DBS Publishing LLC
Copyright 2015 by DBS Publishing LLC
Chapter 1 – 2071
With the sun dipping behind the mountains in the west, the fading light cast a brilliant glow over the fields. The tall blades of wheat wavered and caught the dying light, offering the illusion that the ground had liquefied into gold. Which, for Frederick Mars, was close to the truth.
Thick layers of dust and earth that caked Fred’s body crumbled from his arms as he peeled the gloves off his hands. He cracked his knuckles, wincing from the stiffness, and took a moment to admire the rows of churned earth and let out a satisfied grunt. The horse attached to the plow whinnied, and Fred unhitched the stallion, which nodded in gratitude. “Long day.”
Fred ran his rough, dirtied hands down the soft black hide of the animal. “Still, it beats the other places we’ve been stuck in.” Dust blew from the horse’s mouth as it puffed and shook its head, tossing his black mane back and forth across his neck. Fred gave the horse a firm touch. “Well, I don’t miss it.”
The horse’s hooves kicked up sprays of dirt as Fred led the animal back to the barn. Periodically through the walk, Fred continued to grab his right hip. Any movement, any sound, any feeling that made him uncomfortable triggered the motion of reaching for his sword. It was a habit he hadn’t been able to break since the war, and it wasn’t something he thought he’d ever be able to cure.
While the nightmares had stopped a few years ago, he lost track of the number of nights he woke up in a cold sweat, screaming nonsense that his wife, Mary, could never decipher, or the self-loathing that came along with it. Whiskey only numbed the memories so much, and he discovered that no matter how much he drank, or how stinking drunk he became, he was never able to rid himself of the horrific atrocities of war.
When the past became so burdensome to deal with that it was affecting his future, Mary forced him to open up. And while the depletion of his memories helped, he watched it change Mary, or at least the way she looked at him. The differences were subtle, like the way she lingered before she touched him, or the way she’d avoid confrontation with him. But even with everything she learned about the things he’d seen, the things he’d done, he knew she wouldn’t leave. The woman was a rock. And if he thought he could get angry, god help him if she ever did.
Fred tossed a pile of feed into the horse’s bucket while he brushed him down and wondered if animals felt those memories of war. He wasn’t the only one that traded a blade for a plow after they’d won, but there were times Fred was certain the horse missed the battlefield. God willing, the animal would never get its wish to go back.
Fred turned, and his youngest came sprinting into the barn with nothing but a pair of shorts on, covered from head to toe in dirt. “Sam, what are you doing, son?”
“I found the biggest lizard you have ever seen.” The boy proudly lifted up the reptile clutched in both hands, grinning like a man who’d just found El Dorado. “Do you think Mom will let me keep it?”
“About as much as she’ll let you eat dinner like that,” Fred answered. “Let the animal go, and get washed up. Supper will be ready soon.”
The boy lowered the lizard with a defeated frown, and Fred couldn’t help but chuckle as the boy sulked away. On Sam’s way out, his eldest son, Kit, brushed past him, leading his own horse in from the fields. He ruffled his brother’s hair as he passed, and Sam pushed him away, offended. “I hate it when you do that!” Then he sprinted off.
Kit grabbed the feedbag and dumped what was left into the bridle for his black mare. “I swear he spends more time catching lizards than he does doing his chores.”
“Only because you keep helping him,” Fred said, giving his son a grin. “You bail him out too much.”
“He’s only seven.” Kit peeled his gloves off and rubbed his hands, the skin raw and red. “He shouldn’t have to worry about chores as much as I do.”
“And you shouldn’t have to worry about life as much as I do,” Fred retorted. Kit was only a boy of seventeen but spoke, worked, and acted like a man in his thirties. Fred feared that the same burden of duty and honor that had plagued his life so much had been passed on to his son. “How’s the west field?”
“Found some rot on a few stalks, but it doesn’t look like it’ll spread. I think I caught it in time.” Kit picked up the water bucket and splashed his face, sending streaks of dirt down his face and neck. “It shouldn’t affect the harvest.”
Fred watched Kit brush down his horse. His eldest son was becoming a man right in front of him, and it wouldn’t be long until he ventured out on his own. Fred walked over to him, and while his son was thicker than he was, Fred still had six inches of height on him. He knew he’d grow taller, but he took Kit by the shoulders and looked down on him like he did when he was little. “I’m proud of you. You’re turning into a good man, one that I know your grandfather would be proud of as well if he were still here.”
Kit blushed and stared at the tip of his boots. “Thanks, Dad.”
“Finish washing up. I’ll meet you inside.” By the time Fred made it to the house, the sun had completely disappeared, and the only light that offered him any guidance were the candles in the windows of his home.
This was his favorite part of the day. Just before walking up the front steps, he stopped, taking in the sight of Sam helping Mary set the table for dinner through the open window. The home itself wasn’t as half as beautiful as who was inside it.
It was a beauty he appreciated every day, never taking it for granted. He’d seen enough destruction and chaos in his lifetime to never see it again. This place was a beacon of life, while the lands beyond it still decayed of a rotten waste from a war long ago fought not by men, or guns, or swords, but by computers and buttons. It was a war that had cost billions of lives, or so his father told him.
It was a number he couldn’t imagine, one that sounded more of legend than fact. But still, he knew there was truth to it. He’d seen the harsh lands and broken cities that his father had once said stood as marvels of civilization, now merely empty husks of what they were. But here there was no decay, the skies were clear, the water was clean, and the soil black and rich.
The smell of dinner escaped the kitchen and filled Fred’s nose the moment he set foot on the staircase. And in the same instant, his hand reached for his right hip and grabbed at the cloth of his pants in such haste that he almost ripped through the fabric.
A powerful heat hit Fred’s back, and a rush of orange light along with it. He turned to see flames engulf the barn and embers and ash float into the night sky, fighting for attention against the night’s stars. Fred sprinted to the barn, the heat only becoming more scorching the closer he moved to the flames. “Kit!” But before his worry had a chance to escalate, his son came rushing out, guiding their two horses by the reins and out of the inferno.
The horses trotted off, and Kit collapsed onto the dirt, sucking air, his lungs polluted with the thick carbons of smoke, his face caked in soot, with burns up and down his arm and right shoulder. Fred scooped his son up and rushed to the house, where Mary and Sam were already standing on the front porch.
“Sam! Get back in the house now!” Fred’s tone sent the young boy back inside quickly. It was odd at how easily the authoritative voice reserved for the battlefield returned. “Mary, wet clothes and a bucket of water, now!” His wife disappeared and returned in a flash, and when Fred placed the cool pieces of cloth over his son’s charred flesh, Kit winced.
“Dad.” Kit pointed to the fields, where subsequent blazes had been set. The weeks and months of work taken to sew the fields only took seconds for the flames to consume.
Fred scooped Kit up and set him on the couch in the living room, with Mary following closely behind. “Stay here.” Fred rushed down the hall and the staircase that led to the cellar. A large wooden chest rested in the corner, and he flung the lid open.
Neatly folded uniforms rested inside, which Fred flung from the chest hastily and grabbed the rifles and pistols underneath. He clutched two rifles with one hand then holstered the pistol in his belt, grabbing both ammo and gunpowder. Just before he shut the lid, he saw the faint glimmer of steel, and he pulled the sword from the chest as well.
Back upstairs, the flames had circled the house, licking the edges and trying to make their way inside. In between the roar of the growing fires, he heard the pounding of hooves. He double-timed it to the living room, where Mary already had Kit to his feet. “Mary, stay with the children, take them into the cellar.”
“Dad, I can help.” Kit tried separating himself from his mother, but the pain from the burns had sapped whatever strength was left. Bits of charred cloth intermingled with red and scarred flesh on his arms and leg. Kit’s eyes were bloodshot from the heat and smoke, and he struggled to keep his eyelids from staying shut. He could barely stand, let alone hold a gun.
Still, Fred knew the boy could shoot. He pulled one of the pistols from his holster and slammed the handle into Kit’s palm. “Take your brother, and head out to the storage cellar. Stay there until we come for you or morning light. If you don’t see us, head into town and get your uncle.”
The moment Fred extended the pistol to Kit, Mary snatched one of the rifles off of Fred’s shoulder along with ammo and gunpowder, which she packed down into the muzzle. Before Fred had a chance to protest, she held her hand up. “If it’s clan raiders, you’ll need the help.”
Gunfire shattered the kitchen window, and the three of them ducked to the floor. Six men on horseback passed across the backdrop of fire and smoke circling the house. He held Kit’s chin, looking his boy in the eye and closed Kit’s fingers tight around the pistol’s handle. “You don’t let anything happen to you or your brother. Understand?”
“Yes, sir.” The light from the flames flickered in Kit’s eyes. Mary gave him a kiss and helped him down the hall until he had enough grit to stand on his own. When she returned, she huddled close to Fred by the living room wall.
Without a word, Mary grabbed Fred’s hand and squeezed. He set down the rifle and powder in his hands and pulled her close, kissing her hard on the lips, huddled underneath the front windows. “I love you.”
“I love you too.” Fred picked up the rifle, the gun felt heavy in his hands, heavier than he remembered, but despite the time that had lapsed, the fluidity returned with ease. “You stay in here by the window, and use the house as cover. Wait for your shot, and keep an eye on anything that tries coming around the left corner of the house. I’ll watch the right.”
Mary nodded, and Fred gave her one last kiss before he burst out the door, dropping to one knee, and fired, his shot burying itself into the leg of one of the riders, sending him to the ground and his horse trotting off to escape the flame and smoke. The other riders returned fire, and Fred rolled right, evading the shots behind the porch bannisters. He stuffed the powder and lead down into the muzzle while bullets splintered the finished wood and shattered the glass of windows.
With one of their men already down, the raiding party split into two, each group heading to a different side of the house. Fred ducked low, keeping a bead on one of the riders to his left. The horses sped past. He squeezed the trigger, and the bullet zipped by the bandit and sent up a tuft of dirt behind the horse.
The heat from the flames surrounding the house had become unbearable. Fred’s clothes were soaked with sweat as he rushed back inside to join Mary at the front windows. “They’ll try and come through the back.” He looked to the couch where Kit had lain, and found a comforting relief as well as a gut-wrenching stab that his boy’s were gone.
Both Fred and Mary hacked and coughed from the smoke making its way inside the house, replacing the smell of freshly baked goods with the harsh scent of charred crops. The thump of hooves rounded the left side of the house, and the end of Fred’s rifle followed the sound until the riders came into view out front beyond the window. He fired, killing the horse, and the rider dropped to the ground as the second rider raced for cover on the opposite side of the house.
Fred poured more powder and lead down the rifle’s barrel when the back door thundered open with a smack that echoed through the house. Fred shoulder-checked the kitchen table, knocking it to its side, and pulled Mary as he dashed behind it for cover as bullets peppered the thick oak Fred had wedged between him and his wife.
“I didn’t think the clans had that many weapons after the treaty,” Mary said, keeping her head low while the wild shots redecorated the inside of her kitchen.
“They didn’t.” Fred rose from behind the table’s barrier, lining up the small iron sight on the rifle. The raiders swiftly moved through the house, darting behind furniture, walls, anything that would shield them. Fred had fought the clans before, seen them on the battlefield, they relied on savagery, brute force, and the beating of their war drums. But the way these raiders moved, the way they fought, it was evasive, tactical.
Flames devoured the living room, rushing toward them like a fiery freight train. Fred grabbed Mary by the hand and sprinted out the front door, his lungs struggling to filter the heavy smoke. Once outside, both he and Mary collapsed in the dirt, wheezing. The rifles lay at their sides, and Fred did his best to keep his eyes peeled for the raiders.
A burst of adrenaline coursed through Fred’s veins from Mary’s scream, something he hadn’t felt since war. With lead and death and fire surrounding him, flashbacks of screams of dying soldiers under his command filled his ears, and he did his best to silence them with the pull of his finger against the trigger.
A bullet bit him in his right thigh, and he collapsed to the dirt. Heat from both the fires in the fields and the blaze from the house closed in. He felt Mary’s hand reach for him, and he stumbled to his feet, the pain in his leg shooting up through his back.
The warm splash of blood trickled down his calf and into his boot. Mary did her best to hold him up, but Fred kept falling. “Go.” He couldn’t be sure how many times he repeated the words, but each time he did, Mary only pulled on him harder.
Vibrations rippled through the ground as Fred caught a glimpse of one of the riders bending around the corner of the house, still on horseback. Fred pulled the pistol from his belt, too weak to lift the rifle, and as the rider drew his own weapon, Fred fired, sending the bullet through the raider’s chest, knocking him off his horse.
The horse trotted to the road between the flaming fields and disappeared into the smoke. Fred rose to his feet, clutching Mary with his arm, and the two of them limped forward, trying to follow the direction of the horse. At least lead them away from the boys.
Gunfire erupted behind them, and the last three raiders made their way out of the house, with the flames creeping up to the second floor. Mary turned to shoot, and when she did, a bullet caught her in the stomach.
Fred watched her face upon contact. The twist of her mouth, the slight shutter in her eyes, and the inward curl of her body as the impact of the bullet sent her backward. Fred caught her before she hit the ground, but another bullet to his back caused the two of them to give way to gravity.
The rifle that was in Fred’s hand fell from his grip and landed in the dirt next to him. He reached his hand out, and his fingertips grazed the stock, but before he could wrap his fingers around it, the raider kicked it away and stuck his own rifle barrel in Fred’s face.
It was all Fred could do to cover Mary, his last attempt to protect her, then he looked up to the raider who’d shot them both. The light from the fires flickered on one of their shoulders, and Fred saw a patch, one that he didn’t recognize from any of the clans.
“You are Fred Mars. Brother of the regional governor.” The man wore a mask, and his words were thick and muffled through the fabric.
“Is this how you declare war?” Fred asked, his lungs burning and the bullets lodged in his back and leg aching. The flames around him ran cold as a sudden shiver overtook him. “Attacking farms and families at night behind the cover of masks?”
“We are not declaring war.” The man’s partner aimed his gun at Mary, and Fred felt his heart skip a beat. “But your brother will.” The shots were quick and successive. One bullet went through the center of Fred’s forehead and the other through Mary’s eye. And that’s where they were left, lying in the dirt, with the flames destroying what was left of their home. Before the night was over, the fires burned even them.
The men whooped and hollered at the sight of land a mere few hundred yards away. The misty morning had made for poor visibility, and everyone on board was eager to finally have a chance to stretch their legs on a solid piece of rock instead of the slow, rocking deck of the Sani.
The usual scruff that layered Captain Lance Mars’ face had grown into a thicket of beard that crawled down to his Adam’s apple. He gave the tuft of black under his chin a good rub, the hair coarse, slick with sweat and salt. The light long-sleeved shirt hung loose on his frame, the piece of cloth worn and dirty. His crew always joked that he was the only captain in the world to dress like a deckhand, and none of his crewmen were so loud with their jokes as his first mate. “Canice!”
It only took the one word bellowing from Lance’s mouth to cut through the hysteria of the crewmen and return everyone to their duties. Canice climbed the ladder to the wheelhouse, the thin white shirt and tan pants clinging to her body in the wind. “Captain?”
“I want to make sure the cargo is checked before we make port,” Lance answered. “I don’t want any surprises when we dock. Anything that’s spoiled or looks rotten, toss it overboard. I want to make sure we can get as much beef out of this deal as possible.” The ship wasn’t originally designed as a merchant ship, and while more space could have been made if the cannons were removed, Lance refused to neuter his own ship.
Canice leaned against the doorframe to the wheelhouse and folded her arms. Her hair was pulled back and tied, and the bundle of curls behind her blew wildly in the wind. “If you’re looking to get a leg up in negotiations, I’d recommend a bath beforehand. That’s if they can’t already smell you from here.” She took a step out, flashing a grin, and bowed. “Captain.”
Before Lance even had a chance to address the insubordination, Canice had already slid down the steps and was whipping the crew back into shape. There wasn’t a single captain at sea that didn’t question him about taking a woman as his first mate, but once Canice pulled a blade to their throat before they could blink, there wasn’t a single captain that didn’t take back their own words.
The Sydney port bustled with activity. Hundreds of ships from South America, the Philippines, and other Pacific islands were docked and unloading their goods to be inspected then cleared for trade. Ever since the Great War of his grandfathers, Australia had become the second largest port city in the Pacific, second only to Lima in Peru, and the world’s number-one export of beef.
The deckhands tied off the Sani, and Lance made his way to meet with the port officer. The docks were piled high with crates of seafood from the Pacific, fruits and vegetables from the west coast of South America, livestock, and a few exotic beasts with bright, striped colors from the African continent.
Sydney’s port officer was, luckily, an old friend of Lance’s. The two had served together in the Chinese uprising during the Island Wars, and while Lance hand never thought twice about the Chinese again, it had become a bit of an obsession with Danny.
“Good to see you back here again,” Danny said, clapping Lance on the back.
Even the smells of the port couldn’t overpower Danny’s stench. Lance was convinced the man never showered, yet somehow he managed to keep dirt off of him. The one time Lance asked him about it, Danny simply shrugged and told him that powerful men emit powerful odors. “Looks like a busy morning.”
“Busy month.” Danny and Lance stepped aside as a group of men wheeled a cart past them filled with apricots. “I swear we’ll need to build another set of docks before the end of the year.”
Hundreds of boots thumped against the weather-worn planks as Lance and Danny headed toward the port office. “The Brazilians are charging a steep price for timber right now, although we might be able to help you out on a deal.”
“Just because you managed to strike up a new trade agreement with the South Americans doesn’t make you the expert on negotiations, Lance. It was your brother who accomplished that. Not you.”
A blast of hot, stale air greeted Lance’s face once they stepped inside the office. Danny opened a window and let the sea air try and cool the room, but it did little to help. “So, you brought six hundred pounds with you this time?” Danny flopped into his chair, reaching for the paperwork and a pen.
“Seven hundred. Along with three hundred bales of wheat.”
“Wheat?” Danny raised an eyebrow. “When did you start chancing on wheat?”
“Last harvest. With our new agreements with the wasteland clans, we haven’t had to worry about raiding in over a year. It was a risk, but it was one worth taking.”
Danny drummed the pen on the edge of his desk. “You Mars boys always trying to think three steps ahead of the rest of us. You picked a good time to do it.” He scribbled onto the trading documents. “You’ll get a good trade for that wheat, although I’m afraid I can’t say the same for the potatoes.”
“If all goes well, we’ll be able to bring more bales, and grains by this time next year should be tripled.” At least that was what Fred had told him.
“You keep this up, and you’ll be able to open up some credit with us, Lance.” Danny stamped the papers, approving his goods to be sold and traded. “That’s if the Chinese don’t try and kill us again.”
Lance grabbed the piece of parchment and shook his head. “They’d need ships and an army to do that, and you and I both know their sanctions haven’t been lifted. They don’t have the resources, Danny.”
Danny thrust a pudgy finger at the docks. “I’ve been seeing more and more of their merchants coming here. You know as well as I do that the Brazilians cozied up to the Chinese the moment they knew the war was won. Look”—Danny grabbed some of his old files—“for the past five years, they’ve had a steady seven percent increase in their beef trades each year. Why?”
“The same reason all of us do,” Lance answered. “Beef is valuable.”
“My point exactly! They could be trading with the Russians, the Africans, or whatever’s left of the deserts!”
“There isn’t anything left in the deserts. What world is left we’ve seen. Everything else is dust and ash.” With his paperwork signed and a lull in the argument, Lance took the opportunity to leave and go meet with the traders at the merchants’ market.
Traders from all over the world bustled back and forth under the makeshift canopies shading different goods and products. The air was thick with haggling as everyone bickered over prices, trying to get a leg up on their competitors.
Lance recognized a few of his regulars, some of them weathered slightly more than others but for the most part still in good shape. He passed Francis, who managed to give him a decent amount fruits for half his shipment of potatoes, and Constance, who he managed to bring down to sixty bushels of wheat for silk threads, but ran into trouble when he saw Benjamin, who was the lord of everything beef in the Australian market.
“Lance.” The voice was rough, accented with the Australian tongue to go along with it. “I’m a little disappointed to see those clansmen didn’t kill you.”
“They had a few chances but missed.” Lance shook Benjamin’s hand, which was almost twice the size of his, with a boisterous voice to match it.
“Good.” The giant clapped his bear paw on Lance’s shoulder and nearly crushed him to the ground. “I wouldn’t want some savage taking the honor away from me.” Benjamin flashed his yellow-stained teeth and with it the stench of whatever was left from his morning breakfast. “I suppose you’ll want some beef.”
The merchant traders had a hierarchy. Everyone knew who had what and how much of it they had, and with that, a status that was either valued or taken advantage of followed. When Lance first started, he was at the bottom, but now he’d worked his way up the ladder a few rungs. But Benjamin was still top dog. “I have wheat. Ninety bushels. And three hundred pounds of potatoes.”
“Wheat?” That word seemed to be catching everyone off guard today. With most of the grassland in the outback used for cattle, there wasn’t much for farming. Water was hard to come by, and what water they did have was funneled to their livestock. Despite the resources herding cattle consumed, the Aussies found it hard to let go of their crowned jewel. “Looks like you’ve been doing more than playing war. I think we can work something out.”
By the end of the talks, Lance had managed to move every pound and bushel of goods on his ship. With the promise of increased deliveries of wheat in both quantity and frequency, Lance haggled out a fine deal with Benjamin. Before he made it back to the ship, he stopped at one of the smaller markets to buy lunch. He settled on a seafood stew that he caught a whiff of the moment he entered the square.
Lance paid the woman a silver piece, and when he turned, he caught the eye of a man watching him. He kept a casual pace through the market, taking bites and sips of the stew as he walked. The area was crowded and dense, and he lost the tail easily enough.
The man who’d followed him wore a hooded cloak, and when Lance watched him curse in frustration. Theft and murder were more commonplace among the merchant tents than he cared for, but the fact that the tail trailing Lance looked Chinese peeked his interest.
Lance ditched his lunch and kept an eye on the back of the hood through the hundreds of people, both native and foreigners, in the heart of Sydney’s downtown. The worn dirt and cobbled streets had just as much garbage and waste as it did feet that pushed it around. He never enjoyed the large cities—they always stank of death, and he’d smelled enough of that in war.
The hooded man passed some street peddlers performing tricks and then disappeared down an alleyway, away from the main crowds.
Lance poked his head down the alleyway and watched the man enter a building on the other side. He decided to circle around to the next street crossing and see if there was another way in, one giving him the high ground. He found a narrow staircase that led up the side of the building adjacent to the one the hooded figure had entered, and Lance hurried up the steps.
The roofs of the two buildings were close enough for Lance to make the jump across the narrow alleyway below. He kept his feet light across the rooftop, looking for a way inside, which he found through a shattered window near the rafters. He squeezed his way inside the tight opening and lowered himself onto the old wooden beams that lined the ceiling. He teetered across the platforms, following the faint sound of voices.
The high ceiling caused the words to echo and distort before making it to Lance’s ears. He descended the tangled wooden beams that crisscrossed along the ceiling like a jungle gym, twisting his body to accommodate the tight spaces that he squeezed through.
“It’s all there,” one voice said. “Now, it is your turn to provide the payment.”
The lower Lance moved, the more he could make out what was happening below. Six men formed a half circle around the hooded figure that he tailed, and next to them were crates stuffed with hay.
“I’ll still need to see it before payment,” the hooded figure replied.
One of the six men cracked open the closest crate and Lance nearly fell from the rafters when the man pulled out a pristine modern.
“AK-47 rifle,” the dealer said. “Complete with ammunition.”
Finding a modern weapon from before the Great War was rare, but finding one in such good condition was nearly impossible. Lance and his brothers had stockpiled as many of the old weapons as they could, saving them for times of war. But with the lack of ammunition to reload them, most battles now were fought with the powder-and-lead weapons made by their blacksmiths. And if all of the stacked crates were filled with those AK-47s, whoever wielded it would have a significant advantage in warfare.
The hooded figure nodded then tucked the automatic rifle back into the cargo hold with the others. From the count of boxes, it looked like there were at least five hundred guns.
“You held up your end of the bargain,” the hooded figured answered. “Now, I’ll hold up mine.”
Lance descended lower, getting a closer look at their faces. Smugglers and pirates were known to provide backdoor services for the Chinese to skirt around sanctions, and a deal of this magnitude would land some serious gold.
While he knew the buyer was Chinese, Lance couldn’t place the accent of the sellers, but he did notice a patch on their arms: a sickle surrounded with four stars in a half circle.
“Well?” One of the sellers asked. “Where is he?”
“Right above us.” The hooded figure pulled his pistol and fired into the rafters. The bullet ricocheted against the beams, and before Lance could reach for his weapon, the sellers joined in the gunfight.
Lance tucked himself behind the widest beam he could find, but with the modern weapons being fired below, the wooden pillar soon turned to swiss cheese. Lance fired down into the hostile crowd below, then dashed across the beams, splinters of wood flying behind him from the storm of bullets, to a balcony that wrapped around the third story of the massive warehouse.
The gunfire ended once Lance made it to the balcony, where he was still two stories above his attackers. The balcony offered no ladder or other way down, so he backtracked, looking up to the open window from which he entered, trying to find a way up that wouldn’t expose him, but the beams were too thin.
Lance sprinted around to the rear of the building on the third floor. He found a door at the far end that was locked. He reloaded his pistol, shot the door handle off and slammed the heel of his boot into the wood, forcing his way in.
A breath of relief escaped Lance as he saw sunlight filter through a dirty window. He picked up a chair inside the room then chucked it through the glass on his sprint. The chair crashed through the window then shattered on the ground.
Lance poked his head outside and saw a pipe that ran from the roof to the alley below within arm’s reach of the window. He swung himself out and gripped the rough piping with his gloved hands. When he shifted all of his weight to the pipe, a few of the brackets pulled themselves from the concrete wall, jolting him out into the alleyway, but he managed to keep his footing.
The moment Lance’s feet hit the pavement, he sprinted down the alleyway just as the gun dealers made their way to the window, opening fire and redecorating the alleyway’s corner as Lance sprinted out of sight.
A cramp tightened Lance’s hamstring just before he made it back to the crowded safety of the market, and he had to slow his pace. He continued to check behind him, trying to figure out if they would be stupid enough to follow. He didn’t believe they would. With the amount of guns they had packed in that building they’d hang in the square for their crimes.
The only question was who they were. While Lance knew the buyer who shot at him was Chinese, he had no idea who the sellers were, but the patch the gunrunners wore looked oddly familiar, like a relic from a past long thought dead.
The town hall was filled to the brim. Even with the extra seating, people still stood along the walls as villagers, farmers, merchants, and anyone and everyone that could be affected by another attack by the clans piled into the near bursting hall. The voices and murmurs grew with every person that entered, along with the hot stink of rage.
Dean Mars watched the scene through a crack in the curtains behind the stage. He knew what they all wanted and what they all believed happened. But all of their wants and beliefs would contradict what Dean would tell them.
Dean had spent the past three hours with his nephews, talking to each of them separately then together. He made them tell him the story over and over, making sure that he knew every angle, every possible detail. With the stakes this high, he needed to make sure that it was the right call.
“Uncle Dean, I promise you, that’s what I saw,” Kit said.
Dean looked over the sketching of the symbol a few more times. It wasn’t anything he remembered his father or brothers talking about when he was younger, nor was it the sign any of the wasteland clans wore. However, an itch in the recesses of his mind lingered that he just couldn’t scratch. He’d called for the historian, but he was still a day’s ride away, and the growing mob in the town hall wouldn’t wait that long. If he didn’t address this issue now, then he’d risk the districts taking matters into their own hands, and another war with the clans was the last thing his region needed.
The two boys had come to him in the middle of the night, smudged in dirt, soot, blood, and with the stench of fear on them. Sam hadn’t said a word, regardless of how much Dean tried to coax a whisper out of him. He kept close to Kit, who had bloodlust in his eyes and echoed the same cries for vengeance that the mob outside demanded.
Kit stood there, a granite expression of rage carved on his face, clenching his fists together, his body taut and rigid—he looked just as Dean had remembered Fred did when they were on the battlefield. Dean had never seen a commander like his eldest brother and would never see the likes of again. But with the same eyes as his father, Kit seemed determined to test that belief.
“Kit, I don’t want you and Sam here for the meeting,” Dean said, placing his hand on Kit’s shoulder. “You and your brother will wait back at my quarters. You need to rest.”
Kit shrugged Dean’s hand off and took a step back. “No, you can’t do that. They were my parents. I have more of a right to be here than anyone, and you know that!” Despite a man’s rage, the boy still had the pale look of a frightened boy.
“Your duty is with your brother now,” Dean replied, his words harsher than before. “Now, would you have me speak to you as your uncle, or regional governor? Because I am willing to do either, but it would be wiser for you to heed my words as your uncle.”
Kit lowered his head then sulked over to Sam and scooped his younger brother up in his arms. The boy’s hurting, but he’ll understand these types of decisions when he’s older. Dean instructed his own guards to escort Kit and Sam back to his house and keep an eye on them to ensure that’s where they stayed.
Dean’s advisors had given him what counsel they could with the situation at hand. It was a split decision on whether or not some declaration of war should be provided, but if that were the case, he’d need to speak with Jason. The blood from the last war had barely been scrubbed from their hands. This was the first peace since the Great War. Dean was not willing to throw it away so hastily.
A short, portly man stepped from the front of the curtain, the crowd reaching a fever pitch behind him. “Governor, it’s time.”
Dean nodded, and his hand found the pendulum hidden under his shirt. When he stepped through the curtains, the clamoring ceased as everyone who was seated stood at attention. Dean gripped the edges of the podium harder than he’d meant to but quickly loosened his fingers and gestured for everyone to sit. “I know all of you are concerned. I’ve spent the past several hours going over the details of what happened and have spoken to both my advisors as well as the district leaders to ensure I have all of the facts in place.”
“It was the clans, Governor! They need to be killed once and for all!” The man jumped from his seat and punched his fist into the air. Angry spittle dribbled onto his beard, and a wave of nods and agreements rolled over the rest of the crowd.
“We have fought with the clans for many years, and our final victory over them sealed their fate.” The room hushed at Dean’s words. While tempers were high, his people gave him the respect that they knew he deserved. “Our agreement with the clans is still in place, and until we have a formal declaration of any type of war, I will be treating this as a death crime.”
Another spasm of disagreement erupted, and Dean smacked the gavel on his podium as sporadic shouts filled the hall. “The evidence we have suggests behaviors of thieves, not clansmen. They wore masks and rode at night. I fought the clans for many years, and so did Fred. There is no one in this room that wants justice for my brother more than me, but we cannot let fear guide our decisions.” The room hushed, and a few of the more boisterous citizens flushed red and downcast their eyes in embarrassment. “I will lead an emissary to speak with the clan members personally, and mark my word, I will find out if they had anything to do with this. Until my return, district leader Mulville will be in charge. Thank you.”
The smack of Dean’s gavel ended the address, and he stepped outside to meet with some of the news writers personally. All of them had pen and paper out, jotting down whatever notes they could. “Gentlemen, I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep a cool head with whatever narrative you spin.”
“Governor, we’re not here to start war whispers, we just want the facts.”
Dean could have given them enough content to fill an entire paper, but in the end, he stuck with the cliffs notes. “I don’t want any citizens seeking out their own form of retaliation. Any who ignore our laws will be punished to the full extent. We’ve spent enough time in the dark ages. There isn’t any need to go back.”
War had been a constant in Dean’s life for as long as he could remember. His older brothers and father had fought the Chinese and then were thrust into the clan wars at home, with the different tribes squabbling for power and control. Most of them were easy enough to put down, but a few of them were more vicious than any stories that his father had told him about his time in Asia. The clans skinned men alive, tortured them for their own power and pleasure. And while he would ride under the banner of peace, that wouldn’t stop him from bringing a large unit of soldiers with him.
The hammer of spikes rumbled the earth for miles. Hundreds of men and women worked along lines of broken railway, scraping what they could still use and burning whatever they couldn’t.
The sledgehammer hit the dirt with a thud as Jason released it from his grip. He pulled the gloves from his hands and rubbed his palms. The soft flesh at the base of his palm had been replaced with hard calluses. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and made his way to the water bucket.
Jason Mars was the youngest brother in the Mars family. Even as a man, the expression of youth was still fresh on his face. His body was muscular, lean. Luckily for him, he’d always been strong enough to fend off the teasing of his older brothers, at least once he hit puberty. He kept his hair long but his face clean shaven. The heat in the southeast was too unbearable in the summer to keep his beard. Once the winter came through the mountains, however, it would be a different story.
The rhythmic tink of hammers on metal spikes was only interrupted by the calls from down the line by the supervisors, where Jason’s absence was noted. All the supervisors spoke of were plans and money. The conversation with the line workers was much more interesting.
“You gettin’ tired, Governor?” Billy asked, smacking another spike into place then moving on to the next. “I thought you’d be done by now considering your big trip.” Sweat rolled down the tip of Billy’s nose as he swung the hammer high over his head and shattered the earth upon impact.
“Well, you looked like you needed the help.” Jason took a swig of water and then dumped the rest over the top of his head. He closed his eyes and let the water roll down his face and back, cooling his skin.
“I guess that’s why I’ve gotten twice as many rails in that you’ve got today?” Billy asked, already moving on to another.
“Hey, it’s not my fault your father was an ox. I’m still trying to figure out how your mother handled that. I’m sure it was a struggle.” Jason ducked before the old piece of iron nearly took his head off.
Billy grinned. “You prick.”
“Don’t miss me too much while I’m gone.” Jason wiped his face with the cleanest part of his shirt he could find and started his way down the line. He made sure to spend time with the workers as often as he could.
Dust flew up from the side of the railways in the west, and Jason squinted in the afternoon sun to get a better look. As the rider moved closer he saw the courier’s patch on his arm and wondered what type of setback had hindered their operations now. It was bad enough that they were already behind schedule due to the late winter this past year, but the fact that they lacked the proper resources to do their job was even more frustrating.
Most of the railway they’d found was either destroyed or deteriorated past the point of usefulness. They’d melted down what they could, but after cycling out all of the impurities, they were always left with less than half of what they started with. If he couldn’t deliver on the ore they needed during his trip down to Brazil, then the treaty with the clans would be for naught.
“Governor Mars.” The rider sounded winded as he dismounted his horse, even though the creature had done all of the work.
“You don’t have to call me that.” The rider gave an uncomfortable nod then extended the letter. It had Dean’s seal. He had to reread it three times before it finally sunk in. “My nephews?” The letter had no mention of Kit or Sam.
“They are alive, Governor. Staying at your brother’s house while he attends to the clans.”
Jason pinched the paper lazily between his fingertips, and twice the wind almost whipped it out of his hand. It’d been almost a year without any incident with the clans. It wouldn’t make sense for them to go back on the treaty, not with the agreement in place once the railway was finished connecting the southeast and northwest. They’d grow rich off the taxes alone. “Was there anything else?”
The rider nodded then handed him a sketch. A sickle was surrounded on one side by a half-circle of stars. The drawing was crude, and Jason didn’t recognize the symbol.
“That was a patch the riders that attacked your brother wore, sir.”
“This isn’t the sigil for any clans in the wastelands.” Jason took a moment, examining it one last time before handing it back to the courier. “Have they found who it belongs to?”
“Your brother sent word for the historian, but it will be some time before he arrives.” The courier pulled some ink and paper from his satchel. “Do you have a return message?”
“Tell my brother I will keep my trip down to the South Americas as scheduled. Give him my regrets that I won’t be able to attend the funeral. He knows what’s at stake. He’ll understand.” And so would Fred. There wasn’t any other man besides their father that held duty and honor higher than his eldest brother did. Though, still, a pain of guilt shot through him as the words left him.
“Yes, Governor.” The rider mounted his horse and took off. Jason crumpled the paper in his hands as he walked back down the line of workers. He picked up one of the hammers along the way and slid back into work. He lifted the hammer high into the air then slammed it down onto the spike. One blow was all it took. He moved on to the next, extending even higher and bringing the face of the hammer crashing into the iron. His muscles burned with each hit, accompanied by a grunt mixed with pain and anger. The other crew members working on the line let him be, with nothing more than a few stares cast in his direction.
Jason pounded away on the railroad tracks long after the sun had gone down and long after the other workers had turned in. He called for lamps and carried the flames down the line as he drove the spikes into the dirt. The lonely clang of iron rung through the empty plains around him.
After hours of work, Jason felt the grip on the wooden handle loosen, and as he brought the head of the hammer down, it slipped from his hands and crashed to the dirt. The muscles in his legs gave way, and he collapsed to his knees. His breath was labored, and he felt the tremors in his arms and shoulders.
Another light shone from behind him, and when Jason turned around, he saw an extended hand with a cup of water. He took the cup from Billy and downed it in one gulp.
“When I thought you’d try to out work me, I didn’t think you’d be out here this late,” Billy said.
“Couldn’t let you make me look bad, now could I?” Jason offered a half grin and pushed himself up from the dirt. He wiped the clumps of earth off his pants. His legs still wobbled, but he was strong enough to stand on his own.
“I’m sorry about your brother,” Billy said.
“Out of the four of us, all he wanted was something normal. He wanted to wake up, farm his land, and never pick up a gun or sword again.” Jason shook his head. “It shouldn’t have been him that died.”
“Governor Dean will find out who was behind it.”
Jason nodded. He didn’t doubt his brother’s ability, but the fact that he wouldn’t be here to help track down the man who killed his own blood wouldn’t make the trip down to Brazil an easy one. If he could send someone else in his place, he would, but the South American president was very particular about the relationships he formed, and Jason had spent the past year convincing him that his country was ready to expand their lines of trade. “I don’t suppose any dinner’s left from the food house?”
“I think Art still has some slop left.” Billy clapped Jason on the back, and the two walked down the rail line. Jason took a moment to appreciate what they’d been able to accomplish and what was still to come. He just wished that Fred would be here to see it.
Northern Africa offered heat and flies in surplus, but that was not why Rodion had made the journey. Sweat clung his shirt to his body, his shoulders and arms bulging from the attire. He was a barrel of a man from head to toe, and the thick black beard that covered his cheeks and chin complimented the permanent scowl etched on his face.
The dry, sandy air filled his lungs uncomfortably with the stench of the people and the animals around him. His bones ached for home, but he wouldn’t be granted that wish until business was done here.
A fly circled around Rodion’s face. The wings fluttered faster than the blink of an eye. Just before the fly disappeared, Rodion snatched it from the air with his fist. He opened his hand, and it sat there, unharmed, scurrying about the grooves of his palm, then disappeared into the hot afternoon, leaving Rodion alone with the heat.
In the distance, crude structures rose from the desert between hills and men crawled along the roving sands like ants. When Rodion’s caravan of soldiers finally arrived at the mine, three ebony-skinned guards escorted them to their sultan’s quarters.
Inside, workers pushed hundreds of carts of rocks to long conveyer belts that crushed the chunks of stone into smaller bits of dust and rock. A group of gangly men struggled tirelessly, cranking a wheel to churn the massive belts and pulleys to keep production moving. All of the broken-down materials were collected and stored into bins that were sent to furnaces to be melted down to collect the precious ores and minerals that were unearthed.
“My friends.” Tobaygu opened his arms in greeting and flashed a pearly-white smile that looked friendlier than intended. It was a greeting Rodion didn’t return in kind. “I am sorry to have kept you waiting. I hope it wasn’t too uncomfortable for you outside?”
“The flies are worse than the heat, Tobaygu, but I didn’t come to relieve you of those things,” Rodion answered.
“Everything is always up for sale, my friends.” Tobaygu gave a hearty laugh and slapped Rodion on the back, and his motions caused the gold and silver around his neck to jingle against one another. Tobaygu and his tribe were known well for displaying their wealth.
“I can see.” Rodion gently picked at the gold around Tobaygu’s neck, and Tobaygu grinned. “But I did not come here for gold and silver either.”
“No, my friend, you did not. Come, please.” Tobaygu surrounded himself with an armed escort at all times, and while Rodion’s men carried weapons as well, they were not for his protection. The only protection Rodion needed was the rifle on his back and the sword at his hip.
Tobaygu’s clan had grown from nothing more than a small village, to a growing town in the middle of nowhere, to the epicenter of trade in northern Africa. The mines Tobaygu had found as a boy didn’t mean anything until he learned to harvest them, but when he did, he transformed not just his world, but the world of everyone he knew, including Rodion.
The first time they met was a chance encounter, and Rodion almost killed him, but when Tobaygu pledged to offer aid to Rodion when he called up on it, he promised that he would make Rodion rich. At the time, he had no need for wealth, at least not in gold, but he chose to let the boy live. His father had always told him that a man who owed you his life was more apt to give you what you wanted in the future. And now the time had come for Rodion to collect his payment.
“Production doesn’t stop,” Tobaygu stated proudly. “We substitute workers in at night. We’ve opened three new shafts this past year, and I hope to have another one before the winter. Dry season makes it easier to dig, although the workers tend to get thirsty quicker.”
“What about transportation?” Rodion asked, watching the dirt-covered workers toil down in the pits of rocks and jagged earth. “The ore does me no good here in the pit.”
“We’ve agreed to a trade route with the remaining Saudi families in the north.”
Rodion scoffed. “They can barely feed their own people. How do you expect them to have the strength to build the infrastructure we need? Taking ships around to the dead coast would be quicker.”
“But more dangerous for the cargo and the cargo’s travelers. The wastelands there are still fresh, my friend. A problem you still face in your own country, I would expect. Or else why would you be here?”
It was true. The wars of his ancestors had crippled his people, and what was left of the old nation was nothing more than a shadow. Staying out of the foolish Island Wars the Chinese started helped somewhat, but the west still had little sympathy for the Reds. “And what makes you think we can trust the Saudis? They’re just as likely to steal our cargo as they are to survive the journey across the sands.”
“The agreement grants them ownership of five percent of lands once you start to expand your empire. A small price to pay for rebuilding your former glory.”
“And where will this five percent of land be?”
“The agreement states that will be your decision.” Tobaygu gave a light bow. The man had always been a better talker than fighter. It was what saved his life all those years ago from a piece of steel sliced across his throat, and it was what had grown the small village around him into the mecca Rodion laid his eyes upon now.
“Done.” Rodion gripped Tobaygu’s hand firmly and squeezed hard enough for the bones to pop under the pressure. “My men and I will take the first shipment back with us now while the Saudis prepare for weekly shipments.”
“Weekly?” Tobaygu asked, raising his eyebrows. “General, that is a tall order, even with the shafts I will have opened by the end of the year. We produce more than just ore here, my friend.”
Rodion stiffened. He walked slowly to Tobaygu, the gravel and loose dirt from the mine waste crunching under his boots. The heat and talk had finally worn his patience thin. “Your gold and silver may be able to buy you trinkets and baubles, Tobaygu, but it cannot stop the lead of bullets. Once I have my materials, you will be able to produce all the gold and silver your heart desires, but until those that threaten my people have been disposed of, your mines will produce the ore I need. Is that understood?”
Tobaygu broke the tension with his white smile. “My friend, I have always understood our relationship. I would hope that does not become forgotten when you have what you desire.”
“It won’t.” Once the papers were signed and seals stamped, Rodion and his men loaded up the ore Tobaygu had already produced and started the long journey back home. The thought brought a brief moment of relief and joy into his life but was quickly dismissed.
The road ahead was long, and it had taken so much time just to make it this far. While Rodion didn’t enjoy the fact of bringing on the Saudis, he understood the need. It was the same need that prompted his agreement with the Chinese. Allies were important for the war to come.
The fertile farms with their acres of corn and potatoes on the outskirts of the northwest region slowly turned to grey fields of ash the farther Dean and his men rode. The scent of death grew stronger with each step east.
The wastelands stretched from the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains all the way to the northeast coast, where his grandfather used to tell him and his brothers stories about the massive cities their ancestors had built. But like the wastelands, now they were nothing more than dust and rubble.
Not all of the land they passed was scorched with the deadly fires that had consumed millions of people long ago in the Great War, and those were the patches of land the clans lived on.
Their sizes ranged from a few thousand to tens of thousands, and their rituals and personalities were just as vast as the people themselves. As Dean and his men rode through, he felt the anger that was projected by them. Even though the clan wars had been over for nearly a year, there wasn’t much love lost between their peoples. Peace rarely afforded the loser with forgiveness.
The closest clan to Dean’s territory were the Black Rocks. They were formidable, with their chief commanding six thousand men. Their leader had only been in power as long as the peace, and Dean was glad to have a clan leader so close who valued the lives of both peoples.
Chief Irons waited for them outside the dirt-and-mud mound that composed his home with fifteen of his own warriors and council, all of which were armed with swords, axes, spears, anything that could be made a weapon. Dean pulled up the reins on his horse and dismounted. The clans were known for always wanting to flaunt their strength. The only thing that surprised Dean was the fact that Irons didn’t call for more soldiers.
“Governor Mars,” Irons said, extending his tattooed arm and hand. “It does my council honor to have you pay us these respects.”
Dean shook the chief’s hand firmly. The chief was younger than he was and greener in the arts of war and politics, but the boy was learning. The last time the two had spoken was two months after the treaty to finalize the railroad agreement. During those conversations, the boy stuttered and spoke in half measures. Even the tone of his voice was different now. “I thank you for the audience, Chief.”
Both parties entered the chief’s chambers, with Irons and Dean leading the pack. Most of the clans had certain customs, most of which Dean and his men always observed. The Black Rock leaders, and the leaders of their rivals, always lead their men, and it was disrespectful for a lower-ranking official to ever walk in front of the chief. However, the Scarver clan called for the sacrifice of blood to see their chief. Dean didn’t visit them very often.
“How is your rail coming along?” Irons asked.
“The winter gave us some setbacks, but we’re hoping to be back on schedule before the end of the summer.” The chief’s home acted as the entryway into the main source of the village, where they walked past women and children tending to livestock and what crops they could grow. In the distance, the crumbled walls of old towns and cities struggled to rise from their own ashes on the horizon. “How have your people been acclimating to peace?”
“The sooner the deliveries of your foods reach our mouths, the sooner I think your welcome would be better received.” The chief gave a light smile with his words.
“I think that would work out in favor of everyone involved.” Dean stopped in front a small group of children chasing each other with sticks, pretending they were swords in war. “I was hoping we could speak in private.”
The chief turned to his men, and immediately one of the hovel homes was cleared and ready for their disposal. Inside, the floor was dirt, and the small home was void of any furniture, save the bed of grass in the corner. The clans were known more for their scavenging than their ingenuity. “What would you like to speak with me about, Governor?”
“A farm was attacked and burned to the ground, along with the surrounding lands, inside my region. The only survivors were the children, who managed to escape. Both of their parents were killed.”
Dean was pleased to see that Irons’s first expression was one of grief before it turned to the rage-induced anger that he was meant to show against such allegations. “You bring me words of war, Governor?”
“I bring you words of reason, Chief.” Dean stiffened. “I need to know if you’ve had any trouble keeping control of your people.”
Irons smacked his fist into the hard wall of compacted earth in defiance. “The Black Rocks follow me! They listen to only my commands. If you want the Black Rocks to burn your farms, then all I have to do is tell them.”
“And did you?” Despite the young chief’s age, he stood an inch taller than Dean and had an added twenty pounds of muscle. But if there was one thing he learned from having both older and younger brothers, it was the fact that no matter how big you grew, the fear of someone with more experience could put you in your place.
Irons backed off slowly. “I gave no such order.”
Dean pulled out the sketch that his nephews had described and handed it to the chief. “Do you recognize these markings? Have you had trouble with any new clan that’s sprouted up over the past year?”
Irons held the sketch and walked absentmindedly around the floor. He nodded slowly. “Yes, I have seen this before.” He extended it back to Dean. “A few days ago, some of my clansmen on the outskirts were raided. Food and water were stolen, so I sent three trackers out to find those responsible. Three men. We found them heading north. Two were killed in the fight, but the other is here in our cells.”
A jolt of adrenaline shot through Dean’s veins. “Those raiders—the farm that they burnt down, the people that they killed were my brother and his wife. I want to speak to this man.”
“Of course, but I must warn you, the man is barely alive. We questioned him thoroughly, and he did not talk. It is not likely your efforts will be any different.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Sydney’s port authority office was bursting with officers loading rifles, pistols, and whatever gear they could use to hunt down the arms dealers Lance had described. The decade of peace did little to ease the Aussies’ prejudices about Chinese buying or selling weapons, especially when it was happening right under their noses.
“All right, listen up!” Danny’s voice cut through the chatter of mouths and the click of steel. “The smugglers were last seen on the outskirts of the northeast market. We already have patrol boats ready to load up, and our scouts spotted a ship heading north toward the islands. Let’s move!”
Lance tightened the holster belt around his waist, adjusting the sword to his right and the pistol on his left. A combined sense of familiarity and dread filled him. The weapons seemed to slide into place too easily. The war drum beating in his chest thumped loudly, and he couldn’t deny the rush that accompanied the eve of battle.
Canice already had the crew ready the ship before Lance arrived and the Sani was the first to set sail. Danny and the rest of the port authority were kind enough to grant them the extra fuel to join the pursuit.
The steam boilers propelled the ship forward, and smoke rose from the stacks along the ship’s deck as the Sani cut through the waves like a hot knife through butter. Lance always found the ship faster when its mission involved the prospect of battle. The two port authority ships struggled to keep up, unfamiliar with the path to war.
The first islands came into view a few hours after departing Sydney, just as the sun began to set. Canice joined Lance at the wheel upon the sight of land. “They couldn’t be much farther, Captain. They didn’t have that much of a head start on us, and from what Danny’s men told us, the ship couldn’t have gone faster than ten knots.”
“Unless it was a warship,” Lance replied.
Canice gave the captain a narrow-eyed glance, one that the first mate had earned to give the captain during their tours together against the Chinese. “I remember you telling Danny the Chinese didn’t have any ships.”
“That was before they started shooting at me.” Lance kept to the south side of the islands and only veered west when the water shallowed. The channels of the Philippines twisted and curved, and the reefs had claimed more ships than he cared to remember during their naval battles against during the Island Wars over ten years ago. Still, the waterways were mapped in his mind like the grooves in his palm.
Lance navigated through the treacherous waters, guiding the two port ships with him, scanning the small islands for any sign of the smugglers, but as the sun slowly sank below the horizon, Lance grew weary. “We couldn’t have passed them. Line of sight was at least three miles.”
“Maybe they headed east, or west?” Canice added.
“No, the port scouts in the north territories would have seen it.”
“Unless Danny’s men told us what they wanted us to see.”
It was a thought that crossed Lance’s mind as well. The fact that there were smugglers operating on the outskirts of the markets wasn’t surprising. The fact that they were Chinese smugglers was.
Lance ordered the lights on all three ships to be dimmed and the boilers to run only when needed. They coasted along the waterways, trying to stay quiet and unseen. The longer they searched, the more Lance wondered whether or not he let his imagination get the better of him.
The scars of war had healed, but they were not forgotten. What little sleep Lance managed to catch was plagued with nightmares and visions of his previous battles. For the longest time, he’d felt as though his life had started with those memories of war. They’d replaced his childhood and family.
“Captain!” Canice held the binoculars aimed toward an island to their east. “Two o’clock, just past the alcove. There.” She pointed, handing the binoculars to Lance.
Lance followed the line of sight along with Canice’s finger and scanned the horizon with the two rounded scopes until his eyes rested on a faint outline that resembled the bow of a ship. “Veer right eighty degrees, and cut the engines and our lights. We’re downwind, and we don’t need any help carrying our sound.”
Canice echoed Lance’s orders to the crew. The two port ships that followed copied Lance’s activities, and the large vessels all careened in one swift motion. Lance was glad to have the company of experienced captains, both of whom had fought the Chinese at sea with him.
The closer they moved toward the tip of the island, the bow of the ship came into view more clearly. He watched for any movement, but he couldn’t even see the flicker of a scout light on the tip of the barrier. The night clouded any land markers that would have identified their location, but judging from the maps, they were somewhere just south of the Sulu Sea, or as Lance and every sailor called it, the blade’s edge.
The namesake was given because it was the first push back that the Aussies made after the North Americans arrived to help fight during the Island Wars. The waters were thick with iron hulls, and the air boomed with the thunder of cannons. Lance was still nineteen at the time, and in all of the stories his grandfather told him of the Great War, none of them seemed to compare to what he saw that day on the water.
Lance gripped the side of the ship’s railing and handed the binoculars back to Canice. “I want three excursion boats ready and the men to fill them armed. Put us one hundred yards from the reef, then drop anchor. I’ll be taking the men out myself.”
Deckhands lowered the men into the black water below, and the small excursion boat thudded against the waves. Lance sat in the bow, the four men with him rowing. He instructed Canice to stay behind. If something were to happen to him, he needed someone he could trust to make sure his brothers knew what happened.
They landed on the opposite side of the narrow barrier peninsula that blocked the view of the rest of the island, and climbed the barnacled rocks to the top. Lance was the first to gaze into the cove, and what he saw nearly caused him to slip to his death.
Dozens of ships were anchored in the shallow bay, and all of them mounted with cannons and men to load the lead. Lance had a clear view of the ship closest to them, and the men on deck carrying crates to the cargo hold. From the top of the rocks, they looked like a line of ants, carrying their goods back to the nest.
Lance signaled for the men to head for shore, and thirteen soundless bodies crawled along the side of the rocks toward the sand. The show of Chinese force in the bay was enough to take the northern Australian port of Brisbane, which would be Lance’s first stop if he were in charge of the armada.
The thick tree line on the island provided good cover once they made it to shore. Lance slapped a bug against his neck and kept low as he led the men through the jungle, the humidity was thick enough to swim in, and the sweat rolling down Lance’s face stung his eyes aiming for the outskirt of the camp, glowing with the burn of fires and lanterns.
Lance stopped just before the cover of tree and bush ended, right next to a tent where shouts of Chinese echoed through the thin cloth. His Chinese was rusty, but he listened for anything that sounded familiar.
The tent emptied of Chinese men dressed in military garb and Lance looked for any more shadows against the backdrop of the canvas, but once he determined the coast was clear, he motioned for the others to stay put. He flattened himself against the sand near the crack at the bottom of the tent to make sure no one else had lingered behind, but saw nothing but chair and table legs. He lifted the tarp and rolled inside. Muffled voices sounded from outside the front of the tent as he made his way over to the table centered in the middle.
Light flickered and waned on dozens of papers, most of them maps of the Pacific islands and the Australian coasts and ports. Lance spread them on the table, examining the small figurines of ships that had been positioned on the maps. Lance’s jaw dropped as he saw more fleets positioned near the dead islands and off the northern Russian coasts, sitting dangerously close to the Alaskan fisheries that he and his brothers had established over the past five years.
The front of the tent flapped open, and Lance was greeted by two very surprised Asian soldiers. Before they drew their weapons, Lance had his hand on the hilt of his sword and sliced the first man’s throat. But just before Lance offered the same fate to the soldier’s partner, he managed to let out a scream that alerted the rest of the camp before he joined his comrade, bloodied in the sand.
Blood dripped from Lance’s blade as he snatched the maps off the desk in a hurried frenzy. Sand kicked up from his roll underneath the tarp, and he didn’t break stride as he sprinted with the rest of the men through the jungle back toward the boats tied off on the rocky peninsula.
Alarms sounded along with shouts and gunfire as Lance navigated the rocky terrain. His feet slipped against the wet rocks and he nearly fell to his death twice. Just before he made it to the boat, a bullet ricocheted off the rock to his left.
Lance pulled the pistol from its holster and fired into the clustering Chinese huddled at the shoreline. The rest of Lance’s men followed his lead, and the small cove grew wild with gunfire.
Two of the Aussies that had accompanied Lance were taken down before they made it to the boat, but they doubled the Chinese causalities in kind. Lance pulled anchor from the rocks and planted his foot firmly against the side of the sea stones and pushed off once his men were aboard.
The small boat bobbed up and down, heavy with its crew, who quickly grabbed the oars and paddled as fast as their arms would allow. The Chinese continued their relentless firing as Lance and his men started to put distance between them. Bullets splashed into the water, a few of them splintering the hull, catching one man in the leg.
Lance waved toward the Sani, hoping Canice was loading the guns, and just when the Chinese gunfire became too much, the first boom of a cannon thundered through the bay, and the heavy piece of lead and iron crashed into the rocky peninsula, killing five Chinese in one strike and sending the rest for cover.
The Sani continued its barrage of the peninsula until Lance and the rest had made it safely back to the boat. The injured were loaded first, and Lance wiped the blood from his blade. “Canice! Start the boilers!”
Lance knew it would only be a matter of time before the Chinese put their warships on them, and with the number of vessels Lance saw in that cove, they’d need all the head start they could get.
The two Aussie boats were tied close by, and Danny and the other captain stood near the rail, shouting at Lance. “What’d you see?”
Lance waved his arms, but the first cannon fire from the Chinese ripped through the hull of Danny’s ship, killing a cluster of his men in the process.
The first Chinese warship had rounded the tip of the peninsula. Its cannon fire flashed in the night air with each explosion. A few of the shots barely missed the Sani, and Lance’s crew was on full alert, loading their weapons and pulling anchor.
Lance took the wheel and pressed the engines forward, the motion giving everyone on board a light jerk from the quick throttle. “I want the stern guns loaded and anything that’s not food, water, or lead tossed overboard.” Lance felt the adrenaline surge through his body with every explosion of the cannons and spray of the ocean on his face. His body and ship were once again soaked in war.
The ride back from the wastelands had left Dean with more questions than answers, and heavy one prisoner, closely guarded by his men, although he didn’t believe the man was in any condition to run.
The Black Rocks that had interrogated him had left him broken and bloodied, his body starved and weak. Dean couldn’t be sure if the man had a broken jaw, but he’d lay quiet in the wagon, with his wrists and ankles chained.
The only offer of hope the prisoner offered Dean came in the form of a tattoo on his right forearm. At first Dean believed it to be just another bruise given by the Black Rocks, but once the blood and dirt had been wiped away, he could see the visible image of the stars and sickle painted on the man’s skin, matching the same description that Kit had told him he saw.
Aside from the blood and bruises, the prisoner was a tall man, well built, with blond hair. The man was filthy and in poor condition. But he had the look of a soldier, and Dean hoped there weren’t any more of him to have to deal with.
The crowds had already gathered by the time Dean arrived into the city. News of their journey had traveled quickly from the outskirts, and the people were eager to hear what Dean had found.
“Governor, was it the clans?”
“Is it war, Governor?”
All of the voices shared the same face of fear, and Dean did his best to calm everyone. “We have a suspect. He was severely beaten by the clans, but he matches the description we had of the raiders who killed my brother and his wife.”
An angry moan rippled through the crowd as everyone’s sights turned on the unconscious brute shackled in the middle of the convoy. Dean would have to keep him closely guarded now that they were back in the city. His brother was loved, and there would be more than a few who would be willing to kill the man for revenge.
“Governor.” One of his riders trotted to him. “We have word from your wife. She has everything ready at the infirmary. Although she wasn’t able to obtain all of the supplies you requested.”
“Why not?” But the man was hesitant to answer. “Speak up, or I’ll have you riding midnight sentry duty with the recruits.”
“The lady governor sent a shipment of medical supplies to some of the sea clans along the southern coast.”
Dean gritted his teeth and reined up on his horse, putting his heels into the mare. Dust kicked up from the gallop, and then he came to a skidding stop just outside the old hospital Kemena had turned into her own practice. Dean tied off the horse, and one of the nurses came out, dressed in a plain grey dress with a thick red cross painted on the front.
“Where is she?” The nurse quickly succeeded and led him into the surgical room where Kemena stood, hands being gloved by one of her assistants, and a paper surgical mask draped around her neck. She looked like she had been scrubbed from head to toe, a far cry from what Dean looked like. A wild thing with crazed hair, covered in dust, and his beard grown thick from a lack of attention.
“You shouldn’t be in here, Dean. Not like that.” Kemena turned and let the assistant finishing tying off her apron.
“I need to speak with my wife in private.” Dean kept his voice calm. Most of the rage subsided the moment he saw her. But the rest of her staff took notice of Dean’s tone, and the room quickly emptied.
Kemena turned around as if nothing had happened. “Where’s the prisoner?”
“You sent supplies to the clans in the south?” Dean took a step forward, the dirt and mud from his boots leaving a trail behind him.
“Dean, you’re making a mess.” Kemena lowered her hands and made her way over to a sterilizing station, pulling the surgical tools, which steamed from a tray. “We’ve spent all morning preparing for your arrival. Now, I need to know what I’m dealing with. Your message didn’t give me much to work on.”
“You know about our agreement with the wasteland clans. We cannot undermine them by sending supplies to their enemy.” If that peace was jeopardized, then so was the railway that would connect the northwest and southeast and begin the process of uniting everyone under a common cause.
“The southern coast tribes are in no condition to war. And they’ve never been the aggressors against the wasteland clans. They sent an emissary while you were gone asking for help, so I offered them what I could.” Kemena arranged the tools to her liking then finally looked up at her husband. “I know the rules of your agreement, but we must think farther than just finishing the rail. If we want everyone to join us, then we have to give them a reason to trust us.”
Dean took a few more aggressive steps forward. “And giving away our supplies that our people need is a way for us to gain that trust? Kemena, we cannot risk so much in a time like this. We are in no position to start lending aid when we’re just now starting to take care of our own!”
Kemena slammed her fist on the operating table, and her anger surprised him. “You don’t think I know what it could cost us? You don’t think I know the cost of war? How many soldiers have I stitched up? How many deaths have I called in fields stained with blood? You know I have just as much right to make these decisions as you.” Strands of her auburn hair had come loose from the tight bun at the back of her head, her cheeks reddened with frustration, and she shook her head, her next words softer. “When Lance returns, we’ll have all we need to trade to replace the medical supplies I sent south. And it will buy us good will with the southern tribal leaders.”
Always one step ahead. It was in these moments when he remembered how much he loved her. The hard days of riding had left him irritable and frustrated, waiting for the answers to his questions. In all truth, Dean wanted nothing more than to take her right now. “Wise counsel.”
Kemena managed a smile. “I’ve learned from the best.”
Dean helped his men carry the prisoner into the operating room, where Kemena started her examination. He watched her for a moment through the glass, her deft hands running over the man’s body with ease. The concentration on her face, the way she commanded the room. This was her war, and she was the best general on the field. He left Kemena to her work and stepped outside.
The sun was still high, with plenty of time for work in the day, but the energy had been sapped from Dean’s body. Exhaustion washed over him, but he chose to go and check on the boys. He knew they would be curious to hear of what happened, and of all the people in the city, they deserved to hear it firsthand from him.
“Governor Mars.” The voice that called after him seemed to shiver with cold even in the afternoon heat. When Dean turned around, he saw the historian he sent for, a teacher at the local school. “I received your message.”
“Professor Hawthorne.” Dean had always enjoyed the old man’s counsel. The professor had spent his life collecting books, reading, and taking into account their own history as it passed.
“I’ve looked into those symbols your nephews described, and I know where they’ve come from.”
Dean perked up. “Show me.”
Hawthorne pulled an old book from his bag and flipped to the page already marked. “It’s actually a combination of two symbols.” His wrinkled, liver-spotted hand circled the sickle on the first page. “This was the flag of the Soviet Union during their communist rule.”
Dean remembered some of the teachings during school, but the majority of his learning had been war. The shadows of battle had never really left his father and he wanted to make sure his boys knew how to fight.
“And this,” the professor said, turning the pages, “was the flag of the Chinese Republic before the third world war.”
The same half circle of stars that he’d seen on the man’s arm, and the same one that Kit had described, was there in front of him. “So these people are Russian and Chinese?”
“An alliance,” the professor answered. He quickly dumped the book back into his sack and pulled out a notebook. “These are records of some of the generals of the third world war. In it, they reference an enemy with an alliance of regions in the east. China and Russia.”
Dean took a step backward, trying to gather his thoughts. If the same alliance was happening now, then could there be another war like the one his father had described? His mind drifted to the wastelands and the devastated southern Pacific Coast, and the crumbled cities of the northeast. All of it gone within minutes, along with billions of lives. He wasn’t sure if they would survive something like that again. And if the Russians were looking for a place to advance, then the Alaskan colonies could be in jeopardy.
The moment Jason’s ship made port, he jumped from the deck, landing on his two feet, and nearly kissed the ground in gratitude. While his brother Lance had lived for the sea, Jason had nearly lost his body weight in vomit on the trip down. The weather didn’t help either, with the two storms they had to battle through during the journey. But the port of Rio de Janeiro was worth the trip.
The docks were alive with people, food, and music. It was an endless chatter of different dialects and faces. The Brazilian port was the busiest in the world.
While the wars of Jason’s grandfather had decimated much of his country, Asia, and Europe, the South American countries remained fairly untouched, save the millions of surviving refugees that flocked south to avoid the fallout. The resulting migration had made Rio de Janeiro the unofficial capital of the South American continent, and consequently the Brazilian president one of the most powerful and wealthiest men in the world.
Jason’s escorts flanked him on either side. His brother refused to let him leave his region without armed escorts. Even after warring, and the fact that he was the southeastern Regional Governor, he still felt Dean treated him like a child.
Robert, the man to Jason’s left, was a giant. He stood a foot above the crowd and drew more attention to himself than someone guarding a governor should in the first place. His arms were the size of oak trees, and his legs were redwoods. If the size wouldn’t deter an enemy from attacking, then Robert’s double-ended axe would. Jason had once seen him slice three men in half with one swing.
The escort to Jason’s right was around his size and build but faster. Jason had spent the better part of the trip trying to outdraw Chris during duels but never came close to beating him. “I don’t suppose you’ll forgive your governor the debts I amassed on our trip down?”
“I would have to sadly decline the governor’s request and promptly tell him that he can kiss my ass.” Chris smiled a toothy grin that seemed to spread from ear to ear.
“You know I could have you thrown into jail for that comment.” Jason lifted his chin a little higher in the air as they passed a group of tanned, lazily dressed women. “I am the southeast regional governor, after all.”
The girls giggled as they walked by, but Chris was quick with a retort. “You know what they say—the bigger the office, the smaller the trouser size.” The words threw the women into raucous laughter, and Jason gave Chris a shove. “Don’t worry, governor. If you’re nice, I’ll buy you one of those toothless girls with the winnings I took from you.”
The crowds thickened the closer they moved to the president’s palace. Jason had always used the term “president” loosely when it came to Sebastian Ruiz. While the Brazilians held elections, they only happened once every ten years, and President Ruiz just so happened to be starting his third term. While President Ruiz never gave any clout to the allegations of corruption and winning the presidency through deceitful tactics, the faces of the common folks he passed seemed to carry a different story.
The streets were flooded with poverty and more beggars than Jason had ever seen. But such was the price for life in the bustling city. He imagined it was harder to hunt and forage in the concrete than the wild.
Jason and his escorts were greeted kindly at the palace gates, and the immaculate landscaping of grass and plants, along with the lavish pools and fountains, offered a very different picture than the one painted in the commonwealth.
The three of them were taken inside, where Jason tracked mud on the marbled floors, as did Chris and Robert. Chris leaned into Jason’s ear and whispered, “I don’t suppose his majesty would miss any of these fine gold statues?”
Truth be told, Ruiz probably wouldn’t, but with the stakes of the negotiations as high as they were, even Jason knew it was best not to jest with the president under such circumstances. “I’d keep your hands to yourself. Wouldn’t want to give His Excellency any reason to take them.”
The guard that escorted him stopped at the door and requested that both Jason’s shoes, and his companions, stay behind. The doors were almost closed when Chris called out, “If anything happens, just scream. That should give us enough time to get to the ship.”
The doors slammed shut, and President Ruiz rose from the table, seemingly ignoring the comments made. “Governor, it’s good of you to join us.”
“Mr. President, I appreciate the time.” Jason extended his hand, and his own skin felt rough and raw compared to the tender flesh of Ruiz’s palm. He looked over to the table, taking notice of a few faces he didn’t recognize. “I was under the impression that we were meeting alone.”
Ruiz slapped Jason on the back and pushed him forward to the tables. “I have quite a few trade negotiations on the table this week, so I thought it would be more efficient to knock them out at the same time.”
More like intimidating the odds of the agreement to your favor. “More time to focus on the welfare of your people, Mr. President?” Jason delivered the words with a bite that the rest of the table seemed to notice as they shifted uncomfortably, and Ruiz took his seat slowly.
“I suppose we should get started.” Ruiz’s expression morphed from an endearing politician to that of a stern mob boss. Ruiz knew the control he had over the trade negotiations with many of the territories. He held all the cards, and he wasn’t afraid to wield that power to enhance his country’s growing prowess. “Ambassador Fung, I understand that you’re looking to export more pig bellies.”
Fung was thin, to the point where it looked like his health was fading, but his tanned skin and thick head of black hair painted the picture of youth. “Our production has quadrupled over the past five years, and with Australia’s stranglehold on the beef trade, we’re looking to carve our own niche in the market.”
“Pig bellies can fetch a fine price,” Jason said. “Quadrupling your output is quite the accomplishment. Why the sudden increase in production? Building capital for something?” While the Aussies and Americans had managed to squash the Chinese uprising in the Island Wars. Jason and his brothers, along with the Australian leaders, saw the deal after the war as a means of peace; the Chinese saw it as a means of oppression.
“The trade restrictions and war taxes leveled against my people have strained our nation’s recovery,” Fung answered, keeping his cool. “Or does the governor need another lesson in history?”
“I don’t. But you might.” Jason rose from his chair, and Ruiz rose with him. “I think it’s best if you and I continue our talks in private, during your convenience, Mr. President.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Ruiz said then instructed his guards to take both Jason and his men to their quarters. They would be guests tonight in Ruiz’s palace and given whatever their hearts desired.
“He said that?” Chris asked once they were out of earshot of Ruiz’s guards. “Anything our hearts desired? Because I happened to see quite a few beautiful women walking around that I wouldn’t mind spending the night with.”
“Touch nothing Ruiz gives you,” Jason said. “The Chinese were in the room during the negotiations. Something doesn’t feel right. The ambassador is looking to increase their market share on livestock, and everyone in that room knows what meat is selling for these days, any kind of it. Fung is looking to make money, but for what, I don’t know. If the Chinese are making a move, then our best bet is to stay on the ship. We’ll keep guards on watch, and the crew always stays in twos.”
Chris raised his eyebrows. “That’ll make it awkward during the trips in the brothel.”
The air had a chill to it, even in the summer, but the view of the shoreline and land from the boat made the cold worth the trip. Mountains stretched into the sky, preceded by open fields and the magnificent blue-and-white glaciers that shimmered in the sunlight.
Dean rubbed his gloved hands together, the stitches in the palm starting to separate, letting some of the cool air inside. He watched the ship pull into dock, maneuvering around the chunks of ice that floated in the bay year round. In just a few short months, the entire port would be inaccessible. While Dean’s men started the unloading of the provisions, he took a moment to savor the sight. Any chance he had to appreciate the beauty of life was one he took.
The harbormaster worked the port alone, seeing as the only ones who used it frequently were the dozen fishermen brave enough to chance the waters and the rough environment that was the Alaskan wilderness. What the terrain held in beauty, it delivered in brutality twice as hard. It wasn’t an easy life for the men and women who chose to live up here, but the fisheries were vital not just to their trade with the clans in the wastelands, but also to their future partnership with Australia and Brazil.
“Governor, it’s good to see you again, sir.” Thomas’s belly almost poked out from under the front of his shirt. The man’s girth was as wide as his mouth, from which he never had a shortage of words to bend your ear. “I wish you had sent word. We would have brought out the fine china.” He slapped Dean on the back so hard it nearly knocked him over, and his gut jiggled when he laughed.
“I’m sure the regular silverware will be just fine.” Dean rotated his shoulder where Tom had smacked him, and the two started the walk to his log cabin just off the shore. “When was the last check-in you had with the fisheries up the coast?”
Tom rubbed the flabby flesh under his neck and tried to catch his breath as they continued their walk. “I believe we had a correspondence from them last week. Usually comes every Thursday. We should be getting this week’s letter any day now. Nate Stone’s boy usually comes down with any news and an empty basket to restock on any supplies they might need.”
If the Russians had horses, then a week would have given them plenty of time to march down through the wilderness and into his region. “I’ll need to go up and see them immediately. Make sure everything’s running smoothly.”
“Of course.” Tom stopped at the door, blocking Dean from entering. “Is there something going on, Governor?”
“I just want to make sure everything’s in order for the new trade agreements my brothers are setting up. Our seafood here will play an important role in that.” Dean smiled but then watched Tom’s eyes hover to the unit of soldiers Dean had brought with him.
“Right,” Tom said, stepping inside.
It took Dean’s men less than an hour to prepare for the trip north. They would have sailed, but the waters were too dangerous for a captain that didn’t know the area, and he didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.
It was a full day’s ride, and Dean and his forty men saw the outskirts of the village just before sunset. But the closer they moved to the village, the more Dean realized something was wrong. The nets around the fishing nurseries had been destroyed, and what cabins the villagers had managed to construct had their doors kicked in and their belongings flung outside.
Dean reached for the rifle in his satchel and quickly dismounted the horse, his men following his lead without a single word. They spread out in six-man teams, scouring the small structures, but each unit of men that searched the houses found nothing.
They couldn’t have just vanished into thin air. For a moment, Dean let himself believe that they were all out on their ships or went out into the forests to search for food or timber. A storm could have done this, but when one of Dean’s lieutenants shouted from the back, he could hear it in the man’s voice that his hopes were off track.
“I found them, sir.” The lieutenant scrunched his face in an effort to keep his lunch from coming up but ultimately lost the battle as it spilled onto the frosty earth.
The pile of bodies were mangled and charred, stacked on top of one another carelessly. The wind had blown the stench of the bodies north, which prevented Dean and his men from smelling the carnage on their travels from the south. Tracks of hooves and boots headed southwest into the woods. Dean pressed his fingers into the imprinted snow; they weren’t older than a day. “Lieutenant!”
“Yes, Governor.” The man had wiped his mouth and stumbled back over, doing his best to avoid having to look at the bodies once more.
“I want the dead buried. Identify them if you can and take a unit of six men back to the harbormaster to tell him what’s happened, then I want you to scout farther north to check on the remaining fisheries.” Dean rose, his eyes scanning the tree line in the distance. “It was a small party, no more than twenty men, most likely to scout for a good position to set up a forward operating base.”
The more Dean thought about it, the more he believed that it truly was the Russians, and the longer that thought lingered, the more he worried about his wife back home and his brothers abroad. If this was war, he’d need all of them safe back home.
The combined strength of Lance’s men and the Australians arrived at Sydney’s port lighter than they’d left. Only one of Danny’s ships had survived the retreat with half of the crew members on board alive. Even the Sani limped into port after the wrath of the Chinese fleet. It’d been a while since she’d seen any warring, and the seas refused to cooperate on the return trip, as they usually did in such moments of danger.
Lance had studied the maps he’d stolen from the Chinese camp the entire trip back, but something didn’t make sense. After the Island Wars, the sanctions landed against the Chinese required the destruction of their fleet, along with most of their armory. But with the number of ships that the map suggested, and the number of places where they’d kept them hidden, it didn’t match up.
Even if the Chinese had started rebuilding the day after the treaties were signed, it still wouldn’t have given them enough time to do what the map suggested. And the resources involved in designing iron ships were massive. Which meant the Chinese had help.
Canice made her way up the stairs and joined Lance at the map. She traced her fingertips over the weathered parchment and shook her head. “I’ve got the wounded ready for transport once we dock. Once they’re clear, I’ll have the rest of the crew start reloading provisions.”
“We’ll have to negotiate with the Aussies on what they can spare in terms of ammo. Trade the cattle if you have to.” Lance looked to the horizon, where he felt the churn of the warships closing in on them. He smelled the lead and salt water, and the blood that inevitably followed. He smacked the wheel and cursed. “I told my brother we needed to keep a closer eye on them.” Lance never understood or had time for diplomacy; those were Dean’s affairs, and the primary reason he turned down the governorship of the northwest.
“You need to contact Jason,” Canice said. “If this is as bad as we think, then he could be in trouble. It’s no secret the Chinese have huddled close with Brazil ever since the treaties were signed after the war.”
Lance shook his head. “It’ll take at least a week for the fleet to gather, and that’s if Jason is still in the southwest.” While the Australians had a navy of their own, Lance knew their military had softened during the peace after the Island Wars. And they couldn’t even be sure if what they saw was the entire strength of the Chinese Navy. There was no telling what the Chinese may have stockpiled right underneath their noses.
“You know what trading the cattle will do back home?” Canice kept her voice low. “We lose that now, and there’s no guarantee when the Australians will be able to deliver again if the Chinese decide to attack.”
“The cattle won’t matter if the Chinese decide to turn their sights on us. Those were warships, Canice. We don’t have a lot of options right now.” The two could argue until they were blue in the face, but it was one of the reasons Lance worked with her. He needed someone to challenge him, let him know when he was wrong. But despite her protest, he knew he was right this time.
The crew was busy repairing some of the damage to Sani’s hull. She’d taken a few blasts to her port side just before the Chinese relinquished their chase. Once on the docks, Lance ran his hand across the exposed hull of the ship, feeling the rough metal, the dents and grooves a life at sea had given her. Each of those blemishes was hard earned, and behind them memories of what was possible.
“Captain Mars?” The voice came from a small messenger boy clustered between the growing crowds at the docks. The boy wiggled his way through and extended a piece of parchment. “The message read Urgent, so I came as soon as I saw your ship in the bay.”
The seal on the paper was Dean’s, and Lance took it warily, the boy waiting for his reply. He scanned the words, the news of Fred, and Jason’s trip to Brazil. He reread the line of Fred’s death a half dozen times before it finally sank in. He crunched the paper up, his heart rate jacked to the point of cardiac arrest.
“Captain Mars?” The messenger boy’s voice had a hint of fear. “Do you have a reply?”
Lance slammed his fist into the side of the ship, the powerful blow offering nothing more than a dull thud against the thick steel. The hit caused two of his knuckles to bloody. He uncurled his fist and unrumpled the paper inside. When he turned, the boy jolted backward. “Take me to the communication post.”
The boy nodded with his mouth hanging loosely and quickly turned on his heel, maneuvering through the crowded docks, where Lance ran into Danny. The Aussie’s eyes were weary, and his shoulders sagged. The loss of so many of his men knocked the wind out of him. Lance grabbed his arm and pulled him along. “You need to get the military officials together now and start making preparations. The Chinese may have turned back, but you can bet they’ve already started maneuvering their main fleet. Now that they don’t have the element of surprise, they’ll be looking to strike quickly. We need to be ready.”
Danny stopped, dragging Lance with him. “Lance, half of our fleet is policing the northern coasts, and the other half is escorting a shipment of supplies from the Chilean coast. We won’t be able to withstand an attack if the Chinese come.”
Lance looked dumbfounded. “Why would you have half your fleet escorting merchant ships?”
“We’ve been having a lot raids happen in the southern Pacific routes. Pirates, marauders. We were losing too much cargo. President Ruiz suggested an armed escort to ensure the deliveries arrived without incident.”
The dots started to connect. “Ruiz suggested it?” If the Chinese were looking for an ally, then the Brazilians would make a very powerful one. They had wealth and the best engineers in the world living within their borders. If the Brazilians shared any of their technology in helping build the Chinese ships, then they could be in over their heads. And that meant Jason was in the heart of the lion’s den.
The dozens of piles of scrolls stacked around Delun Ren’s desk looked as though they had imprisoned him in paper. Candlelight flickered inside the flapping walls of the tent where Delun sat hunched over a new parchment, writing. He dipped his pen in the black ink and carefully scratched the tip of the pen against the paper until he reached the end of the page, completing his journal for the day.
Delun set the parchment aside, letting the ink dry, and stroked the thin wisps of a beard that sprouted from his chin. His jet-black hair was streaked with grey, offering the only signs of his age. His skin was tanned and still tight across his face, showing no wrinkles or blemishes.
The front side of Delun’s tent flapped open, and his chamber’s silence was broken briefly from the noise of the men in camp. The soldier who entered removed his helmet and bent to his knee, where he waited for Delun to speak. “What news do you bring, Hong?”
Hong had the same taut face as Delun’s, but more broad and flat, with nothing but a small point that was his nose jutting from his face. The man was short but built like an ox, with the tenacity of a bull. Delun had seen the sword master take on a dozen men at a time and win. “My Emperor, we have received word from our fleet south of the Dead Island. Three ships located the fleet; we managed to sink one of them.”
The news wasn’t unexpected. With their assets growing, it was simply a matter of time before they were found out, and with Delun’s fleet finally finished, he wasn’t worried. “The other ships, do we know where they were from?”
“One flew the colors of the Australian Navy, the second was American.”
“So, the old alliances are still alive.” Delun walked to one of the piles of scrolls and picked one from the top. He unrolled it, reading the marks and symbols of his people’s language. There had only been a handful of scribes left in all of China after the Island Wars fifteen years ago. Delun had the privilege of learning from one of them as a child, and so began his thirst for knowledge.
Books and scrolls were of little concern to most people, who were more interested in putting a bowl of food in their bellies every day than worrying about what some piece of paper written by a man long dead hundreds of years ago said.
Delun knew that most books had been lost in the Great War that happened a generation before he was even born, but throughout the years, he’d collected as many books as he could get his hands on. Anywhere he traveled, if he found something that could be read, no matter what it was, he took it. And now, with the power of his people behind him and with the aid of his army and navy, he’d begun the process of offering those works to the people. He didn’t just want to build an empire, he wanted to educate his people, have them learn the value of knowledge, as he did. This was to be the dawn of a new era. But first, there was the matter of war. “Send a message to the American governors. Tell them we wish for no conflict between our two countries.”
“The Russians will be making their move soon,” Hong said.
“Exactly. All we have to do is play coy with the Americans until they realize it’s too late. No doubt the ship’s captain has already sent word to his people, and with one of the American governors in Brazil, they will be too slow to react. The only fallout we have to worry about is with the Australians.” Who Delun knew only had use of half their fleet. They would storm the southern islands and retake what should have been theirs a decade ago.
“Emperor,” Hong began, struggling to find the words, “there is more news that we received.”
It went against Hong’s nature to be timid, and the fact that the seasoned warrior was apprehensive was concerning. “Tell me.”
“The officer camp at the island where our men were stationed was raided, no doubt scouting to try and obtain information. During the raid, the enemy managed to steal one of our strategic maps.” Hong kept his head bowed the entire story, afraid of looking his emperor in the eye to tell him such news.
Delun kept his immediate thoughts to himself for a moment, shielding Hong from his emotions. Everything Delun experienced, all of his decisions and choices, they trickled down to his people, and he refused to let fear and doubt seep into the roots that held him in power. “How long have they been in possession of the map?”
“At least two days,” Hong answered, still keeping his eyes on the floor. “The admirals sent word the moment it was taken.”
Still not enough time for the news to reach the American governors. “Send word to the Russians, informing them about the Americans’ newfound knowledge, and tell our admirals our home fleet will rendezvous with them at the blade’s edge. The time for war is upon us.”
“As you will, Emperor.” Hong gave another deep bow and swiftly left.
Deceit was only effective as long as the reach of your arms. Once that façade had been lifted, your world was susceptible to the follies of those who did not share the same vision. However, Delun had long outgrown the deception that he offered to the west: years of dodging and darting the inspections and trade restrictions the Australians and Americans had set upon them, establishing new alliances, and rebuilding the infrastructure for his people after the devastating loss in the Island Wars that had crippled his nation so much.
It was a foolish endeavor of his predecessors all those years ago to try and take the southern islands and then challenge the west. They spread themselves too thin, unprepared for the family of war that had sprouted from the Americas. The Marses. He’d studied and learned as much as he could about them. Even now, he knew they would be the final test of his military’s strength and his own diplomatic efforts once the war was over.
Delun walked over to a particular set of books, sealed inside a glass case. He opened the door gently, selecting the very first book in the row, handling the tome like it was a child. The cover had completely worn off, leaving nothing but faded blotches of where the lettering and illustration used to lie, and the pages were brittle and warped. He opened the book and gently ran his fingers over the title, which was barely visible in the faded letters. Sun Tzu: The Art of War.
It was this that would give Delun and his commanders their victory. Everything he learned within this book had allowed him to build the empire he firmly grasped. He’d built it through deception and treachery, and as such had laid traps for his enemies. All warfare is based on deception. And now it was time for the offensive.
The only sound Jason heard deep within the cabin of the ship was the light lap of the waves against the hull. He lay there, soaked with sweat in his bed, the girl from the night before naked next to him, still asleep. He scooted close and ran his finger along her shoulder, moving down her side where it curved over her hip.
Her skin was tanned and soft, and despite the heat and sweat, she still smelled of flowers and salt water. Her face was covered by long strands of thick, wavy black hair that refused to be tamed by hand or brush. Jason remembered the way it moved as she spun around on the dance floor, blocking the smile that curved up her lips and shone in her eyes.
Jason slowly sat up, the heavy bed of straw shifting underneath his weight. He looked back at her, and she stirred but only enough to move to her back, her hair falling from her face. He ran his hand along her cheekbone, and her eyes opened, and she gave him the same smile from the night before. “Good morning.” Her native speech rolled off of her tongue just as warm as her skin pressed up against him.
“Morning.” Jason felt the warmth emanating from her. It wasn’t the hot, uncomfortable heat of the climate around him. It was… different.
Footsteps quickly thudded down the steps to Jason’s room, and Chris smiled at the foot of the stairs as the girl pulled her dress from behind her on the floor to cover herself. “No need for that, darling. I was rather enjoying the view.”
“What is it?”
“Some of Ruiz’s men are here to see you.” Chris’s tone changed from playful to stern. “They wouldn’t tell me what they want.”
Jason stepped through the holes in his pants and tied the lacing. “Armed?” He pulled his shirt over his head. It was still dirty from the night before but held the faintest hint of flowers.
“Yes, but there’s only two of them,” Chris answered. “I suppose if they wanted to kidnap us, they could send an entire unit. Still, it doesn’t mean they don’t have more waiting the moment you’re away from the ship.”
“I was scheduled to meet with Ruiz this afternoon. He could just want to meet with me now.” Jason buckled the belt holding his pistols and grabbed the dagger off the chest next to his bed.
“I can see you’re preparing for diplomacy.” Chris gave the weapons a once-over.
“I’ll be up in a minute.” Chris took the hint and tried to sneak one last peek at the woman before trotting back upstairs. Once he was gone, she slowly rolled off the bed, letting the dress once again fall to the floor, and she wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her body close to his, and kissed him.
Jason returned the kindness then found his lips traveling down her neck. He pulled his head back up and looked down at her, speaking in her native Portuguese. “I have to go, but you’re welcome to stay as long as you like. I’ll be back by this evening. I’d very much like to see you again.”
The smile faded from her lips, and she reached for her dress, this time tying it on for good. She kissed him on the cheek and headed for the stairs. Jason caught her wrist before she disappeared up to the deck. “Wait, I don’t even know your name.”
The woman descended the steps slowly until she was eye to eye with Jason. She pulled his head to her one last time and kissed him hard, gently tugging at his lower lip with her teeth as she finished. “Goodbye.”
Jason stood there with his eyes closed, dazed and confused, the feeling of her lips still lingering on his own. When the fog of her scent finally drifted away, he opened his eyes and sprinted up the cabin steps, his bare feet sliding across the slick deck of the ship. He looked left, then right, searching for the pale-blue dress the woman had worn, but saw only the ship’s crew, Chris, both of Ruiz’s men, and the cluster of fishermen preparing their boats for their day at sea.
“Hey, you all right?” Chris laid his hand on Jason’s shoulder. “If you’re looking for the girl, she disappeared up the walkway. Looked like she was in a hurry to leave. You try sleeping with her again?” He slapped Jason across the back, the playful jest pushing him forward.
Wherever she’d gone, Jason had no way of finding her again. He shook off the loss and gathered his shoes. The two men that Ruiz had sent were the size of four, standing at least seven feet high and as wide as a doorway. They shared similar short-cut hair and scraggly beards. “President Ruiz wishes you to convene with his council. It is of the most urgent importance.”
“I’m at the president’s disposal.” Jason turned back to Chris and whispered in his ear once the two behemoths had started their walk down the docks. “Have the crew ready the boat and load the cannons. We may have to shoot our way out of here if things turn south. And I want you and Robert to follow me. I might need the backup.”
Chris nodded then disappeared while Jason caught up with the giants. They provided a horse and started the trot up to the president’s palace. Along the way, Jason caught himself looking through the side alleys of streets, searching for the flash of a blue dress and the wild black hair that accompanied it.
Once they arrived at the palace gates, the two men escorted Jason through the halls and into a smaller room than the one he’d seen a few days ago when he first arrived. The behemoth with the matted beard stopped him before entering. “Your weapons.”
Jason took a step backward and bumped into the wall that was the second giant, who slapped his massive palms over his shoulders, immobilizing him. “Touch my guns, and I’ll make sure the only thing you’re good for is staining the president’s floor after I cut you open.”
The giant took an aggressive step forward, grunting as he reached for Jason’s belt, but then abruptly stopped at President Ruiz’s request. “Enough! That is no way to treat our guest.” He stepped out of the room, immaculately dressed and flashing that poisonous political smile.
The monstrous beasts stepped away, and Ruiz put his arm around Jason, leading him inside, where he saw Chinese Ambassador Fung sitting at the table, sipping a drink from a porcelain cup. The doors closed behind him once inside, and Ruiz gestured for him to sit.
“I apologize for my men,” Ruiz said, slightly chuckling to himself. “I’m afraid they’re more bronze than brain. And not very subtle.”
“I’ve found that subtlety isn’t your country’s specialty, Mr. President. In your guards or your women.”
Ruiz slapped the table, laughing, rattling the plates and silverware. “Sounds as though you’ve been vexed, Governor. I’d be careful if I were you. The women around here are known to be dangerous, especially the ones who’ve found themselves in love.” He gave a coy smile and reached for his drink.
“Have your nightly affairs aided in your negotiations, Governor?” Fung kept a cool face over the mocking comment, his body and hand steady as a stone as he took another sip from his drink.
“Practice makes perfect, Ambassador.” Jason turned to Ruiz. He was tired of the fact that he’d been in Rio for three days and had accomplished nothing of the finalization of their trade agreement. “The sooner we can discuss our next steps, the sooner both of us can return to our normal lives. I’m not sure what the ambassador has planned, but back home I have matters that require my attention.”
“Oh, I’m very aware of your lack of insight into what my people have been doing, Governor.” Fung’s words were sharp, his accent flicking into the syllables like the point of a knife into meat. “I’m afraid your trade agreement with President Ruiz has been nullified.”
The height of the table blocked both Jason’s hands and his guns from view as he slowly moved his right palm to the hilt of his pistol. He kept his eyes on Fung even though his words were addressed to Ruiz. “I don’t remember the Chinese being a part of our negotiations, Ruiz.” He wrapped his fingers around the cold steel. His eyes flitted to the window behind Fung, where he saw the quick flash of two men dash to either side.
Fung laughed, shaking his head. “You have no idea what’s coming, Governor. While you’ve been busy settling your skirmishes on your own land, my people have developed a very strong relationship with the South Americans.”
Ruiz snapped his fingers, and the doors opened, sending in a flood of guards that circled the room, all armed with rifles and swords. “The trade agreements you’ve proposed will help you more than my people.” Ruiz shook his head, the loose skin along his neck wiggling back and forth. “You just have nothing to offer me.”
“And what did Fung offer you?” Jason kept his hand on his pistol’s handle as the guards moved in closer, the barrels of their rifles aimed at his head.
Ruiz leaned in close, his eyes greedy with lust and power. “An empire.” The words came out of him like a wheezing growl then grew into a hearty laugh that filled the hall.
Jason watched Chris’s face appear out of the corner of the window in a small sliver of space between the guards behind Fung, then gave a wink. “You should have stuck with me, Ruiz. The last time the Chinese tried to fight a war, they lost.”
“This won’t be a war, Governor,” Fung said. “It’s an annihilation.”
The glass behind Fung shattered as Chris and Robert burst through, both wielding pistols, firing into anything that wasn’t Jason. The guards were too slow to react when Jason aimed his pistol at Fung, but the man darted before he could pull the trigger.
Chris aimed both his pistols on either side of Jason’s head and brought down the guards behind him. Once the weapons discharged, swords were drawn, and the clang of steel rang through the room. Jason watched both Fung and Ruiz disappear while he ran the edge of his blade across a guard’s stomach. He took chase after Fung but was greeted at the door by three more guards, each with their rifles aimed at him. He slashed the blade against the rifle barrels, knocking them to the floor, and managed to kill one of the sentries before the others drew their own swords.
Jason parried, the two guards pushing him back with each swing of their steel, until he made it to Chris and Robert, the three of them with their back to one another, fending off Ruiz’s men.
Steel tore into flesh, blood stained the marbled floors, and the body count piled up until Jason, Chris, and Robert were the only ones left. Robert yanked Jason by the back of the collar and almost tossed him out the window before checking to make sure the coast was clear.
“We need to move,” Chris said, wiping the blood from his blade on the sleeve of one of the dead guards. “Ruiz will have more men here soon.”
Whistles and shouts had already filled the palace from beyond the conference room, and the longer they waited, the harder it was going to be to return to the ship. Jason sheathed his sword and snatched one of the rifles from the guard’s hands. “The ship’s ready for departure?”
“Just waiting on us,” Chris answered.
“Let’s go.” Jason remained sandwiched in the middle as the three of them hugged the walls, doing their best to maneuver through the compound unseen. Jason kept his eyes wandering across the palace grounds, trying to determine where Ruiz and Feng had escaped to, but by now they were most likely locked in a room, surrounded by a hundred sentries to ensure they remained safe.
“They’ll have the gates sealed off by now,” Chris said as they ducked behind some of the foliage in a small garden they passed through. “We can try and get out the way Robert and I followed you in, but I’m not sure if we’ll be able to make it. It’s on the other side of the compound.”
Jason dripped of sweat, and he got his first good look at his bloodstained hands and shirt. His fingers felt sticky and warm and he smeared the wet blood onto his pant leg.
“Over here!” One of the guards shouted, and a unit of men dashed into the garden. “The blood trail leads here.”
Before the guards followed the blood splatter to the bushes, Jason, Chris, and Robert leapt from the shrubs, blasting the guards backward. Jason dropped the rifle then reached for his pistol, continuing the assault on Ruiz’s men until there was nothing left but bodies.
The skirmish attracted more guards, and the three of them sprinted toward the wall, Jason scanning the horizon as fast as he could, looking for any way out. Echoes of gunfire and shouts reverberated off the compound walls.
“There!” Chris pointed to a tree next to the wall with enough branches to try and make the climb. The patter of hooves grew, and Jason watched six mounted soldiers turn the corner of the courtyard. They fired from their steeds, one of the bullets catching Robert in the calf.
The large man stumbled forward, nearly losing his balance, but caught himself in stride and barreled into a tree with enough force that it nearly toppled. The plant was close to the perimeter wall, and the top branches extended to the barrier’s edge.
Robert grabbed Jason’s arm and lifted him into the lower branches then did the same for Chris. Both men extended their hands down to help lift the large man up, but he knocked them away with his massive palm. “Go!” He picked up his rifle and fired into the gathering cluster of guards.
“Robert, no!” Jason tried descending the branches, but Chris yanked him from under his arms, pinning him in the tree. “Let me go!” He wouldn’t leave Robert to die. Not here. Not with these people.
“We have to go,” Chris said, struggling to keep Jason still. Finally, he spun Jason around and grabbed hold of his chin. “Listen to me! Robert is doing his job, keeping you safe. If you don’t make it out of here alive, then you’ll spit on everything he’s trying to do!”
The thick leaves and branches of the tree blocked most of Robert’s body, but he watched the large man fend off at least five others, neither sword nor bullet able to bring the giant down. He roared and fought and raged like the warrior he was.
Bullets splintered the tree bark, and Jason finally made for the top, with Chris struggling behind him. He held out his hand and gripped Chris’s bloody palm as they made it to the wall. The fall was ten feet, and neither man had time to think about what was below before gunshots blasted behind them, but Jason took the time to look back at Robert one last time before he fell.
The mammoth was covered in blood, fallen to his knees yet still swinging his sword, fending off the three smaller creatures prodding him with their steel. Robert gave one final lunge, pushing himself to his feet before he was dropped by a bullet to his head, the ground shaking as he fell.
Jason landed hard on the firm earth and grass below, with Chris not far behind. The two stumbled into the forest, never breaking to look behind them. They flung branches and leaves aside on their sprint, Chris starting to limp the farther they ran.
With the trees and brush thick around them, they finally came to rest under the shade of a large tree, its leaves flat, broad, and green. Chris collapsed, his skin pale and clammy from the loss of blood. Jason ripped off the right sleeve of his shirt and wrapped it tightly around the wound, keeping pressure. Chris grabbed hold of Jason’s collar with more strength than Jason believed he had left in him. “You need to get back to the ship.”
“We need to find you a doctor.” Jason checked the wound as Chris clutched at his side.
“Ruiz’s men are probably already heading there. It’s your last chance, you need to go.”
“I’m not leaving you here to die.” Jason finished the knot around the wound and pulled it tight. Chris tried to protest, but he’d made up his mind. “I didn’t accept this job to let people die for me.”
“But I did.” Chris spoke his words with a sense of premonition to them, one that sent a chill up Jason’s spine.
Jason jutted his finger into Chris’s face, an anger welling up inside him that he didn’t realize he had. “You listen to me. You even try and think something stupid, and I’ll knock you out and drag you to a doctor. You understand me? You are not going to die out here. That’s an order.”
Chris cracked a smile. “And since when have I ever listened to you?”
Before Jason had a chance to retaliate, the bushes rustled to his left, and a man flew out of the wild before Jason had time to unsheathe his sword. He was tackled to the ground and immobilized. His mouth was gagged, and before a bag was thrown over his head, he saw Chris being restrained.
Jason struggled against their captors even through the restraints until a blow to the side of his head made him limp as a wet noodle. When he woke up, he wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but the blindfold and gag had been removed. He sat in the dirt, his ankles and wrists still tied.
The room he was in had no furniture or windows, just four walls, a dirt floor, a door, and a roof. A pounding in his head refused to let him look at anything for too long, and keeping his eyes open made him dizzy. He gently touched the back of his head where he was hit and winced.
“I wouldn’t touch that.”
The voice caused Jason to jump, and he wasn’t sure if the figure in the light-blue dress with long, wild black hair was real or just a hallucination. “Where am I?”
She walked over to him, and when she pressed the palm of her hand against Jason’s face, he felt the same warmth that he remembered from this morning. “You’re in my camp. And your friend is with our healer.”
“Chris.” The name sent a jolt of adrenaline through Jason’s mind and body. The woman came into view more clearly, and he forced the sledgehammer in his brain to ease its clobbering. “Is he all right?”
The woman only offered a sympathetic smile. “Only time will tell. He lost a lot of blood. My people have done what they can.”
The tension in Jason’s body released. He rested his head back against the wall, his body slouching. His mind slowly retraced the events, and he knew that what men he had at the ship were either dead or captured. Recalling the way Ruiz looked to handle Jason, he guessed the former. The woman from this morning simply looked down at him, her hand still on his cheek. “Who are you?”
“Right now, I’m the best friend you have.”
Everything in the Alaskan wilderness was frigid, and the longer Dean and his men tracked the men who’d raided the fisheries, the more the cold paralyzed his body. The joints along his limbs and back stiffened to the point of breaking. Even the horse under his saddle seemed to succumb to the icy air, objecting every time Dean pushed the beast further.
The scout that Dean had sent ahead galloped back through the trees, cold puffs of air blowing from both his mouth and the steed’s. “Governor, there’s a camp on the other side of the river just north of here.”
“How many men?”
“At least thirty, sir.”
Dean had enough soldiers to take the camp, especially with the element of surprise, pending no one spotted his man when he fled. “Where can we cross the river?”
The scout turned his horse slightly southeast and pointed through the trees. “The water’s shallow and narrows. Not more than twenty feet across and no deeper than three feet toward the middle.”
“Lead the way, Sergeant.” Dean followed as the horses hurried through the trees, mindlessly avoiding the rocks and roots that could make a man who strained to watch his footing trip and fall. The closer they moved to the babbling waters of the river, the more Dean felt his body loosen. He pulled his pistol from the satchel as his horse took the first few steps into the icy river that gently splashed his legs.
The rest of the men in Dean’s unit drew their weapons, and he signaled for them to spread out, sending a cluster of men to flank the camp and prevent any escape. While setting camp along the river was ideal for resources, it made it easy to surround, already having a natural barrier to their backs. Dean was betting the commander didn’t think he’d have anyone hunting them on their journey.
The men’s voices at the camp grew steadily louder, and Dean slowed his horse, keeping the steps light. The light rush of the river and the sound of the men bustling about their morning routines offered enough noise to allow them to approach without being heard.
Finally, Dean spotted the first man rolling up his tent between the cluster of trees. The location they’d chosen was right on the bank like his scout had said, centered in a small clearing of sand and dirt.
Dean’s men slowly surrounded the soldiers, and he waited until all of them were in position. He pulled the hammer back on his pistol, and once he saw his last man slide into place, he spurred his heels into the side of his horse, charging into camp.
Simultaneously, the rest of his men followed suit, and the sudden thunder of dozens of hooves alerted the enemy to their position, but it was too late. The camp was caught off guard, and Dean and his men tore through it like hot water through ice. He cut men down as they reached for their rifles, a few of them immediately surrendering, others defiant until their last breath.
Dean’s horse trampled a pile of supplies and ran down a man trying to escape through the deep, frigid waters of the river. He swam chaotically through the waters, his body seizing up from the cold. Dean pulled his rifle from the satchel and took aim, lining the man’s bobbing head between the crosshairs. The horse kept steady, and Dean exhaled as he squeezed the trigger, and the bullet sliced through the back of the soldier’s skull. The clear river water flooded with red as the lifeless body floated face down, downstream.
Those that weren’t killed were captured and huddled in a circle, disarmed of their weapons, and bound with rope. Dean dismounted, his breathing calm but his heart pulsating underneath the cover of his thick clothes. “Who’s in command?”
The bearded faces kept their eyes on the ground. Dean walked down the line, sizing each of them up until he found the officer bars on one of the men. He lifted the commander’s chin, the beard thick with dirt and grime. “You’re Russian?”
The man yanked his face away from Dean’s hand and spit on the ground, slurring a thick, drunken-like Slavic tongue at him. While Dean’s Russian was rusty, he recognized a few words to affirm the answer to his question. And while his studies had told him little about the Russian culture, he knew two things of them to be true. They loved to drink, and they were stubborn as mules. Dean pointed to one of his lieutenants then to the Russian commander. “Untie him.”
The lieutenant remained frozen. “Sir, I don’t—”
“Now!” Dean’s voice shattered the frozen air and echoed down the river and through the trees. The lieutenant quickly complied, and the Russian commander pushed himself to his feet. Dean removed his pistol, sword, and heavy jacket and then raised his fists.
The Russian smiled then reciprocated, his bear-sized paws slowly swinging back and forth as Dean circled him. The Russian made a few quick jabs but hit nothing but air. Dean’s men started a low chant, which grew louder as the dance continued. Eventually, even the Russian captives echoed their own support, egging their commander on.
Dean took a quick step inside and brought his right fist under the Russian’s jaw, sending his head up with a pop, followed by a quick left strike to the Russian’s body. The big man stumbled backward, disoriented for only a moment, then recovered and connected with a hard right to Dean’s face. The blow bloodied Dean’s lip and he spat on the ground, staining the dirty snow a light pink.
Dean’s fists ached, the cold freezing them stiff so they felt like of pieces of steel and concrete. He gritted his teeth and moved in again for another combo, ducking from a haymaker the Russian threw in desperation. He pummeled the Russian’s body until he heard the snap of a rib that caused the Russian to double over in pain.
With the Russian bent over, Dean finished the commander off with a quick, thunderous strike to the chin that cracked the air like the breaking of ice. The Russian hit the ground, his mouth drooling blood and his body spasming from pain. Dean’s chest heaved up and down from the exertion, and his lieutenant quickly came to his aid, but Dean waved him off. “I’m fine.”
Dean picked the Russian up by the collar and slammed him against a tree for support. Blood trickled down his chin, and his cheeks had reddened from both the cold and the fight. “Who sent you?”
The Russian wheezed when he drew in breath, and his face strained with effort. “My commander sent me. To find you. Governor.”
“You know who I am?”
The Russian nodded. “I’m here to kill you. Just like my people killed your brother.” The smile the Russian forced only lasted as long as it took for Dean to bring his fist into the front of the Russian’s teeth.
Even after the Russian fell to the ground, Dean didn’t relinquish his strikes. He brought his fist down like a hammer. Bone crunched, and blood splattered underneath the force of his blows until the life had run out of the Russian and bled out onto the snow.
Dean’s hand shook, and his knuckles were bloody and raw. The faces of his men had turned pale, and his lieutenant jumped when he called his name. “Take into custody the one man who wants to live most, then kill the rest.” Dean stomped to his horse. “War is upon us.”
The parents of the boy Kemena worked on waited nervously in the corner of the room. The boy was no older than six, his hair thick, dark, and curly, complemented with a pale, freckled complexion. He looked as her younger brother did when he was a child.
Kemena pressed the back of her hand against the boy’s forehead. He was so hot she thought he’d burst into flames. She muddled a mixture of herbs and placed a damp rag on his forehead to help cool him down. Once the herbs had been ground into a fine dust, she stirred them into water and lifted the boy’s head to have him drink. He barely opened his mouth and was only able to take a few sips before he had to lie back down.
The mother rushed to Kemena, who was still holding the cup of medicine in her hand. “Is he going to be all right?” The mother’s eyes were stressed, weary from nights of praying, hoping that the doctor would be able to come save her child.
Kemena placed the glass with her remedy in the mother’s hands. “Have him finish the rest of that. It’ll help keep the fever down.” She reached back into her bag and pulled a small glass vial of powder. “Give a pinch of this to him every hour until it’s gone. If he’s still sick once he’s finished it, bring him into town. I won’t be able to do anything else for him here.”
The mother cried, clutching the medicine in her hands, then wrapped her arms around Kemena. “Thank you. Thank you so much for coming.”
Kemena gently patted the woman’s back. “You’re welcome. Once the fever breaks, he should be fine.” The woman’s husband came and peeled his wife off her and shook her hand as well. Before she left, she looked back at the child lying in the bed, lifeless, hoping he’d pull through. But she knew better than anyone else the odds of a sick child.
The carriage driver waited for her outside, and she loaded the rest of her supplies in the back then found her own seat. Normally when she came into the smaller towns, she was flooded by requests of citizens rushing up to her, but the escort of soldiers that Dean had ordered to be with her at all times since his brother’s death seemed to intimidate the normal crowd.
While Kemena had studied and learned from an actual physician, the truth of the matter was they just didn’t have the necessary medicines and equipment to save everyone. It was a hard fact to swallow, especially after reading old textbooks from schools before the Great War.
There had been entire organizations dedicated to healing, helping. Now, it was all Kemena could do to keep fevers down and stitch up wounds from war or fighting amongst the local drunks. She looked down at her long, slender hands. Hands that were so sure of themselves and what they could accomplish, yet limited with the resources at her disposal.
She had determined long ago that she was born in the wrong time period, and the old doctor that trained her agreed. He fed her desires with stories from his teacher, who’d worked in the world of medicine just before the fighting that changed the face of civilization began.
Hardly a night went by that she didn’t dream of the world before the bombs were dropped. In those vivid dreams, she saved countless lives, cured diseases, operated on disabled men and women, and made them walk again.
The carriage dipped in a pothole, knocking the daydream from her vision. Here in this world, she had to keep both feet in reality. Early in her career, she had made the mistake of promising more than she could give. That’s why she refused to answer the mother’s question. Her desire to save someone didn’t necessarily correlate with success, no matter how bad she wanted it to come true.
The ride back was slow. A downpour of rain had caused a few of the roads to flood, forcing them onto back roads, which took twice as long. Each village, town, or camp that she passed, Kemena watched the faces look at her carriage. They knew who she was, who her husband was. Even though Dean had been chosen in an election, as was his brother Jason, they treated her family more like a monarchy than public officials.
War had been carved out in her husband’s family tree. Fred Mars, the eldest brother, along with his father and uncles, catapulted the Mars name into legend during the battle with the Chinese in the Island Wars years ago. While Dean didn’t join the fighting until he was slightly older, she could still hear the faint glaze of horror when he spoke about it, which wasn’t often. She’d determined long ago that the Mars men came with a powerful silence about them, especially the older ones. Jason, the youngest, was the only loud one among them, and even he bit his tongue on talks of war.
A chilly breeze blew through the carriage, and Kemena pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders. With everything that her husband and his brothers had been through, all of the fighting, death, and pain, she wasn’t sure if any of them could escape another war with their souls still intact. She’d seen enough of the battles during the war with the clansmen to know what it did to a man’s mind. Little by little, it twisted and exploited all of the good things you held dear and pure in your life until the only memories you saw were trails of death.
Kemena had seen enough death in her lifetime. She looked down to her belly and clutched her stomach protectively, where she knew a seed of life had begun to sprout. This will give him something to hold onto, something good. For both of us.
Fists thrust into the air, and sea-worn faces flushed red hot with anger, shouting curses and war-riddled threats into the mangled structure that served as the port authority’s office. Lance sat in the back, his arms crossed and half of his body and face covered in darkness from the flickering candles, watching and listening to the Aussies squabble about their next move. It had been like this for over three hours, and every second wasted arguing was one more the Chinese had to move closer. Lance knew that the captain’s words would do little against the cannons of the Chinese. And the man who was loudest with his words just so happened to be the one with the least experience in war.
“All we have to go on is the words of a few dozen men. We don’t know what they saw, and it would be foolish to wage war where hundreds of thousands could die because of the false accusations of a few.” Cameron Davies was a merchant who’d made a fortune in selling cattle to the Brazilians. He stood out amongst the other sailors in the room with his new clothes and well manicured head of hair he kept slick and stiff with oils and balms. His hands were too soft for a man who’d made a living at sea. “We should reach out to the Chinese, send word before we waste millions in gold, food, and materials for what could be no more than a figment of the imagination.”
The room’s divide widened between jeers and encouragement. Lance shifted uncomfortably in the back, Canice standing close by as she put a hand on his shoulder. He remained seated until he could take it no longer and jumped from his seat. “Have you not seen the holes in Danny’s ship, Cameron? Or the lack of vessels that returned?”
“I don’t doubt that you encountered troubles, Captain Mars, but there is no clear evidence that the ships that attacked you were Chinese military. Chinese, yes, but they could be pirates.”
“Pirates don’t have strategic maps outlining their fleets, nor do they have the type of numbers that me and my crew witnessed.” The crowd parted as Lance made his way to the front of the room, where Cameron and a few other privileged sailors sat at the high table.
Cameron brushed Lance’s words off like that of a fly buzzing around his meal. “The sea can play tricks on your mind, Captain. Especially at night.”
“And one could argue that your greed has twisted yours.” Lance’s words flew back at Cameron with the foreboding sense of a volcano spewing ash before an eruption. The floor rattled with stomps, and the walls echoed the same split of dissent that had grown in the room.
Cameron stiffened in his chair then leaned forward, his eyes drilling into Lance. “Do not forget where you are, Captain Mars. While your word and your name carry a heavy weight in your own country, you are neither a soldier, nor a political ambassador. You are nothing more than a merchant with a boat. You are here out of the thoughtfulness of this committee. Don’t take that for granted.”
Lance raised his voice, cutting through the clamor of the room and silencing everyone. “I am here because of what I have done, and what me and my crew have sacrificed!” The words rumbled like thunder, the space between Lance and the rest of the men in the room grew. “You think that you have the choice to sit and decide whether to go to war, but that decision has already been made. The Chinese have turned their sights on your land once again, and this time they have the resources to take it.” Lance felt the heat coming off him, his eyes still locked on Cameron. “You sit there like a puppet master, pulling the strings of those you’ve paid off, but I will not stand here and do nothing and let your follies turn into the blood of my men being spilt!”
Before Cameron answered, the winding din of the harbor alarms wailed, and the silent stillness in the room erupted into a frenzied escape out the front doors, men squeezing through the cramped space all at once. Lance found Canice right by the edge of the dock, watching the horizon and the entrance of the harbor, but the moment she heard the faint echo of cannons, she was the first to the Sani, the crew flying into action.
Lance rushed back to Danny and the rest of the committee, seizing Danny by the collar. “You send a gunner ship out to the rest of your fleet abroad about the Chinese. You tell them to trust no one unless they bear your official seal.” Lance loosened his grip on Danny’s collar as Danny’s jaw dropped at the sight of the first dozen Chinese warships turning the corner of the harbor. He smacked Danny’s cheek, forcing the man to focus on him. “If we’re lucky, they split up their fleet, with half attacking the northern coast. We’ll need every ship that can hold cannons fitted immediately.”
Danny glanced back out at the seemingly endless line of ships that continued to flood the harbor entrance. “It’s too many. Too many.” He repeated the words softly.
Lance felt the man break out in a cold sweat, and he shook Danny’s shoulders. “We can bottleneck them at the harbor’s entrance and keep pummeling them until reinforcements get here.” Lance turned to the others. “We need a line of supply ships feeding us ammo and provisions. We can’t let our defensive line break. The moment we let one slip through, we’ll have too much on our hands to deal with. And get what mounted army you can to line the perimeter of the town. You can bet the Chinese already have landed ships farther north, and maybe even south, to come and flank us while our attention is at sea.”
The committee stood there, still gaping at the line of ships on the horizon. Finally, it was Cameron who broke them out of the stupor. “Do as the captain says. Send word to your subordinates, and bring the war provisions out of storage.”
The committee scattered, and Lance sprinted past the remaining ships at the docks, their crew members rushing to get their vessels ready, and hurried up the ramp to the Sani, where his ship was already prepared to depart. He thrust the engines into reverse just as the last mooring lines were flung from the deck.
The crew moved along the ship without the need for orders. They knew what was coming. The howl of wind brought with it the booming of the Chinese cannons growing louder and the massive pieces of lead growing closer.
The Sani cut through the bay chop with a sense of purpose, and Lance felt his hands mold onto the ship’s wheel. He looked down to Canice, the crew ready to strike. Salt spray splashed the deck and rolled to the walls, where it funneled out of the small portholes and back into the ocean.
It seemed like an endless cycle, one that Lance couldn’t find it in himself to break. This loop of war went on without end, and for a moment he wondered fate the future held. The beating in his chest offered its opinion of immortality, but his mind gave a different vision, one that ended in black, and in that darkness he was left to roam in blindness, searching for anything to touch and feel against the tips of his fingers.
Canice’s voice was cut short by the rippling cannon fire from the Chinese ships, now only a few hundred yards off the bow. Two shots grazed the port hull, and Lance felt the vibrations from the hits ripple through his grip on the wheel. “Fire bow cannons!”
Two black cylinder shafts thrust from the front of the Sani’s hull and returned a volley that connected against the lead Chinese ship, forcing its captain to maneuver into another lane that was already occupied by one of its comrades.
Lance watched the ripple effect of the ships turning and ordered another volley from the bow before he turned the Sani to its left, revealing the starboard cannons, which catapulted more metal into the advancing fleet. “They’re clustering!” But Canice had already noticed, ordering the crew to concentrate fire on the flanks.
The Chinese may have had numbers, but not the experience. With the number of ships, it was no doubt they were forced to promote green sailors up the ranks, and the inexperience of war festered a fear of it. It was small but something they could use to their advantage.
Two of the Chinese ships collided, the massive sheets of steel scraping against each other, and the ships desperately tried to prevent each other from sinking. A few ships tried sneaking close to the harbor’s rocky shoreline but ended up running aground in the unfamiliar shallow waters.
While Lance continued the barrage on the left flank of the approaching fleet, two of the Aussie ships finally joined him in the bay and focused their cannons on the right side, hammering the Chinese with a relentless barrage.
Lines of smoke from the cannon blasts covered the harbor like a morning fog, but instead of the sweet smell of salt air, it was filled with the harsh scent of metal, combined with the hot burst of steam. Sweat rolled down Lance’s forehead and cheeks, a few drops landing on his lips, tasting of salt and dirt.
Two ships set a dead heading course right for the Sani, and Lance adjusted to their movements, positioning his ship to intercept. The way the two Chinese vessels kept their distance in a constant paralleled path told Lance one thing. “To arms! To arms!” They meant to board him.
Canice echoed the orders down the deck of the ship as the crew grabbed swords, pistols, clubs, and knives, anything and everything that they could use to defend themselves. Lance lined up the ship, keeping a dead heading to the Chinese vessel on the left. If he could maneuver close enough to the coastline, he knew he could get one of them to run aground.
Lance felt the waters shallowing, and twice the very bottom of the hull scraped against the top of the rocks below, but the strategy was working. In an attempt to surround him, the captain of the Chinese vessel closest to the coast moved farther toward the shallows, and Lance smiled as the ship came to a halt, taking on water.
Amid the shouts and cheers of his crew, with one of the vessels now distressed, Lance turned the Sani hard to starboard to flank the remaining Chinese ship. “Load the forward cannons!” Canice relayed Lance’s message with a hard shove into one of the crew members and marched them toward the bow.
Lance studied the stranded Chinese vessel on his port side, taking into account the number of cannons, men aboard, size of the ship, and materials. The ship had thick walls high on the hull, but it grew lighter toward the bottom. The cannons numbered twelve across on the port side, which fired in a feeble attempt to reach the Sani before it had completely passed by, and assumingly just as many on the starboard.
The Chinese captain still in pursuit made the mistake of slowing, and Lance used the opportunity to maneuver himself into a better position to have the enemy vessel on his port side. “At the ready! Aim for below the hull!” His crew crouched behind the cover of the armored siding that surrounded the entire deck. The grind of the cannons lowering coincided with Lance’s slowing speed.
The two ships coasted toward one another, although the Sani was distinctively quicker. Lance kept his hand raised, waiting for the moment just before the Chinese guns were within range.
The air around the ship seemed frozen, and the battle raging to their right with the gathering Chinese and Australian vessels felt a million miles away. Here in this moment, with his crew, and his ship, there was only one enemy that needed to be dealt with. Then, when they won, they’d move on to the next, then the next, and the next. That was war, a grinding, bloody, truculent disease that spread through the world like a cancer, and the only way to beat it was one portion at a time, and keeping it from spreading to the rest of the body.
“Fire!” Lance dropped his arm, and the crew echoed his throaty order with the thunder of the guns on deck, blasting low into the Chinese hull and tearing the metal apart with each hit. The Chinese reciprocated, but the blasts were disjointed and uncoordinated as Lance’s crew boarded the ship and focused their steel on the flesh of the crew instead of the ship.
Harpoons thrust from both sides as the two vessels interlocked each other in a battle to the last man. Pistols were fired only in the beginning, and the sound of gunfire was quickly replaced with the clang of swords. With both ships locked in place, Lance descended from the wheel, joining Canice and the rest of the crew jumping back and forth over the narrow barrier between the vessels.
Splashes of blood laced the foaming salt water on the decks of both ships as men dropped to the hard metal surfaces, clutching their wounds and begging for whatever gods they prayed to for mercy.
Lance jumped onto the enemy ship just as one of its crew members thrust his sword forward, slicing the fabric of Lance’s shirt but missing his stomach. Lance parried back, nearly knocking the blade from the sailor’s hand. The young sailor barely kept his footing on the boat, still searching for his sea legs, sliding across the slick deck.
Lance’s right shoulder and arm burned with each smack of steel, his joints shaking off the rust a decade without war had crusted onto him. But with each slash, thrust, and block, Lance felt the familiarity of combat return, which was cemented with a quick stab into the young sailor’s belly, ending the dance and the boy’s life.
Red foam crusted the corner of the Chinese sailor’s mouth as he collapsed to the deck. Lance watched the young man stare up at him, his eyes glazed over with the wetness of tears and opened wide, taking in the last images of life he had left.
The front half of Lance’s blade dripped with blood, and before he could wipe it clean, another sailor was on him, and the war continued, as he killed another man, then another, and another. His crew cleared the deck of the Chinese vessel until the sea water dripping from the port holes was replaced with blood.
Canice stepped over a cluster of the bodies, her clothes wet and stained red along with most of her right arm, which held a firm grasp of the sword in her hand, a thick crimson substance oozing from the tip of her blade. Her breathing was labored, and her hair frizzled from the salty wind.
“Take what provisions we can back aboard the ship.” Lance looked around to get a grasp of their casualties. “And make sure our dead return with us.” Lance sheathed his sword, and Canice simply nodded. He made his way to the ship’s wheelhouse, which was supported by steel walls, nearly as thick as the hull itself.
Lance pulled the handle but was met with resistance. He frisked a few of the dead Chinese until he found a ring of keys that unlocked the wheelhouse door. The inside was dark, with the exception of the light coming through the front windshield, which was incredibly narrow. “How the hell are they even able to see out here?”
The wheel was centered in the middle of a control board, complete with gauges and maps strewn across the top. Lance snatched one of the maps and looked at the circled ports along the Australian coast, no doubt landing points for different members of their fleet. But why would they risk breaking up their fleet like that?
The voices caused a spasm that made Lance draw his pistol and aim it in the corner of the wheelhouse, where the Chinese dialect barked crackled orders. He kept the pistol aimed, walking slowly toward the corner, where the voices grew louder. The words came in between loud, high-pitched whines and pops.
One of the maps concealed the noise, and when Lance pulled the piece of paper back, the pistol fell from his hand and crashed onto the floor. “That’s impossible.” Lance reached his hand out like he was touching a ghost, but he knew what he was seeing and hearing was real.
There were stories his grandfather used to tell him when he was just a boy, stories of what the world was like before the Great War that leveled his home and killed billions of lives in a matter of minutes. Stories of technology that let you watch an event happening thousands of miles away, in real time. Technology that allowed you to speak with someone halfway around the world, and hear them as though they were standing right next to you.
“Captain, we’re—” Canice stopped, frozen at the doorway, watching Lance listen to the words coming out of the small speaker in the console. Her jaw dropped, and she slowly made her way inside. “What the hell is that?” She hovered her palm over the speaker, as if she were trying to grasp the words in her hands.
“It’s the Chinese captains from the other ships in their fleet,” Lance answered. “Maybe even some of their command in China.” Even as the words left his mouth, Lance couldn’t believe it.
Canice shook her head. “How could they do that?”
Lance picked up the receiver next to the speaker, clutching it gently between his fingers. “Because they have radio.”
Dean wiped his face clean of soap as the last bits of his beard fell to the wash bucket. He took a good hard look at the face in the faded mirror. It was one he hadn’t seen in a long time. He dried himself, dressed in his black suit, and met Kemena, who waited with Kit and Sam, dressed in similar attire, downstairs.
The two boys were quiet, as they’d mostly been since they’d arrived into town, but today neither of them had said more than one word at a time. Dean rested his hand on top of Sam’s head; the boy was still small enough to where Dean could almost palm the boy’s entire head. He crouched down to one knee and forced both boys to look him in the eye. “I want you to listen to me. What happened to your parents was a terrible thing, but know this: the men who killed them are dead.”
“You killed them, Uncle Dean?” Kit asked.
When Dean looked at his nephew, he saw the spitting image of Fred staring back at him. It was the hard quiet that his older brother possessed, one that concealed all too well the raging storm that lay underneath. “Yes.”
Kit looked down at his shoes, and Dean watched the knuckles on the boy’s hand turn white from squeezing so hard. Finally, he looked up, his face a flush red and his lips pursed tight. “I’m glad.”
Dean kissed the boy’s forehead and clapped his shoulder. “Go wait outside with your brother.” Kit took Sam’s hand, and the two headed out the front door.
Kemena’s face was shrouded behind the black lace veil, and Dean could barely make out her expression, but the tone in her voice rang through clear as day. “Those boys don’t need any more anger in them, Dean.”
“No, but they do need closure.” When Dean placed his hands around her arms, he felt Kemena tense up lightly but then immediately relax. “I don’t need them growing up wondering what happened. That unknown can twist someone, especially a boy. His anger right now is a natural one, and it’ll subside. But right now we have other issues.” He let go of her arms, and he could feel the fatigue from the past week’s events set in.
Kemena followed Dean to the chair where he sat, and knelt by his side. She placed her hand in his, and he smiled when he picked it up and kissed it then pressed it against his cheek. Even through the veil, he could see worry in her eyes. “What is it, Dean?”
“We are so close to something great here.” Dean rubbed his thumb into Kemena’s palm. “All of the sacrifices we’ve made, everything we’ve fought for to pick ourselves up, all for nothing.”
“What are you talking about?” Kemena asked. “What happened up at the fishing colonies?”
“They’re gone.” The words seemed to deflate what spirit was left in him as he sunk deeper into the chair.
Kemena pulled his face toward her and moved close. “You listen to me. I have seen you go through the darkest places a man could walk, and you have always come out the other side. Whatever is happening, whatever will happen, we will make it out together.”
And there it was, right in front of him. All of the good reasons he needed to keep going, to keep pushing forward. Kemena had been there through all of it: war, pain, death, famine, doubt. Whenever he was lost at sea, afraid of coming home in fear of crashing into the rocks, he’d see her light, guiding him to safety. He kissed her hand and offered a sad smile. “I know.”
Hurried footsteps padded up the front steps of their porch, and one of the local post boys burst through the door, sweating profusely and out of breath. “Governor, your brothers have sent word.” He extended both papers, and Dean snatched them up.
The first message had neither Jason’s, nor Lance’s seal, but that of the Brazilian president. He ripped it open, his eyes scanning the letter carefully until he curled his fingers around the parchment and tossed the crumbled paper to the floor. “The Brazilians have Jason.”
“What?” Kemena gasped then rushed over to him and grabbed his shoulder. “How is that even possible?”
But Dean wasn’t listening; he’d already torn open the second letter with Lance’s seal, and the cold blast of war stiffened his body. “The Chinese have attacked Australia with a new fleet. He thinks the Brazilians are helping them.” He dropped the paper to the floor, and all of it started to connect. If the Chinese were looking for allies, then Brazil would be able to provide resources, and if they were looking for someone to help build their army, then the Russians would have more than enough land to hide any material from the inspections set forth after the Island War. The Russians had been eyeing the Alaskan Colonies for years, along with most of what was left of their livable West Coast. The lines had been drawn while Dean and his family were busy rebuilding their home.
“Dean?” Kemena’s voice shook him out of his stupor, and both Kit and Sam rushed back in the house.
Dean walked past the boys and out onto the front porch, where a group of his advisors and officers waited with his brother’s casket, with Mary in a separate box beside him. He ran his hands along the grainy wood that encased Fred while his family waited behind him on the front steps of his home. When he turned around, the group had gathered in a circle of grief, all of them looking to him for answers, for strength. He rested his hand on the casket as he spoke. “My brother fought his entire life, and in all that time, I never heard him complain about the hand that he was dealt. It was a hard life, but one that he made better. And one that we continue to make better today.”
Nods and grunts of agreement peppered the crowd. Dean stepped forward into the circle, slowly making his way back to Kemena and the boys. “He fought till the end, even when his back was against the wall. And that is what we will do. A new war is coming, with familiar enemies. But we will not let them take what we have worked so hard to build. We will fight! And we will win!”
The officers and advisors erupted in cheers and applause, chanting Dean’s name, his brothers’ names, the name of his family. Ever since the Great War, his family had been woven into the fabric of this country, and over time, the two had become a part of each other. And as long as a Mars was still alive, they would always have a fighting chance.
The wicked wind kicked up the hard snow packed in the tundra of northern Russia. While the cold had plummeted well below freezing, Rodion took in a deep breath, letting the air freeze his lungs. It felt better than the stifling heat of the desert.
The trip had been long and cost just as much supplies of food and water as it did in men lost. But what he’d lost in supplies and men, he’d soon gain three-fold in guns and ammunition. Not a single granule of ore had been spilt or lost on their trip. Rodion forbid it.
Rodion dismounted his horse outside a white-covered building, slick with fresh sheets of snow and ice. Long dagger-like icicles hung like the fangs of a wild beast out front. Rodion stepped inside, the howling winds sneaking in behind him before he shut the door.
Candles and oil lanterns burned on tables and counter tops. The back wall of the room held a well-stoked fire that warmed the walls inside. All of the men looked up and stood the moment they recognized their general. Rodion removed his jacket, letting the men linger in their position of salutation a while longer. “At ease, comrades.”
Each man relaxed, but none sat down. Rodion walked around, his lieutenants and other commanding officers filing in behind him. The sergeant in command of the post finally came out of the back room, and the closer Rodion walked to the fire, the more he felt the bits of ice in his beard turn to water from the heat.
“General,” the sergeant said, giving a light bow. “We weren’t expecting you for another week. It is fortunate you made such good time.”
“Fortune had nothing to do with it,” Rodion replied. “The whip and strong hand that wielded it, however, did.” Rodion snapped his fingers, and one of the lieutenants handed him one of the pieces of ore from their journey. Rodion held it out for the sergeant to examine. “This is the quality we need?”
The sergeant cradled the piece of rock gingerly in his hand and moved himself closer to the light of the fire to get a better look. He rotated it in his hands, nodding slowly. “Yes, this is perfect, General. How much were you able to bring back?”
The piece of ore nearly dropped from the sergeant’s hand as he turned back around to Rodion. “Two tons?” His mouth hung loosely.
Rodion walked over and snatched the piece of ore from the sergeant’s hands. “I trust you’ll be able to handle the load?”
“Y-yes, General, it’s just… the amount of weapons we’ll be able to make.” The sergeant licked his lips, the anticipation of the potential arsenal so close he could taste it.
“Make the necessary provisions, Sergeant. I want the rifles ready as soon as possible.” Rodion tossed the piece of ore back to his lieutenant and stepped back outside into the cold Russian air. He made his way around the building, his boots crunching in the hard snow, following the horse tracks to the back.
When Rodion turned the corner, a smile crept up his face as tens of thousands of tents and fires dotted the long strip of tundra. Soldiers marched with rifles and swords, some attending to the vehicles they managed to salvage and rebuild. The fighting force in front of him was well trained, hardened by the vicious cold of his country, and nearly two hundred thousand strong, making it the largest army in the world.
It was a beautiful sight to behold, and Rodion felt the beat of war drums pound in his chest. He watched the hard stare of his soldiers move through the cold. The rest of the world had put them here to die, but soon they would spread their winter to every corner of the globe.
The Great War of 2020 crippled the world to the point of extinction. Any nation capable of launching nuclear weapons unleashed their countermeasures that left first world countries in ruins. Nearly half a century later, and countless civil wars amongst the surviving nations, the world is ready to move forward. But amidst the rebuilding, war is once again brewing in the Far East. Old alliances are renewed and threaten peace.