Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Science fiction  ➡  Military  ➡  Action & suspense

Reverence

 

REVERENCE

“In a great story by debut author Joshua Aaron Landeros, Reverence: Volume One will grab readers from the very start and will keep them reading obsessively through until the very end.” (Reader’s Favorite)

“Five stars to Reverence. Readers will come away exhausted by the nonstop-explosive action and satisfied by the climactic conclusion.”(Publishers Daily Reviews)

“The story does such a good job of unfolding its mystery that it can be hard to put down once the seeds of doubt are planted in William’s and the reader’s mind.”(The US Review of Books)

“In times such as ours, this book functions as a timely reminder of a government’s true purpose, and the lengths that some people will go to in order to protect their freedom…Will is an antihero for any age, someone who has been duped into the dark side and must claw his way back into the light.”(The Self-Publishing Review)

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Monsters

Chapter 2: Will to Power

Chapter 3: People Skills

Chapter 4: An Old Acquaintance

Chapter 5: The Evasive Flaw

Chapter 6: The Eulogy

Chapter 7: Exhibition

Chapter 8: War and the Sword

Chapter 9: The Beach

Chapter 10: Frivolity

Chapter 11: Weapon of Choice

Chapter 12: The Ghost Town

Chapter 13: One Last Attempt

Chapter 14: Darkness Descends

Chapter 15: Pathetic Condition

Chapter 16: Solitude

Chapter 17: Humility

Chapter 18: Here Come the Tears

Chapter 19: Loyalty

Chapter 20: God’s Gift

Chapter 21: Dogs

Chapter 22: Redemption

Chapter 23: Everlasting Perfection

Chapter 24: Internal Siege

Chapter 25: Immolation Galore

Chapter 26: Bravo

Chapter 27: Resting Place

Chapter 28: Sweet Savour

About the Author:

Preview:

Chapter 1 – The Monsters

April 4, 2065 – Hamadan Air Base, Iran

From the heavens, a peculiar aircraft began to descend on the airfield. Its ominous shadow passed over the smaller jets and choppers below, causing all work to cease. The mysterious aircraft then circled the area, drawing all eyes to it. As everyone continued to watch, the commanding officer preemptively removed his hat.

“So we’re finally up.”

He looked at his men. They’re ready to shit themselves already…

“What do we do?” one of them asked desperately.

“Everybody at ease, I’ll handle it.”

The boosters on the bottom of the Cruiser produced a fiery orange glow and created a gust of wind that picked up dust. The sleek object’s landing legs protruded outwards as it finally touched the ground. Its silver plating shined brightly in the sunlight. On its side was a single area of black, serving as a backdrop for two red stripes running downwards in a slant. The jagged stripes looked rather like bolts of lightning. In the center was an arrow-halo symbol, the arrow being a dark blue and the halo a grayish white. The arrangement made it appear that the arrow was piercing the halo. The unmistakable UNR emblem recognized the colonel.

The Cruiser was the size of a private plane, yet so much more majestic than anything these men had ever seen. The door folded open as integral steps were revealed to walk on. The colonel stepped forth from the onlooking crowd, scratching his fuzzy face. Out came a man in his late forties wearing a gray military overcoat decorated with medals. He also wore a pair of aviator sunglasses reflective enough for a person to see their own face in them. His small military cap also displayed the UNR sigil.

He made his way down the steps, taking note of everything. It’s familiar in a way, Kane thought, but he of course was thinking way back to 2045. Back then, the whole airfield would have been littered with bodies and pools of blood, and the smoke would have blotted out the sun. Today the sky was full of clouds, adding to the nostalgia. Ah, the gore days.

“Commander Kane,” greeted the colonel, saluting before bowing respectively. Every soldier around him did the same before going about their business.

“Ah, you and your men do too much,” Kane said, as the colonel straightened himself.

“Not at all, sir, we are honored to have you visit our base. What brings you all the way from the UNR to my airfield?” he asked politely.

Commander Kane looked at the colonel with distaste, and then looked up at the glaring sun. A slight breeze did little to help against the heat, but he liked that.

“I’m guessing you’re in charge here…” Kane said, waiting for a position, and knowing his presence would instill a sense of sincerity.

“Colonel Husan, sir.”

“Husan, I’ll get right to the point. Last night UNR radar picked up a small plane flying over the Caribbean, we assume on its way to Providencia Island. It was captured of course, and in the salvage, we found a large payload of weapons. Someone has been very underhanded, and while internationally it is being written off as a single occurrence, our intel says otherwise. The weapons seized aren’t particularly hard to acquire, but our database lists this base as a place of interest,” Kane said. To his surprise, Husan’s face didn’t change.

“I understand your concern sir, but we’ve been up to date with UNR regulation. Our firearm cache is barely beyond one per serviceman, let alone extras to be handing out.”

“Indeed it is,” responded Kane with a smile, “but as required, we will be conducting an inventory verification process as demanded by the Chancellor.”

“I would think so,” Husan said agreeably.

Husan’s grin vanished as two figures stepped out of the UNR Cruiser. A chill rushed down his spine in spite of the blazing sun. The toll of the day’s labor melted away as they stepped closer. He felt sick to his stomach, as if in the presence of a famished beast. The colonel knew those two men before him could take out every person here without so much as breaking a sweat. Could they even sweat? An irrelevant question yes, but one he couldn’t help to ask himself. He’d heard rumors, but he’d never met a super soldier in the flesh. They were sometimes called super soldiers, but more commonly, cyborgs.

“Let me introduce you to my colleagues. This is S.S.C. Unit 18, Luis,” he said, gesturing toward the green-eyed one, “and, this is S.S.C. Unit 21, Will.”

Luis looked as if he were only in his early twenties. His skin was fair with a slight tan. A small thin mustache was the only facial hair on his clean-shaven face. His long overcoat was a dark shade of blue and his short black hair was fashioned into a Caesar haircut, though even shorter on the sides and in the back. His eyes were a forest green and he wore a cocky smile.

Will looked like he may have been in his early thirties, his skin a caramel color, with dark brown eyes in contrast. His black hair was curly, yet had a sheen to it, and his overcoat was menacing, black as night. A crimson bandanna was tied around his forehead.

Both wore slim-fit gray body armor over their chest and abdomen, with a long-sleeve black shirt underneath and black leather gloves. They also wore a belt with the UNR seal on the buckle. Hanging from Will’s belt was the sheath of a long sword, modeled closely after an 1840 Cavalry Saber. Luis had one on each side of his hip. These were more similar to the 1860 Light Cavalry Saber. Also, the colonel finally noted, the brown-eyed one had a thin scar going down his right cheek.

They stood next to their commander, silent and awaiting orders, their dead eyes locked onto Husan. Kane was pleased with the colonel’s face. He could see the fear in it.

Kane summed it up for him, “As general of the SSF, I naturally had to bring two of my best. They will be making the inspection.”

“Right, you may proceed whenever ready.”

Kane nodded, and the two cyborgs made their way toward the facility’s entrance. The colonel watched as they did, relief flooding through him. After the war that led to his country’s unconditional surrender, he’d never wanted to see the UNR emblem within proximity of him, especially when brandished by a couple of cyborgs. At least the beasts were away from him personally.

Will and Luis entered the military base, which wasn’t much cooler than it was outside. They stepped into the registration office and workers stopped dead in their tracks upon the sight of them. They next entered the mess hall, at the time full of hungry soldiers.

“Everybody, remain at ease,” said Will aloud, as if he were their commanding officer, “this mandatory inspection will be as brief as possible. Go back to your daily routines.”

Still, most of the soldiers couldn’t help but keep at least one eye on them. Others exchanged nervous glances with one another. No one muttered a single word though, leaving the once noisy mess hall in a dull silence.

Both men could sense the intimidation their presence caused, and Will kept an indifferent expression on his face as he focused on the task. Luis, however, couldn’t help but smile. He found it pathetic, yet amusing.

The soldiers continued to watch the two until they left the room and entered the hallway. Now alone, Luis felt more inclined to talk.

“What did you think of Kane’s entrance?” he asked, as they strolled down the empty hallway. “And then having us walk out after him, classic. The man oughta write for a show or something.”

“Yup, millions would tune in,” Will answered, sarcastically.

“That aside, all I ask today is that you be as quick about this as I intend to be. I was quite enjoying The Big Trail and I’m dying to get back to the Cruiser so I can finish watching it.”

“At my quickest, this could still take several hours. If you had agreed to split the bases up for the inventory checks, we’d be done with the list by now. And if you put on another Western, I’m literally going to slip into a coma.”

“Screw that, doing this crap solo would be ten times as boring, and fine, after The Big Trail, you can pick a movie.”

“Oh, I wasn’t aware of that option,” Will said. “In the end, I’ll probably end up going to you for recommendations anyway.”

“As always, I’m glad I can be of service.”

As they walked on, Will saw a soldier staring at them out of the corner of his eye. When they passed, he took a swig from a water bottle to feign boredom. The super soldier kept his eyes focused in front of him at all times. To anybody watching, his stares were mere blinks, and though appearing passive to the details, his sensors were nitpicking every scrap of information. It was time to apply pressure.

“You’re clearly not even paying attention. What is it?” Luis asked. He could tell something was on his partner’s mind and that annoyed him, especially when he was going on about recommendations.

“Nothing, really. Can you check the lockers and barracks? Standard searches, and send your immediate findings to the Network.”

“Sounds like fun. And you’re off to where?”

“The hangar.”

Luis nodded, struggling to hide his boredom. They might as well have kept me in hibernation mode for this dull shit. It was monotonous work and he couldn’t stand it. Most of all, he hated having to wait for another’s move, but here it seemed they had nothing else to go on.

Will watched as Luis left, and then headed for his destination. There, in solitude, he would begin his work of counting.

The cyborg entered the dark and lonely chamber. Not a soul was present at the hangar, although there were a few remaining aircrafts. He observed a few classic ones, like the F-22s. The stale air reeked of dormancy, though a few aircraft looked as if they’d been receiving minor touch ups recently. The roll sheet automatically scrolled on his HUD, counting each one individually as he went.

Will rounded a corner and then locked onto an interesting sight: a Boeing 707, the same model acquired last night. In this spacious chamber, he could see several. It was a simple matter of calculation to see if the numbers in the data matched up with what was here.

Will approached the aircraft leisurely, noticing the ramp was down. As he did, he saw large crates in the cargo hold. He put the inventory count aside for a moment, his curiosity directing him toward the rear of the plane. At the foot of the ramp, the soldier stepped on a small object and he stopped to see what it was. Despite the darkness, his vision was enhanced enough to make it out: a medium sized bullet, probably belonging to an automatic weapon. He knelt down on one knee to retrieve it, cautiously picking it up. Next, he would take a gander inside the crates, where he assumed he would find more of the same. It was then he felt the barrel of an SPAS-15 shotgun against the back of his head.

“Don’t move!” the scared voice said, although the gun was steady.

“Stand down, soldier. This inventory check-up is standard procedure,” Will said.

“Shut the hell up!!” he yelled. “You shut the hell up!! Put your hands on your head!”

“Listen…”

“Fuckin’ DO IT!!” he yelled even louder, cocking the shotgun.

Will raised his hands, not sure what the soldier would do next. He obviously had to be at least of legal age, yet Will’s ears registered the voice of a teenager. Well, perhaps he is. The poor boy’s voice cracked as he barked the command, and he could hear his rapid breathing. Still, that gun was planted firmly on the back of his skull.

“So what now, soldier?” Will asked calmly.

“I pull this trigger,” he said as beads of sweat rolled down his neck, “and you go to hell.”

“As nervous as you sound, one would never guess you’ve ever even killed a man,” Will taunted.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment. The day I’d finally take a crack at one of you monsters,” he boasted. “Your death will mean nothing. You’re not even a man.”

Will felt a chill run down his spine.

The soldier felt the urge to look up, and just as well. Standing atop the Boeing 707, he saw a large silhouette, watching the altercation without a word. Noting the eerily calm silence of the man, the soldier’s boldness hit a brick wall.

Luis cracked his neck before leaping off the top of the plane, one of his thirty-five-inch swords drawn. He swung downwards as he landed on his feet, slicing right into the soldier’s joint. The left forearm was cut clean off, leaving the soldier screaming in pain. He grasped his stump of an arm, which sprayed a quick gush of blood, before he fell in agony.

“And you say I like to mess around,” Luis scoffed.

“I was going to lead him on a little further before beating something out of him, but you just couldn’t go along with it for even five minutes,” Will said dryly as he rose to his feet. The chill subsided now that he was in the presence of his partner.

“Looked to me like you were fucking with him, but I’m pretty sure we can salvage this operation.”

About twenty-five feet away, more soldiers were approaching. They took positions behind a few crates in perfect silence, each of their weapons aimed directly at the two cyborgs. For now, the two UNR dogs remained where they were, standing over the downed soldier. Just as the soldiers were preparing to shoot, a loud voice echoed through the hangar:

“Hey, hey you guys ducking your heads like jackasses over there!” Luis called out to them in a laugh, “We see you guys, all three of ya.”

The men were thrown off by the remark, but it did not deter their aim. Their position no longer viable, one of them spoke:

“Step away from the soldier and we can all walk away from this, okay? No one needs to die.”

Luis looked back at Will for a moment. Unfortunately, his partner’s hostile gaze was frozen on the enemy position. Unit 18, on the other hand, tried his hardest not to laugh. He returned his eyes to the soldiers.

“The way I see it, you owe my friend Will here an apology. Your little accomplice has been an awful host.”

“He’s a kid, he panicked,” argued the man, “he’s clearly paid the price for his stupidity. Return him to our custody so he can be treated and punished accordingly.”

It was at this point the comedic banter from Luis came to a crashing halt.

“I’m afraid he’s coming with us. The kid didn’t panic out of the blue, now did he? He knows something, and it’s our duty to detain and question.”

The wounded soldier looked up groggily, his severed arm still bleeding profusely. Now he was in question, but it sounded like his comrades were intent on not letting them take him. God bless you brothers.

After a bit of silence, the soldier spoke back, “I cannot allow that.”

“Then you’ve officially fucked yourself,” Luis said calmly. Will now began to walk toward the trio without a word. Their aim focused on him, as he kept moving forward without a moment’s hesitation.

“STOP!” the man yelled feebly.

Will didn’t, and the soldiers decided to open fire. The sound of guns was something trivial to him. He felt the first few bullets connect, striking his chest armor harmlessly before dropping to the floor.

The soldiers were stunned to see the barrage of bullets had been ineffective, but one kept firing anyway as the other two backed up. He tried to outsmart the cyborg by quickly raising his aim and targeting his face instead. Will was no, however, was no slouch.

At that point, Unit21 leaped into the air. The trio panicked and their aim became erratic.

By the time Will landed on top of the crate, his sword was drawn. His first target was the one to the left of the leader. One swipe of his blade and the soldier’s gun was cleaved in two. Before the troop could even absorb what had just happened, Will finished it. With a single kick, the soldier’s jaw was smashed and his lifeless body flew against a plane with a thud.

The other two fired wildly at Will to no avail, as the cyborg used his saber to cut their firearms down to the handgrips. The talker pulled out a large switchblade in a last futile attempt to combat the cyborg. Will grabbed his wrist and twisted it, the man’s scream nearly louder than the sickening snap of bone. The man collapsed in agony, down for the count. Will then turned to the lonely last man standing, who shook with fear, quickly throwing his own pistol and switch blade aside.

“Please, I was just following orders! Please!!” he begged. He dropped to his knees, putting his hands in the air.

Will looked down at him, pondering for a moment. When the foul aroma of urine hit the air, the super soldier made up his mind. He jutted the sword into the man’s jugular, his eyes nearly popping out of their sockets as his body shuddered. The soldier spat up blood and after a few seconds of staring dead into his eyes, Will removed the sword as slowly as he could. The man crumpled to the floor, gasping as the crimson spread.

Will cleaned off his sword with a handkerchief from his belt before sheathing it, and walked toward the talker, who had not dared to run.

Luis found this fight dull. Wasn’t even practice really.

“What about this one?” he asked, pointing at the one with the severed arm. The soldier was too busy weeping over his own loss to take heed of the carnage around him. As soon as he felt the cyborg’s eyes turn toward him, he felt as if his heart was going to pump out of his chest.

“Put him out of his misery,” Will said as he turned away. The talker was far more interesting.

Luis smiled and walked over to him slowly. With each step, the man knew he was closer to death’s door. Perhaps it was better that way. But, I have to try…

As Luis approached, he saw the man fumbling in his pocket. Yes, a brave fighter to the end. However, it wasn’t a weapon that fell to the floor as the soldier spoke.

“Please, I have a family at home waiting for me. I’m nothing to you.”

Luis picked up the photo, to see a picture of an infant boy. The super soldier knelt down to the defeated man’s level, very close to him now.

“This your little boy?” he asked.

“No, sir,” the man said as he winced in his agony, “it’s my little brother, Saeed.”

“Your baby brother, you mean,” Luis laughed slightly, “wow, I feel cheated. You come to me, begging for sympathy, and all you can offer me is a picture of a brat who doesn’t even belong to you. Shame on you, sir.”

Luis stood back up, towering over the man.

“What? Sir, please!!”

It was no use. Luis pulled out his pistol and aimed it downwards. The desperate pleas were silenced as he pulled the trigger. The bullet traveled down the barrel of the gun, sped through the air, and penetrated the soldier’s skull, exiting out of the back of his head.

“Pathetic. He could’ve showed some dignity and just shut the hell up,” commented Luis.

“What’d you expect? Let’s just report to Kane already,” Will replied. He grabbed the last surviving soldier, lifting him by his injured arm. The man yelled in pain as he was forced to get up. The dismay in his eyes said it all. Will only had one thing to say.

“On your feet, jackass. I hope you enjoy John Wayne as much as he does.”

Chapter 2 – Will to Power

January 11, 2044 – Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.

The crowds grew quiet as a limousine escorted by the local police arrived. Out stepped a man wearing a neat blue suit, accented with a dazzling, rosy tie. Having a thin mustache and combed back hair, his face seemed stern, but his smile made him very approachable. He was also modestly in shape for his age, appearing to be in his late forties or so.

As he stepped up the stairs, his assistant Kearney, rushed ahead of him, draping a banner on the front of the podium. On the banner was the UNR Party symbol, which had become rather popular recently. Now, Carl Venloran stood in front of the thousands of people, clearing his throat. He felt so many different feelings at this moment but above all, humility. He began to speak:

“I would first like to thank all of you for coming here today. You all display great love and pride for your country, which is why I myself am here. It is your generous donations to my campaign that have allowed me to get this far. As we all know, there is much that needs to be accomplished, because it’s plain to see that our country is facing its darkest hour. Right now at this very instant, thousands of miles from where we stand, young Americans are dying horrible deaths in vain. Lives that were destined for great things that would only further this great land are being wasted, and all for a war that has no point.”

“My own son is still recovering from his tour last year. He fought bravely, no doubt, but to what avail? He can no longer walk, and he now suffers from PTSD as well. To hear my own son screaming in the middle of the night, to see him shaking uncontrollably, it tears me apart. Especially since, he was destined for so much more. I had to watch his dreams burn down to the ground because of this war that, according to those in power, is for our benefit. The government continues to try to lie its way out of the current situation, trying to make it appear as though everything is all right. How much longer can we allow ourselves to be deceived? I say, NO LONGER!!”

The crowds cheered deafeningly, and the press assembled before Venloran clapped right along with them.

“Our government has let us down, and the onslaught of riots has only led to further the pain and suffering. More money now goes to our prisons than toward the education of our children! That’s not progress! If we want our country to rise to its once magnificent and undisputed glory, we must change tactics. We can end the war and eradicate the poverty that has crippled us like a disease, but we must unite, my friends. It is our sole chance for salvation.”

“My party, the United Nation Republic, acknowledges what the present establishment refuses to admit: the challenge we now face is the very stability of our nation. The world used to look up to us as the land of opportunity. President Howard’s International Exclusion Act has crippled our global affairs while outsourcing by the wealthy has grown out of control. Now these same allies look on as we crumble. We will not allow it! This great land has been through its share of hardships and we will march through this one hand-in-hand as well, that, I promise you! Together, we will once again show what we are capable of; we will remind them of who we are.”

“I believe there is only one solution. Our politicians have become part of a corrupt system. They can no longer be trusted with the will of the people. My party has the clear motivation and understanding of our resolution. I am here today because I want to bring change, and my campaign assures that I will put the people and our beloved United States first. I will put an end to this war, to this poverty, and to all this deception!”

***

April 4, 2065 Oval Office, Washington, D.C.

“Yes, that was one of my biggest events at the time. Kearney and I worked on it together for months before getting the tone just right.”

Seated in front of the red-brown desk was the journalist setting up his note pad and recording app.

“I was there twenty years ago, Chancellor,” he assured, “that speech was just the first step in changing history. I realize how lucky I am just to have an audience with you.”

He was right. The Oval Office had become an exhibit in a mausoleum. To be in this forgotten room with all its trinkets from the past was a gracious experience. Oswald even spotted the old flag, a flag that now represented only but a piece of this country.

“Humility is an essential trait, Mr. Oswald, but I am admittedly, an aficionado of your work. Reporter to anchorman, and a writer on the side. Your show The Essential Globe is also doing quite well. You are evidence that a man has no boundaries except the ones he sets upon himself.”

“Thank you, sir. Let’s get started, shall we? Now the next section of my book focuses on your policies that have received some negative reception around the world. While here in the UNR your approval ratings are still spectacularly high, there have been a few setbacks. I think we can all agree The Expansion more than anything contributed to that. To this day, the UN Headquarters in New York is shut down indefinitely thanks to Prime Minister Charles and Secretary General Vanzetti. What are your thoughts on that matter?”

Venloran had a somber look on his face. His tone sounded to Oswald like the words of a man who’d lost something dear to him.

“A defeat that I could have done without. While it is true that the war cost us many allies, we gained new ones, and more importantly, we strengthened our nation. I am well aware that many out there still expect me to deliver a sudden referendum on my decision, or better yet, express how I was acting without the ‘consent of God’ but that day is never coming. ”

“That’s something I’ve pondered myself if you don’t mind me asking Chancellor.”

“Go on, shoot.”

“Well, many have been curious about your faith. It’s something you consistently stay away from addressing.”

“I follow but one thing in my life, Oswald, and that is the will to power. It is the inner component of man that drove us to build skyscrapers. That’s why I have always stood by my decisions and will continue to do so.”

“And we’re all glad for that, Chancellor,” Oswald said.

***

April 4, 2065 – Glaucon National Public Youth Facility, Washington, D.C.

The professor watched as the children entered her classroom. The class of thirty students was a mixed group, not just due to ethnicity, but varying ages as well. This was a high-level philosophy and reasoning course, a class normally aimed toward students around the age fifteen. However, she knew there were many younger students who were excelling rapidly, the best example being twelve-year-old, curly-haired Joel. It always brought a smile to her face.

She’d been teaching for almost thirty years, more than half of that time spent here at this building. Even though she was past fifty, she hardly showed it. Her lavish brunette hair rested on her slender shoulders, and her apricot skin still appeared tantalizing. Her black suit gave her the presence of a businesswoman, and her red lips cast an aura of sensuality. All the students stood to the left of their desk before saying in unison:

“Good morning Mrs. Venloran.”

“Hello, class, you may be seated.”

In their neat and crisp standard uniforms, they took their seats. The lights in the classrooms dimmed into blackness as the shutters also began to close.

“Ma’am, I was hoping you could look at my research paper after class,” Joel said.

“Of course, Joel. How’s your brother doing?”

“He graduated early. He even got accepted at the UNR Special Tasks Force.”

“Wow, that’s great news. I believe he must be the youngest man ever accepted to that post.”

“If I take summer courses I can get ahead a little like him.”

“Are you sure you want to sacrifice your entire summer? Maybe you should think it over a little.”

Joel paused for a moment.

“Okay, I will.”

The classroom had grown as dark as a theater, the children settling into silence. The projection unit on the ceiling activated, and a brilliant flash of light began to take form. A hologram of a painting appeared, large enough to block the view of Mrs. Venloran’s desk. The image detailed a cavern of sorts, with many people contained within its dark confines. There was though, a tunnel from which daylight shined in. At the rear of the tunnel, many people cowered in the darkness, despite the efforts of others welcoming the folks to step outside and join them in the light.

“What do you all think?” Professor Venloran asked, “Consider this an open discussion.”

One of the older children near the back raised her hand.

“Yes, Sara?”

“It’s known as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, ma’am.”

“Yes, by Jan Saenredam, very good, but can you interpret it for me?”

“I believe the people inside the darkness of the cave represent ignorance, while those outside are offering knowledge.”

“Yes, this beautiful work of art is a symbol of Plato’s teachings: the nature of human intellect and how it can be of benefit if we harness it. Otherwise, shunning it, we doom ourselves to live in perpetual blindness. We use our logic to discern, for example, the nature of justice and morality. To claim religion is the dominant source of morality is an absurd concept, and this ties in with morality itself. Can anyone tell me why?”

To her delight, she saw his hand rise.

“Go ahead, Joel.”

“Because religion and morality were both created by us. Old religions have died, new ones have surfaced, and the same goes for morals.”

“Excellent, remember that deciding what is right and what is wrong depends solely on the individual.”

***

The professor kept her jacket collar up in the freezing winds, the red cotton doing what it could. Her suitcase full of lesson plans was somewhat hefty. She was careful about her footing as she walked down the steps of the magnificent school. A black limousine arrived, followed by two UNR Humvees. Her heart pounded just as rapidly as it had all those years ago when she’d first met the man emerging from the door. She embraced her husband, the Chancellor tightly, planting a soft kiss upon his lips.

“I tried to be fashionably late, but Kearney insisted I be punctual.”

“Oh did he now Carl?” she laughed, “I guess he knows better than you about my bad side.”

The Chancellor smiled as he watched her hair blow in the passing wind.

“Come on, we’ll get something warm to drink.”

He held the door open for her before entering himself. Inside was another world, smothered in glorious warmth. Seated on the Corinthian leather across from the couple was Kearney, who looked up from his laptop.

“Janet, I see you’re looking lovely today.”

“Thank you, how’s Anthony doing?”

“We’re doing good, thinking of maybe getting a two-story.”

“But your house is so nice,” she insisted, “I’d really miss the place.”

“He’s persistent about it,” Kearney said.

The limousine veered away, the Humvees following close behind.

“A whole two weeks off, honey. What do you have planned?” Venloran asked.

“I promised Mother I’d visit her, and after that I suppose lounge around. Maybe get some reading done.”

“And here I thought you were on vacation.”

“There are just so many bright minds in my classroom. I really hate leaving them in the middle of the semester.”

“They’ll be fine. I was thinking of going for a hike. Care to join me?”

Venloran gazed at her as if this was the first date, and while she admired the gesture so very, very much, she still had to ask.

“You sure you wouldn’t prefer your office at the HQ? You spend more time there than you do anywhere.”

“Honey, I’m serious. It’d be nice don’t you think?” Both found themselves attentive, Janet holding her husband’s hand tightly, he doing the same.

“Sir,” Kearney interrupted, looking away from his work yet again.

“What is it?”

“Kane reports they’re on route back to the UNR. They’ve brought back captives as well.”

[Chapter 3 – People Skills
**]April 4, 2065 – UNR Defense Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Where the Pentagon was once located, now stood a building of epic scale: the UNR Defense Headquarters. Well over fifty stories tall, the structure retained its former appearance at the base, but arising from what was left of the legendary building could only be described as a tower: a tower overlooking the city all around it, silent, yet always watching. It was here in this tower that the new government set up its base of operations, primarily an investigative bureau.

Colonel Husan sat patiently in the interrogation room, mouth dry and hands sweating. He had known this day was coming, ever since his regiment had gotten involved in the efforts against the superpower. He knew eventually something would lead back to them, and now, unfortunately, he saw how right he had been. From the body bags he’d seen on the plane ride to the UNR, he estimated that three of his men were already dead. Possibly, more, he just didn’t know yet.

A countless number of his soldiers would probably die in this hellhole, tortured to death for treason. He had always spoken so nobly to them about their missions and the grandiose objective they were helping to achieve. Having been given very few details about their secret allies, Husan was surprised at how well his men took their orders. They were eager to fight in the shadows, but now their endurance would really be put to the test. Colonel Husan was no exception, with his own hands cuffed closely together. Speak of the devil, he thought, as Kane walked in throwing his coat on the cold steel table. He sat down at the opposite end.

“Husan, glad you could join us,” he said with a smile. Luis stepped into the room as well.

“I believe you two have already met,” he added, seeing the colonel stare at the cyborg for a minute. The soldier stood next to his superior.

“What do you have to say?” Husan asked, sick of Kane’s voice already.

“Come now, Colonel. Let’s not waste valuable time. The evidence is mounting against you. Every member of your base, every man and woman under your command, will be questioned.”

“Your allegations will not hold,” Husan said.

“How long are you going to continue to play these games? If you’re stalling for time, hoping the UN will step in on your behalf, you’re mistaken. They are as of yet silent. Have no doubt, at this point it’s your life at stake, all for the sake of a simple question.”

The colonel looked away, not surprised by the threat. He then looked back at Kane with a seemingly undaunted face. He chose to remain silent.

“I see. You’ve only worsened the situation, Colonel. Bring him in.”

In stepped two UNR soldiers. They wore armor similar to the cyborgs, but without the overcoat and much lighter. Despite being garbed in the same black, Husan paid them no mind, as they were nothing compared to the monstrous imitations of men. Then he noticed who they had with them – one of his soldiers, Izzat Allawi. He was young, and from his badly wounded arm, Husan could tell he’d obviously been one of the ones who’d disobeyed his orders concerning laying low. And now he’s definitely paid the price, thought the colonel. If only they’d listened to me, we wouldn’t be in this mess. The colonel felt anger when he considered that aspect of it all, but it was too late now. Kane interrupted his thoughts.

“Luis will be your host now. I hope he entertains,” he said before he stood up to leave the room. He patted Luis on the shoulder before exiting, taking the two troops with him.

Izzat was seated roughly in the chair opposite Colonel Husan. He held his untreated arm tightly, clearly in pain. The door shut, both men now locked in. Husan glanced at the mirror, knowing it was of course, only one-sided. On the other side, someone was watching, waiting for either one of them to break. He then looked over at the young soldier, his expression as stern as he could muster, but his eyes betrayed his terrified state.

“Are you all right, Allawi?” Husan asked. It was the most he could do to comfort him at the moment. The private looked away, the question being rather pointless to answer. Izzat dared to ask himself if he should’ve just let his fellow soldier die on that floor. If he had never stepped in, so much would be different. Now his friend had the luxury of death, while his own bravery had landed him in the grip of the devil.

“Yes, are you okay?” asked Luis as he stepped closer to the table. The soldier shuddered as he came closer, though the cyborg seemed to pay no mind to this.

“Your injury is a severe one, but not one our doctors couldn’t handle. If you tell us what we want to know, maybe we can get you some medical attention.”

Izzat looked up at Luis upon hearing this statement. He didn’t have the access to any information, but the colonel did. Surely, enough blood has been spilled already. Luis did not meet the soldier’s gaze. He paid more attention to the Husan’s reaction. The colonel seemed indifferent, which surprised them both, really. He won’t even say a word, thought the frustrated soldier, please, sir!

“I think–” Izzat began to say, choking on his own dry throat as he spoke. His superior officer interrupted:

“This goes beyond you and me, Private! You were trained for this, now SILENCE!”

“But, sir–”

Luis sighed, “So be it.”

He then grabbed the private’s already snapped forearm, twisting it again. Once more, a loud snap of bone could be heard, and once more, it was accompanied by a deafening scream of agony. Izzat fell out of his chair, writhing in an unbelievable amount of pain. Tears ran down his face, and he dared not lay a finger on his ravaged arm. Sticking out of his flesh was a piece of split bone. His sleeve was slowly stained with blood.

“Damn, sorry about that. I don’t know if our doctors can fix that. Not without amputating it of course,” Luis said.

Izzat’s screams were becoming unbearable at this point. He simply would not stop. But how could he? The colonel was no less than in shock himself. It seemed not even Luis could stand it for long.

“Shut up, please,” he said coldly, kicking him straight in the stomach. Not full force, but enough to indeed shut him up. The young man had curled into a fetal position, staring at something no one else in the room could see. From what Husan could tell Izzat was still conscious, but he was surely almost done. He was sure the boy couldn’t take much more.

“It’s a shame you’re so fragile,” Luis said. He then turned his attention back to Husan, “Well, what’s it going to be, Colonel? Surely you don’t want to see this brave soldier of yours suffer more than he has already.”

The colonel swallowed hard. The best thing he could do was accept that sacrifice was indeed inevitable, especially at this point.

“I still refuse.”

“So, you’re willing to sacrifice one of your men to protect the traitors? I admire that, really. You must have strong faith in them. And yet, they’re not here to save you.”

Not to his surprise, Husan didn’t respond. This is pointless, Luis thought. Time to wrap this up. He looked down at the wounded soldier, who was quieter now, shivering as if he’d been dipped in frigid water. In shock, most likely, he assumed. The cyborg smiled.

“Well, you’re no good to me anymore, Izzat.” Luis grabbed the soldier by his hair, lifting him off his feet. For what it was worth, the poor soul squirmed with whatever he had left.

Husan wanted to turn away, but by the time he started to move his neck, it was already done. The cyborg slammed the soldier’s face into his knee. The sound alone was repulsive beyond comprehension, the sight even worse.

Blood trickled down Izzat’s face as his eyes rolled back into his head. His skull was split; he was now unquestionably, dead. Luis noted the horrified look on the colonel’s face as he let Izzat’s body drop to the floor. Luis’ eyes remained calm, unchanged by what he’d done. He merely kept his stare at Husan.

“Unfortunate. I bet Izzat Allawi was a good soldier. Brave, but ultimately killed by his own stupidity,” he said as he sat down where the soldier once had. “You have two choices, Husan. You can go down to the Detention Center with the rest of your men, or spend another hour or two in here with me. Though I warn you, I’m starting to think you’re just as useless as your soldier on the floor over there.”

“I’ll tell you as much as I know,” Husan finally said. He’d thought he’d be stronger, but he just wasn’t. He hated himself for his cowardice, but he simply could not keep it up any longer. In the room behind the mirror, the spectators watched with a sense of relief.

“Damn good job, Luis. Works every time” applauded Kane. Will smiled to himself. Luis definitely has the people skills, he mused. Now we’ll be one step closer to ending this pathetic little revolt. With this kind of morale, it won’t be long.

“Thank you for your cooperation. It’s much appreciated,” Luis said as he turned around to leave.

“Will I be charged with treason?” Husan asked.

“Only after a fair trial, of course. I’m sure the Chancellor will give you some leeway considering the information you’ve given us,” he replied as he exited the room.

Two UNR soldiers entered to dispose of the corpse. Husan looked away as the body was dragged out of the room. Even so, he could feel his teeth biting into his lip, his body quivering, and his eyes watering. Few noticed this, and if they did, their attention was soon elsewhere.

Everyone watched as Luis entered the observation room, meeting him with pats on the back and a few claps. Kane more than anyone, was greatly pleased.

“Congratulations,” he said, looking at both Luis and Will with a prideful smile. “You two will be heroes once all the traitors have been brought to justice. This information has already been wired to the Chancellor himself. His response was more than positive. He’s announced that he’ll be having a speech tomorrow in recognition for your acts.”

“We’re honored, sir,” said Will. Luis joined him in bowing respectively.

“Take some time off, all right? And remember to have that armor fully detailed before you get on that stage. I’m looking at you, Luis.”

“Yes, sir!” they said in sync.

Kane nodded in approval and then turned to leave, but Will wasn’t quite done.

“Sir, excuse me, but I’d like to speak with you for a minute.”

“Sure, I don’t see why not,” Kane said, sounding surprised. Luis as well waited to hear what Will had on his mind.

“Hearing what that man had to say, got me thinking about some other possibilities.”

Kane didn’t look especially happy. Not angry, but some odd cross between exhaustion and disappointment. The ecstatic man he was a minute ago was now gone.

“We all know exactly who you’re referring to, Will. As much information as he’s provided over the years, that well has dried up,” he said plainly.

“Perhaps so, sir, but I won’t feel right for the rest of the day if I don’t take a crack at this.”

“Fine, just promise you’ll meet up with Johnson when you’re done. We only get to see the bastard once every blue moon as it is.”

“Thank you, sir, and of course.”

Luis’ mind was on this recent development. If Major Johnson is back in town, then she must be back in the country as well. Today is turning into quite a day.

Chapter 4 – An Old Acquaintance

January 11, 2044 – Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C.

Andrew Jackson, atop his battle ready steed, watched the chaos building before him. It was a ghastly and repugnant sight. Jackson’s stern face did not turn away. He observed the filth encircling him without emotion. It was a night of snarling cold, and yet a yellow glow was reflected upon the gloss of his skin.

The eloquent Decatur House was bathed in a monstrous fire, as were the 726 and 736 Jackson Place buildings. The charcoal gray haze created by the flames smothered the landscape, and ashes rained down like a winter dance. Beautiful orange-yellow embers landed among the luscious trees, and soon, they too were a part of the great warm ambiance. The surge of yelling and chanting seemed abrasive enough to shatter windows, but Jackson did not ride off into battle. He did not draw his sword, or his firearm. He remained calm and stoic at the center of Lafayette Square.

The helicopter flew over the D.C. area like a vulture encircling a carcass. The burning buildings were but a backdrop for the feast below, which was the focus of everyone’s attention.

“This is Cynthia Pauletti, live at what is turning out to be one of the most violent riots in history. The initially peaceful demonstration in President’s Park exploded into chaos after President Howard moved today’s public address to yet another unofficial date. Apparently, the Federal Reserve needed more time to debate the just solution to our fiscal dilemma. Many groups were gathered here today in bulk with different agendas, among them anti-immigration, war protestors, and by far the largest group being the unemployed.”

The camera’s point of view switched from the young reporter to the crowds below, fanning out through the historic area. Hordes of angry men and women carried their messages, along with their weapons. Somewhere along the line, somebody started handing out Molotov cocktails, seeing as much of Lafayette Square and the Ellipse Park were ablaze, trees and buildings alike.

The helicopter spotted a fire truck that had been abandoned before it could ever reach a hydrant. Turned over police cars lay everywhere as well. The situation was growing more and more egregious by the second. The masses were progressing ever nearer to the still untouched White House.

“It’s pure chaos down there,” Pauletti said, as the chopper veered away from the columns of smoke for another pass, “the National Guard and Marines are being sent in as we speak to aid local police. One has to ask, though, just how long will it take to get this hell under control?”

***

The advancing mobs found themselves confronted with a solid wall of armored men and women. Out to the sides were the National Guard, in the middle was the holding place of the Marines. The crowds seemed to come to a halt at the guarded White House fences, in between the chaos and order, to the satisfaction of the Captain.

Captain Halsey was out in front of the crowds holding a megaphone. His helmet currently removed, one could see his short cut blonde hair, his baby blue eyes. He knew very well the only thing keeping the animals back were the men and women behind him with their drawn weapons, not his Marine uniform. They were vastly outnumbered on the ground, but Halsey took note of the air. The news chopper was gone, or at least far enough away that he was no longer able to see it. Instead, military Blackhawks circled the crowds like birds of prey, at the same time blaring commands on their speakers.

“RESIDENTS, RETURN TO YOUR HOMES IMMEDIATELY!!” yelled Halsey into the megaphone, “RETURN TO YOUR HOMES IMMEDIATELY!!”

He studied the signs and banners as he barked his commands. One read Create Jobs Now! Another, exceptionally long banner said in bold red lettering Bring My Children Home!

The crowd was moving closer, less than twelve meters away. By now he could see their faces, representing all ages and races. All were united in their shared fury, and Halsey saw the rage in their eyes. Many, he sadly noted, were armed. Several of the rioters had scarves wrapped around their mouths. They’re ready for what’s about to go down.

Halsey was well aware of the inevitable outcome, but he went ahead with the warning anyway.

“Be advised, we will be using live ammunition and tear gas! This is your LAST CHANCE!!”

At that moment a flying Molotov cocktail struck a Marine to the left of Halsey, who was immediately sent into a world of agony. The time for talking was done. Nobody held back as both sides sprayed bullets onto one another.

From their perches in the sky, in strapped down seats, sharpshooters fired off rounds into the bulging masses. Tear gas began to move through the crispy remains of the trees. Halsey quickly put on his gas mask as the crowd came at him like a rabid stampede. In place of the megaphone, he raised his handgun and fired off a short burst. Three nameless faces went down, and he advanced. Upon a park bench, an older man stood, ready to hurl another fireball, as Halsey put two shots into his chest. He heard the sound of the bottle shatter and then the bench became a bonfire. The crowds were moving backward into the park, but many held their positions and fought.

Halsey took cover behind a hammered Pontiac, the beaten automobile serving as a temporary shield. He switched from his handgun to his M-16, with the feeling he wasn’t alone as fighting intensified. However, all he saw next to him was the body of a police officer, a bullet wound in the man’s throat.

He heard a gunshot blow away the last remaining window on the car, followed by two more unsuccessful shots. Another sounded like it struck a tire, the air hissing. Halsey could only assume that whoever it was had killed his fellow brother, and was probably camped out right in front of him planning some sort of ambush. Flank his ass, all you can do. His grip on the weapon tightened and Halsey broke his cover to go back into the aimless fight. He ran into the park trying to stay low.

Almost instantly, a tall figure came at him with a hand-held weapon, he couldn’t identify what exactly. His beloved weapon spat up a few rounds, and the silhouette dropped to the grass in the park.

He walked through the grass, damp with the night’s dew, with caution. He could make out the sound of erratic breathing just ahead. Halsey arrived at the wounded man’s feet just as a fire broke out in the bushes next to him. The soldier could feel its heat, aggravated under his armor. The light gave him a clear view of what he had been up against.

Halsey saw a man of Hispanic descent with a face free of any truly matured features. His dark auburn eyes looked up at him; his teeth were stained with blood. The fact that he was still clinging to life was amazing. He wore a brown coat, now soaked in blood. He had two bullet wounds along his chest, close to the buttons alongside the zipper of his coat. Next to his hand was a hefty looking wooden bat. Halsey fired one more shot to end it all for the man, but he couldn’t walk away just yet.

Look at him, he’s probably no older than me. Halsey himself wasn’t even twenty yet, and he refused to acknowledge the thought that maybe the kid was even younger. Those precious early years, as his father had often referred to them, and yet here was this young man, now a corpse. And here I am. Halsey began to walk away now, not daring to look back in that direction. He just wanted to advance with the others.

Every other soldier seemed to be out-pacing him, leaving behind the bodies of more dissidents. Bodies of men and women in everyday clothes that resembled all too closely his uncle or his cousin. Curses and screams cried out together as gunshot after gunshot echoed in the night. Halsey ignored his surroundings, trying his best to keep his eyes strictly ahead. For a second there, he believed he could avoid the reality of what was going on by doing so.

All the same, it caught up to him as he heard a rustle in the bushes up ahead. This gave him pause, every muscle in his body tightening. The soldier stood there like a statue, his finger right on the trigger, and sweat trickling down his body in torrents. Over a minute of waiting passed, but there was no more movement or noise.

Halsey inched his way closer, right up to what he believed to be the source of the noise. To hell with it. He cleared some leaves out of the way with his arm before pointing his gun at the target hidden within.

Crouched down as if in a war-ridden trench, was a boy in his teens. His head was bleeding severely, either someone had struck him hard, or perhaps he’d been trampled in the excitement. His wound didn’t seem to faze him, though. His eyes were locked onto the mouth of the gun pointed down at him. The sight of the boy hit Halsey like a sharp blow to the chest, taking all the air out of his lungs.

The boy’s skin and hair, the darkness of his eyes– it was too horrifyingly clear. Halsey felt himself trembling, knowing there was not a goddamned thing to say, not a goddamned thing. Had the boy watched his brother die? Did he realize it was by the same man who now had his gun pointed down at him? These were questions he dearly hoped only God knew. Questions he knew would decimate his mind if he pondered them for too long. He continued on, leaving the boy in solitude. The sign the child had held now lay at his feet, but it stayed with Halsey regardless:

Please Bring My Daddy Home

The solider walked past the statue in the park center, hoping to live up to its nobility, but he knew he could not. He had succeeded, and yet he had also failed miserably. Of all the things that burned down that night, the statue of Jackson remained.

***

[_ April 4, 2065- Detention Center Cell No. 0219, UNR Headquarters _]

The small room was a nearly empty one as well. The only things in it were the small mattress and the shivering man who laid on it. The thin sheet that covered him did little to warm his body, his only other aid being the ragged inmate uniform he was forced to wear. It was a drab gray, along with everything else in the room. His hunger stabbed at him, his dinner of oatmeal and lukewarm water being hardly sufficient. His weary eyes told him it was growing late, but with no windows in his cell, he wasn’t sure what time it was.

The cell door jerked open, the dim lights growing brighter as it did. The man sat up now, stretching his weakened muscles. Perhaps it was time for a UNR soldier to deliver his daily beating. He was somewhat glad though. Sometimes when his mind wandered off to frightening levels he wasn’t sure he could still cling to sanity, and pain became the only real way to keep his feet on the ground. He was surprised, however, to see this particular visitor.

He watched S.S.C. Unit 21, trudging in slowly, shutting the door behind him. “Joseph Halsey,” he said, “I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“I’ll manage,” replied Halsey, wiping away any stray food from his thick mustache. “What could you possibly want from me, my old acquaintance? Or did you just want to be the one who tries to beat me half to death today?”

Will felt humored by the remark, observing now in the greater light, the number of bruises on the pale man’s face. He assumed there were many more under his uniform. A fresh cut was on his lower lip, which Halsey seemed to wince from as he sipped the last of the water from his cup, before throwing it at the wall. The clang of the tin cup against the concrete echoed in the tiny cell.

“Damn, this one kinda stings.”

“No, I’m not here for that Halsey.”

“No? What then?”

“Another terrorist group was taken down today. I believe it’s your right to know that within a few days, justice will be executed.”

“And you came to me, why? Now you think you have it all figured out?”

“You amuse me, that’s all. Seeing the transformation of what you used to be to what you are now, it fascinates me. Back in your heyday as head of the Crimson Angels, you would have looked me in the eye and claimed that the whole world would rally behind you. Yet all it took was a little persuasion, and they now beg at our feet.”

Halsey nodded in full agreement, the nod of a concession long ago admitted.

“It used to baffle me why the Chancellor keeps you of all people alive, but today was a reminder – you’re a trophy.”

“I’m alive because of my service record. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

“Seeing the collapse of it all, do you ever miss it?”

“When I committed myself to this cause, I knew there would always be weak ones. Ones who have doubts, who start questioning the very foundation they stand on solely because of fear. Ones who believe in something, but would never have the will to carry it out.”

“You’ve got a little left in you, Halsey. Commendable.”

“First I thought it was just a few of us with blinders on. Next thing I knew everybody was chanting. The rest of the world turned a blind eye. People became desperate, and let the devil himself into their hearts. The few like me were just trying to rebuild what once was.”

“Is that what you tell yourself right before every execution you’re forced to watch?” Will asked harshly.

Halsey seemed to be a little disturbed by that one. He actually looked up at the cyborg, misty eyed but not beaten. Will knew better than to assume he had nothing more to say. As usual, Halsey didn’t let him down.

“Someone like you will never know the true meaning of what we fought for. Every man and woman who died for the cause did so doing something they believed in.”

“And what about all the civilians who were killed in the process? Surely, you did not forget about them. At the end of the day, you’re nothing more than a shackled animal. I protect the citizens of this country from the ones like you.”

“I guess you’ll have the greatest pleasure of them all then, being my executioner when that day comes. Am I right?”

“When it’s all said and done, I’ll be the one to show you your final act of mercy.” Will replied, locking the cell behind him before heading back to Luis.

***

[_ April 4, 2065- Training Center, UNR Headquarters, Washington, D.C. _]

Will and Luis headed for the gym. The fiasco at the military base earlier hadn’t been much of a challenge, and both felt the overpowering need to stretch their muscles.

“What did he have to say?” Luis asked as they left the locker area, “Your little friend.”

“Nothing much,” Will replied.

“He’s a relic from an age dead and gone. You ought to find other forms of amusement.”

Will only smirked, ignoring him for now. His mind often lingered on trivialities, something he could never quite figure out. Luis, in sharp contrast, lived for the moment and it showed.

“You could petition for his execution, if that suits you,” Luis encouraged, “but I highly doubt it’ll go through.”

“His incarceration is enough. I have no qualms about the Chancellor’s choice of punishment. I’m just interested in what caused him to become what he is.”

“What he was,” Luis corrected. “You sure do struggle with the past, man. All the same, let him be. His actions no longer have any effect on you, or anybody else for that matter. He once was a citizen and a soldier. Now he’s scum.”

“Maybe I’m waiting for him to say something.” Will said.

“Hoping for some form of repentance I see. Just because he was born here like you and me doesn’t mean he appreciates it, as he should. Gratitude and respect, that’s all the difference you need to know concerning filth like him.”

Will was surprised at Luis’ take on the situation. Halsey had been a UNR citizen at one point in his life, not just some foreign bug. Alas, now there was nobody to see the tragedy in that. Actually, Will thought, people out there apparently still do. Otherwise, as Halsey said, he’d already be dead like the rest of them. It was time to move on with the conversation, though. He didn’t want to discuss the failures of their society any longer than his friend did.

“You’re right,” he said, “now let’s see if you can lift as much as you talk.”

They entered into the main area of the gymnasium, and immediately settled on their favorite workout. Luis ignored Will, and set down a forty-five-pound bar, putting four plates on each side. He stretched his arm, imagining the sound of joints cracking.

“Leading off with 405? I see you’ve improved. But I’m still fifteen pounds ahead of you,” Luis taunted.

“We’ll see about that,” Will smiled.

He picked up the bar in a squat position and then lifted. His veins popped out as his biceps bulged. Whatever initial difficulty his body felt was overcome in roughly a few seconds. He immediately adjusted to the weight and started performing reps.

“One, two, three, four…,” said Will, hardly breaking a sweat, “…seven, eight, nine…”

As they continued their workout, a small group of UNR soldiers arrived. Both Luis and Will recognized them. The three men and one young woman were four of the Chancellor’s finest. The tall one was Mitch Carline, who was more sculpted than the two cyborgs in terms of bulkiness. Still, being just as a man, there was no way his strength outmatched or could even compare to either one of the cyborgs. His clean-shaven head made him stand out among the others. Then there was Hans Kimp, a more or less thinly built man. He’d arrived from Germany some time ago, although no one had ever heard him speak in his native tongue. The beautiful female was none other than Bia Lui, one of the government’s top assassins. Her smile seemed innocent, but several had begged for mercy at her hands. In front of them was Major Avery Johnson, second in command of the entire UNR Special Tasks Force. Kane was his only superior officer in the specific branch.

Luis noted how all appeared to be nearly as old as Will, except for one. He noticed a fifth soldier was off in the back. He was the shortest of them too, but his hair was longer and straight. Luis didn’t recognize the brat, and immediately knew he had to be a new transferee.

“The super soldiers, what a pleasant surprise,” said Johnson, “where else would you find these two?”

“Nice to see you, too, Major Johnson,” said Luis. The two shook hands firmly, old friends. Although Johnson was no doubt in shape, he still felt the pain from Luis’ grip as they did so.

“Luis, you never do pass up an opportunity to show off,” he commented as they let go, “I guess that procedure has its downsides.”

“You kidding me, sir? What’s to lose?” Luis said.

“You mean you two are real cyborgs?” said the newbie.

“Yeah, though the official terminology is a Super Soldier Cyborg Unit. If I was a hard ass, anyway,” Luis joked.

“I’ve heard a whole lot, but never actually met one. I hate to be that guy, but can I ask you a question?”

“Congratulations, you are officially that guy.”

Luis fed off the young man’s curiosity, hidden by his nonchalant attitude toward him. The soldier paid no mind himself.

“By how much would you say your strength is actually increased?”

“Take a look for yourself,” he said, pointing at Will.

“Nineteen, twenty,” he finished, letting the colossal weight drop to the matted floor. Will let out a breath, his body completely at ease.

“That’s just his warm-up. To be honest, kid, I’ve never actually been at my limit,” Luis commented. This wasn’t his usual boasting. Between superior agility and an array of weapons, his strength played a minor role in the number of soldiers he’d killed over the years.

“The one thing they never addressed in the academy was the screening process or even how to apply for the Super Soldier Forces.”

“Good one, but they’re very selective about prospects. Vets who’ve been through the grinder get first consideration at all times,” Johnson said.

“So, what’s your name?” Will asked as he approached.

“Cisco Aguilar, sir.”

“You look a little young,” Will commented.

“I was at Prentiss Academy only a year ago, but I earned my credits quickly and graduated early, sir.”

“Oh, a prodigy huh? What do you specialize in?”

“Far range shooting, and tactical team operations, among other things,” he said.

Luis was inquisitive, “Hmm, so I guess he’s obviously joining up with your little special ops gang.”

Johnson nodded, “He was the leading student in all his classes.”

“Yeah? Looks like he might be replacing you, Hans,” joked Will.

“Please, he still hasn’t even been on a real assignment,” Hans replied in his rather snobby attitude, “you might slow me down in the field.”

“I doubt that, sir,” the young soldier said respectfully, yet confidently.

Hans and Cisco went off to go train as Johnson approached to speak with Will personally. Meanwhile, Luis headed toward Bia, who at the moment was busy fixing her bangs and pulling her hair up into a ponytail. Mitch was curling dumbbells nearby when he noticed the cyborg’s approach. He already knew who it was Luis wanted to talk to, and as much as it disgusted Mitch, he decided he would have a little fun with it all.

“Here comes your admirer,” he teased as he performed his final reps, “to sweep you off your feet.”

Bia paid him no mind, only looking up to say, “Please, Mitch, do me a favor and shut the fuck up.”

What little of a smile he had left shrank away as he put down the dumbbells and went to go find a free squatting station. Instead, Luis took the place of Mitch as the day’s pest. She shrugged it aside and began on her pull-ups. A rep of twenty and a total of three sets, which was her goal. Her muscles strained at first, she assumed due to the long flight back to the UNR, but they adjusted. She could hear Luis’ approaching footsteps, but did not pause.

“Hello, Luis,” she said rather flatly.

“Hey, Bia, it’s been a while since I last saw you,” he greeted warmly, “that mission in France go well?”

“Almost too easy,” she said, barely paying attention to him as she paused briefly. She did not allow her feet to touch the ground, now definitely feeling the burn she was seeking. After a few seconds, she continued onto the second set.

“You know,” he said, mesmerized, watching as her slim body went up and down with each rep, “now that you’re back, and seeing as it has been a long time, we should–”

“Don’t start, Luis. Not right now,” she said, trying to focus on her workout. Luis was put off at that. If anyone knew how impossible it was to deter his ego, it was Bia.

“Awfully rude of you, considering how I’ve missed you. Is it really fair to just–”

Bia finally dropped to the ground, landing on her feet. Her peach skin had a hue of red at this point and Luis wondered if it was solely the workout, or his presence to boot.

“Skipping the formalities, fuck off Luis,” she said sternly before leaving the cyborg alone at the pull-up bar.

***

“How should I celebrate your return to HQ, Major?” Will said as he embraced his superior officer, “A sparring match?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Johnson laughed, “but if I ever need a good excuse not to attend another one of my wife’s dinner parties, I might let you give me a slug.”

“How’s she doing anyway?”

“Oh, Jessica is just fine, but how about you? I hear you bagged yourself a rat and a big loud one too.”

“I’m the best, Johnson. I bag ‘em, Luis tags ‘em.”

“Well, it’s a good lead. You know, being the top notch brass that I am,” Johnson bragged, “when files are handed over to my office, it means it’s something juicy.”

“So this time we really have something on them? About damn time.”

“I believe so,” answered Johnson, “and your branch specifically is going to get a decent-sized slice of it, for once. From time to time me and my team are sent out to squash little bonfires and so-called ‘insurrections’ around the globe, but this time the PSID thinks it’s not just a foreign bug problem. Something internal may be going on.”

“Internal?” Will got the gist of what his friend meant and didn’t like it.

“We’re going to continue the inventory checks, but you and Luis will be dealing with this specific mission.”

“And, we have confirmation on this level of corruption?”

“Bring it down a level, Will. It’s all speculation till we actually have a solid case. As much as you guys spooked that asshole, we still can’t just take his word.”

“Right, I’m getting ahead of myself.”

“There you go. Look at this as a reunion. We’ll finally be working together again.”

Chapter 5 – The Evasive Flaw

January 11, 2044 – “City of Peace” Jerusalem, Israel

The city of Jerusalem had been reduced to a smoldering mass. From his view on the hillside, Will gazed at the ruins. Despite the plumes of smoke, from here he could see the Dome of the Rock. Its golden sheen was a beacon of hope in an otherwise dead landscape. He tied his crimson bandanna around his forehead, letting most of it dangle in the rear. He’d used it back in training to keep the sweat out of his eyes, and he had held onto it ever since.

“The Air Cav really did a number on the Old City, huh?” Bryan said as he stood beside his friend.

“Just out of the hospital and straight into the shit,” Will said with distaste.

“You’re the legendary badass who survived a sniper shot to the face, Will. Everyone in the squad is itchin’ to fight alongside you.”

“So I’ve been hearing. It’s all so strange to me now.”

“Strange how?”

“Strange that everyone would idolize a fool like me who had a chance to go home and didn’t take it.”

“You sound like you regret it.”

Will was silent for a few seconds. They both got the feeling he wanted to weep.

“I miss my family. I miss them so damn much. Maybe I made the biggest mistake of my life, Bryan.”

Bryan put a hand on Will’s shoulder.

“Don’t kick the crap out of yourself. None of us were forced to be here. We went in with our eyes open, even knowing the crappy pay, yet here we are.”

Though Will felt his eyes glisten, he now smiled. The grass around them swayed magnificently in the wind.

“Valerie’s squad is down there already, right?”

“Sure is. I’m hoping to sneak some time in for a kiss.”

“Val’s got bigger balls than most guys we know. You must be proud, or emasculated.”

“You and your damn jokes, Will.”

“I’ve been thinking. Our tour is ending in a few months, regardless of what I want. By the time we get back we should be into summer.”

“You thinking Galveston?”

“You bet your ass I am. Last year the weather was perfect.”

The rumble of an explosion caused both of them to flinch. Luckily, the sight of the destruction was far below. Smoke and flames were now in the midst of consuming a building. A lower rumbling followed, with clouds of brown rising along with the black, as the structure began to implode.

“Let’s report back to Sergeant Stone,” Bryan said.

Before the dust could even settle, the sounds of gunfire echoed as a distant choir. They were too far away to hear the yells and screams. For now at least.

“Lead the way,” Will replied. Before he joined his friend, Will retrieved a tiny capsule container from his pocket. Before Bryan was any the wiser, the soldier had swallowed a pair of large pills effortlessly. Normally water was required, but Will ignored that and got a move on.

***

April 5, 2065 – UNR Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Will’s eyes cracked open slowly. He was in the Cyborg Malfunction Area, a medical examination room gleaming with an array of shining machines, and instruments of all sizes. Several monitor screens lined the ceiling and walls, totally mobile, and giving the doctor as many different angles of a patient as he or she liked. One was lowered so Will himself could see, giving him a view of his own innards. He could see the wires and circuitry entwined with his veins and arteries, in most areas replacing them. His skeleton was completely metallic, and to reinforce it, the structure was coated with neoartium, an incredibly durable metal alloy. Will had come to appreciate the amount of work and genuine creativity it had taken to construct an organism such as himself.

He lay in a tilted back chair, restrained by harnesses on nearly every moveable part of his body. Not even his immense strength could tear these metal bonds, and he was glad for that during the examination. Across the room was a large 72-inch telescreen.

Sporting no frames or visible mechanics like the relics of old, the telescreens appeared to the naked eye to be mere floating rectangles of glass. The mechanics for them were located under the plaster of the wall behind them, constantly feeding signals to the screens. On this particular screen was footage from his latest mission in Iran, all from Will’s point of view.

Dr. Krenzler and his assistant Myers walked in.

“Good morning, S.S.C. Unit 21,” greeted the Doctor. His white hair made his age apparent, although he wasn’t severely aged in his facial features. Myers was much younger, and was fairly new to HQ.

“Having problems, I hear?”

“Yes, sir. It first happened last night. Ever since then, I have been seeing bits and pieces of that same image. Even now, as I was in standby mode, just before you arrived.”

Krenzler and Myers looked at the information on the display screens. Both seemed confused.

“It’s strange,” commented his assistant, “there doesn’t appear to be any errors or damage to his skull, or anywhere else for that matter.”

“Yes, Myers, it is quite puzzling. This usually only occurs when there is some kind of head trauma. But I think I know the perfect solution. Fetch the injection gun, and fill it with ten milliliters of velocicide please.”

“Right away, sir” Myers said. He immediately left the room to get the device.

“What are the images I see?” Will asked, breaking the silence. He was determined to know. They felt so real, yet at the same time, so blurry. Whether reality or fantasy, he absolutely had to know.

“Well,” Krenzler said, walking over to Will, “put in simple terms, they appear to be dreams. It is a natural part of the mind’s anatomy.”

“You mean like a memory?” he suggested. Krenzler continued checking the many screens as he spoke,

“To be honest, it’s hard to tell. The brain is a very complex organ and even in a healthy human sometimes memories are abstract reconstructions of what we have actually experienced.”

“So for all I know, these images could be memory and fantasy all melded together.”

“All that we can be sure of is that they are configurations of what is left of your human mind. There are not essential for your programming.”

“It sounds like they could become hindrances to my performance in the field. Why are these defects within my CPU? I was under the presumption that I was state of the art.”

“And you are. The flaw is evasive, but it can be dealt with.”

Will looked up at the ceiling, its bright lights nearly blinding. If he was feeling anything now, it was anger. Me? Defects? Impossible.

Krenzler could see the bitterness in his face, and turned away to check some other readings. Once more silence crept into the room. Then Myers returned, holding an object that looked rather like a large, silver pistol. Myers handed it to the Doctor, along with a syringe filled with a sky blue gelatin-looking substance. Krenzler loaded it into the injection gun, the device humming slowly.

Krenzler now approached Will, holding the device just like a gun, his finger steady on the trigger. With any other being, fear would be gripping them by the throat by now. Will merely glanced at the approaching Doctor, taking note of the threatening instrument that was supposed to help him, but paid it no attention. Still, Krenzler felt the human need to offer him at least some form of comfort.

“It’ll be all right. I’ve given this same treatment to other S.S.C. units a number of times. I’m just glad we caught it early.”

Krenzler removed part of the headrest, exposing the back of his Will’s head. Under the hair and skin was metal, and beneath that his own warm blood. The Doctor rested the tip of the device on the back of his head slowly, taking precise aim right above the area where the skull and vertebrae joined. It was there that the precise design work had allowed a tiny weak spot, one so small only a needle could exploit, and of course only one such as Krenzler holding the needle, to know exactly where to aim it.

“Ready?” he asked, noting just how still and calm Will remained. It was plain inhuman. But of course, he recounted, that part of him, that fear, died long ago.

“Yes, Doctor,” he replied. He could feel the slight vibrations of the shiny instrument as it continued to hum quietly. Then the needle sank in, sliding through the small slit in the neoartium coat of armor. Then Krenzler pulled the trigger, releasing the velocicide into his blood stream. Will felt it pumping the liquid into him, felt its cold embrace flowing through his head and spreading around his body. His eyes weakened.

So, he thought to himself as it went on, this is what they feel, this odd sensation. His whole form now felt extremely cold and somewhat far away, as if he no longer had a body. Will rationalized this was what true euphoria felt like, completely free.

“Dr. Krenzler,” Will said, in a mouse-like whisper.

“Yes, 21?”

“I’m…glad…no one had to die.”

Will couldn’t see any facial details by now, but if he could have, he would’ve seen the scientist’s almost tragic smile.

“Me too,” he said quietly in return.

Chapter 6 – The Eulogy

April 5, 2065 – Rock Creek Park, Washington D.C.

The masses of people poured into the ceremonial grounds. Already thousands had gathered, and many more were on their way. Several news vehicles and their crews had arrived well beforehand, reporting live as preparations continued. Rock Creek Park had in the last decade, become the sole green oasis among a landscape of almost entirely gray skyscrapers and other structures. In the center of the park stood an enormous bronze statue of Venloran. It was at least ten meters tall, and reflected the midday’s light beautifully. It was striking a majestic pose, with one hand curled into a fist, cementing his image of power. For today’s event, banners even hung from its arms. At its feet was a large podium where the Chancellor would make his speech. To the left and the right of the podium were a few chairs where the guests of honor sat.

Will was among those guests, along with Luis, though Commander Kane would not be attending. The super soldier was disappointed at that, but he knew his superior officer was on prisoner detail today, so he didn’t dwell on it for long. Instead, he found a smile on his face. Ignoring the appointment with Dr. Krenzler this morning, this would be a marvelous day. Finally, recognition for our acts.

He knew the majority of the spotlight would go to the Chancellor, which he found very appropriate. Still, it was remarkable. Seated alongside him were military leaders from all over the country, among them were a few giants. He recognized two members of the Chancellor’s UNR Cabinet among the people who’d come to take part in the momentous occasion. Seeing two monumental figures like General Berenger and Admiral Montalbán was an honor in itself. The select few members of the Cabinet were founding members of the UNR Party, long before its current position in the world. If Will was lucky, he’d get to shake their hands today.

The Chancellor’s beloved wife was also an attendee, speaking with them casually. It was a spectacular sight for the soldier. Major Johnson was also there at the podium, along with Bia, and of course, Luis. He too saw the sea of people, and Will saw that glimmer in his eye. There was a spike in the noise as the crowds became even more ecstatic. He had arrived.

Two UNR armored cars arrived ahead of a black limousine, with two more stationed behind it. They all parked next to Rock Creek, not far from the statue. As the UNR guards stepped out of the cars, so did the Chancellor. The public seemed uncontrollable as he waved to them all.

“It’s incredible, the amount of applause. Chancellor Venloran has just arrived, and his entrance, of course, is far from unnoticed,” announced a reporter who stood only a few feet away from the podium. As Venloran walked up a few steps, he shook the hands of Will, Luis, Johnson, and all the others. He finally made it to the podium, where he somehow managed to calm the people. He smiled warmly before speaking:

“Well, I made it on time,” he mused, “but before we take part in this glorious day, let us silence ourselves as the National Choir sings the Star Spangled Banner.”

All grew quiet as an elderly man stood near the front of the crowds. Seated facing the crowds was his choir. Young men and women, all dedicated to using their talent for its greatest purpose. It was an honor above all others. The once bustling crowd became dead silent as they began:

O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light…

Watching from his cell on a small telescreen, Halsey was at first, slumped against the wall on his bed, but he now stood up straight. He felt his skin prickle with goosebumps, as he realized he hadn’t heard those lyrics in…years. It’s been years. His right arm almost lifted itself to his heart instinctively, but he stopped himself. This is a eulogy, and nothing more, he reminded himself.

Venloran saluted accordingly, joined by his standing comrades. No matter how many things changed, he and the other founding members of the UNR Party had always known this anthem could never be replaced. With its raw power and long history, it continued to draw emotion from citizens and military personnel alike. Warren had such a lovely voice when he performed this in his school play. Venloran swallowed roughly.

Will was attentive to each word. It was only during this anthem that he ever removed his bandanna. Still, he kept it tightly clutched in his left hand. His pre-cyborg memories were foggy, but the little piece of red cloth had been with him always. Even back when bullets frightened him and he considered men worthy adversaries on the field of battle. The land of the free and the home of the brave. Perhaps becoming the perfect soldier is my freedom.

As the revered song came to a close, Janet Venloran herself stood at foremost attention.

“And now ladies and gentleman, we will indulge in a rousing rendition of the United Nation Republic Poem.” She said.

The National Choir once again raised their voices. This time Halsey stared with contempt and a deep sadness.

Oh, why must our hearts ache?

Relentless be our foe

We are forced to take yet another devastating blow

They hold back the light

Blood spilling onto our shores of white

After lies the moment of self-awakening.

A brightly shining dawn is approaching.

The enemy tries to stand strong

Their front line has already fallen

There is pouring rain and harsh cold winds

Yet our flame will burn on and on.

Not even fate could delay our day.

The ones executing tyranny finally pay.

The day of salvation, at long last, is finally here.

Our flaming sword will sear

Light descends.

The poem drew to the end, and the audience burst into appreciative applause. The news crews watched as the cyborgs clapped as well. All were surprised, however, to see Venloran take his seat among the others as Major Johnson rose to the podium in his place.

“Are all of you not inspired?” he said, patiently awaiting their response. Naturally, the crowd was moved to clap again.

“Yes, what a joyous day it is. Today we are reminded of why we are the empire of the world. Untouchable, invincible, and unbreakable will are just a few words to describe our United Nation Republic.”

***

Some distance away, atop a skyscraper vigilant eyes were watching the festivities like a bird of prey eyeing its domain. Hans chatted to a group of UNR subordinates, giving orders and so forth. Cisco was practicing with his sniper rifle, taking aim at the mass of people far below. They seemed so tiny, so insect-like, a sea of colors that spread far and wide. Looking through his scope, what were once pin drops to the naked eye became distinct faces, as he clearly distinguished one person from another. Hans took notice of his antics.

“Boy, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but try to mellow out, all right?” he suggested.

“Sorry, sir,” he said, lowering his gun, “it’s just that it’s my first mission and all. I’m a little anxious.”

“Uh, sure. Listen, kid, this is a routine security perimeter, so don’t get too excited. Once the real fighting starts, it’s not going to be what you expect.”

“I guess I won’t know until it arrives, sir.”

“No one’s ever ready for it, but with those two cyborgs down there I wouldn’t fret.”

“Right, sir.”

From their vantage point, the Chancellor was positioned in front of the statue’s enormous leg. The other surrounding buildings were shorter and any sniper’s view would be blocked by the many trees in the area. Cisco realized this was more babysitting detail than anything else, but an assignment nonetheless. He made the most out of it.

***

Far down below the building Hans and Cisco resided on a lone bum rested in the alley. The young man hesitantly took a sip of the malt liquor. Almost immediately, he found the taste was comparable to the muck found in rain puddles. Being seated next to a dumpster probably didn’t help. That’s when he heard footsteps approaching. About damn time. Feeling their shadows on him, he now took a hefty gulp from the bottle. The stench of it radiated from his mouth like a warm exhale on a cold day, the remaining droplets caught in his unkempt chin hairs.

Staring down at him were two UNR soldiers, though they kept a certain distance from him. And why not, with his torn beanie, the stained duster, and of course the lovely blue sweatpants with one exposed knee. The hoodie underneath was a maroon red with the remnants of some university’s logo marked on the front. The lettering had mostly faded away.

“Out late last night, sir?” one of them asked. “We can take you home.”

“Actually, I’m in the middle of transitioning to my own apartment. Fiancé put me out on my ass.”

The soldiers exchanged glances before returning their eyes to the man with his ass on the alley trash and his back against Tom & Benicio’s.

“That’s unfortunate, sir,” the first one said, this time his tone more authoritarian than neighborly. “Any substances on you we should know about?”

“Just a pack of Reds and a copy of Insomnia.” This was said in a genuine manner, though the man knew what was happening.

“Then I guess you’ll be traveling lightly. We got a clean house just up the street where you can get a hot meal. Not to mention a cozy bed where you can catch up on…I’m sorry, what did you say you were reading again?”

Insomnia, by Stephen King.”

They snickered at him for a brief moment and the man’s breathing intensified ever so slightly.

“And what’s so humorous about that?”

The soldier who had remained silent all this time continued to smile, as the other questioned the man. The talker continued to act somewhat professional, attentive, and waiting for the man’s response. The bum down on the ground knew this drill. Probing for my mental state. Hmm, I guess I can go either way on this one. Time’s almost up anyhow.

“More than I could explain without you two falling behind after the first few minutes.”

Their expressions changed at that one.

“Excuse me, I didn’t catch that.”

“Never mind that, just cut to the chase and promise me that once I’m enlisted I can still get my hands on plenty of these,” he said, holding up the now half empty bottle, “and get my damn balls looked at.”

These two soldiers knew their duty well, but here in the presence of this particular guy, they found themselves dumbfounded. They stood there speechless as the man took another drink. Right on time a news van flew by the alley at sixty and showed no signs of slowing down.

The two troops turned and rushed to the alley’s entrance, watching as the van smashed its way through a few cars before entering the park. The sound of glass and metal being shattered was accompanied by the screams of hundreds. Both men ran toward Rock Creek Park now, lucky to be right across the street from the ensuing chaos. As they ran past the barely scratched armored vehicles, one of them yelled:

“STAY PUT UNTIL THEY GIVE THE ORDER!”

The driver inside nodded even though she had a startled look on her face and a glaze of sweat to boot. Seated inside the fortress, she could see the slaughter going on at the park. Hundreds of civilians were running past her position, every one of them screaming like frantic animals. Despite all of the insanity going on, she felt the need to look away from it all. As she did, a chill spread so deeply down her spine and through her body, Private Inez Laura almost let out a scream. But she didn’t. It was the end all right but she wasn’t going to disgrace herself.

Ten feet from her window was a bum in a duster. His eyes were an ice-cold blue, and the stare he gave her was a look she’d seen before. Those were the eyes of a soldier who’d dealt a lot of death. In one of his hands was a RX-170 double-barrel shotgun, raised to her driver side window. A rare weapon and one Inez knew could blast its way through the bulletproof glass that was supposed to be impenetrable.

One truly thunderous shot later, the discharged ammunition blew away the window and the majority of Inez’s face.

***

“Whole nations tremble at the mention of our name and are we all not proud to be among those privileged to live on this soil?” Major Johnson continued, “Thanks to our dear Chancellor, we have had a long period of peace and prosperity. But now he will shed some light on recent events that threaten the very peace we value so much.”

The crowd waited as Venloran took the podium again:

“Yes, you may find it hard to believe, but there are still those who wish to cause disorder and chaos. Since the beginning, my only objective has been to bring a much-needed end to global conflicts, to war itself. And have I not? There’s an old proverb that states, ‘nothing lasts forever.’ I for one, disagree with that. My reign, along with the peace I have secured, will last forever.

“Foreign planes have been seized, foreign bases searched, and I have come to the conclusion that for some reason, there are still those who remain our enemies. Why can’t they see what the world has accomplished? Sadly, the planes were en route for the UNR. Apparently, some feel the privilege of being a citizen of this beloved country is something to be forsaken. We shelter them, we feed them, and yet they still aren’t satisfied. I find this intolerable, and I assure all of you, these acts will not go unpunished. Never will I allow these atrocities. I will bring the full force of our nation upon the participants, those of whom we have already identified.”

Everyone listened closely to the Chancellor’s speech, but Will and Luis knew the crowd was focusing on them to some extent. The cyborgs would be called upon to exterminate the traitors. They would once more be called on to serve their country. Will was restless with anticipation, although he sensed the struggle would end abruptly at his hand. In the midst of the speech, the roar of an engine was heard.

Down the street from the ceremony, one of the news vans went into reverse from the others that were parked alongside it. It was only a few feet away from the conference and the vehicle soon came into view for all to see. Everyone rushed to avoid the van as it slammed into the Chancellor’s parked limousine. The vehicle flipped over immediately from the impact and skidded down the street, as glass and metal flew everywhere. The news van suffered only minor damage.

Luis’ reaction was automatic, pulling out his FN-P90 submachine gun. Will did the same. The news van was headed right for them, already veering through the grass. Panic was imminent, as the gathered civilians began to flee wildly. Two UNR troops were brutally hit, the still corpses lying among the scrambling spectators. Not all of the innocent people were able to escape and some were unfortunate enough to share their fate.

Hans, Cisco, and the others readied themselves. This was definitely a surprise, but no matter, it wouldn’t slow them down.

“What’s our situation?” Hans said into his intercom. He waited impatiently for a reply:

“Hostiles! The news van is closing in on the Chancellor’s position,” reported Luis, “we’ve got casualties down here, both UNR forces and civilian.”

“Is that so?” he replied. “Kid, let’s get to work shall we?”

“Yes, sir!!” Cisco yelled.

Hans did admire the boy’s valor if nothing else. It looked as if the rookie would get his chance at greatness after all. About five ace snipers were lined along the roof of the building, all of them now aiming at the chaos below. They’d taken their positions. Spotters knelt down next to their partners, readying for the battle.

“Now…,” said Hans, just as he heard the sounds of cans rolling. What the hell? He looked down at his feet to see three medium sized canisters. Flowing out of them was an orange haze of smoke. Only seconds later the UNR troops found themselves struggling to breathe. Hans and the others were quickly brought to their knees. There was no fighting it, and they soon lay splayed out on the ground.

The Chancellor and his assistant took cover behind the cyborgs, and several more UNR guards rushed to the scene. They had been on street corners securing the conference, but no one had expected this. Still, well over thirty soldiers assembled, along with Major Johnson and Bia Lui. Simultaneously, they all fired on the approaching van. The wheels were torn apart under the spray of bullets, as well as the headlights. It was only ten meters away at this point.

Luis smiled and raised his gun an inch higher.

“Got ya,” he said.

As the driver of the van moved in, a bullet zipped past missing him by inches, and putting a hole in his headrest. Cotton fluffed out of the seat like fluid. Not one second later the next bullet found its target, going cleanly through his throat. Suddenly he found himself coughing up warm blood. Breathing became virtually impossible. Ducking in the passenger seat, Angie saw it all.

“Miles!” she yelled out. She placed a hand on his arm, not sure what she could do for him. There’s nothing I can do. The man’s eyes now locked with hers. His mouth moved to say something, but there was no way he could speak now.

As Luis watched the van swerve to a stop, he lowered his gun. The tinted window had taken a beating, and the latest hole allowed Unit 18 to see the dead man inside. The others kept their weapons at the ready. The crowds, including the news crews, were some distance away, but nonetheless watching closely. An eerie calm followed, an aura of dead silence creeping over the area.

“Come in primary evac, what’s the holdup?!” Will said angrily into his intercom.

From where he stood, all the armored vehicles remained still, which was inexcusable considering there was supposed to be a driver stationed inside all five of the nearby posts. What Will couldn’t see from his vantage point was that each driver was already dead. If he wanted to move the Chancellor, it’d have to be through the open grass area.

***

The gas began to clear as two men now stood among the incapacitated soldiers. Both wore gas masks and had few weapons really, aside the gas canisters. One held a handgun, equipped with a silencer, the other an RPG. The plan had gone perfectly up until this point. They would make sure it stayed that way. One of the fallen soldiers seemed to move, as if he was regaining consciousness, or perhaps it was just a twitch. Either way, the man put a bullet in him quickly, and the movements ceased. He then took aim at a younger one, only to be interrupted by his partner.

“Ay, Vic, come on! Let’s get on with it! We ain’t got much time,” Hayes reminded him.

“Right,” Vic said as he put his gun away, picking up one of the M25 sniper rifle.

***

“Hold on, Chancellor,” said Bia.

At the moment, Venloran held his wife’s hand tightly. He hadn’t felt her grip this fervent since the birthing of their son. The man didn’t look her in the eyes for now. He knew he’d see too much pain.

All had only one concern at the moment – getting the Chancellor to the armored vehicles. But, to get to them, they would have to risk any further attacks. The van was now sitting quietly between the UNR forces and the armored cars. Major Johnson stepped forth.

“All right,” he said, pointing at three other guards, “you three come with me, you too, Will. We’ll bring the armored cars to this spot.”

“Yes, sir!!” they responded.

As they began to jog for the vehicles, gunshots pierced the air. Will recognized it, the sound of a fully automatic MP5SD. Another hostile within the van. The remaining glass of the front window was blasted away, and death followed soon after for the advancing UNR soldiers. Two of them were hit, and Johnson received two bullets into his left leg. The Major hit the grass along with the dead soldiers, watching as the third and last one ran for the armored vehicles. Will, however, ran to the side of his fallen comrade.

“What are you doing? Get to the car!!” the major yelled.

Will lifted his fellow soldier easily and rushed back to the group at the statue. As the remaining troop ran for the armored car, an echoing gunshot went off. Blood spurted from the soldier’s helmet as it split in two.

Luis saw Will running back to them now, but more was on his mind. He could tell, from the angle and the sound that it wasn’t the MP5SD that had gunned down the other soldier. He looked around with no luck. There was no other hostile in sight, which confirmed his suspicion. There are more enemies dug in where we can’t see them apparently. More men and women were being shot indiscriminately, littering the grass with bodies. Soldiers and civilians alike, it made no difference. A motion to spark panic, Luis recognized.

“And he’s down,” said Vic. People were running in almost every direction, like a scattered herd of cattle on the open plains.

Hayes took steady aim with the RPG as he waited for the command. His partner spoke into an intercom, “All right, Point B is secured,” he hesitated for a bit, “and, we’re ready. Operation Second Strike is a go.”

“I understand,” responded Angie, “prepare to fire.”

Just like that, the channel went dead. Hayes wiped a tear from his eye before he switched the channel to another, “Lieutenant, we’re all set.”

“Copy that, Hayes. You and Vic give ‘em hell, all right? Priority is to eliminate the Chancellor. After that get out of there.”

“Yes, sir. Over and out here.”

Vic turned off his intercom now. He marveled at the selflessness of his brothers and sisters. They were giving this mission their all. Miles was already gone, and Angie had only one last thing to give.

As Will continued to observe the horror the van suddenly exploded. Flaming wreckage nearly hit the group, and everyone ducked for cover. Thankfully, it wasn’t large enough to cause any harm. Will, Luis, and a few other soldiers were already huddled around their leader, ready for whatever came next. The cyborgs could see it had been the work of a UNR rocket launcher nearly a hundred meters away, but no one cheered. Silence descended upon them now, and it was somehow worse than the gunfire and screams.

The Chancellor remained motionless beside his wife, who clung to him tightly. Venloran’s instincts from his youth in the Corps had reignited, his eyes darting about and his ears listening to the slightest of sounds. In the heat of all this, though, he still held his wife’s hand tightly, not once letting up.

“Just hold on a little longer, Janet,” he said calmly, not a touch of fear in his voice, “I’m getting you out of here.”

She said nothing in response, only grasped his hand even tighter.

The sirens of approaching UNR cavalry were drawing ever nearer. Already reinforcements from further down the street were approaching on foot, cautious but clearly visible. Presumably, it was over. Perhaps. Will wasn’t too sure, though. The primary threat was indeed down, but he had a lot of questions. Hans, what the hell happened to him? With his vantage point, he should’ve…and then it hit him. He turned to his right, atop the tall building known to everybody as Tom & Benicios, and saw exactly what he feared. As he opened his mouth to yell, Luis beat him to it,

“WATCH YOUR SIX!!”

Will turned back to the events on the ground to see what appeared to be civilians opening fire on the advancing soldiers. He saw only two and they were gunned down fast enough, but the sounds of gunfire were coming from seemingly all angles of Rock Creek, and even down the street. Once again, the group surrounding the Chancellor buckled down by the legs of the statue, and Will knew it was to the satisfaction of the pair on the rooftop far above. It had only been a few seconds since his revelation, and the next minute would decide everything.

“Chancellor, WE HAVE TO MOVE! THIS POSITION IS COMPROMISED!”

Luis, Venloran, Kearney, Bia, and Johnson all stared past Will’s pointing finger, and they all now saw what he did. Janet’s lip quivered.

“No, no, no…”

Hayes fired the RPG, the single missile now in flight. It streaked downwards, a terror from the sky no less. Will and Luis watched as it approached with pristine clarity. The two could easily leap out of the way in time, but the fate of the rest of the group was now in the hands of God. There were far too many people to protect and only two of them. The duo knew their priorities.

Kearney knew what he’d been entrusted with from the start and began to pull the screaming Janet away from her husband. Venloran held his ground. They’re gunning for me, so let them. Janet, I love you. Please, stay safe.

The projectile hit the ground close to another UNR troop, and the boom that followed knocked everyone off their feet. Will was closest to the explosion, the eruption flinging him helplessly.

“That’s a hit,” reported Hayes, “you’re up, Vic.”

Vic took aim. At first, there was too much smoke, but it soon cleared. The results were as expected. Most of the UNR troops lay dead or unable to get up. Even the two cyborgs it seemed, were down. His scope panned in on one of them recovering and trying to stand up after the blow. He got ready. Time for you fucks to pay.

Luis stood on his knees, angry more than anything else at the moment. The soldier he’d protected was unharmed and that was a relief. He looked down at Bia as she opened her eyes. The first thing he saw on her face after realizing what had just happened was shock. For a few seconds she soaked it all in with a speechless stare. Luis took off his overcoat, the back soaked in blood.

“Jesus,” she remarked, “Luis, are you hurt?”

“Just caught some shrapnel in my back. I think I’m more along the lines of livid,” he said calmly.

Atop Tom & Benicios, Luis spotted a sniper. He saw everything clearly now. The missile, the van, it had all been a diversion for this very moment. The moment when the Chancellor would be out in the open and vulnerable. Damn it! He saw his submachine gun laying a distance away. If he could get it, there was a chance he could take the man out. For a cyborg, it would be a moderately easy task, but he also knew if he moved for the weapon, he would be open to enemy fire. Any single bullet could easily strike Bia, and despite his speed, he was well aware he wasn’t fast enough to grab the gun and kill the bastard before he got off a few shots.

She tried to hand her P-90 to him, but he pushed it away. Luis didn’t want to give the shooter any reason to pull the trigger, least of all, in her direction. As much as he hated submission, if he wanted to keep Bia alive, this was his only option. Sure enough, he saw the sniper turn in the direction of the Chancellor. Luis felt his own body go cold in that instant. He wanted to protect the Chancellor, the highest directive there was, but his body would not allow him to do it. Bia read all of this on his tortured face. I should…but she didn’t know what to do or say. The assailant pulled the trigger.

Venloran heard it, the sound of the M25 sniper going off. He looked at the two people he was closest to in life. His wife’s eyes were locked on him in sheer terror, her mouth agape. Over everything else, Venloran only wondered what horrors his wife’s heart was enduring at the moment.

Kearney knew he had to put distance between her and what was about to happen and he cried even as he fought her struggling. There was no time for him to run and no place for him to take refuge. It was over, but Venloran would not cower. He was no stranger to gunfire, after all. If now the darkness beckoned him, he would appear at his finest. Swiftly, a shadow loomed over him. He looked up to see one of the cyborgs, S.S.C. Unit 21. He watched the cyborg’s face cringe as the first bullet landed right around his neck.

“Stay down, Chancellor.”

“SHIT!!” yelled Vic, as he pulled the trigger again, again, and again. He used up every bullet in the weapon before having to reload, ten shots in all. Each a direct hit, to no avail. If it had been an ordinary man, the bullet would’ve gone straight through him and still finished off Venloran. A macabre realization, but a truthful one. And now the others had arrived. It was time to get the hell out of here.

Hayes began to panic at this point.

“Come on, let’s go!!” he told Vic, “Put your mask back on.”

Vic threw the sniper rifle and ran for the entrance to the stairwell. Hayes threw four canisters down the stairs, filling it with gas, merely a precaution to avoid any silently waiting foes. The two men ran, their hearts racing. Their sacrifices were useless, their plans ruined, and all thanks to a sole being. But, all that mattered now was getting to the rendezvous point. The gas made an impenetrable barrier, and would also take care of any bastards trying to follow them. They held onto the railings as they continued downwards, when a voice came out of the darkness:

“It’s over.”

The two stopped dead in their tracks. The voice belonged to a female, but that wasn’t what disturbed them most. The voice had not been muffled. It was in fact, clear as day. Whoever the voice belonged to, smooth yet stern, was not wearing a mask.

Impossible, thought Vic silently to himself.

He pulled out his pistol. It became dead quiet again, as both men tried to steady their breaths. Faster than either one of them could possibly react, a bullet went into Vic’s leg. He fell and then opened fire blindly. The figure rushed forward from the gloom, stepping firmly on the hand holding the gun. Both crunched, as the man yelled in pain. Hayes ran back up the stairs as Vic’s screams were silenced. He soon was on the roof again, the sound of footsteps following slowly behind him. There, he threw his handgun, picking up a sniper rifle.

He waited. The doorknob twisted. He fired six shots into the wooden door, but the knob still turned. The door opened and smoke billowed out. Hayes backed up against the edge of the building’s rooftop. His fierce desire to fight subsided as the figure revealed itself, a young and beautiful woman. She was wearing armor very similar to that of the cyborgs’ below, plus a red overcoat to match. Hayes set the weapon down without even thinking about it as the woman stepped forward, no weapons drawn, to within two meters of him.

“On your knees and hands on your head,” she commanded. Indeed, it was the same voice.

Hayes felt as if he was on the verge of collapsing. Things had ended horribly. The entire plan was ruined, burned to the ground, after all the planning, and sacrifices. Coupled with absolutely no fruit for their labors, the mission had all been absolutely meaningless. And now this emerald-eyed woman, with her flowing black and blond hair, sealed his fate, along with his companion’s.

“Did you kill him?” he asked silently, as he put his hands on his head.

“Yes. How did you think it would end? He chose to fight till the last breath. Luckily you were smart enough to save yourself and put the gun down.”

The man was crying now, glaring at her in pain. He quivered as if his body was afflicted by an unseen host. The female soldier recognized these signs and took a step forward slowly.

“God, forgive me, please,” he said right before leaping over the edge. The woman rushed to stop him, but didn’t make it in time. The cyborg looked over the side of the building, to see the man lying on his face, splattered all over the sidewalk. By now, a large squad of fellow UNR troops had joined her on the rooftop.

“Damn it,” she said, feeling dissatisfied. She stood there staring, taking the moment in fully. Finally, she found a bit of resolve. Her fellow soldiers watched as she launched a wad of spit down at the corpse.

Chapter 7 – Exhibition

April 5, 2065 – UNR Headquarters: ER Section

Major Johnson lay in his hospital bed, which admittedly, was not all that bad in terms of comfort. The room lacked any real odor, which was a lot better than the infamous “hospital smell.” A gourmet meal consisting of a Jamón ibérico sandwich with a side of baked sweet potato fries had been presented to him only moments ago. It smelled heavenly, but Avery could only stare at the food blankly. His leg throbbed constantly, but that wasn’t what distressed him. How could we have been so sloppy? So caught off guard? In his very speech just hours ago, he’d said they were “untouchable, invincible, and unbreakable.” And yet, the Chancellor had come so close to being killed. Their savior nearly murdered before the eyes of millions.

“Hey,” said Will as he entered the room. He seated himself next to Avery on his bed, who only looked at him silently. Will saw a bouquet of roses, some chocolates, and dozens of get-well cards on the nightstand on the other side of the room. One card read: Hey, I know you’re having a shitty day, but at least one thing turned out okay: you still got to see me. Will smiled faintly. Damn Luis.

“Your wife wasted no time getting you your favorite dish, I see. I’m impressed,” Will said.

“Yeah, it took me a war of my own just to convince her to head back to work. I don’t plan on being in here for more than two days.”

Avery’s tone saturated the words with both humor and conviction.

“Don’t rush it. This is the one place where you might actually get to relax. I see a lot of the guys left you gifts. I should’ve done the same then, huh?”

Avery laughed, giving the nightstand a quick glance.

“Oh, you noticed the pile. There’s no need, I’ll just end up throwin’ it all away when I get out of here.”

“Probably so,” Will agreed amusedly.

“But you, you son of a bitch,” the Major said, “you really are something. You saved the Chancellor, not to mention my ass. If not for you, we’d both be dead right now.”

“Maybe so, Avery, but still…” Will replied, pausing for a moment. His smile disappeared, “We underestimated them. To think it would have come to that, a bloodbath in the middle of a damn victory speech. I’m not quite sure how to feel about this.”

“Regardless, they failed, Will. Thanks to you. And the bastards are all dead. That’s got to be some level of condolences for the families of both the soldiers and civvies alike.”

“Perhaps we were too confident. Trust me, I won’t let it happen again.”

“Well, the Chancellor must be thinking the same thing. Have you met the new cyborg unit? She apprehended the two on the roof top, and nicely done.”

“Why wasn’t I told?”

“The cyborg was barely admitted into our district yesterday. I guess Venloran assumed it would be useful to keep it confidential. They seemed to have it very well planned out if you ask me. But I bet a third cyborg was unexpected.”

Will realized that he was right. If that third operative hadn’t been there, the others would’ve escaped. And if her presence had been made public, he rationalized they would’ve figured some way around her.

“I see your point,” Will answered, “what’s her identification number?”

“Um, let me think…” Avery pondered to himself, “Oh, yes, Unit 23, I believe. Not too bad looking either, for one of you.”

“Very funny,” said Will.

“I hear she and the others just got done debriefing with Kane and the Chancellor. Are you going to introduce yourself or do I have to do it for you?”

“Yeah, I’ll get to that. You worry about eating something.”

***

Will saw the doors to the training area up ahead, but still couldn’t decide on whether to be gracious or distant toward the new cyborg unit.

He finally entered the room. Inside were a few others, including Luis, Mitch, Hans, and of course Cisco. In front of the group was the new woman. She was attractive, as the Major had stated earlier, and without the armor, it was even more evident. She wore a black tank top, with matching shorts that stopped an inch or two above the knees. Workout gloves covered her hands, which were small and deceptively gentle looking. Slim yet well toned in muscle, on the outside the woman appeared ordinary. In reality, everyone knew she was far from it.

Will stepped closer, noticing the beads of sweat glistening on her body. Her black hair had several areas of blond highlights. Everyone else finally seemed to notice him.

“Will, where you been?” stated Luis, “We’ve all been waiting on you.”

“Sorry, I had to get those bullets pulled out of my back one by one.”

“Oh, yeah, how could I forget?” he laughed, turning toward the woman, “This is Will.”

Will saw her eyes turn toward him. She walked over first, putting out one hand.

“So, you’re the one – S.S. A. Unit 21,” she said as they shook hands, “in your heyday you were The Grim Reaper. I never thought I’d get the pleasure.”

“Likewise. Unit 23, right? One of the First Fifty.”

“Yes, although I prefer to be called Valerie. Val for short, if you please.”

Will smiled at that.

“All right, fair enough. If you’re up to it I’d like a little exhibition match. Let’s see what caliber of soldier you really are.”

Luis looked at his comrade for a moment.

“You really have a funny way of getting to know people.”

To everyone’s surprise, Val just grinned. In fact, she seemed overly eager.

“Sounds like fun to me. I just got re-activated two weeks ago, so forgive me if I’m a bit out of form.”

“In that case I might just go easy on you.”

The two cyborgs stepped onto the matted area of the large room. Will tossed off his overcoat, unbuckling the shoulder straps on his chest armor, which he removed as well. Luis paid close attention. Things had definitely escalated to beyond interesting.

“How do you want to do this?” she asked, stretching her legs.

“Are you good with edged weapons?” Will asked in return, as he drew his sword, the long blade gleaming under the bright lights.

“You’ll see,” she replied simply.

She looked over at Luis. He understood what she wanted, and threw her one of his own swords. She quickly unsheathed it, and from the way she held it, Luis could tell she knew what she was doing.

“Be careful children,” commented Mitch. These people and their swords, he thought. He utterly despised working with the cyborgs, but this exhibition would at least entertain him. While he’d seen cyborgs take out men hundreds of times, this would be the first time he watched two duke-it-out among themselves.

“They’re going through with this? Isn’t it a little dangerous?” asked Cisco.

“Don’t panic. Just relax and enjoy the show,” said Luis calmly. Cisco still wasn’t fully convinced, but the others were equally as mellow.

Will got into the proper posture. Val began to move in slowly. She swung at Will, aiming high at his neck. Everyone in the room, even Luis, was startled at the aggressiveness of the opening strike. Will displayed no surprise at all, easily blocking her swing. Val followed up by striking at his legs. That too, was easily blocked. Then the two backed away from one another.

The opponents began to circle like predators closing in on a target. Suddenly they both swung at the same time, the swords colliding so hard they actually sparked. Their strength seemed evenly matched, to the surprise of Mitch. As everyone watched on, only Luis was smiling.

Will broke the hold and two began to swing and lunge at each other. At a distance, it would appear the two were taking part in a graceful dance, the movements so swift and cleanly executed. The only sound was the occasional clang of the metal blades. Will was getting more serious as it dragged on. He swung harder and faster, but Val kept up with him without much trouble.

He took the offensive, pushing her back with relentless attacks. Their swords clashed together again, but this time Will put more force into his shove, knocking her backward and nearly off her feet. I got you. Will swung downwards, and a small cut appeared on her smooth arm. The red line of blood was shorter than her pinky, but it was a blow no less, and during an exhibition match. Will swung again and Valerie once again met his blade without difficulty. Luis raised an eyebrow. He saw the move before it was even played.

Valerie rammed her elbow into Will’s face. He wiped his bleeding lip, laughing. Cisco watched intently as blood dripped onto the matted floor. He hadn’t even been aware the cyborgs could bleed, but it certainly wasn’t stopping them.

Will took a swipe at his opponent, but Valerie maneuvered behind him in a flash. Before he knew it, she delivered a small cut to his shoulder, a bit longer than the one he’d inflicted on her. Without even turning, Will put a foot out to trip her, causing her to land flat on her back. He rushed to finish it, and sooner than she realized, his sword was aligned horizontally against her neck.

Will could hardly marvel at the achievement, though, as he suddenly became conscious of her sword, pointing directly up at his right eye, barely an inch away. Even down on the ground, Valerie managed to execute a killing stroke. At that, both soldiers rested their swords. Will put out a hand, which she gladly took. The others were in astonishment. Luis stepped up to them, clapping.

“Tacky, but overall pretty decent,” he admitted.

“Thanks,” Val said, turning once more to Will, “you’re as good as they say.”

“Well, I decided to take it easy on you, like I said I would. I didn’t want to scar that face of yours.”

“Oh, really? Well, hopefully there’ll be a time when we can do this again. I enjoyed it.”

“Yeah, I look forward to it.”

Chapter 8 – War and the Sword

April 6, 2065 – Location: Undisclosed

I blew her away when she couldn’t even strike a counter defense. I’m a true badass. The man would never be able to etch the sight of that corpse out of his mind. He’d showered right after the mission, shaved his face, and had a real beer to quench his thirst. Not all the hops in the world could help him now, though. Seated on his cot, he rubbed his scraped and badly bleeding knuckles. Across the room from him, the dingy wall had a series of cracks in it, even a few smudges of crimson against the gray paint. The bookshelf was now empty of books, and his desk was turned over. Stacks of paper covered the floor, like leaves in autumn. A young woman stopped in the doorway of his quarters, watching in silence, as a tear rolled down her cheek. A tall man joined her, but he did not intervene, either.

“Jacob,” said the woman with delicacy, stepping inside to sit down next to him, “it’s going to be all right. We’ll get through this.”

She held his battered hand tightly. Jacob, whose light face was red with anger, could only look away.

“Gabby, how can you possibly say that?” he said, trying to remain calm. Both could hear his voice growing louder, “How can you say that when so many people are dead? Dead! Never coming back! We risked it all and more! And, we sent them to their deaths for what ultimately amounted to little more than a publicity stunt!”

“Don’t say that!” she now yelled back, “As if I don’t feel the same way. I knew them just as well as you did.”

“Vic, Angie, Hayes. Do you want me to continue? We can’t even bury them!” he replied, ripping his hand free of hers. “We can’t go through with this plan. I won’t. It’s not worth it, Gabby. I know you see that.”

“They knew the risk,” she said weakly.

“I’ll tell you what they didn’t know: that so many civilians were going to get fucking killed.”

The woman had nothing to say, nothing at all against those words. She stood up, standing a distance away from Jacob now. Gabby sniffled as a tear rolled down her cheek. She cleared a strand of her brunette hair out of her face as she turned to look at him again.

“All right then,” she said in a clear tone, “if that’s what you want. I’ll call it off and tell everyone the operation’s cancelled. Here we are relying on you as a leader. Father is lying ill in his bed, counting on you to continue what he started. But I guess if our leader is to quit, who’s to say we’re not cowards to do the same?”

Jacob couldn’t look her in the eye anymore at this point. She turned to leave, done trying to reason with him. Neal watched as she left.

“You know she’s right,” he said, “after all, you did promise your father to pick up the slack.”

“I know what I promised,” Jacob interrupted, “but I can’t sacrifice people like this.”

“We’re going up against the UNR, man. We’d be lying to ourselves if we said there wouldn’t be losses. And I will certainly not say these will be the last. What I will say is that if enough blood, sweat, and tears go into this, we can do it.”

Jacob lifted his head, running a hand over his short brown hair. He stood up and walked over to Neal. He embraced his friend, and though the moment was brief, the hold was strong.

“Thanks, man,” Jacob said, “shit gets out of hand sometimes, you know?”

“We bear this pain together. Remember that if we’re gonna prevail.”

As Gabriella walked down the hall, she heard the voice of her older brother:

“Gabby!” he called.

She turned to face him, waiting for what he had to say.

“I know how I’ve been acting,” he admitted. She could hear the tension in his voice. Even now it was hard for him to let go. He spoke calmly.

“It won’t get us anywhere, I realize that.”

Gabby smiled and ran into his arms. Neal watched and leaned against the wall. Those two, he admired, always a sight to see.

“Who exactly were you trying to fool anyway? I know you’d never quit, even if I did,” he added, “don’t forget to pack the extra ammunition, okay kid?”

“I knew you hadn’t given up, Lieutenant,” she said cheerfully.

“Only on my days off,” he joked, but his relaxed face gave way to a serious one. His ice blue eyes shined magnificently, “Just give me some time. I need to be alone for a little while.”

Gabby only nodded her compliance in her identical eyes. She turned to leave, Neal in tow. Her brother remained in the hall for a moment, watching them leave. Neal was like a second sibling and for his words, she was always grateful.

“Neal, thanks for what you said back there. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to convince him,” Gabby said as they walked away. Relief had finally washed over her in the middle of the turbulent time.

“I was working with your brother and your father long before you entered the picture, don’t forget.”

They were almost at the mess hall, but it was then Neal walked ahead of Gabby before blocking her path to the entrance. She could tell by the angered look on his face he had something to say.

“I joined up with your father because he has an objective I can’t ignore. It’s taken a lot of prepping and a lot of sacrifice to get where we are, and I don’t want you ruining everything with anymore side-operations.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know damn well. I know you put Jacob up to organizing that assault at the press conference. He knew better than to do something so reckless, but I’m sure he found it hard to disagree with you.”

“I didn’t want to spoil the opportunity. We came so close, too.”

“At the expense of putting heat on our inside sources?!” Neal brought his voice to a near yell, before lowering it again.

“We need a victory, Neal. That last shipment loss will set us back months, maybe even longer. In the meantime we have to show everyone that the resistance hasn’t died.”

Neal scoffed outright, shaking his head.

“Spoken like a true leader,” he mocked, “I hate to say it Gabby, but your rank was given to you by your father, and as much as I love the man he’s not a military expert. If you had earned it like me and Jacob, you might understand the value of a soldier’s life a little better.”

Gabby’s fire had been snuffed out and as much she despised that, nothing could be said. She knew she had lost this one.

“I’m sorry…” she began.

“Don’t even,” Neal said. He hated having to berate her and even she could sense that now, “I don’t have the time. There’s still the eulogy to deliver. Don’t want to keep everyone waiting.”

He shoved his way through the flapping doors, as Gabby watched them open and close for a few seconds. She felt a tad shaken by her friend’s anger and then felt the guilt climb. She had given those orders all right, but she’d given them what they’d wanted. Or was it what I wanted? She knew this line of thinking would have to wait, and also entered the mess hall, now full of mourners.

Jacob meanwhile, returned to his small, now destroyed, room and turned to the one thing he knew could bring him any real comfort. In the corner of his room was a small fridge, containing only a single large bottle of scotch. The barely-working machine had kept the beverage only slightly cold, but for what it was worth, he was glad to have it. Jacob returned to his cot, taking a long, slow drink from the bottle. He let it ease his tension, his stomach gurgling before he took another gulp, this one larger than the previous one. At last, he laid down, draping an arm over his face.

***

April 6, 2065 – Early Morning Outside UNR Headquarters

The Remote Delivery Facility was still a very vital part of the new building. However, a few things had changed. The four grass squares that used to compose the Grasspave2 heliports, as well as the relic concrete helicopter landing site, had been done away with for a small park, known as Warren Sanctuary, named after the Chancellor’s son.

“So I hear you met Unit 23 yesterday,” Kane said to Will as they walked down the path. The expansive courtyard was alive with the smell of roses and the call of birds, both men enjoying the scenery, “How’d that go?”

“Pretty impressive, actually,” Will said as he walked alongside his superior officer.

The winding sidewalk snaked through large thorn bushes that rose well over six feet tall. Will gazed up at them, noting the way the dawn’s initial orange light poked through the branches. He sensed an incoming updraft, before staring down at the tiny beads of dew on each blade of grass. Kane focused on the path ahead, and enjoyed the brief gust that caused his creaseless uniform to blow in the wind.

“Oh, yes, I heard about that, too. Luis told me she gave you trouble during your little play date. Don’t tell me she has you outclassed.”

“I wouldn’t go that far, Commander.”

“Well, all the same, don’t underestimate her. That unit has been through as many skirmishes as you and Luis. She, just like you, brought an end to the Hollow Wars back in 2046.”

“Productive,” Will said.

“Productive? That’s sugar coating, my friend. She was a member of the New Rough Riders back during The Expansion. Over a period of two months I recall, she single-handedly sent two hundred bastards to their graves.”

“Is this an attempt to frighten me, Commander? You’d be better off telling me about the provisions of Soviet soldiers during World War II.”

“Only reminding you to stay alert, wise ass. If there’s one thing you and Luis have in common it’s that your overconfidence blinds you to any change. When you start thinking you can never be put down, you start to get sloppy.”

“Yes, sir.”

As they walked past a pond of coy waiting near the surface to be fed, Chancellor Venloran’s assistant came up behind them on the pathway.

“Commander Kane, Unit 21, good morning to you both,” he greeted them.

“Mr. Kearney,” said Kane, “a pleasure on this fine day. What is it?”

Kearney’s eyes narrowed as he turned toward Will.

“The Chancellor has requested Unit 21 at the Honors Hall, immediately,” he answered.

After a rushed farewell to Kane, Will followed behind Kearney, who directed him toward their point of conversation. All the while, Unit 21 didn’t say a word. He preferred the silence, or better said, would enjoy it as long as he could. The commander wasn’t going to be a part of this meeting, and Will could only assume this was going to be a lecture on his failure to apprehend the enemies. How deserving, the cyborg recounted disgracefully. He would deal with his punishment accordingly.

On the very top floor of UNR Headquarters was the Honors Hall. The two men stepped out of the elevator, into a large room with golden brown marble tiles and pillars that gave the room a magnificent beauty he’d never before witnessed. Scarlet walls surrounded the room, and from what Will could see there were no windows or other doors. Wait, he spotted one single door on the other side of the room. It was an entrance to the structure’s extensive stair well, he realized. The only thing above the room was the landing pad.

“Welcome, S.S.C. Unit 21,” he heard the Chancellor say as he entered from the stairwell, accompanied by two men wearing hard hats.

“It’s a privilege, sir,” said Will, bowing at the sight of the Chancellor. He had met the Chancellor before, but never one-on-one like this. Venloran smiled before looking at the men behind him. They understood and left the room.

“You may leave as well, Kearney,” he instructed. His assistant only nodded, heading back toward the elevator. Now it was just the two of them.

“Where is Luis?” asked Will.

“Unit 18? No, no, you’re mistaken. You’re not here to be reprimanded. I merely wanted to speak with you personally.”

“What do you ask of me, Honorable Chancellor?”

“I’m promoting you to second in command of the UNR Cyborg Security Unit here. Putting your own life on the line, your swift action during the assassination attempt kept me alive. Noble indeed, unlike Unit 18, who I also will be speaking with about this matter. My wife is also forever grateful.”

As they talked, Will noticed they walked in between a row of pillars, seemingly heading for something on the far right side of the room. It suddenly occurred to him the significance of the honor bestowed to him by the Chancellor. The more he understood the promotion, the more he reveled in it.

Second in command, the soldier thought. Luis and Valerie were both now his official subordinates. Hell, even Major Johnson’s little death squad is now beneath me. His whole existence since being activated had been the life of a grunt, a mere chess piece in a game of war. Now he had real power.

“Unit 21, I know you were across the Pacific during the annexation of Mexico and Cuba. Still, I am damn sure you remember the atmosphere back then. I think we all do no matter how much time passes.”

Will was hurled back into the discussion and memories began to bubble up.

“Yes, sir. The Expansion helped cancel out the International Exclusion Act. It helped unify and expand the US into the UNR.”

“Certainly,” Venloran said with a profound smile, “and despite all those with us, there were also so many opposed. The Los Santos Guardianes, remember? The Holy Guardians, I still marvel at the fact they had the audacity to give themselves that title.”

“It was quite heinous, sir. But we tore them in two all the same.”

“Quite right. They held to ‘Homeland or Death’ and even with all their valor, that great purge lasted but sixteen months. By October 6, 2051, Bloody Mary Sunday, it was all over. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

For a few seconds Will did not, but he pieced it together. History truly does repeat itself.

“The same scenario is starting all over again, sir, isn’t it?”

“Exactly, Unit 21. I’ve decided to move the operation ahead of our prior schedule. The three of you, along with our finest soldiers, are all going in on this mission to intercept the next weapon shipment. Leave not a soul alive. That is the priority.”

Will nodded in understanding. Then something came to him. The incident itself had shaken his thoughts on how seriously they’d perceived the enemy and it was worsened by the people who praised him for saving Venloran. It should never have come to that in the first place, thought Will. He needed to ask the Chancellor something:

“Honorable sir, I’ve been contemplating. Do you think that these,” he couldn’t find the right word, “terrorists, could actually be a threat?”

The Chancellor remained quiet for the next few minutes as they walked until they approached an unfinished statue of Venloran far on the other side of the room, close to the exit to the stairwell. It basked under the bright amber lights. The magnificent granite figure stood over seven meters tall, built by pure sweat and chisel. It depicted a different pose than the statue at Rock Creek Park, with the same face of power, but stood with one arm pointing forward, like the general he used to be.

Standing next to it, was another, somewhat shorter, statue. This one was vastly different, not even human. It was the endoskeleton of a super soldier cyborg standing straight up, with its arms to the side, an obedient soldier ready to receive its orders. Will, Luis, and Valerie all had that same eerie structure at their core. It was what made them what they were. An enormous UNR symbol was painted on the wall behind the two statues. Now Venloran turned to look Will in the eyes.

“To be frank, no, not at all. They’re pathetic really, nothing more than mortal men. More like insects, to be exact. You see, you and the other cyborgs all represent that ‘brightly shining dawn.’ They will undoubtedly attempt to escalate their vicious acts, but they’ll be dead before I let that happen again.

“Eradicating the enemy is how we’ve gotten this far. No negotiation, only submission and compliance. That is why we have the tremendous amount of influence that we do. If the countries around the world see weakness from the UNR, like the kind they saw that day at Rock Creek, they’ll foolishly take it as some sort of blessing or sign from their precious God. Unit 21, are you aware of just why you super soldiers are given your swords?”

“Yes, sir. Technically speaking, the swords function as the perfect weapon when lacking a firearm, and are perfect for close quarters combat. They are also important remnants from the most vital war in our country’s history.”

“A war that put this nation to the test. We will remind all our enemies that we own them, especially ones who dare to call the United Nation Republic their home.”

“Yes, Chancellor! I will not fail you, honorable, sir! I promise they will kneel at your feet before they die.”

Venloran smiled at this, more so than he had during the entire conversation.

“Yes, I know you will. The perfect society will stand for all eternity, and no insect can stop that. You are dismissed, S.S.C. Unit 21.”

***

Valerie lay on the table casually with her hands behind her head and one knee raised. She stared up at the telescreens, but she wasn’t truly looking at them. She was dressed in full combat gear, her crimson jacket neatly folded on a chair next to her. She heard the door open, but did not turn to greet the two men that entered. Dr. Krenzler seated himself in a chair only a meter from Valerie. His assistant Myers took a seat behind his superior, ready to take notes on a small tablet.

“I apologize for the wait, Unit 23. It took my assistant some time to find his data transcriber.”

Myers also apologized, but Unit 23 made no reply, only continued to stare upwards at the telescreens.

“Valerie?”

The woman suddenly snapped to, sitting up and turning toward them.

“Doctor, I’m so sorry.”

Krenzler only put up a hand.

“No need, my dear. It’s understandable that you dozed off while we kept you waiting.”

Myers had seen that Valerie had been awake, as had Krenzler, but neither gentleman acknowledged the slight. He began to scribble notes on his device, pausing as Krenzler spoke again.

“You can relax as you were, Unit 23. We haven’t seen each other since your arrival at headquarters. I only want to ask a few brief questions.”

“All right, sir.”

Valerie once again assumed her lax position, though the doctor was attentive to the fact that she was no longer as mellow.

“Good, first I’ll address the elephant in the room: how do you feel about the attack on our Chancellor?”

“I feel many things about that horrid day.”

“Well if you had to pick one thing that stands out among the others, what would it be?”

There was a short stretch of silence, but a smile slowly appeared on her beautiful face.

“I suppose at a glance it made me think of Einstein’s theory concerning time.”

“You mean how he viewed time as a river?”

“Yes. After it was all over, I realized the UNR and our Chancellor are similar in a sense, to the river of which Einstein spoke. The country will go on unstoppable, even if the current is tampered with. It will go on.”

“A fascinating analogy,” a smile now on Krenzler’s face as well, “I quite like it.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“The next thing I’d like to ask is who is it that you look up to? And to make it interesting, I would like to exclude the Chancellor as an answer.”

“I like to think back on my comrades, 3-05 and 6-76 more than anyone. Have you ever had the chance to meet them, Doctor?”

“I haven’t had that honor actually. I hear they were the backbone of the New Rough Riders.”

“We were the tip of the spear during The Expansion. 3-05 was already a legend after his feats in Mexico City and 6-76 no less in Juarez. When I heard news I’d been selected for a position on their team for the missions in Cuba, I felt…small.”

“That ties into my next question.”

“Yes, sir?”

“I know you’re a soldier at your core. You have been responsible for the death of many of the state’s enemies, and we thank you. However, in your spare time, what is it that you often find yourself doing?”

“Undoubtedly reading, sir.”

“Oh yes, I oversaw the transfer of your personal library. In the short time you’ve been here, I see you’ve already ordered several more volumes. I must say I was delighted to see the names among your selections: George Orwell, Mary Shelly, and Stephen Crane, some of my favorite authors.”

“Their work intrigues me. It’s fun to decipher their messages. Each told in different ways, but almost always leading to one concept in general.”

“And what concept is that?”

For the first time in their conversation, Valerie looked at Krenzler. He quickly comforted her:

“You may speak freely.”

And with that, she indulged.

“Not to be offensive, Doctor, but the common theme is that human weakness is ever prevalent.”

“Hmm, care to explain?”

“A rare chance to share. Unexpected, but excellent nonetheless. Take Of Mice and Men for example. The climax is supposed to be somber, but I only saw the folly of mercy. Much suffering could have been avoided if someone so mentally unstable was never allowed to enter the world at all. Lennie’s fate was prolonged, but ultimately unavoidable.”

Myers stared in astonishment for a moment. Krenzler nodded, seemingly stoic.

“So their struggles were meaningless?”

“That’s what it boils down to.”

“I will say this: you have a remarkable perspective on the story.”

Valerie’s HUD gave her a warning. It’s almost time. She now sat up again.

“Are you headed somewhere, 23?” Krenzler asked.

“I had something in mind, but it is not a priority.”

“No, no, we can pick this up later. Thank you for your time, Unit 23.”

“My pleasure, sir.”

She bowed before once again donning her crimson jacket.

Chapter 9 – The Beach

April 7, 2065 – UNR Headquarters

Valerie traveled up the stairwell alone. The passage was dimly lit by long rectangular lamps, but she paid it no mind. It felt good simply to escape her cramped room. By her calculations, despite her windowless room, she knew it was just about time for dusk. She wanted to see it, feeling urgency to. She’d taken the stairs to build up the anticipation. The setting of the sun would only last a few minutes and she wanted to savor those moments.

Val finally arrived nonetheless, and opened the door slowly. As the rays of bright sunlight streaked through the open doorway, she spotted someone already outside, near the edge of the landing pad. She walked in between two UNR cruisers, not too far away from a helicopter. As she neared, she identified the man as Unit 21. He sensed her unannounced presence, and turned to face her.

“Unit 23,” he greeted, “I wasn’t expecting you, of all people, to be up here.”

“Yeah, well it’s not like I can’t say the same thing. I come up here every day, and this is the first time I’ve run into you.”

Will found himself laughing.

“I guess you got me there.”

“The view is something, isn’t it? All of Arlington. I haven’t seen a sunset like this since Havana.”

“Havana? Kane told me you served during The Expansion, but Cuba? Were you there on October 6th?”

“Yup. A hundred men met my sword that day.”

“But not just any men. I’ve got to know, Val. You were the one who carried out Operation Bloody Mary, weren’t you?”

“That’s classified.”

“Right…damn.”

“What I can say is that I got to meet the Socialist Party members and top generals at the Cathedral of Saint Christopher. They weren’t much fun.”

The two of them shared a smile. Will applauded Valerie outright as she bowed.

“I finally get to meet Bloody Mary herself, what an honor! It’s a real shame Luis can’t know. All these years he had three hundred dollars on Unit 6-76.”

“And you?”

Will shrugged with a chuckle.

“Best I don’t say. I get the feeling my guess would probably offend you.”

“You two idiots crack me up.”

Will only nodded this time. She stood close to him now, both admiring the view. The yellowish-white sun had now turned a burning orange-red, the clouds tinged purple against a scarlet-sky. The city had become a field of silhouettes, a series of smaller towers with one that stood much taller, centered among the rest.

For a fleeting moment, the two cyborgs felt small against the expansive skyline. As Will watched in silence, he felt Val put her head on his shoulder. He felt no need to remove it. It felt comforting, the warmth of her close body as the night’s chilly winds began to set in.

“Have you ever wondered if there’s a god looking down on us?”

“What purpose would he serve, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I’m not sure. Hope that the impossible is indeed possible, perhaps.”

“Now you sound like some kind of philosopher, Will.”

“I know we were brought together on this mission for a reason.”

“I sense that, too. But why?”

“It sounds insane, but I’ve seen you before. And not from files in my memory bank, but from another source. The dreams are fuzzy, but I recognize your voice, and I remember seeing your name…on a ring. I can’t be absolutely sure, but I think I knew you long before I was ever in the SSF.”

“All that from a dream?”

“A number of them over time.”

“Sounds to me like you’re not well, Will.”

“What did you say to me?”

Val hesitated for a second, but she pressed on.

“You need help.”

Will grew angry at this remark, like no one had ever seen. He drew in close to Val, and it frightened her to some extent.

“No, I know there’s nothing wrong with me. These dreams have to mean something! I have this odd feeling, telling me to draw closer to you, but to keep my distance as well. It’s perplexing, but I must figure out what they are, and I intend to do so.”

“I’m sure Dr. Krenzler can rid you of those occurrences. Why don’t you see him for help? It’s a simple solution to a simple dilemma.”

“Because, I simply don’t want to, not yet anyway. Not without knowing what they are first. I know there were others that I let them dispose of so quickly without a second thought. Looking back, that was probably a mistake.”

Val was only staring at him at this point, her eyes lost in disbelief.

“You can’t look me in the eye and say you’ve reported every last stray file or image you’ve ever seen.”

Now she spoke with a ring of confidence and pride in her voice, strong and free of doubt.

“I’ve had countless instances of these types of errors, and I’ve destroyed every last one of them. All I recount now is the procedure. That’s all there is to know in this system, Will. You’re lucky I don’t report you myself. The only reason I won’t is because I assume you’ll eventually pull yourself together.”

Will felt something inside him lurch. Val’s words struck a chord deep within him, and he realized his disloyalty to Chancellor Venloran. How could I have been so foolishly misled by hallucinations? His sudden awareness made him grasp that the conversation was over, and he had to reassess whether this path was worth it.

“You’re right. I’ve been an utter fool.”

Val saw that the spirit had completely washed out of the man. He no longer looked as if he was ready to go round for round. He was the opposite of the opponent she had faced in the training exercise the other day, and she found it disturbing.

“You look like you’ve been bitch slapped, Will, and it doesn’t fit the image of my new C.O.”

“I know when I’m beat.”

In any other argument, Unit 23 would have been satisfied with this victory, but she could not bring herself to continue this charade any longer. If she did, her victory would be built on a lie. This was something she strangely could not allow. Even stranger, she assumed that she and Will had at least that much in common.

Will saw the image of smugness shrink away as Val shared.

“I did rid myself of most of my system corruptions, all except one. Not because it may mean something, but because,” she looked at her feet for a few seconds, feeling rather pathetic, “I don’t know. I really don’t know why I hold on to it. It’s just this man and me on a beach, and there’s a sunset like this one. The man sits down next to me on that warm sand. I can feel the tiny grains between my fingers, right before he grips my hand. I do the same as I feel myself smiling. We end up kissing on that beach, but then it all goes blank.”

“I see, and I know there’s no way you’re willing to sacrifice that, are you?”

It wasn’t a question to cement his earlier statements, she knew, but a question based on an almost child-like curiosity.

“There’s no way we can link our errors by going over them again and again. We need some kind of help, and not from Krenzler.”

“Who would we go to then?” she asked.

Will’s CPU left him helpless. He hated the feeling.

“We’re on our own.”

***

Venloran looked at the documents on his desk, reading them carefully, line by line. He made certain not to miss a single detail, while seated comfortably at his long desk. Kearney sat in a seat to the left of it. In front of the Chancellor stood Dr. Krenzler, as well as Commander Kane. All were silent as the Chancellor read on. Krenzler had a confident and collected look as he watched. Venloran’s head turned slightly in his assistant’s direction.

“Are these the latest reports?” he asked.

“Just as you requested, sir,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Krenzler, I would like a synopsis of this data, please. My wife will be here in twenty minutes or so, and I’d like to get this done quickly.”

“Certainly. Two of the cyborg units check out okay. Unit 21 is the only one to report any kind of CPU complications.”

Chancellor Venloran’s face changed from concentration to one of disbelief.

“Unit 21? I thought it was impossible?”

“He’s stubborn to no end, sir. As to how this keeps happening, is beyond me,” Kearney said.

“It’s like Neeson said long ago. It’s a damn shame, really.”

Kane chose this moment to enter the conversation.

“If I may say something, Chancellor,” he said respectfully.

“Go right ahead,” he said.

“Thank you, sir. What I wanted to say in Unit 21’s defense is that he is unquestionably one of our best. I’ve worked with him for years now, and I know he would never let any malfunction slow him down.”

“Be that as it may, newer S.S.C. units should be brought in after this mission,” Kearney suggested.

“And turn our backs on a soldier who’s done so much for us?” Kane said in anger.

Venloran decided to end this.

“A soldier like Unit 21 is exemplary, Kane. All the more reason why this is so hard. He’s a walking controversy, and you know it. The war that created the UNR back in the 2040s is over, Commander. The Expansion has also come to an end. We have already subjugated all foreign opposition. The only way we can truly move forward into the next era is to let him rest. When this next assignment is over, Unit 21 will return to hibernation.”

Chapter 10 – Frivolity

April 8, 2065 – UNR Headquarters – Recreation Chamber

The Recreation Chamber was a huge parlor, its ceiling well over thirty feet high. To the left of the entrance, was an enormous chestnut bar, with an extensive polished marble-topped counter. An enormous telescreen covered most of the right wall, with a seating area located in the front of the room. In the center of it all was a series of large priceless pool tables and beneath all this was sensuous, pristine carpet.

Also found in the chamber were dual staircases with a large collection of books displayed between them. The second floor of the Recreation Chamber was home to an even more extensive library. During daylight hours, this palatial room was a mellow hangout, but at night, it became a party hall.

Tonight was even more boisterous than usual with the broadcast of the NBA finals. The majority of the soldiers had taken up the many velvet couches around the telescreen, while even more gladly sat on the floor. Hans and Mitch approached the bar. Mitch was startled to find the boy there waiting for them.

“What’s the cherry doing here?”

“Uh,” Cisco could only utter.

“Don’t go breaking his balls, he’s with me. Besides, I got a good feeling about the kid,” Hans said.

Mitch sat down, accepting it without much retaliation. Hans sat in between them.

“Jerry, three medium glasses, Jim Beam on the rocks, my man.”

Cisco reached for his wallet, but Hans stopped him.

“Hey, it’s on me. Your first combat situation under your belt, and I’m in a giving mood. And you,” he looked to Mitch with a smile, “I don’t think your account can take much more.”

Mitch looked down at the marble countertop, “Thanks.”

They all watched as the bartender poured the brown liquid, slowly causing the ice cubes to ascend to the top of the glasses.

“So, how was R & R?” Hans asked.

Filled nearly to the rim of the glass, Mitch was the first to take a sip.

“Clara and I are pretty much through, Hans.”

“Damn, did you at least get it in one last time? Bitch like her that’s all that matters really.”

“We spent the last few days bickering over bullshit. I didn’t know when she was going to shut the hell up. I was this close to giving her a smack.”

“And how I’d cry for her” Hans responded in a laugh, Mitch joining him.

“I don’t think you know how to treat a lady,” Cisco interjected.

Both Mitch and Hans put down their whiskey in mid-drink, their eyes fixed intently on him. Cisco looked away from their angered stares and into his glass, taking his first sip of the night. Placing the drink back on the counter, he licked his lips. His face remained stern.

“Yeah, man, it’s obvious. I bet it was the anniversary gift. If you really want to please her, it can’t be just a ring. Throw in a necklace, some earrings, hell the whole set. Wanna make her shit her pants? Get her parents a summer home.”

For a second, all three men sat there in utter silence, almost immediately followed by a stupendous uproar. Hans playfully punched the boy in his arm, moving him to smile.

“Damn, kid, you’re good! Damn good!” Mitch commented with a grin.

“I’m telling you, he’s the next member of our squad,” Hans added.

Mitch became quiet again in the midst of it all.

“I can’t stop thinking, Hans, would things have been different if I’d been there? A lot of civilians died because of those motherfuckers. Watching it on TV, all I could think about was getting to the fight, but I couldn’t.”

“Yeah, I accept my mistakes out there,” Hans nodded, “luckily the Chancellor made it out untouched. That’s gotta count for something.”

“When I think about it, that’s probably the reason why Clara is being so damned difficult. Soon as I received the reports, I cancelled my R & R and headed back.”

“Don’t fall for that crap,” Hans rebutted, “our duties are clear, right from the start. If she can’t take it, it’s probably best it ended, my friend.”

“No point in fighting what can’t be helped I suppose. Only one thing really matters – our service to the UNR,” Mitch said proudly.

“I’ll drink to that,” Hans said.

All three raised their glasses and finished off their beverages. Turning in his seat, Mitch eyed the game.

“Fourth quarter’s about to start.”

“Don’t tell me you put more of your hard-earned money on the line?”

Mitch stood up now, “One thing you never seem to get about me Hans is that I am first and foremost a risk-taker.”

Mitch walked away from the bar, but not before eyeing it again. He couldn’t help but notice Bia had left the Recreation Chamber. Perhaps she finally had enough and in comedic malice, he almost hoped she’d had too much fun.

“See, I told you. Stick with us and you’ll very quickly find yourself at the top. I believe in your potential,” Hans coached warmly.

“Thank you, sir. I just want another shot to prove myself. What happened out there is an embarrassment on my part.”

“Don’t be in such a rush to go into full-on combat, kid. It’s sticky business, especially on foreign soil.”

Cisco felt for a second like he was being lectured by his father. His thoughts circled back to the latter half of his friend’s statement.

“You’ve been on missions outside the UNR?”

“Of course, it’s where I hail from as a matter of fact, the town of Dresden.”

“How long were you over there for, sir?”

“I was born and raised there most of my life.”

“So you chose to move to the UNR?”

“Thousands did around the time I left, when I was just barely eighteen.”

“You saw the Great Purge in Europe then. Not that I mean to intrude, sir.”

Hans nodded, his smile becoming somewhat transparent.

“The Allied European Federation claimed Venloran had no right to turn the Middle East into the shell they now are. Right around the time the UNR ended that war, the AEF began its own cleansing. At sixteen, I was blacklisted as a UNR supporter. My father and I were both put in prison for attending a rally, and my mother was a wreck.”

“She must’ve been devastated.”

“Blind empathy breeds weakness, remember that. Because I wasn’t considered an adult at the time, I got out after a year. You know what she told me when I got home? Probably the most disgusting words I’ve ever heard in my life, and from the lips of my own mother at that. She said, ‘power means nothing to the common people, like you and me. We just live our lives as best we can. It’s a fool’s game to strive for it.’ I couldn’t stand such insanity, not even from her.”

Cisco didn’t respond this time. Hans meanwhile had another drink.

“By the time I came back to my homeland, I was a soldier for the UNR. After that, I never looked at that place in the same way again. The UNR is my home, now.”

“Did they ever release your father?”

“Never got the chance. The guards failed to act when other ‘nationalist’ prisoners killed five pro-UNR men.”

***

Luis readied himself for sleep, at least the cyborgs’ version of slumber. He would enter a dreamless, death-like state of sorts, though his sensors were still active in the case of any surprise. Luis sat down on his bed, the frame crunching under his weight. Just as he was getting settled, there was a loud knock on his door. He sighed in annoyance. This isn’t the time.

“Who is it?”

To his surprise, he heard Bia’s soft voice.

“It’s me.”

“It’s open. Come right in,” he said, not bothering to open the door for her.

She walked in, shutting the door slowly behind her. Her black hair was dripping onto a towel she had around her neck and hung off each shoulder. Her face was also wet, studded all over with droplets of warm water. Clad in her gray tank top and slim-fit cargo pants, her alluring physique was no mystery. The cyborg hardly took notice this particular evening, though. He saw her stunning face, could even smell the scent of her apricot body wash, but he did not concentrate on these things for long. For once, Luis’ eyes shied away from hers, his voice lacking its usual confidence.

“I hear there’s quite a celebration going on tonight. The only reason I can think of as to why you’re not out enjoying yourself is because you’re too lame to be invited.”

She laughed in return, trying her best to ignore the awkwardness of the hug. Ever since she’d come back, she hadn’t him the least bit of hope of being this close to her, and yet tonight he didn’t seem to give a damn. Bia noticed a difference in Luis’ face as well, but couldn’t place her finger on it. Or maybe it was simply that he did not have that armor on, only a muscle shirt and sweatpants.

“Very funny, asshole. I’ve had my fun for the evening, so I showered up and decided to head off to bed, thank you very much. I just wanted to stop by and see you. I never did thank you properly for what you did the other day. I hate to admit it, but you saved my life.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“No, I feel indebted to you. Your bravery was commendable.”

“Well the situation seemed to call for it. A heat of the moment decision, I guess. The Chancellor chewed me out pretty good though, him and Kane. I was lectured about my less than standard actions.”

Bia stepped closer, wiping some stray strands of her hair out of her face.

“Is that what has you down? If it makes you feel any better, I appreciate it.”

“Bia, I’ve come to terms with how I handled the situation out there. My orders were clear, but my performance was far from admirable.”

Bia couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Where was the cocky and self-assured man she knew? Her smile faded and she put her head down.

“So, you regret what you did? I see…”

At any rate, he was a cyborg, perhaps nothing more. She had felt it before she made the decision to come into the room, but had thought that of all the cyborgs, Luis seemed to be the one most human. Bia also remembered how she’d treated him, with her sudden interest in foreign assignments, and her lukewarm return. She saw now that she’d sown these seeds.

“No, that’s not it. I would never let anything happen to you. If I had to choose again, I’d choose you without hesitation.”

Bia looked up at him, taking that in. That was a bold declaration, to put her before the Chancellor, and a dangerous way of thinking. It was too much, and maybe Luis had gone too far. Contrary to what she thought, she didn’t feel so tense. Bia could feel her acceptance of the statement, and she felt comfort hearing it. Their lips met slowly. Luis nearly lost himself in the moment, but he broke the kiss.

“What is it?” she asked. He’s acting as if this is the first time. But, there was another time, on that mission a couple of months ago. That time it had been an exploratory kiss after the excitement of a completed assignment, but the excitement hadn’t been anywhere near enough to keep Bia interested. In fact, she knew as well as he did that their initial affair had left both feeling rather uncomfortable.

“I know where this is going. Farther than we’ve ever gone. Are you sure this is what you want? Me? What would the others–”

“I don’t give a shit what the others think. All I want is you.”

She smiled, even though Luis was still feeling quite uncertain about it all. She threw him a very smug look, which surprised the cyborg. Bia sure knew how to drive it out of him. When she spoke, it was in a taunting manner.

“This is your first time, I get it.”

“What?”

“As a cyborg, I mean. I’m positive that you’re capable, and surely you’d done it before the procedure.”

Luis suddenly felt out of place, “Yeah, I’m capable of—I presume–”

“So what are you then, Luis? Just scared?” she went on as she drew close to him.

Bia finally saw that cocky look she was so used to on his face.

“You would be so lucky.”

They began to kiss again as they did that one night, a night she’d tried to forget ever since it happened. He broke away and kissed her goosebump-covered neck, which felt so warm against his lips. Bia rubbed his massive shoulders before removing his shirt. Luis sat down on his bed. His palms began to sweat as she finally took off her shirt, and let her pants fall to her ankles. If Luis had one word to describe what he was feeling, he would have to go with intoxicated. The feeling only intensified as the stunning woman seated herself directly onto his lap. Luis’ hands gripped her tall, slender legs, clutching her delicate skin with vigor. Bia swept her arms around him, interlacing her fingers behind his neck. For a moment, the two only stared at one another.

“I’m sorry, Luis. I know I’ve been an ass. Ever since I met you, I was afraid. Fear is something I’ve always tried to avoid.”

“No need to apologize. You’ve made me the luckiest man in the world and that’s enough.”

With that, they gave in fully. Both had gone into conflict hundreds of times and yet rarely had their senses been so aroused as now. Luis had never felt such pleasure, such ecstasy. He hardly thought at all, his body simply acted. For Bia, it was the same. Bare skin brushed against synthetic skin, but for both of them, the lines had been blurred.

***

William Marconi, The Grim Reaper, The Wolf, this unstoppable titan, and behemoth of a man, felt…ill. He sat up in his bed, shirtless and panting.

The cyborg placed a hand on his right shoulder, feeling around for a bullet wound that wasn’t there. He needed to touch and feel those charred legs of his, but under the blanket, he found himself unharmed. How? I…died. Didn’t I? Will felt himself sinking deeper and deeper into uncertainty. His hands, always steady and sure, now trembled with a fear he couldn’t understand. He placed his hand on the scar on his cheek. It was still there. It was the only one still there.

He had dreamed of a burning city, pools of blood, and cries of agony. Will knew no sleep would be had tonight. There was no escaping his torture. And I don’t deserve to escape.

***

Luis’ eyes snapped open and he sat up in a flash. What the hell? He felt a sick feeling in his stomach, but it quickly dissipated as he began to breathe normally. In the darkness his retinas adjusted, the dark room becoming nearly as bright as day. He eyed the room and found his clothes, along with Bia’s, scattered on the floor around his bed. Then he looked over at Bia, who was only half covered by his blanket.

Her exposed back was to him, and she was sound asleep. Admiring the gentle curves of her body, he ran his hand down her thigh. She felt so soft, her skin still wet with perspiration caused his fingers to almost slide along her body. He grasped her black hair, now a mess, and a small triumphant smile on his face. Luis gave her hair a gentle tug, just enough to wake her. She turned, looking up at him. Bia indeed appeared exhausted, and he could tell her eyes were taking some time to adjust in the darkness.

“What, what is it?” she asked groggily.

Luis said nothing in response, only kissed her. She was still playful, biting his lip tenderly. They broke the kiss, and Luis saw that smile on her face, like the one she gave him when she first entered his room. He smiled in return and then let her be. She lay her head down on the pillow, immediately drifting back to sleep. Bia looked so peaceful in her slumber, so untroubled, and carefree. Luis envied that, his smile fading. Tonight they had turned sorrow into an experience he would remember all his life. Perhaps it was just the beginning of a better relationship between them. More so than ever, he wanted to hold her tight, and he did.

As he held her, Luis’ mind drifted back to the images he’d seen earlier during the blackness of sleep. These images were in such contrast to the experience he just shared with Bia. A different experience altogether, of complete, cold darkness.

Chapter 11 – Weapon of Choice

January 11, 2044 – Jerusalem, “City of Peace”

“And he will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning, nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things had passed away.”

Fuckin’ Andy, not now with that crap, thought Will. He did his best not to let his frustration overrun him. Let him be, man, just let him be.

Two missiles hit the tank, covering it in an inferno of heat and power. The soldiers inside felt the weapon shudder, but it held steady. The tank fired back with its cannon and instantly a huge explosion appeared where a group of troops had just been. They were on their own now. They fired again, wiping out a quarter of their enemies in a single shot. All of a sudden, it felt like an invisible force of immense velocity slammed into them from beneath their feet. Everyone and everything in the tank were tossed around as if the massive weapon was a mere toy.

Outside the enemy soldiers cheered as the beast fell. Will luckily managed not to hit his head on anything, unlike Thompson, whose face was smashed into the controls. Blood was everywhere, wasting onto the floor. Bryan and Andy avoided this and began to gather supplies. It became apparent the tank was on its side and could tip over any minute. There was also the danger of getting hit again. Either way, they needed to get out, now.

Opening the hatch, first out was Bryan. Then a few bags, followed by Andy and then more luggage. Last was Will himself. All he held was his weapon. The three ran for cover against a building as another missile hit the tank, setting it ablaze. Andy was drastically slowed down by the bags containing the precious food and water. The trigger-happy soldiers at their backs took aim and bullets tore into the man like a rag doll. He fell as the bags flew apart in a mess.

The two remaining troops ducked behind a partially blown down brick wall. From there they surveyed the area. Dead soldiers from both sides laid everywhere and black smoke rose, seemingly miles high into the air. Fire ate away at the fallen ones. Will watched the tank burn, their greatest aid now gone. He could see a small crater gouged into the earth next to the fallen giant. A goddamned mine, those fucking shitheads!

Bryan looked away from it all, looking rather lost.

“Listen, we’re not done yet. We can still make it,” Will assured him.

Bryan’s silence was nerve wracking in itself. He dug into his pocket, pulling out a small black box.

Will stared in disbelief.

“What the hell is that, Bryan?”

“You know exactly what it is, and I want you to take it for me.”

“What? Why?!”

“We’re outnumbered. There’s no gettin’ around it.”

They could already hear the yells of approaching enemy soldiers. Their position was compromised. The situation was grimmer than Will wanted to admit, but Bryan could see that for himself.

“If we both try to leave I’m sure as hell they’ll be right on us within a heartbeat. I can give a good enough of a fight for your to get a decent head start. You head down that alley, and don’t turn back! Just promise me you’ll give this to Val.”

“You don’t have to do this. We can take ‘em together!”

“No, you already have a family waiting for you at home, Will! I will not be the one to tell them you died in this place. Do you seriously think I’m gonna let that happen? You have a kid, and a second one on the way!”

Will’s heart skipped a beat as he took the box. Now he felt the fear Bryan must have been feeling. Blinded with the rage over his fallen friends, he’d nearly forgotten his wife and their beautiful children. He wiped his eyes.

“I’ll give it to her. You have my word, no matter what happens.”

“God bless, Will.”

Bryan crawled away from their hiding spot as a dozen soldiers came in from the front. They were forty feet away at this point, cautious yet closing in quickly. To make matters worse they were spread out. He estimated he’d be able to take out three of them before being spotted. Death no doubt still terrified him, but if now was the time he would not cower.

He kissed his cross, briefly holding it tightly before returning the free hand to his weapon. The soldier lay among the rubble and bodies without so much as a flinch, his gun pointed at his targets. They were still unaware of his presence but that wouldn’t last once the shooting started. He heard some rubble shuffle and fall behind him. Will’s exit wasn’t as silent as he’d hoped, and Bryan’s muscles tightened. The enemy soldiers turned in the direction of the sound.

Gunfire rang out and Bryan paid no mind to which one was unloading first. He took aim at the closest one and pulled the trigger. To his utter shock, the soldiers did not immediately fire in his direction. Instead, they were firing to their left, and as his adrenaline pumped, he could see why. The men on that flank were being ripped apart rapidly, including those in the rear. Whoever it was, someone on their side was helping him. Between the two of them, the men were soon reduced to a dozen bodies.

Bryan stood up slowly, his weapon still aimed as if the corpses might reach for a gun. He saw Will standing beside him, weapon also raised.

“I told you to get the hell out of here.”

“And I was dumb enough to come back.”

Will had been fully dedicated to getting the hell out of there, but the second he fouled up and gave away their position he knew he couldn’t leave. With the additional firepower of their rescuers, he convinced himself there was no need to leave, now. He would finish this.

The duo finally saw four U.S. soldiers emerge from an alley. Bryan felt his heart race in joy. She’d made it after all. They embraced each other warmly, sharing a brief kiss.

“Thanks, babe,” he said, holding onto her tightly.

“You knew I was coming back for you,” Valerie said, kissing him again. She then looked at Will, hugging him as well.

“Ready?” asked Will with some renewed confidence.

The remaining forces looked at him with determined faces. They still had to fight their way out, despite their luck. Valerie may have had only three troops with her but she’d saved their asses, nonetheless. The gang’s all here, Will mused, and this is strangely all I could ever ask for.

Bryan only nodded in response to his question. They all did. Everybody cocked their guns, and took positions in the rubble, each with some semblance of a brick wall to defend them. More hostiles were closing in, lots more. Still, they waited for the proper signal, and Will gave it as he opened fire.

They fired with precision and the enemy once again struggled to realize what was going on. They scattered about for hiding spots of their own and many were shot before they could reach one. The walls of the Old City had turned this road into a perfect shooting gallery. Will saw a soldier armed with a bazooka fleeing, and emptied a good ten bullets into him. Part of him told him this was for his crew, of which only one other member remained, but he knew he was feeling a certain high from the battle. All thoughts centered on one thing. He fired with fastidiousness and without even thinking about it a great deal of the time.

The enemies were mostly clear of the road now, and the losses were unmistakable. The roar of an incoming jeep alerted Will and the others to their enemy’s persistence. They could see it rolling down the road, full of fresh, heavily armored enemy troops. Without a word, all six of them hurled presents right in its path.

As the vehicle passed by, the grenades exploded one after the other just like the Fourth of July. The screams were like music to Will’s ears. Death was undeniably king here. One was either killed or doing the killing. Will looked up at the soldiers high above on the holy shrine. Most were busy reloading fresh clips, the perfect opportunity to strike. All he needed was the bazooka from the dead soldier across the way. With Val and her men keeping the soldiers busy, it was all on him to get it done. He ran for the weapon, but right then and there God seemed to have a change of heart. Joining the troops on the roof was another bazooka-armed son of a bitch.

“HEADS UP!! TAKE COVER!!” Will warned at the top of his lungs.

A missile shrieked down out of the gloom, hitting close to where Val and her regiment were located. The explosion overwhelmed the area in a thick haze. Bits of brick and hot flesh rocketed into the air, and then came crashing back down in a split-second rain. Will felt disoriented, but fortunately unharmed. He looked behind him and sure enough, Bryan was already on his feet sprinting to Valerie’s position.

Will now saw a swarm of troops approaching them. Only one thing left to do… He stood up to chase after Bryan, but right at that moment asphalt and sparks flew into the air in a straight line. Will took cover behind a rusty immobile car. FUCK YOU! All the anger in the world, however, would not get them out of this plight. Will could see the situation clearly now. His friend checked on the fallen soldiers, leaving only him at the frontline to hold off dozens of men.

His options raced through his head as his senses heightened. It was no illusion, he could hear it: Air fucking Cav. Can’t let these assholes box us in. Will raised his gun, only to hear a distorted yell from behind him. He turned his head. What he saw sent his stomach into his throat and tears now ran madly down his face.

Out of the haze far down the street, was Valerie, struggling toward them. To their horror, they could clearly see her left arm up to the elbow was completely gone. Even so, she trudged onward. With her now clearly in sight, Bryan put every last fiber of his being into sprinting toward her. But she could take no more. She fell to her knees, pain in her emerald green eyes, and then collapsed completely to the ground.

Will turned back to the enemies before him. He let out a ferocious yell that continued even as he felt a bullet strike his shoulder. Nothing would stop him from pressing down on the trigger. Nothing.

***

April 9, 2065 – UNR Headquarters: Locker Room No. 6

Will slid on his armor, the dark gray, form-fitting material tightening and adjusting to his body shape instantly. The shoulder straps moved on their own, magnetically, and clipped to the back of his armor. He felt home in it, having been out of armor a solid week. Luis sat next to him on the bench, fixing his gloves, completely unaware of how badly Will was shaking at the moment. Facing away from his partner, he briefly shut his eyes and concentrated. It’s been hours since you woke up, STOP IT! Will managed to win this round, bringing the trembling to a halt.

“Luis,” he said.

“Yeah?”

Will was on the verge of asking him if he also had these wild dreams, but he bit his tongue, searching for something else to get his mind off the issue. Further down from the two of them, he found his scapegoat.

About twenty lockers down was a group of about two dozen UNR soldiers. The locker room was bustling with their activities, their chatter endless. He doubted the majority of them had worked with super soldiers prior to this mission. Will could tell from their occasional glances in their direction, never directly at their eyes.

“Well, go on,” said Luis, “you’re fucking with my tempo.”

“What do you think of the backup crew?”

“If you want to go greet them yourself, be my guest,” Luis said with a grin.

“No, it’s fine like this,” Will said, “an air of intimidation is sometimes the best first impression.”

“Now that sounds like William Marconi.”

Luis stood up, sliding his blue overcoat on as Cisco approached them. Dressed in the standard defense armor, they hardly recognized him.

“What’s up, kid?” Luis said.

“Sir,” he said, saluting, “Commander Kane has directed us to meet in the Conference Chamber in fifteen minutes.”

“Yeah? Oh, goody,” Luis said as he looked over at Will, who was putting on his boots, “looks like we have some extra time to get our toys.”

***

The arms room was huge; its walls lined with hundreds of firearms, explosives, and edged weapons. And this was only Weapons Department I. There were two other magnificent rooms just like this one throughout the UNR HQ. Mitch grabbed himself a combat knife, sheathing it next to his boot, as Hans picked up a thermal sniper. The standard was assault rifles, and many individuals, including the cyborgs, were keen users of M240 machine guns and M-16s. Luis, for this assignment, had selected a Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver.

“You’re bringing out Bacalov?” Will asked as he passed by.

“Damn right. I think it’s time for ‘The Grand Duel.’”

The two shared a laugh before Will went down a different aisle. He found just what he was looking for, an M-16 with a M203 grenade launcher. This will do nicely. He glanced down the aisle to see Aguilar staring at an enormous gun placed high above the others. In his hands was a laser-guided fifty-caliber sniper. Will walked over to his side to gaze at the weapon.

“What is that?” he asked, still looking up at it.

“That’s the AH-AW 67, the Cyborg Heavy-Automatic Weapon. More powerful than a mini-gun, soldier. It can fire 15,000 rounds per minute.”

“I’d like to man that sweet piece of ass someday,” Cisco said in awe.

“The AH-AW must not be in the academy files. This weapon is far too heavy for normal soldiers without the use of a turret. Let alone that, the recoil is unbelievable. A single shot would shatter your shoulder.”

“Oh,” remarked Cisco, looking down at his sniper. His own weapon suddenly seemed so puny in comparison, “Have you used it recently?”

Will had a proud smile on his face.

“No need. There hasn’t been a conflict worthy of its use in quite some time. Not even today do I think this mission calls for it. Only when you’re knee deep in shit does the AH-AW come out to play. Normal weapons aside, with that baby in my hands I was called The Grim Reaper. Luis knows.”

His fellow cyborg was conversing with Val down the same aisle. He turned around and both peered up at the weapon.

“The gore days, right?” Luis replied, “But I seem to recount being the better shot with it.”

Will shook his head in a laugh.

“Not likely, asshole.”

“It was never quite my style,” Val said.

Both Will and Luis gawked at Valerie.

“A true kill-joy,” Luis said. Will nodded in agreement.

“True that.”

“This trip down memory lane has been fun and all, but we have four minutes. You guys can continue to bullshit around if you like.” Valerie replied.

“No, far be it for us to be late to a meeting,” Luis said.

Everyone began to file out with their weapons. As Valerie left the two alone, Will spotted a few hira-shuriken stars that were awfully tempting. They were small ornament-looking weapons but still very lethal. The stars were made of neoartium and were more than sharp enough to amputate a hand when tossed with enough strength. Or go cleanly through a poor bastard. Will’s fond memories of using the weapons finalized his decision.

Luis joined him in grabbing several of them.

“Think you’ll be using your sword today?” Luis asked.

“I wouldn’t give these scum the honor,” Will said.

“I was thinking the same thing.”

At that moment, they heard footsteps. It was Bia, loading rounds into her M11. She waved at them both, but as she drew nearer, she hugged Luis tightly. Will took sharp notice of that.

“You should really hurry up,” she insisted.

Luis scoffed, picking up another star, “You can’t rush art, now can you?”

“Shut up. Don’t keep us waiting,” she said playfully.

As Bia began to walk away, Will saw Luis’ face grow tense, and before he knew it he was walking after her. The sounds of his footsteps resonated loudly in the small room. Bia turned around, seemingly as surprised as Will was, but she did not shy from a kiss.

After a few seconds, both pulled their lips away slowly. She shot him a glare, and Will could see her eyes were also focused on his reaction. As his face didn’t change, she smiled and lovingly planted a kiss on Luis’ cheek. She left the room and it was just the two cyborgs again.

“What the hell was that?” Will demanded, as he heard the door shut.

“What? That was nothing.”

Will shook his head.

“Getting involved with her like that is pushing it, Luis. How long can you hide that? Everyone else won’t remain blind forever.”

“Hide it?” Luis said, no longer smiling, “I have nothing to hide. Since when is being with someone against regulation?”

Will was dissuaded by that remark.

“It’s not, but don’t bullshit me. That terrorist attack has everyone concerned about your dedication. To go through with this now of all times–”

“Don’t tell me how to do my fucking job!”

There was a brief moment of silence as the two stood there. To Will’s relief, Luis backed down.

“I know the press conference was bad. And I am going to make up for it today with every bastard I take down. I know you’re looking out for me, but I can handle this.”

He held out his gloved hand, and Will didn’t hesitate a second to take it. This was his friend and partner. He believed in him. Luis had always been headstrong, but he’d never let Will down.

“Trust me, busting your balls is Kane’s job, not mine. I don’t want it to be on my to-do-list every damn day.”

“I shook your hand, sir, but don’t expect me to salute you. At least not when it’s just the two of us.”

Luis was finally prepared, and was getting ready to leave. Will sensed he was about to say something. From the smile on his friend’s face, he naturally assumed it would be a topic he wouldn’t like.

“I’d recommend Magnolias. Seems like she’d like them,” Luis said passively.

Will was legitimately confused, “What?”

Luis’ smile deepened.

“I’m not blind, either. I see what’s happening between you and Val, the way you look at her and her at you. Rumors of course are circling about you two walking down the stairwell side by side after dusk. I never took you for a romantic, but hey, a gesture like that would even make me blush a little.”

“Nothing happened up there between us.”

“Hey, that’s your business. Maybe you guys went crazy, or maybe you were both too frightened. My point hasn’t changed, though, Will. There’s more to you two than you are willing to admit. You just don’t want to believe it.”

Chapter 12 – The Ghost Town

April 9, 2065 – Conference Chamber, UNR Headquarters

The Conference Chamber was a small auditorium, complete with a stage, podium, and stadium seating. Kane stood patiently as the men and women filed in and took their spots. He noticed the two cyborgs arrived dead last. Them, late? For the moment, he wouldn’t let that distract him.

“Your initiative is rather simple, boys and girls,” he said, pacing from one side of the podium to the other, “with special thanks to the intel we recently acquired, we can now take the steps necessary to avoid prolonged internal conflict in this country. Today we save lives, simple as that. There is a factory complex in Dickenson County that’s going to house a weapons cache, and we’re hoping to catch them with their pants down. Because of that, you’ll be approaching the destination on foot under the cover of Jefferson National Forest.”

Hans’ brow furrowed at that.

“What about civilians? Are they a factor?” she asked. Bia’s mind lingered on more than dealing with insects.

“Surrounding the old relic is a neighborhood of old houses, but they should be empty. Other than that, there might be a few homeless, who should either be brought back here or terminated.”

Val raised her hand.

“Go ahead, Unit 23.”

“What are the rules of engagement?”

Kane didn’t pause for a second.

“The Chancellor has specified that there are to be no prisoners on this mission. Leave not a single one of them alive. Remember what Venloran taught you: Even a single battle must be fought with unwavering brutality. A rational opponent will submit much faster if they realize initially there’s no chance for victory. Make us proud, soldiers, and stack those bastards high. Dismissed.”

The large battalion stood up and saluted in unison, Kane returning the admiration. With that, the soldiers began to file out. Kane caught Will’s eye and nodded him over subtly. Letting a few walk past, the cyborg made his approach.

“Sir?”

Kane could see how anxious Will was to join the others, and how poorly his attempt to hide it as he waited for whatever his commander would request of him. So anxious to get the extermination started, Kane joked in his head. He then realized that he had called Unit 21 over to him without knowing what exactly to say. There was so much he wanted to tell him but he digressed. Perhaps he was too close to the being before him. He’d been working with thier kind since the beginning but none as long Will and Luis. Perhaps that was why he found himself fumbling for words.

“Are you ready for this assignment?” he asked, feeling it a stupid question. Of course, he’s ready!

“Born ready, sir! These past few days have been the longest of my life. Now it comes crashing down for them. I won’t let the Chancellor down.”

Kane noted the machine-like quest for that constant perfection. That trait was why Venloran favored the cyborgs so above all others. Along with their power to actually accomplish that perfection. He had almost forgotten he was in the presence of The Wolf himself.

“Hell, with three of you on this one you’d think the phrase ‘overdoing it’ might come to mind,” was the first thing that left Kane’s mouth.

“Certainly not, Commander. It means more power, so this mission will be completed three times as fast. The Chancellor and the Major are only applying the forces that will be the most productive.”

Productive. Kane clung to that word. Now he understood completely. William Marconi’s productivity had served its time. Served it well, yes, but nonetheless, his era was drawing nearer to its climax. The dynasty he’d aided in establishing was on the verge of continuing without him, caused only by the effect of time. Like artificial selection. Maybe this is just another step toward ultimate victory.

“Will,” he said, placing a hand on his shoulder, “I want you to do something for me.”

“Anything, sir.”

“I want you to enjoy it all. Savor this mission well. When a man’s life slows down, and there’s nothing he can do, he uses the moment to look back. Even for you, there will be such a time.”

Will looked at him, taking in the somber tone of Kane’s voice. The cyborg’s CPU configured that, just as Kane removed his arm. The stoic expression told him it was time to send Will on his way.

“Go on now. You’ve got work to do.”

***

Target Zone: Jefferson National Forest

The Bison was a powerful, lengthy machine. Not so much in offensive capabilities, but it was heavily armored, ensuring the transported soldiers inside were safe and sound. It looked quite like a SWAT Armored Rescue Vehicle, but much larger. There were few things they couldn’t crush under their six tires. Two of them took a detour off the main road as they came to a barricade of cement blockers.

The ride had taken about two hours to reach this checkpoint, as the large vehicles rolled over the woodland trail with smoothness. The early morning sun was just barely emerging, which the soldiers noted as they finally came to a stop in a bald spot in the forest.

As everyone strolled out in formation, the smell of pinewood filled the air. A low fog had settled, but was losing its thickness as the sun rose higher. For now, it was rather cold, all seeing their exhaled breath turn into mist.

Will stood before the troops, seizing the opportunity at long last to exert his power.

“All right people, stand at attention,” he said, and they snapped-to. Even Luis found himself subjected to Will’s command.

“As stated earlier, we’ll be leaving the Bison. The complex is just over this hill and is a twenty to twenty-five minute trek. I want us to keep quiet. When we get to the town use the houses as cover.”

“Yes, sir!!” The company saluted Will as he gave the order.

“Okay, let’s move out. Stay in formation till we get to the destination point.”

Coming upon the houses was like stumbling into a ghost town. There it is, Will regarded, the town of Clinchco. The number of homes was few, and each one looked the same. The paint had faded considerably, and the yards were either overgrown with weeds, or barren. The team dispersed, with Will and Luis moving the fastest, as expected. This crude little town had once been a cluster of low-income government housing, having roots long before the UNR era. By order of Venloran, the citizens of Clinchco had been relocated to large cities to fill jobs in the more populated areas, or in military training facilities.

With a population that never even reached a thousand, this ghost town was to be sold to private businesses to be flattened. The super soldier surmised this was one of the many towns that sat on the market for long periods of time, and it was only logical that under the radar, filth had returned to the place. However, filth of a different variety. Creeping alongside left behind cars, Luis could see the kill zone: a fairly large warehouse. They were close now, within two hundred feet.

Meanwhile, Hans and Cisco were perched atop a two-story house, snipers at the ready. This time they had a few extra men guarding their rear. Protected from any possible counter-threat, they scoped out the area.

“This time, boy,” Hans assured, “we’ll blow some fuckers away, guaranteed.”

Cisco smiled before gazing into his scope, “I believe you, sir. I’ll try to keep up with you.”

Hans glanced at the kid while he should have been busy. Strange, most new recruits were preoccupied with being obnoxious showboats and yet this one was cooling rapidly. How opposite to the regular this kid was: most just grew more self-obsessed as time marched on, but this one was much more composed and compliant. He appreciated that.

“Hans, what’s it look like up there?” Will questioned.

“The warehouse is fenced, not a real problem. Parking lot is clear of any hostiles, but we do have several vagrants outside the perimeter. More importantly, we do have visual confirmation that several vehicles are parked outside the entrance, definitely not like the rust buckets we’ve seen so far.”

“What kind?”

“We got three jeeps, and two diesel trucks. Trucks have padded, heavy duty locks on the doors. I’m guessing that’s our package.”

“Seems so, Unit 21, out.”

“Roger that, Hans out.”

Bia walked with Mitch and a small contingent of the group. They were nearing the fence of the factory, a fifteen-foot tall enclosure topped with precarious barbed wire. Before the fence was a long dead park. Among it were several tents, the smell of age-old clothes, and worn down shoes. They both watched in disgust as the homeless wandered here and there, a few with dogs and small kids. They smirked as they walked among the left-behinds of society. Mitch marked the spot on his map. They came to the fence when he saw a small bird in a clump of weeds, fried-looking. It was then he noticed the slight hum in the air.

“Ay, we have a hiccup. The fence is electrified.”

“Duly noted,” said Will. This was a minor bump in the road. Most importantly, the condition of the fence confirmed that, despite appearances, there were definitely inhabitants here.

Hans’ voice came over the channel again, for all to hear:

“That fence is not the only problem. Negative on that last report,” he said, “I have two hostiles exiting one of the trucks, both armed. Taking ‘em out will be a cinch though.”

“Hold on,” said Valerie over the com channel, “I’d like a little warm-up, if I may, sir.”

Hans shared a scowling glance with Cisco.

“Go ahead, 23. I want to see you in the field.”

Val had just entered the park. Her crimson jacket had been questionable for this mission, but she found herself unable to leave it behind. Mitch and Bia watched as she stepped into view, twenty feet short of the gate.

From Val’s vantage point, she could see the two men conversing next to the jeep. Under the cover of a tree and a few bushes, she was sure they weren’t aware of her presence. Val slung her rifle and drew the twin swords she’d requested. They were very much like the ones Luis carried.

Normally she had preferred a single sword, but the art of Niten Ichi-Ryu had always fascinated her, and for the first time she would finally get to test her skills. Taking a final five seconds to formulate her attack plan, Val ran at the fence. All it took was a single leap to bound over the so-called barrier. In order to make less noise when she hit the ground, she landed in a forward roll. Instantly, she was back on her feet. Now there were only ten feet between her and the two men. One of their heads turned ever so slowly.

Unit 23 leaped again raising both her swords simultaneously slitting the throats of the two soldiers. There was no click of a round going off, no alarm, no screams. The only sound was the bodies hitting the ground. Val sheathed her swords, the blood gleaming under the sunlight, the two blades making an ‘X’ formation on her back.

She walked calmly over to the truck, finding a crude lead-acid battery hidden underneath. Valerie shut it off and within a few minutes, all the soldiers were inside the parking lot. When they were in position, the fence was re-activated. Will met up with Val and only nodded. With those two minor snags out of the way, the real objective was right back on schedule.

***

Will and the other cyborgs entered first, finding revolving doors as the factory’s entrance. Once inside, they could truly see the enormity of the place. The complex was dimly lit upon entering, and Will saw immediately where this was going. He put up his fist for the others to stop, then gave his orders.

“Mitch,” he said, awaiting a response. There was a slow pause.

“Yes?”

“I want you to take a few men with you. Try to get those trucks open. Hans and the others will be watching your asses and we’ll keep you posted on what goes on inside.”

“And when we get ‘em open?”

“Report to Kane what you find. Then head back here.”

Mitch departed with his quota of soldiers and the rest pressed on. Will had done that only to keep them busy for a little while. The others would hold back while the three cyborgs took the lead.

Finally, they entered a large chamber, the main floor of what they assumed was once a distribution center for a hardware store. Defective products ranging from portable air compressors to flux welders had been left behind. The metal beams above looked unstable, and somewhat hazardous. Not one item in the place had escaped the layer of dust that coated everything. The only machinery active were the flickering lights far above, which activated upon their entry. A few forklifts, as well as stairs and catwalks lead to the upper levels. The place seemed like no one had paid it a visit in quite some time. There had to be something else to this. Will hid any ambiguity from the others. How to handle it, was the question.

“Hold,” he ordered.

This was definitely not right. There was not a soul here, aside from the occasional rodents. At least that’s what he thought, until he heard an empty box fall into a row of others, coming from somewhere above. Will looked up to see a silhouette running along the catwalk. Unit 21 took his chance.

He leaped up a good twelve feet, landing nimbly in front of him. The man dropped to his knees in fear, and Will was disappointed to find it was just another bum. Dirty and rugged, the man’s grimy face expressed sheer terror.

“Please, I-I don’t want to leave my home,” he begged, “I’m all Danny has.”

Will continued to stare at the man until he heard the vicious growl of a canine. He turned around, anxious to see this new threat. The dog was a large German shepherd, but it was obviously in poor health. For all of Danny’s gusto, he did not come at Will, but remained on his wool blanket among the cardboard boxes. The cyborg quickly surmised his back legs were not functional. Still, the dog was poised up on his two front legs, staring angrily, while snarling at the intruder.

“Danny!! Quiet!! Quiet!!”

Will walked closer and smiled as the dog continued its warning. His gums appeared sickly as well, but in spite of all his ailments, he tried to sit up as best he could. The man watched intently as the cyborg knelt down face-to-face with Danny. The dog’s jaws snapped but Will was just barely out of reach. Still, he was close enough to feel his hot breath. The dog lunged at him again, but this time Will grabbed his jaws tightly, the canine unable to pry free.

“You are quite the trooper, Danny.”

Will rubbed the dog’s throat with one hand. Danny bared his teeth, but Will grabbed his neck tightly in the other hand. After a little extra force, he placed the dog quietly on his blanket. The man stared blankly as Will rose to his feet, pleased with himself. The man suddenly rushed the cyborg, and Will assumed he would immediately halt upon meeting his stoic gaze. To his surprise, however, the man ignored him, walking right past him to cradle the corpse.

“I know someone’s here. There’s no point in lying. If you comply, you can go on to the academy. Give yourself a better life. You’ll no longer be forced to call this your home.”

The man looked at him with red eyes.

“You’re the devil,” was all he said, “you’re the devil.”

“The devil, huh?” Will responded, as if weighing that consideration. “Fine then, join Danny.”

A single shot rang out and a single shell hit the metal grating of the catwalk. It was quiet once again, and Luis found himself tapping his foot in his anxiousness.

“So, now what?” he blatantly yelled up at Will, who leaped back down to join his team. He could hardly bring himself to look them in the eyes.

“Let’s head back.”

It was then, just as the troops were nearly at the exit of the chamber, that Mitch’s voice came over the intercom:

“Unit 21, every box in these trucks is empty.”

Empty?

Right at that moment set charges went off above, the booms echoing in the chamber. The troops rushed to the door, but didn’t go completely through. No one was sure what the hell was going on. Will looked up, only to see several beams snapping loose. Oh, hell. Humongous metal bars came crashing down on top of them, some even crushing segments of the intersecting catwalks. Will and Luis, being the farthest from the door, were unable to avoid the large debris, and were crushed under the hail.

Val managed to leap back, but a beam crashed right in front of the doorway, a sickening crunch following. A soldier’s leg revoltingly protruded from the wreck. They were trapped.

As the dust began to rise into clouds, gunfire suddenly poured on them from all angles, particularly from the upper levels. Many troops were rushing onto the remaining catwalks. Val recognized the firearms as AK-47s. They were automatic weapons, but not the best for precision. Not that it mattered with the UNR regiment caught so off guard. Several were hit and collapsed to the cold floor.

From what Val clearly picked up on the microphones in her ears, she knew some of her comrades were still breathing, wounded yet still managing to cling to life. For the moment, she ignored them and raised her PSD rifle. The cyborg began to fire, mowing down several of her opponents. Many were unfortunate enough to fall off the ledge above and crash into the computers and left over mechanics. The remaining UNR troops took cover in a large aisle of wooden crates. Regardless, splinters of wood flew and more casualties piled on for them. Val’s eyes were keeping her CPU busy, tracking well over sixty enemy troops. Her kill rate as of yet was at ten. She would soon have to reload, not so simple with the open range they’d become.

Bia helped her squadron out best she could, raining fire at a group high above their right. The assailants easily took cover behind metal pillars and dense walls, not making easy targets.

Fuck this we need some damn offense! Bia and a comrade rushed behind a large forklift, now able to see behind at least one of the pillars from their vantage point, and the enemies taking cover behind it. Shots rang out, joining the chorus, and the UNR gained three more kills.

Meanwhile, one of the beams shifted and Will emerged, roughed up, but otherwise just dandy. He tossed the beam aside as he surveyed the situation. His adrenal glands surged to extreme levels, levels only a super soldier could reach. Things began to slow, and he saw clearly in the chaos of bullets and death. Already eleven of the twenty UNR soldiers he’d brought with him were face down on the ground. The remaining troops were barely holding their own, and for good reason. These bastards were no amateurs and were incredibly well trained. Will also noted that the beams had crushed his M-16.

Their ruse would only last for a minute longer. Against average men it could’ve worked, in all likelihood would have, but not against these three super soldiers. He wondered whether they knew that or not. He walked over to a downed UNR soldier and stripped him of his M9 handgun and the reloads strapped to his belt. In the corner of his eye, he saw Luis emerge as well, a look of annoyance clearly written on his face.

Firmly in his hand was his Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver, intact. Unlike Will, he had held onto it tightly during the distraction. He too, figured it was a simple tactic to slow them down and immediately got to work. Not a single round fired missed or hit a wall. Each shot was a kill, and between the three of them, this skirmish would end in a flash.

From his vantage point, Neal assessed the action below. Things were going as best they could for the rebel troops, but they’d taken losses as well. Suddenly the pillar he hid behind took a shower of bullets, causing sparks and blowing large chunks out of the column. His heart raced, and when the bullets finally ceased he peeked to see a pair of UNR troops using a forklift as cover. Neal realized these assailants were the ones most likely to hit him from his current position and he took the opportunity while they were reloading fresh magazines to return fire.

Luis emptied the last round of his revolver into an opponent. Most men would prefer a machine gun or rifle in such conditions, but not him. He preferred his kills personal. As he whirled around to take aim at a few adversaries on the opposite side of the room, he saw one soldier behind a forklift take heavy fire to the chest before falling dead. Miserable idiot, that vehicle is hardly any sturdier than the other rusted heaps lying around this dump. But then he spotted another UNR troop taking cover, crouching with her head down. Bia.

He looked up and saw the gunman, who stopped firing at her, but didn’t pull away. Reloading? No, bait. Bia took it and stood up, facing him with her weapon at the ready.

“Get down!!” Luis yelled. For the first time in his life, he felt helpless.

The man fired first, a sustained burst of three shots. Bia took the shots in her abdomen, and Luis could feel something inside him lurch as they exited out of her lower back. She, like so many others during this battle, hit the floor hard.

Luis didn’t hesitate for even a fraction of a second. He put his gun away on his hip and ran to her. Instantly she felt his strong arms swoop down and lift her off the ground. He said nothing, didn’t even look down at her as he held her. He only kept his eyes forward and rushed to where the others were hiding at the crates.

Will followed his movements with angered eyes. During that brief sprint, tons of renegade soldiers took shots at him. Luis took damage to the head, shoulder, even his arm. The ping of the bullets hitting the neoartium was like a ballet.

“What the fuck are you doing?!!”

Then Will saw that it was Bia he held in his arms, and for reasons unbeknownst to him, he wished he could’ve taken those words back.

Even the other UNR troops were surprised by the move. Luis settled behind the fragile cover offered by the wooden structures. Blood ran down his head, past what little was left of his ear, and down his neck. He could also feel the warm substance on the inside of his jacket, but he was in no need of medical attention. His focus was Bia, first and foremost. Everyone else, even the mission itself, became secondary to Bia’s needs as she struggled to hold on. The bullets went clean through, right above her belly button. Luis placed a hand on her wound, applying pressure as needed, careful not to exert too much force in fear of crushing her ribs. She looked up at him, her breath ragged. Her hand reached up to touch his face gently. She managed to slow her breathing, enough and actually speak.

“I can’t believe it,” she laughed, “to think you’d end up saving me again.”

Luis wasn’t sure how to respond. He just kept the pressure constant, despite the fact that her heart was jumping from dangerously slow to abnormally fast. He was a fighter, not a medic. He couldn’t be a hundred-percent positive what any of these signs meant.

“Yeah, but we’re not through yet,” he finally replied, saying only what came to his head first, “and I swear we’re both going home at the end of the day.”

Bia planted a hand firmly on the back of Luis’ head as her smile vanished. Without warning, she pulled him in for a kiss. This one seemed so tender compared to the others, not rushed, or through a blur of adrenaline. Luis savored the taste of her lips, but it was soured by the additional taste of iron. He wiped his lip, finding some of her blood on it. When his eyes went back to her, she had that smile again, but now her eyes were halfway shut, that beautiful face paling. Luis panicked, the first time in his life he’d felt the human tendency of fear.

Just as he thought about what he should do, a small object landed right next to him: a grenade. His sensors warned him it was heated prior to being thrown. Even for a cyborg, a super human, milliseconds would not be enough time to hurl it elsewhere. The soldiers around him cowered and cursed, but Luis gripped the grenade in both hands, and then turned away from everyone as he brought it close to his armored chest. His hold was like a bear trap, though even he wasn’t sure what would happen next.

Chapter 13 One Last Attempt

April 9, 2065 – Target Zone: Jefferson National Forest

Luis felt his whole body shudder as the grenade went off. The boom rumbled like an angry god in his ears. All heads turned in his direction, astonished to see the cyborg still standing. All the grenade had seemed to do was cause him loose his footing for a moment. His arms and hands had taken a great amount of the shrapnel, but the crates in front of him had also been lightly pelted. Smoke billowed from between his fingers, and so did blood, dribbling to the floor. Luis was in a decent amount of pain, which one could derive from his face.

He winced as he stood and let the remains of the grenade drop to his feet like crumbs. Luis looked at his hands and forearms, seeing the shrapnel from the grenade had indeed embedded into the flesh. Chunks of flesh were missing in some areas, in others completely torched. Some semblance of sleeves remained on his overcoat. All of these wounds were superficial, however, and his CPU told him everything internal was in working order.

“Sir, are you–” said one soldier, stuttering, “–uh, are you okay?”

Luis’ stone cold eyes stared at him for a second.

“You,” he said in a near yell as he picked up his revolver, “Watch her! If she dies, it’s on your head!”

“Yes, sir!!”

The soldiers took her in, one ducking to avoid the splinters of wood as he opened up his medical kit. Luis left the crates behind, moving back into the midst of the gunfire.

He walked over to where Bia had been hit, analyzing the bullet on the ground. He backtracked the trajectory to the gunman on the ledge. Two other shooters had just joined him and all three of them were looking at him intently. Luis’ eyes locked with only one: Neal. All three cocked their weapons, the woman to his left firing first, and then joined by the two others. Their hopes were pinned on inflicting more damage to the UNR troops.

Luis tightened his grip on the Smith & Wesson. The cyborg ran at the trio and leaped onto a crate, before bounding up to the second floor. Luis landed right behind them and waited impatiently as they turned to face him. Those few seconds were almost amusing to Luis, and as soon as one of them did turn, he acted swiftly. The man’s eyes showcased his terror as he discovered Bacalov was dead in his face. Luis pulled the trigger, sending blood, small pieces of flesh and bone flying over the edge of the upper level. The sound of the shot was like a clap of thunder.

Neal stepped in front of the woman, preparing to fire off the last of his bullets.

Luis slapped Neal as gently as he could, still the blow sent him crashing through an office window on the second story of the warehouse, landing on a desk, and knocking its dusty papers and computer clean off.

The girl tried to run, but Luis snatched her by the throat before she could get very far. She only got out one good gasp before his worn down fingers did their work. Quite hauntingly, he brought her face close to his. Her eyes were already red from asphyxiation, and he was meticulous with the hold. Her life would end shortly, but not before she absorbed the terror of being faced with the super soldier as an opponent. He hurled the woman over the edge of the mezzanine with ease, sending her flying over the crates and slamming into a wall. The smear of blood left behind ensured her demise.

From there Luis rushed to where he’d seen Neal land. Val leaped up onto the second level as well, crunching glass beneath her feet. Luis has done his job well, breaking their first line of defense and all, but what the hell is he doing now? She walked into the small office to see Unit 18 checking on Neal. From what she could see, he was still alive, only unconscious.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Nobody touch him,” was all he said as he began to leave the room. Val threw him a look of surprise and walked over to the fallen man.

“We have strict orders to–”

“Don’t touch him!!” Luis yelled, his eyes giving off a true sense of ferocity.

Val stopped herself from retaliating with harsh words, her first proposed course of action. Her own eyes met Luis’ with a fiery intensity. With a few more seconds of cooling off, she felt prepared to engage him a little more tacitly. Before she got the chance, the sound of gunfire chimed in her ears. There’s no time for this shit.

Val left the room. No difference, the Chancellor would deal with him, so back to the mission at hand.

***

Some distance away, Will leaped back onto the catwalk, gunning down several men. His M9 needed constant reloads, which he found rather annoying. He only had one more before he’d have to go bare knuckles into this battle. Not that he’d mind, it’d just take longer. On this catwalk alone, twenty soldiers challenged him, and he was intent on putting down the ones closest to him with nothing but his hands.

Jacob, meanwhile, watched the slaughter of his men right before him. This surprise attack was certainly helping the cause, but came with heavy losses. He’d been sticking to the rear of the assault but as the battle raged on, he’d crept up to the front line. The cyborgs were inarguably the greatest killers to set foot on the earth. They’d been outnumbered so greatly, but it made no wall for their victory. They really are monsters. Then again, I sent them off to their deaths. Jacob tucked that thought into a corner of his mind, not to be revisited any time soon.

He instead focused on his fight. On this very catwalk was one of the monsters, cutting down his men at a startling rate. A vicious kick sent one man flying over the catwalk, while yet another received an elbow to the chest, eliciting an instant kill. Near the back of the group, Jacob felt his stomach rise up to his throat. He wanted to call the retreat already, but it wasn’t time quite yet. Damn it…wait. Jacob stepped near the railings to get the view he needed, and indeed he saw the target they’d come for. He looked down at his watch anxiously. We don’t have to stall for as long as I thought.

“Neal, come in, we have our objective,” he called to Neal’s personal channel, receiving no response, “Neal, come in!!”

Jacob cursed himself. He’d sent his friend to die. The vain struggle was no different from sending lambs to a hungry wolf. But now wasn’t the right time to grieve. He wouldn’t waste the lives of his remaining soldiers.

“All regiments, Order Scramble!! We’re done here!” he yelled.

Just then, a bullet caught his arm, forcing him to drop his gun. The machine walked over the corpses casually, over to the downed soldier without a single word. Yes, Jacob thought, it’s him. The one father is so particular about. Now he would also be brought to death by this monster’s hand. The devil now spoke to him in a loud voice as he drew within four meters range:

“You must be their commanding officer, but what rank?”

Jacob wanted to say something, but his mouth couldn’t produce a sound. The cyborg’s smile grew as he stepped closer.

“Are you gonna tell me or what?”

That bastard, he’s just toying with me. Jacob let out a breath of agitation and then sat down on his knees, swallowing his fear. The order had been given, so at least his mission had been completed. The man closed his eyes, awaiting the solemn end.

“A lieutenant, now quit wasting my time.”

Will understood. Just another miserable life that belonged to him anyway. He raised his weapon and pulled the trigger, to no result.

Jacob’s eyes cracked open upon hearing the click. Sweat began to pour out of him and his fear had returned. The smirk on the cyborg’s face told Jacob what he was truly in for. It had known full well the last bullet was buried in the man’s arm. He was on the verge of pissing himself, and could only ponder what the cyborg would do to him now. His men had retreated to other rooms as he’d ordered, leaving him completely alone, not that anyone could change his fate at this point.

“It looks like you’re going to live a little longer. Just a little.”

“JACOB, GET OUT OF THE WAY!”

Will gave no mind to the now rolling lieutenant, focusing on the voice that had come from down the corridor at the catwalk’s end. It was then a small explosion rocked his chest armor. It caused him to stumble but did not knock him off his feet. A grenade launcher. Will looked to see a woman emerging from the darkness, still aiming at him as if she were a real adversary.

Jacob meanwhile had luckily cleared the blast range, but he now gawked at the woman as well. This rescue did not alleviate his turmoil in the slightest.

“What the hell? You heard my orders! Go!!” Why Gabby, he thought, why did she have to be so stupid?!

The cyborg studied her face, and then looked at Jacob. They looked…similar. Related? In fact, he dared to assume they were siblings. Will scoffed.

“Step away from him, NOW!!” she commanded.

“Do you plan to stop me?” the cyborg asked with a near laugh. He grabbed onto Jacob’s head in one hand, applying pressure and causing him to holler in pain.

“Will, ENOUGH!”

Jacob felt the pain ease, even though some blood had been drawn. Will’s eyes narrowed as he threw the man to the floor of the catwalk. He took a step closer, leaving the officer to his own.

Gabby didn’t move an inch and held her gun steady. There was no fear in her cold eyes, just anger.

“What did you say?”

Maybe, just maybe, despite his hearing, he’d misheard.

“Fuck you,” she replied.

Will no longer spoke, but inched closer to Gabby, who took off down the corridor like a lightning bolt. Will followed after her at a deliberately slower speed.

***

Val noticed a group of ten getting away, heading for an elevator. She easily leaped right over them and landed directly in front of the lot. They raised their weapons but before any one of them could get a decent shot on her, they all lay dead in a heap atop one another. Val smiled to herself: two bullets to spare. Still, several rebels had escaped down the hallways and corridors they hadn’t been able to block off. Their targets hadn’t been as unaware as was predicted, and the headcount of the dead UNR soldiers was staggering, leaving the cyborg with a sense of defeat. There’d be time for more speculation as she rejoined the few survivors at the crates.

Hunks of wood laid everywhere, but the boxes had served their purpose. Lui, the one Luis had taken such interest in, was hanging on by a thread. Because of him, the operation had been sloppy. Here he comes now.

Luis slid down next to the group. As even further evidence of his insubordination, the one he’d refused to kill was on his back, still unconscious and handcuffed. He set him down…gently. In the now quiet room, they looked on at his peculiarity. Only Val dared to speak.

“The Chancellor will not like this at all.”

He remained quiet for a while.

“If Bia Lui dies, he dies,” he said plainly.

“And if she lives?”

Luis stood up to look at his fellow cyborg, “He still dies. Just quicker, I suppose.”

“Ay, where’s Unit 21?” interrupted a soldier.

As they looked at one another in stupor, Mitch reported in over the intercom:

“Reinforcements have arrived. Hang tight for a few more minutes.”

“Understood. Over and out,” said Val.

Luis reloaded Bacalov and began to walk off.

“I’m going to find Will. He’s probably trying to finish the mission on his own.”

Luis nabbed the sorry bastard, who would suffer regardless of Bia’s fate. As for herself, he was confident she would make it back to base. She was a woman born to fight and he knew this wouldn’t stop her. Much like Will, the greedy bastard. Trying to keep all the fun to himself.

Val strolled up to the beam blocking the doorway and with little effort threw it aside. It clattered into a row of machines in a mess.

***

Will had lost sight of the woman in the narrow hallways, but not for long. Every time he went down a pitch-black corridor, upon hitting the corner, she’d disappear down another. Only a fool would believe they had escaped. He was playing cat and mouse, and she would lead him to the remaining cowards.

Finally, Unit 21 came to a room with no hallways or doors, nothing but tables and one wall covered in microwaves. The room had apparently once been a break room. The room also housed a single elevator, which was appeared to head only downwards. I don’t think so. The super solider slipped his fingers through the two doors and began to rip it open. Sure enough, the shaft cables descended into the darkness. He whipped out a grenade, preparing to drop it.

“Hey, shit head.”

The cyborg turned to see two soldiers. One of them was just another piece of trash, but the other was the woman from earlier. Will put the explosive away. He decided to let them play their best card. The man threw a capsule-sized device, which exploded in a bright flash of light, a flash-bang grenade. It could take over a few seconds to regain one’s senses and in battle that meant death. Not to Will.

His eyes and ears recovered within a single second, and in the regained clarity, he saw the two soldiers taking cover at the doorway of the room. Equipped with protective visors, the man raised his weapon. Will would relive this moment for Luis and the others vividly. He hurled a hira-shuriken before there was the time to pull the trigger.

The troop felt something tear into his jugular and exit out of the back of his neck. In the dark room, not even a glimmer of the weapon could be seen as it flew through the air. Gabby could feel the breeze it created as it flew into the wall. She watched as the man crumpled to the floor. Sweat rolled down her body. The cyborg leisurely drew another hira-shuriken and Gabby rained fire on him briefly, to no avail. She stepped from the doorway’s edge to its center.

“I’ll give you one last attempt. Try whatever you please.”

Gabby’s own human adrenaline pumped with stunning velocity. She switched the gun to its grenade mode, but hesitated to fire. She was more doubtful than she’d ever been about this mission.

“I’ll take your hand first, and afterward you’ll be lucky if I end it by snapping your neck.” Will said.

His opponent was afraid but not backing down.

“For some reason, I doubt that.”

His back to the open elevator shaft, Will seemed almost vulnerable. The cyborg could see her finger begin to budge and he hurled the hira-shuriken. The weapon flew through the air around the same time the grenade left the chamber. Will shut his eyes in preparation of the fire, however, the explosion brought no shattering wall of force.

Instead, Gabby’s grenade exploded into several much smaller warheads, the size of bottle caps. There were around twenty, maybe more, and they attached themselves all over his body. The little bastards were everywhere, even his face and neck. The cyborg was dumbfounded, his CPU working overtime to analyze the projectiles.

Will looked to see the woman had suffered a terrible cut to the right side of her face, and though blood trickled from the shearing flesh, she was still standing. He had missed. He had actually missed. Gabby was just as stunned as Will, but he did not remain still for long. The cyborg drew his sword and began to step toward her. Will ignored the little machines all over his body, and the mystery posed by the woman. Fuck the interrogation. End this now.

As he took his first step, he felt his body go into convulsions. He yelled in agony and felt something sweep through body like a tidal wave, his CPU unable to register what it was. Will hollered as he crumpled to his knees. The shocks were being generated from the tiny warheads. With that realization, he threw off his jacket, but there were far too many of the menacing devices for that to be effective.

Gabby backed away as he stumbled toward her, only just out of reach of the blade. She watched in amazement as he dropped his sword, almost immediately after raising it to his opponent. The weapon clanged to the floor and with a final groan, the seemingly invincible soldier crashed to the floor face first. Gabby had never seen a cyborg so still.

Will was sure his body was now useless, but his eyes and ears still functioned. He could see her boots in his face, although he could not raise his head to look up at her.

“I have him, I repeat, I have Unit 21. Rendezvous at point K-11. Evac now!!”

Will’s vision scrambled before switching from night vision to regular, and he saw firsthand the constant struggle humans faced with the darkness. Humans must constantly struggle with this he thought. With no infrared vision, he could barely make out his sword lying beside him. When you start thinking you can never be put down, you start to get sloppy. I’m sorry, Commander. Finally, he gave out completely.

Chapter 14 – Darkness Descends

April 9, 2065 – Clinchco, Virginia

Kane quickly exited the UNR Humvee. Over a hundred soldiers arrived and completely surrounded the broken down warehouse, while choppers buzzed overhead. Even Major Johnson decided to show up. With a crutch under his right arm, he saluted Commander Kane. The two men watched somberly as a band of soldiers emerged from the target zone carrying corpses. Surprisingly, the UNR had lost this battle.

That was the way Chancellor Venloran would see things. Kane had been informed that the Defense Forces had to place several of their own men within those body bags. The operation had gone too far off course to be pleasant about it. A few had made it out of the gun fight unharmed, but many others were badly wounded. Patients in critical condition were immediately sent off to headquarters. Strangely enough, Luis hadn’t even bothered to check in when Kane arrived. He had seen him at a distance a short time ago at Bia’s side, as she was transported onto a med chopper that left with the critically wounded.

For once Kane stood on a battlefield with no one to report to him for a solid five minutes. Finally, Unit 23, arrived, and with her the few untouched soldiers. Heading up behind Kane, escorted by heavy reinforcements, were Mitch and his men, along with the sniper crew. Together they formed a semi-circle around the Commander and the Major. First things first, they all saluted the two superior officers. Kane and Johnson returned the salutes, taking note of the shaken faces of the remaining few. The cyborg stood at attention normally, her posture straight and unruffled.

“Now,” Kane said, “someone elaborate.”

Val got ready to speak, but Mitch cut her off. He looked at her only after saying his share.

“If I may, sir,” he said respectfully.

Val let it go and waited patiently. She was eager to hear what someone who hadn’t even been present in the theater of combat had to say.

“This is at least partially, if not entirely, the fault of Unit 21. His order for my squad to leave the combat area was purely for unspecified and personal reasons. It led to catastrophic miscalculations and we were unable to assist due to the entrance being blocked. Unit 21 is responsible for all of those wasted lives.”

Kane seemed to completely disregard Mitch’s statement, “Where is Will?”

“That’s what I wanted to say, Commander,” Val said, pulling out Will’s sword. All those around her were startled to see the blade without its user, an oddity all on its own.

“Unit 21 is nowhere to be found, not a trace. Further investigation revealed tunnels beneath the factory, which the rebels most likely used to escape.”

“Has anyone seen where the tunnels lead?”

“No, sir. The tunnels were very unstable, rigged to collapse after anyone else went through. We nearly lost a man trying to dig him out.”

“So…” Johnson put together, “they have Will?”

“That’s bullshit,” said Mitch. Although he hated glorifying the bastards, he couldn’t believe Will had been captured. “How would they take down a cyborg? And without a trace of his location to boot? Maybe he knew more than we did–”

“What are you getting at Carline?” Major Johnson said with ire.

“I’m just going on what I see, Major. Of course the situation does warrant some speculation.”

“Don’t rush to conclusions. You’ll only end up looking stupid,” Kane scolded, “and not a goddamned word more of that kind of talk.”

“Yes, sir,” Mitch said reluctantly, “but how will it sound to the Chancellor?”

“None of your concern,” Kane pressed, “now head back.”

The soldiers left, only Kane and Johnson remaining behind. The ride back to headquarters would be a strenuous one at best. The Commander had dealt with deaths before, and even worse were the cases of soldiers deemed as missing-in-action. But how had Will become one of them, a victim? It made no sense.

“And nothing from his tracker back at HQ?” Avery asked blankly.

“His signal went dark, and we haven’t heard a peep since this shitstorm subsided,” Kane replied just as dryly.

“This is all kinds of bad, Kane,” Avery said. Kane didn’t even respond. He was mulling over a great deal. He turned away from the warehouse when he felt the Major staring him down.

“I know you lost one of your own. Bia’s hurt pretty fucking bad to boot,” Avery let the pain enter his voice for a moment,” but I still have to ask it because everyone’s thinking it: Why the hell is one of those scumbags on that chopper?!”

Kane crossed his arms across his chest.

“Like I said, it’s a shitstorm.”

***

April 9, 2065 – Cyborg Malfunction Area, UNR HQ

Krenzler and Myers were fully donned in their surgical attire for today’s business. The junior member walked over to Unit 18, who was strapped down and had his eyes shut while in standby mode.

“Evaluation, Myers?” Krenzler asked. His assistant finished writing a report on the operation parameters.

“This cyborg has several external damage points. Its head, arms, and hands all took a beating. Take a look, sir.”

Krenzler peered at the shirtless cyborg, looking down the forearm to the tip of the digits. Good God…one could see the neoartium in many places. Next to the chair was a medical tray, holding over thirty pieces of shrapnel about the size of apple seeds, that were extracted from the cyborg. The charred flesh suggested extreme heat, and the leftover metal indicated contact with a grenade.

“Just what the hell was it doing out there?” Myers commented, “Perhaps this one’s losing its touch.”

Krenzler’s expression didn’t change.

“No, all of this damage tells me a story, Myers, and from what I’ve observed, all of this appears to have been unnecessary. Its systems would’ve easily predicted those combat situations. Rather, it appears Unit 18 was distracted.”

“A distraction? Did he take some time to tie his shoes?”

“Cut the crap,” Krenzler said, “There have been a few unsettling events today. Our job is to put this place back on schedule.”

Myers nodded in agreement, but didn’t want the silence to roam free. Today the air was full of tension, and he along with many others had heard the details. He’d never seen an cyborg in such a condition as Unit 18 was in now. He wondered if it felt pain, among other things.

“Right, sir,” he searched for the right words, “I heard about our losses. This unit’s actions must have affected–”

At this, Krenzler actually looked up at him.

“If you keep talking, I’ll have you replaced.”

Myers finally shut up, and Krenzler focused on the cyborg.

“Now, anything else I should know about?”

Myers re-checked the clipboard accordingly.

“Yes, damage to the exterior of the head. I’m afraid we’ll have to replace one of the ears. Also bullet wounds along the neck.”

Krenzler nodded in silence.

“This is your first full-on recovery operation for a cyborg, correct?”

“I’ve dealt with minor burns before but nothing quite like this, sir.”

“I’m a tad rusty myself, but we’ll take it together. The scans show the skull did its job protecting his brain, and the skeletal structure is unscathed. All we need to worry ourselves with is the skin and muscle regeneration. A lot simpler than heart surgery, right?”

Myers allowed himself a laugh.

“Right, sir. The mesenchymal stem cell samples are ready. They’ve been programmed for accelerated growth. At most, this should take twelve hours.”

“Good, we’ll need this unit up and ready to go ASAP.”

As they prepared to begin the procedure, Myers just had one last thing to ask.

“Sir?”

“Yes, Myers?”

“The muscles, the skin, they don’t really need any of it, do they? It’s all just a psychological comfort for them.”

He expected to be scolded again, but Krenzler was far from scornful.

“The process is more about maintaining an illusion than any real healing. But the cyborgs deserve to feel like their former selves.”

***

“Procedure completed,” said Krenzler as he removed his gloves and disposed of them. Myers wiped the sweat off his forehead. Krenzler allowed him to give the order.

”S.S.C. Unit 18, activate.”

Myers watched in fear-empowered awe as the weapon suddenly sat up. It felt its hair before peering at its fingers. Unit 18 then rotated on his seat so his legs were dangling off the edge, before letting his boots touch the floor. He bowed to them both.

“Thank you. I am grateful for your work.”

“You’re welcome, 18. I’m just astonished it came to that.”

Luis laughed it off.

“Yeah, but it didn’t really save the rebels in the end. I bet it was amusing though.”

“From what I hear a prisoner was brought back. What kind of motive could be behind that you think?”

Now the cyborg seemed thrown off a bit, but his CPU soon had him back on track. He had no time to deal with this.

“I wouldn’t know, Doctor. Now if you excuse me, I must be on my way.”

“Oh yes. Kane is waiting on you. You’ll find your armor re-furbished next to the doorway. A new jacket has been ordered.”

Unit 18 nodded, “Thank you once again, sir.”

***

Luis headed down the hall with only one destination in mind. Will’s absence was shocking, and he could not wrap his head around why his tracker wasn’t doing its job. As a fellow cyborg, Luis’ systems should have picked up his partner’s location. So what the hell is this? All he’d received on his heads-up display was the notification that Unit 21 was missing-in-action. What happened to you, Will? The very idea of a cyborg being captured was an anomaly every fiber of his being was born to resist.

At a time like this, Luis should’ve been checking in with his Commander and the Major. He was overdue by several hours now. Still, he had some business to attend to first and foremost. His recent system updates revealed the Chancellor had approved his shenanigans involving the prisoner. The super soldier was definitely surprised by this decision, but it was a positive result. Venloran had been sympathetic and he was grateful for the vote of confidence. After he saw Bia, he would go about his duties immediately. When he got to the door of room 127, he could hear people talking.

Inside was the Commander and Chancellor Venloran, both standing over Bia, who lay still in the stark hospital bed. She didn’t look up as he let the door slide shut behind him. He took a step closer, and his blood ran cold. Each step toward her seemed to get him nowhere. He checked the monitor for her vital signs, but only saw a black screen. Luis’ scanners only recognized two other life signs in the room.

“She can’t be. She can’t be.”

“Our deepest apologies,” Venloran said.

The two of them looked at Luis with sorrowful expressions. Luis balled a fist in anger as his brow furrowed. He let out a yell that rang in their ears, swiping one arm violently across a tray, knocking it over, and spilling bloody operating tools and red-stained cloths to the cold sterile floor. Kane took a step back, genuinely startled. Venloran remained motionless.

The cyborg trudged closer, his eyes blood red and watering. Luis felt his head spinning. This isn’t possible. She’d stabilized before their departure. This shouldn’t have happened. The soldier stood over Bia and gripped her hand. Somewhat cold, but still warm. She couldn’t have died even an hour ago. Venloran saw Luis studying her face and offered some comfort.

“Unit 18, her body was frail. After taking so much, she just couldn’t go on.”

The cyborg’s eyes twitched in response to that, but he wouldn’t give it up. He couldn’t. He’d told himself to keep an eye on her, but somehow felt he had failed. Me, fail? I never fail. He turned to his Commander.

“Can’t Krenzler save her? Like he did me?”

Kane stepped closer, shaking his head.

“Luis, that procedure takes months of testing before the initial phases can even begin. That aside, no one can be brought back from the dead. She’s gone. I’m sorry we couldn’t do more.”

Luis looked back at Bia now, and then fell to his knees next to her bedside. The two men left him to his own. The cyborg didn’t notice. It was as if the world had confined itself to just the two of them. Luis let the tears escape. He rested his face on hers as he ran his hand gently through her hair. A broken man, he lowered his head to her chest, waiting for a sound, knowing he would not hear anything, but desperate to do so. She had been so warm before, so soft to touch, her body so elegant. Now because of his incompetence she was cold, and it was hammered it into his being that the warmth would never again return. My incompetence.

***

Kane and Venloran left the room. Mitch, Hans, Cisco, and others rushed past, but Venloran stopped Mitch for a moment. The others halted as well, not daring to defy their Chancellor.

“You all may see her,” he said, “but give Unit 18 a moment.”

Mitch’s was dumbfounded, but he said nothing. He nodded, and the others crowded around the door. Once outside of hearing distance, Kane spoke freely to his Chancellor.

“Do you want me to contact Krenzler?”

“No, there’s no need. We’re on the verge of civil war. We’ve already lost one cyborg and the incident is under investigation. I need our soldiers to know why they are fighting more than ever. I want him to make that realization himself. The cyborg will no doubt double his efforts I’m sure.”

“Civil war, Venloran,” was all Kane could manage. His own head was spinning. What he’d ordered was incomprehensible, but Venloran was so composed. The wound left on Luis would never truly heal, and yet it scarred Kane just as much.

“That’s quite a statement.”

“The implications seem far off, I know, but there are troubling signs. Two incidents have now occurred, both incredibly close together. This one may not have been the public catastrophe the other was, but in its own ways this one is damn near worse.”

“You seem fixated on one specific outcome though, and I don’t know why. It’s never happened before and it won’t happen now.”

“I am aware, but I refuse to leave any possibility unprepared for, Kane. Even one as drastic as this particular one.”

“And that’s why you are the Chancellor,” Kane said confidently. “Anything else?”

“Yes,” Venloran commanded, “ready cell 0869.”

Chapter 15 – Pathetic Condition

January 11, 2044 – “City of Peace” Jerusalem

All around him, his enemies were fleeing into the smoke. Atop the Dome of the Rock, the soldiers turned and fled. Their aim had been set on Will. One ran past him but abruptly halted and returned to hover over him. In a moment of stillness, Will could see the man’s face clearly. No, not a man. A teenager perhaps, but not a man. Will lay there helplessly. The man exhaled gently, aiming his weapon down at him and right at his chest. He muttered a few gentle words, without scorn and anger, almost in a soothing manner. Even as the man prepared to administer mercy, Will’s broken body wished for only one thing: to wrap the man’s throat in his hands. He wanted to strangle the life out of him, cut his eyes out with his knife, and pound his head into the pavement.

The familiar sound of propeller blades whirring tore the soldier’s gaze upwards and he too fled. Breathing heavily, Will drew his sidearm, aimed, and got off a couple of shots, with no fruit. He allowed his ragged carcass a rest and looked over at Val. Her eyes were shut, and she was still breathing, but slowly, and more sporadically. He estimated she had but a few moments left. Bryan was already an addition to the body count. The Dome of the Rock loomed in the distance, the only thing standing where so many men and women had fallen.

It was then he remembered what Bryan had said back in the alley. He had been willing to make that sacrifice for Will and his family, and in the end, he’d forsaken his own life. Will felt the box, still inside his pocket.

Tears ran down his face, mixing with the blood. His friends were gone, forever. Will knew he couldn’t let them down. No matter what happened, he would make sure Valerie got that ring. He had to. A gift from the dead to the dead, but he made a promise, and it was worth whatever strength he had left. As Will began to crawl over to Valerie, his vision began to blur. Did it matter if a body received a final gift? Yes, it matters you ass, just…do it. Despite his fierce motivation, his wounds weighed him down. No matter how hard he fought, he was still losing. Hold on, he told himself, hold on, hold on! He felt as if his head had been stomped on. He lost consciousness.

***

Location………

Target Estimate…….

Room Temperature…..

……….uploading data…please wait…..

A few seconds of emptiness. Will assumed he could hear, but he couldn’t actually be sure, because at the moment, there were no sounds to be heard. Perhaps he wasn’t even awake. Maybe he was still inactive, which would make this one of his hallucinations. But he’d never experienced one like this: so black and empty. All of this was interrupted by a single blow to his face. No, he felt that for sure, heard a voice as well. This was no dream.

“Wake up!”

Finally, the light returned to his eyes albeit all at once. His pupils stung slightly. They adjusted, but he noticed it took a lot longer. As long as a normal human, Unit 21 observed. That, and his heads-up display was non-existent. He looked around. The room was small and dingy, its walls a collage of different shades of brown, with the occasional splotches of black. The floor of this nine-by-twelve room looked like smoothed concrete. On it were several wires running along the floor, attached to a laptop across the room on a countertop. He was on a table of sorts, but it was an up-right position, not unlike a Boris Karloff film, he compared.

Unit 21 saw that seven or so thick red and black wires crept around the table and seeped onto his back like vines. He could feel them along his back, shoulders, and neck. They were like leeches on his skin, especially since he was without any of his precious armor, or even a shirt. He felt strangely exposed. The cyborg saw it had been the lieutenant from earlier who’d slapped him, and noticed the man’s right arm was in a sling. Beside him stood the woman, and both were silent. The room’s only small lamp was beside the computer, so Will could only vaguely see them. They could however, see his smile in the dim light.

“How’s the arm?” Will asked the lieutenant with a smug look.

The man only scoffed, followed by a similar smirk of his own. He stepped over to Will, face-to-face with him.

“Doing all right. I’ll admit you did a real number on me, but how ‘bout yours?”

The cyborg tensed, realizing he couldn’t move at all. His arms and legs were strapped down pretty close to his body, held down with ordinary rope. Will couldn’t reconcile what was going on. He couldn’t even lift a finger, and his heads-up display was still not initiating. It was as if he was in limbo or the halfway point of standby mode. The cyborg winced. He was completely at their mercy now, a hostage to be bartered, or worse.

Much to the lieutenant’s delight, the cyborg put his head down in shame. He drew a handgun, aiming it directly at the cyborg’s eye. The woman seemed alarmed now. The eyes of the cyborg were complex biomechanical masterpieces, but they also were their sole weak point. A bullet in the eye would be death, even for them.

“How’s that feel, huh? I doubted that it’d work, but to see it finally did…”

Jacob chuckled, a strange feeling within him. The lieutenant felt no pride in their victory, only a strange feeling of ironic humor.

Will pressed hard right back.

“Yes, I’m quite sure your fellow soldiers would’ve wanted to see the success of your mission. Well done, Lieutenant. Now, finish the job.”

Jacob’s eyes winced at those words, and cocked his gun on impulse. Will knew the only reason he wasn’t being disassembled at this very instant, was that these bastards obviously had some type of procedure beforehand. Whether it be torture or purely business, he did not know. In either scenario, it took a bit of his tension away to mock the man.

“Shut the hell up!!” he yelled, striking Will’s head with the heavy gun a few times.

Each one was a light blow for the cyborg, but a blow all the same. The fourth strike drew blood from his scalp, and it dripped between his eyes. Now both men were enraged. If only he could grip his throat, if only he could rip himself free of this table. But he could not. The man raised his arm to strike again, but his sister stepped in, “Jacob, enough. Don’t let it get to you.”

She pulled him away gently, and they both sat down in the corner of the room. The cyborg only gave them a few seconds of his attention before looking down at the floor again, where droplets of his blood collected. A pitiful end for me, he thought to himself. To think they could turn a living weapon into a pile of uselessness was a disgrace in itself, and now he would have to endure whatever came next.

The metal door unlocked from the outside and in stepped two men. One was considerably younger and had a man bun of full, black hair. Thin and unconditioned, he seated himself at the laptop and instantly glued his eyes to the screen. The other man was well over his seventies, with a cul-de-sac and snow white goatee. The use of a cane gave him a frail appearance. At the sight of him, the other two soldiers stood up, awaiting orders. Will watched all this closely.

“I want you two outside for this one,” he said sternly, “all right?”

While the woman only nodded and began to leave the room, the lieutenant hesitated.

“But, sir, I…”

“Go now. The infirmary could use some help from you both right now anyway. I’ll call you if there’s anything I need.”

The lieutenant did as he was told. As they shut the door, the metallic locks re-engaged. The old man waited a few moments before he seated himself roughly in a chair, coughing hard. The other man rushed to his aide.

“Sir, are you sure you don’t want to do this in a few hours? You should be resting.”

The older man took out a capsule and swallowed it, coughing up a bit more before waving him away.

“No, we’ve waited long enough on me. I’ll be fine.”

The man went back to his post at the computer, and the cyborg looked at the older one. That man has an air of familiarity to him. The elder noticed Will’s gaze.

“You seem to think you know me the way you stare, Unit 21,” he said with a small smile, “I see you finally met my children, Jacob and Gabriella.”

“You’re all hopeless. My tracker is relaying my position this instant. You’ll all be dead soon.”

Although, without his heads-up display, he couldn’t even tell how long it’d been since that failed mission.

“That was the initial step after acquiring you, my boy. Removing that little device was the first priority before re-activation. You can thank my friend Alex for that one.” He looked briefly over at the man on the computer. “You can’t see it of course, but there’s a little nick on your back, right next to the lower vertebrae. Digging it out was a simple matter. As you might be guessing, it’s now in a million pieces.”

“Obviously.”

“It was a modified version of a familiar weapon that crippled you. I’m sure you’ve heard of the technology: a controlled electromagnetic pulse. Of course, on a much smaller scale. The UNR uses a similar system to knock out enemy communications and such.”

“Clearly an effective prototype, leaving me to wonder as to why you haven’t produced it on a massive scale.”

“After the test run we might be able to, but our resources are limited. I’m amazed that you still haven’t asked the most important question, Will.”

“That being?”

“Why you’re still alive.”

Will thought back to that, and after a few seconds decided to keep his image maintained.

“Maybe your toy simply couldn’t finish the job.”

“With you down and out I was able to re-adjust your systems. If I wanted to, I could disconnect your key components, and you’d die all on your own. I haven’t done that for a reason.”

Will interrupted him, piecing things together on his own.

“Complete bullshit. It would take a person who knew the inner-workings of a cyborg. Only Krenzler has access to those files–”

The old man countered by cutting him off this time around:

“That is the first lie you were fed. I wouldn’t go so far as to call you a son of my own, but if there’s anything I do know, it’s my own damn work.”

What the hell could he mean by that? There was more to this old man than he thought previously, more to the whole situation. Now he paid mind to what this man had to say. It could be lies and utter bullshit, but he had to hear it. His next question was rather startling:

“Do you remember me, Will?”

The cyborg studied his face, but couldn’t place it. His failure to do so felt like a slap across the face.

“No, I do not,” he said disappointedly.

“Dr. Robert Neeson. You would do well to remember that name.”

The man stepped closer, out of the dim light, and only a foot short of Will’s face.

“Don’t strain yourself, Will. It appears all the files of me, at least in the cyborgs’ databases, have been successfully deleted. This is going to make things difficult.”

“I still don’t fully understand, sir.”

“Yes, I know. What I’ve done is solely for retribution, or for what others might call atonement. My name was once in headlines for developing the perfect medical miracle years ago. I was the head of Weapon Program-II back then–”

“And Krenzler replaced you. Why so?”

“I was ‘let go’ in the words of our marvelous Chancellor, for a reason I cannot say as of yet. My colleagues believe I moved away to London years ago, along with my family. That’s all you need to know at this juncture.”

Neeson knew he had to be particular about his words. If he laid too much on him, it could endanger the whole operation.

“Are you sure you want to hear everything that I have to say? I won’t lie to you and say that everything will sit well with you. You may in fact, find it disturbing. Understand that while the Chancellor orchestrated everything, I’ve done my share of wrongs in all of this. I only say now that I hope you forgive me.”

Will shrugged the man’s emotions aside.

“Well don’t keep me waiting, Neeson.”

The old man shook his head.

“You truly have no idea. Venloran made it that way, though. It’s gotten worse since I’ve been gone.”

“So far all you’ve done is ridicule our Honorable Chancellor, a crime I guarantee you, never goes unpunished. No wonder you were terminated.”

“Your precious Chancellor has deemed it humane to make your sole life mission to serve him. You were one of the ones needing constant velocicide treatments right before that debut mission and several afterward. The whole reason you and I are even discussing this right now lies in that substance.”

“You were the head of Weapon Program-II before Krenzler, as you say, am I right? So it adds up then, that you must be the one who created velocicide. In that regard, I thank you. Many of us had would have lived tattered lives if not for you. You gave us focus and removed the distraction from our work.”

“It’s not a simple stimulant, as you seem to think. It augments your reflexes further and further, but at the cost of destroying yourself. Velocicide specifically targets the hippocampus. Just how much of you remains, depends on the dosage level.”

“And how I’ve ascended. My life has a purpose grander than anything you’ve done here.”

Neeson put one hand in his pocket, leaving it there as he spoke on.

“If only you could see your family. They’d say differently.”

Will was convinced now that this Neeson character’s only objective was to turn him against the UNR. He would not compromise, and he would not let a shred of doubt seep into his mind. But then it happened. Out of that pocket, Neeson pulled out a single ring. The cyborg felt goosebumps rise on his skin when he saw it.

“Those dreams that have afflicted your entire service with the UNR are not just dreams. They are your surviving memories. The ones that for some reason refuse to die. ”

Neeson could see that the look of pride had shriveled away from Will’s face. The old man had wanted to be as delicate as he could about this matter, but even those few sentences seemed to shatter the soldier’s world. So all that pain, those tears, it was real? It all seemed beyond his comprehension. Will wanted so badly to hold that ring. But in his pathetic condition, it would just slip through his fingers and fall beside those droplets of blood. When the cyborg said nothing, the two men prepared to leave.

“Why did they leave me behind?”

Neeson gestured for Alex to go on without him.

“She was one of us, Will. When she finally saw what had happened to you, she resigned. She didn’t want her children caught up in a fight with their father on the opposing side.”

At that, the cyborg let the silence fall again, and stared down at the floor. Neeson knew there was nothing left to say, at least for now. He would let Will grasp that information. This would be the most critical point in the mission so far. Would he stay strong, or shatter under the weight of reality? On the exterior, the cyborgs appeared invulnerable. But Neeson knew within their skull was same fragile mind as an ordinary human. That was what the Chancellor had tried to do away with from the start. Hopefully, he hadn’t succeeded.

Chapter 16 – Solitude

April 12, 2065 – UNR Headquarters – Cell No. 0869

Neal swallowed roughly.

His hands were tied behind him in the chair. Mitch had tightened them without saying a word, and that had been fifteen minutes ago. Since then, he’d just been waiting. In those few moments, he contemplated what he knew for sure had taken place. It wasn’t simple recollection, unfortunately. He was hounded by pangs of agony that bounced through his skull every so often. Still, Neal surmised, he was intact.

A single lamp hung over his head, rocking back and forth. The mirror was his only other companion in the room. He remembered the gunfight, though it was very fuzzy. Neal had no idea what had happened since then. With no way of contact, he accepted he would never know the outcome of that mission. Left forever in the dark, what a sentence. What he did know was that many of his friends were dead. He had seen their ends just as he had seen and spoken with them days before.

There was a creak of metal moaning. Neal’s chest tightened upon seeing the same cyborg from the battle step into the room. The light from the hallway was somewhat blocked by his slender form, causing the still figure to appear as a silhouette.

Luis’ face was expressionless as he stood before the man, just a few inches short of blocking the light given off by the lamp above. Neal tried his hardest to conceal his fear, but he began to sweat as if it were a July afternoon. It soaked his shirt.

“Tell me, Neal Kaluuya, where is Will?”

“I don’t know.”

Luis pulled out one of his twin swords. He gently dragged it across the surface of Neal’s pectoral muscles. The man felt no pain as it was pulled it away, but a thin line of blood slowly appeared seconds later. The agony came another few seconds later, but Neal now understood. He’d gotten his solace: the mission had indeed been accomplished.

“Where is Will?”

“South of Dakota.”

Luis appeared to be wholeheartedly amused.

“That’s the spirit. Venloran took one look at your initial interview and said you’d never talk. I volunteered because I like a challenge.”

“And here I am.”

“Excellent, Neal. Tell me, are you afraid?”

“Yes. But I’ve promised God that I will not break my promise to the others. He gives me strength and I will do so in turn. I’ll give you nothing.”

That declaration caught Luis off guard momentarily. His eyes reddened as a single teardrop fell to the floor. The soldier stared at the cyborg, a strange look on his face. Neal glanced down at it for a second, and then Luis raised his sword, agony in his face. He managed to grin though. It was his trademark, a presence he had to maintain, even for this unruly bastard. “God will not even blink.”

Val watched with crossed arms as the carnage began from the observation room. Even through the glass, she could hear the cries of suffering and the spattering of blood. The man’s screams rang in her ears like a pig’s squeal. There were no exchanges of words, only inhuman noises. Unit 23 didn’t look away for a second, analyzing each cleave of the sword into the human flesh that seemed more and more like butchered deli meat as it went on. Her only real complaint was how tedious it was becoming. Luis was dragging this execution out as long as possible, thoroughly annoying her.

The door opened up, and in walked Commander Kane. He remained by the doorway, only glancing once inside cell 0869. What he saw was a truly harrowing spectacle, and he wondered how he’d explain the god-awful mess to the custodial crew. There was complete silence in here, the only spectator being the other cyborg. She saluted him upon his entry.

“Unit 23,” Kane said,” what could possibly bring you here?”

Valerie spoke as clearly and dignified as ever.

“Sir, it’s been over 24 hours since Unit 18 brought this prisoner in. I just can’t believe a court martial hasn’t been put in order.”

Exasperated, Kane felt like slouching in the doorway. She just wouldn’t give it up.

“Understand this is a chaotic time, Unit 23. For the first time in a long time, we’ve actually suffered losses. For those of us who’ve been stationed here for years now, it’s been hard.”

The cyborg wanted to debate further, but could tell the Commander didn’t want to converse about the matter any longer.

Suddenly the door to the cell opened up. Both of their heads turned to see Luis. His face was speckled red, his sword covered in blood as well, right up to the hinge. Slowly, he put it away. Luis seemed to be breathing uncontrollably, but calmed himself in their presence. Luis only glanced at them both briefly.

“Sir,” he said plainly.

The Commander handed a handkerchief to the cyborg. Luis looked down at it, and accepted with a single nod. Kane handed it to him and stepped aside as Luis stormed out of the room. Even if he or Unit 23 had wanted to speak, neither one had the slightest clue what to say.

***

The cyborg slammed the door to his quarters, and collapsed onto his bed. His sheathed sword clattered against the hard floor. He didn’t even bother to clean it. Excess blood stained the carpet in a trail right to his bed. The cyborg put his hands on his head in anger and in pain. All I want is you. That flame that had burned so brightly that night was now dead. All this time Luis had fooled himself into believing vengeance would ease his suffering. He let every fiber of his anger tear into that filth till there was damn near nothing left but a pile of minced meat. Staring into that mound of flesh that was once a human being, he expected to find solace. There was none to be had.

Then he remembered that nightmare he’d had on the greatest night of his life. That night with Bia had been in such sharp contrast to that damned nightmare. He began to understand, though, that it was no nightmare. No, it was a memory. Perhaps now he knew why that very night, the memory had chosen to return to him.

***

The man sat up slowly, his eyes hazy. He felt so cold, and a bright white light was shining down on him mercilessly. As he struggled to regain his vision, everything in the tiny room seemed to be quivering. As he made out a towel on a rack above him, and bashed his head into something seemingly hard as stone, the man got an idea of where he was. The half-empty bottle of tequila was his only other companion on the bathroom floor. Grasping it, he held the bottle firmly in his right hand. The Valium hadn’t mixed so well with the shots, or perhaps, technically, it had. He placed an arm on the toilet seat, struggling to balance himself. Somehow, he managed to stagger to the door, turning the light off.

He reached his soft bed, clearing laundry out of the way. His favorite film was currently broadcasting on the small television across from the bed, his favorite scene too: Randle McMurphy laying into that bitch, Nurse Ratched. Good old Nicholson, he mused, smiling to himself. There was a distant crying coming from down the hall. He grunted and took a voracious gulp of tequila. It burned, but it drowned out the noise. He rubbed his closely shaved head and finally pulled it away from his lips. The crying returned, so loud and obnoxious. His relief was slipping away, his stomach felt like a churning whirlpool.

“Shut the HELL UP!!”

But not a second later after he roared, a voice answered him: “Luis, what the hell?”

The man tensed. Son of a bitch…the door opened to his bedroom, and in came Amy. Is it midnight already? How could he have lost track of time? He’d meant to sober up an hour before her shift ended, but somehow he’d failed to do so. Amy was indeed still in her slacks and company T-shirt, looking exhausted. In her arms was their daughter, who was sobbing. Luis looked away, staring at the wall.

“How long has Alyssa been crying?” she asked angrily, “She’s wet for God’s sake! What have you been doing?! Just sittin’ here locked up in our room?”

He made no reply and just sat there on the edge of their bed. Amy handed a cup to Alyssa before sitting her down in the doorway.

“Go eat your dinner, okay baby? I have some on the table for you.”

Alyssa did so, finally calming down. Amy calmed herself down as well, knowing that Luis was different now, all because of that damned draft. But she wouldn’t let it take him away their family.

“Luis, I know it’s been hard for you. It’s been hard for all of us.”

“What are you complaining about? My damn check is payin’ for our asses. I’m the one who damn near got killed for this country. You understand…the gravity of that?”

Even though his words were terribly slurred, his eyes could still see the beauty in his Amy’s face. She looked sad though, and he knew why.

“It’s not the money that bothers me, baby,” Amy said, sitting next to him on the bed, “it’s been five months since you’ve been back. You know I love you, and how happy I am to have you with us again. So we can be a real family. Before, when you were over there, I felt like dying every night.”

She grabbed hold of his left hand with one of hers.

“And now your time in recovery is over. Our daughter is growing. The nightmares are gone. You don’t need that anymore.”

She reached for the liquor, even grabbed hold of it. Luis released her hand and knocked her away hard with his arm. Amy flew to the floor, staying down.

“What the fuck do you think this is?!” he yelled to her, standing up now.

Amy was afraid to even get up. She laid there on the carpet, seeing the stain of blood deep in the fibers. She looked up at him and their eyes locked. This was not the man or relationship she used to savor. Now his eyes were glazed and half-shut. The only thing that kept him going was his rage, and he wasn’t ever going to let that go. Not for anyone. She finally concluded there was no other way out.

Amy stood up, her lip bleeding. She said nothing and began to storm out of the room. As Luis watched her back, he lost whatever control he had left. He realized even in his drunken state the one thing that drove fear into him more than anything did, ever since the war: solitude. He’d been alone before, in that God-forsaken battle zone, nothing but the bodies of his friends to keep him company. God, the smell, he remembered, the damn smell. Nothing could be more Hell-like. He grabbed on tightly to her left arm, enough that it hurt her.

“Amy, please,” he began to sob.

“Luis, stop,” she pleaded, “let me go…”

“Please don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me alone!”

“LET ME GO!”

Amy whirled around, far too fast for the drunkard to react. Even as a lethal soldier trained to bring down enemies in close contact, his tainted blood took its heavy toll. Her movements were practically a blur, yet he still begged. But with that, Luis felt himself lying on the floor.

When Luis woke in the morning, he found himself face first in the doorway. There was dried blood on his head, and on the picture frame lying next to him on the floor. Its corner was broken off, the glass cracked. As he stood up, he did not bother to pick it up. The man couldn’t bear to glance at the image it held, or how he had shamed himself. He went over to the dresser, close to the bathroom. Luis stumbled, knocking a bottle of cologne off the top. He found his clothes, but not Amy’s. The sluggish trek down the hall to his daughter’s room felt as if took days to complete. The stained carpet felt dry beneath his cold feet. When he reached Alyssa’s room down the hall, he knew he was too late. The drawers were tossed about and a portion of his daughter’s clothes were gone.

As Luis went back into his room, his body felt heavy. The half-empty bottle of tequila still sat there on the carpet. Luis collapsed onto his bed, considering whether or not to ease his pain again. Was there any point in moderation now? There was truly no one left to please.

The phone rang, and Luis’ heart sped up. Could it be her? The call was a restricted number, a private caller he assumed. After last night, though, he wouldn’t rule out Amy changing her number. It seemed incredibly sudden, but he couldn’t blame her.

“Hello?”

“Is this Luis Viramontes?”

“This is him,” he said with a groan, “but who is this?”

“General Venloran. I need you to report to your C.O. immediately. I have a grand proposition for you, soldier.”

Luis’ eyes remained still, as did his body. His mind, however, was on the move. Drifting like a freighter, heading into the shadow of gathering storm clouds. There is no love. There are no bonds that bind us to one another. Those are only limitations set up by the weak to hold others down. For a love or bond broken can cripple and devour a soul, tear it apart, and destroy it. When one feels that kind of pain, such a wound never heals. The only real key to self-preservation is loyalty: unconditional and undying, not to a single man or a group. No, to a single ideology: a thing that never ceases to exist. When a man dies, only his ideology is remembered. The will to power will never leave me.

Chapter 17 – Humility

April 13, 2065

Gabby carried her suitcase-sized medical kit with her and set it down on the floor before getting down on her knees. Beside her, on a narrow cot, lay her patient. She prepared to re-bandage the man’s arm. What should have been a standard field dressing, had been done incorrectly, and now his condition was considerably worse. His sun-kissed skin had paled to an almost ghostly white. He cracked his green eyes open when he felt Gabby lift his arm to treat it.

“Good morning,” he said to her warmly.

“Good morning. How you feeling today, Pat?”

“Honestly, I feel like shit. But it could be worse, right?”

Gabby felt herself smile back. Patrick was one of her oldest friends, and one of the few who refused to beat her down like her brother. Under the old bandages, she spotted the small wound. The entry point, caused by a “lucky miss” as Pat had first called it, had not yet begun to heal. Instead, it had taken on a reddish-tint, accompanied by a slight odor. Pus was forming at the center.

“Pat, why didn’t you tell us about this sooner?”

“Gabby, I know how it looks, but hold off on the treatment, please. Others need it far more than I do. Just do whatever it takes to slow it down.”

She felt his head. Even in this cold infirmary, his body was burning up. Gabby stood up off the floor taking a blanket off Patrick and rolling it back up.

“I don’t think you can afford to avoid treatment any longer. You need some penicillin. I’ll be right back, okay?”

Patrick looked up at the ceiling.

“If you really think it’s necessary,” he said, closing his eyes.

Gabby went over to the medicine area, pulling out a set of keys. On her way there, she had been forced to look at all the patients lying on their individual mats on the floor. The rows seemed endless, among them amputees and the deathly ill. Pat was right about the number of people needing treatment, but she wouldn’t let him die. We’ll just ration out the dosage level, as we always have. Gabby made it to the large locker, but as she tried to unlock it, her key didn’t seem to do much of anything. A nurse walked by, pausing as she sensed Gabby’s irritation, though the woman said absolutely nothing.

“Why the hell doesn’t my key work?” she asked. The nurse cleared her throat.

“Sorry, ma’am, but your father has specified that all medical orders must be run by him first.”

“But my rank! Doesn’t that fucking mean anything?!”

“We’re low on supplies, ma’am, nearly on empty. He told me critical condition patients are priority. I’m afraid some may have to wait it out.”

Gabby withdrew her key, resting her head on the door. She honestly felt like screaming, her head pounding. Holding it all in though, she faced the nurse again.

“Okay, so again, why don’t I have access?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. You could bring it up with the lieutenant. He has access as well.”

What kind of shit is Dad pulling? Only then did Gabby remember where she was supposed to be. Patrick’s dilemma would have to wait. Her anger ate away at her, deep inside where no one could see the damage. She didn’t even dismiss the nurse, in fact said nothing more to her. She didn’t even return to give Patrick the latest update. She couldn’t face him with her failure.

***

Jacob tapped his foot in his restlessness. Alex and Dr. Neeson were with him, all standing next to the locked door. The two remained composed and quiet, but Jacob wasn’t one for subtlety.

“Where the hell is she?”

Neither of them responded. They only continued to wait. Then the sound of footsteps was heard coming down the hall. Sure enough, it was Gabby, pulling out the necessary key.

“What kept you?” Jacob demanded.

She said nothing in response. The brother and sister both pulled out their keys and inserted them into locks on opposite sides of the door. Simultaneously turning them both, the door opened up for the small group. Alex took his post at the computer, as the other three formed a semi-circle in front of the silent cyborg. It didn’t even look up at them.

“His vitals are stable,” Alex reported.

“Will, are you ready to talk?” asked the doctor.

The dimly lit room was empty of noise, aside from Alex’s busy and never ending typing. Jacob was devoid of sympathy for the murderer. Somehow, its silence was even more angering than its voice.

“It’s been two days now. We’re wasting our time, and I refuse to spare this thing any longer,” the lieutenant made his disgust evident, “Alex, shut it down.”

“Sir?” Alex questioned, looking over at Jacob’s father for direction.

“Will?” Dr. Neeson persisted, ignoring them both.

Jacob would’ve folded his arms if one of them weren’t in a sling. He knew from the beginning this plan would fail. Even if captured, even if given mercy far beyond what was fair, there was always the probability that the cyborg simply would not cooperate. The dead silence of the solider was unnerving but this was indeed the end. Jacob saw that limp cyborg strung up there and felt satisfaction that it must’ve been suffering inside of whatever was left of its mind. He briefly glanced at his sister, but the look on her face was one he did not recognize. Her eyes were locked on the cyborg without expression, just waiting for a sign. Well, she too will see.

“May I see the ring again?”

Even Alex looked up from his work. Jacob put one hand close to his small sidearm. It was an instantaneous reflex he’d acquired. What is it with the damned ring? His father pulled it out, shimmering before him. As much as they did know about this cyborg, there was still much his father kept to himself.

“Why is it that you never gave it to Valerie?” Will asked.

“Krenzler and a handful of others worked on building up the SSF. Your friend was not one of the operations I oversaw,” Neeson clarified.

“You failed to complete that promise because you were enraptured with your creation. You were so caught up completing the order of the Chancellor, that I was forgotten.”

Neeson did not shrink away as Will spoke those words.

“Yes, Will, you’re right. At the time, I was so tired of losing that I believed Venloran and his visionary SSF were the answer. In the space of two years, hundreds of cyborgs were completed, yet I was convinced we still needed more.”

“So what finally tore you away from it, Doctor?”

“My faith crumbled as I watched soldiers like you, with no memory of their former selves, being forced to fight in that heinous bloodshed we call The Expansion. I saw your swords come down on the remnants of the former government who refused to step down, and the people cheered. They cheered.”

“It’s not death that turns your stomach. It’s who dies. Your motivations, however, are not my concern. You know what I want to know.”

“And I will help you. But as you might have assumed, I need help from you in return.”

Will’s eyes lowered to the floor again.

“You’re going to ask me to betray the Chancellor.”

“Yes, Will. I’m afraid there’s no way around that.”

“Then I cannot help you. To dishonor the UNR is something I refuse to do. There is no point in prolonging this. Please, kill me.”

Jacob felt confused. To think a cyborg, a mere machine, could come to such a human conclusion. That it could resign itself to the same desperation as a human. A courageous and prideful man would’ve done the same, or an insane one. Jacob quickly placed the super soldier with the latter category. There’s no way out, and it finally accepts death.

“Son, do not belittle the value of your own life. Especially since all you know, is what you’ve been programmed to believe. Venloran told you that your CPU holds every bit of data contained in the UNR’s own computer systems, but I am telling you myself, that just isn’t so. The UNR has files on every individual citizen of this country. That includes your family.”

“There is no one I know less about than my family. What point is there in pursuing that now?”

“Will,” Neeson said rather sternly, “you are both a husband, and a father. You have an obligation to them that should outweigh anything else.”

Will looked lost in thought. He’d pushed that one aside a few hours ago. He’d heard references to this so-called family, but could they really be confirmed? He was breathing heavily. His eyes studied the room for a minute, going over the angry expression of the lieutenant, then the partly concealed anxiousness of the Sergeant’s. The other one was doing what he always did, kept busy with his work. His eyes went back to the old man, and he saw the age in his face. He couldn’t understand, seeing as how close Venloran, Krenzler, and Kane were in age, and yet Neeson looked so much more worn down. His face was one of pain, a pain he could not hide.

“I concede. It will change nothing of the relationship between us. Depending on how much of what you’ve told me is true.”

“Well, going on that then you’ll be here a while,” said Neeson confidently.

The cyborg’s face remained unfazed.

“Alex, re-activate his systems, please. It’s time to start things anew.”

“Father!” Jacob yelled, “So suddenly, you just let this thing go?! Why don’t you just kill us all yourself?!”

Alex seemed to be at a loss on who to obey.

“Uh…”

“You weren’t a part of that fight! I’ve seen what it’s capable of! Gabby did too! Did you already forget about Neal? He’s gone!

His father didn’t even turn to look at him, frankly pissing him off. He turned to his sister.

“Gabby! Come on, you saw it too!”

To his extreme aggravation, she said nothing, not a single word. She only briefly looked at him, and then back at the cyborg before them.

“Be quiet, boy,” his father said, his back still to him, “I’ve seen things I can never describe to you in my work: men that didn’t even have names, only a number. Neal is gone, and I’m sorry. The only way I can make it up to him is to continue forward.”

Jacob bit his lip and returned to his place.

“Go ahead, Alex, I’m in charge here,” Neeson stated sternly.

“Engaging systems, it’ll be online in twenty seconds and counting…”

Both Jacob and Gabby took a few steps back, pulling out their firearms. Loaded in both were EMP rounds instead of bullets. They were as ready as they could possibly be. The cyborg’s eyes blinked a few times, right before shutting. When he opened them, his pupils seemed to dilate before shrinking again. He snapped the wires off from his shoulders, neck, and back. Jacob cringed in disgust. He saw no pain in its eyes, only a blank expression on its face.

“Jacob, you must treat him as our equal, as you would treat a fellow soldier and friend. As much as you think of him as different, he’s still no less human.”

Gabby lowered her weapon slightly.

“Now Gabriella, would you cut him down please?”

She nodded, pulling out her KA-BAR knife.

“Oh there’s no need,” Will informed the group. The thickly knotted ropes were easily ripped apart like thin strings as Will ripped his arms free. Now he stood among them. He stared at Gabby and Jacob with their weapons drawn, the same weapons that had paralyzed him previously, and looked rather indifferent. He instead turned to the doctor.

“How do you feel?”

Will cracked his neck, stretched his arms out. His HUD was up and running as well, taking notes and giving him every detail in turn.

“Kind of stiff.”

Neeson laughed, “It’ll wear off.”

The cyborg smiled. According to the data, the last time he’d been fully activated was over a week ago. Now he had to converse with these…new allies of his. Temporary, he reminded himself, only temporary.

“So what is it you want? I will free no prisoners, nor bring down any UNR facility.”

“Weapons and ammunition preferably,” Jacob demanded, “we’re running low.”

Do-able enough, the cyborg figured. The doctor put his cane beside him as he sat down in a chair, clearly tired.

“And access to data archives as well. That is beneficial for you, too. That’s where the answers are,” Dr. Neeson informed.

Will seemed to tense up, but he accepted it without argument. That sounded more tricky, but the weapons first. He would need time to study his options.

“Hold on,” said Gabby as she spoke up at last, “I believe those things can wait.”

Both Dr. Neeson and Will turned in her direction. Jacob never got a chance to settle his tension. What the hell is she saying now?

“We need medical supplies, more than anything right now. Can you help us with that?”

As much as Jacob wanted to disagree, he knew he rightfully could not. Those men and women did need more than they could currently provide.

“Yes, I believe so. I’ll need a list of what you require though.”

“Marvelous, just marvelous,” Dr. Neeson lauded. “Well, things are settled for now. Let me show you to your quarters.”

Jacob and Gabby re-activated the key sequence to open the door, and in moved five troops. They carried similar weapons to Jacob and Gabby. The cyborg assumed this was a security escort for him.

“Do I put my hands on my head?”

No one really knew how to respond. Jacob’s blood boiled. The cyborg could see it in his face.

His thrust was a blur, but in one swift movement, Will had Jacob by the throat and up against the dingy wall. Everyone raised their weapons, but they were far too late. 0.08 seconds, not too bad for having just been re-activated. Dr. Neeson stood up, grabbing his cane.

“Will…” he said slowly.

Jacob was helpless, knowing he was as good as dead. There would be no reasoning with this thing. He was not at its mercy for it had none.

“Fuckin’ take him down!! Gabby do it!!” He ordered. Gabby stepped closer to them, still holding her fire. Will squeezed harder, to the point Jacob could no longer speak. He couldn’t inhale, his lungs burning as if coals were within them.

“If you don’t stop–” she began.

“When I hit the floor, he does as well. You know that,” Will stated.

That was no bluff. Her brother was in agony as she stood there feebly. Seconds ticked away, but it felt like hours.

“We had a deal, Will,” the doctor coaxed.

“You could be lying to me. Despite your claims, the validity of it all is not guaranteed.” The cyborg didn’t look at Neeson as it spoke, only stared into its victim’s eyes. The one arm of Jacob’s that wasn’t wounded, gripped his assailant’s forearm, but he was like a rodent in the clutches of a serpent.

Dr. Neeson approached Will as if this situation wasn’t dire. As if his son wasn’t on the verge of being killed right before his eyes.

“I have left behind my life with the UNR. I once had everything and more, but I’m done deceiving the innocent, and that’s why I’ve gone through so much trouble to bring you here. I’m asking you to please trust me.”

The cyborg still wouldn’t face Neeson, and his prey was at the end of its rope.

“Know this,” Will threatened, “I am not your equal. Not even close.”

With that, he let Jacob drop to the floor, gasping for air. Gabby kept her gun on him till the other soldiers escorted the cyborg out of the room. Only then did she kneel down to check on her brother. Deep violet bruises developed on his neck, his eyes were puffy and red. She could tell he was having trouble catching his breath.

“Jesus, Jacob, let’s get you to the medics,” she said, teary eyed. She had come so close to losing him. She hugged him closely wanting to feel his embrace, and know he was okay. He did not embrace her in return. His father lumbered over.

“Jacob, come here.”

“GET THE FUCK OFF OF ME!”

The man threw Gabby off of him. He stormed past his father, shoving him aside. The force of the blow nearly knocked the doctor to the ground. Alex knew his place and said nothing. Jacob walked over to a corner of the room, gathering his pride off the floor and trying his best to hide the humiliation and anger. That cyborg had acted out of vanity, merely cementing the fact that he could and would do away with them without any difficulty. How long are they going to keep plowing forward? Till we are all dead?

Neeson watched his son go without another word. He wouldn’t, in all likelihood, ever forgive him. Hell, the doctor couldn’t forgive himself. He remembered his capacity to let people down, recounting that broken promise of his.

***

January 23, 2044 VBC Joint Operations Baghdad, Iraq

In the hallway outside the ER, the surgeon approached the patiently waiting man, a few men in suits accompanying the general. Among them was James Kearney. None of them spoke. They only watched silently.

“Dr. Neeson,” greeted the decorated general.

“General Venloran, my condolences,” Neeson said respectfully.

“Thank you for seeing me again, Dr. Neeson. I know a lot has happened. In this uncertain time I wish I could have stayed stateside with Janet, but I’ve been out of the fight too long as it is.”

“I admire that you came all this way. Still, I have to ask: were there no other options?”

“The people want victory, not surrender. I intend to give it to them. The program is back up and running and I need new recruits. I’ve been looking over your files and you have quite an impressive record in the medical field. You’ve saved soldiers that should in all respects, be dead.”

“Sorry, General Venloran, but I must decline. My job is to help these soldiers, no matter what. We’ve been running short on medical personnel over here, and we need all the help we can get, I’m afraid.”

The general frowned for a second or two but quickly regained the calm aura he was known for.

“Doctor, don’t you see what I’m trying to do? It sickens me to watch this war drag on. People like you save the lives of these brave soldiers, but for what? They go home to their families crippled and spend the rest of their lives reliving the same nightmare. My own son has died during this conflict,” Venloran said, his voice quivering in agony.

“I want everyone to know the reality of what goes on in war. Yes, Warren came back to us alive, yet he was already forever gone. He took his own life just a week after I gave that speech in Washington. The war not only took his strength but tortured him to his breaking point, even after his turn to fight had passed.”

Dr. Neeson felt battered, but he couldn’t let that affect his decision. The project had been shut down previously for a reason. To ask him to be a part of it now was inhuman in itself. At the same time, somehow Venloran got authorization from Congress to do so. Everyone is getting desperate now, aren’t they?

“You have real confidence in this project, but just how many failed to survive the procedure last time?”

Venloran didn’t look to happy to answer that, but he had no choice.

“Twenty-two.”

“You think this project is really worth so many human lives?”

“I know it seems cruel, but I’m here because I will not allow there to be any more victims. I refuse to let an entire generation lose everything. We can end this bloodbath, but I need your help.”

Dr. Neeson, at first disgusted, now felt only pity. He knew the general was right. Despite medical advances, despite how fast he and his team worked, soldiers still either died miserably, or were confined to a wheelchair after their plight. If there was a chance he could turn this around, then by all means, he would help.

“I get to select my team. Krenzler and a few others here have earned the right to be a part of this.”

“Anything, Neeson.”

Venloran shook his hand graciously.

Neeson observed Kearney and the other men in suits wandering around the ER, himself following closely behind Venloran. Without a word, Venloran approached a bed seemingly without any particular reason. Neeson recognized the soldier as William Marconi. Venloran held a clipboard, which he analyzed before staring down at Will.

“Hello, William Marconi. I’m General Carl Venloran. Good to see you made it.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ve seen you on the news when they bother turning the TV on around here,” Will said, as he saluted.

“I’m sure you have. You’re going home, soldier, for a special program to get you back on your feet.”

“Home? I’m not ready to leave, sir. I want to stay here and fight.”

“Son, you’re lucky to be alive. Besides, according to this report, by tomorrow you’ll be losing your left leg, unfortunately.”

Neeson looked over at Venloran angrily, unsure of what to say. It was the truth after all.

“To add to this, you have a family of three waiting for you back in the States. I’m sure they’re worried sick.”

“Excuse me, sir, but don’t tell me about my family,” Will said, “they would understand.”

“Then understand this: this program is your only way back into the fight. As of right now, you are not fit for active duty in the field.”

“Then sign me up, sir.”

The general managed to smile.

“That’s the determination I love to see, Marconi. I’m sure you won’t disappoint,” he said before moving on to the next person on his list.

Will watched as he did so, feeling helpless. Something was out of place, but he knew he would see this mission through. Dr. Neeson approached him now.

“Rest up now, Will. You’re going to need it.”

Will didn’t know the right words at this point. He was afraid, and it showed. He pulled the ring out from under his pillow, holding it up to Neeson. It was stained by his own blood, which had since dried and darkened to a violet crimson color.

“Can you give this to a Valerie Iglesias, please?”

“The name doesn’t sound familiar. She was probably transferred to another hospital.”

“And I’m stuck here, which is why I’m asking you.”

“Are you sure you want to give it to me? I don’t know if I’ll be able to before I leave for stateside myself.”

“Doc, please. It’s my responsibility to see she gets this ring. Please.”

Will’s arm began to drop. He was still very weak despite his efforts not to show it. That or they’ve been doping him up too much again. Neeson didn’t keep him waiting any longer. The doctor grabbed the ring from his hand, putting it securely in his pocket.

“Yes, I will. I give you my word.”

Will smiled slightly as he lay back on his pillow. His eyes shut in exhaustion. Even with all his pain, he now felt more at ease. Softly, he said:

“Thank you.”

Chapter 18 – Here Come the Tears

[_ April 14, 2065 – Chancellor Venloran’s Office- UNR Headquarters _]

“What’s this meeting about, Chancellor?” asked Kane.

Seated next to him was Major Johnson. Venloran sat at his desk with a tired look on his face. He ignored the question and looked at Kearney. His assistant nodded and produced a photograph from a portfolio he held in his arms. The photo was placed on the desk so Avery and Kane could look at it.

Kane could only mutter one thing, “Son of a bitch.”

The photo was a UNR Academy snapshot of a trainee in his school uniform. The student was Jacob Neeson.

“Are you sure, Venloran?” the Major asked.

“The PSID secured a few blood samples from the Clinchco warehouse. They confirmed it was Jacob Neeson.”

“He was relieved of duty at a training academy in Iowa years ago. I thought he joined the rest of his family after Neeson left the country,” Major Johnson remarked.

“Yes,” Venloran confirmed, “and under our watch, he has somehow come back. I wouldn’t doubt Robert himself is behind all of this.”

“The return of the Crimson Angels?” suggested Johnson.

“They lack the insignia, you forget that,” the Chancellor said in answer.

“They could be biding their time, Venloran. They know if they rear their heads we’ll stomp them out.”

“Not with Halsey still locked away, no way in hell. They died off years ago,” Venloran refuted.

Kane scoffed.

“In 2051 the Crimson Angels almost succeeded in assassinating you with a bomb. If it hadn’t been for that botched early detonation, your role as Chancellor would’ve ended that day. Halsey avoided execution after they were rounded up, but I will tell you now what I told you then: it would’ve been wise to have kept tabs on Neeson. His son was never a confirmed member of the Crimson Angels, but it seems I was right to assume so.”

“The doctor was a renounced public figure and a close friend. At the time, I didn’t see the need, but now I see the error in that,” Venloran admitted.

Kearney took Kane’s remark as slander.

“Chancellor, the next thing the Commander will say is that you should’ve placed Neeson in a camp. Tact is something you don’t seem to understand, Kane.”

The Chancellor pulled out his lighter and lit a cigarette. The arguing became distant to his ears, and he found himself in the middle of recollection.

***

September 13, 2050 Chancellor’s Office, UNR Headquarters

Chancellor Venloran sat at his desk looking through the piles of paperwork. There was a knock on his door. Kearney looked up from his work as well. From the video monitor on his desk, he could see it was Dr. Neeson and Unit 21.

“Come in, my friends, come in,” he greeted them.

The two men entered the room. Dr. Neeson, healthy for his age, was in his prime. Unit 21 was as menacing as ever, and he bowed upon entering.

“Honorable Chancellor,” he said diligently.

“At ease, soldier, at ease,” Venloran said, “I hear everything went well in Japan.”

“Yes, Carl, just as you expected. Unit 21 and Unit 18 quickly disposed of the threat. The Prime Minister says he’s indebted to you for their service.”

The cyborg remained motionless and without expression, although deep inside joy and pride escalated from the success of the mission.

“The payments will be here accordingly,” concurred Kearney as he checked a computer, “and the international news stations love it. Prime Minister Takarada wishes to thank you by video link.”

“Put him through,” Venloran nodded.

Kearney picked up the remote and activated the enormous telescreen on the wall to the left of the Chancellor’s desk. Venloran turned his chair slightly to face the monitor. The telescreen switched on at Kearney’s command, everyone turning their attention to it. After a brief image of a blank screen, the Prime Minister appeared.

“Hello, Chancellor Venloran. I wanted to thank you in person, but my schedule is running tight these days.”

“It’s quite all right, Prime Minister, and besides, we are living in a new age. Is it not right to exploit the luxuries we’ve created?”

The Prime Minister laughed, nodding in agreement.

“How right. I must commend you for your expedient action. I know the business at hand wasn’t the prettiest, but our cooperation was my pleasure.”

“Thank you, my friend. I look forward to further business ventures in the future.”

“As do I, Chancellor. May ‘The Expansion’ continue to go well. Sayonara.”

“Sayonara, Prime Minister.”

The signal and image winked out, leaving Venloran and the others to themselves.

“What a time we live in,” Neeson commented.

Venloran sat back in his chair, something he rarely did.

“It’s all coming together, Robert.”

“I just have a few questions, Carl. Unit 21 has been on dozens of missions since the beginning. Where will he be sent now?”

“I’ll have to consult Kane and Johnson on that one. Wherever The Expansion deems him most needed.”

“Don’t you think this cyborg deserves some R&R?”

“R&R?” Venloran said, as his smile slacked, “not during this crucial moment. We have the momentum with more locals helping us fight the dissidents overseas. We need every soldier who’s able to fight out there fighting.”

The doctor looked overly disappointed, and as Venloran began to notice, nervous as well.

“Do you have something you wish to share with me, Robert?”

“Yes, I do actually.”

The cyborg lowered his head.

“Shall I leave, Honorable sir?”

“Do so, please,” instructed the Chancellor, but Dr. Neeson cut in.

“No, stay. This concerns you as well.”

“Oh, does it now?” said Venloran, leaning forward.

“It regards someone you both know quite well. And I have taken the liberty of arranging for our guest to meet with us today.”

Now Venloran was growing impatient, going as far as to stand up out of his seat.

“Robert, what the hell are you saying? I don’t have any appointments set up today.”

Neeson went to the door, clicking in the clearance code after sliding his I.D. card.

“Sorry, Carl, but it had to be done.”

Venloran could not have been more shocked to see the faces of the people that walked in. What have you done, Robert?!

***

3:06 A.M. April 15, 2065 – Amherst, Virginia

Gabby drove the 18-wheeler down the sparsely populated freeway, dressed in a flannel and jeans. Her long hair was wrapped in a bun and tucked under a beanie, her attempt at casual. Seated in the passenger seat was Unit 21. He wore a drab jumpsuit and a hat, neither of which suited him. They’d been driving silently for hours now since leaving their base of operations, but the destination was now only minutes away.

Ever since the incident, Gabby hadn’t been able to get a word out of either the cyborg or her brother Jacob unless it was business related. She felt a wave of adrenaline surge from her spine down to her gloved fingertips as he spoke now:

“Your bravery is impressive.”

“Save your breath. After your showboating the other day no one else wanted to be alone on a mission with you.”

“Really? An army full of cowards won’t do, now will it?”

“Enough of your bullshit. Tell me something useful like why you picked this place.”

“I told your friend Alex to do a little digging for me, and he found Sanctuary’s Pass to be a sizable GPO. They serve just under one hundred hospitals, and are just starting up. I’m hoping this will make the warehouse a soft target.”

“And you aren’t worried about them recognizing you?”

“You’ve seen the news. My capture still hasn’t been disclosed to the public. That will work in my favor tonight. I’m more concerned about them recognizing you.”

Gabby made the turnoff. In roughly a minute Sanctuary’s Pass would be on their right. She felt Will’s eyes digging into her.

“I have instructions to remain in the truck while you get what we need. Father said this should take you ten minutes. Once that time is up, I’m supposed to leave, with or without you.”

“That would be disastrous.”

“I guess you could call this our critical moment then, Will.”

“Right you are. There’s a lot riding on this. I need this information badly, so don’t worry about me.”

Gabby looked over at Will, but he was focused on the gate, manned by a single guard. There was no more time for discussion. Time to dive in. She brought the truck to a halt, and the guard walked over to the driver’s side. He wore a smile and had a steaming coffee in-hand.

“Pick up or delivery?”

“I think a little bit of both,” Gabby answered as she handed the guard a stack of papers and her I.D. On it was the name Patrice Hess. After a little reading, the guard sipped his coffee and handed both items back to her.

“All right, go on in, ma’am.”

She thanked him before directing the truck inside the premises. Once the truck was backed up into a loading area, Will got out without a word. Gabby was a little pissed at that, and now looked at her watch: 3:10.

From the driver’s seat, Gabby watched the rear-view mirror with a sick feeling of helplessness. She was unable to hear anything, and she could see very little to boot. She turned on the radio to take the tension off, picking a station at random. Blasting out of the speakers was a furious guitar and thrumming drums. Gabby was ashamed to admit she had been legitimately startled by the song. Relax…two other security guards passed by. She assumed it was a routine perimeter check, as they were talking nonchalantly. They saw her seated in the truck and waved.

Gabby waved back. Goddamn it. The two guards started walking over. She rolled down her window as they approached.

“I didn’t know there were Iron Maiden fans as young as you.”

“My dad got me hooked years ago.”

“I don’t blame him. Dickinson knew how to get your blood pumping.”

Gabby began to relax. Bruce Dickinson, that’s right. I know the band after all. Thanks, Alex.

“Yeah, ‘Remember Tomorrow’ is fucking timeless,” she said, the older security guard nodding in agreement. Just as he was about to say more, his partner tapped his shoulder.

“What is it, Bryce?”

Bryce, the younger of the two, was looking over at the loading area. Something over there caught his attention.

“Never seen that guy before, Ricky.”

“No? You sure?”

“Positive, sir.”

“I call bullshit. Looks like Sully, but let’s take a look.”

The older guard looked at Gabby and let out a disappointed sigh.

“I’ll be back in a sec,” Ricky said with a warm smile.

“Sure, just don’t keep me waiting.”

Gabby watched as they walked off to the loading area. Soon they were out of sight. Shit…She looked at her watch again. 3:13.In seven minutes she was supposed to get out quick.

“Shit, shit, shit,” she whispered. Ten minutes couldn’t possibly be enough time, but her father had been absolutely sure. She realized the song was drawing to its climax, as the clock hit 3:15. Enough of this. Gabby exited the truck and headed into the warehouse, gun at the ready. In her pocket was a clip. Loaded in the gun were EMP rounds.

Upon entering, she saw several warehouse workers lying on the floor. The two guards lay on top of another in a makeshift pile, their guns not even drawn. Upon closer inspection, Gabby realized thankfully that all of these people were still breathing.

She stepped quietly down the hall. This was not a horror scene. The people were alive, the lights were not flickering, and the floor wasn’t covered in blood and gore. But the cyborg was nowhere to be seen. As she walked further, she began to think it was time to go. One of the doors opened three rooms down, to her left. She pointed the gun at the open doorway as she froze. Out came the cyborg, who sat two 42 × 56 boxes down gently before going back inside and bringing out three more of the same size.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in the vehicle?” the cyborg questioned, “I see you’re one who has a problem following orders.”

Gabby felt as if her brother or father was present.

“Shut the hell up,” she said casually, refusing to let the cyborg belittle her, “why did you…”

“Incapacitate everyone? The younger one wanted to make a call, possibly for backup. I couldn’t be too sure, so I took the direct route.”

“Your inability to hold a conversation is a real problem,” she said.

“Hardly my concern. Let’s load up.”

Gabby didn’t bother to add to the conversation any longer, and the two loaded the boxes into the truck. During the long drive back to base, Gabby turned the radio all the way up. Whether Will realized it was a ploy to avoid talking, or not, she didn’t much care. Rob Halford’s voice, accompanied by the piano and guitar, was full of hurt as he sang ‘Here Come the Tears.’ Looking back, she should’ve changed the song, but something inside told her not to.

Chapter 19 – Loyalty

April 15, 2065 – UNR Headquarters

Halsey couldn’t remember seeing this soldier before, even with that armor. That was feasible, seeing as this one was obviously female, and he couldn’t picture a female in the usual get-up assigned to the cyborgs. Usually if he had been asleep upon a soldier’s entering, he was far more likely to turn away from them on his stained and dirty mattress. Observing her blonde and black hair, however, he felt the need to speak first.

“I wasn’t aware they made ‘em like you,” he said, “but the fact that you are in my lowly presence and not Will, tells me something is amiss. Where has he been?”

Valerie folded her arms, wanting more than ever to rid her world of decrepit beings such as the man before her.

“You speak of Unit 21 with such familiarity. That’s why I am here,” she said sternly. Halsey felt an aura of dread as she stepped very close, kneeling down to his level until she was directly in his face.

“Listen, you are no less than scum, and you are obligated to answer my questions, no matter their nature.”

“How else would I respond?” replied Halsey.

“Good, so why is that he bothered spending so much time with you?”

“I don’t know myself. Perhaps he knows something I don’t,” Halsey said.

“Did you use to work together back before you ended up here?” Val asked. It was clear this man had an attachment of some kind to Unit 21, but he was shaking his head.

“I never knew the man. But I knew people close to him,” he said in a nearly inaudible whisper.

“You’ve been held here as long as he’s been stationed here. How is that possible?”

Halsey’s face looked fazed on the exterior. Inside, it was ever worse. Who is this cyborg? Whoever she was she seemed to have a link of some sort to Will. It was the only reason she’d be here.

“You believe you know Unit 21 and me inside and out, but I know the little about him that matters more than anything.”

Halsey hesitated. It was the only reason she was here, indeed. All he’d known for so long was despair and pain. He had met people here on a few occasions and had always watched them die. One thought had always bothered him: when would it be me? So far, it never had. He hated not knowing what went on beyond these cell walls. This cyborg was a possible path. But to where? Life or death? Yes, he could have told the cyborg every detail he had kept inside since this began. The problem was her loyalty. If he put more trust in her than he should and she leaked it to the Chancellor, he would most certainly, be put to death. Was this opportunity worth the risk? He was brought back to Earth by her voice.

“Tell me what you know,” she said to him quietly, “please, help me.”

Halsey winced in front of her, the pain and turmoil he felt. There was only one thing he could say to her.

“Sorry, but I can’t. Not now.”

The cyborg’s face was unmistakably angry, but she said nothing. Halsey had never been this frightened or felt so close to death than he did now. The strange women stood up, her body relaxed. She cleared some hair out of her face.

“I understand.”

Valerie landed a backhand on the man’s face, exerting a little more force than she meant to. He was knocked to the floor, blood in his spit. She turned and left without another word. He waited till the door shut before checking his molars. Indeed, one had been knocked loose. But more was on his mind than the blow he’d just received. Halsey lay back down on his bed, wishing the decision he’d just made would not lead him somewhere he didn’t want to go. Still, he couldn’t escape the feeling this new cyborg was in just as much turmoil as he was.

***

Before even reaching the door, Unit 23 could hear the sounds of Luis’ intense training. Inside, Unit 18 hacked down about twenty training dummies with one of his swords. The steel mannequins were sliced and diced effortlessly. The super soldier saw a face in each one of the mannequins, faces recognized during the investigation the other day. He would never be satisfied, but feeling their bones snap between his fingers would be pure ecstasy.

As shards of metal nicked the walls, Luis was voracious, caught up in the roar of the moment, and loving every second. Luis reserved the targets he designated as the Neeson family for last, savoring these kills with anticipation.

He stabbed the old man through the heart first and foremost, before moving on to his kin. Next to go was the son, who he decided was fit to be bisected. Luis brought the sword down on his collarbone, cutting him in two diagonally, much like one would cut a slice of bread. Last but not least, was the daughter. After watching him murder her beloved family, he relished seeing her expression most. It would be stupendous. Always needing to top himself, Luis made a simple decision. She would be decapitated. One cleave of his sword and it was done.

Luis watched the metallic head roll across the floor. The only thing lingering on his mind was his dissatisfaction. The order he realized, that’s what was bothering him. It seemed optimal, but honestly, he hadn’t given it all that much thought till now. The more he did, the more he focused on the fact that he would need to be more creative. It was the only way. He sheathed his sword, and decided to work out in the weight room.

Outside the door was Unit 23, who merely nodded as she joined him. In her black tank top and shorts, Val was here to do all she could think to do. The conversation with Halsey had left the dry taste of wasted time in her mouth. The only way to cement her strength and superiority would be through the testing of her strength. In times of failure, this would be a victory.

At the benches, Hans was currently spotting Mitch. Cisco was curling what he could, setting the weight down to salute as the cyborgs passed. They smiled and returned the gesture.

“Well, if it isn’t the freaks,” Valerie heard a voice say out of the blue. She recognized the voice, but paid it no mind. Today the large training room was packed beyond its usual capacity. Of course, news of what transpired at Sanctuary’s Pass just ten hours ago passed through the ranks rather quickly.

“Look at this bitch,” remarked a female voice off in the corner by the squat stations. Val tensed, but Luis simply continued his stroll. He had to have heard that. The air was full of tension that couldn’t be described. Disrespectful shits, she thought. Nothing has been officially confirmed, so why the morale?

Unit 18 sat down at a vacant spot and got ready to select a suitable challenge. As Val stood ready and waiting for her turn, she saw it hanging on the wall behind him: Will’s sword, displayed horizontally by two nails. It was noble and imposing looking, till she saw a white flag tied tightly around its hilt. On the cloth were words in red paint, proudly proclaiming:

Fucking scum!!!

Her reaction was reflexive.

“Who did this shit?!”

As she uttered those words, the large room fell silent. Every workout had stopped. As she expected, despite the disgusting nature of it, not a single soul stepped forth. Only Luis pressed onwards.

“How dare you dishonor a fellow soldier in such a way? It’s worthy of trial!” she said in a yell. Out of the group of over sixty men and women, one was stepping up. Val watched as Mitch approached, a towel slung over his shoulders. Hans was at his side, but Cisco must’ve been off to the back somewhere. His grin was taunting, something she hadn’t seen in a while. He turned around for a second and waved with both arms for the crowd to move up.

“Come on, come on,” he urged almost playfully. Soon the thinned-out herd was a tightly packed flock, with Mitch and Hans at the forefront.

“Now, uh, Unit 23 right?” said the man loud and clear, “let me be frank for a minute. It was me and several other pussies in here, they’re just too scared to admit it. Despite that, I don’t see anyone takin’ it down. I get the feeling you’re the only one who finds this offensive. Well, you and your buddy there.”

Luis still said absolutely nothing. He merely began his work out.

“Yeah, Will’s in deep shit. Everyone knows that. You fuckin’ cyborgs, reliable as hell, right? Now I speak for everyone here when I say that I would rather let those bastards slit my throat than run them some damn errands.”

The crowd was alive with murmuring and innuendos, and Val could hear it all. Her anger was building, but she concealed it.

“You can’t seriously believe this–” but Hans cut her off.

“We all have eyes, I assure you. It may surprise you, but so does the Chancellor and the Commander. Treachery is intolerable.”

“You know, Hans,” Mitch added, “I’ve seen enough of our blood spilled recently. Everyone knows what I wanna see– that cyborg’s body strung up on that wall.”

The murmuring grew louder and there were even nods. Val’s anger turned to disbelief. Her ears weren’t malfunctioning. This was no dream. This was real.

“To think you, a member of the most-high ranking branch, would ever spout such shit. You clearly have no honor or reverence.”

Mitch laughed.

“Honor? Reverence? Someone like me, like everyone else in this room, is worthy of that. We are the heart and soul of order. A traitor doesn’t get any of that, even if it is just hardware. You could never measure up to us. In fact, I’ll feel much safer when all of you are shut down and put to sleep permanently.”

He stepped closer than even Hans dared to go. He was within only half a yard of Unit 23. She could see him looking her over. Mitch looked at her breasts for a few seconds, before gawking at her hips and licking his lips. He even went as far as to reach down and grab her thigh. Val took several steps back, breaking his grip immediately. A nervous, cold, sweat ran down her body. What the hell was this? This couldn’t be the UNR’s finest. It was frightening.

Mitch laughed again. The whole group was laughing now.

“The way they made you is almost too convincing. Truth is, though, you’re still just a doll,” he said, folding his arms. Cisco had made his way to the front of the crowd by now, looking confused.

“But don’t worry, I’ll make sure the guys take care of you once Venloran puts you back to sleep. If I’m feelin’ desperate enough someday I might even give you a try.”

He cleared his throat, gathered up the mucus and saliva in his mouth, and then launched a wad of spit on Valerie’s chest. Luis turned his head ever so slightly. His eyes though, were solely on Unit 23.

As Mitch and plenty of others laughed, Val’s anger spiked tenfold. Her head felt like it was being crushed by an intense, unbelievable pain, and her body was trembling with fury. She clenched one of her small hands into a fist. Her nails pierced the flesh, but she was far from feeling any physical agony. As blood began to seep between her fingers, droplets of it pooled on the mats and the laughter stopped. Hans moved back with the rest of the group, as Mitch held his ground, even as Val took a step forward. Her green eyes held so much rage he felt his own heart leap. But this was a message to his fellow men and women. A message he wanted all to see. In his madness, he even rather enjoyed the rush. He planted one foot forward.

“What are you gonna do? Hurt me? If you know better you won’t lay a finger on me.”

Val stepped one foot back. She was losing herself, so full of these wild emotions. They shouldn’t even be getting to me, she tried to reason with herself. The ability of these insects to hurt her so badly was unbelievable. And now, she thought, it’s come down to brutality in the ranks. She felt the sting of referring to her fellow soldiers as insects, but it somehow fit now. Her emotions, these damned emotions, had been drawn out to the fullest extent. But no matter what she felt, she could not, and would not, harm a UNR soldier, or any personnel of the UNR bureau. Still, her fist was clutched so strongly. She couldn’t just let it go, and this bastard was daring her to…

“MITCH!!”

Everyone’s attention was drawn to Luis. He stepped beside Val. His brow wasn’t furrowed. His hands were relaxed and his eyes were unshaken.

“If I were you I wouldn’t push it. Since you’ve stooped to this pathetic level, I wouldn’t mind taking a bit farther.”

Unit 18, the right hand man of The Wolf, had stepped up to the plate. He was more at ease than they’d ever seen him, but somehow that was more unsettling than his usual poise. That smile unsettled them more than anything did. The crowd began to disperse and everyone was now leaving the training center. The excitement and tension had finally begun to decelerate.

“Someday I’d like to see that,” Mitch challenged before leaving, Cisco giving them both a somber look before following suit.

Within moments, the only people in the room were the two cyborgs. Valerie only stared at the empty chamber now, as if the men and women were still there. Why can’t I stop trembling?

Luis turned back to resume his workout.

“Luis?” she said slowly.

“Yes, what is it?”

Unit 23 couldn’t comprehend how he could be so placid. There was so much she wanted to ask him.

“What do you think?”

Luis approached S.S.C. Unit 21’s desecrated sword. He ripped it from the wall, clenching it as tightly as Unit 23 had clenched her own fist.

“To even think such a disgrace could befall the UNR,” he said. “I have known Unit 21 my entire time here. I only believe what he, Commander Kane, and the Chancellor all taught me– that we are unbreakable. And we are.”

Val realized the truth in what he was saying and felt her UNR pride. She wouldn’t be broken by the weak. Not now. Not ever. Her chest finally loosened up and she stopped trembling.

“It is my sincerest hope that he has not betrayed us, but I will stand for the UNR and bring down anyone who threatens it. I understand that now more than ever. You and I will do all that is necessary. I have just one request of you: if it comes down to it, let me be the one to save Will.”

Valerie nodded. She knew her mission, engraved into her head since her rebirth long ago. She had been reborn as the perfect being, and it was her unwavering duty to preserve the United Nation Republic. She would allow no one to tamper with it. Anyone who dared would be swiftly executed.

Chapter 20 – God’s Gift

April 16, 2065

“Our next target, as Alex has officially confirmed, is the Fonzworth Military Outpost in Norfolk. It’s a fairly isolated installation due to its age,” Jacob announced to the soldiers before him. “Thanks to our newest informant, we now know the majority of the planes captured, along with their cargo, are being held there.”

“The base is not heavily guarded due to the content and is used simply as a storage facility. However, the computers in the facility are capable of accessing the Confidential Data Archive. Remember, two things people: First, that the strike will only last an hour. Load up what weapons you can, while Alex uses his bug to extract the computer files. Once that’s done, we’re out. Second, this is not like the mission at Sanctuary’s Pass. I need a small team to secure the UNR troops who will be there.”

Several people raised their hands, and Jacob was happy with the results.

“Our strike begins at 0700. We have ten hours till then. I suggest we all get some sleep.”

Jacob, Gabby, Alex, and the informant left the storage room to the others. They would need time to prepare and rest. Jacob stopped them halfway down the dingy hall. At first, Will thought the room they’d held him in was their worst, but from his days here, he now confirmed the whole base was a dingy mess. At best, the place was a condemned warehouse. Sixty, seventy people tops were here, with a significant number of those being injured. The place was pitiful.

Jacob looked at Gabby, placing a hand on his sister’s shoulder.

“Good job, you two. You both got a lot of people back on their feet.”

Gabby could only nod with a smile. Her brother turned to look at Will.

“You,” he continued, “You are something. You handled yourself well in there, but this time, I’ll need you to do a full sweep of the perimeter. Should be just as easy for you, but every guard must be down for this one.”

Will nodded, but was surprised to see Jacob walking off along with Alex.

“Hold on,” he called out to them. It was a somewhat angered pitch, much to Jacob’s dismay.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I got you a decent amount of necessary supplies. It’s more than likely I’ve already been branded a traitor, and yet I’ve received absolutely no information. Your deal is feeling more and more like an elaborate ruse.”

“Calm down, cyborg. As I said, Alex will download the system onto his little toy and, once it’s brought here, you will be able to access everything you want. Just as my father promised.”

The cyborg eyed the technician, then back to Jacob.

“As convincing as you are, I wish to speak with Dr. Neeson.”

Gabby watched her brother’s face.

“No, he’s not feeling well. I’d prefer he was not disturbed for a day or two,” he stated clearly. “Understand?”

The cyborg persisted further, “It’s very important. I will try to make it as quick as possible, but–”

To Gabby’s surprise, Jacob interrupted Will, the cyborg’s expression depicted that as well.

“I don’t give a damn. My father is sick, as I said, and I would like it if he was not disturbed.”

The super soldier’s eyes said it all, but he remained composed.

“If you have any questions,” Alex said, glancing nervously between the two, “I’d be happy to help. Which reminds me, here is your upload link cable.”

From his pocket, Alex pulled out a silver USB-looking contraption, connected to a long cable. He handed it to the cyborg, who inspected it at once.

“What purpose does this serve?”

“It will allow you full, untraceable, access to the UNR database thanks to the encryption I’ve designed. It connects to an outlet within your body. The other end is used to go into our computer once we return from our next mission.”

“Is it a permanent installation to my systems?”

“Yes. I’ll show you how once I upload the system onto my computer.”

Will nodded, and Jacob found his silence wonderful. This silence was in reality a landmark. The immortal monster had been made tame to a degree, and the lieutenant loved it.

“Now, go back to your quarters and wait like everyone else.”

The cyborg turned around briskly to leave and did not look back again. Gabby had seen her brother display that silent rage before. It was something she was accustomed to. She watched as the cyborg left down the hall.

“Gabby, escort it back to its room,” Jacob ordered, and then turned the opposite way. He gestured for Alex to follow.

“Later, then,” Alex managed to say as he hurried after the lieutenant.

Gabby said a quick goodbye before turning to work with the cyborg. This time Jacob let her chaperone the cyborg without any help. She’d proven she could handle it.

***

Jacob paused at the chipped and beaten wooden door. He hovered outside the doorway awkwardly, despite his outspoken brazenness to the death machine not so long ago, and for this, he felt stupid.

Stepping into what used to be, and to some extent still was an office, Jacob felt colder in here than the rest of the facility. Like every room, the light in here was sparse. As the soldier walked past a large desk, he saw several worn out books on its surface. Looking at them all was like staring at the entire collection of his high school English class. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms were all among the mess.

The floor creaked as Jacob stopped a few feet short of his father. To his inward disapproval, his father wasn’t laid up in his bed but sat in a chair close to the window. Through it, both men could see what used to be the main work floor of the facility. All of the machines had been removed for their makeshift hospital. The old man eyed the area with particular scrutiny. Usually the medical floor was quiet and still, but ever since their recent spoils, the room was crawling with activity.

“I know what you’re going to say,” his father said as he pushed the wheeled chair back a bit.

“No, no, not at all, Dad,” Jacob said, “I was only wondering what you’re reading there.”

The doctor looked down at his blanket-covered lap, spying the small forgotten text that lay there. It was as if he’d completely forgotten it was with him.

Meditations on First Philosophy. I was just catching up.”

“I didn’t know that sort of thing interested you.”

“I find it for the most part trivial. Your sister lent it to me a few days ago, but I must shamefully admit it hasn’t been on my priority list.”

“She has a knack for getting attached to crap. Probably spends more time reading that thing than focusing on what I tell her.”

“Don’t be too spiteful, Jacob. After all, Gabriella has achieved a victory for us. She’s brought hope back to everyone.”

“Yeah, I suppose she did. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even relevant in the end.”

The elderly man’s eyes shifted from the pages. He stood up, leaving the book and the blanket in his seat.

“What’s bothering you, son? You should be proud of what we’ve done. Soon we will remove the doubt from the rest of the world.”

“If only Neal could drink to that.”

Both men remembered the old family friend fondly. A brief smile rose to the doctor’s face as he recalled a Saturday one summer long ago. Right in the middle of cooking up lunch, only to hear a thundering door slam. The two small boys ran through the back door to the front of the house, unknowingly dropping one of their baseball mitts.

“I apologize for the other day. He’s in my thoughts, Jacob. Neal was a fine young man.”

“I feel so damned helpless. We don’t even know what they’re doing to him.”

Filled with compassion, the father placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. For Jacob the moment was far from truly solidified. He recounted how on that one glorious day of baseball, his dad had done the same thing after lunch. With the man’s firm hand on his own scrawny shoulder, it had made the lecture about tracking dirt through the house that much more resilient. Now though, his father’s hand was weak, as if clutching to his son’s shoulder for leverage more than presence. Jacob knew even now aid was a slap to his father’s face.

“He was one of the modern Lost Generation, same as you and me. He didn’t let his disillusionment stop him from reclaiming his country.”

The young Neeson faked a smile.

“Sometimes I swear my father is really John Dewy.”

The doctor mimicked the expression on his son’s face.

“As he said at Michigan, ‘democracy and the one ultimate ethical ideal of humanity are to my mind, synonymous.’”

***

Still some distance away, Gabby saw the cyborg to his room, almost shutting the door. Her simple task was complete. As she headed to her own quarters, a brief flash of golden light caught her eye. She returned to his door, which was left slightly ajar. Inside the drab room was a beaten mattress in the corner along the wall and a single chair accompanied with a small table. The near-omnipotent cyborg seemed so preoccupied it didn’t even notice her presence. It had something in its hand.

The upload link is on the table, so what is it he has? Maybe a weapon, but she realized it was far too small for that. It’s that ring. Gabby should have felt more cautious about this, but another feeling was stronger, and she now realized why she felt this way.

“Do you want something, or is this your facility’s excuse for security?” he asked without ever looking away from the small treasure in his hand.

Gabby nearly flinched at the abrupt question, but she held herself together. She knew she should have let him be, should have just shut the door behind her, but something beckoned her back, and she stepped into the room. This surprised Will, who rather quickly put the ring away. Gabby searched for words.

“I just wanted to ask you something.”

“Don’t bother me,” he said angrily, “I don’t have time for pointless shit. Just tell me when Dr. Neeson is ready to speak with me.”

Gabby felt her own anger spike.

“Don’t you get it? My father is very ill!” her voice grew noticeably quiet, “I’m not sure if he’ll recover this time.”

Will took off the red bandanna he’d worn for so long and threw it on the bed out of spite.

“It appears that he may be in critical condition.”

“You know?” Gabby gasped.

“I, as you all often put so eloquently, am a cyborg. I can clearly see the flaws and the weaknesses in others. I am not specified in terms of medical procedures, but Dr. Neeson is obviously struggling internally.”

Gabby could no longer hide it. There was no point.

“My father has lung cancer. It took me a while to accept that. When the Chancellor relieved him of his position and branded him a traitor, he also cancelled his treatment. Without help, it keeps progressing,” she stopped herself, feeling so empty all of a sudden.

She honestly wanted to cry, but again, concealed her feeling. Looking at the stoic being in front of her, she couldn’t allow herself to show weakness.

“His loyalty to the Chancellor was obviously not important to him. He clearly chose what mattered to him most.”

“Will, your daughter, your wife, they can see the truth. Why can’t you?” she exclaimed, her eyes watering despite her straight face. “Are you really that blind to the reality of things? Anyone who doesn’t bend to Venloran’s will pay the price. My father gave every bit of what he had to the cause, my brother too. Everyone’s suffering because of that bastard!”

Will’s face remain unchanged for the most part. Gabby no longer considered whether or not he cared, or if he thought everything she said was utter bullshit. He was going to hear what she had to say.

“My brother and Halsey both served the UNR loyally for years yet were sent to one of those work camps for speaking out against my father’s termination. When that happened, I came to realize the same thing they all had: that we were fighting to keep something alive that shouldn’t exist.”

“I remember bits and pieces of the initial regime, before the republic was born. I read about all the groups that tried to stage their own military coups. So many people trying to burn down their own country. Before the UNR everything was in shambles.”

“And what might your point be?”

“That a solution was offered, but it was not forced upon anyone. A government can never run without the cooperation of the people and its armies. Everyone embraced it, and we have flourished ever since.”

“Not everybody. You generalize people. Maybe that’s your problem.”

“And what complaints have you then?”

“I grew up at the Academy, was there for most of my life, but my brother and I got to visit our father every weekend. Those days are the one I cherish the most. He would show us images of a different country. One where people had the power to change things and freedom used to have meaning behind it.”

“I see. You find it displeasing that in this society the unproductive are forced to work, the useless are terminated, and the social parasites, both homebred and foreign, are permanently cut-off? I had no idea your little band was so idealistic.”

“We want that liberty back. Power belongs in the hands of the people.”

“Didn’t you learn? You fools never had the power, only an illusion of it. Venloran only removed the blinders. Your insurrection seems to be a brand of denial I’ve seen only in the insane.”

Will couldn’t help but smile at his assessment and how blind they truly appeared to be. His opponent stood firm however, ready to continue.

“The UNR stands upon a foundation of people who are now dead. Anybody who refused to submit was executed like an animal. That’s not who we are.”

“What’s next? Are you going to lecture me on how only God has the right to take a life? I don’t buy that type of shit.”

“Sounds like you used to believe, Will.”

“I stopped caring when I realized God doesn’t praise the righteous or punish the wicked. That’s been left to us.”

“I still believe because I like the idea that after we spend our whole lives getting our asses kicked, we attain something after we die.”

“How quaint.”

Gabby was tired of being Will’s amusement.

“How do you really feel about what you are?”

Will’s smile and nonchalant tone disappeared.

“I guess you’re asking how I feel about death. Do I feel I should have as accepted my fate as God’s will on the battlefield that day? As a true man would, in sickness and in death?”

Gabby felt taken aback slightly. Maybe she’d pushed him too hard.

“I didn’t mean–”

“You did, don’t be coy. Truth is I don’t think we will ever really know if there’s a heaven or a hell. Maybe I was denied heaven. Maybe I defied God by continuing my existence here. I’m not sure if I’m truly the definition of immortality, but I’ve been told that I will walk this earth for many centuries to come.”

“But your family won’t.”

Will paused.

“Wow. You’re backing me into a corner. I often contemplate my former life, but I know so little, fragments really.”

“Your wife was one of us for some time, but she found it became harder and harder to manage her dual life. Your daughter was so young, yet so eager to fight. Your son, well he was just a boy during it all. Your wife didn’t want to feel the force of the law if her treachery was discovered, so she resigned before she up and left.”

“She severed all contact for the children’s safety?”

“Yes, and relocated her family. She’d been in so deep, but for the sake of her family she sacrificed her position, everything.”

“And now nobody knows where they are, at least you guys. Why didn’t she come see me?”

Hurt lingered in his voice.

“She said she had. By the time she finally was allowed to see you the operation was complete, and you were no longer…you. She never said it, but I think what drove her to fight in the beginning was the fact that she didn’t want others to go through what she did.”

“It’s funny,” he said somberly, “I have only the faintest idea what they look like. I wouldn’t even recognize them if I walked past them. I’m sure I have become dead to them.”

“No, don’t ever think like that! You can never do that! They love you, just as you love them.”

“But I never knew them.”

Gabby couldn’t take this any longer. It was beyond her endurance to listen to such words. She sat on the mattress next to Will. What was left of the mattress was flattened even further by her added weight.

“Will,” she said, placing one hand on his shoulder, the other on his cheek. The cyborg had goose bumps growing from the sensation of her soft palms.

“This is what you are now. But this is only a small fragment of who you have been. Our lives are short, but when we strive for something, for a purpose, suddenly life becomes so much more meaningful.”

She removed her hands and Will felt the warmth from where she’d touched him, feeling his scar. He realized ironically that the hira-shuriken would leave a similar scar on her face in the years to come. Gabby picked up the upload link cable off the table, holding up his left arm like a doctor. She pulled back his sleeve and focused on his wrist.

“Before joining my dad and my brother, my main focus was on applied sciences. Between Alex and my dad, I picked up quite a bit, including a lot about cyborg anatomy,” she said as she brushed her fingers on the underside of his forearm. Near the elbow, she stopped and pressed down on the skin. With that, the flesh split open exposing the neoartium plate. Using her other hand, she lowered one end of the cable link into the crevice, attaching it to the plate. The cable recoiled until it was no longer visible, and as Gabby released her pressure, the ‘wound’ sealed right back up.

“I’ve always had this router link in my left arm?”

“Yes. The First Fifty all had them. Venloran later realized it gave you too much free range in the archives, so the feature was done away with in the rest of the 144,000 cyborgs. As for you and the rest of the First Fifty, your units were revised.”

Will pulled the sleeve back himself, before looking at Gabby again.

“You people seem to know more about what I am than I do myself.”

Gabby smiled, realizing the attempted humor. It was a much-welcomed remark.

“Somewhat. A lot is left up to you. But I do know a few things: Your wife, her name is Julissa. Your oldest is your daughter Zaneta, and your youngest would be your son, Damien. She said you’d suggested the name for him.”

“Zaneta? What does that mean?”

“God’s Gift.”

A smile formed on Will’s tired face, but quickly faded as he began to speak.

“Your forces in the past were led by Joseph Halsey. You appear to know him personally.”

“Yes, but that was when he was head of the–”

“The Crimson Angels, I know. Since his capture the group fell apart.”

“He was our connection with many of the other regiments. He took many secrets with him, as his capture was so sudden. And we have no way of knowing where he is, or if he’s even alive.”

“Oh, he’s still breathing, don’t worry. He’s at UNR Headquarters, prison level three, cell No. 0219.”

Gabby gasped, bewildered, “Why would you tell me that?”

“Sorry, it must’ve been a mistake on my part. Please, forgive me,” Will said, a slow smile spreading across his face.

Gabby grinned back at him.

“Well, I should be going now,” she said as she began to stand up.

“I understand. Gabriella,” he said with a pause, “thank you, really. For everything. It means a lot to me.”

“Don’t thank me. You have the right to know.”

Gabby shut the door behind her leaving Will to his thoughts. Julissa, Zaneta, and Damien. There was also Bryan, Luis, and Valerie. They had been cast off to a corner of his mind since his arrival. What of all of them? Will slouched on the floor and picked up his bandanna.

Chapter 21 – Dogs

[_ April 17, 2065- Fonzworth Military Outpost, Norfolk 0700 _]

The UNR security guard walked through the long grass that came up to his knees. The white sandy beach was only a few feet away and the roar of its crashing waves soothed him. The facility faced away from the beach, but the soldier was glad that tonight his post was here in the rear position. As a breeze passed through, the grass swayed beautifully, and sand blew his way. The soldier looked up as he noticed an amber light that shined on him briefly before it dimmed and started to flicker.

“Sergeant Grimes,” acknowledged the soldier, who then noticed the lights along the sides of the facility and its concrete walls were all flickering, “we havin’ power difficulties?”

“Yes, private, continue your patrol as usual. Technicians are working on it as we speak.”

“Right, sir!”

The soldier relaxed and prepared to circle his given perimeter, but felt the need to look up, back at the flickering lights. The periods of blackness were quickly stretching from small bursts to almost thirty seconds at a time. As he stared up at the lights though, his eyes faltered. For a moment there, he could’ve sworn he saw the silhouette of a man on the edge of the roof. He looked back at the beach, assuming it was obviously the tech team at work. As the soldier looked up at the sky, he noticed that despite the fact there were a few areas of pinkish orange hues, the sky was growing more cloud filled. Damn, probably means it will rain later on. Suddenly, the lights gave out completely, each and every last one of them. Dumbasses. Lousy dumbasses.

Simultaneously, a black shape leaped off the roof of the facility, landing directly behind the soldier, some twenty feet below. As the soldier turned, he felt a quick blow to his collarbone area, and all he could do was fall. His body had literally become dead weight. Before the incapacitated soldier hit the ground, Will grabbed hold of him and threw him over his shoulder along with the other soldier he already had on his back.

Will walked further into the courtyard of the facility, to a large willow tree gently laying the soldiers against the thick tree trunk. Two of Jacob’s soldiers immediately tied them up with the rest of the UNR troops. Sergeant Grimes could only look on in anger as his men were bound together, though he did not dare do anything with the woman holding a pistol to his head. Will collected the intercoms from the last two soldiers and smashed them, before walking over to the small group of men and women. He spoke with no urgency in his voice:

“The power’s finished and all outer defenses are now gathered. Backup power will slow them down. We move now.”

“Hold it,” Jacob ordered, turning toward the Sergeant.

Will steeled himself to be patient. Even with his injured arm, the lieutenant vainly deemed it necessary to be present during the mission. Personally, Will didn’t care if it was a wounded wolf’s attempt to keep up with his pack, or if the lieutenant simply did not trust him. Either way it was a possible hindrance to the mission.

Jacob approached the Sergeant, looking down at the man.

“Let him up,” he said.

Gabby, keeping her pistol aimed at his skull, helped the soldier, who undoubtedly had a hard time getting to his feet with his hands cuffed together. “Get us in there, understand? Any funny shit, we kill your boys and leave you for Venloran,” Jacob said.

Sergeant Grimes knew he was hard pressed to try anything, looking over at his unconscious men. Then he met Will’s eyes.

“You, Unit 21, you would watch these dogs kill your fellow soldiers?”

Gabby struck the Sergeant in the back with her elbow as Jacob punched him in his face. The man’s legs buckled for a moment, but he was able to straighten himself up. Will turned away, looking instead at the whip-like branches of the willow tree. Gabby grabbed Grimes by his hair as Jacob grabbed him by his chin.

“Last chance, asshole.”

“Sgt. Grimes, come in, over. We’re having a problem with the system. How’re things out there?”

Grimes swallowed some of the blood in his mouth.

“We’re in a black out I think. I’ll be coming in to assume my quarters.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jacob watched as Gabby, Alex, and the others followed the Sergeant to the main door. With the outer cameras down, they freely entered the building. Alex waited for their commander at the door.

“Jacob, hurry up!”

Jacob walked over to Will who was still facing away from everyone.

“I think it’s better you stay out here, all right? Watch our asses and if we get company, head straight for the truck. We’ll follow right behind.”

“All right then,” Will said, as Jacob left to catch up with the others.

***

The storage facility held only a large office and a lounge. Other than that, it consisted of only one long corridor. Two soldiers lay unconscious and tied to a chair, while one was up against a wall, laying still and wishing he’d complied with Lt. Neeson. Alex opened the computer and inserted his own upload link cable. A soldier appeared out of the blackness of the hall, just as the power switched back on.

“There are at least thirty storage rooms, Lieutenant Neeson,” reported the soldier. “Any idea which one we’re looking for?”

Alex didn’t even look away from the computer, “Only storage rooms B5, B7, and E2 have our working weapons. The others are useless to us.”

“Good shit, Alex, we’ll be right back. You know I expect the download to be done by the time I get back, right?” Jacob asked.

Alex laughed, “Don’t patronize me, man. The download will begin shortly and it’ll only take a few minutes.”

“Hot damn! Gabby, cover him. We’ll keep you posted.”

“Yes, sir!!”

Jacob and the others left down the hall, and Gabby checked the windows. No movement at all, but despite her composure Gabby’s heart was racing, so fast she felt almost sick. Alex knew his first priority was to separate certain files into a particular section for Unit 21, just as, or more important than everything else.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Alex said as he worked, “in just a few minutes, we’ll have access to their security system, base locations, operation schedules, work camp areas, we’ll have it all.”

Gabby smiled, “My father will be proud. Our regiment will go down in history as the ones who brought down the Chancellor.”

“And for starting a civil war, need I remind you,” Alex added, He always looked at a topic from all its angles, something he never failed to do. Some called it pessimism. He called it realism.

“But one that will end quickly. The world will strike along with us, and things will be as they always should be: equal.”

Alex meanwhile had already selected the necessary files, and was busy adding them to his device. The download was currently at twenty percent.

***

Will darted like a blur as he ran to the single watchtower. He quickly scaled the wall to the top and entered once more, although this time he used the door instead of crashing through the window, as the soldier who’d guarded it was now among those tied to the tree down below, a failure among his fellow failures.

Will pressed down on his left arm releasing the upload link cable, and connected it to the computer in front of him. Will sat down, his mind calculating rapidly. Their technician Alex seems to be quite handy, but I must do this for myself. The password request was instantly bypassed, as well as those needed for the restricted files. Since he already knew base locations and such, he had no need to download that information. He was after personnel files, specifically those for S.S.C. Unit 23, S.S.C. Unit 18, and Bryan Morales. Will saved all the files he needed and would read through them later. His focus was now on the final bit of information he needed, information he was almost afraid to find. Will reluctantly typed in the final search criteria: Super Soldier Cyborg Unit 21.

At the same time, Jacob and his men were busy. It was all there: every failed weapon shipment and its cargo. In each holding area, the wrecked plane was positioned off to the side, with the weapons tagged and shelved. The team loaded M25 rifles, M21 SWS, M3 submachine guns, and the like into their large duffle bags, pockets, and small packs. Father will be immensely pleased. Jacob could not wait to use his new arsenal to make the bastards pay for each and every last causality they’d suffered. He vowed silently not to waste a single shell.

Jacob finished loading his second duffle bag; most of his team was already done.

“Alex, come in. We’re almost done here. You?”

“At 83%, we’ll be ready to meet up with you soon.”

“All right, over and out.”

“Lt. Neeson,” said Carrie, “we’re packed and ready to go, sir.”

“Gather your loads, we’re out in five.”

Jacob finished packing his final bag and carried two over his shoulders. His pride took a small hit when Carrie took one of his bags as her own, but with his injured arm, he relinquished it gratefully. Besides, he and his small team had cleaned out a good four aisles and that was all that mattered. The six of them gathered at the door, briefly putting down their bags.

“Hold up,” Jacob ordered, “Where’s Garcia?”

Everyone looked at one another in question, before looking back at their lieutenant.

“Garcia, come in. Garcia, come in!” Jacob said into his intercom.

Carrie cocked her weapon, as did the others, “Don’t fan out. Stay close! Lieutenant!”

It was too late. Jacob was heading back down the aisles, his pistol at the ready. He heard Alex’s voice in his ear, telling him the download was complete and that it was time to go. The lieutenant got a sick feeling in his stomach. He felt like he was going to vomit, could almost taste it in his mouth.

He spotted a grate from an open air duct lying on the floor as shots rang out. Jacob turned in the direction of fire, back from where’d he’d come, to see a barely recognizable silhouette knocking his team around like mere toys. Within seconds, most of the team laid silently on the floor, leaving the last two standing to stare one another down.

Jacob chose to fight, firing off rounds from his weapon, but the woman was too fast. Lieutenant Neeson threw the pistol, realizing he was in deep shit and instead began loading the EMP rounds into his grenadier. He felt the gun being ripped from his hand, and then felt a powerful slap to the face. Jacob fell, landing on his injured arm, which caused him to grit his teeth in agony. Another blow to the face and he was out cold.

Meanwhile, Alex prepared to log off, taking extra precautions by removing any records of foreign links that had accessed the Confidential Archives. Unexpectedly, an emergency beacon flashed across the screen, and since he was still within the system, he was able to read its contents. To his surprise, it was a distress signal, and the S.O.S. had been issued from a computer at…this basewe are truly fucked.

Both Alex and Gabby could hear the choppers overhead and the searchlights shining through the windows. Alex realized what had happened, but was dumbfounded as to how. It could not have had access to the system, especially without… Alex looked over at Gabby, who had her back to him at the moment, looking out the window, at the legion of troops gathering in the courtyard. Then he watched her drop her gun. She hurled the EMP rounds at the wall in her anger, along with her dagger.

Alex stood up from his seat, the computer flew in pieces everywhere, as bullets decimated it. He got down on his knees before being told to get all the way down on the floor. S.S.C. Unit 23 held the gun close to his head, before pointing it at Gabby, who didn’t obey. Alex looked up at her, and she looked back at him with teary eyes, shaking her head. Alex felt himself fumbling for words. It was pretty obvious what to say, but his mouth went dry as cotton.

Unit 23 handcuffed him before rising to slap Gabby to her knees. Adding a light kick to the gut, it was more than enough to put Gabby on her face. She felt the blood on her lip, as her hands were bound behind her back. The cyborg walked over to the Alex’s ULC and grinded it with her hand, reducing it to refuse.

***

Dr. Neeson saw Patrick being brought in with the rest, minimally harmed. Despite how much he and many others like him had progressed since receiving proper treatment, the look of utter terror on their faces was unparalleled, especially Patrick’s. The old man coughed as he rested a hand on his burning chest. He felt the need to place a comforting hand on the shoulders of his loyal men and women, but the tight chains kept any movement from happening. Patrick was now seated next to him, and Neeson knew there was nothing he could say. Commander Kane loomed over the group, walking past them and staring at each one’s disgusting face for only a moment. That’s all these scum deserve.

“You pathetic pieces of shit are no longer considered human and will not be treated as such. You have forsaken what our Honorable Chancellor has freely done for you and your families. You are dogs yelping for help, and it will be given to you. You all beg for a sick and demented version of the world, but you will not receive it. You people are merely ill and I promise you all,” Kane stumbled upon Neeson, and smiled briefly. “We will do our very best to re-educate you all. Your cooperation will mean more than just your life, but that of the men and women around you.”

He paced in front of the group once more.

“Some of you will be reformed and made to fit in with society again. Many of you will be made into examples. How so, is entirely up to you.”

Mitch arrived in the dingy mess hall, followed by Unit 18.

“Reporting, sir!” they both said.

“Excellent, do we have any no-good left-behinds?”

Mitch smiled and yelled out to his superior,

”Oh, yes we do, sir! Around twenty-eight of ‘em, right down the hall.”

Kane looked at the stoic face on Luis, knowing how to get rid of it.

“How do we handle left-behinds, Unit 18?”

Luis laughed briefly, before looking over at the captured men and women before them. He cocked his gun. Few bullets had been fired for this mission, so this was only fitting.

“Sir, we got a real variety of casualties from their little crusade. I think I even spotted a paraplegic or two. I’m going to love this, not because I’m an asshole. No, today I’m handing out mercy. Left-behinds always get the first serving, Commander, always.”

“That’s what I like to hear, soldier!” Kane replied, “Get them up. Mitch, Unit 18, give ‘em a good show while we prepare the trucks for loading.”

Mitch and Unit 18 took the front, followed by their superior officer, followed by the large group of prisoners, who were herded by fully armed UNR troops. They headed down the hall. Patrick saw the glimpses of the UNR-proclaimed justice in the form of body bags of the select few who’d resisted. He noticed Neeson lag briefly upon seeing the body bags, only to watch him be shoved forward.

They entered the infirmary ward, where the ill and wounded still lay on their mats and stretchers. Patrick looked to the floor as soon as he heard the gunfire start. All he wanted to do was to blot it all out, but nothing could drown out screams and whimpers from his comrades, or the laughing and lewd calls coming from the UNR soldiers. Patrick realized he was crying, and so were many of the others with him.

Chapter 22 – Redemption

April 17, 2065 – UNR Defense Headquarters

At UNR Defense HQ, hordes of cheering people surrounded the structure. They did not disrespect the blockade of UNR troops, but that did not stop their excitement. The streets were still dark this cloudy morning, which felt soothing to Kane really. He’d always loved the days where he could pretend it was still the shadow of night. It had a sense of childish awe to it, especially with the scattered bursts of daylight shining through here and there. The heavens only lightly sprinkled the earth with rain, but he marveled at it. Kane looked over at Will, who sat beside him in the Humvee. He’d been pretty quiet since picking him up at the base. Unit 23 sat across from them and was strangely quiet as well. Will only looked out the window into the vast number of cheering people.

“To think their main facility was in Calvert County, Maryland. Makes you realize just how close to us they really were,” Kane said to them.

“It’s unsettling, Commander,” Will said flatly.

Kane joined his soldier in gazing out into the crowds.

“Look at those proud UNR people. They love us. They love the security we bring to this country. You’ve all done a good job. Will, you’ve proved yourself an invaluable asset to our operation.”

“Congratulations,” Val said, “I guess being a prisoner of war can have its rewarding aspects after all.”

Will gave her a smile and looked back at the civilians. Among the many nameless faces, one man captured Will’s attention. Will could tell age had hit him hard. From the lines on his strained face to his thinning hair, the toll of the decades was evident. Upon the man’s shoulders was a little girl with eyes that matched her fathers. She laughed and cheered as well. At his side was a boy, probably a few years older than the girl. Because of what Will had done, what he’d always done, this family had the assurance of being happy together and presumably always would.

***

Gabby and the others were pulled out of the vehicles a good distance away from the actual parking zone, and were marched down the street, directly past the roaring crowd. An immense number of people spat on them, cursed at them, and many threatened to kill them. Jacob got a brief chance to look at Gabby, who immediately turned away from him. A small stone nicked his back, another pelted Gabby’s shoulder, and a poorly aimed one struck Alex’s leg, he let it go.

How long have we been marching toward this fate? He saw that many of the people gathered around him held laminated images of various men and women. The innocent victims who died during that assassination attempt. Another botched mission, just like yours in ‘51, Halsey. We truly are your prodigies.

***

Prisoner and captor alike entered through the main entrance of the UNR Defense Headquarters and the doors locked automatically behind them. Kane went off with a group of his soldiers to police the prisoners. Many of the soldiers applauded Will, giving him his well-deserved kudos. Soon it was just the two cyborgs. Before Will could say anything Valerie hugged him, and tightly.

“Next time, don’t be such a dumb ass,” she said.

“I’ll try not to,” he said, embracing her back. It was then he heard the elevator ding in the hallway and out came a small group of people. First to greet them, was none other than Luis, who gripped Will’s hand before embracing him as well.

“So you’re back, and with presents for all of us. You’re too kind.”

Will took note of something behind his friend’s back.

“I see you got me something as well.”

Luis laughed before pulling out Will’s sheathed sword.

“Oh, you mean this?”

Will quickly put it back in its rightful place, before noticing Venloran, Major Johnson, and Kearney, standing not too far away. Will rushed over to them and bowed.

“My apologies for keeping you all waiting.”

Venloran nodded before shaking his hand strongly.

“There’s no need. You’ve redeemed yourself tenfold. I speak for everyone here when I say thank you for a job well done. Welcome back.”

“Thank you, sir, thank you all.”

Major Johnson patted him on the back.

“And don’t worry, we got our hands on that miniaturized EMP technology. The bastards got you once, but we’ll think up a way to counter the effects.”

“No need, sir. Next time they won’t get the chance.”

“Unit 21, although I doubt it’s really necessary, I’d like you to report to Krenzler for an immediate medical evaluation.” Venloran ordered.

“Yes, sir.”

As Will was stepping into one of the elevators, he saw Luis approach Venloran, who was getting on a different elevator with Major Johnson. Will listened for as he long as he could till the doors shut.

“Sir, can I come with you and the Major? I’m always on prisoner detail, especially with the new meat.”

“Yes, see to it they feel very much welcome. In fact, there is one in particular I’d like to speak with myself.”

Chapter 23 – Everlasting Perfection

[_ April 17, 2065- Cell No. 0281- UNR Headquarters _]

Venloran got to the door and could hear the wailing already, along with the muffled sounds of vicious blows. He looked over at Kearney, who was busy with his folder of papers. Without even asking him, he knew his assistant was indifferent about it all. And rightfully so he assumed, since this event would definitely need many ceremonies. He would have to speak with the warden and Major Johnson to designate which prisoners would be among the next public execution. There’d be several speeches to give and Kearney was doing his usual task of arranging it all. The Chancellor turned to the Major.

“Will you be joining me?”

“No,” he said as he bit his lip, “I honestly find no point in conversing with the bastard. I have other scum to deal with, so I’ll get to him when need be. For now, I believe Mitch and the rest can tell the good doctor I said hello.”

Johnson walked off with a trio of soldiers, including Luis, to take care of the business at hand. No one saw Luis glance in their direction, toward cell number 0281. No one could see the chill go down his back, hidden by a face of almost child-like anticipation. Venloran looked at Kane now and smiled.

“Well then, let’s greet him shall we?”

The two men walked into the cell, to see Mitch and Cisco standing over Neeson who lay there breathing hard. At the feet of the two grunts, their old companion seemed so out of place, out of reach of any respect or nobility.

“Carline, Aguilar,” Kane said loudly.

Mitch and Cisco both saluted and bowed to their Chancellor. Venloran scanned the room briefly and was instantly brought a cold steel chair to sit on. Neeson looked up at him, blood running freely from his nose and lip. To add insult to injury, the soldiers hadn’t even bothered to cuff his hands. The man tried to stand, but could only manage on his knees. His breathing was heavily strained at this point, and despite the fact that the beating had stopped, he was still visibly shaken. His rugged face betrayed his worn out state of being. Venloran was somewhat troubled. He’d known this man at one time, but not now.

“Robert, you don’t look well.”

“Is any man truly well while he suffers in this world?” Neeson said as he stared at the floor.

“How different things could have been, so very different. You could’ve been one of the greatest figures in history. Now look at what you’ve become.”

“For what? I couldn’t live with myself.”

Neeson looked up at him, and Venloran found his distorted gaze tragic in itself. And yet, he still held onto tightly to those precious ideals.

“You’ve certainly praised the way things were prior to my administration. But did you ever mention to your children all the horrors that thrived in that environment?”

“You expect me to say like everybody else that you’ve improved the world? It may have had its flaws, but what you’ve built is a perversion.”

“Flawed to the point of failure, you forget that Robert. I didn’t tear it down all by my lonesome. We all did.”

“I opened my eyes. How do you go on doing this, Carl? At least tell me that much.”

The Chancellor seemed to actually ponder the question for a few seconds, then looked at him with a smile.

“Have you ever critiqued the Bible? I have since childhood really, and it’s quite the book. It was preached to me as a child that it was a book of innocence, benevolence, and perfect justice. It’s said God is a perfect being, with unquestionable judgment and morality. In time, though, I discovered the scriptures’ folly.

“The Bible is a textbook full of crusades of genocide, tyranny, and incest. It showcases some of the ugliest traits of man. I often wondered who was crueler: God, who commanded and condoned many of these vile acts, or man for blindly obeying? It doesn’t really matter in the end. To this day, the Bible is revered by billions. They follow God because they fear Him. He has limitless power, so His word becomes holy. For these things, people push aside the horror in the Bible and call it a book of ‘moral’ reasoning.”

“Religion has always played a part in influencing history, both good and bad.”

“Yes, that’s it, Robert. Think about it, a being you and I cannot see. We have no real way of knowing if He truly exists, and yet people will die for Him. They will kill for Him. They believe he intends for us to live in a beautiful heaven, but only if you obey Him. That passionate faith is a drug mankind cannot live without. Do I consider myself a god? No, that term is far too vast to apply to any single man. I’d like to believe that I’ve accomplished something of divine stature. I have brought forth a new motion in our long and disgusting history that is the closest we have ever come to a truly secure utopia. Indiscriminate and a physical manifestation all can see and touch.”

“I’m sure Adolf Hitler thought the same thing, as have many, many, others.”

“We have triumphed, Neeson. It is my greatest pity that you refuse to join in the celebration and move forward into the future.”

***

Valerie entered her quarters, getting ready to clean her swords. The weapons were about to receive plenty of duties, and she wanted the prisoners to admire her in a way. As she took off her jacket, she heard something hit the carpet, small but of decent weight. Valerie scanned the floor, finding a sparkling, gold ring. Did Will give this to me?

She picked it up, admiring the small diamond on it as well. Valerie tried to focus on the assignment at hand but found her thoughts drifting further and further away. The ring was absolutely amazing, and as she analyzed it, she discovered two names etched along its side: Bryan and Valerie, with a heart engraved between the two. She found herself trembling, once again uncontrollably. But this time she felt happy. Her mind settled on thoughts of warm grainy sand, with brief gusts of soothing wind, all watched over by a dazzling sun.

***

On November 21, 2051, Julissa and Zaneta Marconi were hung for murder, acts of terrorism, treason, and crimes against the UNR. The evanescence of these nightmares is the only way out. I will no longer feel any pain at all. No tension, no flaws, no delayed reactions. I will be everlasting perfection.

Will walked into the cold room, put down his sword, and lay on the seat. Dr. Krenzler walked in behind him, with Myers carrying the injection gun. He looked down at Will, patting him on the shoulder.

“You are a hero,” he said, looking at Myers as if to assert the fact, “and you will always be remembered as one.”

“A dose of velocicide, sir?” Will asked, plainly.

“Yes, Unit 21. This will remove any doubt from you.”

Will was relieved and shut his eyes. He smiled and laid his head back. This was his moment of greatest glory. He thought about how after this moment nothing around him would be familiar. Everything would be new to him, subjects to ponder and analyze. This excited him, the prospect of the unknown. Not like the kind that had plagued him and made him question his faith in the Chancellor at all. Why did I do all this? Risk so much for people I can hardly recollect? Those were sins he wished he’d never had the horrors of discovering. What did those illusions offer besides pain? His mind wandered, taking in the fantasies one last time before completely abandoning them.

***

S.S.C. Unit 21 saw the distraught and angry look on his Chancellor’s face. Neeson disobeyed direct orders and opened the doors to the main office. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kearney shrink off to the back. Venloran stood at attention. Guests without a proper appointment, what a rather uninteresting situation, Will mused. His Chancellor gave no orders, so he patiently waited.

Two women walked in, greeting Dr. Neeson briefly. He heard “thank-you’s” being exchanged before their attention was turned his way. Both of them held strange stares that seemed to go on for days.

One of them was a fair peach-skinned woman, probably in her late thirties. Her long, black hair reached her shoulders, and her brown eyes reminded him of his own. The other was younger, a young adult with similar skin tone to his, although a smidge lighter. She was almost the same height of the older woman, and though the lines of age distinguished them, they were mirror images of each other. The younger one had brown eyes as well, but he noticed something else. Both women’s eyes began to gleam and turn red. Tears came as they both rushed up and hugged him.

The older woman looked up at him now and kissed him roughly. He smelled a sweet fragrance on her, making it unbearably pleasant. Her tender lips felt heavenly. Still, something felt out of place. After several seconds, she stopped and looked up at his stoic face. Will was taken aback by it all, completely silent.

“Will? What’s wrong with you?” she asked painfully. She fought to keep herself from sobbing. Venloran attempted to speak:

“I know this is a hard time for you, Mrs. Marconi, and I’d be happy to arrange another day for such an obviously delicate situation. This tragedy is one that requires your continued patience –”

“Will, what about us? How can you just leave us?” the woman implored. The younger one continued to cry at her side.

“Our own children?”

Will only stared back in confusion and it was then that Julissa understood.

“You should be patient ma’am. As I said in the letter, your husband suffered heavy brain damage. He’s lucky to be with us and is one of the honored few who have dedicated their lives to the UNR’s constant defense.”

The woman turned toward Venloran, approaching his desk.

“You said he was in a coma! I want to know why he was not sent home! You can’t just take him away!”

“Please, try to understand. When one like your husband is brought back after being so close to the brink of death, the mental effects are devastating. His rehabilitation into normal society will be lengthy, if at all attainable. My only intention is to keep him and others like him as productive members of society. Your husband still fights for his country, and for his family.”

“And for you, right Chancellor? Please, don’t treat me like a fool and feed me that shit.”

The woman retrieved papers from her purse and slammed them down onto Venloran’s desk. The Chancellor instantly looked through them, losing all interest in his unexpected guests. Will stood there looking rather lost.

“Where did you get these?” he asked without looking at them both.

“I gave those to her. Some time ago,” Neeson answered.

“I don’t know who the hell you are to play God, but you seem to have forgotten you can’t just do this sort of thing. We’re taking my husband home where he belongs.”

“My apologies, Mrs. Marconi, but you cannot do that. You will continue to receive monthly compensation, and we will keep you notified of any developments in his condition.”

Will noticed a few UNR guards enter the room. Julissa’s sorrow was building into a rage. She lashed at the Chancellor, delivering a right cross directly to his mouth. The sound of it resonated through the room and left everyone speechless. Kearney’s mouth almost dropped open but Venloran miraculously stayed docile. The soldiers went for their batons, but the Chancellor’s raised hand stopped this.

“Men, escort these two women off the premises. Have a good day, ma’am. I wish you happiness.”

The lady was carried off yelling and cursing, her anger comparable to that of a rabid animal. In the blur of her rage however, Will still saw those running tears. As she drifted farther down the hall, and out of sight, Will’s acute hearing heard the roars of her anger fall apart into wails of sorrow. The words No, No, no, went on and on, even as he was the only one hearing it. The younger woman hugged him tightly once more. She’d been quiet throughout this whole ordeal, even as her mother was pulled out of the room violently. In spite of her thin appearance, her hold on him was like a vice. He did not attempt to hold her back, merely regarded her as if she were lost. Despite this, she spoke ever so softly.

“I’ll always love you,” Zaneta said quietly, “All of us. We’ll always love you, Daddy.”

Will heard those words and felt his arms unconsciously wrap around his child. He hugged her back and even though he did not grasp it all. He drew security from their embrace.

The soldier behind Zaneta pulled her off gently, and she rose to leave willingly. She locked her dark brown eyes with Will’s one last time before the doors shut behind them.

“Get him out of here.”

Will saw a soldier cuff Dr. Neeson’s hands behind his back, preparing to escort the doctor out of the room as well. “We can’t go on like this, Carl! People won’t stand for it!”

Venloran looked down at the papers again, shifting through them. He paid no mind to the blood seeping from his lower lip.

“No, Doctor, it’s you who doesn’t understand.”

Suddenly it was disturbingly quiet in the room. Kearney remained off in the corner, not saying a word. Will wasn’t sure what to do himself. His Chancellor approached him.

“I’m sorry you had to experience that, Unit 21,” he said somberly, “throughout life, you’ll see those who are not willing to accept sacrifice for victory. They fear change, and will even fight to prevent ones such as us, from doing the needed work.”

“I believe I understand, sir.”

“Beings like you and I are the keystone to utopia, the very real guardians of our society. Always remember that.”

***

Unit 21 cringed in his sleep. The files within his CPU cross-referenced with this hallucination. Julissa and Zaneta Marconi. His wife and daughter. For such a long time he’d wondered what their voices were like, their physique, their smell, the small details that the database had left out because they were irrelevant. He still had little information on his son, in fact he had no idea what he even looked like. He remembered how tightly they’d embraced him. How sweet Julissa’s lips had been against his own. The thing that startled him the most, though, was those tears.

He’d killed so many, in battle after battle, and many times, witnessed men crying for their lives to be spared. It was a product of raw emotion at its most prominent, whether it be out of tragedy, physical pain, or unrivaled fear. He’d always brushed tears aside as mere impairments of being human. Perhaps, in reality, they were. He realized just how much agony had been weathered down upon those tormented souls, he felt so much pain. Pain like he’d never known.

Myers strapped down the cyborg’s left arm as Krenzler loaded up the injection gun. The assistant secured the legs before finally moving onto the right arm. He was tired today and couldn’t wait to get home. As he briefly looked up at the monitors, he felt a shiver run down his spine, cold and lingering. He turned and looked at Unit 21, whose eyes were open and glossy.

“S.S.C. Unit 21, shut down,” Myers said, but he could feel his own voice crack. The face of the being strapped down on that table, so placid and still, suddenly gave way to one of sheer insanity. An animalistic yell erupted from his mouth. Krenzler’s face paled.

“Myers, secure the unit!!”

Myers backed away though, a cold sweat on his face. At that moment, Krenzler knew hell was upon them, and its fury would not be brief. Will used his free arm to rip the restraints off the other, and within a few seconds had freed his legs. Will for once was not being rational. In fact, he did not give himself a single second to ponder his actions. He acted solely out of his own despair and the need to let it flush outward.

He turned toward Myers, who reached for the distress button nearest him at the computer monitor close to the table. Myers was only two feet away from it, and the cyborg several. Krenzler knew it didn’t matter. In a blaze of motion, he’d struck Myers’ neck with his arm as if it were a hefty log. The result wasn’t too different. His neck jerked inhumanly, with a snap of vertebrae so painful to the ears, it was as if the doctor could feel it himself. The man’s body crumpled to the floor. The cyborg’s arm lashed out again, but his time with an alarming grip on the doctor’s throat. Krenzler felt his feet being lifted off the floor. He stared into the cold lifeless brown eyes of the being before him.

“Don’t, don’t–”

Will didn’t snap the man’s neck. Instead, he hurled him up into the telescreens in the ceiling, causing an explosion of sparks before the man fell twelve feet down to the familiar cold floor. The cyborg lowered himself to the floor on one knee to pick up the injection gun. He studied the tool before crushing it in his hands. He walked over to his sheath and fastened it to his belt before turning to leave. Just as he did, he heard bits of glass shuffling, followed by a weak groan. Will walked over to the mess of shattered glass, to see a still breathing Krenzler.

He could tell the man’s legs were useless, his spine probably damaged. He would not recover, but death would not come quickly either. Krenzler’s face was wide-eyed with pain, but his mouth uttered not a sound. Among the field of razor-like shards, his wrinkled hands bled non-stop. Will stared at the man before standing over him. In that rush of rage, he now felt despair, nearly regret. Alas, there was no turning back. Krenzler had known the inhumanity of what he’d done thousands of times. He placed a boot on the man’s face and applied more than enough pressure. As Will walked away, he left bloody footprints behind.

Chapter 24 – Internal Siege

[_ April 17, 2065- UNR Headquarters _]

Val instantly slipped the ring into her pocket, afraid it would be Kane staring at her in the doorway. As she stood up though, she was relieved to see her comrade.

“Luis, what is it?”

“Unit 23,” he said calmly, “we have a situation and an interesting one at that. You’ve been selected to secure the Chancellor during this emergency.”

Val already knew before asking. It was like a sick intuition that stabbed her again and again. She ignored the pain.

“How bad is it?” she asked.

“About as bad as we anticipated.”

He studied the sullen look on her beautiful face, his own not showing any bit of emotion.

“Are you in or not?”

“To the end. What about you?”

“I’m supposed to be going in with the first wave.”

She noticed he wasn’t wearing his intercom piece.

“But you’re not.”

“No, I’m heading to Weapons Department II for a special operation. After the Chancellor is safe report there as well. We’ve got quite a bit of work to do in a short amount of time.”

Valerie slid her swords back into their sheaths.

“Those soldiers will be killed without your help.”

“And rightly so. They’ve dishonored the UNR. Dishonored the Chancellor. They don’t deserve to be in uniform, and our friend will be a testament to their mediocrity. I love the UNR, and I love the Chancellor, but I want them all to see how much they need us. After today, there will be no doubt.”

Unit 23 thought back to the situation in the training room, that unfamiliar harshness and barbarity she’d had to endure. Her mind was made up. She too left behind her intercom.

***

Cisco stood at attention, but his legs were quaking, knees quivering. His stomach felt unstable, and he could have vomited right there in the Detention Center hallway. The other soldiers around him didn’t look at him, and he wondered if the same fear was flowing through them. Many of them didn’t seem to be affected at all, although a few had faces that looked rather unsure. This is way too intense.

He cocked his McMillan Tac-50 sniper rifle, securing the muzzle brake at the tip. In the cold room, he was sweating madly. He was disgusted with his own trepidation because, for what it was worth, he wasn’t going to be a part of the first wave.

The last of the soldiers exited the cells and secured the locks. Hans emerged, joining Cisco in silence. He gave him a reassuring smile, and even without words, the boy felt comforted. Against all that fluttered around in his mind, how his bowels were in shambles, his superior officer gave him the solace he so dearly needed. Cisco knew that this veteran was actually proud to go into battle with the “newbie” and he fed on that. This was what it meant to truly fight, the feeling of unbreakable camaraderie. He was now, more than ever, glad to serve.

Commander Kane and Major Johnson spoke with Kearney a distance away, out of ear shot. There was so much confusion at the moment, but they all stood ready and waiting for what orders they’d be given. Kane approached them at last.

“Soldiers, at attention!” he yelled, as the men and women scrambled to get organized. “Surveillance shows S.S.C. Unit 21 heading toward Weapon Department I, below the prison levels. We’ve lost contact with Unit 18 as well, due to intercom complications.”

Johnson looked at the soldiers as Kane spoke on. His face betrayed no fear.

“Regardless of what happens, we will stop Unit 21 in his tracks with a full-on assault. The majority of you will re-group with the other platoons at Weapons Departments II and III. Mitch, you and two other squads will stay here with me, on the prison levels. We aren’t entirely sure of the cyborg’s intentions, but we are not taking any chances. Remember, the only way to get a kill shot is in the eyes. Now everybody move!”

***

“Shit, open fire!” yelled the sergeant.

Ten UNR soldiers unloaded their magazines down the blue-gray hall at a single target, whose nimble sprinting made him an incredibly hard mark to hit. Five others joined in, but the elusive being leaped up and briefly sprinted right along the wall itself. One bold soldier ran ahead of the rest, firing his weapon madly. Bullets blasted holes into the wall as empty shells hit the floor. The cyborg bounded off the wall, directly toward the soldier. His eyes widened in those last few seconds as he tried to get away.

A single kick from the cyborg smashed the soldier’s sternum in the process. The body flew at the group of UNR men and women and knocked them over into a heap. As they pushed over the still form of the first victim and gathered their weapons, Will landed among them. Before many were back on their feet, he’d drawn his 1840 Cavalry Saber.

The first swing cleaved into a soldier’s neck and blood sprayed everywhere. Another clean swipe slit open the abdomen of another, and she fell to the floor trembling uncontrollably. The super soldier cut down one soldier at the knees, leaving him on the floor to revel in his own horror. Will saw another soldier finally reclaim his gun and take aim. An M240 machine gun no less, a truly powerful firearm. He saved himself the effort.

As soon as the man opened fire, Will dodged to the left, and the torrent of bullets blew away his fellow soldier. The soldier couldn’t stop himself and continued his assault no matter what was in his line of fire. A fire extinguisher exploded as speeding bullets punctured it, and the same thing happened when a soldier felt those bullets penetrating his armor. Will slashed one of the guards at the door in the shoulder and dealt the other was a slash across the chest. With his arm swinging that heavy blade, it cut through with ease.

The remaining soldier blew a few holes in the doors before he found Will had completed his circle and was now face to face with him. As his eyes darted back and forth, Will saw a glimmer of terror in them as the soldier’s lips quivered. His gun lowered as Will raised his sword. Was it the terror of his own actions or the terror of powerlessness? Will sheathed his now bloody sword. The soldier’s body fell one way, and his head the other.

He picked up the M240 and finished off those still alive with generous rounds. In their final moments, they’d been worthy of his blade, and he felt content with that. Turning back toward the door, he kicked it down effortlessly. Back in this familiar room, Weapons Department I, with its aisles of limitless killing machines, he only wanted two for himself.

***

Prison Level No. Two

Commander Kane lit a match and lowered his cigar into its small flame. The tip of it began to turn crispy, glowing as the embers burned. The officer threw the match to the floor and stomped it out, adding it to the collection of ashes already smudging the clean floor. Leaning against the cold gray walls of the corridor, the endless doors on each side were his only real company, and at such a frantic time, regulation didn’t really matter. He breathed in a large amount of smoke, savoring the smooth, rich taste of the tobacco. His mind was busy trying not to think of their current situation.

Kane saw Fisher walking toward him. Franco remained down the hall, fiddling with a flamethrower.

“Franco, what the hell are you doing?”

As the man ran a hand through his hair, the Commander noticed his quivering hand.

“Sir, that cyborg is comin’ for all of us. The time of being civil has passed. Order will be maintained by all means necessary.”

Kane focused on Fisher, who carried a standard firearm. The man appeared frightfully on edge. His eyes could hardly rest upon Kane for even a few seconds.

“On the level below, Cell No. 281 is open. The prisoner is gone, and there isn’t a trace of his ass. Surveillance is reporting multiple camera blackouts.”

“Damn it all” Kane said angrily, “Listen, tell Johnson–”

Suddenly an ear-shattering alarm went off throughout the hall.

“The fuck?” muttered Fisher.

The prison levels were on complete lockdown. This was the roll call siren.

“It already got to the check-in station on level one? Why hasn’t Mitch reported anything?” yelled Fisher.

All the prison cell doors clicked at once before unlocking automatically. Each one flipped open simultaneously, and for a few seconds there was only the dead of silence. Kane drew his small handgun, keeping the cigar between his lips and exhaling through his nose. The murmurs started slowly, growing with intensity as the rats came crawling from their holes. This one sector alone had over 150 prisoners, let alone the whole of level two, against what little men they had here. Kane watched as Franco and Fisher went almost back-to-back as the scum began to gather together. The Commander remained stationary as he looked into the crowd of angry and dilated eyes.

“Mitch, where’s your party, I repeat, where’s your party?” he asked.

“Get back in your cells, NOW!!” Franco hollered, letting loose a burst of fire that set two prisoners ablaze.

Their screams instantly sent most back through the doorways of their burrows, but still some did not retreat. Franco began to move in. Fisher smiled, sticking close to his comrade. The screams of the two smoldering prisoners in the hallway echoed chillingly. Franco loved it, especially as the emergency sprinklers turned on.

Feeling the water run down his face and neck was soothing. He exhaled slowly, the stench of burnt human meat lessening. Without the churning smoke and roaring flames, Franco could clearly see the extent of the damage done to the two women. The looks on their faces was sickening, yet without the eyes, it somehow wasn’t as awful.

“Atta boy, Franco!” exclaimed Fisher. He stood directly over the bodies as the other soldier kept his focus on the cells before them.

“Eyes upfront, man, come on!” Franco yelled.

Interrupting their speculation, a hira-shuriken star sliced into the tank, penetrating its wall. Franco could smell the fuel as it ran down his back along with the water. Before they could even turn around, a burst of bullets tore into the damaged fuel cell, and the ensuing explosion consumed both soldiers.

Kane got down in a puddle on the floor and saw as Unit 21 appeared from around the corner. An M240 was in his hand. On his back and shoulders, he carried several large duffle bags. He stood as Will put the bags down. The cyborg dropped the gun at the sight of his Commander. Kane didn’t dare move at all, and lowered his weapon. He was surprised when he saw Will’s eyes.

Strangely, the pupils of his bloodshot eyes seemed to quiver as much as his knees. Kane had been anticipating a cold blank stare, but Will’s demeanor caught him off guard. On the very doorstep of death, and here he was, feeling of all things, guilt. He could see this fault in the cyborg solely because Will had hesitated at all. For once, it seemed as if the soldier hadn’t a clue what to do.

“I know why you’re doing this, Will. I know full well. But consider if this is really the solution. Is there any real point in this?”

As Unit 21 stood there in silence, another pair of eyes was observing the situation as well. The eyes belonged to a vigilant predator on the plain. The time to act was now. He knew fate would not grant him another grand opening. He saw his Commander in the line of fire but knew that sacrifice was all a part of the hunt. As he inched back behind the corner in the hallway, he held his breath. Fear weighed him down for a moment, but he snapped away from its clutches. He stepped from behind his cover, to see the cyborg’s eyes turn toward him. The machine’s focus was not on the man, but the weapon he held. The same was true of Kane, who had a look of sheer terror as he realized his own demise.

“Mitch, NO!!”

The soldier couldn’t discern which of the two men yelled out the request. His adrenaline was pumping, sharpening his focus on the prime directive to kill his target. Malice was his only yearning. The flames completely engulfed Kane, but the nimble cyborg leaped backward, taking cover behind an open cell door. His acute hearing ensured he heard every terrifying note of his superior officer’s screams, as well as those of the inmate of the cell itself.

Mitch began steadily working his way down the hall. The steam spouting from the burning bodies was only a slight hindrance. Mitch knew he was on the eve of the kill and guilt was no component of a driven warrior. He kept the jet of fire focused on the door, but he saw the obscure cyborg leap over the door, over the fire, and felt the floor tremble as it landed directly behind him. Mitch barely saw the flash of the glimmering sword, but definitely felt it cut into his wrists. The pain from the slit veins was unimaginable, although it lasted only briefly. Before he could even scream, Will ripped one of Mitch’s own grenades from his uniform, and shoved it into his mouth. He paused only for a few seconds, to leave a final impression on the man before hurling him into the cell and slamming the door shut. Will did not check to see if Kane had a chance. He only returned to his self-appointed mission.

***

“I don’t fucking believe it,” Jacob muttered. He embraced Halsey tightly, “I don’t fuckin’ believe it.”

Much had transpired in the past few minutes since the doors suddenly opened on prison level one and Halsey found himself outside of Cell No. 219 for the first time without a gun to his head. The already disposed of guards were a welcoming anomaly, and the gun in his hand an even better one. And yet here, on prison Level Three, seeing his friend was a miracle he could hardly believe was real.

“You’re looking like hell, Jacob,” Joseph said.

The soldier joined him in his laughter, although Halsey was emaciated and beaten beyond recognition. It infuriated Jacob to know that his brother had had to endure for so long. Never again, Joe, never again can I let them take you. Still, it was much better than the alternative he’d feared for so long, like so many others. They joined the large crowd of prisoners who were all circled around one object.

“Make way, move it!!” Jacob ordered as he and Halsey pushed through them all.

These men and women did not respond to his command. They only stared at him and the legend, Halsey, before continuing on their own way. Few were in worse condition than the once revered officer was, and many shoved past him so brutally he was damn near knocked to the ground. As he tried to regain his footing, he saw several prisoners running off with various guns. It was a chaotic herd if one could even call it that, of animals running toward a brought down beast. Halsey understood how this had come to pass, and he thought it went without saying. Jacob however, was enraged.

The idiots show no sense of respect for authority anymore, he thought, or reason. Stragglers and small packs would be picked off easily. After a short while, he gave up trying to reason with them, focusing instead on acquiring a gun. Wherever the men and women were acquiring the firearms, there appeared to be no shortage.

Before Jacob even got to the destination, a woman ran up to him. Gabby! The siblings said nothing as they embraced. Jacob rarely spoke to God, but in that moment he thanked Him for keeping his little sister safe.

“Gabby?”

She turned to see Halsey, tears welling up immediately. The woman hugged him next.

“My God, Joe,” she whispered, “I thought he’d lied.”

“Easy, easy, and who would this be anyway?” Halsey said smoothly. When she only held onto him a bit longer, without saying a word, Halsey understood just who she meant.

Jacob returned to the situation and rushed to the center of the swelling mass. Halsey and Gabby followed suit. Getting there was no easy task. The name Neeson or their ranks currently held no weight with this mob. Still, they eventually made it to the center of the pandemonium. It was surprising enough to see Alex there distributing the weapons, but even more so to see who stood next to him helping with the task. Jacob tightened his grip on the gun and held it close. Among all the murmuring, the siblings stood in silent awe. The cyborg looked at them both then threw the empty-handed Gabby an MP5SD3 submachine gun.

“What is this?” Jacob said angrily, “What the fuck is this supposed to be?”

Will went back to handing out the guns.

“If you prefer your cell, please, return to it.”

To Jacob’s shock, Halsey walked right up to the cyborg.

“You happen to have a Bushmaster ACR down in there somewhere? I’m sure I can handle it.”

Will handed him one, looking at the puny soldier before him. The man shoved another smaller gun into his pants gently. The cyborg made his assertion.

“You knew. Always did. You knew them.”

“Yes, yes I did. Will, our paths did not cross until they were already gone, and for that I am sorry. More than I can probably convince you. I will do all that I can to make it up to you.”

“Agreed, but now it’s time for us to leave. We need to get to the choppers on the roof, and we have to be quick.”

“We’ll be boxed in by soldiers from both the upper and lower levels,” Halsey said, “Seems costly.”

“I will clear a path to the roof. I cannot protect all of you and Weapons Department II had sparse pickings. We’ll need to stop at Weapon Department III if all of you plan to make it.”

“Where’s my father?” Gabby suddenly asked. Jacob looked up from loading his weapon, his eyes shifting to the cyborg immediately.

“I don’t know. He was not in his cell. But we have to leave now.”

“Fuck that! We are not leaving without him!” she said sternly. Jacob strangely said nothing and only looked away. The cyborg balled his fist.

“Then you stay and look for him. What you see happening around you now was for my family, not for you! Your father was worried that the shock of the truth would drive me mad, or maybe he truly is no better than Venloran! Either way you followed his lead and lied to my fucking face!”

Gabby balled her fist as well.

“My father was going to tell you. He had a plan!”

Alex and Jacob watched in silence. The bag was finally empty, and the remaining prisoners either ran off unarmed or watched the confrontation in silence. The stare-down between Will and the daughter of Neeson was at a standstill. Halsey let it sink in and though he had not been a part of this plan, he saw the sequence of events clearly.

“Gabby” Halsey said, “We have to go while we still can. He would understand. Otherwise we all die.”

Gabby swallowed her spite and nodded weakly.

“I know. I know.”

Everyone began to move, but Halsey felt a heavy heart to see that the majority chose not to follow the cyborg. Many were still unarmed as well, seeing as Will couldn’t possibly have brought enough armory for all the several hundred inmates.

“They must find their own ways out,” Jacob suggested, watching them go as well.

“Yeah, naturally, some will. When a pack of wolves feed on a flock of sheep, despite the slaughter, there are always more that live on.”

Halsey assumed many among them would die and few would even come close to escape. All they could really do was hope that the super soldier would be able to plow his way through the many opponents above them. Having more weapons would definitely help. Halsey wiped the sweat off his forehead as they entered the stairwell, Will in the lead. Gunfire began to ring out, along with screams, very much like the chaos of any battlefield in history. He mused that they might very well all die. So be it.

Chapter 25 – Immolation Galore

[_ April 17, 2065- UNR Headquarters _]

Major Johnson stepped into the room, the armed guards, and Unit 23 saluting him. He saw the Chancellor at his desk and found himself hesitant.

“What’s the latest report, Major?” Venloran demanded.

The soldiers in the room remained focused, eyes on the door and minds on their posts. The same went for the cyborg. No one was looking in his direction at all. Johnson didn’t believe it though. He knew they were anxiously awaiting the news he had brought. Kearney was looking frantic just from the anticipation of it.

“Chancellor, Unit 21 has released all prisoners on all three floors of the Detention Center. This facility is compromised, sir.”

“Damn it, why in the hell would it do that?!” he yelled, his skin turning red in his rage.

“Sir, I recommend evacuation, at least of all non-military personnel,” Kearney said in a shaken voice.

“We will not lose HQ. I will not allow it!” Venloran retorted. He thought of the precious and all omnipotent watchtower, and all those who looked up to it. For the public to see their protectors fleeing from it would be disastrous.

“Where is Unit 21, exactly?” Venloran said, trying his best to reclaim his composure. The lights flickered for a moment and continued to do so.

“Latest reports indicate the stairwell, but we’ve lost all surveillance feeds,” Johnson stated, as they were suddenly plunged into darkness. With the darkness came a ghastly silence. For that instance, every being in the room but one was plunged full throttle into a cold fear. The light switched back on seconds later, yet the fear remained.

“I also have reports of multiple hostage situations on the lower levels. The inmates are weak, but they’re great in number and desperate. It appears many have gotten their hands on firearms. Casualties are currently unknown but are estimated to be well over a hundred.”

“Where’s Unit 18?” Venloran asked.

“We don’t know. We’ve lost contact with it.”

Venloran sat back in his chair, looking at the blackened telescreens. He then stared at Unit 23, whose emerald eyes were locked on the door. Not a hair out of place, not a drop of sweat, and a face so placid it frightened him. He stood up out of his seat.

“Tell your men to hold their ground. No one leaves their position, no one. Send out the order that hostages are expendable.”

“Sir!” argued Johnson. The weight of that order was too much, the mighty officer now feeling weak with nausea.

“I will have no prisoners escaping, at any cost,” Venloran declared. He did his best to hide his own disgust, but he only partly succeeded.

“If we let them barter their way out, those convicts will be on the street with the civilians. It will be a massacre!”

“Venloran…I understand,” Johnson said. He quickly gathered himself. He held back the tears.

“Prepare my transport. Unit 23 will join the assault once I take off.”

“Yes, Chancellor, I’ll send word.”

Johnson was remorseful, knowing Venloran would request that he leave with him. He would not be there with the soldiers under his command. Would not see their distressed faces twitch at the heinous order they had on their shoulders. He knew it was unmistakable defiance, but he only hoped some would find a reason within themselves and not go through with it. Kearney approached him now and he could only imagine what he would say.

“Major, understand, they are fulfilling their duty to the highest degree. This atrocity will be their moment of triumph. We will express our gratitude when they are honored.”

Johnson nodded, somewhat consoled. The only thing Venloran wanted were the psyche profiles on the cyborgs, all three of them. He locked them away in a small black suitcase. Valerie watched as he did, her eyes following the paperwork as it was shuffled together and the case snapped shut. The Chancellor handed it to Kearney as he stood.

The Major put a hand on Valerie’s shoulder. It snapped her back to attention.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Yes, sir. I recommend the stairwell. We can’t be sure of the elevators. They may malfunction, or contain an ambush. The uppermost floor will lead us through the Honor Hall where none of the prisoners have made it yet.”

“Good, now lead the way.”

Her trusty M-16 was at the ready. Chancellor Venloran and Major Johnson both cocked their Berettas. It’d been a long time since either had had to hold a firearm, but they both welcomed it. Kearney, with only the suitcase in hand, was an image of pathetic terror. Valerie eyed him closely.

“I do have a spare pistol, sir,” she recommended, reaching for it.

“No, no, I’m fine.” he reassured her.

Everyone stared at him for a few seconds before turning back toward the door. Val opened it and spotted a small band of prisoners down the hall. While the majority of them had only small firearms, a few carried M-16s just like her. One wore the helmet of a UNR officer, a bloodstained handprint on it for kicks. He let out an odd yell, and even more scum showed up from around the corner of the corridor. Some were coming at them with daggers and batons, like raging mad animals that were beyond rational thought. Venloran felt rage pumping through his veins. He let loose the first shots, neatly cutting down the first wave of barbarians.

Despite being a general and now a politician, he still had the fighting spirit of an infantryman. Val admired that. She and her trio of troops immediately opened fire as well, turning the white walls into a bloody mess. Their efficiency caught the sloppy prisoners were caught off guard, especially with Unit 23 on point. After just a few minutes, the so-called contingent was in shambles. Many gave up their posts and ran down the alternate hallway.

“You fucking cowards!! The Chancellor’s right here!! Right here!” screamed the one wearing the helmet. He hurled one of the blood-spattered medals he’d taken off the officer at the fleeing bastards. They paid him no mind.

“Fuck you!!” he yelled.

As he turned his attention back to the firefight, the last of his makeshift underlings hit the floor, dead. Val walked right up to him, calmly. He tried to fire his weapon, but the clip only clicked. He backed up to run himself, but his back hit the wall. The scoundrel would’ve made a run for it, but the cyborg’s fellow soldiers instantly covered the corners, raining fire on the ones who had already abandoned him. Looking for possible get-a-ways, he realized there wasn’t one. And now, for the coup de grace, Val was only six inches from his face.

The immediate area was at last secured. She reached out with one arm slowly, and the soldier flinched. Val couldn’t help but smile. She removed the helmet from his greasy looking hair, placing it upside down on the floor gently. After that, the cyborg carefully removed each medal from the prisoner’s uniform, placing them in the helmet. The others were up ahead now waiting on her, but she had one thing left to do.

Val raised her weapon and smashed the butt of her gun into the center of the man’s face. Blood and bits of flesh flew everywhere, and his legs trembled only briefly before the body joined the others on the floor. That finished, she once again took the lead, not minding the blood on her face. She would clean it off only after the Chancellor was secured. The super soldier turned to face Kearney before continuing their trek.

“Be sure to keep your head down, sir.”

***

Will put up his hand for the men and women behind him to halt. He knew the infrastructure of HQ from top to bottom, and once through this hall, the path would lead into the enormous Recreation Chamber. Right past that was Weapon Department III, but it was damn obvious that a massive counter-strike force was awaiting them. He put his bloody sword away and set down the duffle bag. He scanned the dark hallway slowly. The cyborg looked back at the very large group. The few carrying weapons had taken positions around the vastly more numerous unarmed.

He informed them that apart from the Chancellor’s UNR Cruiser, there were only three other cargo choppers on the roof. It wouldn’t matter though, because once they got to the Weapons Department, the prisoners would once again become soldiers and fight their way out. Many would die, but many would escape. Aside from that, it was better to be shot than to rot away in a cell. Halsey was a captain, one of the highest-ranking men among the prisoners, but they all possessed that same mentality. Will was a deity among mortals, but he could still gather that much.

Halsey stood next to the cyborg.

“When do we engage?”

“Is that an attempt to amuse me?” he scoffed, “your forces would be demolished. Just hold this position until I give the all-clear.”

Will was talking, but he wasn’t looking at Halsey. His eyes were scanning for thermal images in the next room. He spotted several, and it was at this point it hit him.

“Get down now!!”

A bullet flew through the wooden doors and struck a female prisoner right in the forehead. Halsey felt bits of flesh fly onto his cheek before he hit the floor. Gabby held her weapon close to her but a second crack of thunder went off, and she felt warm blood in her hair. For an instant, she believed the bullet had struck her skull, but as the body of a prisoner dropped next to her, she let that foolish notion go.

He’d taken a shot to the chest, and the fifty caliber round had gone clean through. There were several more shots fired and several more were hit. Will looked back at the group quickly assessing seven had been shot and killed. It was the clean work of snipers with thermal scopes, although he wasn’t sure how many. He unzipped the duffle bag just as two canisters fired through the gaping holes in the wooden doors. Gas began to pour out of them.

“We’re pulling back!” yelled Jacob. Many had already fled just as Will picked up the weapon he knew was finally necessary. Jacob had never seen such a monstrosity, none of them had.

Unit 21 kicked down the weakened doors, which shattered on contact. As he stepped out of the tear gas unharmed, every UNR soldier in the room recognized it: the AH-AW 67. Will had only a second or two to scan the large room. The Recreation Chamber was a vast place, one room he’d rarely visited in his time here. Within his database, however, he retained the schematics of every room, right down to the floorboards. The room was only dimly lit with emergency lights, not to mention the telescreen, which flashed system error, repeatedly.

Will admired the boldness of the major’s counter-strike. Over eighty troops formed a first offensive line, mostly armed with M-16s. Hiding in-between the aisles of the library was a second wave, although he wasn’t quite sure what they had in store for him. On the upper floor of the library were fifteen snipers, from what he could see with his vantage point. It wasn’t improbable that a fourth wave was hidden among the aisles of the second level. He’d always savored the fury of battle, something he had long ago admitted to himself. This time was different, however. He knew these faces. He’d fought with them before as allies. The M27 link of ammunition was draped over his shoulders. The gigantic weapon hummed as it started up. Neoartium plates protected the vital points from incoming bullets, making it incredibly sturdy. Altogether, it weighed over three hundred pounds.

One of the bullets struck Will’s left pectoral armor plate. Will pressed down on the trigger and from the multiple barrels came forth a torrent of death. The soldiers on the front line were torn to shreds by the barrage of bullets. Whole limbs were blown off as body armor was pierced. Many were killed, but many tried to take cover. His killer instincts directed him to target the runners, and soon enough their blood gathered on the white carpet. The AH-AW-67 was a brute’s weapon and virtually unstoppable head-on in close quarters like this. His enemies were less than thirty yards away. Perfection. Over half of the front line was in pieces and Will walked through piles of mutilated bodies.

He felt several bullets strike his armor, blasting holes in his overcoat. The humongous gun slowed him down considerably, but nonetheless, it was getting the job done so far. Will felt several shots pass through his hair and strike the skull, drawing blood. He turned toward the bar, seeing several troops taking refuge behind the counter. One was armed with a Milkor MGL, locked, and loaded. The 40mm grenade might damage the AH-AW, so the soldier fired on them before they got that chance. The wooden counter with its luscious marble top was utterly decimated, among the shreds of debris remained chunks of what used to be men and women. The shattered bottles of various alcohols mixed with the puddles of blood.

Pool tables were turned on their sides into makeshift shields, but they lasted no longer than anything else did. The soldiers behind them felt the bits of wood in their eyes before the bullets even hit. The cyborg turned his attention toward the lower level of the library. What was left of the primary wave had retreated between the aisles, or to the upper level. He decided to clean out the lower one first.

The tall shelves of literature were not adequate shelter. In this battle no place was truly safe. Bits of wood flew everywhere, paper gently floating through the air as if it were snow. One soldier tripped over the body of another, finding the snout of his weapon only inches from his chest. Within seconds, it was impossible to recognize the man. More than two-thirds of the library was already gone, leaving almost no room to hide at all. Only ten or so UNR soldiers remained, with only two aisles to cower behind. After the shelves were obliterated, their backs would be against the wall. Will couldn’t hear much over the roar of the colossal arsenal he held, but he did feel the fifty-caliber sniper round strike right under his left eye.

The shot drew blood as a giant gash formed. The blow also exposed the neoartium. There was a sensation of pain, but Will had been trained not to allow pain to interfere with his work. Trained by Kane, in fact. Instead, he did what Kane always hammered into him: assess the situation.

He looked past the chestnut railway of the upper level to spot the snipers.

“Good shooting, kid, just about an inch off the mark. Remember, his eyes are our only chance,” instructed Hans calmly.

Cisco only nodded, his face giving no indication of emotion. He intensified his focus, increasing the magnification so as to bring a halt to the slaughter below. The young soldier reloaded his gun, as Hans and the other far-range shooters fired on their target. A few rounds struck the big gun, but without consequence. Its defenses were astounding.

Will aimed his weapon upwards and the storm of bullets came at Cisco and the others. At such an angle, the recoil even made his arms tremble, but he held it steady.

Instantly many of the snipers were killed. Cisco was on his stomach along with Hans, but he rolled away quickly as blood began to shower down on his head. Will watched, as much of the crimson liquid dripped over the edge in a short-lived waterfall. When Cisco opened his eyes, he saw he was surrounded by fresh corpses. The railway was nothing more than splinters. One soldier was still breathing, cursing in fact. Cisco crawled over to him, only to realize the man’s left arm was gone past the elbow. He couldn’t bring himself to search for it, among the bodies. He held down the vomit he felt in his throat and ignored the man’s calls, crawling back to Hans. He’d given his best, he’d shown no fear, but at this point logic screamed for them to retreat. Cisco grabbed him by his shoulder.

“Hans, come on, let’s fall back with the others!”

He quickly let the guilt fade seeing as those that made it through the battle had run off to the aisles of the library. Those who tried to pull the wounded to safety were sent to the next world hand in hand. The few who’d been firing from the stairway ran past Cisco and Hans without a second look.

“Hans…”

Cisco saw now that his comrade lacked a head or most of one. He felt tears building, not sure how to react. He remained by Hans’ fallen form, realizing he was smothered in a pool of blood, an aggregation of the mixed remains of the many fallen warriors.

Will suddenly came to grips with the fact that he’d become too preoccupied with the upper floor. Before he could turn his attack back to the soldiers only a few feet away from him, a launched grenade hit the AH-AW in the rotating barrels. The explosion knocked Will on his back, but he instantly jumped back to his feet. The heavy machine gun fell in the massive carnage it had created. Will did not go back for his gun but ran at the soldiers.

A direct hit to the firing mechanism ensured the AH-AW was of no use. The first soldier held an M4 Carbine assault rifle, a weapon Will didn’t particularly like. Before the troop could land a bead on him, the cyborg delivered a fatal head-butt. The super soldier saw what he wanted in the hands of the soldier closest to him, an M4 Super 90 shotgun. A simple elbow to the man’s neck was the only skirmish before making the weapon his, and a succession of shots took care of what was left of the battalion. Will wasted no time and leaped up to the upper floor. His boots splashed in the immolation beneath him.

Cisco was still on his knees as a soldier came at the cyborg with an M249 SAW. The sound of buckshot boomed in the air. Another body hit the floor as Will threw the empty shotgun. He picked up the SAW, and judging from the weight knew it was near empty. In fact, the next target would be the last to feel bullets. The rest would fall by his saber.

Will pointed the gun at young Aguilar, who put his hands into the air. The boy’s face was one that would not be easy to erase, in all likelihood impossible. The gunman refused to express this tension as he stepped ever closer.

Cisco tensed as he remembered the doctrine passed down from father to son, from just about every teacher he’d ever had in his life: the cyborgs spare no soldier unless under orders to do so. In that field of mutilation all around him, filled with screams, tears, and more blood than he had ever envisioned, Aguilar stood straight as his arms began to lower. He bowed his head toward Hans. It was a pleasure serving with you, si–

Will fired a trio of shots into the soldier’s chest who fell silently next to Hans.

***

Dr. Neeson felt his wrists being bound tightly by a coarse rope, causing his aged joints to ache. Due to the thick blindfold, he could not see the noose as it was lowered around his head, but he felt it tighten around his neck, a slight tug, securing its hold on his throat. Each exhale made it harder to catch another breath and his inhales began to shrink. He was helped off his knees to his feet. As his wrists burned, he was turned around and he felt his back against a cold surface. He could hear the sound of another pair of lighter footsteps.

There were two people standing in front of him now, he could feel it. He felt calm, no chill along his spine.

“Do you have any last words?” asked a female voice.

“Only that I love my children and am ready to join my wife.”

“Is that all?” said the other voice,” that can’t be all. Here you are on the verge of leaving this earth forever and that’s all you have to say?”

“My legacy is one of shame. I’m happy to finally be free of it.”

“Fucking beautiful, Doctor,” the male voice spoke again, “it’s tragic that only a few days ago I pondered what a miraculous man you were, a god by all means. Now that I hear your pathetic eulogy, it’s no surprise you chose to run and betray the UNR. Your sense of morality sickens me.”

Dr. Neeson’s eyes stung slightly from the removal of his blindfold. The lights in the room were dimmed, down to the point he couldn’t make out the objects three feet ahead of him. As his eyes adjusted, he confirmed his suspicions. He knew those voices, he knew the faces looking at him, and he knew that at the very least, the one smiling at him madly knew the truth. The other simply stood there with beautiful eyes that conveyed nothing.

“We are free of the vulnerabilities, temptations, and cowardice of men. We are the sentries of the new Eden, which pitiful men like you think is perverse. You won’t be forgotten, Dr. Neeson.”

***

“All Clear! Move Up!” called the cold voice.

The cowering prisoners all looked up and slowly entered the room. From the cramped quarters of the hall, they stepped into the vast Recreation Chamber. What they saw left them all disturbed.

Covering the floor was a sea of bodies and bullet casings. The carpet was drenched from the fruit of the battle. Each footstep felt as if one was stomping through a puddle after the rain of a storm. Nothing in the room was left standing, object, or person. Two men led the group up the dual staircase at the far end of the room. On every step lay soldiers whose armor had not saved them from death. Their collective blood seeped down each step in a series of waterfalls.

Gabriella had never seen anything like it and yet it was impossible to look away from the carnage. She was surrounded by corpses that continued to stare at her as she walked past them. Hundreds of sheets of paper from shredded books covered much of the room and still more floated around like leaves. When they finally reached the floor, they too were soaked in crimson. The walls appeared as if clouds had gathered and drizzled blood against them. She wondered how beautiful the majestic room had been and yet now all she could gather was nausea. Her stomach snarled at her, but Alex vomited first.

She felt a cold presence upon her and looked up at where a small lounge must have once stood. The couches were blown to shreds and doused with splotches of red. Standing there, overlooking the massacre was a sick perversion of a guardian angel. He used a snow-white handkerchief to wipe away the crimson from his elegant sword. Once the task was done, he slid the blade back into the sheath, which hung on his hip.

The old warrior’s eyes were lifeless. He stood there above them all at the top of the dual staircase, peering all around the room. It reminded Gabriella of the fabled Valkyries. Soldiers both young and old, veteran and novice, men and women, all united in their death by his hands.

Above him was an eloquent mural upon the ceiling thirty feet above them. It was a huge portrait of a cityscape with Chancellor Venloran‘s face lightly etched into the center of it all. Instead of a scenic depiction of sky and clouds in the background, the UNR flag flapped behind the skyline.

In one brief instant, the two locked eyes. Before now, it had all been rumors and old myths. His prowess in combat was said to be exceptional, and while Gabriella believed it, she had never considered the weight behind such a power. She recounted the words of her father and Halsey. They had spoken of fields of bodies spanning for miles, all felled by a handful of the elite. The Elite 144, 000. She’d always assumed it was all an exaggeration, stories meant to frighten children and galvanize the rest. But now she stood in one of those fields herself. The Wolf, The Grim Reaper, those weren’t just flashy self-given titles. They were monikers of the past come back to life. Gabriella felt more shaken than comforted and looked away.

Chapter 26 – Bravo

[_ April 17, 2065- UNR Headquarters _]

The large troop diminished vastly after leaving Weapons Department III. The group now consisted of about thirty-three men and women, as well as one cyborg. Now walking into the Honor Hall, they were close to the final exodus. The majestic foyer’s beauty was shrouded in the dim light of the area. Halsey would have never thought that such a magnificent room could be a part of the infrastructure of this hell. The enormous pillars made it seem as if they were trudging through an interminable forest. But he soon found himself in denial of that beauty. Up ahead was such a travesty he could hardly look, and yet he’d been sickeningly expecting something like it. His first instinct was to look at Jacob, whose was quivering but had remained put. He looked over at Gabby, and her tears were already streaming. Halsey had much to take in.

His pessimism was now merely realism. Right now, he had to accept two hard facts: one, an attack was inevitable, and two, that he would not be able to stop Gabby if she gave into her emotions. If she gave into those emotions, she would breathe her last breath. Perhaps it was not his place. His heart pounded. The final obstacle and I don’t think we’re going to get over it.

Will himself could not believe it. Dr. Neeson was dangling less than a yard above the floor, from the arm of the statue of the Chancellor. His hands were bound, and a noose was gagging him. Even from his position, the cyborg could see the bloodshot eyes and the markings on the man’s neck.

It was certainly unorthodox, yet definitely objective. Will knew, because he could tell, just as he knew the soldiers behind him could, that Neeson was still alive. He couldn’t even mouth a word, but his lungs pressed on. Jacob was in control and cautious and remained put. Will respected that. For once, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the man’s actions. Normally Jacob was quite predictable, but this was willpower of a kind he hadn’t seen before. Was it an irregularity or extreme discipline? The cyborg saw the Doctor shaking his head as much as he could muster and he suddenly remembered Gabby. Damn it.

She took off into a full run for her father.

“Gabby, hold it!!” Jacob yelled, trying his hardest to turn his sorrow into rage.

It only half-worked and in his misery, he fought himself not to join her. Halsey also yelled, but she threw both of their orders aside without hesitation. The vehemence in the air was obvious, but the others also held their ground. Surprisingly, they saw Will run after her, but no one saw what Will spotted: a sharpshooter atop the statue’s shoulder. Will tackled her just as shots rang out from the darkness on the left flank, hitting several soldiers.

The sharpshooter also joined in, scoring several hits with ease. The reaction was immediate, though few shots were aimed at the assailant on the statue, due to his close proximity to Neeson. Instead, most retreated into the shadows of the pillars opposite. Explosions went off in the darkness and Jacob knew it was claymores. For many it was too late. In the few seconds their father had re-entered their lives, it had become utter chaos.

Will felt like an utter jackass for not realizing the situation sooner. In those few seconds of rampant fire, only a single bullet had struck anywhere near Gabby. While Dr. Neeson’s captivity was conceivable, it had some purpose beyond a simple trap. He rose to his feet just as the shots ceased, not even bothering to look back at the soldiers. He now fully grasped what he was up against and he accepted that it was very likely none of the mortals would make it out alive. Holding his PSD rifle, he waited for whatever might come next.

Gabby slowly rose to her feet, quiet now. She looked behind her to see the many dead. As their blood gathered together into a single pool, she cursed herself. She thankfully saw that Halsey had not been among those hit, but Jacob was attending to Alex. The blood of others was sprinkled on her dear friend, but he seemed fine.

“Oh, God, FUCK! FUCK!” Alex sobbed.

As she stepped closer, Gabby saw that one of his legs was shredded up to the knee from an explosion. He was shouting and cursing more violently than Gabby had ever heard him. She rushed to his side, not sure what to say. No one was.

“Oh, damn,” a voice echoed throughout the chamber, “you got to admit that’s a hell of a start.”

It was just as Will feared. He watched as Luis leaped down from the shoulder of Venloran’s statue, a twenty-foot drop. Of course, the cyborg landed on his feet, cracking the delicate marble floor. He casually reloaded his M249 SAW.

“Now if I were you guys, I’d stay put and pay attention.”

Luis admired his own handiwork and that of his partner, spotting only about twelve targets remaining. He saw the one who’d had the sad luck of not being killed by the claymore. His yelping was reminiscent of a dog that needed to be put down. In due time, he told himself, though his face still glowed with excitement. The lights far above them somewhat brightened and out stepped Valerie. She held her M-16, but she was silent.

Will tried to rationalize the mess they were in. It was clear that somewhere along the line, both Luis and Val had disobeyed their orders. There was no other possible reason to explain why Venloran would hurl waves of UNR soldiers at him knowing full well they’d only end up in pieces. Yet it was also apparent that it wasn’t rage driving the two. Still, something about Luis seemed off. Their actions hardly seemed visceral but somewhat illogical. Or perhaps, it was just that Will hadn’t figured it out yet.

“It’s obvious that this wasn’t part of any organized formal attack plan. Otherwise they’d all be dead by now.” Will reasoned, and he took it a step further, “Has Venloran given you reason for your faith to be shaken?”

“Faith?” Luis laughed, “I only believe in reality, and don’t worry, our loyalty is quite intact. You’re somewhat correct though. While this is not a strictly by-the-book operation, the end game still concerns you.”

“If that’s the case, then let them go. They’re insignificant.”

Luis kept that smug smile on his face, raising an eyebrow.

“Now that’s a damn lie. Insignificant to me yes, but to you, apparently not. However, I did have something in mind for all of you and thankfully, you played right into it. If you want them to live I only want one thing,” Luis pointed behind him at Dr. Neeson.

“Amuse me.”

Valerie stared at Luis with a look of bewilderment. He can’t be serious. Her magazine was still half-full and was more than enough to finish the job. Will was caught completely off guard by the request.

“Don’t do it, please,” said a quiet voice. Will turned to see Gabby staring directly into his eyes. “I’m begging you.”

He immediately looked away, knowing better. He had to be objective, but in a way that’d negate the whole reasoning of why he stood here now. Dr. Neeson had been kind-hearted to him and had been the sole savior of his life. Thanks to him, the truth had been revealed to the soldier when no one else could provide answers. That was an invaluable gift, one he could never forsake, but he had also lied. They all had except for maybe Halsey. In order to do their dirty work, they had fed him pure treachery. They had dangled the shadow of ghosts in front of him, and Will had followed like a fool. He felt a tinge of anger.

“Come on, all I ask in exchange for their pathetic lives is that you show our dear father mercy. Don’t let him just hang there and die slowly,” Luis taunted.

Will realized this was not the same Luis he’d known before his capture. This one was driven by some inner inclination of vengeance or insanity. He could see it in the way his pupils trembled. Inside him was not malice of purpose, but of pure desire. It would be impossible to reason with him. He instead thought about what Neeson wanted, and what both Val and Luis wanted. Both of them had their fingers steady on the trigger of their weapons and were ready to slaughter the man’s children before his very eyes. I played right into it. Will felt his palms sweat uncontrollably. It was a feeling he hadn’t felt in a long, long time. I ask now that I hope you forgive me.

Val noticed Will’s eyes glistening. She almost felt pity, but the torture was self-inflicted. Gabby still stood right behind Will, placing a gentle hand on his arm toting the gun.

“You don’t have to do anything.”

Jacob still was on his knees next to Alex, who held onto his hand tightly. Though his breaths were ragged, his pain unimaginable, his eyes were also veering in that direction. Jacob watched on as if he were a helpless child. He’d accepted what Gabby kept trying to deny, that either way, they had no say in the matter, no power at all. His life, her own, their father’s, it was all in the hands of these gods now. To deny it was pure naivety.

Will looked at Gabby again, this time not looking away. Her eyes were a mirror image of her father’s. He realized something in those eyes: what it meant to be a father, to an extent. It was painfully undeniable that he could no longer grasp the full significance of having a child, not now, but Neeson had provided yet another gift to him. A glimpse of the beauty of fatherhood, and also the strength it took.

Still quite ambiguous, but determined, Will raised the rifle.

“Will!” Gabby yelled.

Luis’ eyes lit up. Will only needed one final push. He blotted out everything else: Gabby’s intense yelling, the smell of burnt flesh, the murmurs of the frightened, and the entire distorted environment. He even removed Luis from his line of sight, so as only to see his friend and father. In the end, it was Gabby’s voice that provided that final push–I’m not sure he’ll recover this time.

One shot to the chest was all it took. Luis didn’t even bother to turn and take pleasure in the death of Dr. Neeson. He instead focused on the expression of the people before him. Still, the cyborg could hear the old man’s final ragged breaths, until his body finally gave out. This was too perfect, indeed, just as he had envisioned. He clapped in appreciation.

“Bravo.”

Gabby slapped Will hard repeatedly. He could hardly feel the physical blows, it was the inside that was suffering. He took every curse, every blow as if a bullet to the eye. It was Halsey who finally pulled her off, her curses still ringing in his ears. Will could not bear to look her in the face, or any of them. Still, he saw Luis’ grip on the trigger relax. He was at the very least, a man of his word. Halsey struggled to control the woman, but he was able to force her to move forward. Jacob and Patrick helped Alex up and headed away from the bodies.

Will drowned everything else out, focusing on Neeson’s perfectly still corpse. A stain of blood grew around the entry wound.

Luis held out one arm, pointing in the direction of the exit doorway. He threw the daughter a brief smile, finding her rage amusing. The now orphaned son is not as fun, Luis thought, before returning his eyes to Will. He waited until everyone left, until finally, it was just the three of them. The gods, free of the distractions of the mortals. Will readied himself for engagement. There was only one way he could take victory, the other weapon he’d been saving. Even so, he was taking an enormous gamble. He figured in all reality he would die. Luis began walking toward him, as did Val. “Our battle is at last at hand. You will be the greatest opponent I have ever faced. After you, life once again becomes dull.”

Chapter 27 – Resting Place

[_ April 17, 2065- UNR Headquarters _]

Valerie watched as the last of the filth slipped away. The vein on her forehead was bulging. Luis was alert to this even as he focused on Will.

“Humans are easy to understand, Val. I let them go because they will refuse to leave without the newest and most valuable member of their team.”

Val’s eyes widened upon hearing that, finally bringing her attention back to Luis.

“Quite a gamble don’t you think? What if they get desperate enough to leave?”

Luis shook his head.

“Halsey and Unit 21 are connected, even if by only the faintest of ties. If no one else, he’ll refuse retreat under any circumstance.”

This seemed to be enough to convince Unit 23, who now joined her partner in their advance. Will watched as they began to close in. He wasn’t sure how to lead, and probably wouldn’t be able to do so. For once in a fight, he found himself taking a step back. On either front, the bullets had little chance of being the killing blow. At best, they could only slow the combatants down. The cyborgs each knew the objective was to get in close. It was the only way to inflict serious damage. Valerie was coming in on his left even more quickly than Luis.

“Val, I know everything now. We have no reason to serve Venloran.”

Her face wasn’t very responsive. She had only one thing to say, “Will, enough.”

“All of the questions you’ve ever wondered, I can offer at least some of the answers.”

“Is this the legendary Wolf from the gore days?” interrupted Luis, “the mistake you make is that you think you’ve been reborn, enlightened. You’ve chosen faith over logic.”

“Not quite, but it seems I’ve been offered nothing else.”

Will opened fire on Luis first, aiming at his SAW specifically. Naturally, he was no slouch, running forward and allowing his arm to take the brunt of the fire. Val fired in return, and her hawk eyes tore Will’s weapon apart. Damn it…Will drew two nine-millimeter handguns. He rolled to take cover behind a large pillar, but instantly leaped away from it. The explosion of a claymore followed shortly after, and for what it was worth, the bodies of the dead soaked up most of the shrapnel.

Still, the force of the explosive going off knocked Will to his knees briefly. A corpse flew over his head, with dust rising as well. The cyborg fired off a few rounds, enough to empty the clips of both guns. One bullet struck right above Valerie’s left eye, but Luis evaded the shots. At the same time, his SAW also went dry. Will took his chance.

As Luis began to reload, Will discarded the handguns altogether. He ran at his target without drawing his sword either, hoping he’d timed it right. Val aimed her M-16 and Will knew she intended to use the grenade launcher. As she took aim, some of her blood dripped onto her eye, causing her to blink. Regardless she fired.

Will leaped up, drew out a single hira-shuriken star, and hurled it at Luis. Just as soon as the cyborg aimed his reloaded SAW at Will, the tiny star flew into the opening of the gun. Will’s weapon shredded into Luis’ barrel, just as he pulled the trigger. The SAW blew itself apart and fragments of the gun hit Luis in his face.

Simultaneously, the grenade exploded against a pillar. Chunks of it flew through the air, but it held steady. All of Will’s calculations had held up nicely.

Will landed on his feet, kicking Luis directly in his face. The blow sent the cyborg on his back, and he actually slid a distance on the smooth marble. Will turned toward Val, his sword drawn. Swiftly, he cleaved her weapon in two, but she landed a kick in Will’s gut. The blow knocked the wind out of him and sent him reeling.

Val quickly drew her swords as well. Before Will could even engage, he felt something slash into his back. Unit 21 pulled away from both of them, to see Luis touting his crimson-tinged sword, blood dripping onto the floor. His own nose was bleeding, which he wiped away with his sleeve.

“I owed you that,” Luis joked. Will could feel the warm fluid running down his back. His old pal could have swung harder, used the sword to cut into his vital innards, but that wasn’t Luis’ style. Especially when the victim was one of a kind.

Luis then took off his coat. He, like Valerie, drew both swords. She followed suit and removed her jacket. Val saw Unit 18’s glare and knew it was directed at her. He actually intends to go through with it. She was at the ready, but Val allowed Luis to have his wish. He went in fast, swinging his swords in a pincer movement, aimed at Will’s neck. With only one sword, all Will could do was leap backward to avoid being beheaded. He could hear the blades slice through the air as he landed nimbly.

Luis was just as agile and was on Will in a flash. He was able to block Luis’ left sword and the clang of the metal unleashed a dazzle of sparks. The right sword found its way into Will’s boot. The blade slid deep like a warm knife through margarine. Blood spurted as Will crumpled to one knee.

The sword’s edge had cut into the circuitry of his foot. Not a second after the blow to his foot, Will delivered a head-butt to Luis, directly to his nose, once more. He stumbled and Will took the moment to pull the other sword from his foot. Now armed with two blades, he took the offensive. Before Luis could regain his senses, his adversary’s boot hit his temple. The kick was enough to get Unit 18 to fall.

Luis fell hard, slamming into the marble floor and causing it to crack upon impact. Will leaped up and brought both his boots down on Luis’ head. Even with all of Will’s weight, the neoartium did not so much as dent. Still, the marble around Luis’ head had been demolished.

In that moment Will could have finished Luis off for good, but for once in a fight, he was not aiming to kill. Will did not observe him for long and left Luis on the floor in shock.

From his position on the ground, Luis’ HUD blurred and scrambled. You goddamned coward. Despite the possible internal damage, all he felt was rage.

Time to cut the shit. Val rushed in, Will meeting her blow for blow, strike for strike. She was somewhat surprised. This time around, Will’s fighting style was much more aggressive than their first sparring match. Still, this only clashed with her already head-on approach. Both were able to hold their ground quite well.

Will leaped over Unit 23 and swung down at her in mid-air. She was far too fast though, and the blade just barely grazed her shoulder. As he landed behind Valerie, his left leg buckled slightly. The injury to his foot was worse than he’d previously assumed. That small instant of imbalance was the perfect opening for his opponent. She tried to gut him, and Will sloppily dodged to his right.

The sword cut neatly into his coat, leaving a large tear. Will was fortunate though to avoid suffering any damage himself. Still, she left no real time to put distance between them. Valerie was a voracious predator cornering her wounded prey. Will found himself on the defensive all of a sudden, and Val knew it. He was pushed back to the rows of pillars. Luis would not be down forever. His only real chance was his latent tactic.

There among the golden brown columns, Will found his advantage. She swung at him, but instead of blocking, he maneuvered behind a pillar. The neoartium edge cut deep into the marble stone. She pulled the swords free, but for a few seconds she’d actually lost sight of her target. Her eyes darted about while every second that passed only added to her anger.

Will lunged from a pillar behind her. He didn’t make a sound, but his wounded foot slowed him down. No matter, the tip of his sword stabbed into her right thigh. Before it could go too deep, she swung out with her sword, hacking into Will’s arm. Both pulled back before either lost a limb, but Val now stumbled as well. Will’s bicep had also suffered an injury. He could feel the arm losing strength at a steady rate and assumed she’d cut into one of his vital cables. Will ignored that fact though, refusing to hesitate. He lashed out with his wounded arm. Conversely, he soon realized Val had him. His arm swung far too slowly. From his cyborg perception, the arm seemed to move as if weighed down, and he knew she saw that just as easily as he did.

Valerie made a quick motion, kicking the butt of the sword’s hilt. Will failed to get a tighter grip on his weapon in time, and the blade was sent flying out of his hand. The stolen sword flew through the air, but Will did not turn his eyes toward it at all, not even as he heard it stab into the floor. If he was to stay in the game, he had to keep his eyes focused on the frontline. He attempted to push her back with powerful swings, but his opponent deflected each strike with relative ease. If it had not been for the injury he’d already inflicted on her, Will had the sure feeling she would have been smiling.

Without so much as a single warning, she went for her finishing move. Valerie used her wounded leg to swipe his legs out from under him in a flash, Will landing on his back with a thud. At that precise moment, he knew he had no time left to wear her down. It was now or death.

He hurled his sword in his desperation, the weapon spiraling as it came at her. He had put all his strength into the throw and it showed. She was taken aback, but she instantly struck out with both her swords. The collision caused Will’s sword to shatter, but he had no time to mourn the loss of the weapon.

Val shut her eyes as shards of the sword cut her face all over. She was ever persistent though and refused to halt her attack. Opening her eyes, she dove at Will unsuccessfully, stabbing into his bullet-worn coat, which she ruined further when she removed the blades. The beaten and battered garment fell to the floor as Valerie turned to see Will approaching. In one hand was nothing, but in the other was a grenade, which he hurled directly at her.

All Valerie could do was brace for the shrapnel and explosion, but was surprised by what felt like pin pricks. She looked down at her body to find herself covered in tiny metal objects. The cyborg then felt the electrical shocks, first from her swords, which had also caught several of the tiny machines. She immediately dropped them, but the convulsions continued from the few still on her body. Valerie, brought to her knees in her agony, tried to reach for one of the small warheads, but her arms fell limply to her sides.

Will marveled at the fact that she was actually struggling to get up, vividly recounting the sheer pain of when he first encountered the metal parasites. Then again, not as many of the ticks had attached to her as what he experienced. He couldn’t stand to watch her like that anymore and walked over to her. She tried to strike him, but a blow from his forearm left her down and out. As she lay there on the floor, something rolled from her pocket. Will’s eyes followed it as it finally came to a halt, the ring glimmering. And yet you still fight, Val? Why? He looked back at Valerie who now laid still.

A sword flew through the air, straight into Will’s upper chest, pinning him to a pillar. For the first time during his entire service to the UNR as a super soldier, he felt true raw pain. His HUD warned him of the breach to the pectoral plate, his inner mechanics had suffered great damage. Will felt blood ooze out of the corner of his mouth, and looked over to see Luis returning fully to his feet. Even though his temple was bleeding, that ever-prominent smile was on his face. He began to walk toward him, a perpetual march of death. Will gripped the hilt protruding from his chest with both hands and tugged sharply. However, the first attempt did not have enough force and the only result was more burning agony. The blade was embedded too deep into the marble. Luis’ deranged smile grew.

“Come on. Don’t let me down, not now in the finale.”

Will took in a deep breath, and this time put all his strength into the task. After a few seconds of straining, an ear-shattering crack was heard as he pulled out the lower half of Luis’ snapped sword. Will walked forward, leaving behind the bloody upper half still stuck in the pillar. He found himself gazing at the floor in daze. Hold on, he told himself, hold on, hold on!!

He regained focus and looked forward again, only to receive a palm punch to his face. The blow sent him flying a few feet, skidding across the slippery marble, and leaving behind a smeared trail of blood. Will rolled from his back onto his side before struggling to stand. Luis continued to calmly stroll his way over to Will and stopped a yard or so short of him. The super soldier watched as Will sat up slowly, before fully returning to his feet. Pathetically, he took a fight stance. Luis could have busted into a gut-wrenching laugh, but he only maintained his smile.

He walked right up to his opponent, a hairbreadth away. Will grimaced as he felt the tip of Luis’ boot under his bottom lip. The blow sent him to the ground, but he landed on his hands before regaining his posture. Unit 18 performed a windmill kick though Will grabbed his ankle tightly.

As soon as he had both hands on Luis, Will used little effort to hurl him at a pillar. Luis used his nimble reflexes to ricochet himself back at his enemy. Unit 21 ran head-on at the target, planning to deal a counter-strike, but Luis predicted his movements far too easily and outstretched his arm, the clothesline move once more landing Will on his back. Will got to his quivering knees, still using his palms to support himself, and Luis planted a foot down on his skull. As his face smashed into the marble floor, Will’s fingers could only brush against his oppressor’s boot side, his resistance weak.

Luis kept the pressure steady as he knelt down and reached into Will’s pocket. He held the hidden EMP grenade as he straightened. He peered at it, and then crumpled the little weapon like paper, feeling a small amount of pain as the electricity surged. Will felt the shards of its inner mechanics sprinkle onto his hair. He’d lost his only advantage. He had failed to save either of them. His head flared with agony, but he could hear his old friend speak:

“Did you do this for that daughter of mine, Alyssa? Her and my wife? How noble of you. After all, they are quite beautiful.”

Suddenly he felt Will’s hands latch onto his ankle with surprising strength. Luis briefly lost his balance as Will threw him off. The cyborg was up on his feet, his gaze distraught. Blood dripped down the slope of his face, but he paid it no mind. Luis’ smile shrank before completely vanishing.

“You must really be dense. I’m personally insulted.”

“You mean,” Will said as he took ragged breaths, “you know?”

“I know quite a bit about them actually, dare I say everything. I vividly recall their fragrances, their soft skin. You actually suspected I didn’t know at all?”

“And you just continue to submit to Venloran regardless?”

“Naïve to the end. You’d really sacrifice the perfection this country has sustained for your own sentimentality?”

“Sentimentality? Our lives are in ruins!”

Luis wiped the tears from his eyes.

“You want to sacrifice stability and peace for the will of the individual. Those people you’re protecting are fools, just as you’ve become. Their revolution will resolve nothing. It will only start a bloody war for a cause you don’t even believe in. It’s nothing more than blind selfishness disguised as righteousness.”

“Even though my family had to die to maintain this utopia?”

“They killed their share of people before they died, I’m sure you’re aware of that much. Let’s be clear with each other–they were, in fact, guilty.”

Will felt his anger falter. He’d pushed that fact aside to avenge the dead, but it was unavoidably true. Just as Luis had read his thoughts, Will now read his friend’s as well.

“All the soldiers I met in combat today were faces I recognized. Some I knew better than others. But out of all of them, there was one person, in particular, I didn’t see.”

Luis’ brow furrowed as his jaw went tight.

“I didn’t realize how much she meant to you. Nor you to her. She was a good soldier, loyal and fierce. True pain was something foreign to us, wasn’t it? Up until now.”

“You’ve adopted a fantasy, but I guess that’s natural considering how little you remember. I, on the other hand, remember far too much, Will. Funny thing is people always speak of hell as a fiery place of burning torment. They don’t have any idea what it’s really like, how lonely and cold it is. My life prior to Venloran was a true taste of hell, with no purpose and no real future. On the fringes of my own self-demise, he pulled me from the abyss.”

“Yes, we are the guardians of this society,” Will said aloud, reveling in his self-abnegation for a few seconds, “but I valued my family over anything.”

“Did you? Regardless, you know I stand opposed. Drop the illusion that you can save me.”

Will came to grips with that reality and realized there was a line between the two of them. He’d been avoiding it all this time, but now it was clear as day. Luis got ready for yet another assault, his sole mission to achieve victory.

Unit 18 thought of his sword jabbed into the floor behind him, but he also noticed Val’s swords lying not too far from Will. He knew his opponent was contemplating the same thing. He decided not to give him the chance. Luis ran into a series of flips, culminating in an agile leap at his opponent. Will did not budge, blocking the first few punches as Luis landed. A good one clocked Unit 21 in his cheek, and he rebutted with a fist to Luis’ lower jaw. The two were worn down enough that neither were able to dodge the blows and merely took them in stride.

Luis lashed out with a fearsome kick in the midst of it all. Will, however, was too fast this time and caught him by his leg. In that rush of adrenaline, surging through every fiber of his being, Unit 21 saw a brief glimmer between two of Luis’ fingers. He recognized it as the very hira-shuriken he’d used to decimate his opponent’s SAW earlier. The final blow, he’s going for it. Will used both arms, despite the failing strength in one, to swing Luis like a rag doll. Before he could hurl his trump card, Luis was smashed into a nearby pillar. Still, Will completed the circle and finally released his hold on him.

The cyborg flew through the air, slamming into the statue of the cyborg endoskeleton. The impact knocked the breath out of Luis, and he landed flat on his face. For the first time in the fight, his body truly ached, but Luis wouldn’t stay down. At that moment though, the statue had withstood all it could. Just as soon as Luis hopped to his feet, he was cloaked in a cloud of dust as over six tons of concrete came down on him, crushing him between that, and the already ruined marble floor.

Will applied Luis’ ideology to himself, knowing it was the only way for this conflict to truly climax. He set his mind solely on victory. He needed to move fast, and he did so. Meanwhile, Luis trudged out of the rubble, more than a little roughed up. Will was limping toward him, one of Val’s swords in hand. Luis calmly strolled over to his sword, pulling it from the floor.

The two walked right up to one another, Val’s longer sword scraping against the floor slightly. The distance between them closed quickly, and the second they came within a hair’s length of one another, the blades met with extreme ferocity. Each stroke of Luis’ weapon was fierce and fast, unrelenting and abrasive. Will was managing to deflect though and neither gave a single inch of ground. Will attempted to break this with an elbow to Luis’ chin, but it hardly seemed to register on his adversary’s face. Whatever pain Will had been banking on wasn’t there.

Luis’ eyes were full of boiling anger and the retaliation was simple. Unit 18 kicked his opponent in the shin, in his weakened leg. Fuck…Luis quickly shifted his grip on the sword as Will fell to his knees. As his adversary raised his weapon, Will slashed right into his abdomen. The edge of the blade cut clean through everything: the synthetic flesh, the neoartium, till finally, it halted as it hit the air again.

Luis took a step back before Will jabbed up to the hilt of his sword right between the chest plates of his armor, right into the power-coupling center.

Will’s pupils trembled as he felt the cool edge of Luis’ blade against the back of his neck. He could feel it already slightly embedded into the flesh. With just a second of exertion, he could easily slice through Will’s armored vertebrae and behead him.

“Looks like you hit the sweet spot,” Luis laughed as blood spurted from his mouth, staining his teeth, “but I’m more than capable of dicing your fucking head off.”

“Then what the hell are you doing? Just fuckin finish us BOTH!!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.

Luis smiled as he spoke softly.

“We are both but mere soldiers, and our purpose is only to serve. Yet you deemed yourself worthy of more. You have opened Pandora’s Box, and many will die on both sides because of you. I want you to experience all of your friend’s deaths, and you will.”

Will heard Luis’ sword clatter to the floor, and soon his friend joined his weapon. Val’s sword had a faint golden glow, steaming now as it again touched air. Luis’ eyes began to fade: Will knew it was the result of the damaged power cell. His locomotion would be the first to go, and, before long, every last bodily function would cease to operate. His gloved hand could hardly twitch its fingers, and yet his smile was still present. At this point, the loss of power had caused his eyes to appear a pure grayish-white, with no pupil or iris visible at all.

“You preached to me about the sanctity of life, and yet you killed a man who last saw his daughter many, many years ago.” He looked away as he let out a chuckle, “Your aimless morality will beset you, especially as you discover details your omnipotent gaze somehow missed. The horror of it all will consume your mind.”

His face became still as all movement came to an end. Will stood over him for a few moments, unsure about the future more than ever. Damn it, Luis. Grief hit him with the force of a tidal wave, and along with it fear and…rage. Damn you. Will began to feel light-headed, as if all the blood in his body had stopped flowing. His mouth was dry.

“I’m sorry, Luis Viramontes.”

But it hadn’t all been for not.

Will knelt down next to Val, laying her sword with the other one again. Even though he did it gently, the room had become so quiet the metal resting on the marble created a chilling echo. He lifted her head up with one hand, while his other grabbed the golden ring. Will looked at her still form, her once deadly strength now limp. Her beautiful face was marked indiscriminately with the jagged cuts from the shards earlier, but she was still with him. He was ever thankful for that. Will decided the ring could wait till they were at a safer location. He prepared to slip it into his pocket, just as a firm hand took hold of his wrist.

Will realized she was conscious as her emerald eyes revealed themselves. Despite her prevailing strength, most of her body still wasn’t functional. When she spoke, her voice was soft.

“Please…” she held up the shaking hand, and Will realized it was taking all her strength to do so. He nodded, and placed the ring on her finger. He felt a small smile on his face.

“I know what you want to do. You want to take me back to those—people.”

“Yeah, they can help us. We’ll finally know all we want to know,” Will’s joy crept through him as he said it.

“Will, I want to ask you something, and you cannot lie to me. Promise?”

“Anything, Val.”

“Is he still in the service? Is he one of us?”

Will’s smile shrank before completely dissipating. He wasn’t sure he could say it, and he wanted to avoid the question. Lie, like how they’d lied to him. He felt disgusted all of a sudden, and not just at himself. He could not allow himself to do it. It’d only further the struggling. All he could do was shake his head. He watched as her emerald eyes reddened.

“He would’ve wanted you to carry on. Would have wanted it for both of us.”

“I’m done fighting, Will, for any side. I just want to be with him.”

Will choked.

“Val, I—I can’t.”

Even as he spoke those words, he felt a straight edge dive into the pit of his stomach. I’ll give it to her. You have my word, no matter what happens. Will shuddered. No, I completed the mission! He tried to convince himself that his friend had been a figment of his imagination. He could not. In the height of his frantic state, he realized she was not after a simple conclusion. He only embraced that when he recounted his old friend’s faith.

“Blind faith, even when faced against death?” he said coldly.

“Hope that the impossible is indeed possible,” she said in return.

Will ate his confliction. He reached over her again, grabbing one of her swords. Valerie pulled herself up with all she had and placed a gentle kiss on his cheek. Will held her tightly, and she could feel his body quivering, almost violently. It was the first time she’d heard a super soldier sob, and she dare not look into the face of it. All she could think to do was hold him as best she could. There was a surge of pain in her body, and Valerie realized it was not the blade. She could taste the warm, salty tears on her lips, but she managed to smile.

“I can never thank you enough, Will. Even though we are parting ways, I sincerely hope you find what you’re looking for.”

She closed her eyes as she felt the tip of the blade against her chest. Aimed at her power core, behind the sternum, he carried out his mission.

***

Halsey enjoyed the ever-present gust of wind the helicopter propeller blades brought. He hadn’t been outside in a decade, though today wasn’t particularly a choice day. The drizzle of the rain was increasing steadily into a shower. Many of the other group members had taken off in the other two choppers, having grown impatient. Jacob, Gabby, and Alex were huddled in the chopper, tending to Alex’s leg as best as they could. Patrick watched Halsey in the rain from the cockpit. Serving as their pilot, he personally couldn’t wait to get out of hell, but he dared not leave Halsey. The man didn’t even bother to wait in the stairwell entrance. He just stood there, soaked in the rain.

“Alex can’t wait all fucking day!!” Gabby yelled in the back.

Patrick knew why she explicitly wanted to leave so badly, but Alex’s well-being was a pressing matter.

As Halsey stood there, feeling no cold, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around sharply, somewhat frightening Patrick. He could see the boy’s startled state in his face but didn’t speak.

“Joe, sorry, but we got wounded on board,” Patrick finally said, “We can’t wait any longer.”

Halsey turned away from him and continued to face the open doorway. For a while there, Patrick wasn’t even sure if he’d heard him.

“Do you even know where you’d head, or would you just simply fly blindly till you were out of fuel?”

Pat opened his mouth to speak, but he realized he had no answer.

“I alone know where we can rendezvous with other regiments, so we wait till I give the command,” he said sternly.

“Yes, Captain.”

At that moment, though, they both heard approaching footsteps. Halsey raised his weapon, the cold gnawing at his fingertips. Patrick followed suit and also drew a firearm. The men pointed at the doorway as the footsteps drew closer. The footsteps seemed to come very slowly, surely as a precaution. Patrick knew Halsey had to suspect something bad was headed their way, but he held steady. A shadow appeared before finally revealing the figure, a limping Unit 21, carrying heavy objects on his shoulders. One arm secured what he carried, and the other clutched the stairwell railing tightly.

Will finally stepped through the doorway, but in order to get any further he had to let go of the railing. As soon as he did, his strength failed him. The cyborg collapsed to the wet ground, bringing the items he carried down with him. Halsey very clearly made out three of them, and he knew instantly each was a corpse. One was wrapped in a blue overcoat, one in a red one, and one in the cyborg’s own beaten and battered black one. Will looked up at Halsey, at the man he’d beaten down for years and brought to the brink of death on countless occasions.

“Please, help me.”

Halsey knelt down to Will’s level, laying his gun down.

“Anything, but if you want to get them on board we’ll need you.”

Halsey put out his hand, Will taking it.

Chapter 28 – Sweet Savour

[_ April 17, 2065- Jefferson National Forest _]

Gabby stood in the mud, wiping her forehead. She was exhausted, more than ever, but the job had to be done. She and her brother Jacob finished piling the thick, soggy lumps of earth, just as Halsey walked over with a makeshift cross. He stabbed it into the mound and they stepped back to look at their work. The three graves were relatively close, but stones encircled each one. They had also placed rocks on top to deter any passing scavengers. Even though the rain had stopped, droplets still fell on the group due to the waterlogged branches of the pine tree. Little sparrows chirped, and each time one took off into the sky a brief shower ensued.

“Alex is doing as well as he can as of now,” Patrick informed, “but there’s no saving that leg.”

Halsey let out a sigh.

“All right,” he said, “the facility nearest here that I know of, is in Carrollton. We rest up here for a few hours, and we’ll set off at nightfall.”

“You still think they’re out there?” Patrick asked.

“Absolutely. I taught them how to bunker down in the case of my absence. Even if not, I know of many others all over the UNR and even more once you get over the border in the north.”

“But we only have so much fuel.” Jacob said, staring at the mounds of mud and rock.

“There’s a risk any way you cut it. We can’t stay here, obviously. We have hardly any supplies,” Halsey made clear.

They’d passed over a few small towns and suburbs, but Halsey was positive he hadn’t seen any aircraft in pursuit of them. This would be the only time for the next day or two they’d be able to breathe easy, after dusk hit, there would only be uncertainty. With that accepted, he knew he had to say it.

“Listen, after tonight, whether we make it to the base or not, we will most likely be unable to come back to this spot. We in all reality may never be able to find it again. If there’s anything you want to say, I strongly urge that now’s the time.”

He felt a certain level of pity that there was mostly silence. He wasn’t quite sure what to say himself. Of course, he had dozens of questions. Problem was they were far from appropriate in light of this tragedy. Still, they needed to be asked. Exactly when he would pursue these answers, was something he’d need to think hard on.

It was Gabby who finally stepped forth, going down to her knees in the mud.

“I’ll never be able to tell you how sorry I am, Father,” she cried softly, “it’s my fault this happened. Nothing can change that, but I promise to never surrender, Father. Never.”

Jacob joined her on the ground, holding her close. Although he said nothing, his pledge was in his tears. Brother and sister united, I thought I’d die before I saw this again, Patrick admired. The clouds rumbled like an awakening beast and it once more began to drizzle.

The four walked back to the clearing where the chopper and Alex waited. Halsey scanned the area, wondering if the cyborg had lain down permanently among the long grass. He finally spotted him a distance away slouched down by a boulder. He looked dead, so still and silent. The others paid him no mind and boarded the chopper to avoid the precipitation. Halsey watched as Jacob and Gabby checked on the dozing Alex before huddling together for warmth. Patrick sat in the pilot seat, laying his head back.

Halsey walked over to the soldier. Their eyes did not meet. He took note of the two sheathed blades laying in a pile next to him. One was Luis’ and the other, Valerie’s. Her other sword would rest with her for eternity.

“They were buried in accordance with your wishes,” he said to the battered cyborg. He lay so still he could’ve easily been mistaken for a corpse. Halsey wasn’t sure if it was the toll of the wounds or the weight of everything he had being lost so suddenly.

“And we leave at dusk, I’m aware. Is that all?” the cyborg said in reply.

“I can only say that you still have your son. He may be living as a civilian, or as one of us. Not even I know that.”

“Or fighting for them. What then?”

“No one else can decide that but you.”

Halsey walked toward the little warmth of the chopper and left Will in solitude. Will wasn’t sure if his mind could hold on let alone his ravaged body. For some time he stared blankly at the long blades of grass as the wind and rain blew them about. He chose not to let his mind go adrift but instead looked up at the clouds. As he did, the thunder rumbled ever louder. Soon it would pour down on him. How those echoes of thunder and streaks of lightning made him reminisce. Watching planes fly over the city dropping their payloads, the boom of the explosions, and the spectacular sight of the buildings crumbling. The real beauty was that watching from the hillside meant that he could not hear the screams of whoever was being blown to bits or crushed underneath rubble. He began to recall, however, the first few days after the weeks of the bomb raids.

***

January 10, 2044 – Nazareth, Israel

The two soldiers carried the elderly man, Will by the ankles, Val by the arms. It took quite a bit of effort, but soon they got to the pit. They hurled the corpse in with a single heave. The body hit the sides of the pit before landing among the immense pile forming at the bottom. The convenience of the air assaults was the supposed softening of the enemy, the additional benefit being that the many craters blown into the asphalt were perfect dumping sites. The catch was that someone still had to rummage around the city for the victims.

Thompson and Bryan arrived with what appeared to be a young woman, but it was hard to tell without the face. Andy walked over with two large canisters of kerosene. Unscrewing the lids, he dumped both down the sides of the crater. The small fires already set in motion down in the pit instantly sprouted up.

The result of multiple fires lit around the circumference of the pit was a humongous flame. Everyone backed away as the pile of well over sixty men and women became engulfed in the very bowels of hell. A monstrous amount of smoke rose along with the flames, bathing the whole street in an orange-yellow glow. The smell was probably the worst part. It was rancid, but they’d been told it’d get better the longer the fires burned.

Sergeant Stone arrived in a Humvee, followed by a large truck. He stepped out, smoking a cigarette and then looked over at the inferno ten blocks or so away. In light of that, he considered putting the cigarette out but chose not to. His squads came over to salute him.

“Not another one, Sarge,” Bryan complained, “we’ll be here all damn night.”

Stone lifted the tarp off the back of the truck, to expose a fresh batch, ready for the makeshift furnace.

“Sanitation is important, soldier,” he said, placing the tarp back on, “would you prefer the whole city be plagued with rats?”

“At this point I could care less about this city,” Thompson commented.

“Right on with that,” added Will, “I’m not the fuckin’ cleanup crew.”

“This load is only about thirty, maybe thirty-five, ladies. Tell you what I’ll give you ten before we continue. Don’t worry, after tonight everyone will be headed to the coup de grace: Jerusalem herself.”

“Amen, dude, A-fucking-men,” Bryan said.

“Well, fuck it I suppose,” Will remarked.

“Take ten ladies,” the Sergeant said before re-entering the Humvee and shutting the door.

The men and women walked some distance away from the pit, sitting down on the sidewalk. Will watched as Bryan and Valerie briefly kissed, assuming now obviously was not the time for affection.

“Just how did I let you talk me into joining up, man?” Will laughed.

Bryan wasn’t too sure what to say.

“I don’t know, dude, I really don’t,” he said with a weak smile.

Val tightened her grip on his hand.

“Come on, boys, the important thing is we endure together.”

“The LORD is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation.”

Everyone turned to see Andy leaning against a crooked light pole in prayer.

“He is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation; my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”

“The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name, Exodus 15:3,” finished Will.

Andy was amazed. It seemed to catch everyone’s attention. Valerie looked outright thunderstruck.

“Well, look at you. Since when did you get all Dr. King on our asses?” Andy asked.

“That’s the thing about Will,” Bryan answered, “he may be cynical about the Bible, but he’s read it enough times.”

Will shrugged.

“I like to know what I’m talking about before I pass judgment on something,” Will declared simply.

“Well, I got a better one for the occasion anyway,” Bryan said, “Leviticus 17:11. For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.”

Valerie kissed Bryan on the cheek and Thompson nodded in understanding.

“I still got you,” Will said smugly, “the priest shall burn all on the altar, to be a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD, Leviticus 1:9.”

Other plumes of smoke were rising all over the city. It was a splendid and calm night of war.

About the Author

Joshua Aaron Landeros, known as Josh preferably, is a debut author in the science fiction genre. He lives in Perris and is a current student of the University of California, Riverside majoring in History and minoring in English. He enjoys coffee, brewery exploration, reading comics, and quoting movies obsessively. Reverence is part of an ongoing series and the sequel will be released early next year.

Minds.com

https://www.minds.com/gigan996

Website:

http://jlanderos5.wixsite.com/joshualanderos

Facebook:

http://www.facebook.com/WriterLanderos

Goodreads:

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15068908.Joshua_Aaron_Landeros

Youtube:

[+ https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCf7J7mP0Gimogog_KnxmZWQ+]

End of Knighthood

The sequel End of Knighthood will delve much deeper into the world of the Reverence series. Will has joined up with the Crimson Angels to fight the oppressive United Nation Republic, but how to fight the enemy becomes the next question. Some want to expose the government’s sins, but others want only to execute the tyrants in power. At the same time, Chancellor Venloran and his allies are masterminding a plan to eradicate any chance of a revolution. As more is revealed, each of these soldiers realizes a horrifying revelation: war is upon them. Every blow dealt to the UNR is mere kindling for a fire that will rage endlessly. A sneak peek from End of Knighthood has been provided! Please enjoy, thank you for reading, and prepare for war!

Chapter 1 – Service

August 8, 2050 – Des Moines, Iowa

The tall oaks were marked with the blemishes of age, and yet they still stood twice as tall as the cement walls surrounding them. Fiery-colored leaves littered the neat courtyard as far as one could see. The courtyard was full of these enormous trees, along with a few elegant, smooth-stone benches, that sat atop makeshift hills. The greenery of the space, despite the fading of autumn into winter, was quite scenic and attracted a pair of delicate birds. They hopped along through the branches of a tree as if it were a massive playground, finally settling near the upper canopy. They were soon joined by many others, the twittering of them all forming a chorus. Swirling winds cradled the dry leaves in midair, offering even the departed souls a measure of solace, a final dance.

Under the swaying, crumpled plumes of the autumn trees, two rows of men and women appeared. One row trudged through the grass sluggishly. The other marched in it with purpose. The groups were nearly even in number. The marching group wore all-black crisp uniforms and boots to match. Each also carried in their arms M4 carbine rifles as their beloved children. One child unto each parent, and though the M4s all looked the same, each one had a name and a human face. One person, the gunnery sergeant, marched out in front of this group as its respective head.

The other group wore orange jumpsuits, their wrists bound by metal shackles. Their ankles were secured as well, limiting the amount of movement between each footstep. Whereas the faces of the uniformed group remained steady and staring straight ahead, the shackled group kept their faces turned downward, toward the grass. Likewise their shoulders sagged. Tagging along behind them was another sergeant, his Janice pointed into their backs. For the most part undisturbed, the birds watched as the two rows began to split away from each other, quite like watching a giant Y form along the ground. The formation quickly turned into a V before the parallel lines came face-to-face, the shackled men and women standing with their backs against the smooth concrete wall, the other group with their backs against the wind, standing at attention.

The sergeant walked in between the lines, a fair amount of breathing room for his wide shoulders. He did not give the unarmed vermin his attention at all, but glared down at his own men and women with an icy stare they’d come to expect. Each plebe’s face was that of chiseled stone, and with their weapons rested upon their shoulders honorably, they appeared as perfect reflections of one another. All of them were incredibly young, without a single scar of battle upon their smooth faces, but the sergeant was pragmatic enough. He was sure they were all good and ready. As he turned to march past them again, he prepared to give them the essentials of what was about to happen.

“Every few months we get a payload of scumbags from our prisons,” he announced, one arm behind his back, “and as upcoming graduates, it is your task today to rid the country of this ration of filth. Do not weep for these men and women. They have all been convicted of murder, every last one of them. Some of them accidentally shot one person, while trying to kill another. Others are here for the cold-blooded slaughter of their spouses or children, sometimes both. We even have, according to my roster, a few serial killers in this line-up. Sorry folks, pleas of insanity are no good here, not in this damned good country.”

He smiled briefly, not to the prisoners, not to his soldiers, but to himself.

“Crime cannot and will not be tolerated at any cost. Their names are not important. The security of our great nation is the vital factor at the end of the day. Now raise your rifles!”

The trainees responded in unison, among them Jacob and Neal. Alongside them were a few fellow cadets Jacob knew closely, Angela, Victor, and Miles. He’d just met them all here, aside from Neal, but they’d become a close-knit family. At this moment, though, they said not one word to each other, but took aim in the silence, focusing on their individual targets. All could hear the chirping of the birds above them. A cool breeze snaked its way between Jacob’s fingers. He found it all quite calming.

“Fire!”

The synchronized shots rang out. The heads bounced back a little before the bodies tumbled over. The birds took off into the air. The dead leaves continued to dance in the morning sun.

“Good! Excellent! Now everyone gather your martyr and head for the trucks. Move!”

The soldiers instantly began to work, a pair for each corpse with one gripping the body by its legs, the other by its wrists, before heading off to their destination in a single-file line of excellence. The next trainee platoon was arriving with the next batch of target practice. Captain Halsey spotted Jacob Neeson, and though he eyed the man with little subtlety, his subject paid him no mind. When Jacob was training, he never broke his focus.

“Hurry up boys and girls. Remember, you still got your laps to complete. Let’s double-time!!”

Reverence (Volume 1) is the first arc of a story I’ve been trying to tell since freshman year in high school. Calling it a labor of love is an understatement, but it was also a tremendous pain in the ass. To future authors, whether traditional or self-publishing, always remember the necessity of outside critiques. Presented below was my original cover idea for the novel. I’m a terrible sketcher (my brother is far better), but still I like to doodle from time to time.

 


Reverence

William Marconi is a soldier who appears as a simple man, but is anything but. He is one of the 144,000 who have used their power to bring order to the Earth in 2065. Unrivaled for decades, the superpower they have served has stood above all other countries. In a single heartbeat, however, William is faced with an opponent he has never known the likes of. Civilian and soldier alike become victims in a bloodbath that threatens to consume all he knows. In order to win, he’ll have to question his allies, his enemies, and himself.

  • ISBN: 9781370964048
  • Author: Joshua Landeros
  • Published: 2017-06-09 09:20:50
  • Words: 84695
Reverence Reverence