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Crest and Shield Book 1: an O R D E R mini

 

Crest and Shield

Copyright 2016 Dorsey Jackson Jr.

Published by Dorsey Jackson Jr. at Shakespir

Edited by: Kate Woods www.kbeditingservices.com

 

 

Shakespir Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Dedications

About Dorsey Jackson Jr

Other books by Dorsey Jackson Jr

Connect with Dorsey Jackson Jr

Chapter One

Particles of sand hurled through the air like bullets and the wind howled as fiercely as a herd of wounded wildebeests, as the reddish orange sky domed the desert-torn land. It hadn’t always been a desert. Civilization had once flourished here. All of it had been reduced to endless miles of sand.

Avahloh Crest looked out upon the distance from the sand dune under his feet. Under his hood, his half face particulate protected him from the harsh, sand-filled winds as he listened to grains bounce off his yellow, blue, and black body armor. Distant sights, sounds, and smells of battle rushed into his mind as he glanced down at the human skull harnessed against his chest. He could still remember the scream of the teenaged girl he’d severed the head from. Vivid also was the memory of the glassy, dead eyes that stared into nowhere, as the blood dripped from her neck. That was the day he claimed his right as a Grim Reaper soldier.

Five years had passed since that day and he still carried the numb feeling of not caring. Avahloh pushed the small button on the side of his particulate, activating his com.

“Extermination Team 1, this is Grim Reaper, 2nd Narce Avahloh,” he called into the com inside his particulate.

Even though it was sonically altered by the particulate, the deep and hard rasp of his voice sounded through clearly.

“This is my third request for a status report.”

There was nothing but silence.

“Extermination Team 1, this is Avahloh. I need you to report in.”

Again, there was no response. Extermination Team 1 had gone silent over four hours ago, along with the 1st Narce who often took part in extermination missions. Avahloh had taken it upon himself to take a Sever 1 four-wheeled sand vehicle and head out into the desert to find out why.

He flipped a small switch next to the button, giving him a private direct line to Reaper command, then tapped the com again.

“Reaper Command, this is Avahloh. There is still no response from Extermination Team 1.”

“There’s been no contact here either, 2nd Narce,” a voice came back over his com.

“Keep scanning all channels. If you receive any word from 1st Narce Monsoo, inform me right away.”

“Yes, 2nd Narce. Until then?”

“Until then my orders still stand; all Extermination Teams are to hold position.”

He tapped off his com. Endless miles of desert extended in front of him. They had done all of this. Every building that stood, every road, every bit of civilization, had been reduced to nothing. Avahloh marveled at the pure unequivocal force. What might, what strength, what power.

“Grim Reapers’ Shadow to Grim Reaper. Come in, Grim Reaper,” a voice came through his com. The voice repeated the cadence.

Avahloh tapped his com. “This is Grim Reaper. Go ahead.”

“The sun is directly overhead and the Shadow is beginning to follow behind the Reaper,” the soldier responded.

“Proceed with your orders, then fall back to original coordinates,” Avahloh responded.

“Understood,” the soldier responded one last time.

Avahloh gave one final glance at the sands ahead, and then walked over to the Sever 1. Jumping in, he started the vehicle, pressed down on the accelerator hard, and sped off.

Six hours earlier

Twenty-one sets of glowing red-eyed goggles bit through the wall of sand in front of his face. Dizz gripped Retribution tight and listened to her hum as he peered over a sand dune at the brood of Grim Reaper soldiers. His blood raced as he thought about letting loose on the soldiers in front of him. None of them deserved to live; none of them.

He could run out and kill them all, but letting them live would lead him to the compound where he hoped the real reward would be captured. Every compound had Ruin, a member of the Hand that Wields Destruction who was in charge of every true reality that they were searching for. That, more than anything else, is what he wanted to find. Dizz released Retribution. She idled down as he leaned in and watched.

Their body armor looked inadequately regal. The team was sent to devastate and destroy completely, dressed as if there was some honor in what they were doing. Black hoods, trimmed in gold, covered their heads. Underneath, glowing red-eyed goggles illuminated above half-face air purifying masks. High, yellow armor trimmed in black protected their necks. Upon their chests was a yellow breastplate with blue counter armor underneath. Yellow Haidate -style loin coverings, trimmed in blue, draped from their waists. Blue armor covered their thighs, laced in nine yellow bands. Below was blue knee armor, yellow shin armor, black boots trimmed in blue, cloth wrist wraps with three blades, and inverted retractable claws on each hand.

Lastly, a skull, the pride of the Grim Reapers’ body armor, was harnessed on to each of their chest plates by four chains. Each and every skull that sat upon a uniform had been severed from someone’s head by the Reaper who wore it. This was the most notable aspect of a Grim Reaper’s indoctrination. That is how he officially claimed his right.

There was no misunderstanding what the purpose of these soldiers was. Anyone who saw them coming would instantly know that they approached with malice. Grim Reaper Extermination Teams did one thing and one thing only: exterminate.

Not many people survived the initial annihilation of civilization. However, small pockets of survivors could be found in hidden camps for miles around. They scavenged whatever they could find and made shelters the best they could with what they could find remaining amongst the vast sands. Most encampments were no more than a collection of tattered cloths hanging from wooden posts dug into the sand.

Every Reaper used a heavy black Gatling gun fitted for individual use. The gun was able to shoot two types of ammo; 30 mm cal, and a specialized Grim Reaper round referred to as a compressed 50 mm cal.

Gunfire was nonstop and sounded throughout as Gatling guns swept back and forth, shelling 30 cal. bullets from every turret. Grim Reaper soldiers pushed forward in waves in an unemotional routine of slaughtering the residents of this small desert encampment, picking off people as they ran Screams filled the air, fires smoldered everywhere, and the smell was carried far by the winds as the smoke billowed high.

There was no lull in the gunfire. Dizz did everything he could to keep his anger down. After a while, he simply sat, back to the encampment, and zoned out. He did not know how long he could take the screams, so he channeled all of his anger and saved it up for when he would be able to strike. After a while, the gunfire and screams filtered to a silence.

Dizz finally heard a mechanically altered voice rip thorough the hollowing wind.

“1st Narce, extermination is complete.”

“Good. Order the other Reapers to search for any useable resources, then prepare for retract,” another deep, mechanically altered voice ordered.

Dizz rolled over and peered over the sand dune to see the soldiers. His eyes narrowed in pure satisfaction. There, in front of him, was the 1st Narce. The red coloring of his uniform made him distinct. He could kill him here and strike a major blow to their leadership.

Revenge and Retribution began to hum as Dizz removed them from their holsters. He stood and the silver liquid cloth sprang out from the back of his neck and began to mold itself around his head and face as he made a slow approach towards the encampment.

Dizz sprinted towards the lines of Grim Reaper soldiers. Most were caught off guard and began to fall left and right. Dizz did not stop his forward motion: shoot, defend, and counter. He flowed from soldier to soldier fluidly.

Grim Reapers turned to counter Dizz, but his Smart Armor was in full function. Bullets ricocheted and now the screams of Grim Reaper soldiers were filling the air.

Before long, he was face to face with their 1st Narce. The man sized Dizz up.

“We heard you might show up.” His feet were planted firm and his shoulders were square. This was not a man who was going to back down.

“Then you heard right.”

“Do not think that I will run. I am a Grim Reaper Narce. I kill for a living. It is the primary purpose of my existence and obviously, by my rank, I have done it well,” the Narce gloated. Then he took one simple step towards Dizz.

“Then your purpose ends today. The purpose of my existence is to end all of you.”

The Narce extended his arms to his sides and, with a small flinch; he extended the introverted claws on his wrists down and over his hands. The challenge had been made.

Dizz flicked the recharge switch on both Revenge and Retribution and they began to hum. Seconds later the Narce sprinted toward him. Slicing through the air with the claws, he rushed Dizz with vehemence. Dizz danced around the strikes and countered with gun-gripping, backhand strikes of his own.

They fought throughout the city, each man’s intensity not waning. Dizz found higher ground and let off a couple of sweeping rounds. The Narce dodged the bullets, rolling towards a Gatlin gun and coming to one knee with it in hand. Its barrels began to shoot a barrage of bullets, the shells pouring out of its side.

Dizz dashed to his right as everything behind him erupted into splinters; the bullets gave chase. He found cover behind a large piece of rock and waited. The Narce pressed forward, never letting up on the gunfire. Dizz waited until he could hear the gunfire almost directly on him, then peeked his body out to one side of the rock. The Narce turned his aim towards him. Dizz quickly ducked behind the rock, then jumped on top of it and leapt off.

Descending on the Narce, he let both guns fly. They hit their intended target, the Gatling gun, and it exploded in the Narce’s hands. The Narce was thrown from his feet and his body armor was exposed.

The Narce pulled a side arm from his waist as he turned over onto his back and fired at Dizz. Dizz danced around the gunfire at a full sprint and fired three shots at point blank range into the Narce’s exposed body armor.

Dizz stood over him as he watched the Narce wheeze and take his last breaths. He stood there for a moment, staring at the large man with great disdain. With effort, he pulled his eyes off him and looked around.

The bodies of the 21 Gatling gun wielding soldiers that lay dead throughout the encampment meant nothing to him. They had earned their end. His eyes drifted over them like they weren’t there and looked upon the civilians that were trying to make a home in the vast nothingness. Again, the same feeling that started in his stomach and coursed its way through his body visited him. That feeling that visited him every time he ran into a camp like this and had to witness the aftermath of these extermination teams. The same feeling wanted to burn hotter than the barrels of Revenge and Retribution after they had laid waste to these extermination Teams. Face after lifeless face stared back at him from various places within the encampment and beckoned that feeling of guilt, which again, he would not surrender too. Should he have attempted to save at least some of the civilians that were here? He always questioned himself. But no, he knew what needed to be done to achieve the ultimate objective. These people were dead anyway. If he did not reach the objective, more people would be subjected to the same fate.

What evil could create such death? It was an evil he had given his word to destroy – the aftermath of the aftermath.

He walked over to one of their vehicles and tapped the GPS on it to see if he could find information on where they had traveled from. Unfortunately, it was encrypted and would provide no data. He had figured it would be, but he decided to try anyway. His impromptu attack would make his search longer, but it was worth it.

Stepping out of the encampment and back onto the sands, he grabbed his robe and slid it on. He would have to continue to use his tracking skills to guide him back to their compound. He didn’t know how much of their tracks the sands of the desert would reclaim, but he would begin the task now and let what tracks remained take him as far as they could.

Without another thought, Dizz pulled the hood over his head and headed out into the howling, sand-filled winds of the Corporation-made desert.

Avahloh had decided to travel deeper into the desert to locate Extermination Team 1. More than a few hours had passed since he had left the compound, but he still had found nothing.

“Grim Reaper, this is Grim Reapers’ Shadow. Night has fallen over all and the Shadow rests until next day break. Returning to base.” The information came over Avahloh’s com.

“Roger, Shadow,” Avahloh simply responded, then punched the gas on his vehicle and sped off again.

He rode north for another hour, toward the Shadow team’s previous location, before arriving at a rising mesa. As Avahloh pulled up, the smell of rotting bodies filled his particulate. The time when his senses gave acknowledgment to the familiar stench had long since passed. After climbing the mesa, he looked at the field of bodies ahead. He could tell that it was the result of Extermination Team 1 and the Shadow team that had just radioed in. He knew now that they at least came this way and had been headed north. As he stood there and looked at the sands ahead, a familiar voice came through his com.

“2nd Narce Avahloh.” Compound Commander Kiel’s voice came through his com.

“This is Avahloh. Go ahead, Kiel.”

“Someone is attacking the compound.”

Avahloh turned towards the direction of the compound. Why would a compound officer be contacting him, the Grim Reaper 2nd Narce? They were in no way equal in the hierarchy, but in this situation they would both be reporting to the same person: the Compound Ruin.

“What’s the force strength?” He asked calmly.

“Uncertain; the reports are incoherent. Some claim only one man, but the attack was initiated from inside the compound.”

“This was an infiltration?”

“Yes, 2nd Narce.”

“I am on my way back.” Avahloh descended the mesa, jumped in the Sever 1, and sped back to the compound.

He knew right away that Kiel would only contact him if the situation had grown beyond leadership’s control.

Chapter Two

Bursts of blue phase lights lit up the sky over the compound in Corporation controlled reality 67423. From them, sixty Resistance Pouncer Air Gun attack aircraft sped into view. Another gigantic Phase burst cloud filled the sky and a large cylindrical ship slowly emerged.

As the phase lights dissipated in front of his aircraft’s cockpit windshield, the first thought that jumped into Wing Commander Daniel Shields’ mind was: I can never go back home.

It was a hazy, far thought, but the feeling caught him clear as day. His sense of time was just as distorted, but a feeling of urgency persisted. He could feel his mind forcing itself to balance out. As he was told, there would be unpredictable side effects to phase travel. When the haziness finally lifted, the view of brown sand speeding his way filled his aircraft’s cockpit windshield.

“Oh shit!” He blurted out, as he realized his aircraft was speeding towards the ground. Shield pulled back on his aircraft’s control stick hard as his muscles fought against the g-forces. A sudden sharp pain ripped through Shield’s body. He yelled and jerked forward, forcing his Pouncer back into a dive. Quickly he fought to regain his grip on his stick.

As the plane fought to level, Shield could feel his stomach become rapidly upset. Before he knew it, he was heaving over and over. Next thing he knew, he was puking all over his Pouncers dash display. As the contents of his stomach spewed all over himself, he held his grip on his stick. It took a long moment, but eventually he got his aircraft to level off and his body settled.

Shield quickly chanced a look at his dash’s aircraft count display. It was covered with vomit. With one hand, he swiped away the smut so that he could see his display clearly. It displayed sixty aircrafts accounted for and one resource ship. All of the strike force had survived the initial phase process.

As he glanced to his right, he noticed a Pouncer speed towards the ground, crash, and burn. His aircraft count display flickered and changed to fifty-nine aircrafts. Someone was unable to recover from the side effects of Phase travel.

It wasn’t over. To his left, two more planes lost flight, plummeted to the ground and exploded. His display now showed fifty-seven planes. They had taken losses already and the fighting hadn’t even begun.

Below, and half a mile from a mountain range, sat their objective: one square mile of military compound. From his height, Shield could see minor details of the buildings within the high, red brick walls that surrounded the entire compound.

“This is Wing Commander Daniel Shield. All wings converge on me and swing around for our initial attack run.”

Shield threw his aircraft into a slanting, downward curve and swung around for an attack path toward the compound below. Looking overhead, he could see the entire strike force follow suit. As soon as he was lined up with the target, he let Pouncer1 Siege missiles fly. The entire strike force opened up on the compound below with Pouncer 1 siege missiles as all fifty-seven planes sped past.

“Canton, proceed with getting the resource ship as far away from the battle area as possible. We’ll meet you on the other side of this attack.”

“Copy that, Wing Commander,” Sub Commander Canton’s calm, articulate voice came back over Shield’s com.

Shield watched as the large, cylindrical resource ship peeled off and headed away from the rest of the strike team.

“Eyes open, people. Get ready for anti-aircraft artillery.” Shield said into his com.

“They’ve got nothing for us, Commander. We’re all ready for whatever.” Shield’s Second in Command and Group 1 leader’s calm and collective voice came through the com.

“Hope so, Lamp. Glad you brought your enthusiasm with you.”

“Commander, you can land the whole wing. I’ll take the compound by myself.” A very cocky female voice added.

“I know you could, Rikki, but let’s share the fun with everyone else,” Daniel said with a smile. “Squadron leaders, after the second pass splinter off and commence individual attack runs. By the time we make our second pass they should have anti-aircraft artillery waiting for us, so let’s make the most of this run. Expect heavy surface to air missiles. Maneuver accordingly.”

“Roger that, Commander.” The acknowledgements came back.

All flights of the strike force swung around for their second pass and the ground below again lit up in sporadic explosions.

“This is easy pickings, baby!” Lamp said.

“Don’t get too comfortable, Lamp,” Shield said lightly as he arched his head toward the compound, trying to decipher the action below. “It’s easy to swing hard when there’s no one swinging back at you.”

He knew the action would pick up soon.

“All right, squadron leaders, splinter off and let’s make a mess of it down there. Good hunting, people.”

The strike force dispersed from a cloud of aircrafts into twelve squadrons. As they came around for the third pass, the ground lit up with anti-aircraft gunfire from the compound below. Shield’s eyes lit up in shock. He had expected anti-air retaliation, surface to air missiles, but not gunfire and especially not at the magnitude in which it was coming at them. Streams of repetitious, high-caliber gunfire raced toward the sky. Aircrafts scrambled to evade, but, as Shield looked out of his canopy, he saw several Pouncers burst into flames.

“Hold it tight, people!” Shield screamed out.

“Holy shit! What the fuck did we fly into?” Lamp asked.

“Way more than we expected,” Shield said.

“Those are not normal S.A.M.s,” Lamp needlessly informed. “Pouncers are not supposed to fold under normal 30cal.”

“Not at all.”

“Pickings not so easy now, huh, Lamp?” Rikki taunted.

“It’s just a couple of bumps, that’s all. Just a couple of bumps,” Lamp said as he swerved his Pouncer in and out of gunfire.

The hull of a Pouncer was rough and rugged. Normally it could take a hell of beating from normal anti-air artillery before it was irrevocably damaged. Obviously the artillery being shot at them was more than they were used to. Pouncers were exploding around him quickly and weren’t being hit with even half of what they could normally take.

Shield pulled back on the throttle, pushing his aircraft into a steep climbing curve. He knew he had to get a better idea of what they were dealing with.

“Lamp, break off from your squadron and swing close to me.”

“What you got in mind, Commander?” Lamp asked.

“I want to dive in close to the compound – get a better eye on things.”

“How close?”

“We’re going to get in the weeds, so swing real low, hard, and fast. Flow through whatever they throw at us, but eyes open.”

“Got you, Commander. I’m on you.”

“Not without me you’re not.” Rikki’s voice jumped from the com. “No way are you two going to be the only ones to have the first thing to brag about around here.”

“Three sets of eyes are better than one,” Shield agreed. “Alright, Rikki, balls to the wall and keep it close behind us.”

“I’m going to ride you two like a drunken Friday night, Commander,” she said.

“We’re going to swing in from the back. Watch that mountain range and let’s get low, people.”

The three aircrafts dived from the sky at a screeching speed. As the ground raced toward them, they all followed Shield’s arc as he pulled out of the dive a stone’s throw from the compound. The aircrafts dodged streams of anti-air gunfire at breakneck speed. Shield looked down. To his surprise, there was row after row of anti-air artillery. Not only was there more than expected firing at them, but there were even more guns that weren’t being used.

“Daniel, Rikki. You seeing what I’m seeing?”

“Hell, yeah.” Rikki replied with obvious shock in her voice. “The compound in our reality didn’t have these kind, or this amount of Ground to Air Guns, Commander. There’s not a lot of protection up here.”

“Yeah, boss, there’s way more G.T.As than expected,” Lamp agreed.

“Rikki, I know you’re not running from a fight?” Shield baited with a smirk.

“Of course not, boss. You know me better than that. I’m just pointing out the obvious. Too much fun for me,” Rikki replied.

“Yeah, I think for any of us,” Shield said lightly. “OK, you two, let’s get out of here. Swing wide at the first break in gunfire and break north back to the strike force.”

“Got you, Commander,” Lamp said.

No other attack aircraft could match the agile nature of a Pouncer Air Gun. Its incomparable air breaks allowed it to stop forward motion dead at any speed within ten feet and change direction ninety degrees in any direction under 1.5 seconds. The ships split off from one another then individually slammed on breaks, come to a complete stop while flipping ninety degrees upward, and blasted away back to the strike force.

As Shield rocketed skyward, he witnessed two more of his aircrafts being shot out of the sky and assessed the situation with total strategic honesty. He had thought that they would be able to take the compound on arrival, but there had been no way of knowing what was waiting for them when they arrived: especially not these kinds of modified anti-air guns. Shield could see very easily that his wing was not prepared to take the compound on their opening attack. They were out gunned.

He came to a new decision quickly.

“All squadrons break off the attack.”

“You sure, Commander?” Lamp asked. “We’ll lose our element of surprise if we break off now.”

“Looks like we’re the ones to be surprised today,” Shield admitted.

“We won’t know what to expect when we regroup,” Rikki added.

“Doesn’t matter. It’s better to set up base and come up with a better plan of attack. We’ll lose too many pilots today. We don’t know how long this campaign is going to last, so I think it’s best to conserve our resources until we know exactly what we’re dealing with. Good shooting, pilots, but let’s live to fight another day.”

“What’s our exit strategy?” Lamp asked.

“All wings make your exit around the back side of the compound. That’s where the concentration of triple As is weakest. Converge east. Once we’re clear, keep your ears open for my orders.”

As Avahloh drew closer to the compound,

he could see the billows of smoke rising into the air, and could hear the distant muffled sounds of battle. It took him over two hours to arrive at the compound’s gates. By the time he arrived, the battle was all over.

As Avahloh’s Sever 1 pulled up to the compound, heavy metal creaked and whined as two 5-foot-thick metal doors separated from each other and slid within the 5 story brick walls on either side. As the gates opened and Avahloh rolled his vehicle in, the carnage was immediately apparent.

He dismounted his vehicle and silently strolled amongst the chaos and debris. Many fires were still ablaze and compound personnel ran about trying to put them out. As he strolled at a casual pace, he took note of everything he was seeing. He noticed the damage from small arms fire on the metal of some of the buildings and the tell-tale signs of an aerial assault. Not too long after he arrived, Commander Kiel found him spectating amongst the chaos.

“2nd Narce Avahloh,” Commander Kiel called out as he approached.

“Commander,” Avahloh greeted.

“The first attack was initiated by some type of ground force. It was preceded by another aerial assault,” Kiel informed.

Although Kiel was not a Grim Reaper, one thing Avahloh respected about Commander Kiel was his straight forward method of communication. He never polluted his reports with unnecessary words.

Until now, Kiel, who stood 5’10 at full height, had never had to report directly to Avahloh. Kiel was a compound officer, Avahloh an elite Grim Reaper soldier. The two classes of soldiers worked independently of one another. Now, standing face to face with this man who towered above him in full Grim Reaper battle armor, it was slightly disheartening, even for a stolid Compound officer like Kiel.

“Any word from the 1st Narce?” Avahloh asked as he looked down on the Commander, who was dressed in normal, crisp, clean red and black fatigue compound soldier uniform. The numerous shiny gold regalia that accented his uniform were signs of his being a higher ranking officer.

“No. We were hoping you would bring back information as to the whereabouts of the 1st Narce and Extermination Team 1.”

“I didn’t find anything.” Avahloh continued to take in the surroundings.

“There’s another thing,” Kiel began.

Avahloh turned to face Kiel. It was very clear in Kiel’s tone that the next statement would hold more weight than the carnage that lay before him.

“The Compound Ruin has been killed.”

Avahloh did not move.

“Ruin Morrison is dead.” Kiel continued.

Avahloh held his gaze.

“That means that you are in charge.”

“At least until we find out what happened to the 1st Narce. Now you have my position’s duties until that time,” Avahloh said firmly. Commander Kiel heard the implied expectations loud and clear. “What’s the damage assessment?”

“Data is still coming in.” A brief tinge of curiosity touched Kiel. The hierarchy of the compound was awkwardly complex. In truth, Grim Reaper soldiers and Compound personnel performed independently of one another. Although the Grim Reaper 2nd Narce was technically third in command, he held no authority over compound personnel. His authority flowed from the 1st Narce down into the ranks of the Grim Reaper brotherhood. He also shared the overall rank level with the Compound Commander, who held no authority over Grim Reapers, but who’s authority flowed from the 1st Narce down into the ranks of the compound personnel.

As far as line of succession, the 2nd Narce moved up before the Compound Commander. If the 2nd Narce was killed, authority flowed down to the Compound Commander who would then become the Compound Ruin. Never would any compound officer, soldier or personnel hold the title of Narce. That honor was held distinctively for indoctrinates of the Grim Reaper Brotherhood. If succession continued, the cycle repeated itself. This kept the distinctly different pedagogies of Grim Reaper soldiers and compound personnel from ever growing lopsided in systematic power. Kiel was curious to see how this irregular transition of authority was going to play out in its first application within these walls.

“Walk with me to Central Command,” Avahloh said.

The two made their way through the war-torn compound. It was obvious that the one square mile of barracks, armories, and specialty buildings had seen a great deal of battle. Beyond the apparent damage of the previous battle, most of the buildings and walls wore aged battle wounds. Most buildings had access to the lower levels of the compound, which descended many floors underground.

Avahloh and Kiel entered a battle-damaged administrative building, proceeded to an elevator and descended several floors down. They navigated the network of subterranean halls until they arrived at the pressure-sealed sliding doors of Central Command, ten floors beneath ground level.

The door to Central Command slid open and the sights and sounds of a busy network filtered out. Commander Kiel and Acting 1st Narce sauntered in. The mood of the room changed very quickly. Officers stood frozen at the sight of the towering mass of man and Grim Reaper armor that strolled down the room’s center aisle.

Kiel glanced up at the wall-sized monitor which was divided into countless squares of surveillance. Below the screen were three rows of command stations which extended upward towards the entrance, lecture room style. Each station had Compound officers, sitting at hologram monitors, deciphering different bits of data. The overall lighting was dim. Officers strolled through the aisles, relaying data. Off to the left, Sub-Commander Coto stood with Sub-Commander Reik at the Command Center’s holo table which sat against the far wall. Kiel held direct rank over both of them.

Coto was the Compound officer in charge of the Command Center. He reeked of a lifetime of Compound military service: up in age and with a posture conditioned to the solid erect stance of an officer with a track record of service since his early twenties. He was a compound officer set on being a compound officer and everything that he had grown to know that to mean. Reik, Coto’s subordinate who held authority over resources and personnel, was decades younger. He still had the eyes of an officer learning and waiting for commands to further his experience and confidence in his own command.

Kiel and Avahloh made a bee line to them.

“Sub Commander Coto,” Kiel greeted.

“Commander Kiel,” Coto returned.

“As you may or may not know, the Compound Ruin is dead. Also, there is no word on the 1st Narce’s whereabouts. 2nd Narce Avahloh is now in charge until we locate Extermination Team 1 and 1st Narce Monsoo,” Kiel informed.

Coto stared up at all 6’9, 320lbs of the Grim Reaper and Narce that stood in front of him. A Grim Reaper in full armor was disheartening enough, but the sight of this towering behemoth of muscle sent chills throughout the entire room. Coto tried not to show any discomfort. He was not successful.

Avahloh seemed unbothered by the ogling as he stared down at the holo table. He did not seem concerned at all about the introduction of his new position either.

“Is it likely that we will locate the 1st Narce sometime soon?” Coto asked, his discomfort showing through unintentionally.

“Yes…” Kiel began.

“It’s not likely that the might of an entire Grim Reaper Extermination team has been extinguished,” Avahloh cut in. “The 1st Narce will return to leadership soon.”

His eyes still hadn’t left the holo table.

“Understood,” Coto said.

“Pull up video from the aerial attack,” Avahloh instructed. As he waited on his command to be completed, he asked. “What is the damage assessment?”

“Seventy-five dead, twenty wounded,” Reik informed. “No hardcore structural damage to the perimeter walls, but a number of buildings damaged or rendered nonfunctional. All aerial batteries are still intact.”

A large, green, 3D hologram of the compound and surrounding area flashed up and filled the table. A rendering of the day’s earlier attack began to replay itself out through the hologram. Video footage also appeared on the mega screen in the front of the room.

Avahloh watched intently as the green attack aircrafts flew back and forth through the hologram. Kiel watched, but the activity in the hologram was too chaotic for him to keep up with. He instead turned and watched the surveillance from Command’s main screen. Kiel waited for Avahloh’s reaction, but Avahloh’s eyes were glued to the hologram. Avahloh glanced over his shoulder at the video monitor for a few moments, then back at the holo. After a while he stood erect.

“Thank you, Sub-Commander Coto. Follow normal procedures and inform Commander Kiel of anything you feel is important. I’ll be in Reaper Command.”

“Yes sir,” Coto replied. He wasn’t quite used to such direct and short communication after an assault and hoped he didn’t have to get used to it. His dealings with 1st Narce Monsoo, although also a Grim Reaper, were more along the lines of what he found as Military acceptable.

Without another word, Avahloh walked out of Central Command followed by Commander Kiel. The 6’9, 320lb mass of muscle and destruction strode casually back down the halls of the compound.

“If you don’t mind me asking 2nd Narce…” Kiel began.

“What was I looking for in the hologram? Leadership.”

“I don’t understand. Every strike force has someone leading the command.”

“Every command has a leader, but not every leader has leadership,” Avahloh educated Kiel.

“I see,” Kiel replied. He thought it over for a moment and could see where Avahloh was going. “What did you deduct from the hologram?”

“There is leadership there, but the attack was chaotic and disorganized.”

“So the leader was disorganized.”

“No, just not quite prepared for the amount or type of anti-air weaponry.”

“How did you come to this?”

“The attack started with one aircraft. All other groups followed behind this aircraft – lead from the front. Leadership.”

“Something I’ve heard you’ve shown in the past, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“Thank you, Commander, but accolades are a result of whom you learn from. Hence our 1st Narce.”

“Of course.”

“Once the anti-air began, this plane again led the charge. All planes followed its lead.”

“So he…”

“It, Commander. For now, we’ll refer to the attack aircraft. We don’t know if this leader is a he or she. Don’t assume that; it could be costly for us in the future. However, if you noticed, after the third pass the same ship and two others flew closer to us, no doubt to get a closer look at the force they were dealing with, and I’m sure it was the best pilots who accompanied. Flying that close is a dangerous and unnecessary action.”

“Isn’t it always necessary to know what you are up against?”

“Of course, but if you already know, you don’t have to inquire. That low close pass was an inquiry. I know no one noticed, but the aircrafts flew towards unused anti-air batteries and swung in closer to see what they were dealing with, all without firing a shot. At that height they could’ve caused a large amount of damage. They didn’t.

After that look, the aircrafts broke off the attack. Again, the leaders’ aircraft led the Strike Team towards the exit. That is how I know they were not prepared for such an aerial defense. Which would mean they are still unprepared,” Avahloh explained.

“That is a lot of intel to deduct from such a short view of the hologram,” Kiel admitted.

“It doesn’t always take long, Commander. You simply look for what’s important.”

“What are you next orders, Acting Narce Avahloh?”

“There is time to prepare for this strike force’s next assault, so I want a team sent out to find Extermination Team 1 and our Narce. We must solidify our leadership. That is highest on the priority list.”

“Are you not comfortable with leading the compound forces?”

“I am very comfortable and capable, but that is not relevant. If our ranking commander is alive, it is our duty to find him and return him to his rightful position. Over ambition will not win battles, Commander: experience, the ability to lead, as well as the ability to be led, will.”

“I understand and respect your position completely, Acting Narce Avahloh.” Although he didn’t. “I’ll send a team out right away. Should they be operations soldiers or Reapers?”

“Reapers for certain. I want to make sure that this task is completed regardless of the results.”

“Understood.”

“Send Extermination Team 7.”

“Right away.”

Eight hours later

Extermination Team 7 returned with their findings. Team Leader 7 found Acting Narce Avahloh and Commander Kiel and approached to inform them.

“Extermination Team 7 returning from our search, sir.” Team Leader 7 spoke to Avahloh.

“Report to Commander Kiel, Reaper. It is OK; he is your direct commanding officer now. Only report to me if I request it so,” Avahloh instructed, then stepped away.

“Yes, Narce,” the Reaper before him responded without question or hesitation.

Kiel watched Avahloh as he walked away. A minor tinge of confusion touched him. Grim Reapers took their attachment to their brotherhood seriously. It was a society within itself whose doors were not easily opened for invitation. They were very specific about how they performed and how they were led. Technically, Avahloh was still in charge of the Grim Reaper soldiers and those were reins that were held tight only by another Grim Reaper. Kiel wasn’t quite sure if they were reins he wanted to attempt to hold.

“Commander Kiel, we located Extermination Team 1,” the Reaper continued.

“And what are your findings?” Kiel asked calmly.

“The entire team is dead. It wasn’t an Aerial assault like we dealt with here. Narce Monsoo is dead as well,” the Reaper finished.

Kiel turned to Avahloh, who stood a distance away not paying attention to the conversation being held, and then turned back to the reporting Reaper.

“Thank you, Reaper. Your team can return to its duties. I will inform the Ruin.”

“Sir,” the Reaper acknowledged him, then turned and walked away.

Kiel began walking towards Avahloh, who turned to face the footsteps that approached him.

“The entire force of Extermination Team 1 was destroyed by non-aerial assault. 1st Narce Monsoo is indeed dead. That no longer makes you Acting Narce, but Commander of the Compound: a Ruin,” Kiel informed.

Even though he could not see Avahloh’s face through the Grim Reaper mask, he had the sense that his face gave neither change in expression or emotion.

“I will take the command, but the title of Ruin I will not. The Hand is a totally different pedagogy and one I will intentionally keep foreign to me. I am a Grim Reaper and that indoctrination is what rules my actions, so my title will be referred to as no higher than 1st Narce.”

“As you wish,” Kiel replied. “What are your orders?”

“Gather all personnel and prepare them for my address.”

“Yes, 1st Narce.”

Again, Avahloh returned to Reaper Command. He entered the doors and stepped into its grand entrance hall. Like most of the compound, battle had taken a toll on the outer structure and had diminished its former glory. Inside, nothing had been taken away. Black marble etched in grey covered the floor within the light grey and black walls. Grey columns lined the outer walls and reached the top of the heaven reaching ceiling. Just inside and above, a sixty foot skull hung from two gigantic chains on either side of it – a mockup of the skulls that Reaper soldiers wore on their chests. Suspended in the air, it was an immediate acknowledgement of the place someone was entering.

Avahloh stood and reflected upon it for a moment. Bringing his gaze back down, he looked across the hall to the doorway that led to the inner workings of Reaper Command. He began a hard stroll towards it.

The door led him to a network of halls that Avahloh had travelled many times before. He made his way to the training chambers, where he found a multitude of Reapers busy with activity. This chamber was rarely found empty. The heart of the Reaper Brotherhood would not allow it so. He knew the Reapers would always be ready.

Avahloh made his way to the Reaper Command room three levels down. This where he spent most of his time in his charge as 2nd Narce. 1st Narce Monsoo had commanded from Central Command. If he needed to, he would relay any order to Avahloh in Reaper Command.

Doors slid open. Reaper Command was a smaller version of the compound’s Central Command. A Hologram table sat in the center of the room, with only two tiers of station rows. From here, the hand of the Brotherhood was wielded. Avahloh approached the center. Team Leader 3 had already found his way here and was addressing the Holo table.

“Are all Reaper teams accounted for?” Avahloh asked as he approached.

“I sent out the general recall after we located Team 1. The remaining teams have made it back, except for Team 9. They were further out when the call was sent.” Team Leader 3 informed him.

“Excellent.”

‘We also gathered the weapons and resources of Team 1 and brought them back to base.”

“They will be useful in the days ahead. Continue to have all Teams hold positions here in the compound. Extermination protocols are to be suspended until otherwise informed.”

“Yes, 1st Narce.”

“Team Leader 3, you have Reaper Command.”

“Yes, 1st Narce.”

Avahloh left the command room and continued to navigate the halls of Reaper Command. There really was no need to tarry. Everything within these walls would be – and would stay – in order without his direct management. His confidence in this was absolute.

Avahloh could focus his energy on other compound matters.

Chapter Three

As Shield and his fifty-two force aerial strike team glided away from an unsuccessful aerial siege, he searched the ground below for a safe place to land. Watching the horizon, he noticed a small, clear patch of sand with at least a mile clear of obstructions in any direction.

“There on our left, that’s where we’ll set down while the scout ships look for something more permanent. Rydel, take three ships from your squadron and scout out ahead for a permanent place for us to set up base,” Shield ordered.

“I’m on it, Commander,” Group 3 leader Rydel said. “Ivana, Seth, and Vlad, you’re on me. Enika, you’ve got the group while I’m gone.”

“Yes, sir, Group Leader,” Enika’s voice came back.

Shield watched as four Pouncers split off from the rest of the group and soared off into the distance.

The rest of the aircrafts landed sporadically in the field and pilots filtered about. Shield didn’t address them right away. Instead he found a small dune forty yards away to sit by himself. As he sat quietly and rubbed his fingers through his short, buzz cut, sandy brown hair, he took in the view of his aircrafts and pilots and let his thoughts run.

Nothing in his thirty-three years of life had prepared him for what they were about to face, but he’d chosen the command anyway. Like most leadership in the Resistance knew and accepted, he also knew that there was a job that had to be done which no common man wanted to do, but someone had to. In this Resistance there was always someone who would step up to such tasks. He happened to be the one to step up for this one. In all truth, no one knew why they were here. All they had been told by leadership was that it was of the utmost importance that they take and hold that compound in whatever reality it existed.

Short, square wings angled twenty degrees downward and molded into the body, twin engines on either side of a short tail wing, a small cargo bay, two six barreled 30mm Gatling turrets that were swivel mounted. They could be used simultaneously in a parallel position or aligned center to shoot one at a time. Each turret could fire up to 2000 rounds a minute.

The task was great, but, to help complete it, they had been provided with the best tool known to aerial flight: the Pouncer Air-Gun attack aircraft. It was the most vicious, agile, versatile, rugged attack aircraft a pilot could have. No other aircraft had air brakes that could compare: they would allow it to stop and change direction so quickly and sharply. Its hull could take a heavy pounding before being penetrated by most high-caliber weapons and its speed was comparable to the fastest fighter plane. This would be the war horse that they would ride into battle.

As he spectated the cloud fatigue pattern which covered the sandy brown hulls of the Pouncers, his eyes settled and focused on another object. New thoughts gripped his mind.

“Contemplating your life?” Lamp’s laid back voice came from over his shoulder.

Shield turned to find his best friend and Second in Command walking up. The smooth faced, brown haired, early thirty-something approached with a calmness that didn’t match the current situation, but always fit Lamp.

“What are you doing sitting way over here by yourself?”

“Pull up a seat. There’s plenty of room,” Shield invited, then turned his eyes back on the object that had gripped his attention.

“What are you looking at?” Lamp asked.

“I’m staring at the sum total of our survival,” Shield said, eyes unmoved.

Lamp followed his line of sight and realized that Shield was staring at the resource ship which sat high above the aircrafts around it.

“All of our food, all of our water, ammunition, and fuel. That ship is the sum total of how long we will be able to survive out here.”

Endless miles of sand lay beyond the strike force.

“Hey, at least we’re guaranteed to get pretty good tans,” Lamp said with a chuckle as he handed Shield a bottle of water before taking a swig of his own.

“So you mean to tell me you didn’t bring your spray on, pretty boy?” Shield joked.

“I only brought the necessities.”

“And what would those be?” Shield inquired.

“You’ll see.”

Shield gave one last, strong glance at his strike force. No, they weren’t a traditional flight team at all. All of these pilots came from different walks of life, various types of air forces and training. There were no coordinated uniforms: some wore the uniforms of the flight life they grew up in, others wore uniforms put together piece by piece from various sources, while some wore no uniforms at all. They simply wore what they had on when the go light came on. He, along with Lamp and Rikki, chose to wear the last of the green fatigue flight suits they were given when they first joined the Resistance. None of that mattered to Shield. The discipline, skill, and respect for the leadership was there. That’s all he required.

“I’m about to go to Command. You ready for this?”

“Not really, but am I going anyways, of course.”

The two lifted themselves up from the sand and headed towards the gathering. They milled through the landed attack aircrafts and made their way to the resource ship.

“I have to admit, that was the shortest aerial strike I’ve ever been on,” Lamp said to Shield as they walked up the massive ramp of the resource ship.

“It would have been the shortest failed campaign you would have been on if we hadn’t called the mission,” Shield informed Lamp as they walked through the narrow blue and black halls. “Trust me, I’ve seen attacks on well defended positions like this before and none of them ended well. We’re all that’s here, so there is no recovering from a total failed campaign. We have to pick our battles strategically – make our numbers count.”

The ceilings of the resource ship were low and the halls narrow. All the space of the ship was reserved for cramming as many resources in it as possible. The architects and industrial engineers of the ship had had to get creative in adding halls to navigate through, storage space, and minimal crew quarters. It was relatively dark, as there was also minimum lighting woven into the blue and black halls.

They sauntered around a few short halls and up an elevator before entering Strategic Command. The doors slid open to a half circle window and computer console where several cadets sat, overlooking the front of the ship. Dead center was the ship’s hologram table, where most command operations took place.

When they entered, Sub Commanders Canton and Hershel were standing at the holo table. Both men, in their mid-forties, stood around the table with erect confidence and calmness that years of experience had deposited into them. Every mission, regardless of the specifics, was the same to them because they knew what to do: their duty.

“Sub Commander Canton, how’s the condition of the resource ship?” Daniel called out as he and Lamp sauntered in.

“Wing Commander Shield. It survived the phase process perfectly fine. No damage occurred from today’s initial attack. Everything is intact and functional,” Sub Commander Canton responded in his almost regal tone as he shook Shield’s hand. Everything he said seemed intentionally polite.

“That’s good to hear. So where are we?”

“We just finished the assessment of today’s attack.”

“How many did we lose?” Daniel asked.

“Eight total. One from Rydel’s squadron, one from Max’s, one from Thor’s, one from Iri’s, Squadron, two from Minerva’s, and two from Arlo’s.”

Daniel sighed hard as he placed both hands on the holo table and leaned forward. “Names?”

“Shank, Alisa, and A’hmir, after the phase in. Then Hideo and Akira, Joao, Geoff, and Roman.”

“Hideo and Akira?” Daniel asked.

“Both brother and sister. They always flew tight,” Hershel added.

“Two of our best pilots from what Hershel told me?” Canton said.

“And Minerva’s best friends,” Shield informed them, pressing against the holo table and contemplating the dual-edged information that had just been given to him.

“That’s more than we predicted from the initial attack,” Lamp said.

“I have no idea what type of ammo they are using. It ate through the Pouncers like rocks through paper. Pouncers – the most rugged piece of metal ever to take the sky!” Daniel informed.

“Definitely not 30 cal.,” Lamp added.

“We’ve got personnel taking a look at the Pouncers, trying to determine what we’re dealing with,” Canton said.

“Good. Please let me know what they come up with,” Daniel said. “If the next attack goes like this we might have to take you two from command and place you back in the seat of a Pouncer.”

“As much as I miss being in an attack aircraft, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. There was no way of predicting the preparedness of the compound,” Canton added.

“This was supposed to be a one-day campaign that was supposed to take a few hours,” Hershel added.

“This is the hand we’ve been dealt, gentlemen, so we might as well make the best of it,” Daniel said.

“That being said, we arrived with all scheduled resources intact as well. One week of aircraft fuel, food, and water. Leadership damn sure didn’t expect us to have to survive for long on our own,” Herschel informed.

“In all essence, this is a one-way trip. If we survived initial phase in, we were expected to survive off any resources the compound held and then from there we would be on our own to scavenge the land and rebuild for ourselves,” Daniel said.

“I hope this siege doesn’t take more than one week,” Lamp said with questioning enthusiasm.

“You and me both,” Shield said. “Are all personnel accounted for?”

“Yes. There were a few post-phase symptoms reported, but all 200 ground troops and personnel pulled through OK,” Herschel reported.

“What about the reserve Pouncers?” Daniel asked.

“All twenty accounted for and in perfect condition.”

“OK, people. I’ve got 200 crew and ground troops, resources for the one week, sixty pilots now down to fifty-two, twenty reserve Pouncer Air Gun attack aircrafts, and a compound to take. Any input, concerns, strategic assessments, or suggestions would be greatly appreciated now.”

“I’m sure we should be able to take the compound in the next assault, but if we don’t, and this thing runs long, ammo may become a concern,” Lamp offered.

“How much do we have?” Shield asked.

“The initial load was for sixty Pouncers at any given time. Given we’ve lost eight, we’ve got maybe ten aerial assaults’ worth. The resource ship does carry enough ammo for all six batteries, for about three assaults, and there is the ammo for the ground troops: a few heavy weapons and assault rifles.”

“We’ll have to reassess everything after the next assault,” Shield said.

“Which brings up the next question. When will the next assault be?” Lamp asked.

Shield had already given it a lot of thought. He inhaled and exhaled heavily.

“We will have to attack tomorrow to continue to capitalize on our first strike. Now that they know we are here, we can’t give them too much breathing room.”

“So how are we going to strategize around those anti–air weapons?”

“I’m open to suggestions. Canton, did you manage to get a scan of the compound before the resource ship made some distance from the battle?” Shield asked.

“Yes. We managed to get a full outside holo of the compound and a bit of the surrounding area.”

“Pull it up.”

Canton motioned to a cadet behind him. A full 3D hologram schematic of the compound and surrounding area flickered up on the holo table. The men gathered around the table and collectively studied the green hologram.

“OK. Here, here, and here we see all wall-mounted batteries are firing on the east side of the compound. About two-thirds on the right, two up front and about one-third in the back,” Daniel said.

“Notice the explosion damage where the first and second batteries should be on the right?” Lamp pointed out.

“Yeah and the same damage on the front,” Herschel added.

“Looks like shell damage,” Canton said.

“So I’m guessing the compound had to deal with heavy air assault in this reality,” Daniel suggested.

“Hence the heavy preparedness with anti-air,” Lamp said.

“Let me point out to you people, there were a shit load of triple As inside the compound that weren’t even being used,” Daniel added. “I’m thinking if we initiate the main assault from the back of the compound, we’d have a better chance at success.”

“But the mountain range here doesn’t give us much room for acceleration or numbers,” Lamp pointed out.

“We’d have to send two, maybe three, ships at a time. Once they’ve flown past the back, they’d be wide open for attack from the batteries inside the compound.”

“It’d be like swimming through a swarm of bees for them.”

“Not if they don’t hear or see us coming,” Daniel pointed out.

“Could work, as long as each aircraft made their pass count,” Lamp said.

“I trust all of my pilots’ skills enough.”

“Still, it would be a very short attack run.”

“If we could take out at least the batteries on the front wall, it would open up a window for us to shell the damn place from a distance,” Shield said. “Then maybe this time we’d be lucky enough to bust a hole in the front gates, allowing access for Herschel Canton and the ground troops.

“We’d have to put the best shots on the first few runs. I’m sure after that they would compensate and re-strategize.”

“Agreed.”

“Who would you put up front? Sevalis, or Taylor, maybe?”

“Definitely would have to put Rikki, Minerva, Thor and Ezra up front. I’ll take one too.”

“That’s a lot of our leadership in the line of fire. If this strategy goes south, there will be a lot of battlefield promotions,” Lamp pointed out.

“I know, that’s why I didn’t put you or Rydel on the first assault. Someone would have to carry on the charge, but our best guns have to be upfront in order for this to work,” Daniel said.

“OK, sounds solid,” Lamp conceded.

“We’ll pre-op 0500,” Daniel said. “Now, gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me; I have to go check on my pilots.”

Lamp and Shield exited the resource ship

and strolled back down the ramp onto the sands.

“Do you think this campaign will last past one more assault?” Lamp asked as they made it to the bottom of the ramp.

“I certainly don’t hope so, but I’ve brought the best pilots in the Resistance. They’ll be up for whatever our destiny may be.”

“That being said, it’s a damn shame we lost both Hideo and Akira before the real fighting even got started. We could’ve really used their piloting skills for a run like tomorrows. How do you think Minerva’s taking losing both her best friends under her command?”

“She’s a pilot and an officer. She’ll get her feelings in perspective and fly her squadron to success like she knows how to.”

“Do you want to talk to her, or do you want me to send her group leader to do it?” Lamp offered.

“Talia? No, I’ll spare her the impassable task. I’ll do it. I would prefer your help scraping out for our permanent stay. Get with Rydel and check to see if there’s anything immediate we need to take note of.”

“I’m on it. I’ll see you at 0500,” Lamp said, walking off to find Rydel.

Shield walked toward a young pilot busy with the undercarriage of his aircraft. Mid-twenties, short buzz cut and military fit, he was dressed in brown and black flight fatigue pants and a brown T-shirt. He and his younger brother Nehemiah came from a group of pilots with strict military training. Unfortunately, there was a name on the list of killed pilots that came from that same group: Roman.

“Find anything interesting under there, Ezra?” Shield called out as he approached.

“Evening, Commander.” Ezra replied with his over pronounced Italian-Jersey accent. “Caught a piece of shrapnel from one of the Pouncers we lost today. Roman’s,” he said, subdued. “Just trying to get it out before it has a chance to bounce around and cause some unnecessary problems.”

His voice was strained as he stood on tippy toes to reach inside a hole slightly bigger than a fist.

“We lost a few good pilots today,” Shield reminded him. He motioned toward the hole in the pilot’s plane. “Probably a good idea. Otherwise, how are you feeling?”

Ezra turned to fully face Daniel, stood strong, and looked Shield in the eye.

“Just another day in the sky, Commander.” Then he turned and looked at the sands. “It’s hard to believe that this ball of sand and rock is home, but I’ll make do. I won’t complain, Commander. No one made me come here. Just give your orders and I’m with you.”

Daniel smiled, then reached out to shake the Ezra’s hand.

“Glad to have such a high caliber of pilot to fly with.”

“Pleasure’s all mine, sir.”

“Carry on,” Shield said, then walked away and left Ezra to his work on his aircraft.

Not too far from Ezra’s Pouncer, Rikki sat on the bottom of the ramp to the cargo bay of her Pouncer. Her long, brown, tom-boy ponytail played down the back of her green sleeveless halter top as usual. As long as he had known her, it had been hard to keep Rikki in anything but PT halter top, fatigue flight pants, and boots. If she ever wore a flight jacket, it was often found hanging around her waist. It was odd, seeing how naturally pretty she was: never any make up or manicured nails. She was naturally prom queen pretty. Shit, nothing about Rikki was manicured except her personality. He strolled towards her as he observed her fighting to put on a leather glove.

“Checking for calluses?” He asked with a smile. He knew what kind of response the poke would provoke.

“Daniel, you must be talking to the wrong woman,” she said as she tugged on the glove. “I don’t know how the hell this happened, but I grabbed the wrong damn pair of gloves before phase in.”

“You kept an extra pair of small gloves in your locker back home,” Shield said as he took a seat.

“Nah. Me, Akira, Joao, and Thor were playing a game of basketball before launch and we sat our damn gloves down on the same table.” Her eyes went distant as she replayed it in her head. Her hands slapped down on her knees. “We rushed out of there so fast when the go light came on and I must’ve grabbed Akira’s by mistake. Maybe I should go ask her. I don’t think Thor would have made that mistake with his big ogre hands.”

Daniel’s silence caught her attention. She looked up at Daniel, who was looking at her evenly.

“We lost Akira today,” he informed her.

“What?” Rikki said.

“Akira and Hideo were among the eight pilots we lost today.”

Rikki sat there in disbelief for a moment. She looked down at the ground, then suddenly snapped her head up.

“How in the hell did we lose Akira and Hideo? They were the best pilots in the wing next to me, you, and Lamp. Are we in trouble here, Daniel?”

“Don’t want you to worry about it much. We just got caught off guard. There was no way to expect what we were phasing into, or at least that’s what I’ve been told.”

“Who else did we lose?”

“Shank, Alisa, Joao, Roman, Geoff, and A’hmir.”

Rikki appeared to take it all in.

“Good pilots,” she said in a low, reflective, monotone voice.

“Yeah.” Daniel’s tone reflected hers.

“How is Minerva taking losing both her best friends in one day?”

“I haven’t had a chance to talk to her yet. Ain’t looking forward to it, but I’ll get around to it. I am the Wing Commander,” he finished with a sardonic smirk.

“I don’t know what I would do if I lost both you and Lamp in the same day, let alone at all. Then I’d have to lead these rookies,” she smiled.

“Don’t worry about that. Neither of us is going down in this ball of sand. Just wouldn’t be right,” he said. “Good flying today, as always.”

“You know you couldn’t have had a better pilot out here.”

“Don’t let your Group Commander hear that.”

“Lamp? He knows I’m the better pilot. That’s why he always has me on his wing.”

“That’s an ongoing debate I don’t think you two will ever settle. How are you feeling?”

She looked out upon the sands. “I’m good. All things considered. A little rest and I’ll be ready to jump back in the cockpit. That’s where I’m at home.”

Shield looked up the ramp and into the small cargo bay of Rikki’s Pouncer. He was reminded that the cargo bay under each pilot’s Pouncer would now serve as their personal quarters. A small cot folded from one of the walls and whatever personal affects the individual pilot deemed necessary to make themselves feel at home was all there was in there; rough living.

It almost didn’t seem fair. These pilots did the bulk of the leg work, but personnel and ground troops lived more comfortably than the pilots. Not much more comfortable, but they did get a bunk in group sleeping quarters inside the resource ship. All showers and bathrooms would be shared by the whole strike force, but personnel on the resource ship had access to the facilities pretty much when they felt like it. Not that any of these roughneck pilots would care if they had to take piss in the sand. Pouncer pilots had to be ready to fly out at a moment’s notice.

This arrangement did allow the pilots a little bit of privacy, at least. There were pros and cons. Every pilot had known what they were agreeing to and he admired them for being willing to make that choice.

“This will be your home now, literally,” Shield probed.

“Yeah – well, it’s not much of a step down from what I left anyway,” she said lightly.

“I commend all of you for having the courage to volunteer for such a mission – a one-way mission.”

“It took no more courage than you had to muster, Daniel,” she brushed off the compliment. Shield smiled back. “I’d fly with you into the pits of hell, Commander.”

“Before this is all done, we just might.”

“If this be our end, then that be our destiny,” she said.

“If this be our end…” he repeated.

As dusk turned to night, Daniel stumbled upon a group of pilots gathered around a fire, arguing at the top of their lungs about something. One pilot in particular, with an accent similar to Ezra’s, was very enthusiastic about making his point. He stood loosely, his arms flailing about from his brown, cut-off tee shirt.

“No, I bet you, if you ask anyone about that assault they will tell you that Roman flew through two squadrons, and, by himself, took out over half of their aircrafts before the rest of our squadron caught up with him.”

“That’s not what I heard, Nehemiah.” Thor, dressed in blue and black flight fatigues, contended. “I heard it was one and a half squadrons.”

His ponytail was just as long as Rikki’s, but muscle screamed from every part of his 6’1” frame. His body builder figure and catwalk worthy looks definitely earned him his name, but it was his style of flying that actually did.

“Ridiculous. I was there. It was hands down the best piloting I have ever seen. Either way,” Nehemiah corrected as he held up a beer. “Here’s to the flying dead.”

“Here’s to the flying dead,” the other pilots responded, beers raised high into the air.

“I see you gentlemen managed to bring what’s important with you,” Shield referenced the beers as he walked up. “Nehemiah, I was talking to your brother earlier.”

“Hey, Commander. Yeah, I tried to convince Ezra into hanging out over here, but he didn’t seem too interested.” He pointed to the beer. “And this… I figured I may never know the taste of beer again, so might as well bring as much of the best parts of home with me as I could.”

He reached into a cooler next to him and tossed Daniel one. “Here, Commander, have one.”

Nehemiah was a little shorter than his older brother Ezra, but at a glance it was obvious they were brothers.

“I think I will,” Daniel said as he cracked it open. “Good thinking.”

He turned the beer up.

“What were you guys speaking so enthusiastically about?”

“We was just reminiscing on some of the flights Roman, Akira and Hideo had,” Nehemiah said.

“So you heard about them? Word travels fast, I see.”

“Nah, I was right next to Roman when he… you know, bought it. Me and Ezra both were. Minerva told me about Hideo and Akira.” He fell silent for a moment. “Hey, Commander, let me ask you something. How long do you think we’ll be here? I mean, really. I know they said forever, but what’s the possibility that we might be able to go home? I’m just asking.”

“Gentlemen, get settled in. I hope you like the beach, because we are going to have to get used to a lot of sand.” Daniel said. “I know you’re making light of everything, Nehemiah, but there is no going back home.”

“Not a big deal, boss – been wanting to work on my tan anyway,” Nehemiah said then burst out in laughter. The group followed in laughter.

“Make sure to let Lamp borrow some of your sun tan lotion. He forgot his,” Shield said, then took another swig of beer. He took a brief moment to reflect on the road ahead. “I don’t know. It’s possible that after we take the compound, get settled, and have a chance to explore further out in this world, that we may find some place, some city that is not as destroyed. Maybe some sign of a civilization that is still left. I wouldn’t focus on going back to our reality. We have to face to the truth of the matter fast – that this is home.” Shield stood. “Fly with me. Gentlemen, enjoy your beer.”

“Yeah, you too, Commander.” Nehemiah said.

The group returned to their enthusiastic conversation as Shield navigated the maze of attack aircrafts and pilots towards a conversation he hadn’t been looking forward to having. Their voices faded into the distance as he found Minerva’s Pouncer. The cargo bay ramp was down, but she was not outside.

He stepped to the front of it and looked up into the bay. A faint sniffle echoed from within. Slowly he stepped up the ramp where he found Minerva facing the far wall, her long, black, semi-curly hair down. She was still in her brown and black flight pants and halter top. Her flight jacket hung from her waist, and her arms were holding her body. He was surprised she hadn’t chosen to wear her old green and blacks. Most of his memories of her short, small frame were in those. She glanced over her shoulder as Shield’s footsteps came to a stop.

“It’s Daniel, Minerva.”

“Hey, Commander,” she said.. He could tell she had been crying.

“Akira and Hideo were great pilots.”

“The best.”

“Good friends, too.”

“The best.”

“Listen, I know you, so I’m not going to make you endure this conversation longer than I know you want to. You are a great squadron leader and a damn good pilot. I know you did your best. You know you did your best. You know Hideo and Akira did their best. Don’t stress yourself over uncontrollables. We assess factors as they arrive and react. If Hideo and Akira got caught out in the open, you know that, whatever the circumstances were, it would have been the same for any other pilot out here.”

“Easy to know, but hard to accept. Don’t worry about me, Commander,” she said under a sniffle. “I’m here with you.”

“I know you are. If you need to talk, I’m here; not as your Commander, but as your friend.”

“I know.”

“Fly with me, Minerva,” Daniel said as he stared hard at her back. “Get some rest. All the squadron leaders will be meeting at 0500.”

“I’ll be there.”

“I know.”

As he left Minerva’s Pouncer, he thought to himself that all of these pilots, these people, were the bravest he’d ever met. No one was forced to be here. They were all volunteers, knowing that they were on a one-way mission to a reality they knew nothing about. They had left everything they’d ever known behind – friends, family, memories, everything that was familiar to them – for the greater good.

The funny thing about it is that they weren’t even quite sure what the greater good was. They had only been told that it was of the utmost importance that they take and hold that compound. Even after the mission of taking the compound was completed, they didn’t know what lay ahead.

If they couldn’t take this compound soon, he’d better start planning for long term survival: food, shelter, fuel, and living. Just existing isn’t enough. All of these soldiers would need something to live for.

It would be his responsibility to create something for them from this vast nothingness of sand.

Eventually Minerva found enough mental strength to leave her Pouncer and present herself to her fellow pilots. She didn’t want their minds on her too long, so she thought she’d just go ahead and get it over with. With effort, Minerva worked her way through the wild garden of Pouncers and pilots and eventually spotted Thor, Talia, and the brothers corralled around a bonfire. These were pilots she had grown close to over time.

Might as well be among friends. What else was there to do?

This empty place would leave her more than enough time to sulk.

“Hey, Minerva. Finished painting your room?” Nehamiah asked nonchalantly as Minerva walked up, arms folded.

"Hmph -that cubbyhole?" She responded with a lazy smirk as she found a seat next to Nehemiah. "I skipped the painting and went straight to hanging curtains. You know me - a real live Martha Stewart type." The group giggled. "What are you guys yapping about?"

“We’ve been debating whether or not we’re going to dig a pool over there and pray for rain,” Ezra said.

“Does it rain here?” Talia asked rhetorically.

“Of course not. Look at all that sand. There’s no green here,” Ezra pointed out.

"No green except for you, Nehemiah- rookie." Thor interjected. The group chuckled at the clever statement.

“You’re right. I am green. That’s because every time I get behind the trigger, I’m all money,” Nehemiah responded.

“Good come back, Nehemiah,” Minerva said lazily. She was happy she’d joined them. She needed the light-hearted banter. Pouncer pilots were always looking for a way to humor themselves. Minerva knew Nehemiah was always guaranteed to deliver.

“But really, how are you feeling?” Thor asked.

“I’m good. As long as I have a Pouncer stick to get behind, I’m going to be good.” She said, then gestured to Ezra. “Toss me one of those.”

“That’s what I’m talking about. A Pouncer pilot till whatever be our destiny,” Ezra encouraged as he tossed her a beer.

Nehemiah wrapped his arm around Minerva’s shoulders and pulled her close to him. She laid her head on her friend’s shoulder.

“We know you’re good, buddy, and we’re going to make sure you stay that way,” Ezra informed her. “That’s why we’re going to keep a bunch of these glued to our mouths as much as we can. New place – same games.”

“Thanks, guys.” Minerva meant it sincerely.

“We’ve got good leadership and the resistance workhorse of the skies. As long as we do our duty, we’ll be alright,” Ezra pointed out.

Talia, who was otherwise quiet, leaned in and joined the conversation. “I was about 100 yards from Geoff’s plane when he got hit. I saw the gunfire coming, thought his Pouncer would take a couple of bumps and fly off. I blinked and it was a ball of fire in my windshield. I hate to admit it, but I froze for a second. I never saw a Pouncer go down so quick like that.”

“Kill that noise, Talia,” Thor interjected. “Tomorrow I’ll get behind the stick of my Pouncer, rev it up, fly to that compound and make sure I cause a lot of damage before I get back out of it. That’s all any of us should be expecting and if Valhalla come, then that be my end.”

“Then that be our destiny,” Ezra finished for him.

“Don’t play me short like some nervous fingered rookie, Thor,” Talia corrected him. “You know I’ll fly my Pouncer into the pits of Hell, just like any other Pouncer pilot. What I was about to point out is that we might have to help leadership come up with another strategy to help get around it, whatever it is we’re dealing with.”

“I agree with Talia,” Ezra said. “One thing is for certain, we’ll all need to fly with every bit of skill and talent that we ever had to learn on this mission.”

“Wouldn’t come with anything less,” Nehemiah stated.

“Yeah, you better not, little brother.”

“You just worry about your Pouncer stick over there, big brother.”

“I am worried about my Pouncer stick. I taught you everything you know.”

“Yeah, you wish, rookie.” They all laughed at the brothers’ exchange. It was common. “But yous guys are wrong about one thing. This ain’t a mission. This is life. After a mission, we get to go home,” Nehemiah said. He stretched out his arms. “This is it.”

“Then this be our destiny,” Minerva said. “It doesn’t matter. Daniel will make it work. If it’s one thing he’s good at, it’s Pouncer business.”

Everyone heard the tinge of sarcasm at the end of Minerva’s statement, but none of them understood it.

Chapter Four

Avahloh stared out upon compound officers, soldiers, personnel, and Grim Reaper soldiers. From the platform in the compound courtyard, he glanced over different ranks, divisions, and pedagogies. They must be one now. One thousand-plus sets of eyes stared up at him.

“For those of you who don’t know me, I am Grim Reaper Avahloh Crest. Compound Ruin Thomas Morrison is dead. Grim Reaper 1st Narce Monsoo is dead, as well as the entire force of Grim Reaper Extermination Team 1. I am in charge now. All promotions in rank will flow upward as they should. There will be no major changes in duties or operations of this facility. Continue your duties as you know to do best.

“As it stands, we are in the middle of an aerial campaign against this facility which takes precedence over everything else. We will be victorious in the defense of this city and its personnel. We will be successful because this is not the first aerial assault we have defended against. I will give my orders and my orders will be followed with Grim Reaper discipline, even by those outside of Grim Reaper ranks. These are my expectations. I ask that you fight with me, as I have done many times with those of you that know me, and as I will fight just as hard with those who have not fought with me. I will be strict, I will be fair, and I will lead you.”

Kiel, along with Sub Commanders Coto and Reik, stood on the platform behind Avahloh. He wondered if Avahloh would be successful. This man seemed very confident, as he had experienced with most Grim Reapers. A Narce was one thing, but he wondered if the icy coldness of Grim Reaper perspective would translate into effective leadership and the defenses of this compound. Hopefully not. Hopefully it would prove to be the direct line of his own promotion to Ruin.

For the first time in his career as a Corporation soldier, Avahloh was taking quarters away from other Reapers. He was taking over Morrison’s office. As he walked in, he looked around and took note of all the awards and accolades that helped remind a man of his accomplishments and fuel his thirst to be recognized. Avahloh thought there was too many. He also thought that was one of Morrison’s flaws as a leader. He wanted to be seen and acknowledged. What would a Ruin need of such things? He knew the man was a narcissist, but while he wasn’t the best leader he had ever seen, Avahloh couldn’t deny that he was an effective leader. He wouldn’t have been the Ruin of this particular compound if he hadn’t been. Avahloh also knew a rabid thirst for power and ambition is what got a Ruin to that rank.

Avahloh removed the accolades and unnecessary items from the walls and looked for what would be necessary for him to lead effectively from this room. Everything else must go.

When he was done, he retired to what was supposed to be his new sleeping quarters. He took off the inverted claws and gloves. He removed the particulate and Reaper mask. He unlatched the chest plate with the human skull harnessed to it and let it fall to the ground. He took off the rest of his Grim Reaper body armor and walked into the bathroom bare. Not a Reaper, but only Avahloh. 6’9”, 320 lbs. of man and muscle stood bare and stared at itself in the mirror.

Every night he took note of his long, brown, stringy hair, the fading nicks and scratches on his face, his herculean build and definition, his hard, war-stricken brown eyes and asked, was he the best he could be today? How he could make himself better and more effective tomorrow? Not with the sense of doubt, but with the understanding that every night, when all the armor came off, there stood just a man and a man must take an honest inventory of himself if he is to make the most of the lessons, talents, and abilities he has gained over the years.

Every night, Avahloh, unlike most men, was able to answer honestly to the eyes that stared back at him. Yes. That, above anything, is what made him different from any other Grim Reaper within the Ranks.

With that acknowledgement, he turned on the shower, set it to a comfortable temperature and then stepped in. As the water splashed over his body, he let his mind focus on the task ahead. He had been placed in a position of absolute leadership. Everything that happens next will unfold as a direct result of the decisions he will make and ask others to make.

He took the time take inventory of his pros, his cons. He reflected on his past experiences of leadership. He recalled his earlier experiences, when he was a bad leader and when he judged himself a good leader. He took inventory of his failures, his flaws, his losses, and victories. He also reflected on the leaders of his past and those he held in high esteem. The closest experience was of course 1st Narce Monsoo, who was a rare good leader, even as vicious as he was in his duty as a Grim Reaper Narce. He took inventory of the lessons he’d learned so that he could remove as much of his ego as possible and lead effectively now.

After he deemed himself clean and relaxed, he stepped out of the shower and lay naked in his bed. He had learned that this was the best way to gain the maximum amount of good rest to wake up refreshed and relaxed. As he lay there, he contemplated on the enemy. He could recall from the video that there had been approximately twelve squadrons, roughly 100 attack aircrafts to deal with. Avahloh was proud that his design had once again effectively fought off another attack. Months ago he had presented the specialized compressed 30 mm round concept to 1st Narce Monsoo. It was accepted, implemented? and continued to prove itself. He could imagine that their leader was getting ready for their next assault and analyzing what they would have to deal with. Where would they insert their next attack? What would be their angle of attack, after tasting the overwhelming batteries of the compound anti-air guns?

More importantly, Avahloh contemplated on how he would attack his enemy mentally. To do this, he would have to know the strength of their leadership. Who is leading them, is it man or woman? And what kind of man or woman is he or she?

Chapter Five

At 0500 hours, Daniel Shield found himself standing in front of his group and squadron leaders under a shaded area near the resource ship. All of them were effective, hard-edged, skilled pilots that he trusted with any of his orders. A small, green hologram of the compound and surrounding area sprung up from a small, circular device on the ground behind him.

“In two hours you will be flying your people back towards the compound for another aerial assault. I’ve decided it’s best to capitalize on any damage or disorganization we might have caused yesterday in hopes that we can capture this compound quickly and efficiently. We’ve devised a strategy that will hopefully help us do this. Group Leader Lamp will explain the details of today’s attack.”

Lamp stepped forward. “Because of the heavy concentration of anti-air defense we encountered during yesterday’s assault, we have decided to split the whole wing into two groups. Group 1 will attack from the Southeastern part of the sky…”

“But sir, isn’t there a mountain range on the south and south east?” Max asked.

“Exactly, that is why we’re choosing this vector of attack. We’re hoping the mountains will actually mask our approach, both sound and radar.”

“I might be wrong, but I didn’t notice much room to build up a good attack speed between the mountain range and the compound,” Arlo queried.

“Good observation, Arlo. We’re hoping the enemy will think this as well and not expect an aerial assault from this direction.”

“If you noticed, that’s where the least concentration of anti-air was and probably why,” Daniel said.

“Stop with all the input, fellas,” Group leader Talia said. “You’re making my squadron look bad.”

The pilots laughed.

“No, those were actually good observations. Attack Group 1 will consist of Squadrons 1 to 3. The remaining Squadrons will fall into the second attack group. The first group will have to navigate through this narrow canyon here,” Lamp pointed out on the map, “then fly down the side of the mountain range, keeping your distance no more than 10 feet off the mountain to avoid radar. This means that once you punch out of the canyon, you’ll have to brake quickly and brake south.

“Wait, you want us to completely break no more than 10 feet outside the canyons exit?” Rikki exclaimed.

“Talk about a tight rope!” Nehemiah added.

“Yes. In order to avoid the risk of radar detection, that is what’s required.” Lamp informed. He watched as gauged the pilot’s body language. He waited a moment before he decided to continue. “Once you reach 100 ft. above sea level, that’s attack altitude. That’s your punch point. You level off the mountain and punch towards the compound. Now, because the Canyon is so narrow, the initial attack run will have to be one aircraft at a time. Your objective is to take out at least one forward anti-air gun on your pass.”

“On that kind of run, that would be like trying to swat a fly while you’re sprinting,” Squadron Leader Thor added.

“That’s why we’ve got the best pilots leading the attack. The first few runs will consist of Rikki, Minerva, you, and Ezra. Wing Commander Shield will bring up the rear. I will lead Group 2. After the forward guns are destroyed, we will enter from the North with a staggered arrival time and shell the hell out of their front gates from a safe distance, below the range of the active anti-air guns. Herschel will be waiting here with the resource ship and ground forces. They’ll be prepped, ready, and listening for the go ahead to join the assault once we pry their gates open.”

“Alright, people; brief your pilots. Attack will assemble in two hours,” Shield said. “Fly with me, and let’s go get us a compound!”

“Into the pits of hell!’ The pilots returned.

“If that be our end…” Lamp screamed.

“…then that is our destiny!” Everyone finished in unison.

The pre-op ended and the pilots departed, each going to do whatever they needed to do to get mentally prepared for the next assault. Shortly after, Shield found himself wandering amongst the Pouncers in shallow thought. A voice snapped him out of his unconscious meditation.

“Hey, Wing Commander.” A ground troop from the resource ship called out to Daniel as he approached. “Sub Commander Coto would like to see you in Central Command. He says he has something to show you before the next assault.”

“Thank you. I’ll be there shortly,” Daniel responded. After taking another long glance at his pilots and their Pouncers, he began to make his way to Central Command. Once he arrived, Coto, Canton and Lamp were again standing around the Holo table. All of their eyes were staring down at the table with great interest. Shield stepped in and all the men glanced up at him.

“Gentlemen, what’s the cause for the second gathering?” Shield asked as he made his way in.

Coto reached down and picked up a large caliber bullet round and showcased it in front of himself. Shield threw Lamp a bewildered look. Lamp held his gaze as he rubbed his chin, his eyes saying wait till you hear this.

“This was retrieved from the inside of one of the Pouncers yesterday. Luckily a misfire,” Coto began. “I had the weapons engineers take a look at it. This is interesting.”

“Interesting is not the word,” Lamp whispered.

“These are what were being fired at you from the compound. The engineers said they have never seen anything like it before,” Canton continued.

“What’s special about it?” Shield asked as he inspected the round.

Canton presented it horizontally. "This is fired from anti- air gun like any normal 30 mm round. However, once it makes contact with a target -" Canton pulled the front and the back and the round extended. He pointed to the back of the extended portion of the round. "- a second ignition is set off mere microseconds after, propelling the round at twice the speed of the initial firing."

“Like a high powered, ballistic battering ram. That is how it pierces the Pouncer’s hull. But that’s not all, “Herschel informed. They already had Shield’s attention, but more?

“Once the shell penetrates the hull, two explosions go off. One from the front part of the shell, the other from the secondary part of the shell. So, even if the first and second stages don’t pierce the Pouncer, the third and fourth stages should rip a hole through the compromised portion of the hull,” Coto said as he illustrated.

Shield leaned against the table and held the round in his hand.

“Holy crap. Who the hell made something like this?” He asked, perplexed. “No wonder our Pouncers folded so easily.”

“I hate to admit it, but it’s actually genius, right,” Lamp admitted.

“I would agree with you if we weren’t on the other side of these damn things,” Shield said.

“That compound is prepared,” Herschel interjected. “At the rate those shells were coming at you, I would guess they are not limited on artillery resources.”

“Point taken,” Shield said.

“It was like being hit by a hurricane,” Lamp said. “I’ve never been in the middle of so much gunfire from one source target.”

The plans were laid. The mission already laid out for the pilots, their enthusiasm quelled.

“This is what we’re up against,” Shield said as he worked the round in his hand.

“At least.” Coto said. “We don’t know what other defenses they have. They didn’t have to use anything else to push off our attack.”

“Another point taken,” Shield admitted. “How do we tread lightly and fly hard at the same time?”

“Once you figure it out, follow up your answer with abracadabra,” Lamp said.

Shield thought a moment more on the specialized compressed round. What a literal bombshell to drop on him right before another attempted siege.

After assessing all the factors in all strategic honesty, he stood up abruptly. “This is the hand we’ve been dealt, gentlemen. We can’t afford to keep our Pouncer wings folded for too long this early in the fight. Let’s adjust accordingly and let’s fly.” He nodded. “Gentlemen.”

“Commander.” Hershel and Canton nodded back and let Shield and Lamp take their leave.

The aircrafts of Attack Group 1

flew almost in silence the whole way until the mountain range came into view in the distance.

“Let’s give ‘em hell for Shank, Roman, Hideo, Akira, Joao, A’hmir, Geoff, and Alisa,” Ezra screamed into his com. The whole wing erupted in verbal agreement.

“Attack Group 1, line up for our attack run,” Shield instructed. His mind was still on the compressed shells Coto had shown him earlier, but he couldn’t let it shake him.

Pouncers shifted out of their different formations into a single file line. “Rikki, you got this?” He asked as Attack Group 1 came up on the mountain range.

“There’s a reason you put me in front, Commander,” she reminded.

The aircrafts flew over the mountain range and down into a gorge that curved into a narrow canyon. The rocky, unpredictable walls were nothing for the agile nature of the Pouncer Air Guns to handle. Slicing in and out of elevation and plane, they navigated the sharp turns and low passes until the end of the canyon was in view.

“Here we go. Pilots, watch your height going down the mountain. Don’t get too loose with your stick and remember to punch it with all you got once you reach attack altitude. Good hunting,” Shield instructed.

Avahloh stood at the edge of the top of the compound’s front wall,

eyes closed and ears listening out in the distance. For the past hour, all he heard was the howling wind in front of him and pre-battle preparation from the compound at his back. He knew that if an attack was coming, it was likely to come early.

He glanced back at the expansive compound and the numerous anti-air guns pointed towards the sky. He was not there, but he was sure the attack would resemble the first one. He knew his enemy still had to feel them out. He was looking forward to the next battle. The winds would carry the sound of their concentrated strike force to his ears miles before they were in view, like the humming of bees in his ear.

For an hour he had heard nothing, but he would stand there an hour longer if he had to. Just as that thought crossed his mind, a faint hum off in the distance in front of him caught his attention.

“Ahhh, there they are.”

Rikki burst out of the canyon’s exit, hit her air brakes,

and threw her agile Pouncer Air Gun into an abrupt downward flight. She jostled with her stick, constantly adjusting her height, as the uneven surface of the mountain raced past her windshield. She threw a quick glance at her elevation. The punch elevation was approaching. She braced herself for her solo first pass.

“None of you mother fuckers better crash and leave me out there by myself for too long,” she said.

“We’re right behind you, Rikki,” Minerva’s voice came from her com.

“You better be,” Rikki said. “Guns hot. I’m punching it.”

Her aircraft abruptly flipped horizontal to a stop and Rikki punched it. The aircraft rocketed away from the mountain range as it accelerated. No anti-air gun fire shot out at her as the compound drew closer. If this plan went as it was supposed to, they would be several aircrafts into the attack before the compound had a chance to react.

Rikki watched her speed climb and hoped she would reach attack speed before she reached the compound. Just as she was passing the walls of the compound, she reached attack speed, soared over countless batteries below and searched for her target a mile ahead.

“There, that one will do.”

The front walls of the compound approached rapidly. She squeezed her finger and let loose one of her 6 Pouncer 1 siege missiles. The missile quickly found its target and destroyed a forward wall anti-air gun. Rikki soared over the compound’s front wall, then curved her Pouncer into a steep skyward climb.

The explosion on his left caught Avahloh off guard as he watched Rikki’s plane fly past him overhead.

“What the hell?”

He turned to his side to see fire rise into the air and another attack aircraft fly over the compound. Another gun on the front wall exploded. The compound below erupted in a view of activity. Avahloh casually looked at the Pouncer attack aircrafts entering his air space, casually turned back to the desert in front of the compound, then turned and walked towards an elevator. He promptly made his way to Central Command where Kiel and the rest of the Command Team awaited.

Minerva and Daniel were the last to punch off the mountain. Minerva’s Pouncer and the compound sped Daniel’s way as he pushed his Pouncer as hard as he could. Surprisingly, he was catching up to Minerva’s Pouncer too quickly.

“Minerva, pick up your speed,” Daniel said as his Pouncer gained on hers. She should have been well ahead of him.

“I’m pushing it, Commander,” she said as their planes soared over the compound walls and entered compound air space.

“Not fast enough, pilot. Pick it up. At that speed they’ll be able to track your Pouncer.” He glanced down and noticed two batteries rotating to do just that.

“I’m trying, Commander.”

“I’m serious; you’re going to get shot down at that speed.”

“Damn it, I’m trying, Daniel!” She screamed, but Daniel knew it was too late.

“Shit,” he whispered, then jerked his Pouncer on a quick downward curve into the compound. He was so low that he was within the compound walls, dodging poles and small buildings. He quickly located the batteries that were bearing down on Minerva and opened up on them with Pouncer 1 missiles and turret fire. Debris sped his way as they exploded in front of him, causing Shield to jerk his Pouncer into a quick right-left, bob and weave through the debris. In front of him, the compound front walls sped his way.

“FUUUUCCCKKK!” He screamed as he quickly attempted to put on the air brakes. His Pouncer flipped vertical 20 feet from the front walls, then broke north – mere feet from Minerva’s intersecting Pouncer.

“Shit!” She screamed as she was pulling the trigger. She jerked her Pouncer right to avoid Shield’s Pouncer as the missile took off. It soared away and hit the wall just off the side of its intended anti-air gun.

“I missed!” She screamed as her Pouncer soared over the compounds walls.

“Minerva, are you all right?” Shield’s voice came from her com.

“Shit, my missile was ineffective.”

“Are you OK?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, Commander.”

“It’s OK. Brush it off and get your head back in the game.”

“Copy, Commander.”

“Swing around and get ready for our second run. Everybody on me.”

Pull up the attack on the front monitor.”

The monitor flashed on and displayed sections of the compound. Avahloh watched as aircraft after aircraft flew in from behind his compound and inserted individual seek and destroy missions on anti-air guns. Remaining guns changed position to face the attack.

“Leave the forward guns in their direction.”

“Most of the forward guns have been destroyed.”

“As well as the back guns I’m assuming, since these aircrafts continue to enter compound airspace.” The cadet had no response. “Leave the remaining forward most guns in the direction they are facing.”

“Yes, 1st Narce.”

“Interesting angle of attack,” Kiel noted.

“That it is. Very creative.”

“How are we going to respond?”

“Inform any soldier on the ground with a hand weapon to shoot at them.”

Kiel turned to him, shocked. “No disrespect, sir, but was that command serious?”

Avahloh tapped the com on his particulate.

“This is 1st Narce Avahloh. Any Grim Reaper in the field with his heavy weapon, open fire on all low flying, attacking planes.”

Kiel looked at the monitor and immediately noticed streams of Reaper Gatling gun artillery light up the screen. To his surprise, the attacking aircrafts scrambled to compensate.

“They are flying so low, simple bullets will be effective,” Avahloh needlessly informed.

“Yes, 1st Narce,” Kiel turned and gave the order.

Avahloh continued to watch intently without movement.

Our turn, Group 2,”

Lamp said into his com as Group 2 sped toward the compound. “Let’s blow a lot of shit up and not disappoint our partners.”

As the group got closer, they began to spread out into a horizontal formation.

“Begin to slow your speed. Be careful not to slow down so much you stall, damn it.”

“Lamp, there are still a few anti-air guns on the front wall,” Shield’s voice shot through Lamp’s com. “Minerva missed hers and I was unable to get a missile off.”

“Got you, Commander. No worries. A few is not a problem,” Lamp responded. The aircrafts began to slow till they were almost hovering. “Rydel and Nehemiah, you think you can handle them if they become a problem?”

“Not a problem,” Rydel’s voice came back from the com.

“Thank you, good sirs. Everybody else, focus your missiles on the original targets. Weapons free,” Lamp ordered.

Pouncer missiles sped towards the compound as the aircrafts of Attack Group 2 approached from a safe distance. Missile after missile pummeled the compound’s front wall.

Avahloh watched on screen as Group 2 attacked his compound

just outside of and below anti-air gun range. The entire room shook and lights flickered as parts of the compound wall began to crumble under the attack. Personnel scrambled around the command room, relaying orders and reacting to the attack raging on outside.

Avahloh simply stood quietly and calmly, staring at the attack. Kiel looked at him with concern. Did he not know his compound was currently being pummeled? Maybe he wasn’t as ready for this command as he thought. It looked like he had frozen up already. Kiel turned to Sub-Commander Coto to give a command.

“Delay any order you’re about to give, Commander,” Avahloh said in his normal, even tone. The statement caught Kiel off guard. “I’m very aware of everything going on.”

“I wasn’t sure, 1st Narce,” Kiel admitted.

“Why aren’t the remaining forward guns firing?”

“I’m not sure, sir,” Kiel admitted. He motioned to Reik and repeated the question. “Why aren’t the forward guns firing?”

“Gun one is jammed and there is no one at the others. All personnel turned their efforts inward toward the concentration of fighting. I’ve already sent a team to the guns,” Reik informed.

“How soon before they’re back up?” Avahloh asked.

Reik turned and tapped his ear com. He held an inaudible conversation for a brief moment before turning back to Avahloh and Kiel. “The guns will be up momentarily, sir.”

“Excellent. Let me know when they are available and tell them to hold off attack until I give the order.”

“Yes, 1st Narce.”

“Is there something in particular you have in mind, 1st Narce?” Kiel asked.

Avahloh leaned in close to the hologram.

“Give me a flat view of sector 4 of the attack on the table.” Avahloh ordered.

Reik tapped a few buttons on the table and the hologram shrank away from view. It was replaced with active video on the glass view screen of the table. Avahloh reached forward and targeted one aircraft as he touched the screen. The image enlarged and tracked the plane’s movement.

“That is their leader,” he said with great assuredness.

“Should we shoot him, I mean, it down?” Kiel asked.

Avahloh tapped the screen, freezing the image of Shields aircraft, then enlarged the cockpit. He finally had a clear view of this strike team’s leader.“ It is he, Commander, and no.”

“But if we destroy his plane, it would strike a major blow to their leadership and ability to coordinate.”

“But we need to know what will follow after his commands are destroyed if we are to hold this compound definitively. We need to see how strong his pedagogy is. No, I need to have a conversation with leadership. Are there any personnel at the munitions pile at inner gun…” Avahloh’s hand traced the compound schematic. “Inner gun 14?”

“No, but there is a Grim Reaper team nearby; team 3,” Reik informed.

“Even better.” Avahloh tapped his particulate com. “Team Leader 3. This is 1st Narce. Blow up munitions piles 14 and 15.” Avahloh straightened and turned to the cadet behind him. “After Team 3 destroys the piles, order all anti-air weapons to cease fire.”

“Yes, sir.” A voice answered back in the distance.

“I beg your pardon?” Coto exclaimed. “Why the hell would we destroy valuable resources?” Coto’s voice echoed throughout the Command Center. “We’re also about to leave ourselves vulnerable? I don’t think I agree with that order, 1st Narce.”

“A reasonable disagreement, Sub-Commander, but give me an opportunity to prove it fruitful,” Avahloh replied.

“Delay that order, Cadet,” Coto screamed out to the cadet.

The cadet looked up, confused and unhappy that he had been caught up in this particular difference of opinion. Kiel, hands behind his back, casually stepped back and away from the table. Reik’s face turned pale.

Avahloh looked up at Coto.

“Cadet, if you do not follow my last order I will hold you responsible, not your Commanding Officer.” The cadet got busy on his com, relaying Avahloh’s order. “Sub-Commander, endure me this one time.”

Coto did not respond right away. He knew in all truth that he really did not have a choice and suddenly realized it was probably in his best interest.

“Of course, 1st Narce,” he eventually said with obvious contempt.

Everyone could hear Reik exhale. Kiel casually stepped back up to the table. Avahloh returned his gaze to the table’s screen.

“I have to admit, 1st Narce, I don’t understand either,” Kiel admitted with a whisper.

“You will in a moment, Commander.”

On the screen a humungous explosion of fire ascended into the air. On the outside all gun fire ceased.

Shield looked out of his canopy at the rising plume of fire.

“Who hit that?” He asked.

“No idea, Commander,” a voice came back

“What’s going on, Commander?” Ezra asked.

“Someone just bought us a hell of a break,” Daniel said.

“I know they’re not giving up all ready?” Rikki asked.

“No, I doubt that.” Shield said. “But there’s definitely a disconnect down there. Lamp, you guys seeing this?”

“Yeah, looks like we just got lucky.”

“That explosion obviously took out power to the anti-air guns. Whatever the reason, we need to take full advantage of this down time. Group 2, keep your formation and advance forward. Just plow the hell out of them. Group 2, head on attack. On me.”

Avahloh watched the aircraft on the screen carefully.

“Order the front guns to target 60 degrees north of the front attack force and the back guns at 80 degrees forward,” he said evenly. “Continue to hold fire until I give the order.”

“Yes, sir,” Reik responded.

He watched as the planes in compound airspace sped to take advantage of an apparently defenseless target. Their guns lit up the screen as they approached. He watched as the second group slowly encroached from the north. He waited until they were completely within compound air-space. As the second to last planes rolled over the compound wall line, he smiled.

“Fire all batteries,” Avahloh ordered.

The compound again erupted with anti-air gun fire. The remaining front guns began to shoot and took out two planes furthest back.

Looks like we jumped out of the frying pan too soon,” Lamp said.

“Group 2, evasive maneuvers.”

Group 2 began to split formation, but quickly found themselves caged in from the back. The only way for them to go was forward.

“Don’t lose your cool, pilots, flow through,” Shield commanded.

As they did so, the back guns opened up, creating a wall of gun fire and leaving the entire strike force wide open to the inner anti-air guns.

“Commander, that got us caged in,” Rikki announced as she swung her Pouncer around and was greeted by gunfire from the back wall.

“Whatever was broken down there got fixed real quickly,” Daniel said as he swerved in and out of gun fire. As Group 2 scattered forward and Group 1 scattered north, they quickly found themselves dodging each other’s planes – and exactly where Avahloh wanted them.

“Gentlemen, it’s real thick down here,” Nehemiah pointed out.

“All aircrafts, brake north! Brake north!” Daniel screamed.

The planes turned 90 degrees and shot skyward. Unfortunately, the forward momentum of one aircraft was too much and it slammed into the wall of gun fire and exploded.

“Shit!” Shield screamed out.

Strike force planes sped relentlessly upward, trying to escape. Not all were successful. Another plane erupted in flames.

“Whose Pouncer was that?” Shield screamed out.

“I think that was Ivan. Shit, that was Ivan’s Pouncer,” a voice responded in the com.

“Break off attack. Flow through this shit, people,” Shield said.

Again Daniel found his team mismatched with the overwhelming fire power of the compound’s air defenses. He looked at the crumbled front wall of the compound and decided they could come back and capitalize on it, but not today.

“All wings get some altitude and exit compound airspace. We’ve caused enough damage today. Let’s keep enough of us alive to come back and capitalize on it.”

Avahloh was victorious in his first defense of the compound.

Still yet, he simply stood at the holo table unmoved, staring at the retreating attack aircrafts on the screen.

“Your strategy proved successful,” Kiel said, pleased and loud enough for Coto and Reik to hear.

“Thank you, Sub-Commander Coto, for allowing me to prove my strategy. I hope you found it fruitful,” Avahloh said without looking up.

Coto stood uncomfortably speechless for a moment, then cleared his throat.

“I understand the strategy. Forgive me for questioning too early,” Coto replied with obvious great effort. “1st Narce, Commander.” Coto gave a slight and courteous nod. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to take to the task of checking on the condition of my soldiers.”

Coto walked off with Reik in tow. Kiel couldn’t understand why Avahloh was even acknowledging Coto. He didn’t need Coto’s approval for any order. He was the 1st Narce and, technically, the Compound Ruin. Coto would have never questioned Morrison like that. Then again, Morrison would have never given an order like that. Nevertheless, he had expected Avahloh to have Sub-Commander Coto killed for insubordination on the spot. It wouldn’t have been too shocking for a Grim Reaper. However, he was starting to get the picture that everything Avahloh did was calculated.

“What did we learn from the conversation with leadership during this strike?” Kiel asked, because he knew that’s what Avahloh was still studying.

“All of their movements were almost identical,” Avahloh informed. “Their leadership is strong. He gives an order and they follow it.”

Kiel seemed to think it over, but, as he recalled what they witnessed on the screen, it became obvious to him as well.

“I see.”

“If we take out his plane, it’s likely that similar fight strategy will follow, because he has the respect of his pilots. Where there is respect, there is the attempt to imitate and to live up to who they respect.”

“That is a valid point,” Kiel admitted sincerely.

“He will come again and I will study him a little more before we kill him. Overall, I’m pleased with the results. Let them go. Their leader won’t try that again.” Avahloh stared at the screen as he watched the strike team make their exit. Then he abruptly turned and headed for the exit. “Have all areas alert me of anything, I mean anything, which seems out of the ordinary.”

“Yes, 1st Narce.” Kiels said as he watched Avahloh stroll out of Central Command. He eyed the man hard. What was this monster’s mind made of? Avahloh knew now that he would have to prepare for a drawn out campaign. The leader he faced was not into throwing his subordinates into the fire like fodder. This leader was able to quickly deduct a losing or winning fight and make a decision that would maintain the strength of his collective force. As he strolled through the halls to his quarters, he tapped his com.

“Commander Kiel, have Sub-Commander Reik take inventory of what heavy weapons we have and form a new division of 100-strong capable of wielding them effectively.”

“Yes, 1st Narce,” Kiel said into the Holo table com as he leaned against it.

The recent series of events he watched transpire still had him glued to the Holo table. He had a feeling the unorthodox would be what to expect for the length of Avahloh’s term as leader here – however long that would be. Kiel knew he had to be careful. This man was smart and strategic. But above all of that, he was a Grim Reaper soldier and that fact above anything else was not something to take lightly. He abruptly straightened himself and then tapped a series of buttons on the Holo table com.

“Reik, are you still below compound level?”

“No. I’ve made it to ground level and am on my way to the armory.”

“Hold position. I have orders to relay to you. I’d rather give them face to face.”

“Yes, sir. I am just outside old administration building B.”

“Good, I will see you shortly.”

Kiel left Central Command and quickly found Reik right where he said he would be.

"Sub -Commander, the 1st Narce has directed me to charge you with the task of putting together a division of heavy weapons soldiers of 100 strong. Can we afford the man power?"

“Of course we can. That shouldn’t be a problem. But it would be a mixture of heavy weapons. We are limited on particular sets of weapons.”

“Understood. That shouldn’t be an issue. That was the extent of the order.”

“Was there any reasoning behind it?”

Kiel held Reik’s gaze with obvious sardonicism. “I am silently applauding your optimistic appraisal of the situation.”

Reik smiled lightly. “This is what we should expect?”

“It appears so, and we will follow leadership until such other time. Comfortable or not, this war must go on and, if we are to survive it, this compound must continue to function efficiently.”

“Understood.” Reik said. Keil watched him closely and tried to gauge Reik’s temperance during the exchange. “I will do what I can about the division, Commander.”

“That’s all we can ask of you, Sub-Commander.” Kiel said.

Reik nodded.

“Sir,” he said, then was on his way.

Kiel took the time above ground to glance around the compound and the attack’s aftermath. He stared across the way at the building that stood defiant amongst the others: Grim Reaper Command. He’d never been within its walls and now current leadership was asking him to take part in the day-to-day functions of the elite soldiers who inhabited the building. It was a small part. Still, he never expected to have to even think of Grim Reaper philosophy.

It did take him back that the Reaper Team Leader 8 responded to him without hint of hesitation. He expected him to speak or at least look at him with some degree of condescending tone. But there was none.

A corporation officer giving him, an elite Grim Reaper, orders? Maybe it was only because his direct Commanding Grim Reaper Officer was present. Perhaps it was just a one-off situation. Kiel decided to test the thought. He looked around the compound and tried to spot the colorful blue and yellow armor that stood out easily amongst other Compound Officer uniforms.

Right now, according to normal corporation hierarchy, he held no authority over any Grim Reaper. He located a group of Reapers, Gatling guns in hand, walking across the grounds. Kiel quickly let that consideration fall. One soldier would take enough courage. At least, as much as he was willing to muster at the current time. He let his eyes continue to drift across the grounds until he located a lone Reaper. Now that he had located a target, what tool of communication would he use to test the length of respect for his authority?

Kiel threw his shoulders back and pulled himself to full height. He inhaled deeply and started a strong stride towards the Reaper.

“Reaper!” Kiel called out. The Reaper stopped and turned to Kiel. Kiel’s mind was still turning, thinking of a viable test. As the Reaper came closer and halted in front of him, Kiel forced his mind to spit out some command.

“Reaper, I need four soldiers to post on the Northern wall and make another assessment of the attack vector from East Mountain from the last attack.” With effort, Kiel held his gaze upon the Grim Reaper mask, which offered up no emotion, and waited for what was next.

“Do you need them to be Grim Reaper soldiers, or Compound Officers as well?” The Reaper asked evenly, to Kiel’s surprise.

“Reaper soldiers. Spread out evenly across the wall.”

“We will take care of it and report our findings to you.”

“Thank you, Reaper. I await your report.” Kiel offered quickly before he lost his nerve. He forced his nerve to hold as he watched the Grim Reaper walk away.

The interaction went well, Kiel thought. Although the Reaper was receptive of the command, Kiel did notice one thing during the interaction. There was no acknowledgement of rank.

On the other side of the compound, Kiel saw Coto directing compound soldiers in the recovery of the aftermath. He watched him quietly for a short while until Coto finally noticed him watching. Kiel gave him a slight nod. Coto nodded back in turn. Even at that distance, Coto’s still burning contempt shot through clearly.

Coto watched as Kiel walk off and then returned to his command.

“Sir, we’ve got the fires out in sections B and C of the east courtyard,” a soldier reported to him.

“Good, that was quick.”

“We’re moving as fast as we can. Sub-Commander. There will be a lot of fires to put out. Catastrophe teams will most likely have to work through the rest of the day, probably until the night.”

“Do what must be done, Private. Whatever it takes to salvage the compound. That’s all I can ask of my soldiers. Keep me apprised of the progress.”

“Sir,” the soldier said, then whisked off to continue his task.

Anger grew inside of Coto?. This Narce gave out commands and orders in the heat of battle with such arrogance and without acknowledgement of his subordinates, yet here he and his compound soldiers were, cleaning up the results of the battle. At least with Monsoo the orders were understood at their initial presentation, whether agreed upon or not. Morrison had trusted Monsoo and Reik had grown accustomed to him. There had been one set way Central Command was run for some time. It was run with military discipline. Discipline Coto was afraid would slip away quickly, if it had not already been done away with completely.

Chapter Six

The remaining Pouncers of the strike force and the resource ship set down in the new area the scout team had found to set up permanent base. 212 miles of sand and rock separated them and the compound. Again Shield found himself standing on a dune of sand, surveying the area. He was soon joined with the moral support of his two best friends. Rikki and Lamp came and stood next to him.

“It’s not too bad,” Rikki offered. She pointed off in the distance. “Maybe we can put a volleyball court up over there, dig a pool over there.”

“You couldn’t take the ass whooping I would put on you in volley ball,” Shield said with a smile.

“Sounds like a bet I’m going to have to take you up on one day.”

“What are you going to pay him with Rikki? Rock?” Lamp asked.

“Yeah, what are you going to pay me with Daniel? We are going to have to work out some type of currency system because I was born to take you guys’ money,” she replied.

“You wish,” Shield retorted.

There was a brief silence.

“Four more pilots, huh?” Rikki asked softly.

“Ivan, Lettie, Jose, and Vlad,” Shield informed.

“Vlad too, huh?” Lamp asked softly.

They all simply stared off into the distance. There really was nothing that could be said to convey what was really being felt.

“Damn it!” Lamp screamed out in afterthought. “I had my stash of Burmans Ale on his ship.”

“That’s the necessities you brought?” Shield asked.

“Yeah, man. I was going to try and surprise you with a bottle of your favorite after we took the compound.”

“Everybody seems to have had plans to get drunk out here.”

“I mean…” Lamp said as he stretched out his arms toward the vast nothingness.

“You got a point,” Rikki admitted.

“Yeah,” Shield agreed as he nodded his head. He contemplated a little more, then turned to his friends. He shook both their hands firmly. “Fly with me.”

He didn’t need to say what he felt. The tone in the salutation was clear: continue to be my support, my friends. Continue to be there for me, because we will need one another in the days ahead.

“Into the pits of hell, Daniel,” Rikki said.

“If that be our end…” Lamp added.

The trio turned away from the sands and headed back down the dune towards the strike team.

“Who else got beer around here?” Lamp asked.

“I had one with Ezra last night,” Shield informed.

“Now that may become the currency of our time,” Rikki suggested as their conversation trailed off into the distance.

Dusk came upon them quickly and every pilot had time to reflect and think about the future. Bonfires soon flickered in the night and the ominous lights of the resource ship lit up the rest of the strike force camp. Everyone gathered in front of that same small dune and stared up at their leader.

“A new life,” Daniel said to the collective strike force that stood before him; their attack aircrafts behind them, the resource ship behind those, and ever reaching sand behind that. 12 flight jackets lay at his feet, representing the pilots they had lost in the past two days. “This is home now. All of you have entrusted me with your lives. We will make the best of it and we will win. Briefly, we pay homage to the brothers and sisters we’ve lost over the past two days, but now is not the time to mourn. Tomorrow we will get back into our Pouncer cockpits and honor their sacrifice with a victory. This siege has taken a day or two longer than expected, but we will fly, fight, and take over that compound. Fly with me! That will be our end. That will be our destiny!”

Sounds of agreement filled the air from the 236 men and women who stood before him. They had arrived with 250 people. He knew that over the next week, this battle would quickly become a numbers game.

Daniel looked out at the sands behind him, facing the compound they had just left. Whoever was leading this compound was set on keeping it. He knew then that this campaign would carry on much longer than expected. Now he had to take on the task of planning on settling in for the long haul. They would need to explore options for growing food, permanent shelter, power supply, and ammunition.

He stared out at the compound beyond his view in the distance and contemplated on who he was dealing with. What were they thinking right now? Somehow, he had the feeling that the compound’s leader was doing the same thing.

 

To be continued…

About the Author

Influenced at an early age by the writings of R A V Salsitz (“Where Dragons Lie”– The Dragon Trilogy), Timothy Zahn, (Star Wars -Heir to the Empire series), and Kent Smith (Future X), Dorsey Jackson began his fantastic journey of writing. He always felt motivated by the vast and diverse opportunities of the world. This is reflected in his approach to writing. He writes the way he lives. Although he is greatly influenced by the Sci-fi and Military Sci-fi genres he strives to never let his pen be constrained by genre expectations and leaves himself open to the possibilities of blending influences. Find out more at www.dorseyjackson.com

Other books by this author

Please visit your favorite ebook retailer to discover other books by Dorsey Jackson Jr:

 

 

The Order Series

O R D E R

 

*The ORDER minis Serie*s

Crest and Shield Book One

Crest and Shield Book Two

Crest and Shield Book Three (Coming soon)

 

Only available at dorseyackson.com

Two Kill a King (Short story)

Connect with Dorsey Jackson Jr

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Dedications

For my father,

My role model, my inspiration, my motivation, and reason to always get up and give it one more try. I will always remember the lessons you taught me, the time we spent together, and the rare genuine love you shared unconditionally. No one can ever take that away or diminish that. I love being your name’s sake. I love and miss you.

 

Janet- Again, thank you for your genuine, relentless, and unsolicited support of my projects and my passion. Motivation is always found in every phone call. I look forward to making your collection grow - Into the pits of hell!

 

To my editor Kate Woods. – Glad you found me. I appreciate the timely, professional, and quality service you have provided. Thank you for always leaving your virtual door open for me to communicate my vision with you during the editing process.

I hope the content is worthy of your support.


Crest and Shield Book 1: an O R D E R mini

A group of pilots have volunteered for a one way mission across reality lines to siege and hold a military compound. In all truth, no one knew why they were here. Every building that stood, every road, every bit of civilization, had been reduced to nothing. The compound sat defiantly among endless miles of sand. All they had been told by leadership was that it was of the utmost importance that they take and hold that compound in whatever reality it existed. Wing Commander Daniel Shield has volunteered to lead the small aerial assault team in this siege. Nothing in his life has prepared him for what they were about to face. The task was great, but to help complete it, they had been provided with the best tool known to aerial combat. They will need every advantage they can use. The officer in charge of the compound doesn't plan on letting it go easily. Avahloh Crest, an officer of the compounds elite Grim Reaper Brotherhood, looked out upon the distance. Every building that stood, every road, every bit of civilization, had been reduced to nothing. They had done all of this. What might, what strength, what power. Grim Reaper Extermination Team 1, along with the brotherhoods commanding officer had gone silent over four hours ago. While out searching for the missing team, he receives a message that the compound is under attack. Until the missing leader is found, command is his. How will the vicious nature of a Grim Reaper soldier translate into leading the defense of this compound?

  • ISBN: 9780996661553
  • Author: Dorsey Jackson, Jr
  • Published: 2016-06-23 21:20:09
  • Words: 21325
Crest and Shield Book 1: an O R D E R mini Crest and Shield Book 1: an O R D E R mini