon the spoils of battle. A fireball burst from the dead ship. A moment later the clap of the explosion reached their ears.
    Without turning, she spoke with the slightest — merely a hint- of awe in her voice.
    "You did it."
    The carnage on the lake hypnotized Trevor with the realization that, yes, he had done it. As he had done time and time again. He had brought ruin and death. He had vanquished another enemy. And it had come to him as easily on this world as it had come on his own many times, without one visit from the Old Man, without any K9s at this command, and far removed from the library of knowledge hidden in the basement of his house.
    He replied to her in an even, unemotional voice, "That’s just the start of what I can do. What I’m going to do."
    Nina did not argue, she did not say a word. She stood there, equally transfixed by the destruction he wrought.
    The fire from the burning dirigible sent a wave of heat across the lake in every direction. Not enough to mask the cold of winter, but enough to make the surreal scene of the massive Battleship’s disintegration tangible.
    Trevor’s head cocked to the side slightly. So slightly she did not notice.
    His eyes cast over and down. Over to her.
    Those eyes crawled up her body from her feet to her hair, studying every line — every lovely line- along the way. He saw the glint of explosions and fire in her eyes, although he was not sure if that glint were illusion or real.
    Trevor’s arm reached…slowly…across the void between them. His fingers touched at then curled around her waist. She said not a word as he yanked her close. Her ponytails bobbed with the sudden movement. His other hand also found her body while her arms instinctively draped over his shoulders as they had so many times long ago.
    He kissed her. Intense. Deep.
    Trevor kissed Nina and he did not want to stop. His hands massaged her back as if to convince himself of her reality. Her fingers dug into his shoulders like claws. He pulled her even closer to feel every exhilarating curve in her body.
    A mushroom cloud of fire and smoke and shattering debris blasted out from the destroyed hulk as it entered the final act of its decent to a chaotic end.

16. Bound

    "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."
    – George Junior
    Trevor ran his hand over the dirty wall one more time, confirming with touch what the illumination of his flashlight showed: no line, no crease, nothing. Just solid stone wall.
    He sighed but, in truth, did not find it surprising. After all, since coming to this parallel universe he could not feel the mysterious key around his neck, the key the Old Man gave him to access the secret basement beneath his mansion where the third gift lay.
    It appeared the key and the secret door did not cross the dimensions with him.
    If things were the same-and who knew exactly how much was, indeed, identical-then the door and disappearing key of this reality belonged to the person who had been the link on the chain for this Earth. The person chased from this lakeside mansion.
    He stepped out from the cubbyhole beneath the stone stairs of this mansion's basement that was, in fact, half-buried in the side of the mountain. Apparently a building style popular on this Earth.
    In any case, like the rest of the home, the basement was dingy and covered in cob webs. No mementos from the previous owner remained. What little light glowed in the cave-like cellar came from small, oblong liquid lanterns, sort of a cross between a chemical glow stick and a camping torch, about the size and shape of a football and standard issue emergency lighting for Nina's people. The 'lights' actually gave out a significant amount of heat, making them something like a portable campfire.
    If this place ever served the same purpose on this world at it did a universe away, Trevor saw no sign of it. He wondered if his counterpart had had time to organize an orderly evacuation or did he barely escaped with his life, leaving any materials to the mercy of the invaders or scavengers.
    The latter explanation seemed likely, considering Nina knew nothing of this place or her Trevor's activities during the early days of the invasion.
    His thoughts dissipated at the sound of footsteps descending the stairs.
    Reverend Johnny asked, "Mr. Stone, is your solitude down here by design or accident?"
    "Come on down, Johnny."
    The Reverend accepted the invitation.
    "Corporal Brewer and the first wave of evacuees have departed. They have offered their assurances of a swift return with additional transports to facilitate our own egress from this forlorn place."
    Johnny referred to the fact that they-Johnny and Trevor-were now two of only a handful of people remaining at the estate. The Skipper's sacrifice resulted in a reduction in transport capacity.
    Nineteen infantry, two technicians, Major Forest, Reverend Johnny, Brewer and Trevor Stone had survived the day. Of that group, six of the infantry had suffered significant injuries including broken bones, shrapnel wounds, burns, and blunt trauma.
    While the two remaining Skippers held enough physical space to carry all of their number back to Thebes, the extra weight would have devoured too much fuel for the trip.
    To the surprise-and delight-of the rank and file, Trevor insisted on sending the wounded and other personnel first; he would wait for the next transport and face an overnight stay in the wilderness while most of the others returned to the relative safety of Thebes.
    Ironically, the men nearly came to blows over who would stay with him. It appeared that their victory served as a great inspiration, just as Trevor hoped. When he eventually returned to the city, he knew he would need to find similar inspiration for the rest of humanity's remnants.
    Johnny stood alongside Trevor and said, "The two Skippers have disappeared over the horizon into the setting sun. The Major has deployed the five remaining infantrymen at guard points throughout the mansion, as I assume this is where you would prefer to make camp."
    "Yes, this will do. She told me earlier that based on her understanding of the Geryons they will be back in force, but their main base is far enough away that they shouldn't get here for a couple of days. We should be safe here for one night."
    "That reminds me," Johnny added. "I believe Major Forest is looking for you."
    Stone fidgeted and closed his eyes. He had not spoken to her since the kiss on the balcony, an embrace interrupted not long after it began. Once his blood cooled, Trevor decided to avoid her.
    "You seem in distress," Johnny observed. "What troubles you, my friend?"
    Trevor almost chuckled. Where should he start?
    Well, you see Rev, I still love Nina with all my heart even though I’ve got a de facto wife on the other side of the dimensional divide. Oh, and I just spent several minutes in a hot make out session with the Nina Forest of this world. Did I mention that one minute I despise her for looking like the woman I loved, then the next I want to take her in my arms?
    No, Trevor could not explain all that. Not to Johnny. Not even to himself. However, he did manage to condense it into one surprisingly efficient package: "I’m confused, I guess."
    "Oh, yes, well, I myself am having difficulty accepting the implications of the parallel universe concept. Yet I have found a certain peace in-"
    Johnny stopped as he comprehended the true source of Trevor’s confusion.
    "Yes. I can see how this could be very confusing for you; very difficult."
    Nearly six years ago, Johnny not only informed Trevor of the memory-eating implant in Nina's head, but also removed it.
    "I can see your dilemma, Mr. Stone. Affairs such as these, they are to be handled with the utmost care. You are dealing with forces far more powerful than any alien armada or scoundrel creature. You are dealing with the passions of your heart."
    Trevor stood and listened, saying nothing.
    "If you’ll indulge me, in the early days after I had…after I had dispatched my family when The Order implanted them and turned them loose on me…after I had begun my quest for revenge…I walked to the neighborhood where my brother and his children lived. I sought them out in the hope of taking them to sanctuary. I was particularly keen on finding my niece-my God daughter-Alyssa. A beautiful girl not even ten years old and already a firecracker."
    Johnny smiled a grin of fond remembrance.
    "Of course I was too late. I knew this when I spied the Spider Sentries and Missionaries wandering the streets of the housing development. Nonetheless, I came upon Alyssa. She was infected beyond the point of salvation. Her tiny body was no match for Voggoth’s parasite. Yet I did not see the blotches on her face as she approached me. I knew they were there; logic insisted so. Post-mortem examination proved as much. But I could not see them on her face because my heart so desperately wanted her to be that firecracker of a little girl-a human little girl-that I loved so dearly."
    "You killed her, your God daughter?"
    Johnny shook his head. "That’s the point, my friend. I did not kill my God daughter, she was not even there. She died when the implant seized control of her body."
    "But you said you didn’t see blotches. How could you kill her?"
    "My mind, Mister Stone, I could trust my mind; my intellect. As for my heart, that is a different matter. The heart is a fickle friend; fair weather at best. At your moment of joy it is there to be filled with celebration and to make the wonderful fruits of love and life that much sweeter. But when it has not been fed the diet it desires, it will turn on you without warning. It will coax and coerce. The heart is not to be trusted. Certainly not when it sings a tune that is not in key with what your head knows to be true."
    "Elegantly put as always, but for me it isn’t that simple."
    The Rev corrected, "Yes, it is quite simple. In your case, Trevor, you merely have to remember where you are."
    "Where I am? Well, where am I?"
    Johnny reminded, "You are away from home."
    – Trevor managed to work his way around the mansion and up into the second floor office without seeing Nina. As he traveled, he made sure there was enough light to allow the temporary residents to move about safely but also made sure that blankets, wood, and whatever else he could find were positioned over windows and doors to keep that light muffled inside the home.
    He brought three emergency blankets to the office with him and hung them over the busted balcony doors. Stone took one last look toward the lake before pulling the makeshift drapes closed. Debris still burned on the water but the inferno had dwindled to scattered embers.
    In any case, he positioned the blankets and turned to leave, only to see Nina emerge from the adjoining room.
    She strolled to him, placed a hand on his shoulder, and said, "Hey, I’ve been looking all over for you. Where you been?"
    Trevor stepped away. "I was, um, searching the place. I’m afraid there's nothing of value here. It was a wasted trip."
    She tilted her head as if puzzled by his words. "I don't know about that. I mean, you won a big victory here today."
    He turned and tried to find something in the empty room to focus on other than her.
    She pressed against his back.
    "You did a lot of things today, things that really…hmm, how to say this? Things that really impressed me."
    Her hands worked around his waist from behind.
    "The guards are outside, we’re safe here. Not a peep from the hills and woods. We have this place to ourselves tonight. Plenty of time…"
    Her hands massaged his chest then worked lower…searching…
    "Major…I’m sorry I…"
    "Mmm…" she purred as she found the spot."You don’t feel sorry."
    Trevor pulled her hands away, let them go, stepped off, then faced her.
    "Listen, I’m sorry about earlier. I shouldn’t have done that."
    "Done what?" She purposely teased.
    He scowled, "I should not have kissed you."
    "Oh…that…yeah, I remember that," she raised a finger to her mouth as if touching the memory of his lips.
    "It was a mistake. I got caught up in the moment. It was wrong and I’m sorry."
    To his surprise, she accepted the explanation. Her demeanor changed as if she had already forgotten the incident.
    "Do you understand? I’m sorry. I really am."
    "Yes," she smiled politely. "I understand."
    He exhaled in relief.
    She said, "Anyway, I do have something to show you that might interest you, I think."
    "Oh? What’s that?"
    "Over there," she nodded toward the adjoining room.
    The mansion of this world resembled his in many intangible ways but was far from identical, particularly in architecture. He had spent time exploring the first floor and the basement half-buried in the mountain, but realized he had spent little time on the second floor other than in the room most resembling his office and its adjacent balcony.
    Given that this new room sat off that old office, he guessed it to be this world's version of his master bedroom. Perhaps she had found files or a hidden supply cache. He mentally kicked himself for not thinking to investigate there earlier.
    Curious, he went in with Nina following and stopped just inside the arch-shaped doorway.
    The soft glow of a liquid lantern lit the room and also provided a source of heat, like a small fireplace. In the gentle illumination he saw what he guessed to be a bed frame designed in a strange style with metal bars on the headboard and sagging wood beams along the sides. An air mattresses lay atop of the contraption covered with sleeping bags and blankets, all from one of the Skipper's survival equipment kits.
    Her body pressed against his back once again. Her lips whispered in his ear so close he felt puffs of warm breath. "I want you, Trevor. I want to feel you inside of me."
    His heart raced and his adrenaline rose but it rose in anger.
    "I told you. I made a mistake. Forget it."
    "Forget? Like your Nina forgot everything?"
    He turned and looked at her. His face twisted. "Why are you doing this? I’ll say it again so that you can hear it loud and clear; I made a mistake. I’m sorry. Now leave me alone!"
    He tried to push by but she blocked his escape.
    "Look at how afraid you are of me. I mean, you’re trembling."
    "You’re making me angry."
    "Am I? Is that the same anger that made you stay and fight the Steel Guard?"
    "Stop it," he growled.
    "Is that the same anger that turned you from a sole survivor into the commander of legions…into the Emperor of your kingdom?"
    "You’re pushing me…don’t push me…let it go…" "Well I want that anger! I want you!".
    "Major Forest-"
    "Nina! Say it! Say my name! Look me in the eye and say my name! Tell me-tell Nina — to get out of your way! Walk out on me…walk out on Nina! Let me go again the way you walked away from the Nina on your world!"
    He grabbed her shoulders and pushed her against the wall. "You just shut up!"
    "Look at the Emperor trembling!"
    "God damn it I told you once…I told you I don’t play these games!"
    Her shark grin returned. Her eyes grew into blue daggers.
    "Well I do play games. Me and my Trevor, we played all sorts of games…"
    Her hands stroked his chest even as he snorted breath like a beast ready to fight.
    He grabbed her wrists and threw them against the wall above her head. She smiled.
    "And you’re so damn mad about that aren’t you?"
    His lips quivered but he suppressed an answer.
    "Come on! Say it, Trevor! Admit it! Admit how mad you are at me!"
    This time it was not a floor he pinned her against, but a wall. Yet once again, she squirmed and fidgeted purposely…teasingly…
    "You’re mad at me! It’s boiling over in you! I can taste it in the air!"
    He leaned in and nearly bit her nose off as he confessed, "Yes! I’m mad at you for looking like her! You’re an imposter!"
    "You’re angry!"
    "And you want me! You want me so bad it hurts."
    "God damn it yes!"
    Emotion churned out of control as everything came together; anger, confusion, desire; stirred together and simmering toward explosion.
    She dared, "Then take me. Possess me, Trevor."
    "Is that what you want? Is it?"
    He did not wait for her answer. He swung her onto the bed, took a quick step toward her, and then stopped, hovering over her as she sat on the edge of the mattress.
    Nina pulled one of the thin leather straps from her battle suit. She wrapped it around her wrist then offered both hands to him. Her face was submissive and pouting.
    "If you’re so afraid of me, Emperor, if I so scare you then tie me down. Make me sorry for being her imposter."
    He shivered.
    "What are you waiting for, Emperor? " She mocked. "Consider it another conquest. Make me your next battlefield."
    He looked at her bare wrists-one already bound by the strap-and felt something stir. Something so very dark. The same something that helped him make hard decisions over the years. The same something that allowed him to be brutal on the battlefield.
    The something that had made him curse the Gods as he had held the Viking leader aloft at the Battle of Five Armies; the something that allowed him to unleash his dogs of war on the enclave of New Winnabow; the something that had drove him to brutally beating the Hivvan Commander in North Carolina.
    The monster his half-brother had warned of; a source of power…and danger.
    And oh, the anger was there. Anger and desire, a volatile combination.
    The simmering pot exploded. Trevor Stone pounced. He grabbed her wrists and shoved her back, pushing her hands together against the bars of the headboard, working the leather strap around her other wrist and pulling tight.
    She grunted in pain. He bound her tighter than expected. She pulled against the binds. The motion barely rattled the bars.
    Their eyes locked as he moved off the bed. She saw the wolf in him. She knew it was in there. She knew she could find it.
    Nonetheless…that look in his eyes. Had she gone too far?
    She had been in control of the situation since the instant she brought him to her universe. This was all part of the plan. Still…she felt — just a little- afraid.
    Major Forest squirmed on top of the mattress. He stood at the base of the bed and removed her boots and socks. When he was done he unhooked his utility belt. Before he let it fall to the floor he removed the knife from its sheath. He then worked his way over the mattress on his elbows and knees, closing on her with the prowl of a predator.
    She licked her lips.
    Trevor cut away the top of Nina’s battle suit. Then he caressed the knife over her chest until it found the straps of her bra. More slicing.
    He hovered above her bound form for a moment, then leaned in…his lips coming close…just about to touch…and he backed away.
    Stone had the feeling of watching from the outside. Was he really doing this? Was his body really aching to have her in this way?
    Yes. There was a force within Trevor Stone stirred by this universe, uncovered by this Nina. One part violent; one part passion. Both held in balance in his world but for some reason that balance fell apart here, on this Earth, with this woman.
    Whether it was right or wrong did not matter. It was what he wanted.
    He had been denied so much over the years; stolen from him by fate.
    Not this time. He was going to have her.
    His hands greedily worked at her buckle. He found it, undid it, and pulled the rest of her battle gear over her hips, past her clenched knees, and off.
    A chill swept across Nina as her body was stripped of all cover. She rattled the binds again. The straps were tight; perfectly tied.
    He took a moment to study her, casting his eyes over her naked body but, to his surprise, saw a painfully detailed snake tattoo wrapped around the upper part of her leg. It was a most striking piece of art work, but further confirmation that this was not really his Nina.
    Nina would never get a tattoo.
    Trevor’s gaze came to her eyes. Her beautiful blue eyes. Her icy blue eyes. They stared back at him with just the right mixture of excitement and fear.
    And there it was. That darkness. There was a voice far off in the corner of his mind-the irrational corner-angry at her for having Nina’s eyes. How dare she look like her! She was not his Nina. She was not the Nina. She was an imposter. A fraud.
    How DARE she…
    Yes…anger…and arousal.
    "What do you plan to do now?"
    He undid the straps on his own top while shuffling out of his boots. Then he threw off the rest until he was naked at the base of the bed.
    She tilted her head to examine her binds. She pulled hard. The straps were unforgiving. She realized things had gone beyond the point of return. Nina felt his weight on the bed, creeping forward toward her. He lay next to her. His eyes examined her.
    Trevor placed a solitary finger against her lips. He moved it, and then slid it into her mouth. She accepted it and caressed it with her tongue.
    He removed the digit and slowly…painfully slow…traced a line down her throat, between her breasts, to her abs, then belly button, then the very top of her The finger stopped.
    She offered a pout of a purr in frustration.
    But that was only the beginning. He used his fingers and hands, his lips and mouth to titillate every inch of her, but always stopped short of satisfaction. All the time she bucked and trembled from his torment. Her moans for more fell on deaf ears.
    Stone took pleasure in her torture.
    How dare she look like her…
    At long last his excitement boiled over. He could tease her no more; even he had a breaking point.
    "No, no," she tightly crossed her legs. "After all that teasing… you don’t deserve-"
    Trevor leapt upon her like an animal. In one quick motion he roughly grabbed her legs and forced them wide, hooked one of her legs around his arm and pushed it nearly to her ear where it rocked with his motion. He drove into her with speed and ferocity; the beast set free.
    His eyes wide, angry, and hungry as he moved. She screamed with surprise, shock and ecstasy. Her head turned from side to side, her eyes shut; her mouth opening to exhale quick squeals that were sighs and then clenching shut again to bear the force of his invasion.
    She yanked against the straps above her; the bars of the headboard bent, a little, but she was still secure. Still his.
    With every iron-like thrust her body exploded. She heard him growling in her ear as he pinned her to the bed with his weight and his work. Trevor wanted to consume her…devour her with his raw energy. He had never felt like this before. He did not know he had the desire for such…such carnal barbarism.
    Yet there it was; a dreadful combination of passion and violence. Of lust. Of anger.
    This is what you get for pretending to be her…
    His hand found the back of her head and grasped her ponytails, forcing her chin up and back. She grimaced as she rocked. He saw the slightest glint of tears in the corner of her eyes.
    With her neck exposed, he dove into her throat where he kissed her tender flesh harshly; violently. Then he reached to her mouth and forced his tongue deep. Then off again, his breath snorting in her ear, but he did not relax his grip.
    Whatever pain she felt dissipated in the flood bursting from her body. A trembling, shaking, flood. He felt her muscles as they flexed and released. He felt her strong body weaken and quiver.
    Her sigh became a moan became a cry.
    Hearing her… feeling her erupt was enough.
    He rode her even harder at that moment, then what had been building in the beast released with a primitive energy, making him shudder and roar. His body clenched then flexed…again…and again…and again.
    Nina wrapped her legs around him and pulled tight, accepting what he gave even as his final act felt more an assault than love.
    Their bodies grew still.
    She breathed hard…then softer. His heart thumped against her chest. She could feel it through the sweat.
    Trevor was coming back.
    Her Trevor.

17. Whispers

    Trevor walked the exterior of the otherworldly estate listening to alien-sounding chirps from some manner of bird as it announced the arrival of morning. With a bounce in his step, he passed a sentry, patting the man on the shoulder who responded, "Cold out today, sir."
    "Not as cold as it is for those dead Geryons, is it, Morris?"
    "No, sir!" the soldier smiled.
    Trevor found satisfaction in the man's spirit. Here they were out in the wilderness far from safety and if another Geryon battleship sailed over the horizon they would stand no chance.
    Yet Morris felt a sense of invincibility. Trevor had led them to victory over a superior enemy, as he had done many times on his world. How? He knew part of that came from the dark spot of his heart, the part that bubbled to the surface last night with the Major.
    At the same time, his strength also came from the righteousness of his cause. Standing on the moral high ground gave him a free hand. No tactic could be too brutal, too nasty for the invading scum. Indeed, the more brutal the blow the more effective; a frightened enemy is more easily defeated. Certainly it would frighten the Geryons to find one of their powerful Battleships obliterated by a handful of humans.
    He came upon Reverend Johnny near the front gate staring into the distance with binoculars. On the lake, strands of smoke still smoldered from the destroyed dirigible, but no fires and apparently no sign of Geryon survivors.
    "Good morning, sunshine," Trevor greeted lightheartedly.
    "I see you have pulled yourself out of bed, Mr. Stone. I feared you might stay there all day," Johnny responded without lowering his binoculars.
    That annoyed Trevor. He was, after all, the Emperor. Johnny should damn well turn around and Stop it.
    Trevor let it go, instead asking, "What do you mean? It’s bright and early."
    "I figured you would be loath to leave behind the warmth you found there."
    Trevor played coy, "What are you talking about?"
    "My dear Mr. Stone, you and the Major-how should I put this within the bounds of good taste? — you and the Major were quite… enthusiastic. Yes. The acoustics of the empty mansion and the cavern into which it is built are quite conductive."
    Trevor pinched his nose and grimaced. "Oh. Um. Yeah well…"
    Johnny finally pulled away the binoculars and looked at his friend. "Fear not, for I have found a more interesting sight to judge this morning." He pointed toward the mountainside. "There. Behold a curious sight. Perhaps the answers you think are here can be gleaned from the events under our very noses."
    Trevor pulled his own field glasses from a pouch on his belt and followed Johnny’s direction to a strip of thin woodlands between destroyed cottages. There he saw a common hostile nicknamed a Rat-Thing, essentially a car-sized rodent with needle-like tufts of fur.
    "Not sure what the big deal is, I've seen plenty of these-wait a second. I’ll be damned."
    Trevor spied a pack of predators hunting the Rat-Thing. Four Gray Wolves emerged from the debris of the ruined homes.
    Johnny and Stone observed the wolves stalk and attack their target. The horrid beast squealed and scampered in an attempt to flee, but the wolves ripped at its hind legs until it fell.
    "Amazing," Trevor whispered.
    Johnny stopped watching. He did not need to see the tearing and shredding of the Rat-Thing’s hide. Stone, on the other hand, stood hypnotized by the brutal and efficient pack.
    "I imagine wolves would attack any creature if promised a good breakfast," Johnny said.
    "After all these years, they've learned that some of the invaders are good eats. Still, makes me think about this whole thing. Maybe it’s our entire environment. That might explain why more than just alien armies came to our world. Or, I guess, ‘worlds.’ Maybe it explains why predator and prey have come here. To show their-what? — superiority?"
    "Or maybe," Johnny suggested, "the wolves are just hungry."
    Trevor smiled. "Maybe so."
    – The extraction flight arrived mid-morning and evacuated the remaining team members with no interruption, no incident. The Skippers flew over the mountains and plains under a sky that was as clear as the day before.
    Nina napped next to Trevor in the passenger compartment. He had missed as much sleep as she had but he felt invigorated, not exhausted. He spent the return flight gazing out the side portal watching the landscape go by.
    For every sight that accentuated the difference between this Earth and his, there were a dozen that drove home the similarities.
    Yes, the architecture of the homes seemed a warped version of what he knew. Instead of open fields, the developers of this Earth preferred mountains and hills from which sprouted neighborhoods, sometimes on terraced levels, the same type of deigns he had noticed at the lake. Furthermore, the few roads he spied from the sky seemed wider than those back home.
    Such subtleties meant little. If he closed his eyes, he could see children playing in the fields that were marked with lines for some sport or another; he could hear the ringing of worship bells in the triangular steeples of the churches; he could hear families gathering in their homes for the evening meal.
    When he opened those eyes again he saw the devastation. Fields of bomb craters, toppled steeples, the charred remains of burned homes, the occupants either dead or enslaved.
    Yes, the more tiny differences he found the more he saw similarities. The more he grew convinced that this Earth needed him.
    – Trevor and his team returned to Thebes that afternoon. Nothing much happened the rest of the day. Nina disappeared to write reports and as the day went on Trevor's exhilaration turned to exhaustion as fighting alien blimps and shapely Majors finally got the better of him. He did not see her that night as he collapsed sound asleep in the apartment he shared with Johnny.
    However, the next morning she knocked frantically on their door.
    "We have to appear before The Committee."
    He would have suspected that The Committee wanted to pin a medal on him for winning such an unlikely victory. However, the grumpy expression on her face suggested otherwise.
    "What is it?"
    She spat, "Our fearless leaders are not happy about our expedition."
    Reverend Johnny broke in, "Not happy? Why, you would think they would be ringing bells of celebration after the sound pummeling we delivered unto-"
    "What is their problem?" Trevor interrupted his friend’s sermon.
    "I don’t know. I just know they want to see us."
    Johnny volunteered, "Do not fear, Major. We will show them the error of their ways."
    "Actually, Reverend," Forest tried to tell him delicately. "They just want to see the officers involved."
    Before Johnny could be offended Trevor consoled, "Don’t sweat it. Why don’t you do me the favor of reviewing the city’s defenses. I’d like to know what we’ve got to work with."
    Johnny huffed. "Very well."
    Trevor followed the Major to the first floor where they met ground transportation to the Ops Center.
    They traversed the city under a silky gray quilt of clouds blanketing the morning sky. No blue; no beams of sun, just a steady dull light. However, those clouds trapped enough heat to keep the temperature from plummeting too far. It actually felt slightly warmer than Trevor would expect for a mid-February day, perhaps the tenth or so.
    He had lived in Thebes for more than two weeks with the exception of that night at the lake. Trevor’s time inside the walls-or what remained of the walls-had been spent mainly training soldiers from the Third Legion.
    Trevor realized that he did not like being out on the vacant, decaying streets. They reminded him of the challenge he faced and the scope of failure that had befallen these people.
    My people.
    Yes, they were becoming his people.
    Only a handful knew of his presence; Nina said most officers in the Third Legion received a briefing as to who and what he was. As for the others in Thebes, well, Nina heard that the rumor of his 'return' spread through the city.
    Would they believe him a reincarnation of their Emperor? If they knew the whole story, would they accept this man from another universe as their leader?
    The only thing he knew with certainty was that any leader who could bring victory to these people, who could wake this city from its defeat-induced coma, would find willing followers. After all, what choice did they have?
    In reality, he had seen very little of the city but he had seen enough to know this was a leaderless flock wandering without direction.
    That angered him; angered him enough to stay and fight a battle against the Geryons, a battle his head told him he should avoid. Yet he had sensed he could win. More importantly, he sensed that these people needed him to win.
    And now what? And now The Committee called him on the carpet to tell him he had done wrong? That made him angrier still.
    The driver delivered them to the Ops Center.
    Trevor’s time whipping the Third Legion into shape had not spread to the heart of Thebes. The guards, the techs, and couriers, they still looked as lazy, as disinterested, and as unconcerned as they had the first time he had walked through those doors.
    Someone needs to knock sense into these people.
    Trevor and Nina marched the hallway to the main control room. Along the way, he saw a man flirting with a woman and a sentry leaning lazily against a wall.
    He was about ready to explode by the time they came upon a group of technicians and junior officers laughing in a corner.
    "You should have seen him! He was so drunk he puked right there in the office!"
    "Oh, man, we were wasted."
    "Didn’t you have guard duty after?"
    "Yeah, I think I slept through half of it."
    Trevor stopped. Nina actually took three steps before realizing she walked alone.
    Stone approached the group of three male techs and both a female and male officer.
    "What is going on here? You, soldier, you on duty?"
    The female officer staggered, "Um, yes, I’m here to-"
    "Any one here off duty? Any one here on break?"
    Nina hovered in the distance and watched.
    The male officer responded, "What’s it to you?"
    Apparently their lack of attention kept them from recognizing his face but they did notice a lack of rank on his collar.
    "What? What…is…it…to…me?"
    Stone shot over, grabbed the guy with one hand on his chest, another on his throat, and slammed him against the wall. The thud echoed along the hall grabbing the attention of dozens.
    "Listen here you worthless fuck. I just got back from two days of fighting. I watched people die on the battlefield to keep you useless sacks of shit alive back here. You will NOT dishonor them by acting like a bunch of god damn teenyboppers bullshitting in the hall between classes. Are you hearing me?"
    The stunned junior officer reacted only with coughs. The blow to his head had sent him into a daze.
    Trevor turned his attention to the others in the group. He spoke first to the female officer.
    "What is it you are supposed to be doing?"
    "I…I’m here from Second Legion to file readiness reports…ah…um…"
    "Then what the fuck are you waiting for? Go file the reports then get back to your unit!"
    She scurried away.
    "And you?"
    Trevor addressed the remaining three technicians. The first two answered in a miss-mash of stuttering sentences.
    "Serv-servicing electrical junctions."
    "Supplies. I mean-inventory. I mean, inventorying supplies at the-"
    Stone shouted, "Then get in gear before I tear you new assholes."
    They hurried off.
    "And you?" Trevor addressed the third.
    "Um. Actually, I, um, just went off duty."
    Trevor let go of the officer who fell to the ground and tried to catch his breath.
    "Well don’t hang around here. Go get some rest." Trevor considered then pointed at the guy on the floor. "Take him to the infirmary first."
    The technician nodded nervously. Trevor joined Nina and they continued on.
    – While Trevor Stone went to meet with The Committee, Reverend Johnny decided on a walk around the city to study their defenses and to learn more about their hosts.
    He exited the main entrance of the dormitory skyscraper out into an overcast day.
    A supply truck with six big wheels drove by spewing noxious exhaust and a Skipper whirred overhead. Otherwise, the neighborhood felt deserted.
    To his left, the street continued toward a series of smaller buildings that looked commercial in nature, perhaps shops. He also saw a small park with a cluster of trees and benches. At some point it must have been an area for recreation. If those trees were in bloom-if it were the summer months-then the little park might have looked cozy. Instead, it looked sad.
    To his right, far in the distance, the start of the industrial district including some kind of power sub-station and a big garage. He spied streams of smoke drifting into the sky.
    He walked to his left.
    The sound of his footsteps clicked off the concrete walkway and echoed among the buildings. The occasional beep or bell joined the sound of those footsteps, but otherwise the day felt heavy with silence.
    That silence broke as he passed the small, sad park. "They say your name is Johnny."
    A person stood next to one of the thin, barren trees wearing a gray jacket with a dark hood over technician’s garb.
    "Why yes. You may call me Reverend Johnny."
    "You are a friend of Trevor Stone’s? You came here with him?"
    "That is correct. Now may I ask who are you?"
    She removed the hood revealing a lovely face marred by a scarred cheek and hair cut short to match her military appearance. Nonetheless, he recognized the woman.
    "My name is Ashley Trump."
    – Trevor took one step closer toward The Committee, purposely setting himself apart from Nina. Director Snowe stood off to the side, waiting for the confrontation to unfold. However, as usual, the three Committeemen whispered amongst themselves as they sat at their elevated table, not yet acknowledging Trevor or Major Forest's presence.
    Trevor fidgeted, clenching and unclenching his fists with growing impatience.
    Finally, he blurted, "Did you want to see me or can I get back to trying to save all your asses?"
    That drew their attention, but only long enough to shoot him down.
    "You will be addressed."
    "We are still formulating our position."
    "Despite your unique situation, interruptions will not be tolerated."
    Trevor grunted. The men returned to their whispers for a bit longer, no doubt a punishment for his brashness.
    At long last, The Committee spoke.
    "We have analyzed the after-action reports from special mission number forty-two seventy-six. After reviewing these reports we realized we had made an error."
    "Yes. A procedural error. You should know that we do not hold you responsible for this error. It was our mistake."
    Trevor cocked his head, "Error? What error?"
    "We received reports from all involved including Corporal Brewer and Major Forest."
    "This is, of course, standard procedure."
    "Then we realized that we had not requested a written report from you."
    "You hold an honorary position with the Third Legion therefore we did not feel that a written report from you would hold enough legitimacy to be a part of our official findings."
    "However, after discussing the matter we have concluded that we should grant you the opportunity to provide a detailed account of forty-two seventy-six."
    "We believe this to be the most equitable course. Taking disciplinary actions against you for negligence would be unfair until after we have received your report."
    "This is true. You should know that both Director Snowe and Major Forest face sanctions as a result of their role in the poor judgment displayed in the authorization and execution of mission number forty-two seventy-six."
    It took Trevor a moment to process what he heard.
    "Huh? Did you just say…wait a second, you consider this mission a failure? You think we did something wrong?"
    One of the Committeemen referenced a sheet of paper.
    "One AATC willfully destroyed-"
    Trevor looked at Nina who translated, "Air Assault and Transport Craft. A Skipper."
    "— unacceptable fatalities and casualties. Expenditure of excess ammunition and willful destruction of several crates of ordnance stored on the destroyed AATC."
    "Wasted fuel for initial transportation plus the follow-up extraction team not to mention fuel onboard the purposely destroyed AATC.
    "Wait one damn second," Trevor failed to muster a full head of steam because he was so flabbergasted at The Committee's reaction. He tried, "We knocked out a Battleship and brought back a shit load of parts from the Steel Guard’s Golems. This mission-"
    "Oh, yes," a Committeeman interrupted. "We must also consider that the decision to engage the Geryon Reich has destabilized our eastern border."
    "The Geryons have not pushed west for nearly two years. It is possible that your actions will encourage reprisals against us. This has increased our peril."
    Major Forest tried to intervene, "I remind The Committee of this man's special disposition as we discussed in the past."
    But Trevor did not let her go on. He did not even hear her. His jaw practically unhinged as he gasped, "Destabilized? Peril? Do you hear yourselves? You’re the last human beings on Earth and you think I could possibly increase your peril?"
    Major Forest raised her voice louder this time and pointed out, "His people have fought and won many victories like this. That is why on his Earth, humanity is the dominant force."
    He heard her that time, but she only added to his momentum.
    "Damn right. Since I’ve been here I’ve seen nothing but half-assed soldiers. I honestly have no friggin’ idea how your city is still around. You’ve been living lucky."
    Director Snowe stepped forward, apparently deciding the time had come to join the fray.
    "With respect, I remind The Committee of our prior discussions regarding this Trevor Stone. I must re-emphasize the assistance we are receiving as a result of his presence here."
    Trevor glanced at Snowe. He did not like the man. His first instinct suggested that this Director Snowe shared more in common with the bureaucrats sitting on The Committee than with the soldiers of Thebes. However, regardless of his politician-like words, it became clear that Snowe aimed to help.
    The Director continued, "If it pleases The Committee, I recommend you review the readiness reports for Third Legion. You will notice a significant improvement in efficiency and tactics. This is due in no small part to Mr. Stone’s efforts."
    "Yes, this is true," The Committee admitted. "We have taken this into consideration as we evaluate Trevor Stone's usefulness to our defense and we will continue to honor the parameters regarding his position here."
    "We are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that you were doing what you thought was best."
    "We remind you that you do not hold any official rank. You are considered an advisor."
    "This is why the sanctions will primarily be against Director Snowe and Major Forest."
    "You are not to take any action without first consulting-"
    "Action?" Trevor interrupted. "Let me tell you something because you folks need to hear it. You’re all dead! Every last one of you inside these walls, you are already dead."
    "You are out of line!"
    Stone disagreed, "No! You are out of line. This entire city is a big graveyard! You sit up there and do nothing but file reports. I’ll bet you have one Hell of a set of push pins!"
    The insubordination stunned The Committee into silence.
    "I am trying to save you. Do you understand? You have nothing left to lose! If you are going to survive, if you are going to keep this Earth for yourself, then we have to start fighting! We have to risk everything because there’s nothing left to lose, anyhow!"
    One of the Committeemen appeared ready to pounce but another took his arm and whispered in his ear. To Trevor's disappointment, all three of the men retreated from the heated discussion in favor of their monotone approach.
    "We can not and will not waste supplies and resources on foolish ventures."
    "For all that you say you still found nothing of value. You returned empty handed."
    "Indeed, one may interpret your decision to fight with the Geryon Reich as an attempt to distract us from the truth that your mission was a failure."
    Trevor responded, "Empty-handed? Failure? Then you have not looked into the eyes of the soldiers who returned from that mission!"
    One Committeeman said, "Less than two dozen soldiers returned, many of them injured."
    Stone nearly screamed, "I tell you that those men-that handful of men-could take over your entire Operations Center in five minutes! They are better soldiers now! Their enthusiasm will grow and spread until maybe- just maybe — it might revive what’s left of your sad army."
    Director Snowe decided to join the discussion again. "Trevor Stone speaks the truth, your Honors. His victory during mission forty-two seventy-six has improved morale among those who fought there. I agree the result will be an improvement in the defensive capabilities of the city."
    Trevor stammered, "The defensive capabilities? You don’t understand-"
    "I agree," Nina stopped Stone with a hand on his shoulder and her words. "I think the defensive posture of Thebes has been greatly improved directly as a result of this mission."
    Snowe continued on his end. "I would add that the likelihood of a Geryon Reich retribution strike against our city is unlikely. Our sources indicate that the Geryons have been under constant assault by the Chaktaw. I doubt they will risk expanding this one engagement into a full blown war on their western flank. They’d have little to gain by it."
    "Then it’s agreed. We are concentrated on defensive actions for the immediate future."
    "The Committee expects a written report from Trevor Stone. Due to the positive side effects of mission forty-two seventy-six we anticipate that sanctions against those involved will be confined to credits and punitive assignments."
    "However, further insubordination and misuse of vital supplies will not be tolerated. All parties are hereby duly warned. This Trevor Stone's special disposition may change if this type of transgression occurs again. You are dismissed."
    Trevor’s mouth worked open. Nina tugged at his shoulder.
    "Not now," she whispered. "C’mon."
    Major Forest glanced to Snowe and then pulled Trevor from the chamber.
    – Reverend Johnny sat on the bench with the Ashley of that alternate world. A cold breeze brushed through the leafless trees. The gray clouds overhead felt oppressive.
    "I’m a support specialist in Records and Information Systems. That’s how I know about you and the other…the other dimension. I sneak a look at a lot of those records and reports. I know, well, I know all about you and Trevor and why they brought you here."
    "I see," Johnny listened.
    "Tell me about your Trevor. I’d like to know if he’s…if he’s the same man I knew."
    "On my world, Trevor Stone is a great leader who won numerous battles when the odds were tall and has shown wisdom." Johnny considered and offered an addendum, "I should say he usually shows wisdom. Alas, he allowed his emotions to get the better of his head and that is why we are here in your world. He made a few brash errors along the way."
    She clutched her hands on her lap, cast her eyes down, and solemnly said, "He sounds very much like the Trevor of our world."
    "He is my friend. I would do anything for him," Johnny tilted his head in introspection and added, "Which is why, I suppose, I ended up here, too."
    "You followed him, no matter where it would lead? Not surprising. Trevor always had a great deal of control."
    "Control? My dear, you misunderstand. I volunteered to be by his side even in the face of danger. He is my friend, and he has earned my loyalty, and I have been inspired by his courage and even-on occasion-his compassion. While he does his best to display a suit of emotional armor, I know he is a man who feels things deeply."
    She brought her eyes up quick and widened in what had to be surprise, or perhaps shock.
    "The only things the Trevor I knew ever felt deeply were anger and cruelty."
    Ashley clamped her lips down abruptly as if trying to stop the words.
    "What do you mean, my dear?"
    "Nothing. Never mind. I talk too much. Trevor always told me I talked too much."
    She stood to leave. He touched her arm. "You have nothing to fear."
    She reconsidered. The trees rocked from the gentle persuasion of another cool breeze.
    "Nothing…nothing to fear…" she sat again and rolled the words on her tongue.
    "I understand how foolish that may sound. After all, your city is under siege. I know that you have plenty to fear, and you have my sympathy."
    A short, sardonic chuckle escaped her lips. "Fear? Oh yes, we have much to fear. But for me-for many of us-we had more to fear before, when Trevor was still alive."
    "I do not understand."
    "Trevor and I were together before…before-"
    Johnny used the phrase that was common on his world to finish her sentence: "All this?"
    Ashley nodded. "I suppose so, yeah. Then the war came. He grew into the great leader. He inspired those around him and they followed him to victory after victory."
    "I see our Trevors are indeed similar."
    "Please don’t say that. Please. I had hoped… I have hope… that is not true. That maybe on your Earth, that your Trevor…that he…"
    "What? What happened here to Mr. Stone? I know he was killed on the battlefield."
    "Yes. And many of us cheered that day."
    She absently touched the scar on her cheek. "I read, in the reports, that your Trevor Stone has a son. Is that true?"
    Johnny nodded. She went on, "Our Trevor may have had children. Probably does, from his mistresses. But he never wanted a family. One of the few things he didn’t want."
    "It sounds to me," the Reverend contemplated, "that your Trevor indulged himself. A man, perhaps, of passion?"
    "A horrible, terrible, frightening man. Is that the Trevor Stone you know?"
    He answered, "Not at all. He has done some horrible things and made decisions that haunt him to this day, but I know his heart is in the right place."
    "Haunt? Could it be that your Trevor has a conscience? That is something my Trevor Stone discarded as he grew into the great leader. The great warrior. The killer."
    "Wait one moment. What is it you’re trying to tell me?"
    "I am telling you that the Trevor Stone here, on my world, became a brutal man. He killed all of our enemies and did it with delight."
    "Ms. Trump, on our world, we, too, have killed our enemies without mercy. Even I have sometimes been infected with a righteous vengeance. I have dispatched an untold number of our foes, and will gladly do so again in the name of survival."
    "The name of survival?" She echoed. "How many of your enemies did you torture for pleasure? How many of your foes did you enslave for fun? How many of his own people did your Trevor execute because they questioned an order or spoke ill of their Emperor?"
    "Um, well, I don’t think he ever would-"
    "I loved Trevor Stone; until he became a killer. Before he had unquestioned authority. Before he became…" Again, she stroked the scar on her face.
    "He did that to you?"
    "When I left him. When I could take no more of his abuse. He visited pain unto his enemies…and to those who loved him. Used them. He…he…explored all…everything…he indulged. Whatever he wanted. Whatever desire, whatever whim. On the battlefield or…or…"
    "…or in the home?" Johnny spared her from rougher words.
    "When he died, we cheered and then fought ensure there would be no second Emperor."
    "You had a civil war. I have heard. The result was The Committee and led to reversals in the war, did it not?"
    She agreed. "We were weakened by the infighting. First our enemies overran outlying outposts and re-supply centers. We didn’t realize how weak we were until it was too late."
    "Please forgive me, Miss Ashley, but your Committee appears certain to be the end of humanity on this planet. I fear for your future if new leadership is not found."
    "I know. We all know."
    A vehicle-a kind of elongated station wagon-rumbled along the road. Ashley waited until the sound faded then spoke again, "I read the reports from the expedition to your world. It sounded as if your Trevor was still with…still with…"
    "Yes," Johnny saw no reason to hide the truth. "On my world Trevor Stone is with Ashley. Together they have a son. A very special young boy."
    A smile tugged at the edges of her lips.
    He asked, "And here, did Major Forest help turn him into a monster?"
    She shook her head and answered, "I wish I could blame it on her. I wish I could say that she stole him away. I knew Nina from military training school. Her, I, and Jolene Crawford."
    "I see there is much that is different here."
    Ashley barely heard him. She strolled about in memories. "Nina was a shy girl. Quiet. Not liked at all; an outcast. Except in a fight. That was the one thing she was good at. That changed after Trevor took an interest in her. Anything-any body-he took an interest in was changed. Usually for the worse."
    Johnny put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Tell me, what is it you seek from all this? What do you want me to do?"
    Ashley pondered that question for several long seconds before finding a way to word her answer. Those words came but laced with nerves, as if she spoke a state secret.
    "I’m not supposed to be talking to you, none of us are. We've been told to stay away from you. Someone may be listening. I have to watch my words."
    "Why on Earth would you be told that?"
    "Keep Trevor safe. Get him away from here, back to your world as fast as you can. If you can’t get him home right away, then keep him safe."
    "Safe? Your city is weakening and the foul beasts are reaching for humanity’s collective throat. I’m not sure I can keep him safe from that."
    "That’s not what I mean."
    "Then what?" He asked. "What is it I must save him from?"
    "Reverend Johnny, you must save him from himself."
    – "They’re idiots!" Trevor ranted to Major Forest in the back seat of the car.
    "Yes, yes I know," she said. "But I had to get you out of there."
    "Or what? Or I’d rip their throats out? Maybe that’s what should have happened. Maybe you should let me toss them out. They’re a disgrace."
    Trevor spotted the unnamed driver’s eyes glance at him in the rear view mirror.
    "What? You got a problem?"
    "Easy," Nina soothed. "He’s okay. He’s a friend."
    "A friend? Ain’t that just great. Yippee and all that-" He stopped and considered her words. The inflexion. The suggestion. "A…friend?" He repeated, softer.
    "Yep. I mean, me and Snowe, we’ve got lots of friends. You know?"
    "Yeah. Okay. And The Committee, do they have lots of friends?"
    Nina slumped in her seat and ran a hand across his cheek. "Yep. They’ve got lots of friends. Some in the technical departments. Some in operations. A whole bunch in logistics and supply. Why, they’ve even got some friends in the officer corp."
    "Yeah. I figure two out of the three Legion Generals are their friends."
    "Not Director Snowe though, huh? He runs the Third Legion, right?"
    The Major told him, "That's right. You should know that Jakob-Snowe-is the one who got us the inside skinny on how to get over and fetch you. He’s pretty well connected."
    "But The Committee has two out of three. On my world, we say that ain't bad."
    "On my world we say ‘give things time.’ Word of the Emperor being back is starting to spread. I mean, officers see those readiness reports. They hear about things like knocking a Battleship out of the sky. Those things make an impression."
    Trevor looked out the side window and considered. Despite the uneasy feeling her suggestions conjured in his belly, he nodded, and told her, "Well, I always like to make a good impression. I suppose I’ll be on my best behavior…for now."

18. Memories

    General Jon Brewer stood in his wife’s office on the first floor of the estate. A stack of newspapers recently couriered over sat atop her desk. The style and quantity of those papers varied, ranging from glorified pamphlets preaching God's role in the invasion to broadsheet publications nearly resembling the big-city papers of yesterday.
    She grabbed one and handed it to him. The headline blared: IS TREVOR STONE DEAD?
    As he stared at the words, his hands trembled.
    Not quite a week ago, Evan Godfrey had interrupted the covert council meeting with threats of insurrection. Their tale of a secret mission had not sat well with the Senate "President", but Jon could not blame Evan for the leak. Indeed, this headline did not really come as a surprise.
    Trevor Stone had not been seen in nearly three weeks. For a man who served as the glue holding a fragile empire together, such a disappearance could not go unnoticed for long.
    Canceled meetings, a pile of reports requiring response, armies awaiting orders, overdue political appointments…the list of outstanding items in need of Trevor's input accumulated fast, and the press-as fledgling as it was in the post-Armageddon world-took notice.
    Jon and the others around the estate could only say, "Trevor is not available" or "he'll get back to you" so many times before people became suspicious. No doubt rumors of Omar's mysterious science team or the surprise, frantic offensive by General Hoth in Ohio raised those suspicions even more.
    Now things came full circle. Evan's questions in a basement last week had become headlines in the newspapers. If things did not get resolved soon, all that they had gained in more than six years of fighting could be lost.
    "Hey," Lori pulled Jon from his thoughts. "I love you. It’s going to be okay."
    He looked up from the article. "I love-."
    Gordon Knox stuck his head in and interrupted, "Jon, you had better come with me."
    First, Jon felt it important to finish, "I love you, too."
    With newspaper in hand, he followed Knox to the basement nerve center…
    …Ashley Trump stood in the mansion's master bedroom, staring at one of the two big closets there. Specifically, his closet.
    She took a deep breath and then slowly-as if fearing booby traps-opened the sliding door. There she found a crowded rack of clothes, mostly military but also dress suits, jackets, and even a tuxedo she had never seen him wear.
    Using both hands, she parted the clothes and peered into the darkness behind. As her eyes adjusted, she saw old shoes and boots, a rifle, and a large cardboard box.
    Ashley dropped to one knee, leaned in, and grabbed for the box. Her hands slipped the first time she tried to yank it from the shadows. A second attempt succeeded.
    She retreated from the closet and opened her prize, finding memories inside. Like an archeologists, she dug into Trevor's past.
    On top, photos of his parents as well as a baseball mitt scavenged from his old home.
    The next layer revealed a high school diploma as well as his degree from Luzerne County Community College.
    She dug deeper, beyond articles cut from the Baltimore New Press fawning over the liberation of Columbia and Atlanta, through scathing clippings concerning New Winnabow.
    Below everything, hidden under the son’s memories and the Emperor’s legacy she found a small square box with a blue lid, no emblem, no markings, no clues.
    Ashley held the box in her hands, both of which trembled as she opened the lid…
    …The spongy Nerf football floated in the February air after leaving the hand of Benjamin Trump. It spun and wobbled with a trajectory far removed from a spiral.
    Jorge Benjamin Stone-looking clumsy in his heavy blue and red winter coat-stumbled left then right as he adjusted to the ball’s approach which bounced off one arm, the other, then fell to the ground where it rolled in the quarter inch of snow on the mansion's front lawn.
    "That a boy Jorgie! Good try!"
    "Ah, darn," the kid cursed his fumble.
    "Throw it on over to grandpa, kiddo!"
    The older man continued his personal quest to keep his grandson distracted from the fact that he had not seen his father in almost three weeks.
    Jorgie, as much as he missed his dad, had not yet broken down into fits of hysteria or tears. Indeed, grandpa and the boy’s mother were both impressed-perhaps even disturbed-by how well JB handled the separation.
    Don’t worry mommy, father will be back soon.
    I just can’t wait until father comes home so I can show him my new drawings.
    JB picked up the ball, cocked his arm, and then flung a wobbling pass to his grandfather…
    …The three plasma screen televisions along the wall in the basement conference room carried video from three difference sources.
    One played a tape of the previous night’s NBN news broadcast.
    Another replayed a recent report from a station in Virginia covering events outside the Governor’s residence, a stately 19 ^ th Century home that doubled as regional military headquarters.
    The third streamed the live local signal from a regional television station.
    Jon Brewer stood in front of the three screens. The sights and sounds of the three different feeds mixed together into one jumbled mash of descending chaos that conspired to hypnotize the General like a deer caught in oncoming headlights.
    Gordon Knox hovered behind, his eyes darting from screen to screen to absorb each new sight; each new implication. His mind calculated and recalculated with every new image.
    Two other men occupied the basement conference room, both couriers from Imperial Intelligence and responsible for delivering the tapes now playing for their superiors.
    "Our top story is the disposition of Emperor Trevor Stone. It has now been well over two weeks since the last public appearance…"
    "The protestors are refusing to leave the grounds until someone from the Imperial Council admits that Trevor is no longer in charge of…"
    "You’re looking live now at a food distribution center outside of Hazleton. The crowds began gathering early this morning as rumors of the Emperor's death spread like wildfire…"
    "…our reporters have camped outside the mansion at Harveys Lake in a so-far futile attempt to get a response to our inquiries…"
    "…I asked several of the demonstrators if their presence was encouraged by members of the Imperial Senate. While they denied that these protests are politically motivated, there is no denying that the Senators themselves are jockeying for position should Stone in fact be gone…"
    …Ashley pulled two photographs from the blue box and absently strolled from the bedroom into the adjoining office with her eyes glued to the images.
    The first shot captured a group standing arm and arm at some kind of celebration as evident by their eclectic but overall formal wear. She recognized Lori and Jon Brewer as well as Dante Jones, each with big smiles, a few apparently fueled by consumption.
    At the center of that line stood two people, the first the man with whom she shared a bed and had mothered a child: Trevor Stone. He wore the tuxedo she found in the closet. He had never worn that tuxedo for her.
    Next, a blonde woman with wavy curls in hair falling to her shoulders, attractive blue eyes, and in a striking black dress. Trevor's arm held the woman's waist tight, something more than friends merely lining for a picture.
    Ashley did not need to be told; her instincts identified the woman easily enough.
    Nina Forest…
    …The spongy football left grandpa’s hands again, this time with a tighter spiral.
    Once again, JB stumbled to move into position to make the grab but at the last moment he looked away, his eyes diverted to the mansion behind him, his eyes finding and locking on the second floor balcony and the closed glass doors there. The forgotten football bounced to the snowy ground.
    "JB? What’s wrong?"
    Grandpa followed the child’s gaze but saw nothing out of the ordinary.
    Jorgie knew different.
    Without warning, without a word, Jorge Benjamin Stone ran away from the game of catch with his grandpa. He hurried across the yard, his feet crunching on the thin layer of crusty snow as he raced inside…
    …The images on the screens continued flashing a collage of the uncertainty sweeping the fledgling nation like a tsunami crashing to shore and carrying inland. Groups on the verge of turning into mobs, newscasters dismayed at the lack of response, concerns over supplies, the war, and unrest.
    Trevor had forged order from the chaos of the invasion. Without him, it would all fall apart and Jon felt powerless to stop it.
    "General Brewer, sir," one of Knox's men reported. "We intercepted a communication from Internal Security in D.C. to Dante Jones asking questions about the chain of command."
    Knox responded to in incoming call and said, "I've got A-G Center on the line. It’s Stonewall; I’ll put it on speaker."
    The NBN newscast tape spoke to a man on the street: "No, no, he’s not dead. Don’t say that, man. That’s bull. He’s not dead. He can’t be dead."
    Voices and images crashed together in Jon's mind becoming a muddled mishmash of information overload jamming his thought process.
    "Some of the I.S. officers in Washington are saying something about a clause in their funding that indicates they report to the Senate and not the Imperial Council."
    "Hello? I say, is anyone there? Jon? Gordon? I think we need a little direction out here. Some units are starting to wonder who is in charge. Shepherd is due back any time now. I just hope there’s an army still here for him to command."
    Gordon Knox's hand fell on Jon's shoulder.
    "You have to do something. You’re in charge now…"
    …Ashley put aside the group shot and examined the second photograph, apparently a still-shot from a video image.
    She held the photo in one hand while her eyes studied it, not so much the image itself, but the understanding it delivered. The answer to her loneliness, to the mystery of Trevor's heart, to the malaise blanketing the life she led with him.
    Ashley barely heard the stumble and clunk-clunk of footsteps as they raced toward her.
    JB, panting, stopped in the doorway and looked at his mother. She met his eyes and shared a moment; so much can change in a moment.
    The picture slipped from her fingertips, fluttered in the air like a dead leaf from an autumn tree, and came to rest on the floor.
    Jorgie followed his mother's eyes to the fallen photo depicting Trevor and the blonde woman in the black dress, cheek to cheek and smiling.
    Smiling the way two people smiled when they are in love.
    – The conference room remained crowded for most of the day. Aides and assistants came and went; couriers delivered more tapes and special editions of newspapers.
    Through it all, Jon watched the video play and listened to the voices on the tapes from radio broadcasts and read the words written in ink.
    Knox barked orders. Orders to his aides and assistants. His operatives.
    Orders like ‘get someone we can trust over to the train station in D.C. to keep an eye on things," or "call over to Senator Benson’s office and tell him to remember who his friends are; tell him I may need a favor and he damn well owes me."
    However, by the time night fell the crowd dissipated leaving behind only two souls, General Jon Brewer and his wife, Lori.
    The plasma screen monitors flickered off, newspapers and communiques were piled together and pushed into a corner.
    Lori leaned against the old bar, the one with the bullet hole from Stonewall's pistol. Jon sat at the head of the conference table, the seat normally reserved for Trevor Stone, with his eyes fixed on clenched hands.
    "He’ll be back," she said but it sounded less sure than the first three times she said it.
    "I don’t know what to do," Jon finally spoke to her after several minutes of silence. "It’s like the vultures are circling. I need more time to sort it out."
    "Yeah. And it’s Evan Godfrey who’s got the vultures flying. Maybe you should let Gordo take care of that problem. I know he’d love the chance."
    "I’m sure he would, but it’s not just Evan. It’s everyone. Everyone from the army to the farmers. I mean, wow, I guess I never really thought about how he…how he…"
    Lori finished for her husband, "How Trevor held it all together."
    "That’s what he is. That’s his job."
    "Whaddya mean? What he is?"
    From the stairs came a new voice, the voice of Ashley.
    "She’s trying to say that without Trevor, it all falls apart. That he was the man who kept everything in balance."
    As she descended the stairs, they saw that Ashley held something in her hand.
    "Without Trevor," she repeated. "It all falls apart."
    Ashley threw the photograph on the table in front of the Brewers.
    "You’re going to tell me what happened while I was…while everyone thought I was dead. You’re going to tell me how Trevor fell in love with Nina Forest, and why they’re not together now."
    – Ashley stood alone by the fire in what had been a living room but in recent years served as a reception area for the mansion.
    In her mind she played the story over and over again. The story of the belief she was dead, the story of two lost souls finding one another in the form of Trevor and Nina. The story of their separation-not by choice-and stolen memories ensuring the demise of the relationship. Then the order to keep the secret so as the temptation would remain one-sided.
    Since her return on the ark, she felt coldness in his smiles, even in his touch. But to learn, in truth, that she was a substitute; a second-place consolation prize, well, it had taken all of her dignity to keep from falling into tears. She would not cry. Certainly not in front of Lori.
    And now he had been spirited off to somewhere-perhaps even another world. Perhaps a duplicate Earth.
    The concept of multiple dimensions was one so huge that Ashley did not take it apart to analyze. She merely accepted the facts as presented. One of those facts was that a woman-a Nina Forest-from that other Earth had come to her world with the goal of snatching away Trevor.
    In the fireplace, flames wrapped eagerly around logs. Smoke raced up the chute while heat billowed out. She knew if she took a few steps away from the fire the warmth would fade and the cold would creep back in.
    Her son cautiously entered the living room. He moved delicately, as if she were a sleeping Troll he dared not disturb.
    Ashley turned and glanced in his direction. She presented the boy with a smile that faded as quickly as it came. He did not smile back. He could not think of a reason to smile.
    JB watched his mother stare at the fire. He licked his lips as he searched for words.
    After much consideration, he said, "Don’t worry, mommy, father will find a way home."
    Ashley spoke words that she intended only to think, but her state of mind allowed them to slip out.
    "What if he doesn’t want to come home?"

19. Counter Attack

    Trevor spent the next two days stewing around Thebes doing nothing of note and most certainly not writing any reports for The Committee. Furthermore, he avoided Nina-Major Forest-like an addict running from heroine.
    Fortunately, this proved easy because she spent those days working ‘shit duty’ (whatever that was) as penance for her role in the "failed" mission. On the other hand, he could not avoid Reverend Johnny who suddenly seemed focused on one thing only: finding a way home.
    Eventually, he did find something to focus his energies.
    Trevor and Johnny stood outside of their apartment building waiting for ground transportation to the Third Legion’s training facility when sirens sprung to life across the city, reverberating around the tall buildings and along empty streets.
    What if someone held an air raid and no one was there to hear it?
    "God in heaven, what travesty is being visited upon us?"
    Before Trevor could answer a vehicle skid to a fast stop in front of the hostel. Major Nina opened the door and ordered, "Get in!"
    "What? What is it?"
    The siren wailed on.
    "It’s the Chaktaw."
    – The northern perimeter of Thebes offered three lines of defense.
    Furthest out, the remains of a wall broken into isolated pillars of stubborn concrete and piles of debris loosely formed into berms. Stretches of rusting barbed wire, spiked ditches, and crosses that made Trevor think of tank-taps from his home world completed this line of physical obstacles that stood in poor condition, no more than an annoyance to an attacker.
    According to Major Forest, explosive charges controlled from the 'Perimeter Command Center' overlooking the battlefield comprised the second line of defenses.
    The third and final ring included concrete bunkers and earth works hiding infantry and machine gun nests. However, gaps in this line and a lack of personnel inhibited its effectiveness.
    Trevor and Johnny followed Nina to the Perimeter Command bunker, an armored observation platform behind the three rings. There they found Director Snowe as well as an older black man named General Gronard. The General commanded three thousand soldiers of the First Legion manning the northern lines with elements of Snowe's Third Legion in support positions.
    As he waited for the battle to begin, Trevor noted that the officers in the bunker spent more time consulting manuals and maps than observing the field before them.
    When he expressed concern to Nina about a lack of preparation, she told him that The Committee had authored a booklet on procedures for defending the northern perimeter. The military followed that booklet-each and every time-to the letter.
    Fortunately for the defenders of the city, Nina said that the Chaktaw had their own play book and they followed it time and time again. This was a well-learned and oft-practiced confrontation, and both sides knew the steps like country folk at a square dance
    "They’re coming in. Heads up; artillery!"
    Shouts of "inbound!" echoed across the defensive lines.
    Trevor ducked behind the protective plating of the bunker, but still dared a view toward the battlefield. He watched the first artillery bursts hit the lines. Seeing what that artillery did…it filled him with a sick sense of dread.
    Not again.
    Red balls of incoming fire smacked the ground with seemingly little effect; barely a tremor but leaving a glowing, hovering sparkle. That sparkle sucked in everything within a few meters like air rushing to fill a vacuum; sucked in and vaporized.
    "Awe…shit. I hate these guys," Trevor grumbled.
    "Huh? You’ve fought the Chaktaw before?" Forest asked.
    Johnny, crouched in a protective position, answered, "We never learned their proper names. We dubbed them ‘Vikings.’ I suppose we can update our Hostiles Database."
    "What’s a Viking?"
    "Never mind. It doesn’t matter. But they were some of the best fighters we faced."
    "Yeah, well, some things are the same over here," Nina said
    The strange artillery rounds poured in for several minutes but managed to inflict only a dozen casualties. It seemed the men of Thebes had grown accustomed to such a bombardment.
    Bwoom! Phfffttt!
    A ‘shell’ landed close enough to the bunker that the wind from the suction blew through the open viewport, causing papers and loose objects to whip about.
    Nina told them, "After the artillery they’ll try to find a hole, charge through, and we'll beat them back. After that, they'll go away until next time."
    "The machinations of their stratagem are quite apparent," the Reverend analyzed. "They are bleeding your manpower and supplies dry."
    Nina answered, "Yeah, well, tell us something we don’t already know. They’ve been doing this for months."
    From across the bunker, General Gronard spoke in firm, steady voice issuing orders through a communications station. "Prepare batteries one through six for reprisal fire."
    Trevor recalled the Battle of Five Armies noting, "They did the same to us one time, but on a smaller scale. Back then they tried to do the job in hours. You've got more people than we had then, so they need months to do the job. Same tactic, just on a larger scale."
    Reverend Johnny replied, "Ah yes, but I fear a bayonet charge is not a feasible solution."
    More enemy artillery slammed the three defensive rings. Shouts. Screams.
    Frustrated, Nina said, "I have no clue what you two are talking about, you know?"
    Trevor touched her shoulder and said, "It’s not important. You say they do this all the time. Do you respond the same way each time?"
    "Of course. We always beat them back so until they change, why should we?"
    Trevor overheard Director Snowe saying to Gronard, "Where is your reprisal fire? Get those batteries going."
    "They had a technical problem in fire control. It should be operational in a moment."
    Trevor turned to Nina. "Counter battery fire. That’s what you do, each time?"
    She nodded.
    Trevor stood-actually hunched-and moved over to the two commanding officers
    "Director Snowe, General-Go-Tard?"
    "Sorry. Listen, don’t fire your artillery."
    Gronard's expression suggested Trevor spoke words of insanity. He said, "The Committee has set the procedures for defensive warfare based on extensive-" A nearby explosion caused him to pause. "Each time we are successful. I see no reason to change tactics."
    Trevor’s said in a calm, reasoning voice, "No, you do see a reason to change tactics. You’re a General. You’re a warrior. But you don’t want to go against The Committee."
    "The Committee is in charge."
    "The Committee is three bureaucrats trying to micromanage this war. You’re a General. You have to know that using the same tactics time and again is going to fail."
    "The Chaktaw don’t seem to think so."
    "They’re setting you up. You know that. What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about The Committee; if General Gronard had all the responsibility for protecting this city?"
    The General considered. The incoming artillery barrage slowed to an occasional pop.
    Gronard looked at Snowe who nodded, a little.
    "Batteries one through six," the commanding General radioed. "Hold your fire. Re-set range to…to…" Gronard looked out from the bunker with his binoculars. "…re-set range to Alpha plus two hundred meters. Do not fire until I give the order. Do you understand?"
    An unsure voice on the radio answered, "Um…yes…sir."
    Gronard addressed both Trevor and Director Snowe, "Right about now, they’re wondering why we haven’t returned fire."
    Snowe's eyes narrowed and he added, "They may believe we lack ammunition."
    "Then they’ll come," Gronard smiled. "Probably thinking today's the day they break through."
    Stone asked, "Am I right to guess you usually detonate those planted charges in the second defense line on their front wave?"
    "Not today," Gronard said. "Today we’ll wait a bit."
    Snowe asked but without any sense of alarm, "And if they do break through?"
    "That’s what Third Legion is for, right?" Gronard answered with a question of his own.
    "Where are the Third Legion support elements?" Trevor thought a step ahead.
    "They’re in a staging facility by the weapons depot," Snowe answered. "They could be here in five minutes by foot."
    Trevor turned away from the two commanders and approached a table in the middle of the bunker. There he found a map protected under a sheath of hard plastic onto which the strategists had drawn symbols in marker; their version of push pins, no doubt.
    "So? So what was all that about?" Nina asked.
    Reverend Johnny warned, "I fear you are upsetting the status quo?"
    "Nina," Trevor waved a hand over the table. "Translate this for me."
    The Major pointed to the map as she explained, "It’s the area north of us. Like, you can see the defensive lines. Here…and here…these lines with the jagged check marks are the fixed emplacements. And here…those circles with the stars are the explosive charges."
    "What about the terrain out there, where the Chaktaw are coming from."
    "Oh. Okay. Well, it’s flat for about a kilometer, then there are some hills-nothing big-and then there’s a lot of, like, wasteland and a quarry. We strip mined it into a big dust bowl years ago to get at the minerals."
    "And they always come from the north?"
    Forest answered, "Yep. And they’ll retreat that way too. That is, if they don’t bust through our lines now that we don’t have reprisal fire hitting them."
    "What’s this, here, east of the wastelands and quarry?"
    She peered close. "That’s a dry river bed."
    Trevor traced the river bed. It pushed east then looped back west not far from the quarry along the enemy’s anticipated path of egress.
    "They go through this quarry? Each time?"
    "I think so, yeah. I mean, wherever they’re attacking us from it’s somewhere directly north, so that’s the quick way. But, hey, that base of theirs has to be a lot of kilometers away. Our recon has never spotted it. I don’t think we can hit it from-"
    "Okay. Relax," Trevor assured. "I don’t want to hit their base. Just curious, that’s all."
    The Chaktaw’s artillery bombardment ceased without challenge from human counter-fire. The soldiers of Thebes in the defensive emplacements fidgeted nervously, certainly wondering why their guns had not answered the enemy.
    Then came the shock troops and Trevor saw that, yes, the Chaktaw were the Viking invaders Trevor knew from his Earth.
    They poured forward in two sledgehammer-like columns dressed in camouflage ponchos. Trevor had seen those ponchos turn black and green for battle in the forest. The Jon Brewer of Trevor’s Earth had seen them turn white to blend into the arctic landscape. Reverend Johnny had seen them both times, but never in such numbers with their ponchos changing to earth tones to hide best against the brown tundra of the land they crossed.
    At least three thousand came, another two thousand waited to exploit any breakthrough.
    The columns included large beasts, some carrying troops on their shoulders. The things-fat lizards the size of elephants-wobbled side to side as they walked. In addition, some of the Chaktaw rode big motorized tricycles.
    As they approached, more Chaktaw artillery fell but this time delivered a smoke screen of the same color as the earth tones on the enemy ponchos.
    "Here they come!" Gronard stated the obvious.
    "Let’s hope this works…" Snowe stated the obvious as well.
    First through the smoke charged the large lizards, spurred on by whip-wielding handlers. The things roared toward the human lines in a frenzy, knocking over debris and barreling through security wire, their thick skin oblivious to the sharp barbs.
    Then the line of attacking soldiers burst through the smoke screen and pushed beyond the first ring of barricades with little trouble.
    The bunker's radio broadcast, "Command, this is artillery control. The Committee has contacted us to find out why we haven’t fired. I don’t know what to tell them."
    "Just wait for my signal," Gronard replied.
    The raging lizards and the vanguard of the Chaktaw reached the first line of explosives, charging in an enthusiastic sprint as if sensing an opportunity for final victory.
    "They’re going to overrun us!" Forest shouted as she reached for her two pistols hanging in dual shoulder harnesses.
    "Relax. They’re already dead," Trevor spoke loud enough so that his confidence might infect everyone in the bunker.
    The human defenders in the third line of defenses responded to the onslaught. Machine gun fire struck at Chaktaw infantry, portable missile launchers blew a part two of the lizards.
    The incoming wave slowed, but did not stop. They lobbed fragmentation grenades into trenches. They sprayed lethal acid into pillboxes from backpack tubes affixed to hose-like guns.
    That last line of defense became fully engaged with the spearhead of the enemy thrust. Certainly this was the moment the invaders hoped for after months of attack. Indeed, as the smoke screen blew off, the human commanders saw the Chaktaw reserves readying to join the assault; to provide that last assault to breach Thebes' defenses.
    "I’ll order Third Legion forward," Snowe announced but, again, without any panic.
    "No!" Trevor shouted then repeated, "No. We’ll need them for later."
    Gronard set his plan into motion with a radio call, "All batteries, fire!"
    The human artillery came to life, lobbing over the Chaktaw vanguard and into their mustering reserves catching the confident attackers on open ground. Poncho-wearing bodies flew into the air with each explosion, many in small pieces.
    "Demolition control! Ignite primary charges!"
    The explosive second ring of defenses popped off like fire crackers, tossing enemy infantry and decimating the heart of the attack wave.
    The Chaktaw’s own artillery was powerless to intervene; any shots at the human defenses would also hit their own soldiers. In contrast, nothing inhibited Gronard's guns. Shells pummeled a relief force, first halting their advance then sending them into retreat.
    At the forefront of the battle, the two columns of Chaktaw infantry engaging that final ring of defenses found themselves isolated and without support, a change in disposition noticed by the human defenders. The momentum of battle swung.
    "Secondary charges! Detonate!"
    Smoke from explosions, rifle fire, and grenades drifted across the defensive lines. From the bunker, Trevor and the others saw enemy corpses form in piles
    "I will hand you over to ravaging men, artisans of destruction. You shall be fuel for the fire; your blood shall flow throughout the land."
    Johnny’s quotation was the only spoken word in the command bunker for several long minutes; long minutes of watching their soldiers cut down what remained of the enemy's charge, of watching their artillery pulverize the retreating attackers.
    After another half-an-hour of carnage, Gronard halted the bombardment leaving a battlefield covered with enemy bodies.
    Through binoculars, Trevor saw the remnants of the Chaktaw army-five-hundred fighters and support personnel at best-gather beyond the range of Thebes' guns. He saw a defeated enemy, walking with their poncho'd heads slumped and constantly looking over their shoulders as if waiting for another nasty surprise. He saw them hurriedly gather what supplies they could carry and turn to the north, from whence they came.
    In the meantime, the human defenders stood in their battlements and cheered, rifles thrust into the air, waving fists taunted their foe.
    "Amazing," General Gronard said and then looked at Trevor. "You did it."
    "No, General, you did it. I only convinced you to try."
    Gronard drifted into something like a trance.
    "You look…you look so much like…so much like…"
    "I’m not," Trevor cut him off.
    An aide interrupted, "The Committee is on the phone. They demand an immediate explanation as to why there was a change in doctrine."
    Gronard said, "Whatever heat I take for not following the rule book was worth it. They can’t argue with results."
    Trevor realized that everyone in the bunker thought the battle over. He protested, "Wait a second. We’re not done here."
    "We’re done," Snowe said emphatically. "Let’s not push things too hard."
    Trevor stepped toward him and said, "Every time they attack you beat them off. They go away, they come back. Every time."
    "Not like this," Nina cut in. "You really, I mean, we really beat them up good. I’ve never seen them take that many casualties. Damn, we really bloodied their nose."
    "Bloodied their nose? We have a chance to drive a stake through their heart!"
    Gronard spoke into the phone, "Yes, I understand protocol. I saw an opportunity…yes, the military is subservient to The Committee…yes, we’ll be there in a few moments."
    The General hung up the phone, sighed, and rejoined the group.
    He spoke to Trevor, "I'm not sure who you really are but I’d rather have you on the other end of the phone than those…never mind. They want me and Director Snowe right now."
    Snowe protested, "I have to take my men back to base and file after-action reports."
    "Oh no," Gronard corrected. "The Committee wants to see us now."
    Snowe scowled, showing the most emotion Trevor had seen from him since arriving in this alternate universe. The Committee had a hold on these people for some reason or another.
    "Major Forest," the Director commanded without looking at her. "Take the Third Legion units back to barracks. I’ll meet up with you after I get my ass chewed out."
    Snowe then took a step away. Trevor grabbed his arm.
    "You know we have an opportunity right now, today. Why are you letting it slide by?"
    Snowe put it bluntly, "Because The Committee is in charge, not you."
    Snowe and Gronard left the bunker.
    Trevor walked to the observation window. In the distance, he saw the Chaktaw moving away, a defeated army but nevertheless still an army.
    – Trevor and Nina led a mob of junior officers from the First and Third Legions toward a security station next to a heavy metal door far away from any barracks.
    The supply officer there gaped at the grim-faced gang descending upon his post. If he gave any thought to stopping them, it did not show. Besides, with a Major at the head of the group they must have obtained permission from The Committee to access the arsenal. Right?
    Nina confiscated his key and brushed him aside, leading the crew into the armory.
    The officers-volunteers-gathered rifles, fragmentation grenades, and light artillery shells in crates and on carts. At the same time, they stocked up for themselves. The room filled with the sound of magazines clicking into guns, weapon rigs strapping on, knives and bayonets slipping into sheaths and snapping onto barrels.
    Trevor grabbed a rifle from a long rack of guns and then accepted a handful of magazines from one of the men he had recruited.
    Soldiers from the Third Legion-the ones who trained with Trevor for two weeks and heard the stories about the defeated Geryon Battleship-eagerly volunteered.
    Several squads of the First Legion had been nearly as easy to convince. They were battle weary, having spent months successfully defending the northern perimeter, only to watch the Chaktaw withdraw each time with little price paid. After tasting victory that morning, they starved for more.
    Trevor estimated five hundred enemy troops plus dozens more combat-ineffective injured withdrawing to the north. Through these officers, Trevor ‘recruited’ nearly four hundred from the two Legions, and had done it in less than an hour.
    It did not concern him that they would be outnumbered; Trevor knew the attackers had been badly demoralized.
    Furthermore, while Nina explained that the AATC fleet was too well guarded to be ‘borrowed,’ she promised something else; something collecting dust because The Committee refused to expend resources; because The Committee felt content to sit behind defenses fighting off attacks without ever striking back.
    Reverend Johnny pulled a large, heavy machine gun from the wall. While he held little enthusiasm for Trevor's plan, the big gun brought a smile to his face.
    Trevor glanced around the armory. He sensed a combination of excitement and focus from the soldiers. He had done it yet again; he had found the fighter in his fellow man and brought it to the surface. In this case, he did it despite each of these officers knowing they could face charges of insubordination.
    He saw Nina checking her dual pistols and working the bolt on an assault rifle. She felt his eyes on her body. The Major met his gaze and grinned. She liked his eyes on her. She enjoyed him watching her as if she were the only person in the universe.
    The power in the room mixed with the electricity crackling between Trevor and Nina. A raw energy. A dark energy.
    …On the move again but this time the mob numbered hundreds, following Major Forest to a large set of metal shutters at the end of a lonely corridor.
    Reverend Johnny stepped to the forefront, grabbed the handle, and grunted as he rolled the heavy portal open letting free a rush of stale air from a pitch black chamber.
    While the others waited, Nina leaned inside. After the sound of heavy switches activating, lights flickered across a massive garage.
    To Trevor, the place felt more like a tomb with dozens of relics covered in blue tarps and those tarps covered in a thick layer of dust.
    Stone, Johnny, and the rest watched as Major Forest sauntered toward the nearest relic, grabbed its tarp, and-like a model introducing a new car at an auto show-ripped off the cover revealing a metal-framed buggy with gun mounts and seating for four.
    The mass flooded the garage, eagerly freeing the vehicles from their shrouds. Underneath they found more buggies well as three and four-axle assault vehicles and transport trucks.
    Soldiers loaded missiles into launchers, fed chain ammunition into machine guns, and stowed artillery shells in ammunition bins. Then they piled in and hung on wherever they could. The roar of engines and the sharp, greasy smell of fuel fumes filled the motor pool.
    Nina climbed into the driver’s seat of a buggy with Trevor at her side and Johnny behind. In front of them, a horizontal metal bulkhead rolled up. The brilliant glow of the afternoon sun burst in like a fire bomb.
    Nina pushed the accelerator. The lead buggy rolled out and into that sun followed by a swarming, rumbling mass of large and small vehicles, all captured on a security camera…
    …feeding to a large monitor in the Operations Center.
    The sight astounded a technician. He gasped and then drew the attention of Director Snowe, General Gronard, and the three men of The Committee who were in the midst of a spirited conversation about rules, regulations, and protocols.
    In unison, The Committee spied the incredible sight of their army’s vehicles speeding out from the garage like a stampede of angry beasts.
    But they could only watch as…
    …the lead buggy directed the pack of predators along the river bed to the east of the Chaktaw’s path. The rubber tires of the vehicles kicked up a plume of dust.
    Trevor sat in the passenger seat next to the Major, constantly checking his watch to ensure they kept to schedule.
    Bobbing and bouncing on the rough path, they sped north alongside the dried river bed, racing to get ahead of the Chaktaw's retreat…
    …which resembled a mass of shambling, defeated zombies moving through the quarry.
    A few remaining draft lizards wobbled along pulling heavy, catapult-like artillery pieces as well as medical wagons full of wounded. A couple of three-wheeled motor bikes cruised amidst the rabble of shuffling foot shoulders.
    The Chaktaw fighters-still shocked at their defeat in front of Thebes-moved unaware they were being watched…
    …by Trevor Stone through a pair of binoculars.
    What Nina called a quarry seemed more a dirt path surrounded by banks of dusty soil and rocks, most likely the byproduct of the long-abandoned mining operation she had described.
    None of that mattered to Trevor. What mattered was that the ‘quarry’ made for the perfect ambush. So perfect, in fact, he was surprised the Chaktaw had not scouted it first or at least moved their flank guards to the high ground.
    Of course, the humans of Thebes had never pursued the attackers before. Perhaps The Committee's consistently weak and predictable response-or lack thereof-had lulled the Chaktaw into carelessness.
    He observed the enemy column enter the long pass between the banks and held his hand aloft. He waited…waited…then waved the signal.
    Short-range artillery shook the Chaktaw from their daze in a series of blasts claiming several easy victims. After that first volley, the collective holler of hundreds of human troops filled the quarry as they charged over the banks spitting rifle fire and tossing grenades.
    Reverend Johnny swept the shocked column with his heavy weapon and while the design was foreign the results were quite familiar: enemy bodies torn to shreds, brown-shaded camouflage ponchos turned blood-red.
    Nina emptied an entire clip from her bullpup carbine as she raced-nearly stumbled-down the slope. Instead of reloading, she discarded the rifle and pulled both pistols from their holsters. She fired madly, spent shell casings spewed from the ejector ports.
    Some Chaktaw dropped to the ground and fired, others formed hasty lines of defense. Their guns answered and many humans fell in the barrage.
    The second phase of the trap commenced with armored assault cars and gun-wielding buggies entering the quarry from the north and south, sealing their prey in a box.
    Large chain guns swept a swath of death through the enemy ranks. Short range missiles pulverized pack animals and turned motor tricycles into smoldering ruins.
    The Chaktaw managed to launch a few of their own anti-armor projectiles and knocked out several human vehicles…but not enough. Not nearly enough.
    Trevor urged the wave of enraged humanity forward. Three of the enemy stood in his way, firing in his direction. Either through divinity or fortune, their shots went wide. Trevor’s fire did not. He emptied all his bullets into two poncho-wearing enemies. The third tried to reload. Trevor did not give him the chance; he drove his bayonet into the belly of his foe while screaming an angry roar; a beastly roar. The thrust of his weapon hoisted the humanoid off of his feet and threw him to the ground where the carcass rolled.
    More chain guns; more of Nina’s dual pistols; more of First and Second Legion’s infantry firing rifles and throwing grenades.
    Then it stopped.
    Piles of bodies-some human, most not-filled the quarry…
    … Pitiful moans and tearful medic calls replaced the sounds of battle. Dead and dying bodies formed piles across the floor of the quarry.
    Trevor stepped over those bodies with his bayonet pointed down, waiting to spot movement and eager to put an end to any Chaktaw that still breathed. He stopped his work to eye a soldier leading three unarmed enemies away.
    "Hey! Whoa! What’s this?"
    The soldier answered, "Prisoners, sir."
    Stone pulled his side arm. "Prisoners? Fuuuck that."
    Bam! Bam! Bam!
    Trevor holstered his gun and tried to get back to work but Nina approached with a question. "What do we do with the bodies?"
    As Trevor answered, he made sure his voice carried to any within earshot.
    "We take our dead home. No one gets left behind, understand?"
    Trevor emphasized his point by making eye contact with as many of soldiers as he could.
    She asked, "And the Chaktaw?"
    He thought for a moment. He thought about how The Committee's ineptitude had taught the Chaktaw they could attack Thebes with impunity. He thought about humanity down to one last city; humanity trapped in a corner seemingly on the verge of total collapse.
    Whatever mistakes his predecessor had made on this world, this Trevor would not do the same. It was time the Chaktaw and their ilk understood that Thebes would no longer be an easy target.
    He told her, "I have an idea…"
    …The men worked. They smashed the Chaktaw’s carts and wagons into wood beams and metal poles and found straps, rope, and cord to bind and secure. They hammered and built and hoisted as the afternoon grew long and as the sun dropped toward horizon. The sound of their construction echoed over the quarry walls.
    All the while Reverend Johnny watched. He watched with an expression that morphed from disbelief into shock into horror. He could not even register a protest to Trevor, for he feared what the response might be.
    As the last light of day turned orange and flickered away behind the horizon ray by ray, Trevor’s masterpiece was complete.
    While the armored vehicles and buggies loaded supplies and people and bodies in preparation for the return trip, Trevor and Nina stood in the shadows of his creation.
    "So, what is it?" She asked.
    Trevor told her the truth.
    "A warning."
    His answer complete, he walked over to their buggy and climbed in the passenger’s seat. Reverend Johnny sat silent in the back.
    Major Forest took one last look at what Trevor had constructed, then drove them away in the direction of Thebes; in the direction home.
    They left behind the bodies of the Chaktaw, eviscerated bodies hanging upside down in the twilight; blood and gore dripping; arms dangling toward the ground and secured to roughshod crucifixes made of wood and metal.
    Hundreds of them, lined together row upon row along the ridges of the quarry. On display for all to see. For all to know.
    For all to fear.

20. Unleashed

    "The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the Red Death."
    – The Masque of the Red Death, Edgar Allan Poe
    Stone had expected a platoon of The Committee’s guards to arrest him at the city limits. Instead, his welcome-home party consisted of enthusiastic soldiers including many of the wounded who had survived the Chaktaw assault on the northern perimeter earlier that day.
    While they represented only a tiny fraction of Thebes, the crowd would carry their enthusiasm across the city. This day's victory would join with the renewed spirit at the training facilities and the story of a destroyed Geryon Battleship to create a wave of momentum. More disillusioned, unfocused soldiers would change into willing warriors.
    Of course, more people would wonder, who is this man? He resembles their Trevor Stone. Perhaps he would let them believe he was a resurrection, or maybe he would share the story of his own world to more than the select units Nina said knew his true origins. Only time would tell how to handle that thorny issue, but he would choose whatever solution would best serve the cause of victory.
    After returning the armada of vehicles to the motor pool, Trevor, Nina, and Johnny slipped into a sedan to return to their dormitory. As they drove along the dimly-lit streets, Trevor's mind turned from the long term to more immediate concerns.
    "I expect to hear from The Committee soon."
    Nina, driving the car, answered, "We could hide you for a while. I know some places you could stay where they won't find you, at least until we think of something."
    Trevor glanced at Reverend Johnny. His friend rode in silence, staring out at the passing scenery. Trevor felt him seethe with disapproval.
    He ignored the Rev for the moment and said to Nina, "I'm not hiding. Let them come and get me. If they want a confrontation on this, I'll give it to them; nice and loud and for the whole city to hear."
    "They're cowards, Trevor, but they're not stupid. I'd be surprised if they allow you any sort of platform. But honestly, they're probably so shocked at this that it'll take them a day or two to figure out what to do. "
    He did not respond directly to her. Instead, he waved at the city around them and said, "Look at this. Everything is dark. It's like a big tomb around here."
    "Regulations," she said. "After dark The Committee must authorize any external lighting. They don't want to attract attention."
    "That has to change. No more defeatism. That's what today was about."
    That finally drew Reverend Johnny into the conversation.
    "Today was about reversing defeatism, is that what you are saying?"
    Trevor replied, "I suppose you don’t approve of the warning I left behind. I did it for a reason."
    "Yes, of course. I’m sure you have lots of reasons for all that you are doing here. Justification is in great supply, I see."
    "I did what I had to do. What I always do. You see how things are here, Rev. You see these people with their backs against the wall. If we don’t strike back, we’ll be dead."
    "No, Trevor. If THEY don’t strike back they will be dead. This is their world, not ours. We are interlopers. We should not be here."
    Trevor ignored the substance of Johnny’s rebuttal and repeated, "I did what I had to do."
    The other man seized on that idea. "You always do what you have to do, don’t you?"
    "Today was no different. Brutal. But no different. Right?"
    "That’s right, Rev," Stone looked out the window as if he wanted nothing more to do with the conversation he started. "I did what had to be done for the sake of all of us."
    Nina jumped in, "Our boys needed to see something like that today, you know?"
    Johnny ignored her. "And you feel no remorse over today’s carnage? Not a hint of guilt?"
    "Why should I? They’re aliens."
    "Yes, of course, they threatened humanity."
    "They could have overrun us."
    "That’s right."
    "So you had to hang their bodies from crosses."
    A military vehicle passed going in the opposite direction. Its heavy engine rumbled through the cabin of the sedan as it trucked by.
    "It was…it was a warning."
    "Right. A warning to all those who would oppose Trevor Stone."
    Trevor’s eyes grew wide and he shot, "How dare you! Those were alien bastards who were one good attack away from wiping mankind off this planet! Can’t you understand that?"
    "I understand how much pleasure you took in your work today. Look at you; you’re still covered in blood. Your hands are red. You have not even paused to wash them. You enjoyed it, Trevor. You enjoyed killing them without mercy."
    "How many of our enemies did you slaughter without mercy, Reverend? If I recall correctly, you’ve had your own uses for crucifixes in the past."
    Johnny did not stumble. Nina’s eyes glanced in the rearview mirror and studied the Reverend apprehensively.
    "Yes. I have taken great misery to my enemies. I have visited death to them in countless ways. I have been overcome with blood rage on many occasions."
    "You see. No different."
    "I agree, Trevor. No different. What I saw today was as horrific as the vengeance I visited upon those who killed my family. Congratulations, you were able to summon such darkness for your victims even without losing your wife and daughter. Why, it seemed second nature to you."
    Trevor did not know how to answer Johnny. He did not know why he felt an overwhelming desire to find — justification — an answer.
    "I did what I had to do."
    "Yes, yes, I’ve heard that excuse already, Mr. Stone. Tell me, now that you have shown how far you feel you have to go, tell me how more than a year of retrospect has played on your conscience. Tell me how you feel about New Winnabow."
    "How I…how I feel about…what does that have to do with anything?"
    The Major asked, "Who’s New Winnabow?"
    "Trevor Stone unleashed an army of his personal avenging demons onto a town that interfered with our military plans; a town of human beings who had refused passage to our forces on the grounds that they were pacifists. Trevor labored to reach an agreement, but when they showed their stubborn pride he visited great destruction unto them."
    Trevor ringed his hands.
    Nina said, "Sounds to me like it was justified. You have to do what needs to be done. It’s a war and all, you know?"
    "I am not surprised by your opinion on the matter. And indeed, Ms. Forest, I share your evaluation to some degree. But for my friend Trevor Stone, it was a decision he did not make lightly. It was a decision that struck a blow to his very soul. He never-"
    "They deserved it."
    Silence for a moment, and then he went on, "They were stubborn. They were unreasonable."
    Trevor stared out the window at the hiding city.
    "You must feel a great burden lifted from your shoulders. In some ways, I am thankful for that," Reverend Johnny spoke soft to his friend and leader.
    "What? What do you mean by that?"
    "You have been absorbed in guilt ever since you made that decision. But now, now you are absolving yourself of that guilt. Throwing away your conscience makes things easier, of that I am sure."
    "You’re talking nonsense."
    "I second that," Nina added.
    The Reverend spoke in barely a whisper; a whisper laced with sadness, as if Johnny spoke of a deceased friend. "This world is having a strange effect on you, Trevor. It is bringing out a side of you that you had previously kept in a cage. I remember when you were saddened by the idea that your life would be one of killing and destruction. Now it seems as if you are embracing your fate with welcoming arms."
    "Reverend, I’m trying to remember that we’re friends. I think-"
    "We’re here," Nina interrupted as she pulled the sedan to the curb outside the hotel.
    "Trevor," Nina turned in her seat to speak. Johnny grunted, opened the side door, and left his friend and the Major alone inside the car.
    "Here," Nina handed Stone a key card. "This is for the penthouse on the top floor. It was…it was your room at one time."
    "You mean his room. The other Trevor."
    She nodded. "It’s yours now. That is, for as long as you’re here. You’ll find some clothes that should fit you. Try them on."
    "Clothes? I figured I’d shower and change into a new battle suit. Seems like that’s all I’ll be wearing for a long time."
    His tone suggested that perhaps the Reverend’s words had scored a hit or two in Trevor’s psyche. Nina did not seem comfortable with that.
    "Hey, no, we’re not all about fighting around here. Put something sharp on. After what happened today, well, it’s party time."
    "Party time? Is that your way of saying The Committee will be sending someone over to arrest me?"
    She shook her head. "I told you, they move real slow. And they’re cowards. I don’t know…after what happened today I don’t know if they’ll have the balls to stand up to you. The most they’ll do is send you a memo."
    "I guess I’m making more impressions, huh?"
    She smiled. "Just put something cool on. When you’re ready, c’mon down to the front entrance. I’ll have a car waiting for you."
    "A…party?" He was not sure she had been serious.
    "Yeah. I mean, I told you, the Trevor Stone I remember fought hard and partied hard. I got to believe you guys had a lot more in common."
    "A lot… more? What have we had in common so far?"
    Her deadpan stare served answer enough.
    Trevor got out of the car. The sedan pulled away.
    He surveyed the city without lights. The only illumination nearby came from a small band of soft bulbs outside the main entrance to the tall hostel. Johnny stood near that entrance, his eyes staring into the distance.
    Trevor approached his friend and tried to paint on a big smile.
    "Hey, yeah, there’s a party tonight, praise the Lord."
    "A party? I shall pass, Trevor. I do not feel in the mood to celebrate."
    "Jesus Christ, Johnny, will you just let it go. Will you just give me a break?"
    "I love you, Trevor," Johnny said it frankly. "You gave my post-apocalyptic life direction and allowed me to contribute to mankind’s salvation, but that salvation is a world away. This place is not where we belong. I fear it is a world where you in particular do not belong."
    Trevor realized he could not be angry with Johnny. At least not for long.
    He absently rubbed the penthouse key card between two fingers as he collected his thoughts. "There are answers here, Rev. I can almost…I can almost see them. Like images behind stained glass. They’re there. I just need more time to make them out."
    "Are you sure of that, Trevor? Are you sure you think there are answers here? Or is that just another excuse to remain? Another excuse not to find a way home."
    "These people are human beings like us. The same species. The same bodies. A different Earth but still, their Earth. Their home! You would have me leave them to die when I might be able to help?"
    "Yes! You have responsibilities to your people back home, Trevor. To your son. To Shepherd and Stonewall and our Jon Brewer! What is happening without you back home? Maybe the lesson here is that you are an important symbol, even if you’re stuck behind that desk you hate so much."
    Trevor shook his head, "I might be able to find out why I failed here."
    "You can’t undo that failure! It’s not your fault that some other man that looked like you made choices different from the ones you made. This is one place-one Earth-where you are not responsible."
    Stone insisted, "I can make a difference here. I can feel it."
    Johnny paused, huffed, and with a sharp edge in his voice berated, "Yes, it is so simple and easy for you here. Why, I think you prefer having your back against the wall. Just like it was for us in the early days, kill or be killed. So simple. Why, you can justify just about anything when you are fighting for your very survival. But Trevor, you are fooling yourself. Your responsibilities back home may not be as simple, but they are as real."
    Stone deflected, "I can’t leave these people. I can’t abandon them."
    The Reverend scolded, "I know why you can not leave them. You have everything you want right here. You can lead the battles from the front lines like Alexander the Great. And all the time you think you have the woman who was stolen from you. But, Trevor, she is not who you think she is. She is an echo of the Nina you knew."
    Trevor pinched his nose and bit his lip.
    Johnny pushed, "You know that, don’t you? That’s why you indulge your passions so intensely. You are hoping that the physical will take you to the places your heart cannot go with her, because you do not love this woman, you only wish you did."
    "It’s been a rough day," Trevor jumped. "For both of us. Tomorrow morning…tomorrow I’m going to wake up and forget we had this conversation. In the mean time," Trevor wagged the key in the air. "I’ll be staying in the penthouse. You’ve got the room to yourself."
    "Ah, I see. No doubt this world’s Emperor’s old room? Why Trevor, you’re just sliding right into his life very nicely. Must be a good fit."
    Stone refused to take the bait. He had had enough fighting for the day. Nina was right; it was time to blow off some steam.
    "Good night, Johnny. I’ll see you tomorrow."
    "I suppose so."
    Trevor walked inside the main entrance. Reverend Johnny waited behind. He craned his neck to stare at the sky. The stars blinked on and off as strands of clouds passed over head.
    He waited for several long moments as if hoping the crisp February night breeze would cleanse away his foul mood.
    He looked to the shadows. He did not need to see her face to know it was Ashley.
    Johnny made sure no one watched and joined her in the darkness.
    "Ms. Trump."
    "Actually, it’s Corporal."
    Johnny answered, "I fear, Corporal, that I am not affording Trevor the protection I had assured you. This place has a grasp on him."
    She did not seem surprised.
    "It’s not your fault. This is a cursed place. Thebes…" she glanced around at the tall, dark buildings. "…it feels more like a grave every day."
    "Well perhaps it will bring you some solace to know that Trevor beat back an attack from the Chaktaw today and wiped out their entire force. It was, admittedly, a bold move that will alleviate some of the pressure on your city."
    "That’s why I’m here. Word of the victory is spreading through the ranks. The Committee is held up in the Operations Center trying to decide what to do."
    "Do you fear for Trevor’s life?"
    "No. I don’t think they’re going to do anything. They sense that the officers are turning against them. It didn’t take much. I mean, it shouldn’t take much. I don’t know, I just don’t know," confusion chased away her words.
    "I’m sorry," Johnny put a consoling arm around her shoulder. "I forget how difficult this must be for you."
    She took a deep breath. "Now I’m going to show you how difficult it really is, Reverend. If they find out I’ve talked to you, I would be in trouble. But what I do now, well, when they find out they will kill me. But there are some of us who no longer believe in this great cause."
    "The great cause? The war you mean?"
    "When our Trevor died, there was a civil war."
    Johnny knew that. "Yes. From the power vacuum that ensued."
    "It wasn’t only about leadership. It was about this war. It was about whether or not it should still be fought at all. Some of us have grown weary of this crusade. We want it ended."
    "That does not sound possible, my dear. I’m afraid the invaders did not come seeking peace, they came only to bring destruction."
    She hesitated. His words obviously struck a cord.
    "Reverend Johnny, I’m going to tell you something. You’re not going to believe it, so I’m going to show you. Then you’ll believe. Maybe it’s the only way you can save your friend. Maybe it’s the only way I can keep the same mistakes of cruelty and inhumanity from happening again. Maybe it’s…maybe it’s the only way I can help the Ashley of your world; and her son."
    She produced a handful of items from her jacket pocket.
    "This is the ignition key to a small ground vehicle. You’ll find it parked around the corner. As far as any one is concerned it was requisitioned by the Second Logistics regiment. Take it. When you’re done, park it where you found it and lock the keys inside."
    "I can not fathom why I should need a car."
    She held up a combination security badge and key card. The photo was of another black man but with a beard, perhaps a slight resemblance to Johnny but by no means his doppelganger.
    "This key opens a maintenance entrance on the south side of Building One Dash One in the industrial sector. It looks like a big cathedral. You’ll find a map inside the car that will get you there. I’m guessing you can be sneaky. Take a look around."
    "Please tell, Ms. Ashley. What am I looking for?"
    Her eyes glazed and she spoke with a sense of doomed resolve.
    "You are looking for the truth. The truth about the legacy of our Trevor Stone."
    – Trevor found the penthouse in good order and recently cleaned. Before rifling through his twin's belongings, he took a hot-warm-shower, finally scrubbing away the blood of his enemies. Away it went in a whirlpool down the drain.
    After drying off and slipping into a robe, he let his curiosity guide him from room to room. However, he found almost no personal belongings. In fact, he did not find any signs of his old self until he found a box of photographs. The pictures showed him-that is, the other Trevor-posing with soldiers on the battlefield during better days.
    The other Trevor was identical. Same hair, same build. Looking at the photos gave him the weirdest feeling. The feeling of seeing things he should remember, but did not.
    As he dug deeper, he found other photos hidden at the bottom of the collection. They were pictures of Trevor and Nina.
    Explicit pictures.
    Had it not been his face on the body of the man in the pictures, Trevor would have felt himself a peeping Tom. Instead, he found himself intrigued by the lengths to which his other self and the Nina of this world had gone to…well…to get to the physical places they wanted to be.
    With the penthouse so orderly and thoroughly cleaned, he found it hard to believe these photographs had been left behind by accident. He wondered if Nina wanted him to find them.
    Regardless, he turned his attention to the closet, flipping through the clothes inside. Eventually he found slacks and a shirt that straddled the line between casual and formal.
    He put them on, grabbed his recently requisitioned winter jacket, and rode the elevator to the main floor. As promised, a car waited at the curb, driven by an anonymous chauffeur who explained his instructions to take Trevor to "a club" on the west side of the city.
    A few minutes later, Trevor stood outside a short but wide building in what might have once been a commercial district. While the blackout remained in force, he spied a dim red neon and heard muffled music trying to escape through the front doors.
    A guard eyed him suspiciously but did not intervene as he walked inside. He found something he had not seen since before Armageddon: a dance club, packed with people wearing civilian clothes similar to what he would have expected in similar clubs in the old days back on his Earth.
    Ironically, the place felt like an alien environment to him. Flashing lights, beating music, short skirts, and colorful drinks…it all seemed out of place and, given the doom pervading the city, rather macabre. He would have felt more comfortable walking into a Devilbat den.
    He paused inside the main entrance to allow his eyes and ears to adjust, and then moved forward, stopping first at a coat and weapons check before entering the main hall.
    When they had been a new, young couple, he and Ashley visited the local clubs on occasion. Loud music, hard drinks, shouted conversations, and an over abundance of flirting. This one appeared no different, except for being on a parallel universe.
    Along one wall stretched a vast bar showcasing a rack of liquor bottles and mixers. In front of the bar, stools occupied by the younger survivors of this world’s humanity.
    Normally soldiers, technicians, and maintenance workers, they had traded in their battle suits and overalls for skirts and slacks, jewelry and high heels.
    Tables lined the other walls and he saw some sort of booth, most likely home to the club's DJ.
    Blue, green, yellow, and red strobe lights flashed across the dance floor where a few people moved to music that might have qualified as 'grunge' to Trevor's ear.
    He looked around for Nina. She had to be-well there she was but it was only her pony tails that gave her away. She sat on a stool with her back to the bar holding a drink and wearing a white outfit highlighted by a very short skirt and black stockings. The Nina of this world did not leave much to the imagination.
    She spoke with a green-eyed, brunette woman standing next to her wearing some kind of suede dress. They chattered, smiled, and laughed.
    This other woman looked familiar, but he could not quite remember.
    Nina’s hand touched the girl’s shoulder as they shared a thought, the brunette's hand casually-or deliberately? — brushed Nina’s crossed legs.
    He watched.
    Who was she?
    The green-eyed brunette saw Trevor looking at them. Nina followed her friend’s gaze and when she saw him she smiled. A shark’s smile.
    Nina said something to her companion, stood, and walked to Trevor while the green-eyed girl stayed behind and sipped from a frozen drink.
    "Hey, glad you could make it," Nina said as the music pumped and the lights flashed red and green over her face. "His clothes fit you, I see," she felt the shirt. "Guess you two are alike in a lot of ways."
    Trevor found himself looking along the bar at the brunette.
    "Oh, yeah, that’s Jolene. You remember Jolene, don’t you?"
    Trevor vaguely remembered the girl from somewhere, from something that happened a long time ago. Something to do with his getting over to this world.
    "She’s…she’s a friend. She wants to hang out with us tonight. She’s a lot of fun. What do you think? Do you think that would be okay?"
    As she spoke, Nina maneuvered Trevor to an open bar stool. He sat down.
    "Yeah, a, sure," a voice said from his lips but it seemed a far away, distant voice.
    "Oh good!"
    She looked at the bartender and raised a finger then pointed that finger at Trevor. The bartender went to work on a mixed drink.
    "That’s great," Nina repeated. "I was sure that’s what you would think. I knew you’d think that was a good idea."
    He projected a calm demeanor but underneath felt a tremor as images played through his mind.
    "Well, here’s something else for you to think about," Nina stepped in between his legs as he sat on the stool. She pressed against him. She put her mouth to his ear, almost kissing him.
    "I want you to think about…" she spoke slowly, deliberately."I want you to think about two pair of lips…all over you…kissing… and stuff."
    He did not move. Not on the outside.
    "I want you to think about this; before this night is over you’re going to have us- the two of us — any way you want. Anything you can think of…we’ll do it. I bet you’re just full of ideas."
    She pressed tight against him.
    "But before all that…before that…I’m going to let her fuck me… while you watch."
    She stepped out from between his knees, accepted a drink from the bartender, and handed it to him. Somehow he kept his hand from shaking.
    "You sit here, relax, enjoy your drink and you think about that while I go play."
    The music beat on. Nina twirled around and strolled over to Jolene. The brunette reached out and took her by the hand and the two girls moved to the dance floor.
    Trevor held his drink and watched.
    At first they danced harmlessly, like any two girls would dance. The lights flickered around them. The bass shook the room…he felt it across the floor and up the legs of the stool and into his spine.
    He watched.
    Then they danced closer. An arm over a shoulder. A hand on a hip.
    Nina turned her back to Jolene and the two swayed as their eyes found his.
    Jolene’s hand moved…slowly…along the curve of Nina’s body.
    He sat…
    …and watched them in the glow of the candles in the penthouse bedroom, listening to purrs of encouragement, whines complaining of a tease, moans for teases fulfilled.
    He watched as Nina turned her head on the pillow and looked back at him. Looked back at him while she shivered and groaned from what was being done to her. Her eyes closed and her neck strained…her eyes opened and her mouth exhaled a gasp of gratification
    After a while…after Jolene had done everything she could think to do to the passive Nina…after Nina had cried out more times then he could count…after a while Trevor decided he did not want to watch any more.
    Then he was with them. For all the things they had already done, he thought of more to do. Nina had been right. He had lots of ideas. He did not even know from where those ideas came. And they did them all. Eagerly. Cravingly.
    He gave instructions. "Yes…there…like that…now to her…"
    Nothing was forbidden. They refused no command.
    Three bodies twisted and turned amid the sweat of their lust; a ball of carnality. Everything explored. Every dark fantasy indulged.
    And he could not get enough. It became an addiction. Each gratification only brought the burning desire for more. Each satisfaction brief before he demanded something new.
    Finally, the last act came not from satisfaction but from pure exhaustion. By that time he had become a dark shadow, a demon of a man whose most forbidden dreams of lust had been dragged to the surface and set free.
    He collapsed between the two weary women who, like everything else on that world, belonged to him.
    – Despite directions, Johnny lost his way several times. Part of the problem revolved around the size of Thebes but, in truth, he conceded that whoever laid out the street plan for the city did so meticulously; no dead ends and almost every road wide and long.
    Indeed, city seemed almost pre-fabricated. Neighborhoods lacked character and appeared nearly identical. For the first few minutes of his trip, the Reverend thought he might be running through an old cartoon with the same houses and buildings scrolling in the background because the animator lacked the ink to pen more variety.
    At the same time, he contended with a steering-wheel-mounted automatic transmission, a design he had not experienced before.
    On top of all that, he found it difficult to focus. His mind raced with fear and energy ever since Ashley shared the secret of Thebes; a secret he could not believe to the point of his first reaction being to think poor Ashley of this Earth to be mad.
    Nonetheless, despite the obstacles and his state of mind, Johnny found the industrial zone. Once there, he sought out the largest building of the city, not in height but in acreage.
    Ashley’s twin proved correct, the building's design made Johnny think of a Cathedral from back home, but one constructed without any sense of soul or inspiration. Instead of stone, metal served as the primary building block, sculpted into towers on each of the building's four corners that acted as supports with any style appearing incidental. He spied exposed struts beneath the metallic skin, giving parts of the structure a half-finished or, perhaps, hastily-constructed feel.
    A long vousoir framed a pair of imposing doors dominating the building's front. Johnny spied skid marks on the concrete there suggesting the doors served as loading docks.
    The area smelled of combusting fuels and burning electricity. A sooty film seemed pasted on the entire neighborhood and while the exterior lights were blacked out, rays of interior light escaped through a few small, frosted windows.
    As per Ashley's instructions, the Reverend parked on a quiet, vacant street just off the building's south wall and across from a side entrance.
    He did not see any sentries as he exited the car and approached the maintenance door with the key card provided by Ashley. With no nearby light source, he had to search with his fingers to find the slot, which he did. When his card slipped into the hole, a small green light flashed once and he heard a bolt unlock.
    Unbeknownst to the Reverend, a small camera watched him open the door and walk inside.
    He entered a dimly-lit maintenance area that smelled like oil and chemicals. He nearly slipped on a grease stain but managed to steady himself with a hand on a nearby rack of shelves filled with an array of pipes, valves, and tools.
    Three different exits led away from the room. He chose one at random, pushed open the metal door, and transitioned into a tight passageway. As he moved along, he realized that Ashley had led him to a maze of what might be maintenance tunnels. The corridor he traveled felt like a 'back-stage' passage meant to bypass the main areas of the building, maybe for workers, or security, or perhaps these halls were once used to aid in the construction of the entire building, the way scaffolding is used on the exterior for such purposes.
    In any case, the tunnel discreetly channeled him behind offices and shops, out of sight from guards and workers. However, he needed to move carefully for what the tunnel offered in access it subtracted in lighting. On several occasions he banged a knee, elbow, or shoulder and needed tremendous willpower to suppress curses of pain.
    As he dove deeper into the complex, he grew conscious of a hum permeating the building. A hum not unlike one would expect from machinery. It was low but constant and, at times, felt as much a vibration in the walls as a sound in the air.
    After a while, he heard voices and calls. The hoots and orders and complaints of workers in a factory. At one point he gazed through a ventilation duct into a small workshop where maintenance personnel inspected ordnance such as artillery shells and rifle rounds. At another he saw a bank of seamstresses putting the final touches on battle suits and uniforms.
    Not long after, Johnny was forced to find refuge in a supply closet while two laborers enjoyed a smoke break. He was not sure if they smoked cigarettes, cigars, or something more potent, but the fellows took their time and savored their puffs.
    After clearing that hurdle, he exited a side corridor and crossed a metal catwalk hanging from the ceiling above a variety of chambers. Here he saw his first clue that Ashley spoke the truth. Below him, scenes of brutality. He flinched at the crack of whips and grimaced as forlorn moans found his ears.
    However, he could not stop. One of the guards below need only glance upwards to find him spying. Therefore, Johnny proceeded forward with care not to rattle the metal bridge below his feet or otherwise attract attention. If discovered, not only would his life be endangered, but so would the life of Ashley if, in fact, her words proved true.
    Ahead, the skywalk ascended a ramp toward an open archway. As he passed through the opening, a light wind blew across his face, the coolness of which contrasted sharply with the hot, moist workshops he left behind.
    As he entered the open space, he had a feeling akin to walking from the vomitory to the seating sections of a sports arena. Not just any arena, one of the super-sized fields like "The Big House" of Michigan football or Camp Nou in Barcelona, except with a vaulted ceiling overhead.
    Tiered rings circled the area, tasked with some arcane industrial purpose. They resembled bleachers lined with valves and vents flapping open and shut releasing steam and vapors. More walkways as well as safety railings lined the complex between those tiers
    Johnny moved out from the ramp and across the concrete terrace. The valves and steam vents whistled and clanked open and shut behind and above.
    In front of Johnny stood a short railing overlooking the heart of the building; the heart of Thebes. He walked to that railing in measured steps, fearful of the sight Ashley warned of; fearful of what it meant about these people, about the Trevor of this world.
    He reached the railing and took hold with both hands, staring out at the immense area in front and below him.
    His eyes adjusted, taking the sight below and breaking it into digestible pieces but even so, the consequences of this truth threatened to overwhelm his sense. His hands clenched the rail with great force, his eyes widened, and a sharp cold sweat broke out across his body. Try as he might, Reverend Johnny could not even muster an Old Testament passage to capture the moment.
    The truth about the legacy of our Trevor Stone.
    Johnny tore himself away from the sight only by forcing his mind to action; the action of finding Trevor. The action of taking him away from this cursed place.
    He turned to hurry away, to escape, but stopped as Director Snowe and two soldiers blocked his path.
    Snowe's stoic expression did not change. The man did not flinch — not even a little- as he drove a blade into the Reverend’s gut.
    The victim offered a weak gasp unfitting for a man so big and strong. Reverend Johnny’s voice and vengeance once sent the minions of Voggoth running in fear, his machine gun had cut down demonic Wraiths at the polar ice cap and his hands had smashed Viking skulls at Five Armies. He had dispatched dozens-hundreds-of humanity's enemies with energy, confidence, and zeal. Yet he died with barely a sigh, hardly more than a whimper, all with stunned shock carved on his face as if he gazed upon Medusa.
    He collapsed to the ground not from the jaws of a monster or the guns of an alien army, but at the hands of a man.
    Reverend Johnny’s eyes saw no more.

21. Hostile Takeover

    "Now looky here. You making yourself at home and whatnot there, Trevvy?"
    I am dreaming.
    "Of course you dreamin'. Whatchya thinkin'? You don’t belong over there. So I’m sendin' this here special de-liver-ee straight from me to you. Can you hear me now? Hehe."
    Fuck off.
    "Ah, now, see, that just ain’t very nice of you considerin' how I’m tryin' to be all easy an shit. I could be bendin' your ear telling you how you gone off the reservation, but I’m figurin' you know that. So the question is, Trevor, have you had enough ass yet? You work off that big piece of pissed-off you’ve been carryin' ‘round? You ready to hop the A-train for home?"
    They need me here.
    "Need you? Wake up ya’ moron! That ain’t your place to be. I told you ‘bout them rules."
    I have power here. I can make a difference. The others can get along without me.
    "Ahhh, poor Trevvy been feelin' not wanted and all. Boohoo. But let me tell you somethin'; your pals back home are havin' a rough time, things startin' to go squirrelly."
    I don’t want to hear from you any more.
    "That won’t do Trev. You ain’t supposed to be there."
    I’m stuck here.
    "We both know that’s bull poop. Maybe you’re just tryin' to fool yourself. Foolin' yourself into thinking you should help these folks. Foolin' yourself into thinking that lil’ blondie is your lost love. Looks like the same model, don’t she? Tell me Trev, is the ride the same?"
    Shut up.
    "Now I went to a lot of trouble to show you the way home. But you got to do the work, Trev. You know what to do."
    Shut up!
    Trevor’s eyes opened to an explosion of brilliant light.
    "Hey, what’s wrong? What’s wrong?" Came Nina's voice.
    As his eyes adjusted to the morning sun blazing in through one of the few windows, so did his mind. He was in the penthouse- his penthouse-at the top of the skyscraper. He had moved up in the world, in more ways than one.
    Jolene Crawford strolled into the bedroom from the adjoining bath with damp hair but otherwise dressed for the day while Nina sat at the end of the bed in a white robe.
    It came back to him.
    "Is he okay?"
    Nina answered for Trevor. She did so with a sly smile on her lips. "Yeah, sure. I mean, he’s just got to work on his stamina a bit more."
    Jolene pondered, "Hmmm…I don't know. He seemed pretty-"
    "Don’t you have somewhere to go?"
    Trevor’s harsh tone stopped her mid-sentence. Jolene hovered for a moment then slipped her jacket on.
    "Yeah. Sure. I got duty in an hour."
    I’m done with you. Leave.
    "I guess I’ll see you guys around. It was fun."
    Crawford left the bedroom for the front door.
    Nina, unfazed by his grumpy manner, asked, "You might want to hit the shower first, the hot water runs out pretty fast around here."
    He replied with a wave of his hand that sent her heading for the shower while he stood at the end of the bed and slipped on a pair of slacks. His mind buzzed in circles trying to remember what he had been dreaming about. It felt important.
    Trevor took a deep breath and tried to clear his mind. It surprised him to realize that despite the long night only his mind seemed groggy. His body felt strong and tense, as if looking for a reason to expend energy. Perhaps he would go to the training facility to work out. Or maybe join Nina in the shower.
    "Holy shit!"
    The voice came from the main room, accompanied by a series of gasps trying to form a scream.
    Trevor scrambled along the short hall and into the living room. Jolene Crawford stood at the open front door staring at something in the hallway. Nina, struggling back into her robe, hurried behind.
    He pushed Jolene aside and saw Reverend Johnny's body outside the door slumped against the hallway wall, his gut and upper legs soaked in blood, eyes frozen open.
    It took his mind a long second to digest the sight as if the idea of 'dead' and 'Reverend Johnny' were diametrical opposed concepts. When reality finally hit, he turned to Jolene and shouted, "Did you see anyone? Was there anyone here? ANSWER ME!"
    She stumbled for words longer than he liked so he shook her shoulders.
    "No! No! I just opened the door and he was there! I didn’t see anything!"
    Trevor pushed her away and then knelt at Johnny’s corpse, running a hand over his eyes to force the stiff lids shut. Then he squeezed his own eyes tight as a wave of emotions poured in. First came guilt over his series of reckless decisions that eventually led them here. But that guilt drown in a sea of red anger, a much more satisfying emotion because he could focus it outward instead of in.
    Nina's voice-a thousand miles away-asked, "What's that?"
    Trevor opened his eyes and noticed a blood-stained note on Johnny's lap. He leaned close and read: REMEMBER WHO IS IN CHARGE.
    "Trevor…The Committee…oh shit…did they do this?"
    Nina’s first guess was also his guess.
    "The…the Committee..?" Jolene mumbled.
    Trevor stood straight but he did not take his eyes off his friend. His fists clenched.
    Remember who is in charge.
    Yes. It is time to show them. Time to show them who is in charge.
    – A few snowflakes drifted among the buildings of Thebes on a cold but windless morning. The clouds that brought the flurries looked as if they carried a heavy payload of snow to deliver but were not quite ready to give up their cargo. Maybe later. Maybe somewhere farther east.
    Despite the flurries and despite temperatures in the teens, the sentries outside of the Operations Center felt fairly comfortable. With little wind, their heavy parka jackets and balaclavas kept them relatively warm.
    Whatever calm the improvement in weather bestowed to those guards ran away as two armored attack vehicles bearing Third Legion insignia screeched to a halt opposite their post.
    "What is this?" The Captain of the Guard went from annoyed to concerned when he noticed that the rocket launchers were fully armed and pointed at him.
    An assault buggy joined the armored trucks and two people jumped out. The Captain of the Guard recognized them. The first, Major Forest of the Third Legion. The second was, well, still somewhat of a mystery. He resembled his old Emperor and rumor had it he had been riding the asses of every soldier over at the Third L. Other rumors — newer rumors- said he had personally overseen the slaughter of yesterday’s Chaktaw invading force.
    The two of them-the Major and the man-walked to the Captain of the Guard.
    "Major Forest..?"
    She did not speak. The man did.
    "Captain. I’m going to give you a choice. I’m going to give you a choice and you need to give me an answer right now."
    Suddenly that bearable cold became an arctic blast careening along his spine. Partly from those missiles, and partly from the blood rage glowing in the man's eyes.
    The Captain made his choice…
    …Scuffling and shouts from outside the sealed chamber doors interrupted the conversation between the three Committeemen. Two of them sat at their elevated desk reviewing papers and photographs. The third occupied a chair at the oval conference table working on a small computer.
    A heavy thud caused the doors to shake, drawing the attention of Thebes' three leaders.
    "Guard," the one at the table ordered. "Find out what’s going on out there and silence them. We have important work to do."
    One of the two sentries in the room nodded and walked toward the doors. As he reached for the knob, both doors exploded inward. Wood and metal and the sentry’s body parts blew across the chamber in a gale of shrapnel, punctuated by the crack of an explosion. The wave of concussion and debris engulfed the committeeman at the table, tossing him from his chair.
    An angry swarm poured in to the room directly behind the blast, led by Trevor Stone.
    The second sentry raised his rifle. Major Forest fired from her silver pistols blam-blam…blam-blam.
    Two horrified Committeemen remained and attempted to speak from atop their shattered pedestal. Trevor did not afford them the chance. He tossed a grenade between their chairs. Their bodies flew in the air as if their asses had been spring-loaded, and then fell to the floor in two deadened thumps.
    The air inside the chamber grew to a surreal quiet broken only by the rain-like pitter-patter of debris caught in gravity’s grasp. A cloud of dust hovered over the scene.
    Trevor, his invading force, and the stunned spectators in the Operations Center stood and waited to see if a few seconds of violence had truly erased years of The Committee’s rule.
    A groan broke that silence, followed by a sliding sound, then the sound of debris being pushed aside. Trevor searched the piles of scraps, the overturned chairs, and the bloody remains until he found the source.
    The Committeeman seated at the table when the door blasted open lived, his body covered in ceiling tiles and wood chips and he was missing half of his face, but he still drew breath.
    Trevor saw the face of Reverend Johnny on the floor outside his penthouse. Reverend Johnny-his friend-was not drawing breath anymore.
    Every one in the room watched. They watched as Trevor walked in big hard steps over to the crawling man covered in dust and debris. They watched as Trevor raised his assault rifle, aimed the bayonet, and drove the blade home.
    – Eventually the dust settled and the silence broke. Workers carted off the bodies of the three deposed rulers.
    Director Snowe and General Gronard stood in what had, a half hour before, served as The Committee’s chambers. Major Forest hovered near the door looking out at the Ops Center where Trevor moved among the technicians and support personnel, providing more chances to choose.
    So far, Snowe heard no gunshots, suggesting people made the right choice.
    In addition to offering choices, Trevor also shut down communications. The man who would be Emperor again wanted to control every snippet of information in Thebes while he moved to consolidate his newly-won position.
    Gronard asked again, "What caused him to do this?"
    From the doorway, Major Forest said, "After his counter attack yesterday, they killed his friend. I mean, I guess they wanted to send a message."
    "Really?" Based on his expression, that piece of information stunned Gronard even more than the coup. "That doesn’t seem like something they would do."
    "No," Snowe agreed. "But you heard them yesterday. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them that annoyed."
    Gronard absently nodded. "I suppose so. Just seems out of character."
    "Well it’s done," Nina said. "So what do we do now?"
    "Trevor did this?" Gronard repeated what they had already told him.
    "He did it, yeah," Nina agreed. "But everyone followed him. I mean everyone. Me, the guards, the squad leaders from Third L. And, shit, they loved it."
    "So I guess that puts him in charge." Gronard looked directly at Snowe.
    "I guess so."
    "For the man who was probably next in line, you seem to be handing it over to him easy enough. I would have thought you’d have more to say about that."
    Snowe answered, "I guess we’ll just have to see how things go."
    "How things go? Last time things didn’t go so well," the First Legion’s General reminded.
    Snowe said, "Last time we did things half-assed. Things got out of control; there wasn't enough discipline in the ranks. With a few exceptions here and there, we're not dealing with a professional army. We should have anticipated that some people wouldn't just fall in line. This time, we drop the hammer on anyone who acts up; leave no doubt who is in control."
    Major Forest interrupted, "They want to follow him. Our people — our troops- are ready for a strong leader again. You know?"
    The sound of approaching footsteps silenced the conversation. Trevor Stone walked into the room, a rifle slung over his shoulder. He stopped and surveyed the scene.
    "Are there any problems I need to know about?"
    Snowe glanced to Gronard. Gronard turned to Trevor and said, "No problems here."
    "Not here?" Trevor caught the tone. "Where might there be problems?"
    Snowe answered, "Second Legion, General Goss. He supported The Committee."
    Forest asked, "Does he know about this yet?"
    Snowe guessed, "Probably not. If he did, we’d have heard about his troops mustering."
    "I shut down communications in the city. A total lock down. No one knows shit yet," Trevor told them.
    "Then someone better go tell Goss," Director Snowe suggested.
    Trevor said, "I’ll tell him myself. I’ll give him a choice."
    "I’ll go with you," Nina volunteered. "You’ll need some back up."
    Trevor shook his head and ordered, "I want you here in Operations. I can trust you. This is the nerve center. Hold this place and we've got Thebes by the balls. Anyone starts causing trouble, shoot them. This is no time for debate."
    Nina nodded and did her best to suppress an enthusiastic smile.
    Trevor threw his attention at the two Generals. "I don’t want any problems with Goss but I don’t know him. I’m just saying, I’ll need to take a familiar face with me."
    "And a couple squads from Third L," Nina added.
    Gronard said, "I’ll go. Max and I go way back. I’ll talk to him first."
    "That’s good," Stone agreed. "After we get Goss in line we’ll start broadcasting the news across the city. Until then, everything is in lock down. All traffic off the streets. I sent Third Legion troops to man the key check points and secure armories."
    "You’re expecting problems?" Snowe asked.
    "No," Trevor shook his head. "As far as I can tell, everyone in this city has been a bunch of sheep for the last couple years. They may not know who I am, but they’ll take to a new leader easy enough. It’s the Generals and the veterans I’m worried about. But we’ll get them under control quick. Okay then," he pointed to Gronard. "You’re with me. Let’s get this done."
    Snowe touched Gronard's arm and said, "Goss knows who this man is, he received a full briefing before Major Forest jumped universes. Still, he might cause a problem if he's not happy about what happened here. Don't hesitate to put him down fast if necessary, understand?"
    The idea of shooting a fellow General did not appear to sit well with Gronard, but he nodded his head in agreement nonetheless.
    Trevor gave Nina one last look before leaving the room; a look that said don’t let me down. She could not help but offer a big, earnest grin. Snowe saw the grin, too.
    Trevor and Gronard left the chamber and workers dragged away the last of the body bags, leaving Director Jakob Snowe and Major Nina Forest alone in the room. They said nothing for several moments as they listened to the sound of Trevor and his entourage exiting the Operations Center. To their surprise, the techs and workers in the Ops Center did not break into chatter as soon as Trevor left. On the contrary, they appeared more focused on their work than ever before.
    When certain no ears listened, her eyes narrowed and she said, "You killed his friend, didn’t you?"
    "What makes you say that?"
    "Shit, you did. The Committee wouldn’t have the balls for that. I mean, they were probably going to send him another dozen memos before doing anything."
    "Yes, that’s right. That’s about all they were going to do."
    "So you killed Johnny. Why?"
    "Why?" Snowe brushed dust from the destroyed committee chamber off his gray tunic then motioned around the room at the results of Trevor's tirade. "This is why."
    "I had everything under control. You didn’t need to do that."
    "Yes I did and you know it. Did you think you were going to get him to lead a coup just by shaking your ass? Wow, you think a man like that only thinks with his dick?"
    Nina bit her lip but could not find a counter-argument.
    "Relax, Major. You got him most of the way there. You should be proud. He’s starting to remind me of our old Emperor. But to slaughter The Committee? No…he is…he was too honorable of a guy for that. Not in his nature. At best he might have arrested them. And where would that have gotten us? Think The Committee was going to go to a jail cell quietly? Think they would have still kept the secret? I'm surprised they played along as far as they did. No, they would have started talking. Think he would want to rule in Thebes then?"
    The diminutive Director casually strolled to the shattered remains of The Committee's platform. It no longer stood so tall.
    He went on, "But revenge, now there is a motive any man can follow. There’s a motive that can send a man into a rage, and rage is what we got. Damn, from how you described it, he looked a lot like our old Trevor for a few minutes there, didn’t he?"
    Nina walked to him and, through clenched teeth, said, "If he finds out? If he turns on us?"
    Snowe shrugged half heartedly and told her, "That really doesn't matter too much. What is important, Major, is that you remember the terms of our arrangement. If he somehow manages to find a way back to his universe, you have to stop him, even if that means putting a bullet through his head. Do you think you could do that?"
    She averted her eyes. Snowe smiled to himself and said, "Everything comes with a price, Major. For all this, our price tag was simple: Stone never goes home. Face it; even with him here our chances of surviving are long if not for the deal I brokered. Now we'll be getting help. Probably best if you don't mention that to him, by the way."
    Nina huffed then turned to walk away.
    Snowe thought of something and as he spoke he watched her response carefully.
    "I know, if he does find out, maybe you can just shake your ass a little more for him."
    He slapped the Major’s rear end. In an instant — less- the Director found the sharp end of a blade pressing against his throat. She looked at him through the eyes of a murderess.
    "You ever… ever touch me like that again I’ll slit your throat."
    Snowe grinned and said, "Yes, you could put a bullet through his head, couldn't you? Maybe if our new Trevor gets out of line then he can have a little battlefield accident, too."
    She sheathed her blade.
    "I don’t know what you’re talking about."
    "We never did an autopsy on our fearless leader’s body, I didn’t let them. Some were concerned that you were the only witness. They wanted to know if his knife wound was from the front, or the back. I convinced them that Nina Forest would never kill Trevor Stone."
    She hovered in front of him as if caught by a hypnotist’s eye.
    "They agreed because everyone knew how much you loved Trevor. Why, we could all see it. You did everything he wanted. Everything. Like a pet trained to do tricks. All you asked for was the approval of your master. "
    Snowe leaned closer. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Tell me, what finally pushed you over the edge? When did you have enough of his sadistic games? You put up with it for a long time, but then you just snapped, didn’t you? One day you found yourself alone with him, with a knife in your hand, and maybe the part of you that still had some pride left decided to kill him."
    She stumbled for words but could provide no answer.
    Snowe continued, "Problem is, with Trevor gone, what did you have? Where were your friends, Major? Oh yes- what friends? You were always the outcast, always the shy one. Until Trevor took a liking to you. Why, he just molded you exactly how he wanted, didn’t he?"
    "I…I mean he…Trevor loved me. He loved me…"
    "Sure he did. That’s why he shared you. How many dinner parties did Trevor throw only to serve you as the main course? How many home made movies did you star in? See that’s the thing, Major. I can’t understand why you wanted Trevor back. After the way he used you, the things he made you do. Why would you want him back?"
    "This was your idea," she shot.
    "No, it wasn’t my idea. I just found out how to do it. I just made the arrangements. But you, you jumped across universes to bring him back. You risked your life and you’re the one who has spent the last few weeks confusing the Hell out of him…turning him…"
    "Stop it."
    "…turning him into our Trevor. Your Trevor. Doing the things for him that your old master made you do. I’ll give you credit, you were right, he does have some of our Emperor in him. You just had to find it. Do you have a list of your old games? Are checking them off one by one? Still, what is it you’re hoping? You know this won’t last forever. I'm surprised he hasn't found out already, just one slip, just someone we haven't talked to first."
    She said, "We just have to control access and brief those around him. It's worked so far. Nothing to it."
    "Really? Maybe that will work here in Thebes, but what about when he gets out there, looking for survivors? He's convinced he can find more people. Face it, Major, sooner or later he’s going to find out what you’ve done. I don’t think he’s going to like you, or us, then. Maybe you’re hoping he likes playing with you so much that he won’t mind the truth. I wouldn't count on it, Major. A man like that, well, he doesn't like being lied to. Not like this."
    She growled but her words carried no weight. "I did what I did for our people. We have a chance again. He can give us that chance. You’ve seen what he’s done already."
    Snowe said, "Oh, he's done some good, that's true, and just getting him here means we're going to receive a little outside assistance. That's enough to make it worth it. But remember, if he turns on us we have to hold up our end of the bargain. He doesn't go home, Major."
    She said, "You're hoping for that, aren't you? He's done your dirty work and knocked off The Committee. If he turns on us, then maybe you take over now that they're out of the way. You think the people will follow you? They love him for a reason."
    "The people will get used to one person in charge again. Eventually they won’t care who that one person is as long that person keeps them alive. Trevor has made a lot of friends but I still have enough friends, friends who were with me the last time and new friends, out there."
    She grunted and walked for the exit.
    Director Snowe offered one last observation for her consideration. She stopped in her tracks as he spoke, but did not turn to face him.
    "You know, I never thought your plan was going to work. The way you explained it, capturing the Trevor Stone of the other Earth depended on him racing to the front lines to save his Nina Forest."
    "Yeah, that's right."
    "Major…Nina…if you had disappeared here, our Trevor never would have gone running after you. He would have just found himself a new play thing."
    – Across Thebes that day harsh words were exchanged and guns drawn, but no more violence. Trevor’s disposal of The Committee came so brutal and fast that it shocked any opposition into silence.
    With the coming of night, the change in the human city became visible for miles. Trevor turned on the lights and opened the shutters. Spotlights defied the heavens, street lights turned dark thoroughfares into bright boulevards.
    Thebes lived again.

22. The Art of War

    "Whattaya lookin' at? You're all a bunch of fucking assholes. You know why? 'Cause you don't have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers, and say that's the bad guy. So, what dat make you? Good? You're not good; you just know how to hide. Howda lie. Me, I don't have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth-even when I lie. So say goodnight to the bad guy. Come on; the last time you gonna see a bad guy like this, let me tell ya. Come on, make way for the bad guy. There's a bad guy comin' through; you better get outta his way!" — the character of Tony Montana in Scarface
    Despite a few grumbles here and there, Trevor Stone controlled Thebes. He spent two weeks consolidating that control, relying on Director Snowe and Nina to spot potential problems before any disgruntled elements could organize opposition.
    The weather helped. Eight inches of icy snow fell on the city and surrounding countryside, creating a sense of isolation and making control over power and food distribution an even stronger tool at his disposal. Any attitudes that required adjusting found their heat cut off and meal credits suspended.
    As his grip solidified, he considered the big picture; a picture that involved dealing with the Chaktaw in a more permanent fashion and, eventually, turning his attention to the Geryons. Although Major Forest insisted otherwise, Trevor felt certain he could find more survivors out in the wasteland, or perhaps in alien slave pens.
    He vowed to find out one way or another and planned a spring offensive, a move that would require training and preparation.
    Much to his delight, Director Snowe and Major Forest saw to the details, leaving Trevor free to concentrate on grand plans. In that sense, he found this new throne far more pleasant than the old. Here, Trevor did not concern himself with supplies, logistics, industry, health care, or any god damn Senates. He faced no challenges from wannabe politicians and the people followed his orders as obediently as the K9s of his home world.
    In short, he focused completely on the fighting and not fighting with push pins, either; fighting with a gun in his hand amidst the storm of battle. And all with Major Forest…the lovely, accommodating, Major Forest…at his side during the day and during many wonderful nights.
    He organized intense training exercises, even blocking off much of downtown for large-scale war games pitting legion against legion, the victors earning extra rations and luxuries. When Snowe expressed concern over diminishing fuel reserves, Trevor assured that with the victories to come they would find and exploit more resources.
    The time came for Trevor to share his plan. He gathered his Generals in the Operations Center, utilizing one of the huge monitors to display a map of the surrounding territory.
    Nina’s people referenced sectors and grid numbers instead of names; part of what she said had been their Trevor's plan to forget the old. It seemed an awkward and inefficient approach, but since Trevor thought he would not recognize the names from this alternate Earth anyhow, he kept the system in place. Nonetheless, he knew the map they examined that day showed the topography of the area that on his duplicate Earth was 'Pennsylvania'.
    He also recognized the Great Lakes to the west, the converging three rivers to the southwest, and the Appalachian Mountains cutting across the center of the region. He knew the vacant old estate was a couple of hours east and that the Chaktaw came from somewhere to the north from what he thought of as New York.
    The geography was essentially the same, just not developed in an identical fashion, meaning he could not trust his memories of cities, roads, or other man-made points.
    Nina’s people did not talk about the old world. She explained they had gone to great lengths to erase many of the reminders. Again, she said the 'old' Trevor had introduced this concept to which the new one responded, "Who am I to argue with myself?"
    Again, he thought such an approach awkward and inefficient for them, but for himself it made no difference since learning the names her people gave to cities and places might actually confuse him more than generic numbers and sector designations.
    In any case, he told a technician to, "zero in on grid reference W-F Five," an area some twenty miles southwest of Thebes.
    "What do you see?" Trevor asked his assembled officers and confidants.
    General Goss-a white haired pot-bellied man who grunted a lot-answered, "I see steep hills and forest."
    "Look closer."
    Snowe said, "According to recon, there’s a Windigo living in that area."
    Trevor did a mental translation. "That’s what my people call a Goat-Walker."
    "That’s not what you’re looking for, is it?" General Gronard asked.
    "No. I look at that hillside and you know what I see? I see oil. Plenty of it. Enough to take care of our fuel problems for a while."
    Goss scoffed, "Bah! How do you see oil there?"
    "Because on my Earth that area was the site of the world’s first commercial oil well. So if all you have here is mountain and forests that means…"
    "That means there’s oil waiting to be found," Snowe said.
    "So?" Goss asked.
    "So let’s go pop that cherry."
    Each them gaped at Trevor, confused at the reference.
    "What does that mean?" Nina asked.
    "Um…never mind. Give me W-A Six through W-A Fifteen."
    The video map pulled out, scrolled, and then tightened on an area northeast of Thebes.
    "And then there are these guys."
    Goss: "Huh? What guys?"
    Snowe answered, "The Chaktaw."
    Nina said, "They came at us from somewhere up north. I mean, they’ve got to have a base up there or something. Right?"
    Gronard added, "We haven’t heard from them in weeks, not since their force got wiped out by…by Trevor," he nodded at their new leader.
    "Maybe the warning has scared them off," Nina thought aloud.
    Director Snowe said, "Recon units found a Chaktaw outpost in that area."
    "That outpost isn’t their main base," Trevor said. "They were using it as a staging area for hitting Thebes. If there isn't a sizeable force there now, there will be when they reconstitute."
    "So? So what?" Goss asked.
    "This is pretty obvious, don’t you think? Tell him, General Gronard."
    "We wipe out that outpost. It might lead us to their main base. Maybe take that out, too."
    Trevor ordered the technician, "Show me W-C Four."
    The monitor displayed a close up of what the map noted as a ‘Class Two Lake WH 3’ or what Trevor recognized as "Lake Erie."
    "I give you a big food source. Fish. More specifically, what I would call walleye, perch, small mouth bass and more."
    "One problem," Director Snowe said. "There’s a city in that area occupied by Duass infantry. They’re well armed with support vehicles."
    Trevor now knew that the Plats his people fought in Ohio back home actually went by the name 'Duass'.
    "We swoop on in, clean em’ out, and set up shop. Then we secure a road between here and there."
    "We don’t have the resources to do that," Goss objected.
    To Trevor's surprise, Snowe said, "I agree with General Goss. We should concentrate on the Chaktaw."
    Trevor ignored their objections. "Sure we do. We just have to work a little harder. And trust me on this, we start poking around out there," Trevor jabbed his thumb over his shoulder in reference to the world outside, "we’re going to start finding the things we need to survive."
    "Big plans," Nina said. "Maybe we should forget the Duass and hit the Chaktaw again."
    Trevor glanced at her. He sensed how thrilled she was to be a part of the meeting. No doubt another reason why she had wanted Trevor back. There she was, hanging with the Generals planning grand strategy.
    "We may reach too far," Goss protested. "I hope saying as much won't cost me my head."
    Trevor put a hand on his shoulder. "Now is the time to present different opinions. But once the decision is made, it will be followed. Failure to do that will cost you your head."
    – "Team one, stand by, here he comes," Nina transmitted via radio.
    Ahead of her stretched a wide open mountaintop surrounded by tall, frosty pine trees.
    The ground rumbled.
    An incoming transmission reported, "Standing by. Damn, is this really going to work?"
    She radioed, "Corporal Brewer, just get your team ready to fire. You get one shot."
    "Copy that."
    Nina raised her binoculars and peered into the clearing. She saw puffs of snow pop off branches as trees swayed violently side to side.
    General Gronard spoke in her ear, "He sure is a crazy one, isn’t he?"
    "Crazy? No. He’s not crazy. He’s brave."
    "I suppose that’s why you went to the trouble of bringing him here. You're really walking a thin line with him, aren't you?"
    She replied, "Just make sure your men keep up their end and I'll take care of the rest. He might be our only hope of staying alive. Keep that in mind and we'll get by."
    The trees beyond the rim of the clearing swayed as if a tornado approached.
    "Watch your aim, Brewer," Nina communicated a warning to the man whose nose Stone broke a month ago.
    Trevor ran out from the forest and across the glaze of snow on the open mountain. Behind him, trees crashed and splintered as the pursuing monster stepped into the clearing.
    Standing some twenty-stories tall, it wore a scaly, tinny skin that occupied some middle ground between flesh and artificial armor. Its thick legs resembled industrial-sized support struts of a biological nature while ram horns wrapped its head to either side of a goat-face sporting glowing red eyes. Instead of hands at the end of two gigantic arms the creature used cloven hooves that could serve no purpose other than adding to the beast's power to destroy.
    This fiend appeared demonic in nature, certainly one of the most horrid of the invasion’s horrors. And Trevor Stone had just duped its Hell-born ass.
    The new leader of humanity’s war on this Earth crossed the field and stopped. Trevor knew that a dozen soldiers watched. A dozen of his soldiers; a new breed birthed from the ashes of a neglected army.
    So why not a show?
    Trevor turned and faced the massive monster. It glared at the puny prey. Trevor held his two hands aloft with one finger on each above the rest.
    "Drop this BITCH!"
    Anti-armor missiles shot out from the tree line, trailed by strands of black and gray smoke streaming from flares of burning red propellant. The projectiles smashed into what Nina’s people called a Windigo and Trevor called a Goat-Walker.
    The impact sent it falling backwards. Explosions knocked off thick slabs of skin and gory, colorful innards splattered onto the snow below.
    The soldiers cheered Trevor, the man who mocked the monsters.
    Nina's radio crackled, "Tactical team, this is Mother. You ready for that delivery?"
    "Ten-Four, Mother. We’re ready."
    The hum of jet engines drifted over the mountain top. After a moment, another giant came to the clearing, this one man-made. To Trevor's eye it resembled a large cargo airliner except with the center stretch of fuselage hollowed out in favor of a harness and hoist.
    It moved lazily, more like a helicopter than a plane. Its turbines rotated down putting the craft into a hover. Then the plane descended vertically toward the surface of the clearing aided by a soldier with bright blue directional cones.
    A portable drilling well dangled from the hoist and lowered toward the mountaintop not far from the destroyed giant demon. The engines roared as they struggled to ease the payload to the mark. The drill touched the ground and the hoist cables unhooked in a series of metallic clanks. Workers shouted orders over the roar of the huge cargo vessel that retreated to the sky after delivering its package.
    "We’re going to need a couple of days worth of oil from the well just to make up for the fuel used by the Heavy-42 to get it here," Gronard approached Trevor and said.
    "You’ll get it, General. You’re going to get everything you need."
    – Three days after establishing several drilling sites they found black gold. Dozens then hundreds of barrels began arriving at Thebes via ground convoy.
    Trevor assigned General Goss the job of finding and blasting the predatory hostiles who disrupted the convoys, mainly a pack of Jaw-Wolves. However, the drill sites and convoys shut down for a couple of days anyway as a nasty early March snow storm ravaged the area dumping nearly a foot of grainy white stuff.
    Trevor turned the annoyance of bad weather into one gigantic party. He arranged sled racing and snow-fort building contests in the name of "Winter’s Last Hooray."
    Surprised at this sudden soft side, Nina wondered why he became so magnanimous. Trevor admitted that the partying served a practical reason. He wanted socializing; he wanted mating. If they were truly the last batch of humans on Earth, then the only way to save the race was to start repopulating the planet. That meant babies. That took social interaction.
    As was often the case with late snow, it did not stay around for long. A blast of warm air sent the temperature into the fifties and melted everything away.
    The time came to get back to work.
    – Reconnaissance reported large numbers of Chaktaw soldiers and equipment, including artillery, occupying an outpost north of Thebes. Like so many of the structures on this Earth, the 'outpost' was comprised of mountainside buildings that came across as one part cave and one part building. In this case, those buildings were lined up at the base of a steep red rock hill in a manner suggesting an old commercial district, maybe even this world's version of a strip mall.
    As he led the assault from onboard a Skipper, Trevor found the situation had changed.
    Below, a column of infantry transports and armored attack vehicles moved north on a series of dirt and concrete roads cutting through forest-covered hills. Ahead, columns of smoke marked the Chaktaw outpost despite the fact that no human weapons had yet fired.
    "Say again, recon?" Trevor responded to a message from a forward ground team.
    Corporal Brewer repeated, "Severe damage to enemy position. Perimeter barricades breached at multiple points, I have eyes-on destroyed heavy weapons and looks like a lot of Chaktaw casualties."
    Trevor turned to Nina. "One of the other legions playing games?"
    "No," she said with surety. "Not a chance. The Generals know you don't like games."
    She steered the craft in close but instead of making the originally planned attack run, Major Forest flew slow for a good view of the outpost.
    As the scouts reported, the flat stone lot in front of the mountainside showed signs of battle; blast craters, a rock wall smashed in several places, and the destroyed carcasses of Chaktaw vehicles and artillery pieces, some of which still smoldered. Around everything, poncho-clad bodies sprawled on the ground.
    The buildings of the compound sprouted from the mountain and had been constructed of some kind of rock, making Trevor think of the cliff dwellings of the ancestral pueblo tribes from the southwestern United States back home, very much like what he had seen at the lake when he went searching for Trevor's estate. What had been a rather isolated, regional architecture on his Earth had apparently gained wider acceptance on this one.
    Of course, style did not matter to Trevor. Who had beaten them to the outpost did.
    Brewer's scouting party reported, "Got some live ones hiding out on the western side of the compound. We took small arms fire."
    Trevor ordered Nina to, "Set us down by the west side."
    She complied, easing the Skipper to the ground between the ruined remains of two catapult-like artillery pieces.
    Trevor radioed, "Skipper flight one, fly a recon mission around the enemy base. Skipper flight two, stay on station overhead to provide cover for ground forces."
    Three of the flying machines banked off to survey the surrounding mountains and forests, another three buzzed about in the sky above with their missiles and guns ready to fire.
    Once landed, Trevor led Major Forest and a squad of soldiers toward the buildings on the western edge of the outpost. As he moved, he noticed signs hanging from or fallen in front of the various structures built against the mountainside. While time and damage had eroded the images and letters, he did not need to be able to read them to recognize retail signs.
    Yes, this place had once been a shopping center or something of the kind; most recently it served the purposes of the Chaktaw and their quest to eradicate humanity from the planet.
    He came upon Corporal Brewer and his three-man reconnaissance team huddled behind debris from the broken perimeter wall.
    "Small arms from inside, sir," he reported and pointed toward one of the 'store' fronts that suffered from burn and explosive damage. "Not sure how many."
    "Okay, let's check it out. Corporal, keep your team here to cover us, the rest of you follow me, we're going to get close enough for a look."
    With his assault rifle held ready and its bayonet gleaming in the sharp afternoon sunlight, Trevor weaved the squad around destroyed vehicles and dead bodies, approaching the occupied building. When they neared the gaping hole where a front door once stood, Chaktaw rounds zipped by his nose and forced the unit flush against the front fascia.
    When the shooting slowed, the new Emperor peered in through what might have once been a window. He saw movement back there in the shadows but had to pull back when enemy fire ricocheted off a stone support pillar a few feet in front of his face.
    Trevor turned to Nina, his hand held open, and said, "Throw Cam."
    Nina produced a softball-sized device from her utility belt and gave it to him. Tiny lenses covered the gray and black sphere.
    Trevor took a deep breath, concentrated, and then leaned in again. He hurled the round object into the destroyed building and retreated just as Chaktaw rifles tried to kill him again.
    Major Forest held a monitor about the size of a portable video game. She cycled through the available camera angles until she found the picture offering the best tactical analysis.
    "There. In the northwest corner. Four of them."
    To Trevor's surprise, the Chaktaw hiding in the building did not wear their usual camouflage ponchos. However, he recognized them all the same from his meeting prior to the Battle of Five Armies when the alien commander offered a merciful death to honor the human army's courage.
    Just as he remembered, their heads differed from men in that they had big puffy cheeks with wiry hair, almost whiskers. Their scalps lacked any hair in the center. Instead, strands of fibrous thatch circled the edges of their skulls.
    The group of four hid in a corner behind overturned furniture and a stack of food stuffs, armed with rifles that fired bullet-like pellets from a magnetic rail gun.
    "What do you think?" Nina asked.
    He raised his radio and transmitted, "Flight Two leader, you copy? I got some bugs that need to be squashed."
    The radio hummed, "Copy ground team, exterminator en route."
    "Marking target," Trevor radioed and casually flipped a grenade spewing gray smoke in front of the store. He then moved the squad away.
    One of the AATCs banked around and dove. The white and red missiles under its short wings glinted in the sun like talons on a bird of prey.
    When they reached cover, Nina said, "I'm surprised you're going to waste missiles on four Chaktaw."
    "For these guys, we use a hammer on an ant if we need to. I hate these fucks."
    One of the Skipper's rockets shot out and arrowed into the remains of the building, actually flying in the open front door and detonating inside. A muffled clap preceded a bubbling ball of brown and black smoke that poured from the interior.
    Trevor immediately waved his men forward and inside, meeting no resistance.
    The missile strike ignited a few small fires but the main obstacle to searching the room was the dust left over from the ceiling collapse. Like others on the team, Trevor covered his mouth and nose with his hand, wishing he had brought a mask.
    He ordered, "We're searching for anything that could lead us to their main base."
    "You find nothing. We burn good."
    Trevor shot around at the sound of an alien voice to see two of his men dragging a Chaktaw survivor from the rubble. The thing smiled, apparently happy that humanity would find nothing of use at the destroyed outpost.
    Trevor, however, reacted more to the creature's speech than the substance of what it said. It surprised him to hear a Chaktaw speaking his language, albeit in a rough fashion. The Chaktaw-or Vikings-he had fought at Five Armies used translation devices to communicate.
    "You speak my tongue? Now this is interesting."
    "Yes. Some us learn you words so we can order you around when you defeated."
    Nina pulled one of her twin pistols and put it to the creature’s head.
    Trevor held his hand up to stop her. "No. No. Wait a moment. This is very fortunate."
    "I didn’t think you liked prisoners," Forest said and appeared eager to do the dirty work.
    "Oh, I live and learn, sweetheart. I’m sure our friend here-our buddy who can speak our language-I’m sure he would be happy to tell us about their main base, wouldn’t you?"
    Nina holstered her gun and said, "We have people, I mean, the old Trevor…he sometimes had people interrogate prisoners. I’m sure they’d be happy to do it again."
    "Good. Take our friend back to Thebes and discuss the matter with him. See if you can find out who beat us to the punch here, too."
    As the soldiers dragged the prisoner away, the Chaktaw said, "Fromm will destroy your city! He is coming for you. He is coming!"
    "Did you say, Fromm?" Trevor stopped them. "Force Commander Fromm? I remember that son of a bitch."
    Fromm had been the name of the Viking commander at Five Armies; the one Trevor had killed then held his body toward the heavens to announce humanity’s resurgence.
    "He will destroy you."
    "I’ll tell you what, buddy, what’s that tradition of yours? Oh yeah, if you tell me where your main base is, I’ll allow your people to surrender and die peacefully. How’s that?"
    The Chaktaw did not reply, but the look in its eyes suggested surprise at Trevor’s knowledge of its customs as well as indignation at the idea his people could ever be defeated.
    "Take this thing away," Major Forest ordered. "Turn it over to Intel."
    Trevor watched them go and said, "I think I’m starting to like this. This is almost fun."
    – According to Major Forest, the 'old' Trevor placed an emphasis on decoding the languages of the enemy factions. This resulted in a certain number of translators capable of understanding-to some degree-enemy conversations and transmissions as well as providing for the vigorous interrogation of prisoners.
    As a result, Nina’s people knew that the three-legged duck-billed aliens Trevor called "Plats" or "Platypuses" actually went by the name "Duass." And as they had discussed when planning the spring offensive, those aliens had established a colony along the coast of a lake Trevor named "Erie"; the name it held on his Earth.
    Trevor did not know if the town the Duass occupied was of their creation or had existed prior to the invasion, but from aerial reconnaissance photos he saw more conventional buildings-not sprouting from mountains or built into cliffs-made from a variety of materials and surrounded by a network of cobblestone streets.
    A few weeks ago white snow covered those streets and the huge lake sported a sheen of ice. However, a rise in temperatures eroded both, leaving puddles on the streets, and the countryside a shade of soft muddy brown.
    Based on his experiences back home, Trevor did not expect the Duass infantry to pose a challenge but he respected the capabilities of their War Skiffs. The vehicles resembled wooden, motorized boats on wheels with an energy-firing deck gun capable of melting through the toughest armor.
    To take the town, Trevor marched west with a small, mobile force that he split into three groups totaling two hundred soldiers.
    Major Forest commanded Combat Group One with three squads tasked to draw the garrison out and to the north. The land along the banks of the lake in that area was covered in forest and brush which would help hide her numbers and limit the Duass’ War Skiffs.
    Combat Group Three included five more squads, some fast-moving armored vehicles, and five Skippers under the control of General Gronard to act as a reserve.
    Trevor decided he wanted to conserve aviation fuel and air-to-surface missiles for an all-out assault on the Chaktaw main base once located. Therefore, the Skippers should remain grounded except as a last resort.
    Combat Group Two, under Trevor's command, would lead the main assault with eighty men once Nina created a diversion to the north, which began on a warm but overcast March morning with her order, "Mortar teams, open up."
    Explosive shells lofted from their positions inside an evergreen forest then crashed down on the outskirts of the town Trevor had designated "Erie Coast." The first volley crashed into a short perimeter wall constructed of a plaster-like, tan material that existed more for style than defense and easily shattered.
    More shells hit a yard area as the shots walked closer to and then struck a two-story rectangular house made of the same material as the wall and topped with a terracotta-like roof that splintered and collapsed on impact.
    A gaggle of unarmed Duass ran-or, rather, wobbled on three legs-from the structure and an alarm sounded across the villa.
    – Trevor and his squad commanders remained hidden on the far side of a ridge to the east of Erie Coast. The returned Emperor lay on his belly and surveyed the town through a telescope-like device. A distant thump-thump… thump-thump drifted to his ears from Nina's bombardment.
    Built on a well-planned grid, the Duass town-more like a villa-stretched a good mile and a half north to south along the shore and another half mile inland. Four north-south streets served as primary thoroughfares. Additional connecting streets and alleys made moving from one end of town to the other easy.
    Along the lake stood a series of docks with bubble boathouses. The Duass maintained a small fleet of rectangular fishing vessels with most in port when the attack began.
    Trevor consulted an aerial photograph and then looked to the center of town. There he saw a four-story building with battlements and guard towers holding heavy gun emplacements. Bordering this citadel were what reconnaissance suggested to be a barracks and the Duass’ version of a motor pool.
    Check points covered the main approaches to the town and he spied a few Skiffs parked on the streets. As Nina's bombardment continued, more of the war vehicles appeared as did soldiers, all moving toward the northern perimeter.
    "Good, good," Trevor mumbled to his officers.
    The man at his side, Captain Pickering, said, "They’re taking the bait."
    Trevor counted more than one hundred enemy fighters and a dozen War Skiffs through his spyglass.
    "Too bad for them."
    – A War Skiff rolled past a collapsed building on the northern side of town. Its big, thick wooden wheels clunked and scraped as they rumbled through the debris of the destroyed house. Duass infantry fanned out to its flanks in preparation for a counter-assault.
    "Rocket teams! Forward!" Nina Forest ordered.
    Two teams of two men hustled to the front of the woods with bazooka-like launchers.
    Plasma spat from the gun on the War Skiff's deck. The stream of energy hit the tree tops above the attacking humans. Several big limbs fell and crushed two soldiers.
    Cries of "help" and "medic’ were drown out by swooshing rockets as the anti-armor projectiles raced toward the target. The missiles hit, but at maximum range. They scratched, even splintered, the outer hull but it remained in action.
    Major Forest commanded, "Damn it! Fire! Open Fire!"
    Three more War Skiffs appeared from the city. Those wheeled vehicles joined the first and served as shields for three dozen enemy infantry creeping toward the human lines. At the same time, Nina saw more Duass soldiers attempting to flank her position.
    – Trevor’s force faced a handful of infantry on the east side and one War Skiff blocking the primary entrance, but the perimeter wall was low enough to jump easily.
    He purposely held his short-ranged artillery in check to conceal the strength of his assault. Instead, his troops moved forward with four attack buggies leading the way followed by two transports with one squad each and the rest following on foot.
    The War Skiff saw them coming over the ridge. It fired and blasted the buggy next to Stone’s. It flipped and rolled knocking two of the three men onboard out of the fight.
    Anti-armor rockets from the other buggies drew a bead on the Skiff and launched. Several missiles missed and slammed into the small, house-like buildings on the east side. One scored a significant hit on the Skiff’s front wheels, blasting out a chunk and changing its shape from a circle to a crescent.
    Duass small arms fire joined the Skiff as well as ping-pong ball-like grenades, disabling one of the troop transports and forcing its passengers to disembark early onto the open killing ground between them and the town.
    "The plan’s falling apart, sir!" Pickering, driving Trevor’s assault buggy, panicked.
    "No plan survives contact with the enemy, soldier," Trevor shared a military truth. "Keep moving forward! And for God’s sake keep firing that machine gun!"
    The trooper in the back of Trevor’s buggy heard the command and fired full throttle. The bullets struck a number of defenders as the vehicle moved close enough to see the dull glint in the Duass’ eyes.
    A line of Duass soldiers ran out from behind the War Skiff and raised their rifles.
    "Faster! Faster!" Trevor shouted. "Mow the bastards down!"
    A heavy bolt of plasma flew over the buggy. The energy from the ordnance crackled as it missed their heads by two feet. Trevor and Pickering felt the heat as it passed.
    "Ohhh shiittttt!"
    The buggy hit the line of wobbling infantry knocking some skyward, others to the side, and a few underneath. That, in turn, destabilized the car sending its two right wheels airborne which hit the side of the War Skiff.
    The assault buggy teetered at a ninety-degree angle on two wheels with the engine roaring amidst enemy bodies flying all around. The soldier in the rear fell out; Trevor felt the g-force strain his safety harness.
    After skirting the Skiff, the buggy came to rest against a one-story structure thirty yards behind enemy lines, its right wheels stuck up and Trevor hanging from his safety belt.
    A shield of dust kicked up by the impact blocked his vision but he heard the fire of Duass energy weapons peppering his vehicle as well as the wall it rested against. Then he heard a roar; a human battle cry. The Duass energy bolts stopped firing in his direction.
    "Sir! You okay?"
    Pickering stood by the buggy with a bloody gash across his forehead and the way he favored one shoulder suggested dislocation. Yet he worried first about his leader.
    Stone felt his safety harness unlatch, then gravity pulled him down but Pickering's uninjured arm steadied him. Once free of the wreck, Pickering directed him to cover.
    Trevor’s senses slowly rebooted. Pickering had moved him next to the crashed buggy. They were behind the War Skiff and the other Duass defenders. To their west was a passage between a line of buildings-an alley-leading to the villa's center.
    "Why am I not dead?" He thought aloud.
    Pickering answered by tapping his shoulder and pointing toward human infantry engaging the Duass defenders in close-quarters combat. Yes, several of his men lay dead in and around the main entrance, but the defending line had broke.
    Trevor staggered to his feet and shouted, "Rally the squads and push forward!"
    – Nina fired her two pistols, killing a pair of enemy soldiers at the forest rim, ending yet another half-hearted attempt to flank her force.
    At the center of the battle, three Duass War Skiffs held sway over the open ground between the forest and the town. The splintered and burning remains of a fourth sent a plume of black smoke into the air and covered the battlefield in an oily odor.
    "What are they waiting for?" She said but no one could hear because the constant racket of small arms fire, Skiff plasma bursts, and outgoing rockets filled the woods.
    She had expected to make a hasty retreat, but the Duass appeared content to trade shots. Nonetheless, she had drawn the enemy to the northern perimeter, exactly as instructed.
    – General Gronard’s voice transmitted over Trevor's radio, "Major Forest has their full attention. She’s got about sixty fighters and three Skiffs taking pot shots at her. They don’t look like they are going any where any time soon."
    Trevor glanced around at his re-constituted attack force.
    "Good. We’ll be at the citadel in a few minutes."
    – Gun fire, plasma rounds, and anti-personnel grenades shot back and forth between the human troops in the forest and the Duass soldiers and War Skiffs at the northern perimeter.
    Despite the shots blasting around her and the lethal energy beams from the War Skiffs cutting apart the forest, Nina felt pleased. She even smiled.
    While the battle appeared a stalemate, that served her purpose. She merely had to keep the Duass' attention while-Nina’s smile faded.
    The War Skiffs, still firing, rolled backwards, retreating toward the town. The infantry they covered did the same. In fact, the entire Duass line disengaged.
    "What the..? Morris! Wilson! Move your squads forward. We can’t let them pull back!"
    Nina ordered two rocket troops to her side and charged from the forest in pursuit of the larger, better-armed-but-withdrawing force. Energy from a War Skiff’s main gun hit the muddy ground in front of her. The shock wave knocked the Major skidding through the mud and singed her battle suit.
    The rest of her infantry attempted to re-engage the Duass. To do so, the humans had to leave behind the cover of the woods and cross the open ground, making for easy targets. Several fell. The rest pressed on bravely, but the enemy all but ignored them.
    Nina gained her senses, retrieved an anti-armor missile launcher from the dead soldier next to her, and charged at one of the War Skiffs, dodging enemy rifle fire on the way.
    At twenty yards-nearly point blank range for a missile launcher-she fired. The projectile walloped the Skiff, penetrated its thick outer skin, and exploded inside the crew cabin. Smoke and horrid squeals poured out from the ruptured hull.
    It made no difference. The defenders continued to pull back.
    "Keep going! Keep after them!"
    Like a mouse chasing a lion, the human soldiers bound across the open field and into the northern streets of Erie Coast in a vain attempt to halt the Duass’ movement as…
    …Trevor’s Combat Group entered the center of town dominated by the imposing citadel in the middle of the village, guarded by one War Skiff and a handful of infantry.
    "All squads!" He yelled. "Assault the citadel! Get inside and disable the guns!"
    What his combat teams lacked in firepower and numbers he planned to compensate for with pure audacity. His men would bull-rush the doors, overpower the few defenders left behind, and capture the big guns before they could do much damage. Then he could turn those guns on the Plats.
    One of the big cannons fired, resulting in a huge eruption that ripped open the cobblestone street, broke four of his men into little pieces, and split the last remaining assault buggy into halves.
    "Keep moving!" He shouted, urging them toward the safe haven beneath the firing arc of the heavy guns. With no ground forces of consequence to stop them he could A plasma bolt sliced down the street from the north and killed a soldier three paces ahead of Trevor. He turned and, to his horror, saw a mass of Duass appear on the main thoroughfare supported by two War Skiffs, a sight that sucked the momentum from his spirited charge.
    Rifle fire and heavy energy streams from the infantry and War Skiffs tore apart Trevor's right flank. Men fell one after another, screaming first in shock then from pain. At the same time, more big blasts from the tower guns, shredding the forward tip of the attack and splintering the formation into little pieces.
    Adding to the confusion, he saw Nina's forces appear behind the Plat infantry, actually pursuing them. Had she somehow turned her feint into an attack? Could she be stupid enough to chase the enemy right into his flank?
    The enemy's vehicles hurried to cover the approaches to the citadel, cutting off any hope of storming the fortress and leaving the attackers with no place to go other than retreat.
    "Covering fire!" Trevor yelled. "We need cover to fall back!"
    A soldier standing next to the new Emperor disintegrated in a flash of energy. The concussion from the shot threw Stone into the air. He hit the cobblestone-like road head-first, the world turned fuzzy and a horrid pain erupted at the top of his head.
    Gronard’s voice came over the radio, "Trevor, what is your status? Trevor?"
    – Forest’s soldiers pursued the retreating Duass to the center of town. At that point, the enemy formed a defensive line supported by the citadel’s big guns. Most of the troops in the Major’s first wave died and so would have the rest if the Duass did not appear more interested in obliterating Trevor's combat group first.
    Nonetheless, she ordered her men to hold their positions despite being outnumbered and outgunned.
    "Keep firing!" She ordered knowing that maintaining pressure from her side of the battle might be the only way to keep the Duass from completely overwhelming Trevor's group.
    His head aching and his vision blurred, Trevor and the remains of his unit took cover around the corner of a small building and waited. He could do nothing other than wait; wait for Gronard to salvage the situation.
    What the Hell was Nina thinking?
    The Duass fortress’ cannons chipped away at the buildings and, at the same time, provided cover for their infantry to begin a flanking maneuver. Trevor knew this. He could feel them working through alleys and side streets. It was only a matter of time until enemy soldiers appeared to their south and north, possibly even behind them. At that point, they would be easy targets and the end would come fast.
    The only hope lay with Gronard. Not a hope for victory, a hope of survival; escape.
    Trevor worked his radio. He kept his voice as calm as possible considering the blaster fire raging around him, despite the feeling of failure, and despite his anger.
    "Major Forest."
    Static followed by, "Yes. Trevor? Yes, this is Nina."
    "Prepare for extraction. Start falling back to the north and meet ground transport there."
    "If we pull back they’ll be all over you!"
    "Do it! Follow your damn orders for the first fucking time today! Fall back. NOW!"
    He threw his radio to the ground. A moment later Skippers flew in over the skyline.
    Immediately the Duass targeted the ships. Their plasma rifles could only scar the hulls of the flyers, but the fortress guns could do much more. The first AATC in the air space over down town exploded as one of the guns scored a direct hit. The bodies of the pilots plummeted to the ground in flames while hot fuel sprayed over a squad of human troops in the street.
    Two Skippers fired on the citadel. Their missiles knocked out one of the guns, buying a little more time for two more AATCs to land on streets shielded from the direct fire of the Citadel’s weapons. They filled up fast with injured then flew away jut as a War Skiff moved to intercede.
    Another Skipper swooped in and launched an anti-armor missile that disabled the enemy vehicle in one shot.
    That airship then landed and loaded to two squads into its belly for a quick retreat. But as it took to the air, the Skipper's starboard jump jet exploded from a Duass grenade. The ship listed, spun, and then slammed into a building. Smoke, dust, and flames burst from the impact zone. The massive rotor of the bird flew off and broke into pieces against another building.
    Any soldiers who survived the crash did not survive for long: Duass infantry assaulted the wreckage.
    Trevor did not have time to get to the second half of that compound word as he was interrupted by enemy fire. The Plats came charging around a corner on his flank.
    Just in time, Gronard came to the rescue.
    Two armored vehicles blasted through the Duass infantry and wheeled to a halt at Trevor’s position. Two more of Stone’s men fell as they boarded their escape vehicle but they did escape, with War Skiffs chasing them out of the town like hounds on the heels of a fox.
    On the north side, transport trucks met Major Forest's remaining soldiers who withdrew under air cover from the remaining Skippers.
    Plumes of smoke from burning vehicles-both human and Duass-drifted into the air from the village, but "Erie Coast" still belonged to the Duass.
    – The ground vehicles and AATCs regrouped in a field ten miles east. The armored cars formed a perimeter and the air craft landed in the middle. Medics turned one of the Skipper’s cargo bays into a triage center to stabilize patients before the long trek home.
    Trevor met with Gronard and several squad leaders inside a hastily constructed tent. They opened a folding table and examined maps. They agreed that, despite the pasting they had taken, the Duass were in no position to pursue.
    Major Forest entered the tent.
    "Trevor? Oh, thank God you’re okay."
    Stone stormed over to her. "What were you doing? YOU HAD ORDERS! I told you to demonstrate on their northern flank not fucking drive them right at us!"
    She not only flinched, she outright cowered, her hands raised as if to ward off blows. Her shoulders hunched over and her face cringing in anticipation of a strike.
    "Trevor, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. They disengaged…they pulled out…we chased them. I thought we could-"
    "You don’t think. You hear me? You don’t think. I do the thinking. You do what I tell you to do so things don’t get all fucked up."
    He huffed and puffed but said no more.
    After a moment, Major Nina Forest straightened her stance but kept her head bowed.
    General Gronard finally asked, "What now?"
    "What now? What now? We head for home, now, General. With our tails- my tail — between our fucking legs."

23. Home Front

    Jon felt uncomfortable sitting behind Trevor's desk in the upstairs office, as if he betrayed his friend on some level. Ironic, he thought, because there were several people out there who coveted that seat, but for now it belonged to Jon, no matter how much he did not want it.
    Gordon Knox, sitting across from him, said, "So far the K9s are doing everything their handlers ask. The only one acting strange is Tyr. He keeps slipping onto transports or sniffing around the estate. You want me to do something? Maybe tranquilize him?"
    Jon shook his head. "No. He’s probably the only one doing anything constructive."
    Knox offered a half-hearted smile and went on, "You ready for the bad news?"
    "Huh? You mean there was good news? I guess I missed it."
    The Director of Intelligence ignored the jest. "Two more distribution centers were overrun by mobs. A third one had a problem but the mob was dispersed by I.S. Two people were shot in the process, one is in critical condition."
    "Internal Security actually broke up a riot? How nice of them to do their jobs."
    "People are getting, well, they’re getting out of line. I think maybe you should start thinking about putting them in line a little more."
    "What do you want me to do, Gordon? Pull more brigades off the front line to do Internal Security? It’s been well over a month with no word and nothing from us, only the same secret mission crap. No one is buying it anymore."
    Knox waited as Jon released his frustration in a huff, a puff, and finally a sigh, then he said, "Look, Jon, I know who is stirring this whole thing up. You’ve got that editor over at the New American Press. You’ve got a couple of low-rent Senators and a southern Governor. They’re the ones accusing you of a coup or saying Trevor is dead. They’re the most visible."
    Jon waited for Gordon’s point but that point did not come with words; it came in his narrow, staring eyes that sent an icicle along Jon's spine. Once he understood Knox's full meaning, Jon raised a hand.
    "Wow. Hey, whoa, easy there Gordon. If you’re suggesting what I think…"
    "We have to toughen up or things are going to get worse. As it is, our offensive in Ohio has a black eye and a handful of Hivvans are still holding out in front of Prescott down south. Right now we look weak to our enemies, both external and internal."
    Jon jumped to his feet, partly as a physical manifestation of his agitation and partly because he wanted to escape that desk.
    "So we knock off some trouble makers and you think things will be okay? We’re still leaderless."
    "No!" Gordon shouted a little too loud. He glanced to the floor and modulated his tone to something closer to normal. "No. We’re not leaderless. You’re in charge now."
    "By whose authority? Who put me here? What sense does it make? Trevor was in charge because he started it all. We pledged our loyalty to him. But me? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Gordon, but I’m a little short on the divine right clause."
    Gordon decided to stand, too. He walked over to Brewer and the two men spoke in front of the glass doors of the mansion balcony. Beyond those doors was an overcast sky that threatened rain although snow was still a possibility on the tenth day of March. Underneath that overcast sky, just beyond the closed iron gate, lived a camp of protestors, activists, and lunatics. One guy actually held a sign reading, "The End is Near."
    A ring of Internal Security tried their best to keep the group contained. On that day, the mob counted three dozen in their number, nearly double from a few days ago. Tomorrow?
    Gordon snapped, "Who do you want in charge, Jon? Most of the idiots who want to take over are preaching peace. They want to stop the war, lick our wounds, and live in isolation. They're making all sorts of noise out there in the press and at town hall meetings. But you know, I don't care so much about them. It's the ones we haven't heard from that have me on edge."
    Jon nodded in agreement and said, "Yes. I’ve been thinking that, too."
    "So the question is," Gordon finished the thought. "Exactly why has Evan Godfrey been so quiet? What is he up to?"
    – Sharon intercepted Evan at the front door of their mansion in the Washington D.C. suburbs.
    "You’re going to play tennis?"
    "Yes," he answered as he zipped his gym bag with one hand and twirled a tennis racquet with the other. "I’m going to play tennis."
    As happened often in recent weeks when she confronted him over his lack of action, Sharon's jaw dropped and her eyes bulged.
    At first the words came out as little more than gasps, but her voice improved as she managed to swallow more oxygen. "What is wrong with you? It's been weeks and you keep repeating that bull shit Jon Brewer and the military council keep throwing out about Trevor away on a secret mission. Every interview you give is about remaining calm and waiting for the Emperor to return. This is the opportunity we've waited for, and you're doing nothing!"
    He stood there and listened to her rant while fiddling with the tennis racquet and nodding his head in agreement to her points.
    "Have you heard the news, Evan? Just about every newspaper outside of Baltimore and even some of Trevor's hand-picked Governors are saying the Emperor is dead and Brewer is just covering it up. And where are you going? To the health club to play tennis?"
    He quickly answered, "Well, it's still too cold for the outdoor courts."
    She ignored his flippancy. "I thought you were the voice of the opposition. Maybe you're just a second-rate politician after all. A Coward."
    Sharon’s eight year old son approached through the cavernous living room of the old mansion crunching an apple as he moved. Sharon swiveled around and glared. The boy retreated at nearly a gallop.
    "You really should treat him with a little more respect," Evan said to his pseudo-wife. "He’s getting older now. He’s turning into a young man."
    "Don’t tell me how to treat my son. Tory is none of your business."
    "Ah, yes, sometimes I forget," Evan put a hand on her shoulder. "This is a business relationship. We have our rules and regulations. Tory’s stewardship is not in my contract."
    He gave her a peck on the forehead. Sharon stepped away, nearly shivering in anger.
    "The problem, my husband, is that you aren’t living up to your end of the bargain. You have your cute little wife and her son, both victims of the Emperor’s cruelty. I go to your political rallies and smile. My child is a boy scout and excels in school. Why, you have yourself the perfect little family, don’t you?"
    He flipped his racquet in the air and caught it. "Why yes, Sharon, I have the perfect little family. Makes a great postcard."
    "And why are you not living up to your part of the bargain?" She jabbed a finger in his chest. "You promised me, you were going to bring down the Emperor. You were going to-"
    His smile evaporated and he placed a finger over her lips. Apparently he no longer found her tirade humorous.
    "Oh, now, no Sharon. Careful. Careful. I have no intentions of ‘bringing down the Emperor.’ But I do have other intentions. You know that. That’s why you came to me, Sharon. You know where I’m going. It just so happens that to get there, well, to get there the structure of power in our new nation will have to change."
    In a more humble tone she said, "You speak a good game, Evan, but you are short on action. Today- right now — the people are ready for a new leader. Trevor Stone is gone, yet you hesitate. Maybe I made a mistake in making our little arrangement."
    She stopped her speech with a grunt that said take that.
    Evan waited to be sure she had finished. When she said nothing more, he spoke.
    "Trevor Stone is gone? Sharon, oh Sharon, is he really gone? I don’t think we can be quite so sure of that yet. You see, I’ve known Trevor for a long time and there’s one thing I’ve learned; never underestimate him. It's quite possible that he’s in hiding waiting to see who moves against him. I would not put that past him. That's what I’d do."
    She looked as if she wanted to speak and he knew what she would say: You’re afraid.
    Again held a finger to her lips.
    "Before you say it, remember that your father underestimated Trevor Stone, and where did it get him? Hmm? No, I think it is best to move slowly, with caution. Let others be the first to storm the Bastille. If Stone is gone for good, then eventually the mob will need a leader. If he returns to clean house, then all those who would challenge him will be knocked from their perches. Well… almost all."
    "So you’re going to do nothing?"
    "No," he twirled his racquet again. "I’m going to play tennis at the health club."
    She spat, "Tennis."
    He paused at the front door and glanced out the window. His motorcade waited: a big armored limousine and two Internal Security escorts on hover bikes.
    "Yes. I’m going to play tennis. Doubles in fact. Doubles with the Captain of the Washington garrison, one of Jim Hutch’s top men in the labor guild, and the Director of the company that services all the military’s telecommunications."
    Godfrey smiled to his wife then walked out the door.
    He had a match to play.
    – Stonewall McAllister pushed his steed at a fast, anxious gallop across an open field with a dozen riders from his command post following including Captain Kristy Kaufman, dressed in a stylish bomber jacket and riding boots.
    She maneuvered her horse closer to his and shouted over the sound of drumming horse hooves, "Still no contact from the depot, General!"
    Kristy referred to the supply depot at Ft. Campbell. No one had heard from or received re-supply from the depot in over twenty-four hours.
    Fortunately, Army Group Center had not encountered any enemy armies during their sweep of western Kentucky and Tennessee. Operations remained of a "rural and urban pacification" nature, a job they had performed successfully in places such as Murfreesboro, Bowling Green, Nashville and Hopkinsville.
    Nonetheless, the soldiers required food, rifles needed bullets, and vehicles ran dry if not fueled. Even a brief interruption of supply created difficulties, but the lack of communication turned the situation from curious to alarming.
    In addition to his army, Stonewall's responsibilities included thousands of humans found in isolated camps and villages uncovered during the trek through the Smokey Mountains. The topography of that part of the world had been hospitable to human survivors in that it provided good cover and defendable positions.
    Those survivors embraced the expanding Empire, particularly when penicillin and antibiotics rolled into town. But those medicines and more could not roll into town if the supply depot at Ft. Campbell-pre-war home of the 101 ^ st "Screaming Eagles"- did not answer their radio.
    It irked the General to an even greater degree that he believed that the problem most likely lay not with an alien attack, but negligence. Ft. Campbell’s operation depended on Internal Security because the supply depot there was not purely military in nature; it had been established to service population centers in Clarksville and Oak Grove.
    At the time of its opening, the idea of using I.S. to staff the depot sounded good because it freed Army Group Center's logistical people for other duties, a decision he now regretted.
    From what Stonewall saw in recent weeks, Internal Security lost their focus; their drive. The glue that was Trevor Stone was losing its adhesion, and the I.S. branch appeared to be the first part to peel away from the whole.
    A four-lane road surrounded on both sides by muddy grass and slightly-frosted barrier trees led into Fort Campbell. As it approached the base, the road split off leaving a big, triangle-shaped yard lined with shrubs to welcome newcomers. At the far end of that yard stood a large, three story white building with a parking lot.
    Stonewall’s cavalry stopped at the tip of that triangle. Garret McAllister dismounted and retrieved his field glasses. The rest of the troop readied their carbines and waited for orders.
    The white building that served as the heart of the supply depot was surrounded. Several of the vehicles in the parking lot had been stomped and smashed. What worried Stonewall was that those cars were not leftovers from the early days of Armageddon; they were military Humvees and cargo trucks.
    "The depot is not deserted," he reported. "I note movement inside the building. Getting to them, however, may prove difficult."
    Stonewall referred to the six extraterrestrial monsters besieging the compound. They resembled armadillos the size of cement trucks with nasty snouts like crocodile jaws. A protective shell covered their bodies and spiked balls hung at the end of long tails.
    Kristy Kaufman said, "If I may quote the General, sir, you did say this would only be a 'quick ride' to the depot to 'set those idiots straight'. Therefore, sir, we failed to bring along any anti-armor weaponry."
    "Yes, Captain Kaufman, those words are mine," in a whisper he continued, "much to my regret." His voice rose again and he told her to, "consult our radio and see what assets might be lurking about."
    One of the creatures smashed yet another hole in another wall with its wrecking-ball like tail. A second stood on its hind legs and took several steps toward the building and tried to bite a second-floor window.
    Beyond the Armored Mammoths, Stonewall spotted several fatigue-wearing persons daring looks out the window. He then swept his binoculars across the parking lot, examining the vehicles crushed by the creatures. He shared an observation with everyone in earshot, "That explains how we came to this point. I do not discern a single Internal Security vehicle among the wreckage."
    Kaufman continued a radio conversation she had started a moment ago on the General's orders, "Understood, standing by," and then said to McAllister, "I.S. pull out?"
    "Apparently so," he responded. "No doubt absconding with their supply of heavy weapons, leaving behind clerical staff and accountants with small arms."
    "That's desertion, sir. They should be hung," Kaufman answered but a voice on the radio pulled her attention away.
    Stonewall spoke as much to himself as anyone else, "Desertion? That is a word nearly unheard of in recent years. But these are not normal circumstances. I fear a dangerous divide is growing between the military and Internal Security, given the current political climate."
    Kaufman broke in with good news, "Today must be our lucky day, General."
    Stonewall mused, "I was certain I had used up my allotment of lucky days in Georgia last year. Do tell, Captain."
    "T-A-C is directing an AC-130 our way. Puff is on his way back from knocking out a nest of Spider Ants outside of Roaring Spring."
    "Splendid! See if Puff the Magic Dragon would be so kind as to hunt down and blast our fleeing Internal Security agents. No doubt they are somewhere east of here on 71."
    "I assume that is a jest, General."
    "I would hope so, yes, but we will see how things develop in the days ahead."
    Fifteen minutes later, a large plane circled overhead, its engines creating a sound like thunder filling the sky and nearly shaking the ground. The AC-130 Specter Gunship banked hard and opened fire from the heavy cannon stationed in its side. The shells did to the Mammoths what they had done in the old world to tanks and armored vehicles; ripped them to shreds, while leaving the building untouched.
    When the nasty work completed and the gunship flew away, Stonewall led his group forward much to the delight of the besieged staffers who had endured hours of virtual captivity. Their radios and radio operators, it was learned, had been destroyed by the initial charge of the over sized hostiles.
    General McAllister noted that while this may have seemed as if it were merely another battle in the post-Armageddon world, the negligence that had forced the fight may have made it something more ominous.
    A sign of things to come.
    – General William Hoth stood outside of the Union Terminal building, a 1930’s vintage art deco railway station converted into the Cincinnati Museum Center back in the days when history and social studies held enough interest to draw nearly a million annual visitors.
    Of course the goodies inside had long ago been looted or destroyed. Instead, the museum now hosted technicians and maps and communications gear, having undergone yet another transformation, this time into a hastily-constructed command post.
    This newly-opened post and the old structure it occupied stood on the southern stretch of Cincinnati with the Ohio River and the Kentucky border a short distance away. In other words, near the heart of what had once been the third-most populated city in the state of Ohio.
    As recently as twenty-four hours ago, reconnaissance assured that Cincinnati remained a well-populated metropolis, but populated by Mutants, Rollers, and Goat-Walkers. Furthermore, three more Roachbot slaughterhouses existed within the city limits.
    Yet General Hoth now stood on the southwestern side of the city, having gained control of the entire metropolis at the expense of one Bradley vehicle crew incinerated when a rookie Apache pilot mistook them for a Roachbot.
    Somehow, the entire population of Hostiles within the city limits of Cincinnati had disappeared in a matter of hours, without a trace. When his tanks rolled into town, they faced no opposition.
    Just…gone. Poof.
    The General had never seen anything like it.
    No…he corrected himself. In point of fact, not only had he seen something just like it long ago, he had experienced a similar disappearing act himself.
    The hostile forces of Cincinnati had been plucked from the Earth in the same fashion that the human ark riders of early Armageddon had been snatched from highways and baseball parks.
    In the years since the invasion, those missing humans began showing up, just as Hoth himself had reappeared on the grounds of West Point.
    "So the question is," Hoth spoke aloud to no one. "Where-or perhaps even 'when'-have these things gone?"
    – Dante Jones-Chief of Internal Security-sat alone in the conference room in the basement of the estate. Brewer had left mere moments before after asking-actually shouting-a series of questions and accusations.
    Why are we having these problems with Internal Security? Get your people in line. Stonewall nearly got killed out there yesterday! This isn’t the first incident!
    Dante's responses?
    It’s not just I.S., everyone is confused. I can’t control every last station commander. This won’t be the last incident, either, unless you start telling people who is in charge around here because it sure as Hell isn't Trevor Stone!
    In truth, Dante was not sure what he could do, or even what he should do. After all, could he blame the people for wanting answers? Did Brewer and Knox actually believe the whole 'secret mission' story would work indefinitely?
    With Trevor gone, Dante felt his loyalties pulled in several directions. Yes, he felt obligated to maintain the cover story due to his membership on the military council. Yet he felt a responsibility to the Senate, the body to whom Trevor himself had given oversight of I.S.
    He placed a hand over his eyes and sighed.
    "You okay, boss?"
    The voice startled Dante.
    "Oh, man, Ray, shit you scared me."
    Ray Roos-Chief of the I.S. detachment for the estate grounds-joined his superior officer in the conference room.
    "Sorry ‘bout that. You a little jumpy? Sure you are. Heck, we all are these days."
    Ray stood alongside the table and waited for an invitation. Dante motioned to one of the empty chairs. Roos placed his Mp5 machine gun on the table top and relaxed.
    Dante said, "We had another security unit abandon a post yesterday. They walked away from a supply depot in Tennessee. Some people got killed because of it."
    Roos said, "Well, if I can speak my mind, I don’t like the idea of our boys holding sway over some of them depots that are further out. That’s the army’s job don’t you think? I think so."
    "You know the drill, Ray. Internal Security gets whatever shit jobs the military doesn’t want. But we never had guys walk away from posts like this before. You know what I mean."
    Roos nodded. "I know. But a lot of our guys haven’t been doing policing for a long time. You know that. Of course you do. With the big fella…" Roos hesitated as he tried to pick the right words. "With the big fella…off somewhere, well, you probably noticed that things are slipping up real good like. Yessir. You have noticed that."
    "Hard not to notice, Ray. Trevor went running off and now we got to clean up the mess."
    Roos cocked a finger toward Dante but in a friendly, casual way.
    "Say, weren’t you and Trevor buddies before ‘all this’? You were, right?"
    Jones answered ‘yes’ with the nod of his head.
    "What was he like before the whole shootin' match got turned downside-up?"
    Jones grew a hint of a smile. "Trevor? He was a good guy. He always treated people pretty much the same. He was the type of guy you could count on to keep his word and all."
    "So, you could see this whole thing coming with him being the big leader and all? Sort of natural-born?"
    Dante laughed. "Are you kidding? He was a care salesman, man. Look, he was definitely not mister take-charge. I mean, when we were in high school I had to lead him around or the guy was like socially, lost. See, couldn’t really even talk to girls. Didn’t know what he was going to do with his life. I mean, he was a good guy but he was lost half the time."
    Jones snickered as he remembered. Ray joined in with a polite chuckle of his own.
    "Seems like you were taking care of him back then, huh?"
    "Yeah, well then he met Ashley. Then the two of us took care of him, I guess."
    Roos said, "Must’ve been strange reversing roles and all. Yeah, that had to be strange."
    "What’s that mean?"
    "I mean, in the old days you were leading the way. Then all of a sudden the world goes topsy-turvy and he’s the one leading the way, and you’re following."
    Jones scratched his head and admitted, "Yeah. That was kind of weird. I guess I got used to it. I figure we all had to get use to a lot of different stuff."
    Dante drifted into memories. Roos remained quiet for a few moments but opened a new line of thinking, one that brought Jones to the edge of his chair.
    "You got to know, sure you know, that all of us in I.S., we follow you, Mr. Jones. No doubt about it. You’re a good guy and you always do right by us. You’ve got our loyalty. I think I can say that matter-a-fact on behalf of most of the guys."
    Dante's eyes narrowed, a little. "Oh, well, so what does that mean to me?"
    "Well, it means a lot of people out there trust your judgment. Maybe you don’t realize that. Maybe you’re too humble to let yourself see it. But I.S., folk, we trust you. After that stuff went down at New Winnabow, we all saw how you helped smooth things out. None of us wanted to be firing water cannons on protestors, you know that. Sure you do. That’s why you worked so hard to find a solution. You and that guy, that Senator guy."
    "Evan Godfrey."
    Roos waved a hand. "Yep. That’s right. Evan Godfrey. Why the two of you did right by everyone. If you ask me-and I know you haven’t but I’ll tell you anyway-if you ask me you pulled Trevor Stone’s bacon out of the barbecue. Now that’s what I call leadership."
    Jones closed his eyes as he remembered those scary times after New Winnabow.
    "Can I say something, Mr. Jones, without getting my own bacon in the barbecue? I can understand if you’d rather I just went about my business and kept my mouth shut."
    Dante nodded an approval for Roos to speak freely.
    "I know Trevor is your friend, but allow me to set that aside for one moment. Let’s forget who he is and see him for what he is. Just for a moment. I don’t want you taking offense at this."
    "Go ahead, Ray."
    "I have to figure you know more about what’s going on with Trevor being disappeared than little old me. But the story is that he’s off on some mission. Hey, I ain’t asking for the skinny, that’s not my department. But my point is that maybe it’s a good thing this is happening right now. Now hold off now, I’m not saying it’s good that he’s gone. I’m saying it’s good it’s happening now when things are kind of quiet. You see? You see my point?"
    Dante listened.
    "If he comes back, fine and dandy. Or maybe not. I mean, sooner or later Trevor Stone ain’t going to be steering the ship. He’s not immortal. At least, I expect not. So maybe we need to find this stuff out now. I mean the stuff about how things could fall apart without him."
    Dante said, "I think I see your point. It’s pretty bad now. Just think of how bad it would be if we were in the middle of the full-scale Hivvan war or something."
    "We’re getting taught a lesson, yes we are. A lesson that maybe we’re too dependent on Trevor Stone. Even with the Senate, he's still the guy in charge of just about everything."
    Dante said, "Yes. He is. But I get your point. Let's just hope he gets back, soon."
    "Oh yeah, that's what we're all hoping, Mr. Jones."
    The conversation paused.
    After a second of reflection, Roos chuckled and said, "Man, that must be funny from your point of view. A real gasser. I mean, here you are watching all of us be so dependent on Trevor Stone but in the old days you had to lead him around by the nose to keep him going in the right direction. I got to hand it to you, Mr. Jones. Sure I do. There are guys out there who I just know that type of thing wouldn’t sit well in their belly. But you, you've done one heck of a job putting that aside and working for Trevor nowadays. Still, that’s got to be kind of, oh, kind of ironic. Funny, like I said. A real gasser."

24. Shattered

    After faltering at Erie Coast, Trevor wanted to re-organize and hit the Duass again. Instead, Director Snowe convinced Thebes' new Emperor to target the Chaktaw, who posed the larger threat; the Duass showed no signs of retaliating.
    Then Trevor suggested he might find ways to improve supply and manufacturing, hinting that munitions and weapons-not his tactics-bore responsibility for the defeat.
    Nina insisted his attention was best focused on training and planning. Eventually he agreed. In fact, he appreciated how everyone on this world tended to tell him what he wanted to hear, and took care of the details leaving him free to tackle the more interesting tasks.
    With the coming of mid-March, the weather showed signs of changing. Temperatures remained cold at night, but not quite as cold. Drizzle replaced snow flurries and afternoon temperatures grew far more comfortable.
    One additional benefit of the change came in the form of more daylight, a point he noticed riding home from the Operations Center one evening in twilight instead of pitch dark. The extra sun added to his sense of optimism.
    Well, not optimism. A sense of opportunity. Yes, that was the better word. "Optimism" did not describe any of Trevor’s moods or attitudes any more. In fact, he exchanged happiness, contentment, and satisfaction for enthusiasm, aggressiveness, and determination.
    In any case, the longer days told Trevor that the opportunity for expansion approached. Soon he would launch a proper offensive, one meant to acquire territory.
    Despite what Nina and Snowe thought, Trevor remained convinced he could find more survivors. His experiences on that other world taught him about the resilience of humanity.
    Stone’s taxi halted at his skyscraper hostel. He stepped out of the car as did the two bodyguards Snowe had selected to keep Trevor safe or, more likely, to keep watch on him.
    Whether Snowe would prove to be a long-term friend or a short-term ally of convenience would depend on the Director's attitude.
    The car sped away. Trevor took a moment to crane his neck up at the tall, green structure stretching toward gray clouds where a few streaks of dying, orange sun flickered.
    The voice came from a slender figure in technician’s coveralls. She wore a cap and a light windbreaker. Even from a distance, Trevor understood he should recognize her.
    "It’s okay," he warded off his bodyguards with a wave.
    Hmm…is that Jolene? It’d be nice to see her again.
    "Yes, I’m Trevor. Do I know you?"
    The woman removed her cap revealing dark hair.
    He moved closer to see her more clearly. A sharp jolt of fear shot along his spine. His legs wobbled, his heart pounded, and he stumbled back a step.
    In that first split second of recognition, his mind screamed she came across dimensions to find me! And I’m not going back!
    In the next moment, he regained control, realizing that this Ashley wore shorter hair and a scar. These markings meant she came from this world, not the one he had left behind.
    "You know me," she said. "Maybe not here. Do you remember who I am?"
    "You…you’re Ashley Trump. I once knew someone…someone like you."
    He noticed her trembling yet noticed something else, too: determination. Obviously this confrontation scared her a great deal, too, but she found the strength to see it through.
    She held a small package to him. He retreated again.
    "Reverend Johnny told me about your life at home, and they killed him."
    "This…this is my home," the guards stepped to either flank of their charge as they realized Trevor wanted no more of this woman’s company.
    "No. Your home, Trevor. Where you have a wife and a son. Do you remember them?"
    "Stop it. Shut up."
    The guards grabbed for the woman. She avoided them long enough to shove her package in Trevor’s stomach, he had not choice but to clutch it.
    "For your son, Trevor! For your son!"
    He alternated his eyes from the package to the woman his guards pushed away.
    Get her out of here! Get her away!
    Then he hurried into the hostel. A moment later-after they had successful warded off the specter that had come to haunt the Emperor-the guards joined him inside. Trevor moved through the lobby then to the elevator then to his penthouse in an emotionless, zombie-like gait.
    Both guards followed him inside and then he slammed the door shut behind, bolting it.
    Get a hold of yourself, Emperor.
    While the bodyguards made themselves comfortable in the living room with a deck of cards and a pitcher of beer (or what passed for beer in Thebes), Trevor went into the bedroom and sat on the mattress, staring at the small wrapped box Ashley's doppelganger had shoved into his hands. He eyed it warily, as if it might be a bomb.
    Afraid, Emperor? A tiny little box scares you?
    As if to prove his courage, Trevor tore into the paper wrapping and opened the cardboard box inside. He found a key card and a slip of paper with a message.
    One dash one, industrial sector.
    See what your friend saw. Go alone.
    Do it for your son.
    A memory burst into his head so hard and so clear that he raised a hand to his temple.
    "Father, could you promise me that while you’re gone you’ll think of me every day."
    "Oh, Jorgie, I think of you every day anyway. You know that. But yes, I promise."
    When was the last time he thought about his son?
    You broke your promise.
    "Stop it!" Trevor shouted.
    One of the guards hurried to the bedroom.
    "Sir? You okay?"
    Trevor stood, pushed aside the guard, and hurried into the living room.
    "Sir? You okay?" This time the question came from both men.
    "I’m fine," he said even though he trembled. "You men stay here."
    "Um, sir, our orders are to stick with you everywhere."
    "Oh?" His head cocked. "Whose orders?"
    "Director Snowe's…um, sir."
    "And who gives Snowe his orders? Who?"
    The other guard spoke fast, apparently worried the wrong answer might mean getting thrown out the penthouse window.
    "That would be you, sir."
    "Good. Don’t forget that. It’s important you don’t forget that, understand?"
    He grabbed a jacket, slipped it over his battle suit, and headed for the elevator. His hands fidgeted as he moved. Part of him screamed that he should burn the note and throw away the key card and forget he had ever seen the phantom of Ashley Trump in this universe.
    Once he reached the lobby he told the guard there, "I need ground transportation."
    "Yes, sir. To where?"
    Trevor snarled, "None of your damn business!"
    The sentry gulped and meekly pointed out, "Sir, I, um, need to have a general idea so I can hand the job off to the appropriate transportation hub."
    Stone huffed, "Okay. I need a ride to the…to the industrial sector," Stone studied the man’s reaction. As far as the guard was concerned, Trevor might as well have said Third Legion HQ or the Ops Center. It seemed to make no difference.
    Five minutes later a car arrived. Trevor gave the driver the exact directions.
    "Do you know where one-dash-one in the industrial sector is?"
    Again, the driver showed no concern. Apparently the Ashley of this world was the only one who thought any of this was a big deal.
    Trevor relaxed. Why so anxious? This was his world now. It belonged to him.
    I own it.
    – Minutes after Trevor Stone departed, Major Forest parked at the curb in front of the skyscraper hotel. She slipped out of the sleek coupe and entered the tall building, rode the elevator to the penthouse, and entered the suite she shared with the Emperor, walking in on the two body guards in the midst of a conversation.
    "Should we call someone?"
    "Yeah, well, Snowe might be pissed if we don’t."
    "Director Snowe might be pissed if you don’t do what?" She surprised them.
    They did not have to speak, their wide-eyes and pale complexions told the story.
    She nearly screamed, "Where is he? Where did he go?"
    "I don’t know. Some girl started bothering him outside and gave him something. Really freaked him out. Next thing we know he’s telling us to stay put and heading out the door."
    "What? What lady?"
    "Don’t know. We just told her to get off, figured she was a crazed fan or something. Never saw her before. She was wearing techies, dark hair. She acted like she knew him but I've never seen her around him before."
    Nina’s eyes worked side to side as her mind calculated. As she found one potential, terrifying answer, she raced out of the room and down the elevator to the sentry in the lobby.
    "Trevor. Did he come down here a few minutes ago? Did he leave again?"
    "Yes, he asked for ground transportation."
    She leaned in close to his face.
    "To where?"
    "Industrial Sector. That’s all he said."
    That was enough. Nina put the puzzle pieces together. Panic sprouted in the center of her stomach and spread through her entire body. If she hurried, if she were fast, maybe she could keep everything from tumbling down.
    Nina bolted out the front door knowing that the race was on.
    Twilight turned into darkness. With nightfall came a sharp chill, part of a moist wind that suggested a rainstorm approached.
    Trevor’s taxi pulled away, leaving him on a street to the south of the wide, long building that resembled an industrial cathedral made from metal.
    A dusty taste of soot and a sour smell of combustible fuels filled the air. He heard a steady drone; the drone of machinery at work, machinery producing the supplies keeping Thebes alive and fighting.
    He avoided the front of the building where he noticed activity on what appeared to be loading docks. Besides, markings on the key card he possessed pointed to the south side entrance. At the same time, he could not shake the feeling that he should avoid drawing attention.
    His nerves trembled anxiously. A part of him-a very big part-wanted to turn around, forget the place, and go back to killing aliens by day and partying by night. He found he preferred that simple approach.
    Still, he managed to subdue the urge to retreat, squashing it with bravado.
    I’m the Emperor! I can go wherever I want!
    Trevor approached the side door.
    Go back! Turn around!
    A security camera focused on the person who approached the side door, slipped a key card into the lock, and followed Reverend Johnny's footsteps into the heart of Thebes.
    – Director Jakob Snowe sat in a windowless office inside the Operations Center scribbling another signature on another set of orders, this one approving the promotion of a junior officer who had served him well; one of his many friends well-positioned in the military, manufacturing, and administrative sectors.
    One of those friends walked in to his office after a quick knock. Snowe did not look up from his paper.
    "Mr. Director, security called. You wanted to be notified if The Emperor went to building one-dash-one. He was spotted on an exterior camera entering the building alone."
    Snowe jumped up and moved around the desk for the exit first at a walk and then at a slow jog.
    "Muster the men and warm up my Skipper."
    The Director joined the race.
    The room smelled of grease and cleaning chemicals. An eclectic collection of maintenance items-from mops to spare electronic parts-lay about the area in lockers and on tables, in corners and on shelves.
    He spied the trio of passages leading away from the room and felt as if he had accessed a sort of backstage entrance to the place. Those passages looked less like typical corridors and more like maintenance tunnels, resembling the type of hallways one might find running through a shopping mall behind the retail spaces.
    Of course, Trevor did not know which way to go. Thankfully, the sound of approaching footstep from behind a set of double doors directly in front of him made the decision easy: he pushed through a metal door and proceeded along a tunnel cutting behind offices and workshops. He walked in silent steps, moving fast but hiding all the same.
    Why am I hiding? I'm The Emperor! I own this place! Everything here is mine!
    Funny how petty that sounded when trying to convince himself. Yet he knew it to be true. From staked aliens to murdered Committeemen, Trevor Stone had purchased Thebes and all its people. Somewhere ahead waited another piece of that inheritance.
    – A light drizzle fell, causing the black-topped boulevard to glisten in the street lights.
    Nina's car screamed around a corner, fish-tailing through an intersection in a fit of over steer. The squeal of the slipping tires bounced off the tall, empty buildings surrounding the lonely street. As she pushed the throttle, the roar of the engine sounded even louder.
    Her hands gripped the steering wheel. She bit her lower lip to the point of nearly drawing blood. The buildings on either side became one constant, ugly blur.
    Something caught her eye.
    Nina looked out a side window painted with droplets. Overhead, a Skipper flew by and she knew where it was going and she knew who was on board.
    "Shit! Shit! Shit!"
    Forest pounded her fists on the steering wheel then slammed the accelerator to the floor. The car’s rear wheels chirped from the onslaught of torque and propelled her forward even faster, but not nearly as fast as the Skipper.
    – Trevor moved along a tight corridor. The background sound of grinding, turning, churning machinery continued at a constant, low hum.
    He passed supply closets and exit doors and fire control equipment and utility cabinets, traversing a labyrinth spider webbing through the entire building. Yet, the halls and passages, the door ways and intersections flowed like tributaries feeding a river, leading toward a central area. He felt it calling to him.
    – The AATC came to an abrupt, rough halt on the landing pad atop building one-dash-one in the industrial sector. The ship had barely stopped moving when the hatch lowered open.
    Director Jakob Snowe and an entourage of well-armed faithful followers hurried from the craft.
    – The car came to a halt outside the building. Nina swung open the door, exited, and ran through the cathedral-like entrance, avoiding a supply truck as it drove away from the docks. Two guards watched her enter but did nothing to stop her, a superior officer.
    Nina knew she needed to beat Snowe to the security control station on the upper level of the complex. From there she could track Trevor. If she could get to him before the Director, maybe she could stop this before it happened. Maybe things would be okay.
    As she hurried around palates and crates and drums, she checked to ensure her twin pistols were secure in their shoulder holsters, in case things did not turn out okay at all.
    – The walls of the corridor became lined with power conduits and plumbing feeding into an eclectic collection of work rooms. From the few glimpses Trevor dared, he saw workers repairing equipment, patching uniforms, and inventorying supplies.
    Trevor wondered why he had never come to this building-or the industrial sector-before. On his Earth in his Empire — old Empire — he had gone out of his way to interact with the workers, the manufacturers; the people who fed the war machine. Without them there would be no bullets, no food, no uniforms, or no Eagle air ships. But here, in his new Empire, he focused purely on the fighting.
    The fun stuff…the stuff I like so much…
    After the assembly rooms came corridors of metal grates and catwalks, as if originally constructed to serve a temporary purpose, like scaffolding framing a building under construction. It felt to him as if the rest of the facility had grown outward from a central point, a point he neared with each step forward.
    – Snowe led his hand-picked group of soldiers through a cramped hallway stepping over the frames of open bulkheads as he moved.
    Workers and technicians stepped aside. Despite his diminutive stature, the Director walked with the determination of a tank, his eyes fixed in a cold-blooded stare.
    – Around this corner…
    Nina had followed the signs for the security control room as she climbed stairs and ladders through the building. One last turn remained but she halted at the corner when she heard a voice call, "Director Snowe!"
    Nina stood still, not daring to peek around the corner with Snowe and the building's security watch commander a few feet from her position, but she could hear well enough.
    "Chief, Billy, what have you got?"
    "Last we saw he was moving toward the holding cells, probably making for the core. But we haven’t spotted him since. Do you want me to put the facility on alert?"
    "No," Snowe instructed in a stern voice. "I want to do this quietly. The fewer people the better. Once it’s over, we can make up whatever story we choose. If we start making a lot of noise we’ll draw more attention than I want. Keep your people away from him; have them focus on guarding the exits. Don’t let him out of here. My men will take care of the rest."
    "One other thing, sir. My men saw Major Forest enter the building a few minutes ago. Is she looking for Stone, too? What are your orders for her?"
    Snowe snapped, "If she gets in the way, kill her. The little whore won’t have any friends left after this anyhow. Probably be doing her a favor."
    She clenched her lips to stifle a gasp.
    "Yes, sir. And I'll let you know as soon as we pick either of them up on cameras again. They seem to be staying away from the main areas."
    Nina steadied her nerves and thought Trevor is heading toward the core.
    She had failed to beat Snowe to Security Control, but might yet reach Trevor first.
    – Trevor’s feet clanged and clunked as he jogged along the metal framed corridor. Tiny bulbs offered alternating patches of light and dark. The air grew warmer the closer he came to the center of the complex. Beads of sweat peppered his forehead and soaked his arms beneath the sleeves of the battle suit. He felt a sort of electricity in the air, although he could not discern if this feeling came from the actual environment or his imagination.
    Voices came to his ear, a mix of harsh commands and forlorn cries but he could not make out the exact words.
    Trevor's jog threatened to turn into a sprint.
    Come see…
    The corridor emptied onto a catwalk above a long chamber. Below him, the source of those commands and cries.
    "Move it you dumb ass!"
    "Get over here! Yeah, you!"
    The sharp snap of a cracking whip; a howl of agony.
    Trevor slowed to a walk, his eyes fixed on the scenes of brutality playing below. Human guards wielding whips and clubs to beat and motivate Chaktaw prisoners.
    From what he could see, at one end of the long room entered a line of Chaktaw though a large archway. They carried boxes and packages of varying sizes. The prisoners then sorted the incoming supplies and placed them on larger palates that, no doubt, would eventually find their way to the loading docs, to the supply trucks, and to the people and soldiers of Thebes.
    Trevor did not know how to react. He had slaughtered an untold number of aliens over the years and sentenced some to dissection at Red Rock. But to use them like this, to torture them under whips and hold them in chains…this did not sit well in his belly.
    Perhaps this was why Nina and Snowe kept him sheltered from the supply side of the war; they feared he would not approve of slavery.
    However, he understood. Humanity lacked manpower and therefore required a work force to handle this type of-no, no this is not right. I shall put a stop to this.
    He resolved to have a chat with Director Snowe and Major Forest, one that involved the end of any secrets. Thebes belonged to him now, and he would know every inch of it.
    Trevor observed the prisoners carrying boxes into the chamber below. They resembled a line of ants carrying the spoils of a raided picnic. He traced the line in the opposite direction, toward the point of origin and realized that the catwalk followed the same line from above.
    Trevor walked in that direction, approaching a ramp that ascended toward a large opening.
    – Nina emerged onto one of the walkways circling the massive center of Building One Dash One. Below her ran row upon row of arcane vents and flaps releasing steam and exhaust, descending in tiered rings toward another walkway.
    The Major planned to climb down to that passageway and intercept Trevor somewhere near the slave pens. If he saw only the workers, she could explain that away. But, if he makes it to the core; if he sees…
    Spurred on, Nina threw her feet over the safety railing and jumped a few feet to one of those rings of vents. Her balance wobbled for a moment. A vent near her boots sprung open, released a stream of hot exhaust, and then snapped shut again.
    She moved on, jumping down to the next ring, then the next, and the next…
    – Trevor walked up the ramp. Ahead of him stretched a wide open area with a domed roof giving him the initial impression of some gigantic, indoor sports stadium, this one filled with energy and a low rumble.
    The shadows of the cramped passage faded behind and he crossed a wide, flat walkway moving toward a safety railing overlooking the huge area. He did not see Major Forest behind and above him, jumping down from row to row.
    She saw him and accelerated her descent with an irrational hope that if she could reach him she could find a way to avert his eyes.
    Trevor walked forward…slowly…then reached out to grasp the rail.
    Nina jumped the final two rows and landed hard behind him, falling to a knee and steadying herself with hand to the floor.
    Too late.
    Trevor stood at the precipice and gazed into the heart of Thebes.
    He had been right all along; there were answers on this Earth.
    Nina slowly walked to his side. He sensed her presence but it made no difference.
    The entire complex served this centerpiece. In fact, in an almost literal sense, the city had grown from here.
    His eyes built the puzzle one piece at a time, first seeing a big yellow and orange arch fifty feet tall and crackling with energy very much like flashes of lightning.
    Heat lightning.
    He saw piston-like machinery at work in the middle of the thing, but the space in and around the arch was sheathed in a shimmering distortion.
    A pair of conveyor belts extended out from that distortion carrying crates, bags, and barrels of supplies that traveled across the void of space to arrive here, on this parallel Earth. Chaktaw prisoners retrieved those supplies, working under the whip of humanalien — guards.
    Around everything, a sound like a million buzzing bees punctuated by sharp cracks of electricity and a smell that mimicked burning circuitry.
    Trevor stared at the sight below him and the truth it brought. A series of mental locks and dams tried in vain to slow the flood of understanding.
    In the tone of a confused child he said, "That’s…that’s a gateway."
    She answered, "Yes."
    His head tilted. "Your gateway."
    His hands trembled. He retreated a step from the railing but the gorgon would not release his eyes; would not allow him to look away.
    "This isn’t…this isn’t your Earth?"
    The flood smashed the dams and broke open the locks protecting his sanity. Everything fell to pieces. Shattered.
    "Here…here you… here you are invaders…"
    Neither of them saw the soldier-the friend of Jakob Snowe-running across a walkway on the far side of the chamber and taking aim with his rifle.
    Trevor’s hands rose to his temples as he staggered further away from the railing; away from the truth.
    This is my world now. I own it.
    "What…what have I done? Oh God forgive me, what have I become?"
    "Trevor…wait…listen to me…"
    She was not even there. She was a universe away.
    "What…what have I become?"
    He clutched his head and closed his eyes and hunched over as if slammed in the stomach by a hammer. Everything he had done here, everything in the name of yet another glorious cause. All of it…murder. Invasion. Conquest.
    Trevor Stone cursed himself, "WHAT HAVE I BECOME?"
    Gun shots flared off the railing like fireworks. Nina pulled her pistols and returned fire.
    "What have I become? What have I done?"
    He screamed the words over and over again as loud as he could to drown out the laughter.
    The laughter of the universe.

25. Insurrection

    What have I become?
    Trevor Stone had faced and survived all manner of nightmare creatures in the course of his life; in the course of his reign. At last Armageddon conjured a monster that sapped his will, boggled his mind, and pushed him to the brink of insanity. That monster was himself.
    What have I done?
    He switched off sensory input, tuning out the buzz of the galactic gateway that had brought Nina’s humans to this Earth. He shut out the cries of the tortured slaves forced to do the bidding of extraterrestrial masters. He ignored the sound of the Major shooting her pistols.
    Trevor retreated into his mind but instead of finding sanctuary, he found a prison built from the truth of what he had done on this parallel world.
    The gateway was the nucleus of Thebes. Thebes was the last city of mankind on this Earth. It had also been the first city.
    A distant shout tried to break through to him, "Trevor…we…have…to…go…"
    Clues he had ignored now laid plain in front of him, a mystery revealed that had been, in fact, poorly hidden. He only failed to see the truth because accepting the lies had been easy.
    Director Snowe and Major Forest knew there were no more human beings on this planet because the only humans on this world had come through the Gateway to Thebes.
    The words of a Committeeman: "We should halt outward bound cross-dimensional research until such time as additional assets are made available."
    Yes, outward bound. But inward bound continued in the form of supplies. On this world, no one had yet shutdown the invaders' gateways.
    At the estate on this Earth, the Geryons had issued a warning before attacking. When had an invader on Trevor's home Earth ever given a warning? But from one invader to another, such a courtesy might be extended to avoid 'destabilizing' the border between territories. Perhaps the Duass failed to counter attack from Erie Coast for the same reason.
    His mind cycled through hint after hint, sign after sign that all was not as it seemed. Nina's people used numbers and grid references the way an invading army would categorize and organize foreign territory. Nina’s explanation of ‘forgetting’ the old was so broad and foolish he should have seen through it but it was easier, more convenient, to accept without question.
    The architecture at the lake and the Chaktaw base resembled cliff dwellings, yet Thebes resembled a more traditional human city built on open plains, yet he asked no question.
    Why didn’t I ask more? Why did I accept it all?
    Cities and playgrounds and air ports and farms and all the other trappings of civilization overrun and replaced with bases and mining operations.
    An armada of invaders had come, including humanity, competing for territory like European settlers landing on the New World, but sharing the primary goal of beating down, defeating, subjugating the indigenous species.
    No wonder Nina had never heard of the estate. The Trevor Stone of this reality had never been at that estate. The estate had belonged to someone else.
    The Chaktaw?
    "Please, Trevor, snap out of it!"
    And he had replaced the Trevor Stone who had led the human invaders; stepped into his shoes easily. Trevor saw Chaktaw bodies hanging from crucifixes.
    Reverend Johnny’s ghost spoke, "This world is having a strange effect on you, Trevor Stone. It is bringing out a side of you that you had previously kept in a cage. I remember when you were saddened by the idea that your life would be one of killing and destruction. Now it seems as if you are embracing your fate with welcoming arms."
    No, Reverend, Trevor thought. This world merely showed me who I really am.
    How else could he explain it? On one world, a warrior fighting to save his people, on another, a warrior conquering new territory. A difference in only purpose, not methods. Yes, this is why the Old Man chose Trevor Stone for his gifts, because of his black heart.
    Trevor became vaguely aware that he was moving, of a hand pulling him along. He blinked rapidly and slowly returned to the world around him. He felt his steps on the catwalk, heard the heavy breath of Major Nina Forest as she encouraged him along.
    "Down. You have to go down, Trevor. Down this ladder."
    He scanned the floor and saw a portal there, like an open manhole cover.
    "Hurry! Hurry, if we can duck down here, we can hide. I can get you out of this."
    Trevor did as suggested, still too groggy from realization to offer any protest. He descended into a dark, humid area that smelled of steam and rusting metal. Around him, walls lined with pipes and wires and small lights.
    She whispered urgently, "Hurry, Trevor. Please. Hide. We have to hide."
    A new sound reached his ears, the sound of heavy boots marching along-no, jogging along-with a metallic clank-clank.
    He finished his climb down and moved away from the ladder. Nina slid down and landed with a heavy thump next to him. She grabbed his arm again and pulled him into an even smaller and darker passage.
    After several seconds, a line of heavy boots marched overhead. When they did not stop, Nina let out a long sigh and slid to the floor, her back against the wall in a seated position.
    Trevor waited with his hands over his head. He fought to comprehend the enormity of the revelation, beyond his personal role.
    "Listen, Trevor I can explain everything. I can." The quiver in her voice suggested that might not be true.
    Nina stood and turned as if to lead him in a new direction, saying, "If we can make it back to the Operations Center, I know most of the soldiers will follow you instead of Snowe. If we can get out of here alive we can-"
    Trevor leapt to her and placed a firm finger over her lips.
    She stopped talking. He grabbed her shoulders and shoved her against the wall.
    "What brought you here? Who brought you here? Why are you here? Why are you invading this world?"
    She shook her head. "I don’t know. I’m just a soldier."
    "Don’t lie to me. Don’t lie anymore to me!"
    His hands shook but he found enough control to pull one of her silver pistols from its harness and shove the barrel to her nose. She tried to turn away but he grabbed her hair with his free hand and ordered, "Answer me."
    "I-we followed Trevor. We followed you…you brought us here…"
    She sobbed. Nina Forest sobbed. "Don’t…don’t kill me… please…"
    Trevor felt his entire body burn with anger. He gripped the pistol so tight it was a wonder the handle did not squish in his palm. He wanted to push the barrel straight through her head. He wanted to hurt her for lying to him, for being a conqueror for He stopped. He stopped and shuddered at the feelings flowing through him. Feelings of rage and anger and the desire to do harm. To do harm to Nina Forest.
    What have I become?
    Trevor loosened his grip and pulled the barrel away, holding it aloft in the dark corridor and glaring at the weapon as if it were a rattlesnake in his grasp.
    Nina slumped to the floor caressing the red mark on her face.
    "My…my God…" he stumbled."Look…look at who I am. Look at what I am."
    He dropped the pistol. It hit the metal-grated floor below with a reverberating clang.
    He turned to her. She sobbed with her face in her hands. As he spoke, his body shook with fear, fear of himself.
    "You took me from my world to save you. That was the truth, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?"
    The Major wiped the sleeve of her battle suit across her nose to clean off some of the mess. As she did, she answered in a contrite, soft voice, "Yes."
    "But you didn’t tell me that you were-you ar e-invaders here."
    She could not look him in the eye. Instead, she faced the wall and answered, "No. Everyone knew we couldn’t do that."
    "Snowe? The Committee? All of Thebes?"
    "Snowe, The Committee, the top Generals, and most of the squad leaders in Third Legion. I told you, Third L had been Snowe's outfit. As things changed, we briefed more people. Just told them to be quiet, mainly."
    "You controlled access to me and you never wanted me thinking about supplies and industry or manufacturing or any of this stuff. You didn’t want me to see this place. You didn’t want me to see…" his voice grew louder, "you didn’t want me to see your gateway. Did you think you could hide it forever? Did you?"
    She answered only with a sniffle.
    He seethed, "You knew I'd find out sooner or later. Did you think I’d just accept it? You thought I’d just…" his voice trailed and he found the answer himself. "Christ, you thought you could make me like it here. All the things you — we- did. Oh sweet Lord. And I almost…I was becoming…I was becoming him."
    No, no, Trevor. You were finding the part of him inside of you. She couldn’t make you into a monster; no one can do that to a man. But she didn’t have to, did she? She just had to find the monster in you. Ask the people of New Winnabow. They know.
    Stone took a long look at the strong Major Forest curled in a ball against the floor wiping tears from her face. Tears he had scared from her. After all, monsters can be scary.
    Trevor turned and marched away.
    Cautiously, she raised her eyes and watched him move off in a wobbling gait, glancing down the side passages in search of an escape route. Nina stood and staggered behind him warily, like a storm chaser pursuing an erratic tornado.
    She pleaded, "If we can get to Ops we can convince the army to side with you."
    Trevor shot her a nasty glance and said, "I don’t care about victory for your people. I'm not an invader. You and everyone else in Thebes are conquerors. Why are you here?"
    She answered, "I will tell you everything I know but first, we have to get out of here."
    He left the dark passage for a wider, better lit corridor lined with lockers. Nina still followed but fidgeted, anxiously, like a rabbit leaving behind the safety of its hole for a dangerous, wide-open plain.
    "You belong here," he told her with a suppressed fury underlying his tone. "This is your city, Nina. You built this…this base. Stay here. Rot here. Die here. I don’t give a shit."
    He stopped at an intersection to get his bearings. One dark, dirty hallway led down a ramp. A second cleaner, brightly-lit passage went in the other direction. He chose the former. She followed a few steps behind, afraid to get too close.
    "Trevor, wait. I…I told you when you first came over I’d help you get home. I promised you. If you’ll let me, I’ll help you."
    Stone stopped, turned, and bound to her. She staggered backwards, stumbled, and actually fell straight on her ass like a child knocked over by a bully.
    "You're lying. You would say anything to keep me from leaving."
    His hands shook as he spoke. She turned her head and cringed, expecting a blow.
    "You showed me how bad I can be. Well I reject it. I reject you! I will not be your tyrant. I fight for my people. You are nothing to me."
    He stormed off two steps but stopped when she said, "We had help."
    Nina stood and walked to him, her steps as measured as if she traversed a mine field but lacking any confidence, any sense of control. She had changed from manipulator to beggar.
    "We had help bringing you here. We couldn’t have done it ourselves. Snowe had contacts like my Trevor did. I’m not supposed to know, but I think I do."
    Trevor turned and looked her in the eyes. He saw defeat there, but a defeated enemy with one last card to play. He quickly understood that this was no longer about keeping him; it was about her personal survival.
    "And you’ll tell me," he said. "You’ll tell me everything if I take you with me. Is that it?"
    Her lips quivered. "Snowe is going to kill me, too. And without you-" she stopped as embarrassment flooded over her but she was in far too deep to let shame interfere. "I mean, without you, there’s nothing here for me. No one. I have no life in Thebes."
    From far away came the sound of soldiers searching the maze of corridors.
    "Nothing for you here? Snowe will kill you? I suppose he knows I won’t play along now that I know the truth."
    A new thought occurred to Stone. He cocked an eye and said, "Maybe he wanted me back for other reasons, like getting The Committee out of the way. He can make up a story and take over now, can’t he? All without being the bad guy."
    She nodded.
    Trevor said, "I’m going, Nina. Goodbye."
    Her voice cracked, "Please don’t leave me behind! I don’t want to be…I don’t want…"
    Trevor leaned in close to her. She averted her eyes.
    "Go on."
    Nina admitted, "I don’t want to be alone. Not again. I couldn’t stand that again. I’ll do whatever you want, just please don’t leave me alone."
    "You did everything I wanted, even things I didn't know I'd want. Was all that so you wouldn't be alone? Is that what it took for you to keep the other Trevor? I was right from the very beginning; you're nothing like the Nina I knew."
    She leaned against the wall and sighed. A pitiful sight but he cared only out of necessity.
    "Can you get us out of here? Get us away from Thebes?"
    "Snowe landed his Skipper on the roof. If we can get to it we can get away fast."
    When Trevor said nothing she took his silence as acceptance but before she took the lead he warned, "If you deceive me again, if you lie to me, if you try anything I don’t like, I’ll kill you. Do you understand? I don’t care who you look like or what we’ve done. Clear?"
    Despite the fact that he was unarmed and she carried two pistols, she believed his threat.
    Major Forest swallowed hard.
    "Okay…um…this way," she led him toward a descending stairwell.
    "Wait. I thought you said we’d head for the roof and take his ship."
    She answered timidly, "If we go down two levels we can cut past the holding chambers and get into one of the cargo tubes. That will take us to an elevator to the roof."
    He did not budge. He did not believe her.
    She said, "Listen, back in the old days some of the supplies had to get shipped fast to the front. We had transport tubes from the core to a freight elevator to the landing pads on the roof."
    Trevor said, "Your supplies from another world. From your home world. Right."
    She bit her lip and nodded.
    "Tell me, Nina, why is this city so empty? Where are the reinforcements from home?"
    "We don’t have time for this, Trevor. We have to get going. Snowe isn’t going to let you live now, he’d never trust you and he sure doesn’t trust me. We don’t have time."
    "We’ll make time, soon enough. Okay, go."
    Trevor followed the Major down several flights of stairs. They arrived at a wide, lonely corridor. They hid among a pile of crates covered by a tarp as a squad of soldiers marched by.
    When clear, he asked, "Did I go from Emperor to wanted man that quick?"
    She said, "No, he'll try and keep it quiet. He's probably got a handful of loyal men in here searching for you and everyone else doesn't have a clue. But we don't know which guards are working for him and which aren't, so best to stay out of sight if we can."
    One room grabbed his attention, a massive but dormant assembly area. Through an observation window, he spied parts of Skippers-rotor blades, wings-lying about.
    "Too big to come through on their own," he said more to himself than her. "So you send through the parts and assemble the bigger equipment over here."
    "Yes," she admitted.
    He said to her, "I've seen gateways before on my world. The Hivvans had one and that one looked different from the one we destroyed in Binghamton that first year. Yours doesn't look like either of those. Same function, maybe made from different technology?"
    "I guess. Look, we have to keep moving," and she coaxed him forward.
    The hall ended at a set of rusting metal doors but passages led off to either side, making a ‘T’ intersection. To the left, a corridor leading to darkness. To the right, a small hall lined with electrical cords and plumbing.
    While he waited for her to decide direction, Trevor heard voices from the passage to his right where he saw an archway leading into a lit chamber of some kind. He recognized the tone of the voices: guards issuing orders, no doubt with the added emphasis of a whip.
    "Trevor…wait," her voice came in a loud whisper as he drifted toward the sounds. "There’s an access point for the cargo tubes through here. Don’t go that way. Trevor!"
    He paid her no attention as he moved to the archway that, he found, led to a balcony serving as an elevated guard post above a prisoner work area. A soldier stood there, his attention focused on the slaves below.
    Quietly, Trevor dared a step inside for a better look, managing to avoid notice.
    He saw a big room lined with steel girders and metal mesh catwalks that smelled of steam and sweat. Other elevated observation posts remained unmanned, no doubt a symptom of diminished manpower.
    Several conveyor belts flowed into the room dropping bundles into bins. From what he could see from the distance, those bundles included clothing, shoes, personal electronic devices such as shavers and hair dryers as well as other household-type items.
    Human workers examined the bundles, discarding some but distributing most to work stations where the items were repaired. At those work stations labored bipedal humanoids with big puffy cheeks, wiry hair, and whiskers of a sort.
    Chaktaw slaves.
    Still unseen, Trevor returned to the hall and said to Nina, "No deals, no bull shit. You tell me right now, whose Earth is this? The Chaktaw’s?"
    She did not hesitate. "Yes. It’s their Earth. Our mission was to wipe them out."
    Trevor stepped back to the balcony again. The guard there leaned against a post in an effort to remain vertical while he drifted closer to a nap.
    As he glanced over the balcony, he saw a sight he had seen too often on his home world. Sweat shops and industrial slave camps had been critical components of survival for the invading Grand Army of the Hivvan Republic on his Earth. Even the most conservative of guesses pointed to tens of thousands of his people starved or worked to death in such places since the invasion.
    For the first time, Trevor Stone felt pity for a non-human creature.
    He knew the Chaktaw — the Vikings- from his Earth, having fought them-no, slaughtered them-at Five Armies. While he did not regret murdering those invaders, he saw them now in a different light. This was their Earth. Their home. Nina and the men of Thebes had no more right to invade and conquer here than the Chaktaw or the Hivvans or the Duass did on his home world.
    "What are you doing you ass?" one of the guards berated a slave. "I said repair this shit, not take it apart. You dumb or something?"
    The Chaktaw to whom the guard spoke actually looked familiar to Trevor, albeit with more bruises and scrapes on his face. It was the Chaktaw prisoner taken from the strip-mall-like outpost they had raided, the prisoner who could speak man's language.
    "You stupid…you still here… you die I think. Fromm come for you."
    Wham! A back hand from the guard sent the prisoner to the floor.
    Nina joined him on the balcony. Thanks to the constant drone of machines and the continual shouts from below, the drowsy sentry did not hear them converse.
    She pointed to what resembled a massive pipe affixed to the wall with an opening cut in the side. The slaves placed boxes inside that pipe.
    "That’s a cargo tube," she said. "There's a platform in there that could take us to the freight elevators for the roof."
    Trevor went quiet for several seconds, his eyes alternating between the tube and the prisoners and the guards. Finally he told her, "Okay. I’m taking that prisoner with me. That one who was talking."
    She gasped, caught herself, and said, "No, we don’t know who to trust in there. And the Chaktaw will kill you and me if given the chance."
    "Shut up. Either I’m taking the two of you with me or I’m taking just him."
    Major Forest opened her mouth to protest but he did not wait to listen. Instead, he walked over to the napping guard and shouted, "Hey, wake up, soldier!"
    The guard jerked straight and swung around.
    Nina hustled to Trevor’s side, her hands primed to reach for her twin pistols.
    "Who are you?" The sentry retorted but took notice of the woman's rank.
    "I’m the guy in charge around here. Or don’t you keep up with current events?"
    Trevor did not wait for the confused guard to collect his wits, hoping that news of power shifts and rumors of a returned Emperor would, at least, result in inaction. So instead of explaining, he descended a latter set in the balcony floor, calling up, "You fall asleep like that again on watch and you’ll be down here sewing shoes with the rest of the scum, hear me?"
    Two dozen Chaktaw prisoners worked in the large chamber although half remained in holding pens behind jail-cell bars. The other half worked at long tables cluttered with greasy machine parts, torn fabrics, disassembled devices, and dull tools.
    In addition to the one on the balcony, four guards walked the floor armed with whips and clubs. However, it was not the sentries that worried Major Forest. She tapped Trevor's shoulder and pointed to a security camera overseeing the area.
    "You need to make this quick," she whispered.
    He saw her meaning and nodded in understanding.
    Two of the guards approached. They wore black tunics and not battle armor. One waved at Nina's holsters and barked, "No guns on the floor."
    Trevor barked even louder, "I give the orders here. Take a close look. Know who I am?"
    The guard did take a close look. His eyes widened.
    "Should I shoot him?" Nina played the game as best she could with a broken spirit.
    "I’m the man in charge and I’m here for that worthless shit, the one I pulled off the battlefield up north. The one who can speak our language."
    "That thing? It’s scheduled for Intel. I can’t release it without orders."
    A loud buzz cut through the sound of tapping hammers and rolling conveyors. That buzz came from a phone which one of the guards moved to answer.
    Trevor said, "Listen, asshole, my name is Trevor Stone and if that don’t mean something to you you’re in a heap of trouble."
    The guard stumbled, "Shit, I recognize your face now. I heard the rumors but-"
    "Stop them!" The guard who answered the phone shouted.
    Before he could react, Trevor booted his foot into the first watchman's testicles. At the same time, Nina drew her pistols and pointed them at the second guard standing in front of them. That man raised his hands and backed away.
    The prisoners and the remaining humans on the floor shouted and cried out and ducked for cover while the drowsy sentry in the balcony cocked his weapon and took aim.
    Stone pushed aside the slave drivers and grabbed hold of the talking-Chaktaw's arm. At that same moment, the guard on the balcony decided to fire, his bullets ricocheting off the work table and turning the prisoners into a scrambling mass of chaos.
    "Come with me."
    "I no come with you. You dead."
    Trevor did not wait for an answer. No matter how defiant his words, the Chaktaw had been beaten and starved and therefore could not resist being dragged toward the cargo tube.
    Nina fired her pistols, chasing off the guards at ground level but unable to match the fire power from above. She threw her shoulder into Trevor, pushing him toward the opening and shouted, "Get in!"
    Trevor forced the Chaktaw inside, falling on a wheeled metal cart lined with bins and straps for securing packages sitting atop tracks in a tube about the size of a small oil pipe. Nina dove in with bullets following close behind.
    She then turned around and braved assault rifle rounds in order to reach outside the tube and push a big switch. A sharp electronic buzz followed, and then the tube went black as the access port closed. The cart automatically began its journey, rolling forward first slow then fast and then faster.
    "Keep your heads down," she said although they did not need to be told; the tight confines of the tube forced them to remain in a prone position for the journey. "Probably take a minute or two," she added in a loud voice to be heard over the sound of squeaking wheels.
    "What trick this?" The Chaktaw said in the dark.
    "No trick. Just be quiet until we are clear," Trevor answered.
    After several minutes of travel through the lightless tunnel, the cargo sled slowed and brakes engaged causing sparks to erupt between the wheels and track. At last, the top of the pipe disappeared and the cart rolled to a halt in a large room made of gray-colored concrete.
    Several of the cargo tubes leading in from different parts of the facility came to a collective stop a few paces from a set of large elevator doors. Another wall offered a bulkhead that, no doubt, led to the rest of the complex. Certainly Director Jakob Snowe and a squad of his best friends would soon come through that door.
    Nina lifted herself from the cart and said, "Looks clear but we got to move."
    Trevor followed her and then turned to offer a hand to their passenger. The Chaktaw refused and, after struggling for words, said, "I no play game."
    "No game," Trevor grabbed the gray coveralls the prisoner wore and hauled him up.
    Apparently tired of what it perceived to be a ruse, the Chaktaw reacted with surprising agility for a starved and overworked prisoner. He shoved a knee into Trevor’s belly then threw a chop to the back of his neck. Stone fell to the concrete floor.
    Major Forest placed a pistol directly to the Chaktaw's face.
    Trevor slowly-with a grunt through clenched teeth-stood. He spoke between pangs of pain, "You won’t believe this, but I’m not your enemy any more. I want to help you. But first we have to get out of here. Do you understand?"
    The Chaktaw did not understand. Again, either Trevor spoke too quickly for him to translate or-most likely-he did not believe. Yet what Trevor could not manage with words, Director Snowe managed with bullets.
    Rifle fire snapped into the room. A bullet passed between Trevor and the Chaktaw. Snowe and his ‘friends’ moved into the room intending to make it a killing ground.
    Nina shot her pistol at the attackers while urging "in the elevator!"
    Trevor punched the obvious 'call' button and, fortunately, the doors immediately opened. With Nina providing cover fire, the three entered the car and managed to close the doors. Snowe's frustrated voice eked into the elevator shaft as he told his men to, "get to the roof!"
    Meanwhile, the elevator ascended to the squeal of pulleys and rumbles of wheels, moving at a pace that felt unbearably slow. When the doors finally opened again, Trevor felt certain Director Snowe and his execution squad would be waiting.
    Instead of guns, flickering stars and a crescent moon greeted the three escapees atop the lone flat spot on the domed building. A solitary Skipper occupied one of three landing pads and a crisp breeze swept across the roof.
    "Come on, get onboard," Nina led them to the waiting craft.
    "No guards?" Trevor voiced his surprise aloud.
    "It's not like the whole army is after us," Nina answered. "I don’t think he was expecting you to make a break for it, anyway."
    The Chaktaw dug its feet in and refused to move. Trevor grabbed his arm and said, "I know you don't trust me, but we were almost shot downstairs."
    "This is a game," the enemy replied. "You pretend friend, you want me to show you Fromm place. Rather die here."
    "Look, you don't have to show me anything. But if you stay here, we will both die here. Get onboard and we'll figure the rest out later."
    He did not give the Chaktaw a chance to respond, yanking him to the Skipper. When inside, Trevor closed the ramp and buckled both himself and his reluctant passenger into seats.
    The engines spooled to life and the booster rockets shot the craft into the sky, pinning everyone onboard to their seats. As the roar of the rockets faded, Trevor heard another noise; a steady plink-plink-plink against the fuselage. After a moment, he recognized the sound of bullets hitting the ship. Snowe had made it to the roof, but not quite in time.
    As the rotors spun to life and the nose of the craft dipped as it began a more conventional and controlled flight path, Nina said, "We don't have much fuel. Maybe an hour flying time. Which way do you want me to go?"
    "Any signs of pursuit?"
    She consulted the onboard radar and answered, "No, nothing. If they come after us, it might not be for a while."
    Trevor remembered what he had done after executing The Committee and told her, "Of course not. Snowe will be too busy locking down communications and giving the officers a choice to follow him or face a firing squad."
    Nina repeated her question, "Which way do you want me to fly?"
    "North," he answered. "We're going north."
    "Trevor, listen, I don't know what you think you can work out with the Chaktaw but-"
    "Just shut your mouth and fly the ship. I'll tell you when you can speak again."
    The skipper sped across the industrial sector bathed in moonlight and pushing through streams of smoke. After a moment, they cleared the crumbling walls of the northern perimeter.
    Trevor asked the other passenger, "How much of my language do you understand?"
    The Chaktaw answered, "I understand good."
    "We have some talking to do."
    "No talking. Fromm will come for you and your city. He will kill you all."
    Trevor sighed and placed his head into his hands. Yes, this Chaktaw was probably right, particularly if Director Snowe did not get a handle on things quickly. Would the officer corps follow yet another coup? If not, that could mean civil war and that would seal the destruction of Thebes, the city he had brought back to life.
    Thousands of human beings-members of his species-would die, including doppelgangers of people he knew, like Jon Brewer and Ashley Trump. Did he care? They were, after all, invaders to this Earth, yet they were his kin even if separated by a universe.
    He glanced up and saw the Chaktaw's eyes glaring at him with a mixture of contempt and wonder. In those eyes he saw an even greater bond than that shared by a species. He saw a survivor from a civilization torn asunder.
    At home, Trevor had watched his Earth invaded, families murdered, children enslaved, and all manner of horrors unleashed on an unsuspecting populace for reasons yet unknown. Here, the Chaktaw suffered that fate. If he felt sympathy for humanity on this world, then how could he justify the slaughter of Hivvans, Red Hands, and Redcoats at home?
    Trevor Stone carried many burdens in his post-Armageddon life. Now he found a new addition to that load, the burden of knowledge.
    How often he tried to cajole the Old Man into revealing secrets. How often he stood on the verge of understanding only to find he knew nothing.
    Today revealed more truth than he desired. What had Major Forest told him? There were eight dimensions? Could these Earths host eight different civilizations? What of the monsters?
    Or maybe the wolves are just hungry. Yes Reverend. What of those wolves? What of the pigeons and white tail deer around and outside Thebes?
    On his Earth, how many ChewCows and Rat-Things prowled about?
    One man’s animal is another man’s invading monster.
    "We kill you all," the Chaktaw threatened again.
    Yes, Fromm will destroy humanity here, if he can. The way I must destroy the invaders on my world. War is the way of it. The strong survive.
    Were there eight Trevor Stones across eight parallel universes, seven leading armies of invaders, one fighting for survival?
    What if I can help the Chaktaw, get home, and maybe save the people of Thebes?
    The Skipper rumbled and wavered, flying over a plain of black wilderness.
    Trevor spoke to the Chaktaw, "What is your name?"
    He considered Trevor's question, perhaps wondering what potential harm revealing his name might cause. In the end he decided in favor of answering.
    "Okay, Jaff, here’s the deal…"
    Trevor stopped as he realized he spoke too fast and too informal. He rephrased, "Jaff. I meet Fromm. I help Fromm. I have a gift for Fromm."
    The Chaktaw smiled and grunted in what had to be his version of a chuckle.
    "A gift? Yes. I show you our base. I trust you. Yes."
    Sarcasm, it seemed, leapt universes.
    The Chaktaw added a word Trevor did not understand. Something like cas-witt or cash-itt. No doubt the word translated into something unflattering.
    Trevor recalled his meeting with the Fromm from his home universe during the Battle of Five Armies. He pulled a word-a Chaktaw word-from his memory and said, "You tell Fromm to meet me and I help him win war. Tell him I offer swashloo."
    While Jaff understood, he did not appear convinced of Trevor’s intention. No doubt Jaff had heard rumors of Chaktaw soldiers hanging upside down from crucifixes.
    "Fromm no dumb. He no trust you. You Emperor. Fromm kill you."
    "You tell me where to meet Fromm. I wait there. You get Fromm."
    "Fromm not come. Fromm no time for games."
    Trevor stood and paced the skipper, wobbling side to side as the ship pushed through a patch of light turbulence. He ran a hand through his hair and pinched the bridge of his nose as he tried to find some way to convince Jaff to listen.
    Finally he hit upon an idea. He knelt alongside Jaff's seat and said, "Listen carefully. This is very important. Tell Fromm that I know about the key only he can see. Tell Fromm I know why he is so smart. Tell him I have been to his old mansion and I can help him get it back. Tell him I can help him save Earth. His Earth. Tell him I have a gift."
    Jaff regarded Trevor with great suspicion but sat silently, absorbing the words.
    Nina heard the entire exchange. While afraid at what might happen if she spoke without permission, she could not stifle her curiosity.
    "Trevor, I um, sorry, but what…what are you planning?"
    "I don’t belong here," he finally admitted. "Neither do you. It’s time for us to go home."
    Surprised, she gasped, "What? You know a way home?"
    Trevor closed his eyes and said, "I’ve known how to get home since I got here. I guess I didn’t want to leave. But now it’s time for both of us to leave this world where we don’t belong."

26. Exodus

    Once its fuel tanks ran dry, the skipper landed in a field more than one hundred miles north of Thebes just as the sun rose over the eastern horizon. While Major Forest secured survival gear and weapons from the ship's cargo hatches, Trevor convinced Jaff to provide a meeting location.
    After giving the Chaktaw a portion of their emergency rations as well as a pistol, the trio split. Following Jaff's directions, Trevor and Nina headed northeast, although the Major walked the first quarter mile backwards, convinced the Chaktaw planned to shoot them from behind.
    For his part, Jaff disappeared to the northwest although Trevor suspected that to be ruse; that he would eventually turn due north. Whatever the case, Trevor's hope of returning home depended a great deal on the Chaktaw finding his leader and then convincing Fromm to rendezvous at the location Jaff chose.
    Of course, Trevor did not know if his life span would be longer or shorter if Fromm did, in fact, choose to meet. Perhaps the Chaktaw leader would seize the opportunity to murder the face of the human invasion.
    Nonetheless, Trevor now rejected this Earth with a fervor exceeding his initial embrace of Thebes. The longer he stayed here, the more diseased he felt, as if wallowing in a filth manufactured by his actions. Returning home could not cleanse him, but he craved the company of the people who knew him best. Perhaps they could help him fit the pieces back together.
    As much as he wished to leave, he needed to know the answers of this place. As they walked from field to forest across tundra thawing in the morning sun, he conjured a thousand questions. But every time he tried to speak with Nina, his blood boiled, his anger spiked. The truth of her deception, the mind-warping reality of humanity as invaders on this Earth, and the exposing of his own nasty underbelly thanks to her carefully planned manipulation…all simmered inside at a dangerously high temperature.
    Screaming at her would do no good. He knew that. He wanted answers and if they were to survive for the next few days to meet Fromm, he would need her help. Thus, he remained silent, biding his time until he could manage civilized conversation.
    During the first hours of their journey, the only sound they shared was the plod of boots trudging across muddy ground and the occasional pant of short breath.
    They found their way not only by compass, but by landmarks Jaff had mentioned. First came a mountain lined with abandoned cliff dwellings, dwellings cracked and burned, families driven out or slaughtered by invaders.
    As directed by Jaff, outside this hillside town they found and followed a big road not so much paved as packed with a tight, granular surface akin to a blacktop/gravel mixture. Along the way, Trevor spied directional signs affixed to iron stakes and painted in fading colors on metallic surfaces. While the collection of scribbles and lines on those signs proved indecipherable, he understood the messages nonetheless.
    This exit for such-and-such town. Rest stop ahead. Buy such-and-such brand of this consumer product.
    They skirted clusters of empty development. From what he saw along the road, these earthlings preferred mountainside buildings but did utilize other designs as well. He spotted the remains of a riverside villa built with wood, metal, and stone that could easily have been mistaken for a small town back home. He also saw a blasted observation tower constructed along the road and resembling the Seattle Space Needle.
    The Chaktaw had the same bipedal body shape, the same basic height and weight ranges. Their forms were nearly identical to human beings and hence the places in which they lived and the furniture in which they sat were mirror images to what Trevor knew from his world, which is why it had been easy to mistake this invaded Earth for a reflection of his own.
    He saw buildings with triangle-like steeples that suggested houses of worship. He found an empty playground with pyramid-shaped sliding boards and crisscrossing swings, no doubt responsible for many skinned young Chaktaw knees from the time before the universe came to destroy these people.
    Smashed warehouses…burned farms…skeleton-like remains of vehicles…the exact same sights he had come across while rebuilding man's civilization on man's Earth. It felt so familiar, with the one difference being that this world belonged to the Chaktaw. Humanity was just another invader.
    As their hike racked up miles, Trevor noticed something peculiar in regards to Chaktaw settlements. From residential colonies to more metropolitan areas, the remains of their pre-invasion civilization seemed well-incorporated into the surrounding environment, as if taking advantage of the natural defenses of a mountain or a valley or dense woodland.
    In any case, around mid day the two travelers stopped to rest their feet and eat salty combat rations. She told him 'pork' when he asked about the meat.
    You mean pork transported across the galaxy through a gateway and packed into boxes by slaves and put on transports so as to feed an army of conquerors and Stone stopped the deluge of angry thoughts. This was why he could not speak to her. A simple question about lunch could turn into a reason to yell. He did not want to yell. He had done enough yelling in recent weeks.
    During the first years of battle after the start of Armageddon, Trevor felt a righteousness in his cause, one that justified the brutality of his counter attacks and the determination of his armies. As difficult as his task, the path lay clear before him: kill the invaders, save the people. The means were justified by the ends of his species' survival.
    That feeling of righteousness suffered a significant blow at New Winnabow, when he had unleashed his K9 army on the pacifists standing between him and victory over the Hivvans.
    Justified? Given the circumstances, Trevor could tell himself as much. Again, a means to the ultimate end. But now, here, on this Earth, what justification could he have for his actions? Here humanity stood on the wrong side of the moral equation. More so, he pushed far beyond any reasonable limits, not only on the battlefield, but succumbed to all manner of twisted desires with this woman who resembled his Nina.
    He wished he could convince himself that this was, in fact, a world of opposites. A world where-of course-Trevor was a kind of evil reflection of himself. But no, this place had proved less a mirror and more a window into the soul.
    There was no Reverend Johnny or Stonewall McAllister in this universe because they had been born in the fire of invasion; personalities warped after subjection to great horror.
    But there had been a Trevor Stone and a Nina Forest. As on his home Earth, one a great leader, another a natural born warrior. Yet here, Trevor indulged in acts of savagery and depravity, yet another testament to absolute power corrupting absolutely.
    And the Nina Forest of this world? Well, that remained a mystery. He could not imagine what had turned a strong-willed woman into a brow-beaten girl who accepted objectification. She had been Trevor's plaything, not an equal; not a partner.
    After resting their feet and eating their rations, the two gathered their packs and started off to the northeast again. The landscape around the road grew harsh as they moved deeper into what Trevor thought of as the Adirondack Mountains. As the afternoon grew long, the temperatures reversed and dipped as a wave of burly cloud cover cast shadows over the land.
    Trevor and Nina saw animals during their march. They saw what Trevor called Chew Cows and Sloths. Both the herd of Chew Cows and the pair of Sloths looked half-starved. Yet Trevor figured the animals counted themselves lucky for having survived the winter. Spring was on its way and with it would come growing grass and wildflowers and trees full of leaves.
    In an open field between two mountain ranges they spied, from a distance, four large creatures. Nina, in one of a handful of words they exchanged during the trip, said they were called Huskers. The things were part cow and part elephant as evident by the four ivory tusks alongside their big gaping mouths. Each stood the size of a house. According to the Major, these indigenous beasts were docile herbivores that, in a pinch, her people hunted for food.
    A few minutes later, a destroyed bridge forced them to ford a small stream, descending first a steep, messy bank of tree roots and prickly brush then emerging on the far side after pushing through a thick wall of shrubs.
    Ahead of them the road stretched on between muddy fields but it was a sight on the hills to the east that grabbed Trevor's full attention. His jaw unhinged and his eyes widened. He felt a shiver of wonder tremble along his spine and goose bumps sprung on his arms.
    Atop a mountain summit stood a construct of incredible visual power, as if combining the size of the Pyramids with the mystery of the Easter Island Moai. Perhaps a temple, maybe some kind of fortress, or possibly a memorial-maybe all of those things-the site sprawled a couple of square miles surrounded by a wall of massive stones, or crystals, looking to Trevor's eyes very much like blue zircon.
    Inside the perimeter stood towering pillars reaching hundreds of feet and seemingly built with big blue and white diamonds piled one after another. Trevor could not fathom how they held firm while standing so tall.
    A number of those diamond shapes sported carved, Chaktaw faces meticulously designed but still vague enough to allow interpretation to remain in the eye of the beholder.
    Those faces watched the valley between the mountains. Stone felt as if maybe they watched him. Judged.
    How great a people these Chaktaw must be, to create something so beautiful, intimidating, and thought-provoking all at once.
    "Marvelous…just…wow," he gasped.
    Nina stumbled next to him and echoed, "I’ve never seen this before. Amazing."
    He knew she spoke the truth because no living, sentient life form could gaze upon the sight without being swept away by the majesty, the grandness, the power.
    Trevor turned to her and studied her profile. He saw her blue eyes and for a few seconds remembered that this was Nina Forest. A Nina Forest of another dimension, but Nina all the same. Her body, her voice, her eyes; everything arranged in the exact same manner as the woman he loved, at least on the outside.
    His stare drew her attention. She flinched as if dodging a fit of his rage, then walked along the road with her head slung low like a guilty, beaten dog.
    Trevor remembered how in the early days of Armageddon, after Nina had come to the estate, he had watched her walk with a shyness in her step that hid the fierce warrior beneath. She had carried herself as if she were a woman looking to pass unnoticed; hoping to slip quietly by in a world where no one understood her.
    It occurred to Trevor that this Nina feared him. Not only because of his anger over her deception, but before that. Since the moment he had gained control over Thebes, she feared his temper. At some point their relationship had shifted from her trying to convince him-in all manner of ways-to stay and fight, to him dominating her.
    When she finally reached that part of the other Trevor that lived in you.
    After the failure at Erie Coast, he had nearly hit her when he deflected responsibility for the defeat on to her. He screamed. He bullied. Foul. Abusive.
    The Trevor Stone she knew.
    Nina of this world-and the one he knew back home-certainly had the physical ability to defend herself from any bully, including Trevor Stone. So why would she allow such domination? Trevor suspected that any man who raised a hand to the Nina of his Earth would find himself in the hospital rather fast. Why did this Nina tolerate such abuse?
    He hurried to catch up to her. The two walked side by side along an embankment. The eyes of Chaktaw faces carved in the enormous pillars watched from across the valley.
    She turned her head fast as if a sharp sound grabbed her attention, and then averted her eyes, unwilling to look directly into his.
    "I want to talk to you."
    Trevor spoke slowly so as to keep his voice calm. He sensed her fear and he did not want to spook her. Certainly anger remained, but he wanted information and could not allow his emotion to overcome his sense, he had done that far too often in recent weeks.
    The two continued their walk along the road as it wove through the gorge and exited to the north. A few song birds chirped and small animals occasionally scurried across their path, but otherwise it felt as if they had the valley to themselves.
    "I need to understand some things, Nina. I need those answers you promised."
    She nodded without taking her eyes from her boots.
    "Okay then. You brought me here. How’d you choose me? You said you saw eight parallel universes. Each with an Earth?"
    The Major licked her lips and tried to answer. Her voice shook, seemingly worried that the wrong word could lead to an explosion.
    "We…I didn’t have a chance to go sight seeing. We were given directions on how to get to your universe. I didn’t find you by accident. I mean, we picked you on purpose."
    "And the reasons you picked me?"
    A strange bird flew over head. It was about the size and shape of an Eagle but its scalp sported a plate of armor like a helmet.
    "I told you the truth. Our Trevor was dead. Our world-" she stopped herself, huffed, and re-worded, "Our invasion had been stopped and turned back. We were down to just Thebes. I mean all of our outposts and resource stations and even the satellite colonies were wiped out. Mainly by the Chaktaw, but by other things, too."
    "And how did you think I could help?"
    "Believe it or not, I told you the truth on that already, you know? Our Trevor held things together. He was a great leader. You-I mean he-knew how to speak to people, to get their spirits up. We knew that you were a great leader, too. I-we-figured you could help us turn it around again."
    He shook his head but he did not get angry. He refused to get angry. He was a human being capable of controlling his emotions.
    "That’s not all. There’s more. Your Committee didn’t want me back."
    "The Committee were politicians. They knew about the plan but never actually approved it. I sort of jumped the gun with Snowe's permission."
    Trevor said, "Snowe knew sooner or later I'd confront The Committee. He probably figured I’d eventually get sick of their shit."
    Nina allowed herself a sardonic chuckle. "Yeah. They were half-assed politicians. No matter what universe you were from, we knew you were a man of action, not words."
    "Of course," he nodded fast as he realized one more key component. "I’m the guy from the Earth where humanity is under siege and I’ve been kicking ass. You figured I could think like the Chaktaw here. They're the ones causing you the most grief because they are the home team, huh? One thing I don’t get, though," Trevor adjusted the zipper on the leather pilot’s jacket he wore over his battle suit. "Why didn’t Snowe just take out The Committee himself?"
    The Major shook her head but the whole time kept her eyes pointed down.
    "The problems we had after our Emperor died got a little better thanks to The Committee. They showed the most pull with the people back home sending supplies. Things weren't going as planned. We were supposed to be living off the land over here for the most part by now. Home world didn't want much to do with us."
    "What? They sent an army over here and abandoned you?"
    "Not exactly. If you haven't noticed by now, we're not really a well-groomed fighting machine. Yeah, sure, there are professional soldiers in the ranks, mainly leftovers from the civil wars back home. A lot of the people who came over were mercenaries or criminals given a chance at a new life, people Trevor convinced to gamble on some new world paradise."
    Trevor let that sink in. Mercenaries. Criminals. Very few professional soldiers. If that held true for the other invaders, it would explain why they often fought two-dimensionally. His ruse of the arrogant Red Coats at Wilkes-Barre, the wholesale slaughter of Red Hands during Five Armies, or the rout of the Chaktaw with a surprise charge during the last days of that battle. At one time, he wondered if man might be the best warriors in the universe. Perhaps a lack of quality among the invading armies gave his people an advantage.
    She said, "If Jakob had taken The Committee out on his own, we might not see another supply shipment, and the gateways are one-way, Trevor. There's no going home and even if we did, half of the people in Thebes would be going home to jails or emptiness. At least here they have a chance to build a life."
    "They don't belong here," he showed not one ounce of sympathy. "I don't care who they were, they don't belong and if they don't go back willingly, then they deserve to be slaughtered."
    She ignored his words and said, "With you back and you killing The Committee, Snowe can step up and be the hero who salvages everything."
    A whole slew of questions avalanched into Trevor’s mind. He tried his best to slow his thought processes and deal with them in some kind of order.
    "Wait, now, you had your gateway. It’s one way? But you can-"
    "Yes. One way. To Earth. Once you come over, there’s no going back. But we can communicate with home through the gate; tell them what supplies we need, when we need reinforcements if they can convince anyone to come, that is. That type of thing, you know?"
    "But you weren’t convincing anyone to come, were you?"
    "A few criminals here and there, no one we really wanted, not after Trevor's death. He was the glue holding it together. He could convince ordinary people to take up arms and follow him on this grand adventure, you know?"
    He remembered his speech before the final showdown at Five Armies, how he had reached into the hearts of ordinary people-yesterday's accountants and shop clerks-and infected them with a blood lust, turned them into killers.
    Imagine what I could do with a whole world listening. My gift to humanity, turning people into warriors.
    The clouds that had rolled in earlier completed their job in blocking the sun from the afternoon sky. The temperature dropped and the wind carried hints of cold rain.
    "So you figure, bring this successful Trevor Stone over and maybe he can energize things, huh? Maybe you can still win this."
    "Survive this, you mean."
    He nodded, "Yeah, I suppose so. Survive."
    "But this was personal for you, wasn’t it?"
    She did not answer for a long while. He decided not to push…not yet. They walked together in silence for a minute while their boots crunched in the surface of the soft road top and as drizzle turned to an honest rain.
    "So you bring me over, hope I can turn the military tide of things, and have enough people in on it so you can hide the truth for a while. All the time the best you’re hoping for is, what, I off the Committee and take over. At that point you had to figure I’d find out that this wasn’t your planet; that you are the bad guys here."
    Trevor felt a tremble in his arms, his hands flexed, and an angry shout grew in his throat…then faded as he calmed himself with a deep breath.
    When he felt he could control his voice, he said, "So you’ve been playing mind games with me all the time. Using…playing games to distract me. To-what? — get me hooked on you? Get me hooked on all the crazy things you and the old Trevor used to do."
    She jumped in, maybe to try and head off nastier words.
    "Yes, that’s right. If my Trevor…if he wanted those things then I figured you would, too. And you know what? You did. No one forced you. I just gave you want you wanted. All the fantasies. Everything he craved, everything he made me do."
    Her tone was not confrontational. No, it sounded more dejected.
    He stopped walking. She sensed it and stopped, too. He stared at her through the curtain of cold rain and saw fear in her eyes. Her posture slumped, as if ready to cower on command.
    His head tilted and he stared off toward the leafless trees surrounding the road.
    "You're right. That’s scary, you know. It’s scary that it almost worked."
    Trevor saw himself slamming a junior officer against a wall and shooting Chaktaw prisoners and leading a bloody coup d'etat. He recalled the feeling of invincibility that had come with the daring-if-foolish victory over the Geryon Reich. He remembered the sex with the Major, especially the first time. Angry. Mean. Love had been a world away.
    Almost worked. Oh no, Trevor. It worked. It was all on display right there for everyone to see. No where to hide, Trev. You did the killing and you enjoyed it.
    "And was that what your Trevor was like? Quick to kill? No mercy. Vicious?"
    "Trevor and I…we…I loved him. After he was gone, maybe I wanted to have him back. Maybe I did this, you know, for personal reasons, too."
    Nina avoided looking at his eyes and instead gazed at the road ahead.
    "One more thing. You said you had help in getting me. Who?"
    She fidgeted and her lips pressed tight together like a bank vault shutting. He saw her cheeks blush. At first he thought she might be getting sick, but then he realized that the girl was terrified of answering his question.
    "Tell me, Nina. You didn't find and know how to use The Nyx's nest on your own."
    After taking a deep breath, she turned, looked at him, and answered, "I told you that Trevor knew stuff. He knew about what was going on, a lot more than he ever told me. Snowe knew some things too, partly from people back home, partly from things Trevor filled him in on over here. Going to get you wasn't an idea original to Snowe or me."
    "Go on."
    A chilly wind whipped the rain along the road.
    "When you first got here, you told me that there was, like, one big bad guy on your world that you thought was behind-"
    He grabbed her shoulders. She cringed and her voice morphed into a frightened cry, "Something called Voggoth!"
    "Voggoth? Of course. I should have guessed! I should have guessed!"
    "But Trevor, listen," she confessed. "It wasn't just getting you here. Jakob cut a deal. As long as you were over here helping us, well…"
    "Tell me!" He nearly spat in her face.
    "As long as you were here they'd help us with the Chaktaw. Remember their outpost? Voggoth hit them first, knocked them down so our attack was easy."
    "But not the Duass? He wouldn't help us against the Duass! That's why Snowe wanted me to leave them alone. Voggoth doesn't want you fighting each other, only the Chaktaw!"
    He released her and stepped away. His head cocked to one side and a big, sardonic smile that did not have an ounce of good feelings in it grew from ear to ear.
    "Oh, sure, kill two worlds with one Stone."
    "What? Trevor, I don’t understand."
    "Don’t you see? Don’t you see?"
    "On my Earth, we’re doing pretty good. We survived the first years of the invasion. We haven’t been beaten down. Just like the Chaktaw here, they’re holding on pretty good, right?"
    She nodded.
    "Voggoth convinces you to get me, probably hoping that everything would fall apart for man on my Earth. He brings me here thinking maybe I can help wipe out the Chaktaw!"
    Trevor pinched his nose and shut his eyes. The scope of his failure caused a pounding ache in his temples. He had left behind his world, putting everything gained there in jeopardy, and come here to aid Voggoth unwittingly as well as whomever else choreographed Armageddon.
    "One other thing, Trevor. Part of the deal…you're not supposed to go home. Voggoth was going to help us as long as you're here fighting for Thebes. Snowe told me that, um, that…"
    His eyes opened. "That you're supposed to kill me if I find a way back, right? So what of it, Nina? I might have a way home. Are you going to try and stop me?"
    The question nearly sounded funny. Despite her combat skills and despite the rifle and pistols she carried, Major Nina Forest was fully defeated. She existed now only in his shadow. She could no more shoot him than grow wings and fly away. He saw this clearly and despite his anger for what she had done, the idea of such a strong person being so completely beaten down did conjure a pang of pity in his heart.
    He said, "Voggoth behind it all. Pulling the strings. Manipulating the whole thing. So tell me, your army of misfits and mercenaries marched through your gateway and came here, right?"
    "For the most part everyone stayed together and in formation, but there were reports that the gateway sort of misfired, sending some troops and equipment to completely different places on the planet. We found out the tech didn't work as perfectly as advertised. Still, most of us hit the ground here, marching through the gate or appearing near to it."
    "Okay, but you also brought animals through. I’ve seen them. I figured they were indigenous here, but I was wrong. I saw wolves and deer and pigeons. They came with you."
    She answered, "There’s another gateway from our home world that sends over animals. All part of terra-forming this planet into something like we knew. I never could figure out exactly why, it doesn't make a lot of sense. Seems like the idea of the invasion is more than just grabbing land, kind of like erasing the Chaktaw's entire civilization. I don’t know where that other gate is, if that’s what you’re asking."
    "All the higher life forms plus an army. So tell me, Nina, how many civilizations are involved in this? Do you know? Tell you what; I’m going to guess that there are seven others. Seven others including the Chaktaw plus mankind, that equals eight."
    Trevor felt satisfaction at figuring out something the Old Man would never have admitted, but Nina contradicted, "I want to say nine. I mean, when you count Voggoth."
    "That wouldn’t add up," he protested because he really wanted to be right; he wanted to understand. "If there are eight universes, there should be eight different civilizations. Each universe with a different race on Earth, defending against an invasion by all the others. That would add up. Nice and neat."
    "Look, I’ll tell you whatever I know," she said in an almost pleading voice. "But I don’t like being caught in the open like this."
    "Yes," he agreed. "Caught in an alien environment."
    She cast her eyes down again. Yet he did agree. It was time to move on.
    – Trevor and Nina followed the road that, in turn, followed a river through a tight valley with massive walls made of unforgiving, un-climbable rock.
    Afternoon moved toward evening. The rain stopped but the blanket of intimidating clouds remained, fitting like a lid atop the foreboding mountain peaks to either side.
    They came to the largest Chaktaw city they had yet encountered, protected by a high, iron wall stretching from one end of the valley to the other like a dam. Unfortunately, it had not succeeded in its task. A large segment of the protective barrier had been smashed. Piles of twisted beams and other debris lay to either side. Through a gap in the failed wall, Trevor glimpsed buildings, some tall, some wide, all grouped together in a metropolis, the Chaktaw’s version of New York City or Los Angeles or Houston for that matter.
    The road approaching the city told the story. Trevor and Nina first circumvented craters where bombs had impacted, then carefully stepped through a field of rotted Chaktaw defenders, their flesh picked clean from years of scavenging.
    Next came something he first thought to be a pile of bones heaped together. However, he soon realized that he looked not at a collection but at one massive skeleton, one that offered a clue as to the force that had battered the protective wall.
    In the remains, he saw huge legs with cloven hoofs that had once made the ground shake with each step. At the top of the body, a skull devoid of skin yet still sporting two ram-like horns.
    The two stared at the horrendous corpse outside the broken walls of the city. In it, they saw a conspiracy crossing universes.
    Eventually, they started again, moving around the huge skeleton and toward the city where many truths waited to be spoken.

27. City of Truth

    After circumventing the giant's bones as well as piles of collapsed wall, the two travelers entered the city proper. The setting sun cast shadows across the ruins of stores, office buildings, and supermarkets, as well as the disintegrating remains of the Chaktaw residents who once called this place home.
    Inside the wall, the road sprouted branches weaving through the metropolis.
    Here, the Chaktaw favored more traditional buildings including a few tall ones, although they appeared less obsessed with skyscrapers than humanity; the tallest structure Trevor saw reached ten floors.
    Building materials resembled what he knew from home. The preferred color pattern appeared to be white stone or metal with a coat of glossy enamel and blue glass for windows. Some buildings stood on stilts allowing for sidewalks and parking areas underneath.
    The valley surrounded the city providing a sense of cover and security, like all of the Chaktaw places he encountered to date. He suspected that these people evolved in a harsher environment, either fighting each other like mankind did on Trevor's pre-Armageddon Earth, or perhaps confronted with more dangerous predators.
    "We need to find somewhere to hold up for the night," he said.
    "Looks like we’ve got a lot to choose from, you know?"
    Trevor stopped walking, looked to her, and then glanced around at the 'empty' buildings. As if in response, they heard a soft crack of glass, a scraping noise like a sharp edge drawn across metal, and then what sounded like a moan.
    "I think we need to find somewhere. Real quick like."
    Ahead of Trevor and Nina the main road split at a ‘Y’ intersection. To the right and left stood buildings of various sizes in various states of decay as well as side streets and alleyways. Facing them from the middle of that 'Y' was a pillar-like building lined with triangular windows, topped with bent transmission towers, and at its base a gaping black hole framed by the remains of smashed front doors.
    From that hole came a gang of ghastly-white creatures with sunken eyes and skull-like faces shambling forward like primates, the creatures Trevor had long ago nicknamed "Ghouls."
    Major Forest raised her assault rifle but Trevor pushed the barrel down.
    "If you shoot it'll wake up everything else in this city. Run!"
    He directed their escape along a small path between two round buildings featuring gigantic but smashed video boards.
    With heavy packs and bulky bedrolls on their backs, it only took a few seconds for their sprint to deteriorate into a jog. Their half-empty canteens sloshed, utility belts jingled, and their heavy boots thumped with each step making it difficult to hide their movement. Behind them-closing fast-the pursuing Ghouls hooted and grunted.
    The road ended at a tall stone wall but Trevor spotted an open door in one of the surrounding buildings. He could not guess what denizen nested inside, but with the Ghouls nearly upon them, they had no choice but to take a chance.
    With bayonets fixed, Trevor and Nina charged into the darkness. Based on the echo of their footsteps, it felt like a very big but pitch black room with a low ceiling and filled with both a chill and a musty stink.
    Nina lit a flare and tossed it ahead while Trevor searched for and found the exterior door. He swung it shut and, in the red glare of the flare, spotted a forked steel rod-perhaps a tool of some kind-and propped it against the door, jamming it shut at least temporarily. Claws and teeth gnashed the other side, attempting to scrape and bite through.
    "We need to keep moving," Trevor spoke the obvious but the sparkling glow of the flare lit only more darkness, giving no clue to their surroundings.
    Nina answered with a second flare, this time holding it aloft, creating an umbrella of light. He moved to her side and together they advanced, hoping to find another exit while the door held. When Trevor kicked something, he saw the floor littered with debris including scraps of paper, metal shards, and bone fragments.
    Behind them across the black void, the Ghouls pushed against the door. Their thumps, thuds, and scratches reverberated all around yet…yet Trevor heard another sound, one with them in the dark. Something like…the sound of…breathing?
    The sparkling red flare lit a bundle of junk in their path; a mound of branches, planks, piping, and shrubs. Mixed in with the junk, a carcass of some small animal.
    Trevor barely had time to mutter, "Oh shit," before the master of the den roared out of the darkness into the intruders' balloon of light, stumbling toward them on two big legs standing seven feet. In a flash, a big furry paw sent Nina sprawling to the floor. Her flare rolled across the ground sending strobes of red light through the chamber.
    The monster turned to Trevor, dropping to all fours yet still of intimidating size. It rammed him with a snapping snout, teeth tearing away his thigh rig, knocking him down, and sending his assault rifle to the floor beside him.
    As the creature paused to roar, the rolling flare shined perfectly on the beast, illuminating white-tipped brown fur, a muscular body nearly a thousand pounds in weight, and massive paws.
    Trevor yelled, "It’s a damn Grizzly Bear!"
    At that same instant across the black chamber came the sound of the door crashing open, the metal tool clanging on the hard floor, and the shuffle of Ghouls' feet.
    He had no time to consider the irony. As the animal lunged at him again, Trevor stretched for his bullpup rifle and wielded the gun like a club, momentarily warding off his attacker as the edge of the bayonet cut across its snout.
    Trevor thought, an invading monster from Nina’s home world. A world where the animals are like what I know on my Earth. Yet here, they’re the monsters.
    "Come on!" Nina helped him to his feet with one hand and threw the flare with the other. It landed in front of the ghastly mob, attracting the bear's attention.
    As she led him away, Trevor dared a glance behind. The flare created a flickering sphere of illumination shining upon a battle between creatures from different worlds. One Ghoul flew through the air, possibly missing a limb. Others surrounded and clawed the Grizzly.
    A rush of fresh air turned his attention forward again as they came to and opened an exit door, escaping to the outside with the Ghouls and the Grizzly too occupied to follow.
    – The building could easily have been an office complex from Trevor’s Earth, filled with a variety of chambers of various sizes devoid of furniture and most windows smashed or at least cracked. After a quick search of the six story complex, the fugitives decided the place seemed safe. Of course, in the post-Apocalyptic world — pick a world- ‘safe’ was a relative term.
    In any case, Trevor and Nina found two windowless, adjoining offices on the fourth floor, perfect for hiding the glow of their chemical lantern, a small container that generated hours of both light and heat when the liquids inside mixed.
    Dinner came first; dry crackers coated with a powdery vegetable spread and accompanied by a metal tin of packed fish that might have been mackerel. As he washed the rough meal down with a swig from his canteen, Trevor decided the time had come for questions.
    "Tell me about your home, Nina."
    The glow from the churning chemicals inside the lantern flickered like a watery candle and danced across her soft yet strong features as she leaned against a wall and told her story. She spoke in a voice that suggested a distant sadness, perhaps homesickness.
    "I'm not sure where to start."
    "At the beginning. If you're not from Earth, where are you from?"
    "In this universe-actually, in all the universes-man comes from Sirius."
    Some memory or another caused him to mumble, "The dog star."
    "When I was over on your Earth, we listened to your Empire’s radio broadcasts and the house we stayed in had some history books. To be honest, my home is a lot like your world was before the invasion. I mean, we lived in City-States, pretty much like what you would think of as countries, just more of them and not as big. I think our technology level was pretty much on track with yours. Like, we have skyscrapers and big oceans and beach front condos. Different continents and such, plus two moons. But overall, same type of land and stuff but it’s arranged kind of different, you know? I mean, I’m guessing your Earth is exactly like this one, right?"
    Trevor said, "I've been thinking about that. I studied your maps. The geography here is the same as on my Earth but here it's home to the Chaktaw and the monsters-animals, I guess-from their environment. You'd think things like the trees and rivers and all that would be different, but I was fooled, I really thought this world belonged to mankind, like mine does."
    "Trevor, I didn't even know about the parallel universes until after our Trevor died. To us, this planet could have been anywhere, nothing special about it from our point of view."
    "So wait, though, you found out about those parallel universes. In each of them, an Earth like this one. Except on mine, humanity lives there. Here, it's the Chaktaw. What about the others? Probably Duass on one, Hivvans on another, and so on. All identical to a certain point, the same trees, the same insects, the same weather. But not the same dominant species," he thought of the alien monsters on his world; the grizzly bear here. "And not the same animals."
    She told him, "From what I can tell, Trevor, your universe is the only place where man started on Earth. Everywhere else, humanity evolved on Sirius."
    He glanced to the cracked, drooping ceiling. "Maybe on my universe man did start on Sirius but got transplanted to Earth. Maybe before we were even people, back when we were just microbes in the primordial soup."
    She guessed, "And in this universe, the Chaktaw taken from wherever they are really meant to live and put here."
    "Sure, why not?" He nearly laughed as they huddled together and tried to figure out the madness Armageddon had opened them to. "Us and the Chaktaw, we're not all that different, at least not biologically. Now the Duass, they're pretty goofy looking but I'm guessing they aren't so far from us, either. Same with all the other organized aliens I've come across. This environment- Earth — would suit any of us. Damn, this is just plain nuts."
    Trevor figured that somewhere the Old Man laughed his ass off.
    Nina scratched her blond hair and asked, "Okay, I get that, but back on Sirius-my home-we have grizzly bears, we have wolves, and we have horses. On your Earth, you have the same; grizzly bears, wolves, and horses. But here, on this Earth, the Chaktaw have Huskers and Giant Lizards and stuff like that. Why don't they have horses and grizzly bears?"
    Trevor remembered the many reports he received from Anita Nehru and the research teams at Red Rock.
    "Because the seed is the same. Look, you plant an apple tree seed and you get a certain type of tree with apples. Plant a cherry tree and it’s a different tree with a different fruit. Both need water, air, and sunlight to grow but they are different. Both humans and Chaktaw need air and water, the type of stuff you'll find on Sirius or here on Earth. I'll bet Chaktaw and human DNA isn't too far off. But still, we start from different seeds so no matter where we grow, we get horses and the Chaktaw get Huskers. The people and animals change, but we can survive on the same type of stage."
    "Look at it, Nina. Everything is basically the same. It’s like whoever is controlling all this wanted each species to have the same starting point, so that no one would have any type of environmental advantages. Just the higher life forms all on their own."
    "But why only higher life forms? Why not insects and stuff?"
    He held his hands in the air and worked his fingers as if trying to grab something.
    "There must be a line between those things that are just part of the environment and those things that impact that environment. Maybe it has something to do with a level of sentience. Hey, Disney taught me that it’s all a circle of life. Maybe there are a few breaks in that circle."
    "You come from a horrible, forsaken world." His smile, however, showed that he joked. "Tell me about Sirius. What else is different?"
    Nina wrung her hands. After a moment, she reluctantly told him, "Okay, well, you’d have to get used to the extra moons and the other two suns you can see in our sky."
    "Two more suns? You have three?"
    "One is a white dwarf, the other a brown. They’re both pretty dim but every fifty years the white one gets close and we get magnetic storms like you wouldn’t believe."
    He asked, "Who decided to send your people to this planet? Who said you had to fight?"
    "You have to understand…" her voice trailed off. He let her collect her thoughts. After a deep inhale she went on, "Things got bad at home. I told you there were City-States. Well, there was a big war. Some called it a war of unification, others a conquest. Still, seemed like a good idea to me. Point is, as the war went on the cities either joined or got rolled over. Very nasty."
    "What about you? What side, I guess, what side were you on?"
    "I joined on to help unify. Thought it'd be good to pull our resources. Besides, the guy leading the whole thing had a way of winning you over; making you believe in the cause."
    Trevor swallowed hard and started to ask, "Was that…um…"
    "No. Not you. You came later. I never heard of Trevor Stone until one of the City-States put up a fight. Heard he was a nobody who just took up a gun to defend his city. In the end, he didn't have a chance, but his reputation grew. That made it easy to follow him here."
    "Eventually, you unified?"
    "Yes," she went on. "The corporations fell in line, the City-States joined together, and we had what you would call a country. Not long after that, the rumors started. Aliens. Then the chance came for people to come to this world and carve out a new life."
    "Another war?"
    "I think it all depended on how you looked at it. Some people saw it as exploring a new land. Maybe they didn't have much back home, maybe they lost everything in the war. I'd say the bulk of the people who came over were pretty much desperate. Of course, they were promised all types of riches and the start of a brand new life."
    "And you?"
    "I've always been a soldier, Trevor. I guess I fell for the idea that we'd come over here and carve out a kingdom for ourselves. That's what you-I mean, our Trevor-promised. He had a way of making your blood boil; to make you want to follow him anywhere."
    Yes, Trevor remembered Five Armies and a hundred battles since. That's why the Old Man likes me so much.
    She continued, "It was billed back home that the Chaktaw here were a threat to mankind, and if we didn't wipe them out they would someday wipe us out. I guess I don't believe it any more but that hasn't mattered in a long time. It's been survive or die for years now."
    She stopped, perhaps overcome with guilt or regret or just exhaustion.
    Trevor said, "So whatever is going on, someone has used each of these universes to give these different civilizations a chance to fight for their lives. A laboratory experiment? An arena?"
    "I don't know, Trevor. I'm sorry I ever came here. I'm sorry I brought you here."
    "Me too," he said but the aches, pains, and fatigue in his bones kept the shot from carrying too harsh a tone; he did not have the energy for shouting anymore today.
    Trevor rose to his feet, grabbed his tightly wound bed roll, and moved to the other office, saying, "We need to get some sleep."
    "The motion sensors are in place," she referred to the small boxes placed in the hallway earlier. "If anything heads toward these rooms the sensors will wake us up."
    "Okay. Good. We move out at first light."
    They slept in separate rooms.
    – With howls, shrieks, and various moans drifting across the city, Trevor struggled to fall asleep. Worse, only minutes after falling asleep, he found himself pulled awake, his mind conscious of a soft sound coming from nearby.
    His eyes blinked open and he lay still, listening. What was that sound? Was some strange snake slithering toward his sleeping bag?
    Wait, no, could it be…did Nina snore?
    No…not a snake…not a snore.
    Trevor slipped from his bed roll and moved as stealthily as if he sneaked in on a Devilbat nest. He came to the open door separating their rooms and peered into hers. The light of a Chem Lantern cast the office in a soft glow. He saw Nina lying in her sleeping bag facing a wall.
    The sound that had caught his ear came from her. The sound of her crying, despite struggling to keep the noise to herself.
    He stood and watched this woman who had, at first, enthralled him, then seduced him, then enraged him. Among the mysteries of this parallel Earth, Major Nina Forest seemed the biggest enigma. Very much like the woman he knew back home but different. In those differences he had also discovered secrets about himself, ones he wished remained buried.
    "Yes, I'm human. Just like you in every way."
    "I don’t want to be all alone. Not again. I couldn’t stand that again. I’ll do whatever you want, just please don’t leave me alone."
    Another sob. Another muffled heave.
    He remembered her after the failed assault on the Duass city. The way she had cringed in the face of his anger. The way she had cowered.
    Of course.
    He walked across the chamber to her sleeping bag. Her breath halted as she heard his approach but she did not turn.
    Trevor lay down and then rolled in behind her. The two wore their battle suits although both had removed some of the padded armor so as to make sleeping more comfortable.
    He felt her shiver as his body warmth mixed with hers, yet she did not say a word. He slipped his arm over her shoulders and squeezed gently. She wiggled closer and sighed.
    "I…I didn’t mean to wake you," a sniff punctuated her whisper.
    "You didn’t love the Trevor of your world. You never did."
    She protested weakly, "Yes I — sniff — yes I did."
    He spoke in an almost fatherly voice with a tone he had not used in a long time. A tone of compassion. "Don’t lie, Nina. Don’t lie to yourself. You and I both know the truth. I can see it now. I can see it clearly. For your sake, it’s time you see the truth, too."
    "I don’t…I just…I’m afraid. That’s all, I’m afraid."
    "You grew up shy and lonely, an outcast," he told her in much the same manner he had once told the same story to his Nina in the midst of a raging thunderstorm. "You didn’t know why, but you felt different from everyone else."
    "How…how do you know that? How..?"
    "Because the woman I loved…my Nina…she had the same beginning. She grew up the same way. You two are the same in many ways but now I realize why you are also different."
    "Yes. Do you want to know? Do you want to see? Are you brave enough to see?"
    He gave her a nice hug to help her find that bravery and continued, "The more I became like the Trevor you knew, the more you feared me. I could see it. At Erie Coast…"
    "I deserved to be yelled at."
    "No, no," he stroked her hair. "That’s wrong. I screwed up, Nina. My plan was a long shot. The type of long shots I always take. You were a ruse to draw their main forces away from the center of town. When they withdrew to the fortress, there was nothing you could do. If I had been of my right mind I would have known that. Instead, I refused to take responsibility for my mistakes. So I blamed you. I lashed out at you. I’m sorry."
    "Don’t be sorry, you wouldn’t have been acting that way if I didn’t trick you into it."
    "There you go again, apologizing for me. I’ll bet you apologized for your Trevor all the time. But he still bullied you. He probably hit you once in a while, didn’t he? But more than that, he messed with your mind, Nina. Knocked you down and kept you there."
    "He was a great man. Great men are different than the rest of us. Look at everything you’ve accomplished. Sometimes great men just do things different. They’re allowed."
    "No. Your Trevor was not a great man, Nina. He was a brute. A vile man. I say that because there’s a big part of him in my belly and it don’t sit too well with me."
    "You’re different. You…I couldn’t change you. In the end, you didn’t become him. Just like me and your Nina. We look the same, but we’re completely different."
    "That’s where you’re wrong. You are the same. The same genes, the same body, the same mind. I’ll bet you had the same childhood: good parents who tried to help you get over the feeling of being an outcast. But with each year you felt yourself different from the other kids. Even then, you were thinking like a warrior. Getting ready for the coming fight."
    "How do you know all that?"
    "Because that’s what my Nina was like. But then, at some point, things changed and the two of you ended up different."
    She swallowed hard and wanted to know, "What happened?"
    He found it ironic that he was telling her the truths of her life. Perhaps sometimes it takes an outsider to see the larger picture. The way Lori Brewer or Dante or even Knox or Jon kept his life in perspective back home. A perspective he lacked on this parallel Earth.
    "You gave in. You decided it was more important not to be alone than it was to be true to yourself. Let me tell you, if I had ever raised a hand to my Nina she would have tied me in a knot. She was faster and stronger than me, the same way I know you're faster and stronger. Yet you let him beat you down because you were afraid to be alone."
    She did not say a word. He went on.
    "The things you did with your Trevor, you did them to keep him. You did them because you thought that’s what it took. You let him use you like an object; you let him…let him degrade you. To cheapen you. Because you were afraid to walk away."
    He felt her flinch. A sigh from her lips became a sob.
    "You let him define who you are. Then you did everything he wanted, no matter how it made you feel. You let him use you, and why? Because you were afraid to be alone."
    She shivered, as if a chill had worked its way beneath her armor. Then it came out. She muffled each burst as best she could but she could not hide from him. Not any more. The tears flowed and her chest heaved. The woman he knew to be so strong and brave fell to pieces as she confronted the only nightmare that had ever managed to scare her. The nightmare of loneliness.
    "I…I have hated every second…ever…every day…of my life," she spoke between breaths. "Every…day. I never knew how to…how to…"
    Trevor answered for her, "How to fit in?"
    She wiped a hand beneath her eyes.
    "So you let him use you like a toy, just so he wouldn’t chase you away."
    "I thought…he wanted to do things. I did them. I thought he’d love me for it."
    Stone ran his hands along her shoulders and arms in a comforting caress.
    "Me and my Nina," his eyes glazed over with wonderful memories. "We had all sorts of fun together. But through it all, we had respect. I always respected her. To be with her, together, I mean-wow-we had fun. But we sometimes just sat and talked, for hours over a bottle of wine. We played racquetball together and went horseback riding. I’d give anything for just one moment with her again. If only…if only to talk to her."
    This time Trevor fought to stave tears. He concentrated on her, on holding her tight, on forgetting for the moment how she had deceived him. After weeks of nothing but anger, violence, and lust, he found his soul cleansed by offering compassion; something he rarely had the opportunity to do. The kindness he showed her, despite all she had done, provided a counter balance to the evil he had wrought since coming here. In a way, he found it healing.
    "You really loved her, didn’t you?"
    "Yes. I loved her, very much. But you know what else? I liked her. I liked just being with her. And I respected who she was. I didn’t want to change her; I wanted her to share with me the person she was. And she did. It took a lot for her to do it, but she did."
    "I’m nothing like her," she did not ask, she stated a fact.
    He corrected, "That’s not true. You’re very nearly the same person, you just made a different choice. Our memories and our experiences make us who we are. You made a decision my Nina avoided. So yes, you’re different but I know you have the same strength that she has."
    "The same…strength?"
    "Yes," he insisted. "The strength to be who you are. Don’t let someone else define you. Don’t let someone else cheapen you."
    "Strength…" she turned the word around in her mouth.
    "You have it. You showed it once, didn't you?"
    She turned around in her sleeping blanket to face him. The glow of the lantern flickered in her blue eyes and sparkled off streams of drying tears.
    "Come on now," he said to her. "Go ahead, tell me. You need to. Don't worry, I figured it out a while ago."
    She nibbled at her lower lip, cast her eyes down, then back to him. And then Major Nina Forest admitted, "I killed him."
    He touched her cheek and encouraged her to, "Go on."
    "One day, after a battle, we were alone. He said I was…he called me a worthless…"
    "Shhh," he kept her from finishing whatever cold insult the Trevor Stone of this world had berated her with.
    She said, "I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was the heat of the battle. I had just finished killing…killing things. I felt invincible for a moment, like I sometimes do when I’m fighting. I felt… comfortable."
    "You’re a natural soldier, just like my girl. That’s who you are."
    "He laughed at me. Real mean, like. And I don’t know… I hit him. I knocked him right down to the ground. He looked at me…he was, like…shocked or something. For a few seconds…like…he was afraid. Afraid of me. Then he got up and he was pissed. He told me he was going to cut me for that. So he came at me with his blade and then, and then I realized I had a knife in my hand and he swung at me with his knife and the next thing I know I stuck my knife in him and his mouth just fell open and he had this look in his eyes and the blood came and then he was on the ground and he was dead and I didn’t know what-"
    "Good for you," he interrupted the long string of words that came from her mouth in an ever increasing panic. "You protected yourself."
    "No," she shook her head but not too vigorously. "I killed him. And you know what? I was glad. For a while, I was glad to be free of him."
    Trevor figured the rest, "But with time things started to fall apart and every one said it was because of Trevor. And you were alone. Without him no one cared about you; you were a nobody. So after a while, and when you found out about the dimensions and all, you decided maybe you should try and bring Trevor back. Maybe it’d be good for your people. Maybe you wouldn’t be alone any more."
    She did not need to nod or answer in any way because they both knew how right he was.
    "Nina," he spoke softly. "On behalf of all the other Trevors of existence, I forgive you."
    She chuckled, sort of.
    "What he did to you all those years, what he put your people through and what he did to this planet…well, I don’t blame you one bit. I don’t think any one could."
    They paused and listened to the sound of their own breathing for several seconds. The Major managed her emotions but her curiosity got the better of her.
    "So, you and Nina, you were, like, friends and lovers, huh?"
    "That’s right, yeah."
    "I’m jealous. It sounds like you two were happy. I mean, really happy."
    "Tell me some more. Tell me about the Nina you were in love with. I want to know her."
    He smiled and much like showing compassion, sharing the stories of the months he had spent in love with Nina Forest helped return some calm to his heart. She had always had that affect on him.
    So they laid there together in the glow of the Chem Lamp while the howls and screeches of monsters played in the distant background of the Hellish city. He kept his arms wrapped around her and they closed their eyes and he told stories of the woman with whom the Major had much in common, yet so much more that was not.
    Eventually, slowly, exhaustion overpowered the tales and the two fell asleep.
    Their clothes never came off, not even a kiss, only his arm draped over her in half a hug. Yet she had never felt so close to another person in all her life.
    They fell asleep together, two human beings on an alien planet yet they were not alone.
    – With their bags packed, the two travelers prepared to leave, hoping to reach the rendezvous point before dark. However, Trevor first needed to tend to one task.
    He left her and walked into a small room with one window and toilet facilities that offered a smell even more unpleasant than the other smells of the decaying city. Once positioned above a basin that must have been a urinal, he opened a strategically-placed zipper on his battle suit and relieved himself while Nina waited several rooms away.
    He looked out the window, one of the few intact panes of glass in the entire city. It offered a view of the downtown area. He saw crisscrossed roads lined with the remains of eaten, burned, and other wise destroyed trees.
    Stone felt a tremble. He had been feeling those trembles all morning, yet not seen anything. He worried it might possibly be a Goat-Walker on the prowl.
    In any case, at least brilliant rays of sun bathed downtown making for a glorious clear morning. Perhaps they could make good time today. Perhaps The glow of the morning sun went black, his view out the window obstructed.
    By an eye.
    A big black and white eye surrounded by gray, tough skin, staring in directly at him through a quarter-inch of fragile glass.
    Then the eye withdrew, replaced by some sort of huge arm or fist or ball of claws or something. Whatever it was, it cocked then rushed toward the window.
    Trevor zipped and ran.
    "We’ve GOT A PROBLEM!"
    The window smashed in as a colossal appendage the size of the entire room crashed into the wall, obliterated the office, and pushed all the way through to an inner hall.
    Trevor barely escaped the strike. Crossbeams and dusty powder-the Chaktaw’s version of drywall-billowed around him but he did not stop even as the vibration tried to knock him from his feet.
    Nina met him and together they raced further inside the office complex as another heavy strike rattled the building to its very foundation.
    "What was it? What was it?"
    "I have no idea! Just run 'cause whatever it is it’s as big as this building!"
    They ran along a tight, dark hallway. A porcupine-like thing saw them and disappeared into a side room. They paid it no mind as they navigated by the light of their flashlights and the occasional ray of sun beaming in from splintered windows.
    Those beams, however, flickered between light and dark as the massive creature circled the building, searching for them by punching through walls.
    "Stairs! We nee to find the stairs and get out of here," Nina shouted the obvious.
    An entire section of the corridor collapsed. A gust of fresh air blew inside with dust riding along; dust from a new hole stretching several yards from the outer wall, through what looked like an old conference room, and into the inner hall.
    Trevor and Nina ran along the fourth floor. The thing that had punched the hole had to stoop to peer in at them.
    With a quick glimpse, Trevor’s mind categorized it as a rhinoceros, except it stood on its rear two legs. Its arms were thick and ended in massive claws. One big horn grew from the center of its forehead and two more adorned the side of its skull. The black and white eyes of the creature looked dazed, almost hypnotized.
    As the dust cleared, the monster spied its quarry. A humungous arm cocked back.
    Trevor and Nina raced for a door at the end of the hall.
    A locomotive-sized arm speared the building once again, obliterating walls-including a support pillar-and passing through the corridor three yards behind the fleeing humans.
    Chunks of the sixth and fifth floors collapsed down onto the fourth, partially and temporarily capturing the giant’s arm. The creature let out an annoyed grunt in response. The bright morning sun shown in from above with only a handful of crossbeams and roof panels to obstruct its brilliant glare.
    A chain reaction rippled across the fourth floor as it started to collapse, the floor buckling like an ocean wave, spitting wood and metal beams in a series of pressure-driven explosions.
    Nina reached the door first and held it open for him. The collapse nipped at his heels while the weight of his back pack and gear slowed him enough that he might…not…make…
    Trevor jumped through the open door into the stairwell. Nina timed her own pivot perfectly and avoided the disintegrating floor in less time than it takes to blink an eye.
    While large shards of the building collapsed, the stairwell and its protective walls stood tall like a chimney surrounded by the burned ruins of a wooden home.
    With the door shut behind them, the stairs went dark but the loud sound of smashing and crashing dominated the hollow acoustics of the chamber.
    Nina pulled her flashlight and surveyed their surroundings through a cloud of dust.
    "Down, huh?"
    He nodded his head as he caught his breath.
    The top of the enclosed staircase exploded away and light from the sky burst in. Pieces of the building materials-both large and small-fell like rain. Fortunately, the larger pieces missed the refugees.
    Apparently, the Rhino creature had batted away the roof above the stairs as well several flights.
    "What is this friggin’ thing?" He allowed the slightest hint of panic to creep into his voice, primarily because he realized they would need an attack helicopter to scratch it.
    "Run! Down!" Came her answer.
    The remains of the destroyed upper floor chased them down the stairs.
    "They’re indigenous to this Earth! But they’re not aggressive! They’re herbivores!"
    Another tremendous, thunderous explosion of brick and dust and metal erupted above. The rhino had swung again, taking out another ten feet of stairwell and sending more debris falling. The thing was ripping the staircase shaft apart floor by floor with each swing of its arm.
    As they jumped to the bottom floor, the entire shaft collapsed, the stairs falling together like a collapsing accordion…just as Trevor and Nina knocked open the exit door at the foot of the towering giant.
    It searched the ground with its big, glazed-over eyes. Trevor saw a massive, heavy, thick animal with a body that appeared nearly armor-plated. He was no longer so sure that even an attack helicopter could do the job.
    Realizing that the thing could easily step on them with one of its humongous, round feet, he ran out onto the street with the aim of finding another building in which to hide, but he quickly found himself in the wide open with the closest cover dozens of yards away.
    At that moment, he realized the Major was not with him. She had waited behind at the giant's feet, just outside the now-blocked stairway door. He saw the massive hostile looming above her. Its eyes looked down at the puny being standing between its feet.
    "Nina!" He screamed, expecting to see her squashed.
    On the contrary, the creature turned away from her and locked its eyes on Trevor. It ignored the easy kill and took a giant step in his direction. The ground rumbled.
    Another big giant step.
    As Trevor turned to run he absently took note of Nina raising her rifle and aiming it toward the back of the monster. If not for the shadow threatening to step on him, he would have laughed at the sight. He did not expect this monster to feel the impact of a rifle round.
    The Rhino stopped in its tracks and hovered. Its glazed eyes blinked, looked about, and blinked again. Then the creature dropped to all fours. Not a collapse, but into what appeared to be its natural walking position. Yes, very much like a rhinoceros.
    As it did, something fell from its hide. More specifically, something big and black dropped to the ground like a lifeless sack. Trevor could not see anything more.
    The rhino creature stumbled side to side, actually shook its head as if it had just awoken, and then adopted a very docile attitude. Indeed, the thing looked at a loss.
    Much to Trevor’s amazement, it calmly walked away without giving him a second glance. Its heavy feet thumped with every step, but suddenly seemed no more threatening than a kitten. Albeit a gigantic kitten.
    Trevor wiped the sweat from his brow and joined Nina who casually slung her rifle and examined the black sack-like mass that had fallen from the rhino-creature, apparently after she had shot it.
    That black mass was insect-like with six legs or arms or whatever as well as several antenna-like strands. It was slimy, gross, and nearly as large as a Volkswagen.
    "What the Hell is that?"
    She did not take her eyes off of the dead creature as she explained, "It’s a type of parasite. Sort of latches on to something and takes over, like driving a car."
    There was more. She hesitated to tell him. Not due to fear of him; last night had chased that away. No, she hesitated for another reason. Indeed, she looked worried.
    "What? What is it?"
    "These things…Trevor, I think they come from wherever it is Voggoth comes from."
    She let that sink in. He saw the picture painted by what had just happened.
    "It was sent to stop us. Maybe Snowe filled in Voggoth that we were on the run."
    She corrected, "It was after you. Like, I’m of no consequence. Voggoth must have a pretty good idea where you’re headed, and he sure doesn’t want you getting there, you know?"
    Even in the bright sun of a fresh new morning the abandoned Chaktaw city took on a new feel of danger. If Voggoth had targeted him…personally targeted him…
    "We’d better get going," he said.
    They spent the next hour moving carefully across the metropolis passing sagging buildings, decayed parks, and empty homes. Along the way, they shot two ghouls and avoided a swarm of Land Jellyfish but otherwise made it to the far side unscathed.
    Eventually, they left the city, stepping over bones and messy biological piles as they walked northeast with the river to their right. They still had a long way to go before they reached their destination, but the city had been a turning point in their understanding, a turning point in their humanity. Truth had a way of doing that.
    Trevor Stone and Major Nina Forest continued their journey across the ruined landscape of an alien Earth, and left behind the ghosts of the haunted city.

28. One Moment

    After leaving behind the massive city in the valley, Trevor and Nina followed Jaff’s directions and veered in a more easterly direction. They spent the morning working their way through foothills and avoiding the steeper mountains.
    After a trio of Mutants interrupted lunch, the travelers pushed on, passing a mountainside village and then the ruins of a walled compound, both of which were waypoints provided by Jaff.
    Early that evening, they arrived at the meeting place.
    In contrast to the cities, villages, and valleys they saw along the way, the final destination lacked flair or intrigue. Jaff, it seemed, had directed them to a quarter-mile long crater, blasted or dug in a plain so dull and lifeless it nearly qualified as 'wasteland'.
    For some reason, nature had seen fit to drop this open and dusty void in the middle of what Trevor expected to be the rolling hills of upstate New York. Perhaps a catastrophe-natural or otherwise-had robbed this stretch of its fertility.
    Off in the distance, he saw the continuation of the mountains, but their journey had come to an end, at least for the time being.
    "Do you think that Chaktaw lied to us?" She asked as they worked their way down the rocky western edge of the huge hole.
    "We’ll know if Fromm doesn't show up in a day or two. For now, we need to find somewhere to hold up. The sun will be down soon."
    "And if he shows up you-" she stumbled on a patch of dusty gravel. Trevor grabbed her arm and steadied her. She then finished, "You have something to give him? To tell him?"
    "You're not in much of a position to ask questions," he said with a little spice of anger minced with his words. "Put it this way. Let's just hope Fromm is a reasonable guy. If he's smarter than I have been the past few months, we might have a chance of staying alive." Trevor then pointed toward an opening mixed among the jagged rocks, boulders, and sharp ledges of the ravine's wall. "There, look."
    Not just one opening, but several, most with collapsed entrances, however. As they approached, they found a smooth, almost ramp-like path.
    "Must have been an outpost," she said as they both spotted additional paths at various spots around the gully.
    "Looks more like some kind of shelter to me," he said. "Probably a place they retreated to when the invasion began."
    "To hide from us," she admitted. "And the others."
    "You know, that’s another thing I don’t get. Why is it the organized armies fight each other? Wouldn’t you do better to team up?"
    Stone remembered on his world when three of the invading forces had combined to try and assault his fledgling community. The result had been the Battle of Five Armies.
    "For the most part, we've stayed out of each other's way, except for a few skirmishes here and there over resources."
    "Except," Trevor corrected, "When you teamed up to attack the home world’s army."
    "Yes. That happened a few times. Once in a while we got word to send out a force here or there to hit the Chaktaw and to expect support from Geryon air ships or maybe Duass artillery."
    "You’re being used, Nina. Your entire race. All the races here, I guess. Some one wants you fighting each other and the only time that some one is willing to have you make peace is when it’s to get at the Chaktaw. The guys who own this planet. The same way it is on my Earth. Didn’t your leaders-your Trevor, The Committee-didn't they ever wonder why?"
    "I told you how most of us got here. It's easy to judge now, but you weren't around when people were starving after the civil wars, or homeless, or lost everyone. You didn't hear-" she stopped, considered the irony of what she had to say, then went on, "You didn't hear our Trevor Stone promise a new world, a chance at glory, a chance to start over."
    Trevor thought about that. He did not require his bank of genetic memories to recall a destitute Germany in the 1930s falling sway to promises of a new world, of glory. Of course, he also realized what role that meant he played.
    "They lied to you, Nina. The universe is moving you around like pawns."
    Either she felt berated into silence or stifled the urge to argue, but whatever the reason she said no more for some time, following him around quietly as they examined the caves in search of a home for the night.
    Eventually they found one that fit their needs. From the outside, the pile of rocks covering the entrance made it appear to be something of a talus cave, but inside they found a well-sculpted cavern that seemed more sandstone, albeit not of natural creation. Regardless, a solitary Chem Lantern lit and heated the sphere-like cavern. They unrolled their sleeping bags and stowed weapons and rations in separate corners.
    Nina mixed two chemical compounds on a small flat plate. The plate sizzled for several minutes allowing them time enough to heat a couple of meat tubes. Trevor sarcastically told her that on his Earth they called them "hot dogs."
    Nina replied, "On my world we call them franks."
    The two paused for three seconds then burst into a fit of laughter.
    After dinner, Trevor asked to hear more about Sirius. She took his hand and led him outside. There were no clouds overhead. The stars shined bright, one most of all.
    "There…look…see the blue-white star just next to the three ones…yeah, there."
    It was bright and beautiful, glittering like a precious jewel. As he gazed at the shimmering flicker he felt a shiver, probably from the cool breeze blowing over the crater’s rim but possibly from the realization that he looked upon mankind’s first home.
    "So far away," he pondered.
    "Eight point six light years."
    "Eight point…wow. So what I’m looking at right now is you almost nine years ago. What were you doing nine years ago? Were you still on Sirius or were you here already?"
    Nina thought before answering, "I was still on Sirius, fighting in the Unification War. I think it was about this time eight years ago or so that I learned to fly. Oh yeah," she smiled. "I remember because we all got in this big bar fight. I mean, we were young and stupid then."
    He looked over at her. The Major’s eyes remained glued to that flicker of light in the sky.
    "I should have never come to this place. But we…"
    She stopped.
    "Go on. But you what?"
    "But we were convinced you were the man who would build an Empire on this planet."
    Nina stopped talking and walked inside with her shoulders slumped, perhaps thinking she spoiled an otherwise pleasant moment. Trevor followed and they sat around the Chem Lantern.
    After sitting in silence for a minute, he said, "I remember saying to my Nina that maybe the invasion was about how dangerous mankind is, maybe some power in the universe needed to wipe us out. Well maybe I was right after all, only it isn’t just humanity that’s a threat. It’s the Chaktaw and the Hivvans and the Geryons and the rest."
    He tried to ponder that thought for a moment while the whisper of outside wind slipped into the main chamber. The Chem Lanterns kept things warm, but the sound of that wind made him feel chilled, if only in his mind.
    "You miss your Nina very much. I can see that. You carry her with you, like a wound."
    Could he deny it? Maybe the Old Man had been right, that losing Nina would make him all the more potent a fighter, one fueled by rage for what he had lost.
    Slaughter them all, Trev. Maybe if you kill enough of em' you'll feel better.
    He answered, "It's the way it happened. If she had died…if we had just broken up or something, I would have moved on a long time ago. They stole her memories, do you understand? She didn't stop loving me; she just forgot that she ever had. Do you know what kind of torture that is, knowing you're the only one who remembers?"
    "Do you ever talk to her? See her around?"
    "Don't you get it? She doesn’t exist any more. All the things that made her who she was are gone; she’s gone, turned back to a person who never even knew me."
    The Major countered, "She still has her body and her mind. There are parts of that person inside her, right?"
    He answered tentatively, "Yeah. I guess."
    She seemed waiting for him to say more, but he chose to avoid the discussion. Since coming to this world he had had his mind and emotions twisted more than enough, particularly in regards to who was who and differences running more than skin deep.
    Nina said, "I want to give you a gift."
    Her sentence hung in the air for a moment with no noise to intrude, the wind had paused momentarily and the Chem Lantern gave off only heat and light, no sound.
    "You what?"
    Nina stood and walked around the light. Her feet shuffled on the dusty cavern floor as she moved in front of him and knelt as he sat with his legs crossed.
    "I want to give you a gift," she repeated.
    "A…A gift?"
    Nina stripped off the top of her battle suit revealing a white undershirt.
    "Close your eyes," she instructed.
    "Nina, I don’t know what you’re-"
    She placed a gentle finger on his lips and, in an almost motherly tone, calmed, "Shhhh."
    He looked at her blue eyes and saw real warmth there. Real, honest human warmth. Compassion, even.
    Trevor closed his eyes.
    She turned and sat in his lap, leaning against his chest and pulling his arms around her in a hug. With his eyes closed, he felt her heart beat, he felt the gentle in and out of her lungs, and found that her scent was, in fact, identical to that Nina from another world.
    She whispered, "When you open your eyes, speak to the woman you loved. She’s here, in me. I have all the things that made her who she was, they’re just arranged differently. Take your memories and make me into her."
    Trevor felt a shiver but he could not discern if the tremble came from him, or her. Nonetheless, he kept his eyes shut tight.
    "Tell her…tell her everything you never had the chance to say. Tell her what you would tell her…if only…if only you had one more moment with her. Just one moment."
    The Major fell silent. She would say no more for a long while.
    Trevor sat perfectly still, unsure how to react. His first instinct was to reject the very notion, the idea that-but yes, she was in there, wasn't she? Since coming to this planet, he had hoped this twin could be the real thing. In so many ways, they were different, but if there was any place in the universe-in all the universes-where he might possibly reach the soul of Nina Forest, it was here; it was now.
    A touch of fear stroked across his spine as he unclenched his eyes, seeing first the soft, liquid glow from the lantern.
    She did not look at him, her eyes remained open but staring at the floor. To face him would spoil the illusion. She could be his Nina, but only at a sideways glance.
    He rested his chin on her shoulder and soaked in the moment.
    Armageddon had robbed him of many things, including a sense of wonder. When he first came here the very concept of a parallel universe failed to shock him. Years of facing all manner of nightmares eroded his ability to be astonished or surprised by whatever new turn his path took. Fighting for survival allowed no time to marvel at the greater picture.
    For this one moment, his mind opened again to the possibilities. The possibilities that this woman sitting quietly in his lap was more than a physical duplicate of Nina Forest, that she was a spiritual one as well.
    His heart beat…a little faster. His arms hugged her tighter. He tilted his head to better gaze upon her profile, bathed in the warmth of the lantern's light. She became a still-life portrait of Nina Forest, a snap shot of the one person who had held his heart. Except this portrait was more than a mere image. He felt the heat of her body, the rhythm of her pulse.
    And for a moment…just one moment…he could speak to her again.
    "Nina…" he found his lips suddenly dry and licked them. He felt a lump in his throat. Such powerful magic would not last. Yet after so long, what would he say?
    "I miss you."
    He stopped, considered, and as his breath grew short, he told her, "You…you gave me balance. Since you're gone, I've got nothing but the fight. I've become…" he paused in part to find the right words, in part because he felt embarrassed at the answer.
    The Nina Forest he knew back home was a warrior, she understood the focus and brutality of soldiering, but even she would wince at the darkness into which he had descended since crossing the universal divide.
    "I'm drowning in this war. It's consumed every part of me. You asked me to remember. You told me…I must remember. To make it all mean something. To me, now, memories mean only misery. I'm angry all the time, and now I'm afraid of who I really am."
    The wind whistled outside the cave in a forlorn cry from a breeze that was all alone in a dark night. Her hands- Nina’s hands-stroked the goose bumps on his arm. Each caress of her finger tips felt like a shock of electricity.
    "I was supposed to be the hero, but I don't feel like a hero at all."
    The illusion broke as he closed his eyes and bowed from the weight of the emotion within, led by guilt with a sharp pang of self-loathing.
    Nina Forest swiveled around in his lap and cradled his head against her chest.
    The gift had been so much more than a moment for him. It had been a moment for the Nina from Sirius.
    For that moment when he had been with his lost lover, she received the gift of understanding; understanding the true depth of the tenderness her other self had shared with this Trevor. For that moment, she had been his Nina and felt pure, genuine love. The honesty to lay everything bare; the courage to place oneself in another’s mercy and feel safe.
    It was the first time in her life she felt such power. She envied the other Nina and determined that for however long her life might last, she would accept nothing less for herself, even if she never found it.
    So she took him, in her arms, and cradled his head and she cried with him. For all the things he had lost, for all the things she had never known. For that moment, he was with his Nina. For that moment, she felt loved.
    Just one moment.
    – The sun announced a new day. Its rays crept up the horizon like veins of golden ivory climbing across a canopy of white and blue. The whole of that brilliant ball of celestial life followed, rising over the mountain range to the east to bring warmth to a cool morning. A thin frost that had crystallized during the cold night melted away leaving behind memories of moisture lingering in the air.
    Inside the cave Nina stirred awake. Another day on an alien planet.
    She studied the sleeping face of Trevor Stone. How much he had given to her in two days. Major Nina Forest had known from the moment she had brought him to her universe that the day this Trevor Stone looked upon the gateway at Thebes would be a day that changed him. She had never known-never guessed-that that day would have meant change for her, too.
    Nina hoped that, if only for a brief moment, she managed to give him something in return, to pay some small penance for her sins against him.
    She quietly slipped out from the sleeping bag they shared and put on her battle suit top again. A quick rummage through the survival rations kit produced a cup as well as a tin foil packet filled with liquid. Before slipping out of the cave to survey the new day, she also snapped on her utility belt, grabbed both pistols, and hoisted her assault rifle.
    As she exited the cave she twisted the foil pack enough to pop two interior bladders, mixing the contents and causing the liquid inside to warm rapidly. A few second later, she ripped open the corner of the packet and poured the steaming contents into the cup.
    The Major sipped the concoction allowing the warmth to slide down her throat and radiate through her body. She felt good. Better than she had in a long time. Maybe because, finally, she found honesty. Nina no longer fought to maintain a lie, in more ways than one. The future was unsure, but she saw things differently after the last two days on the run.
    Nina scanned the horizon as she drank the instant brew. Her position inside the crater's rim limited her view but she could still see a fair distance to the east. Of course, that made no difference. She only saw a stretch of featureless plains that What is that?
    A tiny black dot in the east hiding in the aura of the morning sun.
    The Major rested her cup on one of the many boulders littering the slope and retrieved binoculars from her utility belt to scan east.
    Nothing but open wasteland. Nothing but…
    The sight through the lenses confused her eyes. At first she saw a big black blob. No…not a blob, a big creature of some type with a tail wagging behind as it walked…no not a creature…a caravan. A caravan of humanoids and larger beasts-huge lizards-wobbling side to side as the line approached, their numbers hidden by single file formation.
    Trevor emerged from the cave fully dressed. She handed him the glasses and pointed.
    "They’re coming," the Major said and any good feelings over her fresh start dissipated with the realization she probably had only a few minutes left to live, regardless of bargains Trevor thought he might drive.
    "Yes, that's them," he said, peering through the binoculars. "The Chaktaw are here."
    Too far out to be seen in detail but unmistakable nonetheless. Their giant pack lizards carried their burdens and infantrymen led the way.
    While Trevor remained fixed on the distant procession, Nina cocked the bolt on her rifle.
    "Put your gun away."
    She insisted, "They can’t see us."
    Trevor took one last long look through the glasses then turned to her.
    "They can see us," he said. "They’re already here."
    Trevor did not need to see them to know they were there. He felt them rise from hiding spots on the rocky hilltop above and around the cave entrance, some just a few feet from where they stood. They wore camouflage ponchos turned a dusty tan to match the dusty soil and rock of the ridge.
    Nina glanced around and saw a dozen Chaktaw. She had stood there and drank instant coffee without sensing their presence.
    She resisted the instinct to raise her weapon knowing not only would it do no good, but also knowing that if the Chaktaw had wanted to kill her, they could have done it already.
    The caravan reached the far side of the crater, resembling something like a band of merchants arriving at market for a day of trade. However, instead of wares and goods they brought guns and soldiers.
    The scouts behind them descended and approached. Trevor waited patiently, secure in the knowledge that he may very well be facing the last moments of his life.
    The Major grunted a pout as her rifle and pistols were pulled from her grasp by the hooded soldiers. The Chaktaw then herded Trevor and Nina down the slope toward the wide, flat floor of the crater.
    The main group of Chaktaw descended the far side of the pit along a sloping path. When they reached the bottom of the gully, they fanned out to form a receiving line of sorts.
    Trevor and Nina walked slowly to meet that assembly. The balance of the Chaktaw infantry jogged and stumbled across the rim of the crater high above to either side. Trevor found it a surreal sight.
    Ahead waited an entourage. No doubt Fromm’s entourage. They formed two lines so as to funnel the strangers to the center between a corridor of bodyguards and officers
    Trevor felt their hatred for him. He could feel it through their heavy combat ponchos, from behind the goggles that covered eye slits. Their anger at the invader, the murderer, the killer.
    It did not surprise him when one of his escorts shoved him from behind. First a hand that sent him stumbling, then a rifle butt knocked him to a knee.
    He stood with his hands held high, empty palms plain to see.
    Nina took a punch in the shoulder and fell forward, but they did not stop moving; the escorts drove them forward as if they were obstinate beasts in need of encouragement but deserving of no compassion.
    The guards lining the high ridge of the crater watched like an audience in the coliseum eager to see the lions feed.
    Another shove, then a kick. This time Trevor fell to the dirt. A small puff of smoky dust rose from the impact.
    A guard slapped Nina’s head. A rifle jabbed in to her back. She coughed a cry of pain but kept on her feet.
    Stone wiped away the dirt with one stroke, held his hands high once again, and stumbled forward amidst another shove. Another hate-filled push.
    Two walls of Chaktaw closed in on either side of the contemptible prisoners. Some wore their combat gear, their eyes hidden behind hoods and goggles. They stood like statues as the escorts drove Trevor and Nina forward.
    Some did not cover their heads. They wore simple but rugged uniforms that lacked any flare. They were human in general shape and design, but with puffy faces and barren scalps surrounded by tufts of hair.
    Another nudge; another trip and Trevor fell to the ground with Nina beside him. He tried to stand but a rifle smacked into his knees. Apparently the privilege to stand had been revoked. He and Nina knelt before the leader of the Chaktaw.
    Every thing stopped. The wind whipped overhead as it dipped into then out of the crater.
    Trevor recognized Fromm. The Chaktaw leader stood out from his brethren in the same manner that the Fromm he had killed at Five Armies stood out: one green eye and one of hazel.
    To his surprise, however, a human woman-skinny and malnourished-stood among Fromm's entourage. Her messy brown hair and sad brown eyes suggested a beaten woman despite any sign of wounds. While he did not recognize the face, he certainly recognized a slave. The leash around her throat held by a Chaktaw soldier accentuated the fact.
    She stepped forward and translated for Fromm, speaking in an unnatural monotone that suggested her humanity had retreated deep within her shell.
    "You are Emperor Stone. We believed you to be dead."
    Trevor kept his eyes focused on Fromm and answered, "I am not the same Stone."
    Fromm's lips clamped shut and his eyes of two different colors appeared to bulge in the slightest. Trevor easily recognized that the Chaktaw leader stood at the edge of rage. After all, how would Trevor have greeted the Hivvan leader or one of The Order's Bishops?
    The translator took Fromm's words and spoke, "Jaff told us your stories of universes and duplicates. I found those stories amusing. My amusement has ended. You will die."
    Rifles pointed at the two captives.
    Despite a stoic translation, Trevor heard the sarcasm as the woman relayed, "If any more Trevor Stones come, we will be sure to kill them, too."
    "Wait! I know about the key. I can help you win this war. I have a gift for you."
    A barrel pressed against his temple.
    Fromm said, "I will kill every creature that does not belong on my world. I will leave you to rot on the ground as a warning to others that Earth belongs to the Chaktaw."

29. Bargaining With the Devil

    The Internal Security guard raised a bull horn and tried to speak but the tremble in his lips made him stop and re-focus. After a moment, he found the strength to shout, "Disperse now!"
    His command cut through the evening air with plenty of volume, but despite his best effort, did not sound authoritative in any way. He sounded, in fact, scared. Shouts and jeers from the crowd that had grown into a mob that would soon be a riot easily drown his hollow order.
    That Internal Security agent and his six comrades stood on the lawn outside the Maryland Governor's colonial-style mansion. In this case, 'Maryland' was more a general territory as opposed to the rigid borders of the old state of the same name. The idea of state governments remained a fluid and vague concept.
    Regardless, the Governors and the territories they governed were symbols of Trevor Stone’s control over "The Empire." They stood in contrast to the districts carved and marked to elect Senators, which became symbols of the fledgling 'democracy' movement.
    No one had seen Trevor Stone in nearly two months. With a flimsy cover story on one hand and, on the other, activists warning that Stone was dead and the military had taken control, the settlements and outposts and mechanisms of "The Empire" threatened to unravel.
    Had he been killed outright, perhaps the people would have shown more patience. His disappearance not only fueled speculation, it fueled fear. With fear came panic. With panic came mobs. With mobs came riots, as the case at the Governor's residence in Annapolis that night.
    Internal Security agents held position inside a temporary chain link fence installed after gun shots hit the Governor’s residence two days ago. The crowd numbered close to one hundred protestors.
    The I.S. agents noticed boards and bats and crow bars among the crowd. Fortunately, no sign of guns, probably because if the mob carried actual firearms they could no longer be billed as 'peaceful.'
    Still, it made little difference because just last week the Governor's security detail had been cut in half, despite the growing threat to the residence. That decision baffled the local commander but since it came from the 'top' he saw no recourse. Of course, in recent weeks it seemed difficult to discern exactly who or what was at the 'top'.
    "Disperse now!" The I.S. man shouted again although the only people who looked ready to disperse were the Internal Security agents themselves. Even the twenty Doberman Pinchers assigned to protect the Governor appeared unnerved by the growing volume of the crowd.
    Instead of jeers, this time the mob reacted with action. The mass pressed forward into the fragile fence. It bent in and then the support poles-held in place by cinderblocks and stakes-buckled and fell.
    Bottles and rocks rained on the security detail who lacked both body armor and non-lethal weapons. Their only tools were ineffective bullhorns and overly effective automatic weapons. With the choice being either flee or gun down the protestors, the agents chose the former and left the K9s alone to stem the tide.
    The barricades collapsed and the mass of angry people swarmed the wide lawn, trampled the hedges, and stormed toward the house. With the human agents escaping via the back yard, the dogs could only buy time.
    K9 teeth tore away fingers, severed a hand, and took chunks of flesh out of legs, but they were quickly run over and beaten with boards and planks and metal bars. Barks turned to squeals. Four-legged carcasses oozed red and lay still on the grass.
    The Governor and his two personal bodyguards hurried the young children of the family upstairs and prepared to shoot any who trespassed into the home.
    Windows smashed, door knobs rattled. The shouts and jeers and boisterous hollers of the attackers created one big churning ball of noise like a violent thunderstorm.
    Then another noise came. One that sent a vibration through the walls of the mansion.
    A Blackhawk helicopter arrived overhead but failed